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|Should I advise recently single ScarJo to stay
off the pill to find her next beau? From here.
Imagine you are a single, heterosexual woman. You meet a nice man at the driving range, or on a blind date. You like him and he likes you. You date, you get engaged, you get married. You decide to have a child together, so you go off the pill. One morning you wake up and look at your husband, and it’s like seeing him through new eyes. Who is this stranger you married, and what did you ever see in him?
After some articles made the news when they suggested mate preferences change on hormonal contraception, this seemed to be the scenario in the heads of many women. Is my pill deceiving me? What if my birth control is making me date the wrong man?
Several articles over the years have demonstrated that women prefer men with more masculine features at midcycle, or ovulation, and more feminine features in less fertile periods. Based on body odor, women and men also often prefer individuals with MHC (major histocompatibility complex) that are different from theirs, which may be a way for them to select mates that will give their offspring an immunological advantage. These findings have been replicated a few times, looking at a few different gendered traits. And as I suggested above, other work has suggested that the birth control pill, which in some ways mimics pregnancy, may mask our natural tendency to make these distinctions and preferences, regarding both masculinity and MHC (Little et al. 2002; Roberts et al. 2008; Wedekind et al. 1995).
On the one hand, I think it’s both interesting and important to consider the implications of the birth control pill beyond just contraception. Hormones are messages, so any cells that have receptors for these messages, like specialized mailboxes, can receive them. The pill is made of synthetic versions of estradiol and progesterone, and there are estradiol and progesterone receptors in your brain. And yes, these hormones do change your brain, both during the natural cycle and on hormonal contraception; Scicurious has written well on this in the past.
|Jolie, had she been on the pill and chosen her mate
differently. From here. Yes, looks to be a real pic.
On the other hand, I have a lot of questions: First and most important to me, how does any of this translate to non-straight women? I find the constant focus on mate choice between men and women a bit exhausting, and am not sure we can assume non-straight relationships to work the same way. Next, how well do preferences over the cycle map on to actual choices for mates, short term or long term? If we happen to find Brad Pitt more attractive than Justin Bieber at midcycle, does that mean no one will do but Brad Pitt? And finally, what are all the factors that we need to consider in mate choice besides a deep voice or square jawline (again, especially if you try to expand your thinking beyond straight relationships)?
I’ll start with the last two questions that deal with mate preference versus ultimate mate selection. As you all might expect, women and men choose mates for lots of reasons, not just masculinity or complementary immune systems. Bereczkei et al (1997) looked at singles ads and found women often sought mates with high parental care. In a separate singles ad evaluation, Pawlowski and Dunbar (1999) found that women mostly selected men of high resource potential who were interested in long-term relationships (either unlikely to divorce or unlikely to die within twenty years), where men selected women by markers of fecundity (ability to have babies). In a sample of 18-24 year old straight people in the US, Buston and Emlen (2003) found that most people selected mates who had similar characteristics to themselves. And a speed dating sample showed that people under those conditions selected dates based on easily observable traits, like physical attractiveness (Kurzban and Weeden 2005).
Now on to the fact that all of this research is on straight people. I found very little on lesbian women and the menstrual cycle… but what I found was very cool! Brinsmead-Stockham et al (2008) found that, like heterosexual women, lesbian women are quicker to identify unknown faces at midcycle, as long as they were the faces of the sex they preferred. So straight women were good at identifying male faces, lesbian women good at identifying female faces. Burleson et al (2002) found that sexual behavior in lesbian and straight women was mostly similar through the menstrual cycle, with both peaking at midcycle.
So, mate preference may be about telling a research assistant who is the hottest to you at a particular point in your cycle. And it is a fairly robust and consistent finding. However, when it comes to ultimate mate selection the most important thing to consider is a great point made by Pawlowski and Dunbar: finding a mate is about advertising what you have to offer while making known what you want in a mate. Then it’s all about finding some kind of compromise through a series of trade-offs based on what the individual wants, what they can offer, and what’s available in the dating pool. (So, since neither Brad Pitt nor Justin Bieber are currently in the dating pool, my previous comparison was pointless.)
Those of you who met your mate while on the pill: not to fear. I don’t think that the possibility that you may have some suppression of masculinized preferences at one point in your cycle means you’ve chosen the wrong person.
Who knows, it could have opened you up to the Mr. or Ms. Right.
Bereczkei T, Voros S, Gal A, & Bernath L (1997). Resources, attractiveness, family commitment; reproductive decisions in human mate choice. Ethology : formerly Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, 103 (8), 681-99 PMID: 12293453
Brinsmead-Stockham K, Johnston L, Miles L, & Neil Macrae C (2008). Female sexual orientation and menstrual influences on person perception Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (3), 729-734 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.05.003
Burleson MH, Trevathan WR, & Gregory WL (2002). Sexual behavior in lesbian and heterosexual women: relations with menstrual cycle phase and partner availability. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27 (4), 489-503 PMID: 11912001
Buston PM, & Emlen ST (2003). Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100 (15), 8805-10 PMID: 12843405
Kurzban R, & Weeden J (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action Evolution and Human Behavior, 26 (3), 227-244 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012
Little AC, Jones BC, Penton-Voak IS, Burt DM, and Perrett DI. 2002. Partnership status and the temporal context of relationships influence human female preferences for sexual dimorphism in male face shape. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences 269(1496):1095-1100.
Pawłowski B, & Dunbar RI (1999). Impact of market value on human mate choice decisions. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 266 (1416), 281-5 PMID: 10081164
Roberts SC, Gosling LM, Carter V, & Petrie M (2008). MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 275 (1652), 2715-22 PMID: 18700206
Wedekind C, Seebeck T, Bettens F, & Paepke AJ (1995). MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 260 (1359), 245-249 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1995.0087
|Found here. IUDs are back in style.
Neon sunglasses? Not so much.
What is used by 20-26% of European, 30% of Israeli, 34% of Chinese, 34% of Egyptian, and 49% of Korean women… but only 1-2% of US women (Harper et al. 2008)? The intrauterine device, or IUD! The IUD is found in two forms: the copper IUD, and the hormone-releasing IUD that releases a tiny amount of progesterone. Both make the uterus inhospitable to pregnancy.
The modern incarnation of the IUD is possibly safer and more effective than oral contraception. Chances of pregnancy on the IUD range from 0-1.1 per 100 woman-years of use, and they get lower with each year you use it (Prager and Darney 2007). That is far better than your chances on the pill.
The IUD suffers from a bad reputation, in part due to misinformation or misunderstanding on the part of medical providers. Harper et al (2008) surveyed 816 physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants who each serve more than 100 contraceptive patients per year in the California State family planning program. They found that 40% of medical providers didn’t offer IUDs to patients, 36% provided infrequent counseling. Further, 46% thought nulliparous women, and 39% thought postabortion women were good candidates for the IUDs. Younger physicians were more likely than older physicians to recommend the IUD (Harper et al. 2008), which suggests a generational gap due to the overinflated descriptions of the dangers of early IUDs.
So let’s go through the actual pros and cons of this form of contraception, so that over the course of the summer you can compare this information to what you’ll be learning about the pill.
Remember, I’m just an anthropologist who studies this stuff. I am not a medical doctor.
Danger danger! Or not
The biggest danger from an IUD is that it could perforate the uterus, or be expelled from it. And that can certainly be painful, reduce fertility, or get you pregnant when you think you are protected. So let’s look at how often this happens.
Prager and Darney (2007) wrote a review on the levonorgestrel IUD (hormone-releasing, like Mirena) in nulliparous (that means no parity, or no children) women. This is important because many still carry the misconception that nulliparous women shouldn’t use IUDs, because of an increased risk of perforation, infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease risk, and difficulty in placement.
There are notable differences between the parous (has had children) and nulliparous (no kids) uterus. The parous uterus is a little bigger, and the cervix dilates a bit more easily. However, it turns out that for the most part these differences are not great enough to produce any differences in side effects or danger to the woman using it.
Prager and Darney (2007) found six studies on perforation or expulsion rates for IUDs (some copper, some hormone-releasing, which are made of plastic and are flexible). They did not find enough data to support a link either way for nulliparity and perforation, because the studies they found had anywhere from zero to two nulliparous women in them. That said, the perforation rates for each study ranged from 0-1.3% in one study, and 2.6 out of 1000 in another (Prager and Darney 2007).
Expulsion rates do not seem to differ between parous and nulliparous women, and again, are very low for all women. The annual expulsion rate among cited studies was 0-4.2 per 100, 0-1.2% per year, and 0-0.2% per year (Prager and Darney 2007). The one important point they do make is that there is a very slightly increased risk of expulsion for lactating women – perhaps this is due to the oxytocin released during nipple stimulation, which could contract muscle?
The other concern sometimes mentioned is that of pelvic inflammatory disease. PID is an infection of the uterus and is usually associated with a sexually transmitted disease. PID can increase the risk of infertility. So for women who haven’t had a kid, but want to some day, the concern about getting PID can loom large.
However, Prager and Darney (2007) surveyed the literature and found that the only studies that support a link between PID and IUDs involves an IUD no longer on the market, or was associated with high-risk sexual behavior.
In some women, copper IUDs can increase menstruation. However, the hormone-releasing IUDs tend to decrease menstruation, and many women stop getting periods altogether. Hormone-releasing IUDs can be prescribed to women with menorrhagia, or pathologically heavy menstruation, too.
Prager and Darney (2007) describe a study in which hormone-releasing IUD users were compared to oral contraceptive users. These IUD users had less dysmenorrhea (painful periods), less spotting, fewer days of bleeding, fewer cycles. Further, 88% of the IUD users wanted to continue with that method of contraception after a year, compared to 68% of pill users, and this difference was statistically significant (p = 0.003).
Romer and Linsberger (2009) also looked at satisfaction with the hormone-releasing IUD in a sample of 8680 women across 18 countries: 95% were satisfied with their method of contraception.
The fine print
Insertion of the IUD can be a little more painful in a nulliparous woman, since her cervix has not dilated before. Also, a minority of women may spot for a while after insertion of the IUD… and by a while, I mean a few months. But once those few months of light spotting are over, they often don’t get a period again until removing the IUD. And of course, the IUD is not conducive to sudden desires to start the babymaking process: you will need to schedule its removal first.
However, with the number of women who are ambivalent at best about birth control pills, but do not want to use a barrier method, the IUD offers a lot in the way of safety, efficacy and ease of use.
Harper CC, Blum M, de Bocanegra HT, Darney PD, Speidel JJ, Policar M, & Drey EA (2008). Challenges in translating evidence to practice: the provision of intrauterine contraception. Obstetrics and gynecology, 111 (6), 1359-69 PMID: 18515520
Prager, S., & Darney, P. (2007). The levonorgestrel intrauterine system in nulliparous women Contraception, 75 (6) DOI: 10.1016/j.contraception.2007.01.018
Römer, T., & Linsberger, D. (2009). User satisfaction with a levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system (LNG-IUS): Data from an international survey The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, 14 (6), 391-398 DOI: 10.3109/13625180903203154
This is the first in a new series at Context and Variation where I will attempt to be more concise. As I continue along the Summer of the Pill series I want to make sure I still put some attention on other topics within biological anthropology. C&V shorts allows me to share something I find cool, in half the words I usually do.
What would you do if you knew you had eighty years to live? What if you knew you only had forty?
Life history theory is the idea that the timing of major life events is adaptive. That is, when to be born, when to wean, when to grow, and when to reproduce are dependent on selection pressures in the environment. The most important concept within life history theory, then, is that of tradeoffs, because when you time these events is based off how you want to allocate your resources. In your environment, would it be best to grow right now? Should you grow under the care of your mother, or should you be independent? Is it time to have a child? How about your second, or third, or fourth child?
For this reason, many people study life history transitions, which means the critical yet variable period when people move from one state to another: from growing to reproductive cycling, from cycling to gestating, gestating to lactating, even lactating back to cycling. And much of what governs these transitions has to do with energy, because energy is finite: energy you use towards one purpose, like growing, cannot be used for another, like reproducing. This is especially true in humans because we permanently transition from allocating to growth to reproduction at puberty, unlike other species that keep growing throughout their reproductive years.
But energy isn’t the only factor that enters into our physiological decision-making: time is also important. And as I hinted in the first paragraph, if you have some sense that your time on this earth will be short or long, you might make different decisions about when to do what.
|Found here. Perhaps part of a
modern menarche ceremony?
A few years ago, Walker et al (2006) looked at all the available data on growth and development in small-scale societies – that means foragers and agrarian populations. They found that girls with a later age at menarche – that is the first menstrual period – are shorter in stature. If we consider only energy, this makes no sense! The later you wait to start reproducing should mean you had more time to grow, so why did Walker et al (2006) find the opposite?
The answer is timing. It turns out that mortality rates tell us something about growth and development: the higher the mortality in a population, the earlier their age at menarche and age at first reproduction. So, the higher your chances of being offed at any given moment, the more likely you are to favor reproduction over growth so you can move ahead with the whole reproductive success thing. So, constraints on time and energy affect our physiology differently, and mean we may have to make different predictions about life history transitions that are dependent on human societies. Predation or access to health care impact mortality, but so do homicide or war.
In 2011, McIntyre and Kacerosky performed a similar analysis, only this time they compared small-scale societies with industrialized ones – industrialized societies are those that are more urban, technology-driven, with greater access to modern health care, like the USA. Their analysis of small-scale societies confirmed Walker et al’s (2006) results.
But McIntyre and Kacerosky (2011) found the opposite relationship in industrialized societies: there, the later you hit menarche, the taller you were. And this makes sense if we think we can assume most industrialized populations have lower mortality than the foragers: within the industrialized pops, those who had the time and energy to grow big by holding off on menarche, did.
McIntyre and Kacerosky (2011) are hesitant to be full adaptationists in their paper, which I appreciate. So, they offer two hypotheses and suggestions for future testing. The first hypothesis falls in line with the life history theory described in this post, though their focus is more on parental investment than mortality. But still, environment, and access to time and energy, set life history trajectories for different populations. However they are also careful to point out a nonadaptive hypothesis: it could be that variability in stature is decreasing as heritability is increasing, meaning we are hitting up against biological constraints for size.
Genes and environment interact to produce phenotype, and this is something most people remember from high school biology. But sometimes it’s nice to peek under the hood and learn a little something about the life history mechanisms that are set into motion by this interaction. Early life events, perhaps even life events of our mothers and grandmothers, start our life history trajectories. Then tradeoffs at certain important transition periods nudge us a little further one way or another for the rest of our lives.
McIntyre MH, & Kacerosky PM (2011). Age and size at maturity in women: a norm of reaction? American journal of human biology : the official journal of the Human Biology Council, 23 (3), 305-12 PMID: 21484909
Walker, R., Gurven, M., Hill, K., Migliano, A., Chagnon, N., De Souza, R., Djurovic, G., Hames, R., Hurtado, A., Kaplan, H., Kramer, K., Oliver, W., Valeggia, C., & Yamauchi, T. (2006). Growth rates and life histories in twenty-two small-scale societies American Journal of Human Biology, 18 (3), 295-311 DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.20510
This is part of my Summer of the Pill series, where I will answer a question about the birth control pill every week for the summer. I will try and make them shorter than my usual posts. Please remember that I am not a medical doctor, so do not use this material to diagnose or treat any condition. I still hope you find these posts informative and useful.
One of the questions I got on my inaugural Summer of the Pill post is one that I have been asked many times over the years: Why do we menstruate, and is it even necessary while on the pill?
So first, let me back up and explain the modern birth control pill. Most of the standard, monthly pill packs have three weeks of synthetic hormones that you take daily. These hormones out-compete your natural ones, which is how they suppress ovulation. Over the course of these three weeks your endometrial lining is also building up some in response to these hormones. For many adult women in urban, or industrialized environments, the amount of synthetic hormone is lower than what their body would naturally produce, so the lining of the uterus is less thick than it would usually be.
The fourth week is a placebo week – you don’t have to take these pills, but you are usually encouraged to just so that you keep up the habit of taking a pill every day – and the absence of the synthetic hormones in your body triggers menstruation. Then you slough off the endometrial lining that was thickening and again, if you are one of the many adult industrialized women for whom the pill is designed, then you should actually have a lighter period than what you have in a natural cycle.
The placebo week in your standard pill pack is there because the original maker of the pill thought women would be disturbed by the absence of a period. And there are still many women who would prefer to get their period than not. But what about the women who would just as gladly stop menstruating at the end of each cycle or pill pack? Would this be a safe decision?
In order to get at these questions, I will answer three different ones for you: Why do we menstruate? What did we do back in the day? and What is appropriate today?
Why do we menstruate?
|Adapted from Fleagle 1999 by me.|
Humans are not the only animals to undergo cycles of growth and regression in our endometrial lining. Yet, only a few animals actually menstruate. Menstruation has occasionally been observed in other great apes (this is the primate group where humans belong, with the chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangs), and a few other animals. As far as we can tell, everyone else resorbs the lining before growing a new one. It seems to be that those animals who menstruate, do so because the amount of lining they have is greater than what they are able to resorb.
Then, even among those few other animals who have been occasionally observed to menstruate, only humans are copious menstruators. That is, we’re the only ones who seem to do it every time a cycle ends, in a large enough quantity that it is visible (and those of us in industrialized environments know it’s more than just visible – there is a whole section of the drugstore devoted entirely to pads, tampons and cups to help us dispose of it).
Most people seem to think that the reason humans have such thick endometria, that produce the byproduct of copious menstruation, is that we have big-brained babies with high oxygen and glucose needs. We have the most invasive trophoblast of all animals, where the selfish little bugger burrows its way right through the endometrium in order to set up shop and start making the placenta. And so the thickness and differentiation of the endometrium, as well as the precise timing of its readiness for implantation and network of blood vessels at the ready to feed that fetus, make it a highly specialized tissue of a rather significant quantity!
What did we do back in the day?
These days the average industrialized woman menstruates about 400 times in her life, and like I said, that menses is copious. Average menstrual blood loss is around 30mL, but anything below about 120mL is considered normal.
However, women in more traditional environments, particularly those who are foragers or pastoralists, menstruate far less frequently, only around 50 times (Strassmann 1997). Part of the reason for this is that their first period is much later in life, say around seventeen years old rather than twelve or thirteen, and that they expend a lot more energy and eat fewer calories each day (Strassmann 1997).
But there is another reason that the traditional environment, the one we assume humans evolved in, leads to far frequent menstruation: these women usually don’t have access to contraception, and thus practice what is called natural fertility. So the average number of live births for these women can be as many as eight, and even with high infant mortality that’s a lot of babies. Add to that the fact that these women will breastfeed through toddlerhood, and you have several menstruation-free years.
So the industrial pattern doesn’t look anything like the nonindustrial, or traditional pattern. But the pill doesn’t necessarily look like either pattern – in terms of the number of menstruations it is like the industrial pattern, but in terms of ovulations it’s likely closer to the traditional pattern. The question is whether one of these patterns is necessarily healthier. I will partially answer this today.
What is appropriate today?
The placebo week of the pill is not necessary for contraceptive purposes, and the menstruation that occurs during this time may not be important for most women either. The two things worth talking to your doctor about are breakthrough bleeding, and the additional week of hormone exposure per month.
Breakthrough bleeding is when you have some kind of blood discharge at a time other than when you would expect to menstruate: when on the pill this would be any other time than the placebo week. And this can be very common in some populations even when using the normal pill preparations with the placebo week (Bentley 1996, Vitzthum et al 2001, Vitzthum and Ringheim 2005). Young users of the pill (say under 25 years old), athletes, and users from nonindustrial populations may be especially at risk.
If you have breast cancer or other reproductive cancers in your family history that are of the hormone-responsive variety, you may not want to expose yourself to any more hormone than you have to. The amount of hormone exposure in one’s life is correlated with risk of breast cancer (Jasienska and Thune 2001). However, the question of whether taking the pill helps or hurts your breast cancer risk is a very murky issue, and one that I will try to address in its own post later this summer.
Something you’ll read in this Summer of the Pill series is that making decisions about reproduction is about understanding trade-offs. You need to weigh the reasons you take the pill with the side-effects or negative impact of the pill, if you experience any. And many women out there could make up a pro/con list for taking the pill, or changing preparations, or skipping the placebo week, or changing to an IUD, and find that they weight each item very differently. There is rarely a single right answer.
Bentley, GR. (1996) “Evidence for interpopulation variation in normal ovarian function and consequences for hormonal contraception” in Variability in human fertility, eds L. a. M.-T. Rosetta, C.G.N. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK), pp 46-65.
Jasienska, G., & Thune, I. (2001). Research pointers: Lifestyle, hormones, and risk of breast cancer BMJ, 322 (7286), 586-587 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.322.7286.586
Strassmann, B. (1997). The Biology of Menstruation in Homo Sapiens: Total Lifetime Menses, Fecundity, and Nonsynchrony in a Natural-Fertility Population Current Anthropology, 38 (1) DOI: 10.1086/204592
Vitzthum VJ, Spielvogel H, Caceres E, & Miller A (2001). Vaginal bleeding patterns among rural highland Bolivian women: relationship to fecundity and fetal loss. Contraception, 64 (5), 319-25 PMID: 11777494
Vitzthum VJ, & Ringheim K (2005). Hormonal contraception and physiology: a research-based theory of discontinuation due to side effects. Studies in family planning, 36 (1), 13-32 PMID: 15828522
It’s summertime, and as we shed our winter layers thoughts turn not only to love and sex, but also regulating menstrual cycles, understanding premenstrual syndrome, and potential population variation in the pharmacokinetics of hormonal contraception. Or is that just me, as a ladybusiness anthropologist?
If my inbox is a clue I am not the only person who wants good information on hormonal contraception. Many women are on the pill, and they use it for many reasons, only one of them contraception. Remembering to take the pill or get a new prescription, deciding on the relative impact of the current side effects versus new ones one might get from switching, wondering if it’s really doing its job, wondering if it’s increasing or decreasing breast cancer risk… these questions are like a buzzing in the back of the head at all times for many reproductively-aged women and their partners. And they want the buzzing to stop.
Let me see if I can help. Let’s make the summer of 2011 the Summer of the Pill. Every week I will cover a different topic or answer a different question on the subject of hormonal contraception, in addition to my usual posts.
The first post should appear by this Friday.
This month, I am taking part in I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! which is a program that links up teenage students with scientists all over the world. We put together bios, answer questions, and do live chats with them. I am looking forward to the chance to share my vast knowledge of ladybusiness anthropology — and biological anthropology more generally — with students who are looking to find out whether science is boring or fun.
The way this project is set up is that, over the course of the few weeks we interact with the students, they vote us off one by one; the last person left wins 500 pounds to use towards a science outreach project. If I win, I hope to put these funds towards a project that will link young people together to share their stories of how their lives vary, and what impact that has on their biology. My hope is that this project will achieve two goals: first, to get young people to observe their own bodies and biology in order to be more aware of the science that surrounds them, and second, to show them that variation is what is normal. In the teenage years (and even earlier), there is often a lot of peer pressure to fit some culturally-sanctioned definition of “normal.” But what is normal, really, when we all come from such different places and lead such different lives? When we can directly observe how our lifestyle and environment impact our biology, it becomes clear that difference, not similarity, is the true normal.
As a companion piece to my bio, I would like to share why I think it’s cool to study and enjoy science.
Science is fun
I first got really interested in science because of my AP Biology teacher. Mr. Cabral demonstrated his excitement and zest for biology every day. One day I got so caught up in what he was talking about — the potential impact of genetically modified corn on crops throughout the country — that as soon as I got home, I got on our AOL dial-up internet and started digging (this would have been the fall of 1996). I used AOL’s clunky search engine and managed to find several interesting websites that talked about Archer Daniels Midland. I printed it out on three ring binder paper — I think we were out of regular printer paper — and brought it to him the next day. I remember how motivated I was to learn about ADM, and then how that internal motivation was reinforced by how excited Mr. Cabral was by my find.
This was my first experience with the kind of detective work science can entail. Yes you do experiments, you do labwork or fieldwork, you collect samples or make things blow up or work with stuff that smells. And there is a sense in adventure to that. But another important piece of the work of science is setting out with a question, and doing the sleuthing necessary to find out the answer for yourself.
That will never stop being fun for me.
Science is logical
Fun is what got me started on science, the constant sense of discovery and the enjoyment of developing expertise where no one else has it. But what has kept me in science has been an increasing love, even total devotion, to the idea of the scientific method.
|Castle and Beckett, from one of my
favorite detective shows, Castle.
The scientific method is another place where the metaphor of the detective is useful. A detective has a question: “Who dunnit?” And then, if she’s a good detective, she develops a hypothesis about who she thinks did it, then methodically tests her hypothesis. If she finds her hypothesis is not supported, she produces a new hypothesis to try again, based on what she has learned. If her hypothesis is supported, she likely will want more evidence to continue to better support her hypothesis.
The reason I love this method is that, if you are willing to really become a good detective, you can detect unintentional and intentional bias. Some conclusions in science, especially the older stuff, and especially stuff on humans that is related to sex or race, was biased by the preconceptions of who performed and interpreted the work. The entire field of women’s reproductive physiology is tainted by early, false observations by a twelfth century monk that women are not human, that they have a seven chambered uterus, that women can decide on the sex of their babies by lying down a certain way, and wicked women will choose to have girls (Rodnite Lemay 1992). Even research in the twentieth century indicated that the sweat of menstruating women makes babies die and flowers wilt (Bryant et al. 1977; Freeman et al. 1934; Macht 1924). And of course, none of these things are true.
I believe that reality of science always wins. We are constantly becoming more aware of implicit bias and honest mistakes, we are constantly developing new methodologies to test our questions. My students, or my students’ students, will probably find things wrong with my own work and modify or correct it some day. This is very exciting to me!
Science solves important problems
I am a biological anthropologist. That means that I am interested in human evolutionary biology, and in understanding the interaction of biology and culture in the production of a human being. I think we can all come up with problems science helps solve, from making cars and homes more energy efficient, to saving endangered species. Biological anthropology can help answer these from the perspective of human ancestry, evolution and behavior. For instance, it’s great that we are making cars more energy efficient, but how do we change usage patterns? How do we get people to drive less? Really, how do we get a species that evolved to consider short and medium term problems and be selfish, to think altruistically and really long term?
In my corner of the field, bio anthro can help answer the following (and more):
- How does environment and lifestyle impact our hormones?
- Why do some people have a harder time having babies than others?
- What is the impact of our changing environment, to one where we are sitting around more and eating more, on our health?
- Does psychological stress impact our physical health? Can sexism or racism have real effects on the body?
- How does moving from one country to another change your hormones?
- Is taking the pill good for you?
- Does what you do as a pregnant woman really matter that much to the health of your baby?
And that’s just the beginning.
Anyone can love science
I want more people, and more different kinds of people, to do science. But I also just want more people to realize how exciting it is to read and learn science. Becoming an engaged science reader, even as someone who already is a scientist, has been a wonderful experience for me. I have developed an appreciation for insects, found out about variation in circadian rhythms, and fallen in love with rivers.
I have realized that there is a lot of great science out there, not just biological anthropology, and it’s all worth fighting for. I have taught a lot of non-science majors since becoming a professor – literally hundreds and hundreds. And when I talk to them, many of them explain that the reason they hate science is that someone made them feel stupid: a teacher, a fellow student, sometimes a relative. I’ve heard several explicit stories where a student was told by a teacher that they weren’t good at science. I’ve had students break down in tears as they describe the sexism and racism that has made them decide science wasn’t for them.
And so, because of the rudeness of another person, the oppression of a system, or a series of incidents that just become too much to bear, they turned away from one of the most logical, exciting, and natural ways of thinking about the world. And many began to dislike it, then mistrust it, then not believe anything they heard about it. And who can blame a young person for turning away from a field, if that is what they are up against?
Nothing, and no one, should turn people away from science, because anyone can love science. Even if you never take another class on it or pick up a single textbook, even if you don’t become a scientist or educator or writer or any of the many jobs where you can use science, you can revel in the beauty of a photograph, the stories of triumph over adversity, the excitement of discovery. You miss out on the simple human pleasure of satisfying curiosity about the natural world if you don’t read science. In addition to improving access and eliminating oppression so that more people can excel in science, we need to make it possible for people to just learn and love it.
One of my favorite things about being a scientist is that I get to hang out with other scientists. At conferences, other scientists present talks or posters to talk about their latest research. If you listen closely to these conversations, along with the jargon, and the statistics, and the graphs and tables and lightning-fast discussions of various technical methodologies, you will also hear people abruptly and delightedly exclaim: “Isn’t this just so cool?”
Yes. Yes, it is.
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