The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.
This week I broadly introduced the field of behavioral endocrinology, and focused on male behavioral endocrinology as a way to apply it. Of course a week on male behavior can’t go without Robert Sapolsky’s essay The Trouble with Testosterone, and students wrote some very thoughtful posts reflecting on that reading. Next time we’ll cover stress, and the week after that female behavioral endocrinology.
This week, though, it’s all about the testosterone. I spent a fair bit of time in lecture trying to parse out what the relationship between hormones and behavior really is: 1) the relationship goes both ways, meaning behavior impacts hormone levels at least as much as hormones impact behavior, and 2) hormones rarely make anyone do anything, but in some cases they can increase your willingness. It’s as though the hormone opens the door to a particular behavior, but doesn’t push you through.
Also, the last week of the course covers cognitive sex differences (or not), so you will notice an absence of that type of material here. Don’t worry, you can do mental rotation tests in a few weeks!
I wanted to link to several stories about testosterone and aggression from the mainstream media. Testosterone and aggression relationships have been covered, with at least some degree of complexity, the New York Times and TIME. The New York Times article is of course by Natalie Angier, a rather wonderful science writer who wrote Woman: an Intimate Geography.
I also found two other links: this student paper on testosterone and aggression from Bryn Mawr. I hope work like this shows my students the kinds of sophisticated thinking they are also capable of, and starts some fun conversations. This one from the website About Gender also has a thoughtful take on this often-exaggerated relationship.
This press release (at least, I think that’s what it is) suggests that male CEOs with higher testosterone concentrations are more likely to drop deals or attempt hostile takeovers. The whole piece struck me as odd, in its phrasing, and in the fact that an article on hormones was accepted in a journal called Management Science. So I decided to look up the article on which the press release is based (Levi et al 2010).
It’s a mess, and here’s why: THEY DON’T ACTUALLY MEASURE TESTOSTERONE CONCENTRATIONS. They use age as a proxy for testosterone, saying that testosterone is higher in young men, and because younger men do these more reckless behaviors, it is because of Teh Evul Testosterone. Further, as far as I can tell, the way they use age as a variable is that you are “young” if you are under forty five years old, and “old” if you are over that age. Age significantly impacts testosterone, but the amount of variation unrelated to age is also considerable. And when it is so easy to measure testosterone — we’re talking about getting someone to spit for you a handful of times — it seems silly to use a proxy so far removed as to be almost meaningless. It also ignores the many other factors related to age that might make someone reckless, like brain development and experience.
Greg Laden has a short, tongue-in-cheek blog post about Testosterone and Humor: he reviews a rather earnest article by a dermatologist who hypothesizes that humor develops from aggressive behavior (that, perhaps, it is a kind of verbal aggression?). Go read the weirdness.
Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has two interesting posts on testosterone. In Prejudice vs. Biology I think Ed does a marvelous job demonstrating what I was trying to explain above: testosterone and other hormones might open the door to a behavior, but you (or you and your pre-conceived notions of hormones) are the one who decides whether to walk through. His other post looks at a study of the differential effects of testosterone and estrogen on economic decisions in postmenopausal women and found… nothing. I loved that this study actually looked at women, not men. The authors of the study even go so far as to suggest that some of the results that have found correlations between hormones and economic behavior are a result of publication bias. Go, go on and read!
Your dose of random
A lot of posts and articles have caught my eye recently. I’ll share some this time and maybe save a few for my next Around the Web.
Ever wonder how to get more young people to be more responsible about their reproductive health? Perhaps we need to understand the adolescent brain better to come up with more targeted campaigns.
The Shadow Scholar is a rather disturbing read by a pseudonymous writer for hire who helps college students cheat. Related to this (in my mind), is the story of how students lack basic research skills. On a more positive note, some perspective on why being hardworking (and, you know, not cheating) is more important than being smart.
Related to the last Around the Web on sexual differentiation and variation, this post by sex-positive Alice Dreger answers a young girl’s question who is worried that her clitoris is too big.
Finally, though we’ve already covered parenting, I wanted to share with you this neat story about adoption in sea lions. Read the story. Revel in the cute babies.
Next time I’ll write about stress and social disparities.
Levi, Maurice, Li, Kai, & Zhang, Feng (2010). Deal or no deal: hormones and the mergers and acquisitions game Management Science, 56 (9), 1462-1483