Yesterday I submitted a book chapter and a journal manuscript. I have two substantial blog posts I’m working on, but neither will be ready for this week. However, I have been slowly accumulating Posts of Awesome that I’d like to share. I want to highlight people, writing, and topics that need and deserve more attention in the science blogosphere. I mention a lot of these things on Twitter, but I know a lot of my followers don’t use Twitter. So here goes.
If you have any interest in pregnancy, labor and birth, I do hope you’re reading Science and Sensibility. S&S is a evidence-based blog written by practitioners and scientists, sponsored by Lamaze International. I really like their more technical, informative posts on labor and birth, and today’s post on positioning during the second stage of labor is a winner. The writing is always accessible for layfolks, yet still provides great information for scientists and medical folk.
Remember that Wax et al (2010) article showing homebirth had a mortality rate three times higher than a hospital birth (and the sensational Lancet editorial)? A lot of folks came down hard on the article when it first came out, myself included, but two more pieces came out yesterday that call into question the authors’ conclusions. The first issue is that there were actual mathematical errors in the data (meaning, the data was probably entered into an excel sheet incorrectly), the second is that they fundamentally did the meta-analysis wrong. Wrong. As in, according to one statistician who had no stake in the story or topic, so wrong as to overlook all its other problems.
A few more spicy tidbits: cosmetic breast surgery is on the rise, and one county in Florida has a 70% cesarean rate. Seventy. Percent. Due to some smart marketing and bad decisions, a treatment to prevent pre-term birth that used to be affordable is now more expensive than gold.
Finally, this is sort of ladybusiness, but as Dr. Isis points out, it should really be family (or even just human) business: Why it’s alright to not be your mother, a guest post on AGORA.
The reverberations from Jesse Bering’s post on homophobia as an adaptation continue. And the responses have been brilliant. I especially love Jeremy Yoder’s take over at his blog, Denim and Tweed: An adaptive fairytale with no happy ending.
And then today, DeLene Beeland shared this great post on Twitter: How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time over at Orion Magazine. This is a beautifully-written, thoughtful takedown of the naturalistic fallacy.
Other things to read right now
Danielle Lee has two great pieces worth reading (and I found them both because of Greg Laden): an article on the contribution of Henrietta Lacks, and the Black community, to cell culture, and a profile on Danielle in a natural hair series at Essence.com.
I read this article today by Gina Trapani on her work to make the technical world more friendly to women and other underrepresented or new folks.
A piece on Impostor Syndrome at SciAm (behind a paywall). I don’t want to pathologize all underrepresented groups in science (because frankly, these feelings make sense in the context of environment, even if it’s desirable to move beyond them), but issues around impostor syndrome resonate with me.
Things I wish I didn’t have to link to
Our amusement with Charlie Sheen just demonstrates how little we care about violence against women — especially certain kinds of women. Read The Disposable Woman.
Skepchick Rebecca Watson shares some of her hate mail, and why she doesn’t feel like internetting today: Why I deserved to be called an offensive bitch.
Pat Campbell reposted a twelve-year-old manifesto on gender and education that still holds true: The Gender Wars Must Cease.
Some LOLz and some cutes: a section I added because the last three links were so depressing
This first link doesn’t exactly bring the LOLz, but is an enjoyable read: Female Science Professor continues her series on Academic Novels.
Wax, J., Lucas, F., Lamont, M., Pinette, M., Cartin, A., & Blackstone, J. (2010). Maternal and newborn outcomes in planned home birth vs planned hospital births: a metaanalysis American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology DOI: 10.1016/j.ajog.2010.05.028
Editorial staff (2010). Home birth–proceed with caution. Lancet, 376 (9738) PMID: 20674705
If you haven’t seen it yet, or just want to relive it, our women in science blogging panel is now available for viewing:
Key highlights: when I told the audience about how I squatted over a toilet to birth my baby. Oh, there was also a lot of great feminism in there too.
This semester I have decided not to do weekly roundups of links useful to the courses I teach, because last semester it was exhausting to me, and as it turns out only minimally read by my students. However, I continue to bookmark stuff I find interesting, and I have reached such a critical mass that I’ve decided to share it. Some of what I want to share is focused on the ladybusiness, but I also want to share some links on brainz, and for students.
Let’s talk about sex
A few posts have come out recently on sex: who wants it, who gets it, and the sexual health of adolescents. Mark Regnerus writes “Sex is Cheap: Why young men have the upper hand, even when they’re failing at life,” which I thought was reductive and pretty disparaging to both young men and women. I was surprised at how the author talked only about heterosexual sex (why is this ok? why is this interesting?), and how he shared a single quote for each woman he interviewed, and magically it fit nicely into his own narrative. It seems like the story here is in the choices young women and men are making… so it would make sense to share the more nuanced results of the interviews Regnerus says he conducted. That said, I did learn a few things, the most disheartening related to unwanted sex:
“Finally, as my colleagues and I discovered in our interviews, striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they’d prefer or mimicking porn (being in a dating relationship is correlated to greater acceptance of and use of porn among women).”
Next, Scicurious of tag-team blogging fame and general awesomeness, has a real winner. Today, she reviewed cool research on sex roles from the seventies. She shows how our perception of the gender of a baby impacts how we treat it (and how dolls might make better toys than footballs for babies, no matter what).
You might have seen the recent buzz about PKMZeta, a protein that may aid in strengthening old memories. Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (check out the spiffy new banner!) has a three-part series on it. I also loved David Dobbs’s piece exploring problems in cognitive science: Is Cognitive Science Full of Crap? (Yes. Well, sometimes. Maybe. Except sometimes not and then it’s really very cool.) John Hawks also has an interesting piece called Numbers as Cognitive Technology: this post explores how we understand numbers, at a population variation (regarding language), developmental (regarding John’s twins, who I imagine to be very cute, with thought bubbles of fingers and toes above their heads) and even comparative (Alex the Parrot!) level.
Then, a more devastating piece that, to me, highlights some of the problems with the medical metaphor of humans as machines: Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology writes about a New York Times piece about how the field of psychiatry has changed with time.
But on to the links you actually expected under this heading. Dan Simons, fellow prof here at the University of Illinois and co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, wrote a great piece on study habits and what students think they know versus what they actually know. Read it, then study the way he tells you to! Hint: re-reading the text is not how you learn the material.
Then there is this perspective over at Observations, a Scientific American blog, that posits we should teach kids more about the process of science. How can this translate into better science ed in higher ed as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Most of what I do centers on having students do actual studies, or assist in research in my lab, or sometimes propose avenues of research as part of a project. But maybe there are more fun things we can be doing in a classroom setting that would lead to more students understanding the scientific method and the process of science.
I also want to share this great tutorial on how to choose a research project. This is useful for students at all levels… and post-docs and faculty, too.
Your dose of random
Steve Silberman interviews Seth Mnookin regarding his new book The Panic Virus. I’ve been avidly reading all of Mnookin’s press materials and look forward to reading the book, but as always Silberman does an exceptional job so I particularly recommend his post.
This article made the rounds in the twittersphere on how to improve comment sections. I just liked it a lot and found it a great tutorial on fostering online communities.
Then, for my anthropology peeps, an important article on problematizing the thrifty gene, particularly around race and racism. Something to share with your students.
People have been rocking out in the SciAm Guest Blog. Check out this book review of Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit by Valerie Jones.
If you haven’t had enough counter-evidence to the idea of science blogs as an echo chamber, check out Colin Schultz’s treatment of a recent paper on linking patterns in science blogs versus traditional journalism.
Finally, check out this interactive map on well-being in the US in the New York Times. I found a lot of the patterns really interesting, in terms of what portions of the US lit up when.
[11:26am CST: Edited to add two links for Scicurious, because the links were on my list but then I forgot.]
For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, just a quick note to let you know that I was interviewed for a piece on voice pitch and infidelity for USA Today by journalist Dan Vergano. It was a great experience, and a thoughtful piece.
|Figure 1. My apologies to Baby Jaguar
for not finding a picture that included
My daughter will be three in just a few weeks. She loves telling stories. These stories have the same, uncomplicated arc every time: she and her friends Dora, Diego, Boots and Baby Jaguar go on an adventure to rescue Mommy from the giant condor. Or sometimes Mommy and Dora and Diego and Boots and Baby Jaguar are rescuing her. Or sometimes Daddy does the rescuing.
There is almost always a net, then a pair of Rescue Scissors needed to cut the captive free. But the variation in these stories is very small, the framework borrowed heavily from one of the few mythologies known to my little girl: Dora the Explorer.
Evolutionary psychology is often a kind of story-telling, and instead of borrowing from a preschool cartoon they borrow from the concept of anisogamy. Anisogamy is sexual reproduction formed by unequal gametes, in our lineage a big egg made by females and little sperm made by males. This provides the foundation for differential reproductive investment, where females often put in the time and effort of gestation, lactation and care. From here, proponents of EP see essential differences between what men and women want in relationships, and the kinds of relationships that are optimal, and a model this broad makes it possible to shoehorn any behavior into its adaptive framework.
|Figure 2. The actual image that
accompanied Tierney’s column.
Enter John Tierney, my (not) favorite journalist for the New York Times. This is the man who thinks that sexism is a radical act (I am referring to his charming articles on gender disparities in science). So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he outed himself as an EP fanboi in his most recent piece, “The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women.”
Tierney covered the work of Jon Maner and others who have studied relationship maintenance – the suite of behaviors that keeps a couple together. In particular, Tierney focuses on the problem of the wandering eye, or rather, the possible mechanisms that prevent it in a monogamous couple. The idea here is that relationship maintenance is evolutionarily adaptive, because when a couple stays together it is easier to raise offspring and increase reproductive success.
The range of explanations
The study that frames Tierney’s column is Miller and Maner (2010). Thirty eight undergraduate men rated the attractiveness of a woman with whom they interact, at several points over her menstrual cycle. The authors found NO relationship between where a woman is in her cycle and how attractive a single man finds her, but a negative relationship between the chance a woman is fertile and how attractive a partnered man finds her.
What do Miller and Maner (2010) discuss, and what is the idea Tierney is so enamored with?
“It’s possible that some of the men in Florida were just trying to look virtuous by downgrading the woman’s attractiveness, the way a husband will instantly dismiss any woman pointed out by his wife. (That Victoria’s Secret model? Ugh! A skeleton with silicone.) But Jon Maner, a co-author of the study, says that’s unlikely because the men filled out their answers in private and didn’t expect the ratings to be seen by anyone except the researchers.
“It seems the men were truly trying to ward off any temptation they felt toward the ovulating woman,” said Dr. Maner, who did the work with Saul Miller, a fellow psychologist at Florida State. “They were trying to convince themselves that she was undesirable. I suspect some men really came to believe what they said. Others might still have felt the undercurrent of their forbidden desire, but I bet just voicing their lack of attraction helped them suppress it.””
This conjecture is unconnected to the study’s methodology and results. Nowhere in that study did they assess the participants’ state of mind or ask them how they felt about this. How do we know they were trying to convince themselves of anything? This finding, while interesting, does not test their hypothesis for an evolutionary framework for relationship maintenance that includes adaptively suppressing attraction to others.
Maner et al (2009) studied the attention people pay to images of attractive people of the opposite sex when first exposed to sexual words like “lust” and “kiss.” They recruited 120 straight undergraduates, thirty six of whom were in committed relationships. Individuals in committed relationships paid far less attention to the attractive images than those not in relationships. Tierney titters,
“The subliminal priming with words related to sex apparently activated some unconscious protective mechanism: Tempt me not! I see nothing! I see nothing!”
I’ve done my own share of human subjects research, and subjects will often tell you or do what they think you want, or they will just not be honest if they don’t want you to know the truth. What if, as originally posed by Tierney himself, the respondents weren’t warding off temptation but wanted to look virtuous? What if, now bear with me because this might seem crazy, the people in these studies were in love with their partners and genuinely uninterested in anyone else? Too often EP wants to provide a single explanation for a behavior, when the range of possible explanations far exceeds their hypothesis.
An anthropological perspective
Jamie Jones, Associate Professor at Stanford and blogger at Monkey’s Uncle describes anthropology like this,
“…[A]nthropology is the science charged with explaining the origin and maintenance of human diversity in all its forms. To achieve this end, anthropology must be unapologetically grand in its scope. How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent, through both time and space, and across cultures? … Where does the tapestry of human diversity come from and how is it that we continually manage to resist powerful homogenizing forces and hang on to our diversity? What commonalities transcend local difference to unite all humanity? How is it that civilizations rise and fall? And what is the fate of humanity?”
Jamie beautifully depicts the importance of documenting and understanding diversity even in the face of efforts to simplify human nature. Thus, to me, an anthropological perspective is often at odds with EP explanations for behavior.
An anthropological perspective asks, what happens if you take these basic observations and, instead of deciding on a favorite explanation and applying it to everyone, put them into a model in which you can vary context (age/sex specific mortality rates, distribution of resources, what have you) and see what range of strategies actually give fitness benefits? That is, when you actually throw some variation into the equation, is this still the best strategy for the partnered men with whom Tierney feels simpatico?
Right now we don’t know. Much psychological empiricism rests on undergraduates who participate in studies for course credit. When one wants to make connections to evolutionary adaptedness, they may be a place to start, but not end.
I have a real problem with continuing to use this population to make statements of universality for all humans. Undergraduates usually are trying to avoid pregnancy and build their financial and social capital, so relationship maintenance for the sake of reproductive success rarely exists. Until we can show that relationship maintenance, and the particular behaviors Miller, Maner and others study within that are shown across many populations, and particularly across reproductively-aged folks, their argument for adaptation fails.
|Figure 3. Celebrations of marriage.|
Another problem is that most work on relationships in EP tends to be heteronormative, meaning that they think nothing of assuming that either everyone is straight, or the universally best behavioral strategy is to be straight. They also tend to assume that the best strategy is to be monogamous, with occasional sneaky infidelity permitted if one can get better genes or more offspring that way (keep in mind that there is a difference between what might be biologically advantageous in a certain context, and what is culturally appropriate – the argument here is not against the culture of monogamy).
But heterosexual monogamy is only one reproductive strategy of many that humans employ. Depending on how you measure it, monogamy and polygyny (single male, multi female marriage) vie for the most frequent strategy – in fact, polygyny occurs in about 80% of modern human societies (Murdock and White 1969). There are even a few rare populations that practice polyandry, which is the marriage of a single female and multiple males. And, even in those populations where monogamy is practiced, serial monogamy is far more frequent than lifetime monogamy: this means that individuals have a series of monogamous relationships rather than find one mate for life (so no, divorce is not a modern human invention).
When taking an even broader, comparative perspective, monogamy isn’t practiced by our closest relatives at all. Chimpanzees and bonobos, both equally related to us, are promiscuous. This is a scientific term for a reproductive strategy that involves females and males making reproductive decisions to mate with many individuals at each fertile period. Bonobos are also promiscuous, but they also use heterosexual and homosexual sex to reduce stress and aggression, and form bonds among one another. Gorillas, our next closest relative, are polygynous. Orangutans are very solitary, but essentially promiscuous. It’s only once you delve into the lesser apes, the gibbons, that you see any monogamy, and they are far less monogamous than we first thought (Brockelman et al 1998).
Maintaining a heterosexual, monogamous relationship is certainly advantageous at certain times, in certain contexts. But it is not universally adaptive, even within humans. Without anyone studying these behaviors in populations that use different reproductive strategies, and in the absence of comparative data to support these assertions, we are at an impasse.
In the words of a friend, EP is plugged into evolutionary theory with little more than a ratty old extension cord. EP takes some very basic, ancestral conditions, like differential costs of reproduction, and uses it in a sufficiently vague way that any behavior can relate to females generally being the ones to put in all the time and effort into making babies. Yet EP often ignores the three conditions necessary for natural selection, the mechanism for evolution. For natural selection to act on a trait, the trait must be variable, heritable, and produce differential reproductive success. Rarely does EP understand variation in a trait, rarely does it examine whether said trait has a genetic component, and rarely does it test whether their trait confers a reproductive advantage.
Are fertile women a threat to partnered harmony, their scents providing a temptation that noble men must suppress? I can’t rule it out, but I also think it is one of the least likely of many possible explanations.
Unfortunately for readers of the New York Times, Tierney loved this idea more than he loved interrogating it.
I’d like to thank Charles Roseman, friend, faculty curmudgeon and Bastard Colleague from Hell, for taking a look at an early draft of this post and providing commentary crucial to its improvement. Any rhetorical or scientific errors are my own.
Brockelman, W., Reichard, U., Treesucon, U., & Raemaekers, J. (1998). Dispersal, pair formation and social structure in gibbons ( Hylobates lar ) Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 42 (5), 329-339 DOI: 10.1007/s002650050445
MANER, J., GAILLIOT, M., & MILLER, S. (2009). The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 174-179 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.002
Miller, S, & Maner, J (2010). Evolution and relationship maintenance: Fertility cues lead committed men to devalue relationship alternatives Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1081-1084
Murdock, G., & White, D. (1969). Standard Cross-Cultural Sample Ethnology, 8 (4) DOI: 10.2307/3772907
Dora picture: http://www.doratheexplorertvshow.com/dora/dora-explora-pics.htm
Lady magnet: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/science/22tier.html?_r=2&ref=johntierney
Same-sex marriage: http://markusisthedrug.onsugar.com/date/2009/05/07