I am a biomedical anthropologist. My primary research passion is to understand how and why social relationships influence child health. I am especially interested in our (human) complex family relationships. My research questions involve theory and methods from several disciplines, including cultural anthropology, developmental psychology, behavioral endocrinology, family medicine, and human biology. I focus on two interrelated areas – stress and the family. Psychosocial stress presents both an important medical problem and an evolutionary puzzle. Given the significant health costs associated with chronic physiological stress response, it is unclear why natural selection would have favored links between the psychological mechanisms that assess social challenges, and the neuroendocrine mechanisms that regulate stress physiology. My current research efforts in this area involve an ongoing 30-year study of childhood stress, family relationships, and health in a rural Caribbean community by longitudinal monitoring of (a) hormone and immune function from saliva and urine samples, (b) ethnographic observation of child activities and social environment, and (c) measures of health, including medical histories, bi-weekly health surveys, anthropometric measurements, and parasite exams. The stressful effects of recent hurricane Maria are of immediate importance.
Family relationships are a key component of human sociality. Extensive bi-parental care and multi-generational kin networks are distinctive human traits. My current interests involve using cross-cultural, ethnographic, and physiological techniques to analyze universal and adaptive variations of family and kin relationships and effects on child development. In addition to the research on relations between child stress hormones and family environment, currently our research team in Dominica is examining changes in hormones – cortisol, testosterone, prolactin, DHEA/S, oxytocin, and vasopressin – that are associated with affiliative relationships and interactions among parents and offspring, grandparents and grandoffspring, siblings, mates, and coalition partners. We are interested in the physiological mechanisms that underpin the unusual importance in humans of extended kin networks, paternal care, mate bonding, and male bonding including respect for each other’s mating relationships. Understanding how the hormonal mechanisms for affiliation function in naturalistic conditions may provide new insights into human sociality.
I continue to be fascinated by these challenging questions about human biology and sociality. Much of my research focuses on our human sensitivities to our social environments. Our brains have special abilities such as empathy and social foresight that allow us to understand each other’s feelings and communicate in ways that that are unique in scale and substance among all living organisms. Our extraordinary social brains, however, come with some significant strings attached. Our emotional states can be strongly influenced by what others say and do. Our hearts can soar, but they also can be broken. Our bodies use internal chemical messengers – hormones and neurotransmitters – to help guide responses to our social worlds. From romantic daydreams to jealous rage to parent-child bonding, the powerful molecules produced by tiny and otherwise seemingly insignificant cells and glands help orchestrate our thoughts, physiology, and actions. I view improved understanding of this chemical language as an important research goal that has great potential to improve the human condition. I have been fortunate to have my efforts recognized by my peers in electing me as an AAAS fellow, an APS fellow, a HBA fellow, president of HBES, and the Distinguished Scientist award from the Center for the Study of the Family.
Post-doctorate University of Michigan Society of Fellows & School of Medicine
Ph.D. Anthropology, Northwestern University
A.M. Anthropology, University of Michigan
B.S. Anthropology & Zoology (pre-medicine), University of Michigan
Chagnon, N.A., Lynch, R.F., Shenk, M.S., Hames, R. & Flinn, M.V. (2017). Cross cousin marriage among the Yanomamö shows evidence of parent-offspring conflict and mate competition between siblings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (13), E2590-E2607 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1618655114
Flinn, M.V. (2017). The human family: evolutionary origins and adaptive significance. In: On Human Nature, M. Teyberanc & F. Ayala (Eds.), Chapter 16, Pp. 251-262. National Academy of Sciences. New York: Elsevier. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-420190-3.00016-8
Ponzi, D., Muehlenbein, M.P., Geary, D.C., & Flinn, M.V. (2016). Cortisol, salivary alpha-amylase and children's perceptions of their social networks. Social Neuroscience, 11(2), 164-174. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2015.1045988
Bissonnette, A., Perry, S., Barrett, L., Mitani, J., Flinn, M.V., Gavrilets, S., & De Waal, F.B. (2015). Coalitions in theory and reality: A review of pertinent variables and processes. Behaviour, 152(1), 1-56. DOI: 10.1163/1568539x-00003241.
Flinn, M.V. & Ward, C.V. (2015). The role of hormones in the evolution of the human family. In: Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd edition, D. Buss (Ed.), Chapter 24, pp. 598-622. New York: Wiley.
Ponzi, D., Muehlenbein, M.P., Sgoifo, A., Geary, D.C., & Flinn, M.V. (2015). Day-to-day variation of salivary cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in children from a rural Dominican community. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1, 12-24. DOI: 10.1007/s40750-014-0002-4
Macfarlan, S.J., Walker, R.S., Flinn, M.V. & Chagnon, N.A. (2014). Lethal coalitionary aggression and long-term alliances among Yanomamö men. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(47), 16662-16669. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1418639111