science


Charlie Stross recommended this article on myths of female sexuality (by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, reporting on a study by Terri Conley).  It’s quite interesting, and I’d really like to believe its conclusions, but as mythbusting it’s a bust.  Let’s go over the list.

1. “Women value men with powerful status, and men value women who are both youthful and attractive.”  Against this, Conley cites one speed dating scenario. One experiment.  Probably less than 30 participants; certainly less than a hundred.  Contrary evidence: pretty much all of human behavior.  Or if you want something more quantified, check out these awesome stats from OKCupid, based on a sample of 200,000 people.

2. “Women want and actually have fewer sexual partners. Conley and team reviewing relevant studies found that yes, some men do want a large number of sexual partners.”  That is, the first part of the ‘myth’ (about wanting) wasn’t busted, but confirmed.  The twist is that at least one study found that men exaggerate how many conquests they’ve had.  Surely this shouldn’t be a big surprise.  Mathematically, if men report n het encounters, women should report n as well.  But even this finding reinforces that men and women don’t think the same.

3. “Men think about sex more often than women do.” The busting consists of confirming the finding, but adding that men think about food and sleep more, too.

4. Women orgasm less.  The busting: “When in committed relationships, women and men experience orgasm with equal frequency.”  In other words, the ‘myth’ is true!  If you have a generalization that applies to a whole group, it’s not disproved by showing that the generalization doesn’t hold for a fraction of the group.

5. “Women don’t like casual sex as much as men do.”  The classic demonstration was a rather silly experiment where college students were approached with offers of sex— 70% of men were interested, 0% of women.  I call this silly because it’s a completely unnatural setup— this isn’t how people find partners!  Conley did a variation which found that the women were much more interested “if they believe that they can avoid being stigmatized”.  Again, that’s a pretty important nuance!

6. “Women are choosier than men.”  Conley apparently found that whichever sex initiates contact, the other will be choosier— that is, if men approach women, the women seem pickier; if women approach men, the men seem pickier.  This one is hard to evaluate without knowing the exact methodology; it seems like a no-brainer that any offer has a chance of being rejected, so I don’t see how this is a test of choosiness at all.

Whitbourne frames the story in the context of people showing surprise that women are interested in sex and male bodies.  Surely that hasn’t been hot news since about 1925?  (She mentions that e.g. Hollywood loves to show female but not male bodies, but I don’t think this is due to filmmakers calculating that women aren’t interested; it’s more that they think men will be turned off.)

The takeaway here, I think, is to be careful about evidence— especially for findings that confirm what you already believe.  When you read “Studies show…”, be at least as wary as when you read “with this weird old tip”.  Look at how the study was done, how many people it involved, and whether the methodology really tests the hypothesis.

(Also, yeah, I know, it’s Psychology Today.  That’s why I mention that Stross plugged the link— he’s a smart guy, so it seemed worth checking out.)

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I just finished Oliver Sacks’s memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood, and I recommend it to science geeks everywhere.

It’s only half a memoir; Sacks uses his childhood fascination with chemistry to survey the elements, basic chemistry and physics, and the history of both fields from Robert Boyle through quantum mechanics.  The frequent references to his own chemical experiments helps bring the material alive… you finish the book with an almost sensual appreciation for the heaviness of tungsten, the smell of sulfur, the bright colors of flames and crystals and emission lines, the rarity of radium.

Most of his early experiments wouldn’t be available to children today– they’d be far too dangerous.  Sacks was allowed to buy poisonous or explosive chemicals at the local scientific supply store, and supplemented these with samples and equipment from his uncles.  He particularly liked processes that were explosive or stinky, but he had a keen appreciation for beauty and a curiosity that focused on the big questions– how did the elements differ, why did they do the things they did?

Sacks has always had a gift for vivid, humanistic portraits, and his sketches of early chemists and physicists, as well as the eccentrics in his own family, are fascinating.  And the early sciences are particularly interesting anyway, because they’re so accessible.  You can, as Sacks did, make your own battery or photographic paper or crystal radio.  It’s not so easy to do home experiments on genetics, quantum mechanics, or dark matter.

For reasons he can’t really explain, Sacks put aside his chemical investigations in adolescence; he studied medicine instead (both his parents were physicians) and ended up as a neurologist.  Still, he’s got to explaining electron shells by that point in the book, so as a survey of chemistry it comes to a good point of closure.

Though he’s adequately confessional about some of his own struggles and neuroses, he doesn’t focus much on traditional autobiography, except to underline how much he hated his schools.  I don’t think this is a weakness– he’s concentrated on what’s unusual about his childhood.  It’s evident that he wasn’t very social as a kid, except with people who shared his scientific interests; again, I think any science-minded geeks can relate.

 

 

 

 

I just finished Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth.  Overall I think he’s trying to do too much… there’s a lot of interesting information, but he can’t get into any one topic in depth.

But he mentions something I wish I’d known about when writing the Planet Construction Kit: that the distribution of megafauna on Earth is evidence for man’s original continent (that would be Africa).  Humans are very effective hunters of large game, and when introduced into a completely new environment, such as the Americas, they wiped out all the megafauna.

The major exception in Africa, where the local wildlife has been co-evolving with us for millions of years.  As a result, Africa is the one place where you still have megafauna. 

A partial exception is Eurasia, where there’s been at least some hominid presence for a long time; this allowed creatures like horses and elephants to survive. 

I’ve said for a long time that we don’t know what continent the intelligent species of Almea originated on; this little factoid makes that harder to maintain… we should just look at which continent has the megafauna.  I guess I’m going to have to say that the iliu-ktuvok wars disturbed things too much to make it clear, especially without fossil evidence.  We might learn more in a few centuries when Almea can be investigated with modern field methods.

At some period we were all taught that there was an orderly progression from the amoeba to the amphibian to the anthropoid to the agnostic.  Every stage was better than the last, and life was nasty, brutish and short up till the reign of Victoria, not to mention outside her domain.

This framework started to be questioned at about the same time the “primitives” were studied in detail, by researchers such as Max Muller in linguistics, and Frank Boas in anthropology.  We’ve made great strides in repudiating the racism of the earlier view– the idea that some ethnicities are Just Better– but the chronological snobbery doesn’t look so good these days either.

A lot of people never got the memo, however.  I was rather surprised to get into a discussion recently with someone who was convinced that the life of “savages” was “awful”, to use his terms.  So for conworlding purposes if nothing else, I thought it’d be useful to review the case for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  (Also see the Planet Construction Kit, p 92.)

I should add that these are by no means my own cranky observations; they’re pretty much standard among modern anthropologists.  Here’s the way Tim Flannery puts it:

And therein lies a paradox– one which is shared with the ants– that while agricultural societies are powerful, they are composed almost entirely of incompetent individuals.

To gain the meaning of this in full measure, just compare a day in your life with that of a hunter-gatherer such as an Australian Aborigine.  On rising each morning Aborigines must find and catch their own food, make or repair their tools and shelter, and defend and educate their families.  They are thus their own provider, manufacturer and protector.  Put in an Aborigine’s place, we’d be as lost as white rabbits in the wilderness; our tenure in the world most likely counted in days rather than months.

The reverse, however, is not true.  History shows that hunter-gatherers can learn to do any of the jobs our society offers.  I’ve flown in a helicopter piloted by a  New Guinean who was born into a traditional society all but innocent of metal.  And history is replete with examples of acaemically gifted Native Americans and Aborigines– like John Bungaree, who topped the class in mathematics, geography and writing in early-nineteenth-century Sydney.  There are even a few examples of hunter-gatherers giving farming a try.  But regardless of their accomplishments, almost all of these went back to their own culture.  The truth is that hunter-gatherers find the loss of liberty we routinely endure to be insufferable.

Some of the advantages of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

  • It’s far healhier than farming.  People live longer and eat better than people in any premodern agricultural civilization.
  • It’s almost absurdly egalitarian.  Leaders can’t tyrannize people who can easily wander off on their own.  You don’t have social classes, there is generally an ethic of sharing, and the status of women is better than among agriculturalists.
  • Women were not overburdened with children.  Agriculturalist women have children every year or two; children are spaced out by about 4 years among hunter-gatherers.
  • Most of our most virulent disesases come from our animals, so hunter-gatherers have less disease.
  • The work week was short.  Daniel Everett reports that the Piraha work only 15 to 20 hours a week. 
  • They enjoyed a physical fitness most of us can only envy, not only because they got plenty of exercise, but because their diet was precisely what we’ve evolved to thrive on.
  • Their lifestyle is sustainable over enormous time periods.  We or similar species have been hunting for two million years, without coming near destroying the planet or running out of key resources.  The modern world, with its world wars and oil addiction and global warming, might be a giddy, enormously destructive bubble.
  • Civilization may make us dumber.  Maciej Henneberg reports that humans seem to have lost 10% of their brain mass since the Ice Age.

Of course hunter-gatherers don’t have Shakespeare, Team Fortress 2, calculus, candy corn, or the Beatles.   So I’d hate to switch places with them, and probably you would too.  But this preference is largely parochialism.  Of course we’re used to the things we have, the people we know, everything that goes with our lifestyle.  Hunter-gatherers often understand agriculture quite well, but don’t see the point of living like that.

Once agriculture took over, it wasn’t possible to go back– the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can’t support a high-density population.  But the simple truth is that till roughly 1800, the lifestyle of the majority didn’t improve and was measurably worse in many ways than that of the hunter-gatherers.  The nicer bits of preindustrial civilizations were largely restricted to the top 10 or 20%.  (And even the elite lived really unhealthily.  Premodern cities were mortality sinks: more people died in them than were born; they only increased in size because of immigration.)

Now, industrialization changed everything.  Living standards have gone up for everyone, and the benefits of civilization can be widely enjoyed.  We’re almost as healthy as hunter-gatherers, though we have only a fraction of the leisure time.  But to borrow a line from Zhou Enlai, it’s too early to tell if civilization is a good idea.  There’s no technical reason we can’t extend this bubble of prosperity and productivity, but there’s little political will.  “Had a nice run for 300 years, RIP” would be a pathetic epitaph for civilization, and the two million years of hunting/gathering would look pretty good in comparison.

The hunter-gatherer era wasn’t utopia, of course– especially if you import modern standards.  It’s been suggested that there was a lot of violence– though we really don’t have much evidence.  But, well, there’s a lot of violence in agricultural states and their cities; there’s a lot of violence in industrial states; there’s a lot of violence in the animal kingdom.  As Gregory Clark points out, violence was an important check on population growth.  It’s usually a bad idea to take some aspect of a ‘primitive’ lifestyle that offends us and try to eliminate it.  Cultures live in a balance with their environment, and sometimes those offensive bits are key parts of the system. 

Now, what do you do with this information?  Well, for one thing, knowledge is good.  It’s good to learn the facts in place of the smug pieties we learned in school.  For another, getting past our parochialism is also good.  There’s nothing with preferring our own environment, but it’s all too easy to construct ideologies or conworlds that are simply projections of our own surroundings. 

Sometimes we might actually imitate others.  The all-around fitness of the hunter-gatherer is admirable and can inspire athleticism today– parkour is partly inspired by African societies.  Some people try diets inspired by those of hunter-gatherers.  Maybe you just need to walk more.

In my sf future, the Incatena, there are planets which try to incorporate some of the best features of the ancestral environment: small settlements, the use of materials from the ecosphere, a structured reliance on frequent and varied physical exercise.  (Of course, others say the hell with it and adapt their bodies and minds to live in deep space habitats.)

 

 

 

I just finished Simon LeVay’s Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, which summarizes what science knows about sexual orientation.  LeVay himself contributed to the science, discovering in 1991 that a tiny region of the hypothalamus called INAH3, normally larger in men than women, is smaller in gay men (indeed, it’s the size it is in women). 

He summarizes a bunch of studies which have found all sorts of differences between men and women, and then between straights and gays/lesbians.  Quite a few of the effects are small or disputed– I’d really, really like to get a version of this book from about 2050 when we will know so much more.  But it’s fair to say that the evidence points to a biological basis for homosexuality, and against any social, developmental, or moral basis.  (E.g., there’s evidence for the inheritability of homosexuality, and this holds up when e.g. siblings or twins are raised apart, so it’s unlikely to be the result of the environment.  There’s also good evidence that “pre-gays/pre-lesbians” can be identified in childhood, when the environment really hasn’t had much time to work.  And you can mess with animal genes and produce mating behavior aimed at the same sex.)

(Also, contra Bagemihl, there isn’t so much evidence for exclusive homosexuality among animals.  E.g. the famous gay geese often mate with female geese when they’re available.  For some reason there are a lot of gay rams though.)

The most interesting bit is a new answer to the perennial question of why exclusive homosexuality persists when it presumably reduces one’s chances of raising offspring.  (I say presumably because I’m not convinced that we know it does so in the ancestral environment.  But it’s still something we’d like a good explanation for.)  There are old ideas such as that homosexuals spend more time helping their nieces and nephews, but that’s not very convincing and hasn’t been supported.

But Edward Miller has another idea: there may be a number of genes which increase feminization– e.g. empathy, kindness, reduced aggressiveness.  Get one or a few of these traits and they make a man more attractive to women— i.e. they increase reproductive success.  Get them all, and you end up gay.  Psychology Today calls it the “Johnny Depp effect”.

Even more interesting, predictions made by this model have been tested and seem to bear up: a test of 5000 Australian twins found a) that increased ‘femininity’ among straights led to an increase in female sex partners, and b) heterosexuals with gay twins had more opposite-sex partners.  Similar results held with lesbians and straight women.

The most surprising finding from LeVay’s book, at least to me, is that gayness is associated with a whole slew of feminized structures or behaviors, and lesbianism with masculinized ones.  It really sounds like disreputable old attitudes (gay men are girly, lesbians are mannish) that I’ve taken as simplistic, misleading, and even offensive.  E.g. there’s a point in Kiss of the Spider Woman where the gay man declares that he identifies with women “always”, and that struck me as completely wrong… the gays I know identify with gays and don’t strike me as being particularly feminine.  Calling gays feminine seems as wrong as describing Englishmen, to Americans, as “partly French”.  Maybe they’re, I dunno, a bit Frenchier than Americans, but isn’t it better to recognize that Englishness is a separate thing from the American/French continuum?

To be sure, most of the studies LeVay talks about do deal with continuums; there’s a tendency to shift the behavior in the direction of the other sex, but it’s a) often incomplete and b) often pretty scattershot. 

There’s one huge gap, which LeVay is quite aware of: there is not much discussion of bisexuality, or different types of gays/lesbians, or how all this goes down in very different cultures, or why some people switch over late in life, or gender dysphoria that’s not linked to sexual orientation.  This isn’t much addressed simply because it hasn’t been studied as much… it’s hard enough to get a large sampling of gays and lesbians, much less get them all sorted out into butch/femme or whatever.  But some of these factors strike me as very important.  In Latin American culture (as he mentions, in fact), those who identify as homosexual are usually bottoms, while tops may perceive themselves as entirely hetero.  That’s awfully hard to fit into a framework that considers gay and straight to be fairly separate categories. 

LeVay leans toward explanations that rely on an increased or decreased supply of testosterone in the womb… something that can be affected by genes as well as some random environmental factors.  Which is probably as close as we’re going to get right now; I wonder how close it’ll look to whatever they’re positing in 2050.

This isn’t terribly light reading– LeVay goes over a lot of details about neurons and genes and finger ratios and sampling techniques, and it’s best if you’re comfortable with this sort of academic tone.  But it’s interesting to see what we know so far about the subject.

 

I created a page on the nearest stars, so you can create your own Federation.

Neal Stephenson has a great article at Slate on rockets, which achieves the rather Chestertonian goal of making something familiar look strange and unlikely.  Basically, a series of improbable steps led us to adopt a fantastically expensive and challenging technology, which we’re now locked into for mysterious reasons.

(tl; dr summary: Rockets are so expensive and hard to control that they’re near-useless militarily; but the invention of atomic bombs and the existence of a long-range enemy made us invest a few trillion dollars in them; and that in turn allowed us to build profitable communications satellites— so long as they could be built to be about the size of a bomb.)

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