Thursday, March 26, 2020

Corona relief (sort of), in literature

For those of you idle enough to be browsing blog pages during our corona crisis, welcome to our site! 

The site is germ free, but not wiped clean, because, to pass the time in which you are forced to stay put in your house, reading blog posts instead of something more useful to do, here are some relevant reading suggestions:

1.  Albert Camus' The Plague.  Takes place in North Africa, and relates what happened when the country was stricken by a rodent-borne plague.  A short, readable, sobering tale.  Available of course, in English translation

2.  Daniel Defoe's  A Journal of the Plague Year, published in the 1700s, about what happened in England in the 1600s when the plague struck.  Apparently somewhat fictionalized, but still sobering, diary-like account.

3.  Boccaccio's Decameron.  Light relief, as a series of tales are told in turn by members of a group of young people holing up in the countryside outside of Florence as they flee the plague in Italy. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

On Reappearing.....

Holly has done her typical great job of Mermaiding, during which time we have moved from State College, in central Pennsylvania, to western Massachusetts, near Amherst.  We have close friends here, including an also-retired anthropologist from UMass whom we've known for decades.  We hope to resume regular posts very soon.  But unpacking takes precedence!  Where the h*** is that cord and plug that we need for this keyboard?

Unsurprisingly, there will be things to write about.....once the unpacking is done.  There are even things to rant about (though we'll try to restrain ourselves....somewhat).

So, this is just a place-holding reappearance note.  First, we have to find things wherever we packed them, including various cords and plugs so we can use our computer before it runs out of battery power....

Meanwhile, in addition to looking for cords and plugs, we will try to out-wait the external virus, and will try to avoid creating any electronic viruses in our next post......  We hope all of our readers are safe and virus-free!

This is nearly unprecedented in our lifetimes, and shows our vulnerabilities as individuals and as a species.  Hopefully, it will motivate young people to take up the study of viral and other infectious disease dynamics--and lead to the removal of unsanitary or risky circumstances that lead to this sort of pandemic.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Hard times bring out the best in us: Let us learn from that!

This epidemic, or pandemic, is new to most of us in the western world.  We had to answer exam questions about such things, perhaps, in history class.  But it was abstract.  It happened then, to other people, less advanced than we perhaps, elsewhere, of some other language, way back when.  Well, now we are they!

Can we manage through this with minimal damage, but then remember--remember the good that such trials achieve, and keep them as part of the COVID legacy?  Of mutual care and concern. That would, in some tragic sense, be a good, maybe the only good, that can come from it.

Our daughter and her husband and their infant daughter live in a Ground Zero of the epidemic, in  northern Italy.  They are in a small town, but the number of deaths even in their town has mounted. A neighbor has died of it.  At the same time, many there have rallied to help each other through this, including a local doctor, a friend of theirs, who is running herself ragged, in a burdensome protective space-like suit, caring for the many stricken.

A scientist colleague, someone I've never actually met in person (only in an online science discussion site) offered to send financial help to our daughter and her family.  People are writing to check on each other's well-being.  Very nice!

The toll will be substantial. Jobs will lost (our daughter and her husband are musicians who live in part on the classical music gig economy), but economic loss won't be all.  There will be a psychological toll as well.  How long will it take to recover that?

Even so, the local mutual aid, and the strength of extended families and neighbors, will be gains, if the lessons are remembered when the dust has settled and the dead are underground, no longer visible reminding the survivors of what happened.  Maybe wars have had similar effects on survivors in the ravaged areas?  After the fact, unfortunately, but at least getting something good out of something awful.

Can those of us for whom this is just a minor annoyance (where will we get some toilet paper or do we have to use newspaper?) remember it, too?  If not, what will be the cost of our neglect next time something like this comes around?

Monday, February 17, 2020

There is poetry, art, and literature to be made out of natural history. There is meaning to be made out of science. (My review of the new book "Wildhood")

I had the pleasure of reviewing Wildhood, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, for the journal Evolution. The uncorrected proof is posted in early view at the journal's website:

Here's a bit of my review, which I cannot republish in full at this time and so it's got gaping holes. But maybe these fragments will help inspire good ideas and some reading...

It’s been months since I saw a fox sunbathing late one afternoon in the center of a sandy equestrian ring down the road from my house.  I still check for her each time I pass. I have no idea if she was male or female, but her squinty, cool repose and solitary freedom said “teenager”. Under that sunbeam, she was stunning. I was jealous? I gawked at her until she stood up and disappeared into the pines. Having only ever glimpsed two families at dens, most foxes I see are padding along with purpose or decomposing along the highway. Never did any of them vibe “teenager”. Why not, and why this one?

Teenagers in the Animal Kingdom are often difficult to distinguish from adults and that’s one reason scientists have paid them less attention. For another, adolescence is fleeting. As the thinking goes, better for yourself and your lineage if you can master adult behavior in a hurry, once it’s expected of you.

People like to think of human adolescence as a carefree period that we should savor, or that we would savor if only youth weren’t wasted on the young.  This warped hindsight makes it especially hard to comprehend the increasing malaise, literally, that is the American teenage experience (Twenge 2017). Whether we’re savoring it or suffering through it, whether we’re iGeners without jobs commuting in our parents’ car from our parents’ home to the state university or not; no matter where on Earth adolescent humans are coming of age, they cannot rush through this life history stage. Anthropologists like to think humans are strange for developing into physical adult form so far in advance of behaving like one, but this lag, long or short, is just how it’s done in the wild. Upon reading Wildhood anyone who believes that human teenagers are animals in their own right or that iGeners are especially [insert negative opinion here], will reflect carefully on the basis for their position, if not reconsider.  From a place of genuine awe about, and compassion for, human adolescents, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers have unleashed their insightful curiosity on what it means to be a teenager on planet Earth with the hope that being one as a Homo sapiens will get better as a result. [...]

Anchoring each of the four crucial aspects of adolescence are four real-life animals: Ursula (a king penguin to lead us through safety), Shrink (a spotted hyena to lead us through status), Salt (a North Atlantic humpback whale to lead us through sex), and Slavc (a European wolf to lead us through self-reliance which envelops the first three components). Their individual, sometimes harrowing, stories are beautifully narrated and elegantly woven into the deep exploration of each topic. Readers who are sensitive to anthropomorphism will not be dismayed.

Transferring insights about nonhuman animal behavior to humans can be tricky. I struggled in leaping with the authors from penguins threatened by leopard seals to humans threatened by standardized tests and social media. I struggled to link what I know about people’s privilege to the suggestion that it’s a similar force playing out in other species. Likewise, I struggled through the discussion of nepotism since our species’ actual beliefs about relatedness, featuring beliefs about, and understanding of, how males contribute, sets us apart from all other creatures who aren’t actually thinking about kinship (Dunsworth 2016; Dunsworth and Buchanan 2017). Sure, when it comes to many facets of life, like safely navigating a world with gravity, there is “competence without comprehension” (Dennett 2017), but that uniquely human comprehension about relatedness seems to be an important part of why humans have quite different and intricate kinship systems compared to our closest relatives, resulting in especially human forms of privilege, nepotism, status, sexual behavior, etc. 

Other important cultural considerations are downplayed in Wildhood, like gender. Because gender is largely exclusively a human phenomenon, the decision to focus cross-species comparisons elsewhere makes sense. However gender’s impact on human adolescence cannot be understated.  Biological anthropologist Meredith Reiches (2019) writes about how [...] 

Human culture involves extreme cooperation too. [...] 

Wildhood’s authors consider deeply the role of parents in their teens’ socialization and this discussion is largely focused on the inheritance and learning of social skills, rank, and status. Of course, humans are fair for comparison, as they are across the entire book, but again there is something subtle but powerful that’s downplayed in Wildhood: the benefits of friendships and how to get them. Biological anthropologist Michelle Rodrigues and colleagues (2019) found that human teens, as they transition to relying more heavily on peers, have greater social support from their friends as well as fewer depressive symptoms if they have stronger parental relationships.  [...]

With such an intense need for social support, one might wonder if humans are still wild (Gibbons 2014) and whether our adolescence even counts as “wildhood.” In her memoir Part Wild, Ceiridwen Terrill (2011) ponders the differences between wild wolf and domestic dog development, and it is relevant to Wildhood. [...]

On Wildhood’s page 144, the unique power and beauty of the book is laid bare. After considering myriad factors that shape an animal’s social development and its place in hierarchical society, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers arrive at the crucial implications for adolescent humans in educational settings: “Understanding that differences in status can impair learning and academic performance is essential for educators and students at all levels. It may be useful for an elementary school teacher struggling to understand why a bright child can’t grasp a concept. Or why a middle or high school student who gets the material just can’t demonstrate it on the test. And it should be part of campus conversations about clubs and societies that, through the exclusion of others by race, gender, and socioeconomic level, create the kinds of status hierarchies known to impair learning ability, academic performance, and possibly future opportunities for members of excluded groups.”

Wildhood begins with one long argument for its existence, no doubt a reflection of the culture of nonfiction science publishing. Sure, some books may work as explorations or “guided tours” but it is expected of authors, if not demanded by publishers, that nonfiction books have an argument (Toor 2019) to be thrust into the marketplace. Fiction is excused, of course, because the argument is understood: reading is good, it can even be enjoyable, and it is a portal into other lives, other worlds that are otherwise unavailable. To read fiction is to become a bigger version of yourself. This is the same profound outcome of nonfiction and, yet, readers are served arguments. There is poetry, art, and literature to be made out of natural history. There is meaning to be made out of science. Just relating ourselves to other animals, is argument enough and should be understood.  To their credit, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers complete this rite of passage in the preface before moving on and never looking back.  

I keep looking back for that sunbathing fox who was a teenager, to my mind, because she looked wildly alive from my adult perspective. One of my most intense teenage memories is of driving my parents’ car, alone for the first time, to go pick up some toilet paper and milk.  Running this mundane errand, I’d never felt more alive. I did envy that gorgeous fox, soaking in the rays all to herself, embodying my wilder younger years.  At 42 years old, with a small child and with hundreds of undergraduate students, I connect the electricity of life with them, of wildness with youth and not with what I am increasingly becoming. But these mopey sentiments fade away with the attitude that “teenage” is just a number. In the book’s front matter, where the authors list the age ranges of wildhood across species, one animal’s is kept open-ended.

Literature Cited
Dunsworth, H. 2016. Do animals know where babies come from? Scientific American 314(1): 66-69. 

Dunsworth, H., and A. Buchanan. 2017. Sex makes babies. Aeon Magazine August 9, 2017. 

Dennett, D.C. 2017. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. W.W. Norton & Co, New York.

Gibbons, A. 2014. How we tamed ourselves—and became modern. Science 346(6208): 405-406. DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6208.405

Natterson-Horowitz, B., and K. Bowers. 2019. Wildhood: The epic journey from adolescence to adulthood in humans and other animals. Scribner, New York.

Reiches, M.W. 2019. Adolescence as a Biocultural Life History Transition. Annual Review of Anthropology 48: 151-68. 

Rodrigues, M.A., Sanford, S.R., Rogers, M.P., Lee, K.M.N., Wilson, M.A., Amos, J., Hunter, C.D., and K.B.H. Clancy. 2019. From maternal tending to adolescent befriending: The adolescent transition of social support. American Journal of Primatology e23050.

Terrill, C. 2011. Part Wild: One woman’s journey with a creature caught between the worlds of wolves and dogs. Scribner, New York.

Toor, R. 2019. Scholars Talk Writing: How a Literary Agent Views Academic Books.  The Chronicle of Higher Education July 14, 2019

Twenge, J.M. 2017, iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood.  Atria, New York.

If you are blocked by a paywall at Evolution and would like to have the entire text of the review, just email me

Friday, February 14, 2020

Moving (and in chaos), not stopping MT!

Dear MT viewers,
We are in the (chaotic) process of moving from Penn State to Massachusetts, so haven't been able to do any posts for a while.

BUT please keep checking, as we will be back!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The VAGGINA hypothesis: Our vaginal, uterine, cervical, clitoral, urinary, rectal, and muscular dimensions of the pelvis, Ourselves.

Two months ago, I did a Twitter Poll.

Link to tweet
When you do polls, Twitter limits the number of choices to 4 and each one has strict character limits. So for example, if I had more room, then I would have written “uterus, vagina, clitoris, bladder, rectum, …”

Because that space in the pelvis is "for" all those four choices (and more), the distribution of answers should have been even, with about 25% of respondents voting for each choice.

However, since the answers were skewed to “birthing baby” that tells me something (exactly what I expected) about what people think of when they think about something’s “primary” reason “for” existence. When asked to choose one, they think that the greater space inside female hips (compared to males') is "for" childbirth.

That birthing and pooping (voiding bowels) were preferred over holding organs tells me that people prefer active reasons “for” something, maybe especially for bone-things, over passive reasons.  

A friend even interpreted “holding” as “holding up” which is not the choice. They action-ated the more passive “holding."

But what about how the sex differences in that space got there in the first place? I'm talking about development (the second choice up there).

If development explains a thing, then suddenly, what it's "for" isn't necessarily anything. It just turned out that way. Maybe sex differences in the pelvis have something to do with sex differences in what's INSIDE the pelvis. Maybe during development and also while these organs are doing their dynamic business throughout life, those bones make room... like how bigger brains develop inside more capacious crania than smaller brains do.

Why look at a woman’s pelvis and think about babies? Why not think about gonads, genitalia, and waste disposal? Maybe you are, but maybe questions about what something is "for" send people's brains straight to evolutionary narratives, which continue to label this space as "obstetric" end of story: Your hips are for babies, ladies, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't understand evolution!

In evolutionary circles, we're stuck on childbirth as *the* reason for the patterned sex differences we see in human hips, and we need to get unstuck.

I helped perpetuate that narrow-minded narrative and now I have a paper in press that's trying to help change it.

Until a reviewer of my upcoming paper referred to these ideas as the "spatial packing hypothesis" it didn't occur to me that because I didn't offer a name, people will offer their own dreadful ones!

Meanwhile, a reviewer suggested I stop rattling off "vagina, clitoris, uterus, cervix, ... " and instead refer to them collectively as "reproductive organs" ... completely missing the f-ing point.

It's in that context that I'm conceiving of a better name for this hypothesis to post here, since I missed my chance in my paper. Say it with me...

The VAGGINA hypothesis for sex differences in pelvic dimensions.

VAGGINA =Virile, Active Gonads & Genitalia In Nether Area

It's applicable beyond humans because WOW are there a lot of primates (and beyond) who have sex differences in the dimensions of the pelvis. It's as applicable to bodies with vaginas, uteruses, etc as without, and so one could apply the VAGGINA hypothesis to a study of male pelves. I am not suggesting it is the only explanation for this complex phenomenon (sex differences in pelvic dimensions), but given how we've accepted the power of brains and skulls developing together, I think it deserves some consideration.

That big hole in our hips is rarely "for" babies. It's far more often "for" vaginas and lots of other interesting things!

Even if someone demonstrates that all the organs and tissues normally sequestered to female pelves aren't causing the bones around them to make way, those soft tissues are still present inside the vaginal/uterine/clitoral dimensions of the pelvis far more often than a baby is.

For more about the VAGGINA hypothesis, watch this space and Twitter where I'll announce the paper's publication. Thanks!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Craven: a view in verse

The Craven

Suddenly I heard a rapping,
Rapping at my office door,
And a curious sound a-slopping--
Quoth a cleaner I'd seen before:
“May I mop your office floor?”

But it wasn’t only mopping,
Mopping in the hallway floor:
What I’d heard was mapping, mapping,
Searching for the Patent d’Or:
Fervent, furtive secrets sure!

This lab, that lab, all a-mapping,
Mapping behind tight-shut doors;
Funds from other projects sapping,
Fiscal grabbing, resource hoards,
Ever angling yet for more!

Through the keyhole, deftly peering
Peering at what labs aren’t for:
Scientists, their red eyes tearing,
Working endless hours more:
To claim now what’s not yet clear.

So they needn’t be a-fearing
Fearing loss of patents’ lure,
Belaboring the staff so bleary,
Quoth the craven: “I want more!"

But lo! Is this what schools are for?

(Acknowledgment, of course, to Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven)