My research interests are in evolutionary human biology, behavior, and culture, and center on four interrelated areas:
- 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 20-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) medical histories, growth measures, and parasite exams. The purpose is to identify specific psychosocial causes and consequences of childhood stress. The project is the first to longitudinally investigate stress in a naturalistic setting using hormonal assays and quantitative behavioral observation techniques in addition to standard human biological, ethnographic, medical, and psychological methods.
I have collected and, in collaboration with Dr. Barry England (Director of the Ligand Assay Laboratory, University of Michigan Hospitals), assayed more than 32,000 saliva samples from 314 children and most of their parents/caretakers living in Petite Soufriere (99% participation). The data provide unique opportunities for examining relations among childhood stress, economic conditions, social environment, psychological development, and health.
This project has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation (4 senior awards), the MU Research Council (NIH BioMed block grants) and Research Board, and/or Earthwatch since 1988. Feature articles on this research appeared in Discover (August 2000), New Scientist (December 16, 2000), and the London Times (06/01/1997). More than 30 students have worked with me on this project.
I plan to continue my fieldwork in Dominica for at least the next five years, following children into adult stages with the objective of assessing the effects of early stress throughout life history.
- 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 both ethnographic and cross-cultural techniques to analyze universal and adaptive variations of family and kin relationships and effects on child development.
- The human brain is an evolutionary paradox. It is huge, metabolically expensive, and enables unusual cognitive abilities such as language, empathy, foresight, consciousness, and creativity. I am interested in how these aspects of the human brain evolved, based on a runaway process of social selection. The increasing importance of the informational pool that may roughly be termed “culture” for the evolution of the human brain is an area of special focus (see #4 below).
- Culture is a key aspect of human adaptation, and a central component of the anthropological discipline. I am interested in the neurological underpinnings of this evolved component of human information processing and the dynamic with the historical process of culture.
- 2009–2011 National Science Foundation, Senior fellow, Coalitions workshop. National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (Sergey Gavrilets and Frans De Waal, organizers).
- 2007-2011 National Science Foundation, BCS-SBE #0640442, “Collaborative research: Early childhood stress, personality & reproductive strategies in a matrifocal community” Flinn, M. (PI), Leone, D. (co-PI) / Quinlan, R. (PI), $102,955 (MU portion) / $285,038 (total).
- 2008 National Science Foundation, REG supplement, BCS-SBE #0640442, “Collaborative research: Early childhood stress, personality & reproductive strategies in a matrifocal community” Flinn, M. (PI), Ponzi, D (grad student), $4,500.
- 2008 National Science Foundation, Senior fellow, video workshop. Duke University Marine Station, Beaufort NC, July 27-August 1.
- 2005 Distinguished Scientist Award, Bowen Center for Study of the Family, Georgetown University School of Medicine.
- 2002-2008 National Science Foundation, SBR-0136023, “Genetic conflicts of interest, fluctuating asymmetry, and MHC” Gangestad S. (PI), Flinn, M. (co-PI), & Thornhill, R. (co-PI), $21,951 / $340,883. [ abstract ]
- 2000-2001 MU Research Council funded research leave & grant “Child stress and growth.”
- 1998-1999 MU Research Board, "Childhood stress in a rural Caribbean village" Flinn, M. (PI), Sattenspiel, L. (PI), $39,226
- 1997-1999 Center for Field Research “Child stress and health” Flinn, M. (PI), $24,000.
- 1992-1996 National Science Foundation, SBR-9205373, "Childhood stress in a rural Caribbean village" Flinn, M. (PI), $184,072. [ abstract ]
- 1993-1994 MU Research Council, funded research leave.
- 1990-1992 National Science Foundation, BNS-8920569, "Parental care and childhood stress in a rural Caribbean village" Flinn, M. (PI), $70,848.
For information on pending grants and awards, see C.V. in pdf.
Mothers and children
(above and below)