We’ve been trying to revive the Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology (LEE) blog this year so that our lab puts out a bit more content. This month, graduate student Mary Rogers shares her experiences with our pilot project in a local girls science camp. Next month two of my undergrads will share additional posts on the topic so that we can gain their perspectives as well.
“The first thing you have to do to study 4,000-year-old DNA is take off your clothes.” Marlene Zuk’s new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live begins in classic science-writer style. This provocative line pulls the reader into a world where Science Happens, but in a way that isn’t intimidating. Like Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame, Zuk appears to be along for the ride, experiencing this DNA analysis for the first time. It may be a well-worn writing tool, but it serves Zuk beautifully as she then transitions from guide-to-the-side to sage-onstage for the rest of the book. Zuk’s explanations of evolutionary theory, natural selection, and genetic variation are relatable and powerful. I will be assigning passages of this book to my students for many years to come.
The purpose of this book, of course, is not to provide a mere evolutionary theory explainer. Instead, Zuk wants to take on the false beliefs that have permeated popular culture about the impact our evolutionary history has had on our bodies, decisions, and lives. Zuk charges laypeople and sometimes scientists with having an incorrect account of how ancestral humans really lived, borrowing renowned anthropologist Leslie Aiello’s term “paleofantasy.” Why does this matter? According to Zuk, it’s not just that the paleofantasies we construct of long-distance-running, spear-throwing, meat-eating men (always men) are historically inaccurate, but also that such fantasies are then applied to modern life in ways that are deeply flawed—as if a manufacturer of mattresses decided to base their construction on the story of The Princess and the Pea.
Zuk’s strongest exhibit for the problem of paleofantasy is the Paleo Diet, frequently interpreted as one containing lots of meat and eschewing grains, legumes, and sugars. The Paleo Diet has been a favorite dumping ground of many critical writers and researchers lately, for good reason: the anthropologists who study ancestral diets have always said that there is no one ancestral diet, but rather that diet is a result of a complex interplay between climate, available food sources, and human culture and technologies. Zuk demonstrates a lower ancestral incidence of meat-eating than the Paleo Diet assumes; she adds that agriculture—which, according to many Paleo Diet proponents, was a horrid innovation—began not the oft-cited 10,000 years ago but at least 30,000 years ago. And the biggest misunderstanding of evolutionary history she corrects, one which might turn all paleofantasies to dust, is the mismatch theory: the idea that we haven’t evolved appreciably since the Pleistocene and thus have bodies mismatched to our modern environments.
There was one way in which I struggled with Paleofantasy. Zuk uses comments from blog posts, paleo diet forums, and news stories to represent the way laypeople construct paleofantasies. The blogosphere circles I move in work from the premise that blog comments represent the loudest—and thus also the most radical—voices, rather than majority opinion. To represent scientists, Zuk either visits and interviews them directly, as in the introduction, or uses their best work: peer-reviewed, published journal articles. This seems vastly unfair to me, creating a straw layperson who claims that the perfect combination of Crossfit exercise, standing desks, wild-caught meat, polygynous mating, and infant co-sleeping will cure cancer. Naturally, the views of this credulous layperson are easily demolished by Zuk’s well-explained inventory of PhD-level research.
But what would have happened if Zuk had also spent some time identifying the motivations or reasons that underlie a paleofantasy approach to health—mistrust of modern medicine, poor educational background in science, or science communication breakdowns? In that case, portions of the book would have felt less like a reproach and more like encouragement to delight in evolution the way she does. The un-interviewed layfolk who think they should live like their ancestors are like the dead crickets who cannot sing, an anecdote from the author’s own research on a cricket population that stops making mating calls over a few short generations to avoid the attention of a deadly parasite. They are shut down before given a chance to explain themselves.
That said, overall Paleofantasy succeeds at being a patient, brilliant, and eager guide through the contradictory and complicated web of scientific evidence on human evolution and health. This book really does serve as a bridge between popular understandings of evolution and modern interpretations of scientific evidence, and Zuk’s marvelous style kept me engaged to the end. Her admonishments are (mostly) gentle enough and her explanations so elegant that I would recommend passing this book along even to the friend who wears Vibram Five Fingers to dinner parties. He won’t stop wearing them, but he might stop pushing you to eat an extra serving of turkey over stuffing at Thanksgiving.
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This review originally appeared in Science in Focus.
I’ve seen a number of tweets and blog comments over the last few days wondering – some nicely, some not so nicely – why so many of us reacted more strongly to Scientific American’s response to Dr. Danielle Lee’s post, rather than to Biology-Online’s worker’s comment about her being an “urban whore.”
Here’s the short version:
- The “urban whore” was blatant sexism and racism from an unknown person and company. This is the kind of drive by stuff all of us who work online have had to deal with regularly. It rattles us but doesn’t ruin us.
- The response from Sci Am implied a set of rules we thought we were governed by – editorial control, inclusivity, feminism and anti-racism – were not the rules after all.
- The “piling on” and continued conversation on Twitter and Facebook are a way that all of us are trying to process our hurts, make sense of this new ruleset that has shattered our original illusions, and figure out next steps.
- The extreme disappointment many of us continue to feel are related to the ways in which Scientific American perpetrated secondary trauma to a victim. What’s worse, this secondary trauma came after the victim did a marvelous job standing up for herself and moving forward, exposing the sexism and racism she first experienced.
- The response by Scientific American still seems to miss the boat on how sexism and racism works: intent doesn’t matter, impact does. And the wellbeing of one of our bloggers, and the trust established here, should have been the higher priority.
And here’s the longer version.
What did Sci Am do well?
Sci Am – and Mariette DiChristina in particular – did two very important and good things coming out of this disaster.
First, Mariette apologized. The fact that she crafted a several paragraph response and actually did apologize says a lot about Scientific American’s desire to move forward and, I hope, ensure that this never happens again.
Second, they are taking a cue from Danielle’s interview at Buzzfeed and trying to move forward by doing a story on women of color in science. Danielle wanted us to put our attention on diversity, rather than our seeing this move of Sci Am’s as disingenuous I think we need to see it as their honestly trying to figure out how to be an ally.
As for their actions and comments… other folks have already gone through the duplicitous comments – first claiming the issue was one of content, second claiming a legal issue and desire to verify the claims Danielle made. And others have also cast doubt on how hard it could have been to contact Danielle. Still others have pointed out there was no good legal reason to pull down the post, and that doing so doesn’t even reflect the current professional standard.
But as someone who blogs at Scientific American, one who not only writes about oppression and privilege in science all the time but has specifically pointed to the science blogosphere as one that prioritizes tolerance, what hurt was that what happened shattered the illusion we held that the science blogosphere is inclusive.
And maybe, what hurt the most was that we should have known all along.
What are the rules that govern our group?
The day before Danielle’s post was pulled, Dr. Alice Pawley happened to be in my neck of the woods. Alice is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue, a feminist scholar, and a darn fine person. I was lucky enough to get to spend a fair part of the day with Alice, which was awesome because I adore her, but I also got to see her speak as a scholar for the first time.
Alice’s talk was sort of Feminism for Engineers 101 talk, which was the perfect level for its purpose and audience. But she also threaded some very sophisticated concepts throughout. One of the concepts most relevant to #standingwithdnlee is that of boundary work – that is, how do we define boundaries within and between our social groups? Who sets these boundaries and why?
A longstanding boundary within STEM fields is that the work that white men value tends to be what is bounded as STEM. To use Alice’s example , engineers tend to define engineering as “making things,” as “design,” as “solving problems.” Knitting and cooking should fall under this definition of engineering. People who have a lot of experience knitting or cooking, and/or people who enjoy the crafts of knitting and cooking, should be signing up in droves for engineering majors! Problem set examples should have recipes and knitting patterns! Students studying together should crack jokes about purling or fallen soufflés!
But they don’t.
They don’t because domestic work is devalued – while the boundary everyone points to when asked “what is engineering” should make knitting and cooking inclusive within it, there are hidden rules that form additional boundaries. When these boundaries are gendered or raced, the impact is that they exclude certain kinds of people, regardless of intent.
This is the history of STEM, and thus the history of science communication. Because we have very explicit boundaries that are enormously wide – science communication can be done by bloggers, journalists, scientists, artists, sometimes one person who is all of these things – and enormously inclusive – we want to be generous and see everyone succeed, we will be intolerant of intolerance – we look inclusive. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of the time we really are.
But situations like both the first act of calling Danielle an “urban whore,” then the second act of stripping her of her voice, demonstrate that the implicit boundaries do not match the explicit ones. That underneath it all, we’ve still all been culturally conditioned to see STEM as a place for white men, and so we make invisible what makes us uncomfortable. We silence the people that don’t quite look like they should be inside the boundary.
The way to change the boundaries across STEM and science communication is to do a better job acknowledging the existing implicit and explicit ones. Too often I meet colleagues who think they are gender and/or race “blind,” and they see that as a progressive stance. But not talking about implicit bias is what tends to make us rely on implicit bias – we just tend to call it an issue of “fit.”
So let’s talk about what science is, what science communication is, and who should do it. Let’s talk about how few women of color are involved in science. Let’s take a cue from Danielle and others who do Hip Hop Science Education – that is boundary-moving work. And first, let’s put them front and center in this conversation. Then let’s get more white people talking about race and their whiteness. Too many of us are so afraid of being racist that we say nothing rather than risk making a mistake. But not talking is what keeps us from acknowledging and changing the implicit boundaries that define who we are as a group.
Twitter is how science communicators talk and process their thoughts
Yes, Twitter blew up around #standingwithdnlee, and yes, Twitter rage is made of strong stuff. But marginalizing much of the anger of the science communication community by passing it off solely as Twitter-rage misunderstands this particular form of communication.
If you are a science communicator or consumer of science information, Twitter is where it’s at. It’s where we share information, it’s where we joke, it’s where we procrastinate but also where we motivate. It is the water cooler of our profession.
This means that Twitter conversations are where people take the space and time to hash out their feelings. It’s amazing to me that anyone thinks that these sorts of feelings can be compartmentalized or smoothed over when to so many they feel like a betrayal. When you are forced to confront the reality of the world and cultural conditioning, the boundaries of our field despite the stories we’ve told ourselves, it’s going to take a while to process things. And I wonder if it takes longer to process things online than in person, because it’s so much harder to show empathy and care, to touch someone’s arm or offer a hug.
So I would like to see us respect the time it takes to “get over” these sorts of situations. I think it is just going to take longer when the bulk of the socializing among science communicators happens online.
I also think Twitter and other social media venues are when some of us are going to be able to smash those old implicit boundaries to make new ones.
In addition to my usual ladybusiness anthropology research, I do critical research in the area of sexism and abuse (physical, emotional and sexual) in field-based science. This means I’ve been reading an awful lot of scholarly research on rape. And I can’t help but see some parallels between it and the kinds of gender and race-based trauma one can incur online.
Danielle experienced an initial victimization that was sexist and racist. Being a pretty remarkable person, she put together a marvelous blog post sharing the experience and fighting back. She bounced back from that primary trauma, and even found a way to make her experience illustrative, to try and help her community get better about gender and race. I’d like to think it’s because the science communication community and our explicit boundaries meant at least some of the time we serve as a decently safe space.
Then the post got pulled, and Danielle was silenced. This kind of behavior is something that interests many scholars of sensitive topics. What happens when a victim tries to seek help from an institution whose job it should be to protect that person? As an example, rape survivors very rarely seek help from any of the health or legal systems purported to protect them . They have already been convinced, through a lifetime of not being heard, that seeking help will only lead to more hurt, what some call “the second rape.” You can find countless examples from those rare survivors who do seek help of these “second rapes” when they are not believed by police or hospital workers, or in some cases end up being assaulted by these very people .
It’s a rare thing to speak up in the face of victimization. But the secondary trauma from not being believed and being silenced (pulling a post first for the reason that it is not “discovering science,” then pivoting and claiming it was for “fact-checking”) is far too common. It’s that secondary trauma from Scientific American’s actions that crush a person. Going somewhere you trust – a blog network that prides itself on inclusivity in terms of the way it has fought intolerance in the past, in the identities of its bloggers and in its allowable content – and then being shut down? It’s like going to someone you trust and being called a liar.
Conclusion: intent versus impact
I want to make clear that I don’t think secondary trauma or excluding boundary work were the intent of Mariette or whoever in the legal department forced her into this situation.
But they were the impact. And this kind of impact was not the sort of thing that only a clever, subtle, po-mo person who thrives on rhetoric could have figured out. It was clear from the beginning that the impact was perpetuation of racism and sexism.
This is why fake gender and race blindness is so problematic, it’s why not talking about whiteness and privilege is problematic. Avoiding these things is silencing to the people who need to talk about it to reset boundaries. And if we consider ourselves allies, it’s time to start talking about this stuff.
Let’s start by reexamining our decisions. I constantly ask myself if the reaction I have to a colleague or student is influenced by their gender or race. I don’t always like whatever I realize is the answer. But looking inside myself – and sometimes talking it out with a trusted friend – is necessary if I’m going to move towards better ally work.
Here are a few things Sci Am could do that would be impactful: hold a live webchat to talk about what happened, and be ready to hear some very angry people and say sorry over and over again. Change the editorial policy that posts can be taken down at any time to one where they are left up until proven inaccurate. Apologize for taking the post down in the first place. Risk making mistakes rather than make mistakes through inaction. Invite scholars to the office who study gender and race intersectionality, discuss and learn from each other how to make a new set of boundaries. Highlight STEM topics that honor our explicit, not implicit boundaries in your magazines. Reach out to non-white male readers. Partner with organizations and corporations that are already successful at this.
But don’t go away. Don’t shrink, don’t hide, don’t avoid. Lead in this moment, because you’ll be a better organization for it.
1. Pawley A (2013) Engineering faculty drawing the line: a taxonomy of boundary work in academic engineering. Engineering Studies 4: 145-169.
2. Patterson D, Greeson M, Campbell R (2009) Understanding rape survivors’ decisions not to seek help from formal social systems. Health & Social Work 34: 127-136.
3. Campbell R (2002) Emotionally involved: The impact of researching rape: Routledge.
Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.
— Mariette DiChristina (@mdichristina) October 12, 2013
This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science. This is not a post about discovering science.
If that is how Scientific American Blogs runs, of course, none of this random assortment of my recent posts should have been allowed either:
- “I had no power to say ‘that’s not ok'”
- Numbness, vulnerability, oppression, privilege on the tenure track
- Survival, on the roller derby and tenure tracks
- Motherhood won and lost: one woman’s story of miscarriage
- Canopy Meg happy in her job, tra la la
I almost never write about discovering science, and in fact write frequently about oppression and privilege. But when a black woman writes about an oppressive experience, it is grounds for removal. Folks, this is Ally Work 101: it doesn’t matter your intent, what matters is the impact. Silencing a black woman who just got called an “urban whore” is sexist, racist, silencing behavior. It is wrong, and it is shameful.
(See Dr. Isis for the back story on this.)