For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.
Paul M. sent along the image below, from an NPR story, commenting on the way skin color is used in the portrayal of evolution. There’s one obvious way to read this graphic: lighter-skinned people are more evolved (dare we say, “civilized”) than darker-skinned people. (The portrayal of fatness and its relevance to evolutionary fitness is another story in this particular graphic, as is the use of men and not women to represent humanity).
It seemed worthy to make a point of Paul’s observation, because this racialized presentation of evolution is really common. A search for the word on Google Imagesquicklyturnsupseveralmore. In fact, almost every single illustration of evolution of this type, unless it’s in black and white, follows this pattern. (See also our post on representations of modern man.)
This is important stuff. It reinforces the idea that darker-skinned people are more animalistic than the lighter-skinned. It also normalizes light-skinned people as people and darker-skinned peoples as Black or Brown people, in the same way that we use the word “American” to mean White-American, but various hyphenated phrases (African-American, Asian-American, etc) to refer to everyone else. So, though this may seem like a trivial matter, the patterns add up to a consistent centering and applauding of Whiteness.
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Family Inequality.
The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:
We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.
…participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.
Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.
This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.
Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment:
There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.
Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-length, hair-whorl, twin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).
Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.
Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.
Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.
In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.
And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.
Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
Venker claims that there has “been an explosion of brain research” that proves that men and women have different brains. This research, she claims, shows that men are loners who like to hunt and build things and women are nurturers who like to talk and take care of people.
This false on two fronts.
First, she’s wrong about the brain research. The books and articles claiming that there are “pink” and “blue” brains are not consistent with existing research. (They are out there because people can make a lot of money by confirming other people’s biases.)
What does the research say?
It’s true that scientists have documented a number of small, average sex differences in brain anatomy, composition, and function, as well as differences in size and tissue ratios. (Other differences — such as the size of the corpus callosum and lateralization, whether one sex uses one side of their brain more than the other — have proven to be wrong.)
So, scientists do find some differences, but they have largely failed to link these to differences in men’s and women’s observed emotions, cognition, or behavior. That is, we’ve found some differences, but we have no proof that they translate into anything. Moreover, new research suggests that differences we observe may be designed not to create differences between men and women, but to reduce them. The brain may have two strategies for achieving the same outcome or one difference may compensate for another. (For more, see Brain Genderby Melissa Hines.)
That’s one reason why Venker is wrong.
The second reason is even more damning. Most of the research attempting to explain gender difference assumes that there differences to explain. In fact, meta-analyses aimed at summarizing the literature on human sex differences and similarities in traits, personality, cognitive abilities, sexuality, temperament, and motor skills offer better evidence for similarity than difference. On the vast majority of traits, men and women overlap tremendously.
Janet Hyde, a pioneer in this area, did a meta-analysis of meta-analyses that combined the results of 7,084 separate studies. She found evidence for a large or very large difference on 8% of characteristics and evidence for medium-sized differences on 15%. She found evidence for small differences on another 48%. What does a small difference look like? Here’s an example of a mid-range small difference (for self-esteem):
For the final 30% of characteristics, she found no evidence gender difference. So, on 78% of characteristics, she found teensy differences or none at all. Wow, “opposite sexes” indeed.
The truth is, men aren’t loners and women aren’t talkers. Venker assumes the stereotypes and counts on her readers to agree that they are true, but the data doesn’t back her up.
Two excellent books summarize the debates over gender and neuroscience. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is great for a beginner. She’s funny and you’ll learn a lot. Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm is great for someone who wants and intermediate to advanced introduction to these issues. Her book is downright brilliant. I highly recommend both.
New neurological research, reported by Robert Wright at The Atlantic, suggests that racism is learned. Earlier studies had shown that the amygdala, “a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats,” is active, on average, when White people see Black faces.
A new paper, however, led by Eva Telzer, shows that we don’t see this reaction until about age 14. Moreover, how powerfully it is after the age of 14 depends on the racial composition of your peer group. White people who grow up in more diverse environments show a much weaker reaction than those in homogeneous ones.
This figure illustrates the difference. As peer diversity increases, reaction of the amygdala retreats to zero.
This is what it means, Wright explains, to say that race is a social construct:
It’s not a category that’s inherently correlated with our patterns of fear or mistrust or hatred, though, obviously, it can become one. So it’s within our power to construct a society in which race isn’t a meaningful construct.
For lots of examples of why race is socially constructed, see our Pinterest board on the topic.
Originally posted in 2012. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.
The mass media often enjoys stoking the fires of the “nature/nurture debate,” an argument between those who believe that human behavior is largely inborn (nature) and those who believe it is largely learned (nurture). In fact, most scholars reject this forced choice in favor of the idea that nature and nurture are forces that shape each other.
Today’s example comes from an fMRI study of emotion. They discovered that, when we watch others experience emotions, our brains sync up with theirs. Our bodies, in other words, strongly react to environmental stimuli. This, argues one of the researchers, “…facilitates understanding others’ intentions and actions… [as well as] social interaction and group processes.”
It may seem obvious that our neural activity would respond to our environments, but I think it bears emphasizing. It is too easy for us, in a society that seems eager for a biological explanation for everything, to ignore the ways in which the body is a dependent variable as well as an independent one. In many ways it makes sense to think of our biologies as the matter through which social interaction occurs. In other words, while we often think of society as the medium for the transmission of genes, I also like to think of biology as the medium for the transmission of society.
Earlier this week I wrote a post asking Is the Sky Blue?, discussing the way that culture influences our perception of color. In the comments thread Will Robertson linked to a fascinating 8-minute BBC Horizon clip. The video features an expert explaining how language changes how children process color in the brain.
We also travel to Namibia to visit with the Himba tribe. They have different color categories than we do in the West, making them “color blind” to certain distinctions we easily parse out, but revealing ways in which we, too, can be color blind.
The term sexual dimorphism refers to differences between males and females of the same species. Some animals are highly sexually dimorphic. Male elephant seals outweigh females by more than 2,500 pounds; peacocks put on a color show that peahens couldn’t mimic in their wildest dreams; and a male anglerfish’s whole life involves finding a female, latching on, and dissolving until there’s nothing left but his testicles (yes, really).
On the spectrum of very high to very low dimorphism, humans are on the low end. We’re just not that kind of species. Remove the gendered clothing styles, make up, and hair differences and we’d look more alike than we think we do.
Because we’re invested in men and women being different, however, we tend to be pleased by exaggerated portrayals of human sexual dimorphism (for example, in Tangled). Game designer-in-training Andrea Rubenstein has shown us that we extend this ideal to non-human fantasy as well. She points to a striking dimorphism (mimicking Western ideals) in World of Warcraft creatures:
[Rubenstein] points out that these female bodies embody the “feminine ideal” of the supermodel, which seems a rather out-of-place aesthetic in a world of monsters. Supermodelly Taurens wouldn’t be so odd if gamers had the choice to make their girl creatures big and muscley, but they don’t. Even if you wanted to have a female troll with tusks, you couldn’t. Which seems especially bizarre given that this game is supposed to be all about fantasy, and turning yourself into whatever you want to be.
It appears that the supermodel-like females weren’t part of the original design of the game. Instead, the Alpha version included a lot less dimorphism, among the Taurens and the Trolls for example:
Newitz says that the female figures were changed in response to player feedback:
Apparently there were many complaints about the women of both races being “ugly” and so the developers changed them into their current incarnations.
The dimorphism in WoW is a great example of how gender difference is, in part, an ideology. It’s a desire that we impose onto the world, not reality in itself. We make even our fantasy selves conform to it. Interestingly, when people stray from affirming the ideology, they can face pressure to align themselves with its defenders. It appears that this is exactly what happened in WoW.
I’m reposting this piece from 2008 in solidarity with Lisa Wade (no relation), whose (non-white) child was described by his teacher as “the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.” It’s an amateur history of the association of Black people with primates. Please feel free to clarify or correct my broad description of many centuries of thought.
The predominant colonial theory of race was the great chain of being, the idea that human races could be lined up from most superior to most inferior. That is, God, white people, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom.
Consider this drawing that appeared in Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799).On the bottom of the image (but the top of the chain) are types of Europeans, Romans, and Greeks. On the top (but the bottom of the chain) are “Asiatics,” “American Savages,” and “Negros.” White wrote: “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”
Nearly 70 years later, in 1868, Ernst Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte was published. in the book, this image appeared (his perfect person, by the way, was German, not Greek):
In this image, we see a depiction of the great chain of being with Michelangelo’s sculpture of David Apollo Belvedere at the top (the most perfect human), a black person below, and an ape below him.
Notice that there seems to be some confusion over where the chain ends. Indeed, there was a lot of discussion as to where to draw the line. Are apes human? Are blacks? Carolus Linneaus, that famous guy who developed the classification system for living things, wasn’t sure. In his book Systema Naturae (1758), he published this picture, puzzling over whether the things that separating apes from humans were significant.
In this picture (also appearing in White 1799) are depictions of apes in human-like positions (walking, using a cane). Notice also the way in which the central figure is feminized (long hair, passive demeanor, feminized body) so as to make her seem more human.
Here we have a chimpanzee depicted drinking a cup of tea. This is Madame Chimpanzee. She was a travelling attraction showing how human chimps could be.
In any case, while they argued about where to draw the line, intellectuals of the day believed that apes and blacks were very similar. In this picture, from a book by Robert Knox called The Races of Men (1851), the slant of the brow is used to draw connections between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan” and differences between those two and the “European.”
The practice of depicting the races hierarchically occurred as late as the early 1900s as we showed in a previous post.
NEW! Nov ’09) The image below appeared in the The Evolution of Man (1874 edition) as part of an argument that blacks are evolutionarily close to apes (source):
During this same period, African people were kept in zoos alongside animals. These pictures below are of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who spent some time as an attraction in a zoo in the early 1900s (but whose “captivity” was admittedly controversial at the time). (There’s a book about him that I haven’t read. So I can’t endorse it, but I will offer a link.) Ota Benga saw most of his tribe, including his wife and child, murdered before being brought to the Bronx Zoo. (It was customary for the people of his tribe to sharpen their teeth.)
The theorization of the great chain of being was not just for “science” or “fun.” It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people. If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than, even less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.
So, there you have it. Connections have been drawn between black people and primates for hundreds of years. Whatever else you want to think about modern instances of this association – the one Wade and her child are suffering now, but also the Obama sock monkey, the Black Lil’ Monkey doll, and a political cartoon targeting Obama – objections are not just paranoia.
(I’m sorry not to provide a full set of links. I’ve collected them over the years for my Race and Ethnicity class. But a lot of the images and information came from here.)