Sex on the brain & neuroanthropology on sex

brainonsexI promised my Human Evolution students that I would compile a sort of ‘collected works’ posting on our discussions of sex and evolution here at Neuroanthropology.net. I’m a bit frightened to see just how much we talk about it, but here goes anyway…

Over our time at Neuroanthropology.net, there have been a few of posts on abuses of ‘evolutionary psychology’ in its popular incarnations. I suspect that these would be among the most relevant for my students in ‘Human evolution and diversity': Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1, Girls gone guilty: Evolutionary psych on sex #2, along with Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis.

Lecture yesterday and tutorial today covered quite a bit about sexual dimorphism and, at the same time, the homologies between men and women. For one take on this, and on how culture can affect the physiological development of gender traits, check our Throwing like a girl(’s brain).

A while ago, probably under the influence of last year’s lecture, I also posted a sprawling piece Neurosexism, size dimorphism and not-so-’hard-wiring’.

If you still haven’t had enough about sex, check out Daniel’s compilation of all sorts of links: The Sex Round Up.

Paul Mason provides a discussion of the Sex and Gender distinction along with a whole series of relevant online resources.

And our most recent discussion of a most egregious attempt to do research on slash fan fiction, alleging that these works exposed the ‘evolutionary roots’ of sexuality. The series has run onto three posts so far: Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende, and Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue.

Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue

Slash is cool – creative writing, community, and alternative imaginations all wrapped in one. Like I said at the end of my post Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, if I want to understand slash, I’d read some.

And so I have, exploring recommend pieces over at Whispered Words. Cassandra Claire’s The Very Secret Diaries on the Lord of the Rings made me laugh and laugh. Greyworlf’s Kirk/Spock And In the Darkness Bind You was erotic, intense, and well-written, a classic of slash according to Whispered Words.

But today I want to expand on what I thought was a throw-away line in that post, and connect it to some of what Greg wrote about in his post on ethnography, hard-wired assumptions, and sexuality in SurveyFail Redax. (For more on SurveyFail, see Rough Theory; you can also follow the controversy in more detail through the links rounded up at Anti-Oppression Linkspam Community.)

The throw-away line was this: “But nature/nurture is dead (except perhaps in slash?).”

Today I am making it the punchline. Slash can save the day for nature/nurture.

Nature versus nurture refers to the debate of genes versus environment, human nature versus culture, of our animal side versus our civilized side, and so forth. As Greg said, it’s a very old theme in Western thought. In SurveyFail, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam operated from a restricted and dichotomized view of nature versus nurture, where nature, dictated by evolution and primitive brain circuits, dictate sex differences and sexual interests. Here’s how Greg put it:

In their responses to some of their critics, Gaddam offers the blanket explanation that, ‘When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’ [the subcortical regions], it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.’ Daniel points out that Gaddam describes an opposition in the brain between the ‘oldest’ pre-cultural, primitive elements and these newer cortices that produce culture; nature v. culture played out in brain layers.

Slash can change that. Not by having nature and nurture meet in a bar (though if someone knows some slash on that, by all means leave a comment!), but in how slash works as an imaginative process.

Quite simply, nature vs. nurture is an oppressive division. Slash reworks the relationship between nature/nurture in ways that help us in our thinking and that are closer to the actual reality of how nature/nurture works.

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SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende

Daniel did a posting earlier today on Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail that explores a research project that self-immolated through bad design, horrible conflict management, and a number of other character flaws. I’m really glad Daniel did this because he’s the more tech-savvy half of this duo. I just saw this yesterday and started to read up on the commentary but quickly realized that I was over my head, having pretty much exhausted my ability to navigate communication technology and resulting subcultural movements with a Twitter-related post a while back.

But I did want to add a couple of points because I’m particularly interested in research design and ethics and because I like kicking researchers when they’re down. No, no, just kidding — because I find the focus of ‘evolutionary’ theorists on the supposed ‘hard wiring’ of sexuality to be one of the more irritating and, well, hard-wired theoretical assumptions, even in the face of OVERWHELMING evidence to the malleability of human sexuality.

I apologize for not putting up some clever graphic, but I spent most of today helping friends build their mud-brick house and then went to a Showground Association meeting, where I was elected president (that’s kind of like the County Fairground in my town). My brain’s fried, but I don’t want to let this post sit for too long or it’s moment will have well and truly passed.

Research ethics

In my brief and incomplete survey of the discussions of this research, it became obvious that slash fans were particularly irritated, not just by the initial bad research design, but also by the seeming inability to apologize, learn from criticism or even simply back off on the part of the researchers.

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Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists

Skin A Natural History“Public anthropology” is often presented as primarily an effort of cultural anthropology. For example, the University of California Press Series in Public Anthropology focuses on ethnographies. Yet a broader public anthropology is inherent in its own description:

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws anthropologists to address major issues of our time in ways that readers beyond the discipline, find valuable. Many anthropologists write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

Rob Borofsky echoes this broad conception when he writes, “Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing–if not necessarily always resolving–of present-day dilemmas.”

Biological anthropologists do public anthropology. They write for broad audiences and address social problems and public concerns. Their books move from the very body we live in to the importance of human variation, the origins of violence to assumptions about human nature and reproduction. Biological anthropologists have provided advice and information on caring for your child, looked at how our present-day environment can shape human health and behavior, and shown how to engage in primate conservation.

Here are those books, the ones that show public anthropology in action. The title links to the Amazon book listing. These books are recent, accessible, competitively priced, and compelling – all useful for increasing their public reach.

Public Anthropology Books by Biological Anthropologists

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2000), Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Ballantine Books.
Hrdy “unblinkingly examines and illuminates such difficult subjects as control of reproductive rights, infanticide, ‘mother love,’ and maternal ambition with its ever-contested companions: child care and the limits of maternal responsibility.”
98% Chimp
Nina Jablonski (2008), Skin: A Natural History. University of California Press.
“This amply illustrated rhapsody to the body’s largest and most visible organ showcases skin’s versatility, importance in human biology and uniqueness… Penn State’s anthropology chair, Jablonski nimbly interprets scientific data for a lay audience, and her geeky love for her discipline is often infectious.”

Jonathan Marks (2005), What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. University of California Press.
“So why should one venture through the 307 remaining pages of this book, if the main message is obvious from the start? I can see two good reasons. First of all, because it is fun… The second reason is that the subject of this book is extraordinarily important. Many scientists and physicians deal daily, in one way or another, with human variation and its consequences. However, only seldom do we have the time to reflect on the assumptions underlying many concepts, even apparently simple ones, in this area.”

James J. McKenna (2007), Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping. Platypus Media.
“Cosleeping is one of the most delicious experiences in parenting, and Dr. McKenna’s carefully researched and thoughtful advice separates the myths from the marvelous reality.”

Dale Peterson & Richard Wrangham (1997), Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Mariner Books.
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures… they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare.”

Meredith Small (1999). Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Anchor.
“How we raise our children differs greatly from society to society, with many cultures responding differently to such questions as how a parent should respond to a crying child, how often a baby should be nursed, and at what age a child should learn to sleep alone… [This book] will be especially meaningful to those swept up in the wild adventure of parenting.”

E.O. Smith (2002). When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed and Self-Obsessed. Rutgers University Press.
“This book will be completely accessible to laypersons, and yet equally thought provoking for scientists.”

Karen Strier (1999), Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press.
This book “outlines the fight against extinction of the wooly spider monkey. Muriquies remain one of the most endangered primates, but the detailed profile drawn up by the author and her fellow researchers has provided crucial information in their fight for survival. In all areas Strier has carried out impressively thorough and precise research, outlined here in a very readable form, accessible to specialist and laymen alike.”

Other Recent Popular Books by Biological Anthropologists

Why limit ourselves to just eight? After all biological anthropologists have written many popular books. Here is a wider listing, ones that might not hew to a strict definition of “major issues” and “critical concerns” that comes with public anthropology. But these are certainly books that interest a broad public.

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Cultural Evolution in Full Text

cultural-evolution
I’ve managed to round up a bunch of pdf or full text links for recent papers on cultural evolution and on the evolution of language.

Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater (2008), Language as Shaped by the Brain

Simon Kirby, Mike Dowman & Thomas Griffiths (2007), Innateness and Culture in the Evolution of Language

Simon Kirby, Hannah Cornish & Kenny Smith (2008), Cumulative Cultural Evolution in the Laboratory: An Experimental Approach to the Origins of Structure in Human Language

Christine Caldwell & Ailsa Millen (2008), Studying Cumulative Cultural Evolution in the Laboratory

Kenny Smith, Michael Kalish, Thomas Griffiths & Stephan Lewandowsky (2008), Introduction: Cultural Evolution and the Transmission of Human Behaviour

Andrew Whiten & Alex Mesoudi (2008), Establishing an Experimental Science of Culture: Animal Social Diffusion Experiments

Alex Mesoudi & Andrew Whiten (2008), The Multiple Roles of Cultural Transmission Experiments in Understanding Human Cultural Evolution

Thomas Griffiths, Michael Kalish & Stephan Lewandowsky (2008), Theoretical and Empirical Evidence for the Impact of Inductive Biases on Cultural Evolution

Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd & Peter Richerson (2008), Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution

Tim Lewens (2007), Cultural Evolution (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Esther Hermann, colleagues & Michael Tomasello (2007), Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition:The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis

Robert Boyd & Peter Richerson (2008), Gene-Culture Coevolution and the Evolution of Social Institutions

Evolution of altruism: kin selection or affect hunger?

bridgecoverWalter Goldschmidt, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology from the University of California Los Angeles got in touch with us here at Neuroanthropology.net to give us a bit of a (friendly) hard time about unfortunate neologisms (touché) and to ask if we were familiar with his work. With my repeated posts on evolutionary psychology, he thought it might be of interest, especially his discussion of affect hunger.

What Prof. Goldschmidt did not realize is that I have an autographed copy of his book, Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene (Oxford U Press listing, Amazon), and I’ve long thought it was both an excellent counter-argument to the ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis as well as a much more persuasive account of the possible evolutionary origins of altruism than the typical explanation: kin selection.

So, as a bit of a ‘thank you’ to Prof. Goldschmidt for providing such a compelling work, I’m going to post a bit of a book discussion here, focusing especially on Prof. Goldschmidt’s account of ‘affect hunger,’ which I find a much more neuroanthropologically plausible account of altruism than the usual account provided by evolutionary psychology discussions of ‘kin selection.’
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What Is The Value of Neuroscience?

Jonah Lehrer has a great post, The Value of Neuroscience, over at The Frontal Cortex. He writes about struggling with a common question he got during his recent tour for his new book, How We Decide.

The question is, “What practical knowledge have we gained by looking at decision-making in the brain that we didn’t already have, either through introspection or behavioral studies?”

His answer is, “The best answer, I think, is that learning about the brain can help constrain our theories. We haven’t decoded the cortex or solved human nature – we’re not even close – but we can begin to narrow the space of possible theories.”

That is both an elegant and a practical answer – it claims neither too much nor too little for neuroscience, and provides a way to think about neuroscience. Ways of thinking are often much harder to grasp than what to think, where neuroscience churns out an enormous quantity of information but not necessarily an enormous range of hypotheses about people as people.

Lehrer’s answer echoes my own view of evolutionary theory, that its greatest utility is in limiting the range of possibilities when confronting the diversity and commonality of people’s behavior lives today and in the recent past. People are often aghast when I say this – but what about all the predictions, the selective forces, Darwin’s genius? But there is evolution’s strength – certain possibilities are more likely, and others are often not on the table. Combine that with the mechanistic understandings from neurobiology–the outcomes of evolutionary adaptations and present function–and suddenly the range of possibilities is constrained further.

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David Attenborough on the Tree of Life

There’s a beautiful, albeit animal-centric, video on the evolutionary ‘tree of life’ narrated by David Attenborough and produced by the BBC. I’ll embed the HD version below, but you can also go to the ‘Tree of Life’ website to find more.

According to the site’s blog, they’ve attempted to address the absence of discussions of plants in the interactive version of the tree:

We’ve already had some feedback about the lack of plants in the interactive tree. The key point is that what we’ve put up for now is pretty much the interactive version of the film. We used the same tools and data structures to build both. Obviously the film has its own narrative structure and logic, but the choice of species might make less sense when on its own in the interactive. This is the situation at launch but it will not be the case in the future.

The irony of a ‘tree’ without sufficient mention of plants is a bit rich, but it’s well worth a look. It’s a beautiful little animation and Attenborough’s voice makes me want to drink port and sit by the fireside, even though it’s about 90 degrees here and we haven’t seen rain in what feels like months…

Paleofantasies of the perfect diet – Marlene Zuk in NYTimes

Prof. Marlene Zuk (University of California Riverside), author of Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are (Amazon, Google books), has a very nice short essay in The New York Times on the recent discussion of whether or not our dietary problems stem from our bodies being ‘out of step’ evolutionarily with things like Mars bars and Big Macs: The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past. We’ve seen these sorts of arguments all over the place, that a ‘Paleolithic diet’ can make you healthy and banish bulges from inopportune places, after all, just look at Raquel Welch in 10,000 BC!

Paleolithic dieter?  Not exactly...

Paleolithic dieter? Not exactly...

When I talk about diet and human evolution in my freshman class, I have to point out that there are a tremendous number of complications, including the fact that the vast majority of us do not have the cultural knowledge to get ANY nutritional resources out of the environment around us (see my earlier post with my slides from that lecture, if you like). It’s all well and good to say, ‘Eat meat, roots and berries,’ but that just means spending our time in the grocery store aisles a bit differently for most of us, not actually transforming the ways that we get food, how we relate to our environment, or even the quality of the meat, roots and berries we’re getting (after all, even the meat we get is from the animal world’s equivalent of couch potatoes, not the wild stuff on the hoof– or for that matter, dead on the ground where we can scavenge it).

Zuk draws on Leslie Aiello’s concept of ‘paleofantasies,’ stories about our past spun from thin evidence, to label the nostalgia some people seem to express for prehistoric conditions that they see as somehow healthier. In my research on sports and masculinity, I frequently see paleofantasies come up around fight sports, the idea that, before civilization hemmed us in and blunted our instincts, we would just punch each other if we got angry, and somehow this was healthier, freer and more natural (the problems with this view being so many that I refuse to even begin to enumerate them). It’s an odd inversion on the usual Myth of Progress, the idea that things always get better and better; instead, paleofantasies are a kind of long range projection of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (‘Things were so much better in MY day…’), spinning fantasies of ‘life before’ everything we have built up around us.

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