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Wednesday, June 26, 2019



Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman turns his attention to walking

Posted: 26 Jun 2019 10:00 AM PDT

Daniel E. Lieberman doesn't hate shoes. The Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Science and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology wants to clear that up right away.

"There has been debate about barefoot running being good or bad, or shoes being good or bad, and this is the wrong debate," Lieberman said. "It should be about what the costs and benefits of shoes are and how we can better understand how shoes affect our feet, our health, the way we walk."

He should know.

Since Lieberman published his groundbreaking study, "Endurance running and the evolution of Homo," in Nature in 2004, researchers across the globe have studied the biomechanics of running, particularly as it involves bare or shod feet. But, oddly, few have considered walking, the primary mode of transportation humans have used to get from Point A to Point B over the past quarter of a million years.

Now comes Lieberman with his latest paper, which has just been published in Nature. This time he explores the value of the calluses we develop while walking barefoot, finding them to be a marvel of natural selection's ability to engineer without trade-offs.

Most people are aware of how developing calluses protects skin. Common sense would suggest that there is a price to be paid in lost sensitivity. Not so, say Lieberman and his collaborators, who found no matter how thick, tough, and crusty the skin on the bottom of walkers' feet became, they could still feel the ground as well as someone with virtually no calluses.

Professor Daniel Lieberman standing in his lab.

"We live in this weird world where calluses are bad ... But until recently it was abnormal not to have calluses," said Professor Daniel Lieberman.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

"We tested the sense of touch, the dynamic sense of what you feel on the ground. We found these stiff calluses don't prevent any communication between the force of the feeling of what you are stepping on and what makes its way to the nerve cell to be transmitted to your brain," said Nicholas B. Holowka, a postdoctoral fellow in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and lecturer in Human Evolutionary Biology. Holowka shares first-author credit on the study with Bert Wynands of Germany's Technical University of Chemnitz.

To study habitually barefoot walkers, Lieberman and members of his lab joined their German collaborators in Kenya, where they worked with Professor Robert Ojiambo of the University of Global Health Equity and orthopedic surgeon Paul Okutoyi of Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital. In a rural town in the western part of the country, the team studied the feet of people who never wear shoes, then compared them with the feet of a similar demographic of people from a nearby city who are typically shod.

Technical University of Chemnitz Professor Thomas Milani, the lead scientist from Germany and an expert on how sensory perception affects gait and foot function, said his team meticulously calibrated and adapted their instruments for the study to guarantee the testing equipment's validity and reliability. Their devices and observations not only confirmed that calluses didn't interrupt the sense of touch, but that people with thick calluses didn't walk any different than people with thin ones.

Two feet, one from a shoe-wearer, the other one is a callused from not wearing shoes.
Measuring foot biomechanics

Comparing the foot of a shoe wearer vs. the barefoot walker. In Kenya, researchers measured the biomechanics of the barefoot walker.

Photos by Thomas Milani and Daniel Lieberman

This wasn't true, however, for shoe wearers. The study found that they had heavier foot strikes than their barefoot counterparts. The researchers don't know what this extra force does to the body over a lifetime of wearing sandals or sneakers, but they wonder whether and how it relates to increasing rates of degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis.

Lieberman and Holowka returned to Boston to conduct more research using a local cohort of barefoot enthusiasts. The results backed up their findings in Kenya: Calluses serve a unique function and aren't nuisances to be scrubbed away during a pedicure.

"We live in this weird world where calluses are bad, like you have a problem with your shoe, and you go to a podiatrist, and they remove them," Lieberman said. "But until recently it was abnormal not to have calluses. We've lost touch with our bodies in some respects and this is a good example of that. When we tell our results to barefoot people, they say, 'Tell me something I don't already know.'"

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Harvard Kennedy School researcher’s new book offers a prescription for ending urban violence

Posted: 25 Jun 2019 07:49 PM PDT

As a prosecutor, a federal and state policy maker, and now a Harvard scholar, Thomas Abt has firsthand experience with the complex challenges of fighting urban crime, and in particular the violence plaguing many low-income neighborhoods.

In his new book, "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets," Abt outlines a concrete, multipronged strategy of prevention and policing to bring peace to America's cities.

The Gazette recently spoke to the Harvard Kennedy School research fellow and former Obama official about the destructive effects of inner-city violence and the failed policies he believes undermine the fight against it.


Thomas Abt

GAZETTE: Your book argues that we fail to fully account for the true toll posed by urban violence. What costs get overlooked?

ABT: Every violent death causes immeasurable suffering for the victim and their family and those closest to them. We always have to begin with that. But one of the other things that the book describes is the invisible costs that we're all paying with regard to urban violence. Every homicide costs society anywhere between $10 million and $20 million per murder. Some of those costs reach the average American in the form of increased taxes, higher insurance premiums, and lower property values, just to name a few. [Others, detailed in his book, include lost labor and property damage, medical and justice system costs, diminished quality of life and costs associated with the avoidance by consumers of crime areas, and lost sales tax and property tax revenue.] One of the things that I hope the book gets across is that while this problem appears to involve only one segment of the nation’s population, we're all impacted by the issue.

GAZETTE: You contend that both the right and the left have it wrong when it comes to making urban streets safer. How so?

ABT: The issue suffers from politicization on both sides, but I want to be careful not to suggest a false equivalence. I think progressives are closer to the right answers than conservatives, especially when the lead conservative, President Trump, uses the issue in a disingenuous way to divide Americans. In terms of progressives, they have been unwilling for a variety of reasons to advance policies that address urban violence directly. When progressives talk about urban violence, they reference poverty reduction, criminal justice reform, or gun control. All those things are extremely important, but the evidence shows that directly focusing on the proximate causes of urban violence, as opposed to the root causes, is the best way to get real results on violence reduction.

GAZETTE: What led you to the conclusion that stopping the violence is the urgent priority when it comes to urban crime?

ABT: I've been connected to urban violence as a teacher, prosecutor, policymaker, and now finally as a researcher. I've been dealing with this issue from one perspective or another for 20 years. And so it was over the course of those personal and professional experiences, and also learning about the empirical evidence, that I eventually became convinced. Over the past five years or so, a nascent consensus has emerged around the most rigorous research concerning violence reduction, and it really does point to a very clear conclusion, which is to reduce urban violence, one must focus on the violence directly. And when focusing on urban violence, concentrate on the people, places, and behaviors that drive the vast majority of the problem.

GAZETTE: What about anti-gang measures and gun restrictions? Are they not part of the solution?

ABT: We've been approaching gangs the wrong way for decades. Gangs are a symptom of urban violence, not the cause. Specific gangs and specific gang members are certainly drivers of violent crime, but we need to focus on the specifics and not the generalities. We need a war on violence, not on gangs.

On guns, we often fail to recognize that there is more than one type of gun violence challenging the country right now. In my view, there are four discrete but connected types of gun violence: urban gun violence, which causes the vast majority of homicides in the United States; domestic gun violence; mass shootings; and gun suicides. The public debate over gun violence is shaped largely by discussions about mass shootings despite the fact that they account for less than 1 percent of all gun deaths. It's important that we support solutions to all four types of gun violence, but especially with regard to urban violence. For this type of violence, the solutions don't require new legislation — they require new policies and practices, supported by a new way of thinking.

GAZETTE: You say even popular strategies, such as community policing and gun-buyback programs, have done little to bring down violence levels.

ABT: Popular anti-crime strategies often fail to reduce urban violence because they are an overly broad solution to what is, in reality, a very specific problem. Community policing hasn't successfully impacted urban violence because community policing means thousands of different things to a thousand different police organizations. Gun buybacks don't work because they generally don't get the kinds of guns that will be used in a crime; they typically recover old, inoperable, and inaccessible guns.

GAZETTE: What is an example of an antiviolence initiative that has worked?

ABT: There are many examples, but let's look at Oakland [in California]. The city has suffered high rates of violent crime for decades, but recently, using an intervention called Oakland Ceasefire, the city has managed to cut homicides in half in a relatively short period of time. They did it by bringing together police officers, community members, and service providers in a united effort to engage those individuals who are at the highest risk of perpetrating gun violence or of being victimized by it. The group confronts these individuals with a very simple, balanced message: Stop the shooting. If you stop shooting, we will help you; if you don't stop shooting, we will stop you. Oakland Ceasefire is successful because it embodies the three principles laid out in the book: focus, balance, and fairness. Those three principles can be found in most successful anti-violence efforts today.

GAZETTE: There has been data showing a long-term decline in violent crime. How do you convince people that we need a new approach?

ABT: If you look at urban violence compared to where we were 25 years, ago we've made tremendous progress. Violence has been reduced by about half. But if you look at violence compared to where we were 50 years ago, we're almost exactly in the same place. And the United States is still an extreme outlier among high-income nations, with a gun violence rate that is several times higher than any other wealthy nation. I believe we can and should do better.

GAZETTE: Part of the solution you advocate involves building trust between police and low-income communities. But that seems a long-term project. What can be done in the short term?

ABT: There are no easy answers when it comes to building trust between law enforcement and poor communities of color. But that doesn't mean we have to sit on our hands. We have evidence that principles of procedural justice — trust, respect, fairness, openness — can slowly change attitudes and even behaviors over time. In addition, we have to do the hard work of addressing the abuses and overreach in the system itself. There are still too many instances of racial profiling and excessive force. We still over-rely on arrests and incarceration. Building trust requires making progress on all of these fronts. With regard to urban violence, however, the important takeaway is that you can build trust and reduce violence at the same time. Cops and communities all around the country are working together to address high rates of violence despite all the reasons to reject one another.

GAZETTE: You talk a lot about the connection between peace and justice. What is that relationship?

ABT: Protesters commonly chant, "No justice, no peace" and there's an increasing amount of empirical support evidence to back up that idea. What we're learning is that when trust in law enforcement declines, community violence goes up. It rises because when people don't trust the system, they don't use it. In particular they don't use it to solve conflict. Instead, they take the law into their hands, and often violently so, creating the cycles of violent retribution we see in so many cities.

GAZETTE: Poverty has long been seen as a major contributor to urban crime, yet you suggest the reverse is also true.

ABT: I believe in reducing poverty, but the notion that to address urban violence you must first address poverty is simply not backed up by the evidence. In fact, the evidence may be stronger in reverse. Increasingly we're learning that exposure to violence is one of the primary mechanisms for keeping poor people trapped in the cycle of poverty. Violent trauma impacts everything: learning, health, employment, all of it.

GAZETTE: Your research for the book involved talking with divergent groups and individuals, including even former criminals. What did you learn from talking to past lawbreakers?

ABT: Effective violence reduction is both an art and a science. To reduce violence over the long term you need to use your head but also your heart. In the book I tried to create a conversation between the academy and the community, and I learned something that surprised me: The two are largely in agreement about what urban violence looks like and how to address it.

To make a real change in the United States, we are going to need a diverse coalition — policymakers, researchers, practitioners, community members, and others. This coalition doesn't need to be large, but it needs to be loud. If a few people in every city stand up and demand solutions like the ones identified in this book, they can change how their city approaches these issues. Ultimately the book has a simple goal: to save lives in urban America.

This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Harvard museums host Summer Solstice Celebration

Posted: 25 Jun 2019 09:56 AM PDT

Harvard Museums of Science & Culture welcomed the longest day of the year at their seventh annual Summer Solstice Celebration on Friday. On the Divinity Avenue stage, Off the Ground Circus Arts warmed up the crowd as stilt walkers, jugglers, and acrobats roved throughout the event. Revelers let loose to the sounds of REVMA's traditional Greek music, Boston Flamenco, and Celtic folk music by Ulster Landing as people of all ages crafted their own fresh flower crowns, petted animals from a traveling farm, and marked the start of a new solar cycle by jumping over a simulated bonfire.

Volunteer shows off a scorpion to a child
Crowd gathers around and outdoor stage to watch circus performers

Volunteer Matt Smith displays a scorpion to guests at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Outside, festivities are in full swing as a crowd gathers around the acrobatics stage.

More than 3,100 visitors also enjoyed free admission to all four museums — Harvard Museum of Natural History, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard Semitic Museum, and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.

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