Tag Archives: biology

A Sweet and a Sad Story of Animal Nurture

I recently across two examples of cross-species education.  Both illustrate that what we often consider instinctual must also often be learned, revealing that nature and nurture are not competitive forces, but deeply interconnected.  The first is adorable to the point of making me cry from laughter, the second is so sad I can hardly stand it.

Here’s the first.  A sheep tries to teach a young bull how to head butt.  Words don’t do justice to the care and patience shown by this teacher.

Perhaps the bull just isn’t ever going to understand, but the fact that the sheep seems to understand that the bull doesn’t understand, and then thinks of an idea of how to fix that, is amazing to me.  Presumably, he would take as much care with a young sheep who would be predispositioned for head-butting, but might still benefit from some instruction.

Here’s the second.  Remember the movie Free Willy, where the captive killer whale is freed by a little boy?  Well, in true Hollywood irony, the whale that played Willy, Keiko, wasn’t freed at the end of the movie, of course.

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After the movie was released in 1993, however, people joined in a movement to free him.  After 22 years in captivity, humans — who count as animals in this story – spent a decade and 20 million dollars trying to rehabilitate him to the wild, attempting to teach him how to feed himself and bond with wild whales.  He continued to seek out humans, even after he was left to fend for himself, and died in 2003 from pneumonia.

There are lots of lessons to take from this story.  One is the importance of nurture in making us what nature intended us to be.  Keiko was a social individual who learned how to be a captive killer whale.  Given the opportunity, he never could be the wild killer whale he once had the potential to be.  Or, at least, we’ll never know if he could.

Whenever we talk about human biological imperatives, we should remember the patient sheep and the friendly killer whale.  We need each other to become human, and we can become human in many different ways, depending on what is demanded of us.  Nature never works alone. Without each other, we simply don’t become recognizably human at all — as one of the worst cases of child neglect taught us only too well — regardless of our biological potential.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Academics, Emotions, and the Head Shot

Fun fact: because the right side of the brain is more involved in processing emotions than the left and each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, the left side of the face is generally more expressive.

We humans must know this on some unconscious level, because self-portraits (or “selfies“) tend to feature the left side of the face more often than the right. In fact, real portraits — you know, painted by artists – show the same bias going all the way back to the 16th century.

I borrow these fascinating insights from a blog post by Owen Churches, a psychologist who wanted to know if all types of people leaned towards showing their emotional side, or if there were exceptions.  He and his colleagues decided to look at academics, collecting 5,829 head shots appearing on professors’ faculty pages.  He found that English and Psychology professors were most likely to pose in ways that drew attention to the left side of their face, but Engineering professors did not.  This, Churches writes, “suggests that these hard scientists seek to display themselves to the world as the unemotional clichés of popular myth.”

So, I thought I’d do a little experiment.  I collected the head shots of everyone in the sociology department at my college, Occidental, and everyone in the physics department (we don’t have engineering, alas). Trend holds!

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What’s Causing the Rise in Obesity? Everything.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Gender Binary in the Brain

Elana M. sent along a fascinating study revealing the gender binary in our brains.  The researchers, Homayoun Javadi and Natalie Wee, asked subjects to look at a series of gendered objects — either (a) or (b) — and then judge the masculinity or femininity of a series of androgynous faces.  Gender mattered, but not how you might think.

Condition 1:1
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Condition 2:

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The findings were counter-intuitive to me.  Subjects who saw the feminine objects judged the faces to be more masculine, and vice versa for subjects who saw the masculine objects.  The researchers interpret this as an “adaptation effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which “looking at something for a long time makes you more likely to see its opposite” (source).  For example if you look at a white screen after looking at a red one for a while, the white screen will appear green (red’s opposite).  Or, if you look at lines moving right for a while and then look at static lines, they will appear to move left.

Javadi and Wee’s findings suggest that our brains give gender to both objects and people and that we place masculinity and femininity in a binary.  We are “opposite sexes,” then, but only in our minds.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How Many PhDs are Professors?

When I approached my undergraduate mentors about graduate school in 1996, they warned me that many people who earn PhDs never get jobs in academia.  This is sometimes deliberate, as their are jobs outside of academia for some degree-holders to get, but it’s also sometimes a grave disappointment.  My mentors emphasized the extent of the risk (and frankly scared me quite a lot), but how bad was it?  And is it worse today?

The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann put together the data.  The leftmost bars on his figure show that, on average, under a quarter of PhDs landed a full-time job at a college or university in 1991.  That number had dropped to less than 20% by 2011.  The numbers, however, vary significantly by field:

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See here for more details.

The looming question, of course, is what percentage of PhDs want a full-time academic job, something that certainly varies by field.  In other words, there aren’t a boatload of bitter engineers bad-mouthing the academy while slinging lattes at Starbucks.  Here’s a hint at an answer: A study published in 1999 found that 53% of all new PhDs said they wanted to become professors.  Ten years later, just over half were tenured (54%) and a handful more were tenure-track (7%); a third weren’t in academia at all.

On the one hand, I think these numbers are really depressing. Five to ten years is a long time to train for a career only to discover that, for whatever reason, you won’t be employed in the area of your expertise.  But I have two “on the other hands.”

On one other hand, I wonder how these numbers compare to other occupations?  We accept that certain occupations are highly competitive and include a lot of dumb luck and failure.  Modeling and acting are obvious examples, there are certainly others.  I know someone who’s spent their lifetime trying to become an astronaut.  Where does academia fall in the spectrum of risky job endeavors?

On a second other hand, I’d love to see some research on what happens to academics — especially in the humanities and social sciences — when they don’t get a job in academia or are denied tenure after getting there.  Within academia, this is often framed as THE END OF YOUR LIFE.  But maybe it’s often okay or pretty good.  Honestly, I don’t know.

Interesting and useful data, to be sure, but far from the whole story.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Men Throwing “Like a Girl”: Separating Nature from Nurture

Screenshot_5One of the few genuinely large observed differences between men and women involves throwing ability.  Men, on average, are much stronger throwers than women.  Hence the phrase “throws like a girl.”

That we observe a difference, however, tells us nothing about where that difference comes from.  Figuring that out is much more difficult than simply measuring difference and sameness.  We know that the difference emerges at puberty, suggesting that sheer size might have something to do with it.  But the fact that boys and men, on average, get much more practice throwing than women might also play a role.  How to test this?

Well, here’s one way: compare men and women throwing with their non-dominant hand.  Muscle memory doesn’t transfer from one side of the body to the other.  Accordingly, since most people have a lot of practice throwing only with one hand, comparing the throws of men and women using their non-dominant hand might tell us something interesting.

I don’t know that that study has been done, but an enterprising videographer has captured video of a set of men throwing with the “wrong” hand. What I like most about the video is the men’s facial expressions.  You can see them laughing at themselves, suddenly reduced to a beginner thrower.  Though we still don’t know how much of it is biological and how much social — though, this is the wrong question anyway – it reveals that, no matter what the answer, men’s throwing ability is strongly related to practice:

A big thanks to Reynaldo C. for sending in the video!

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Racialized Representations of Evolution

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 Images quickly turns up several more.  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.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Gaydar Study Calibration

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-lengthhair-whorltwin 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.