Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Human babies are not born early, humans are not altricial, and human pregnancy is not shortened or truncated. Therefore, there is no obstetrical dilemma.

Hi Everybody,

Want to hear something funny?

Three years ago, when I wrote “There is no obstetrical dilemma” (OD) I thought that was the last time I’d have to write about the obstetrical dilemma. I relished writing that piece, but I truly believed I was writing the OD out of existence, for me. Killing it off, from my research program. Leaving it to others to carry on debating, testing. Freeing up my brain for researching other things.  After all, I’d been intensively working on the OD since 2007.

But who was I kidding? Me! Myself! Just me! It’s only me here! I work in an undergraduate program. I have no graduate students or post-docs to carry the torch.  I’m stuck holding it.

So, despite writing my final article on the OD in 2018, I’ve since written another one for a very cool anthropology volume coming out next year. (In it, I really go to town on this whole “early birth” misconception and can’t wait for that to be published.) And despite the OD being dead to me, I somehow piloted a fun and expensive study of marmoset pregnancy and lactation energetics, as a test of non-OD ideas, but which sadly failed to produce usable data. And, of course, because this is how it works, I’ve continued to receive OD manuscripts to review, many of which don’t even cite the damn 2018 paper, and none of which took up my argument, or arrived there independently, about how if there is no solution, then there is no dilemma in the first place.

The obstetrical dilemma is a beloved hypothesis which (I don’t believe) explains difficult childbirth and helpless babies. The OD says that as hominins evolved larger and larger brains, selection for bipedalism constrained the bony birth canal, which is a dilemma that was solved by birthing babies early to escape while they were small enough, but just barely. (“Obstetrical dilemma” as a term is often used as a synonym for the tight fit between a human birther’s pelvis and neonate, and for the difficult birth that ensues, but even when the term is applied in those ways, the OD hypothesis is almost always assumed. That is, when researchers apply that term to childbirth difficulty, underneath that is the notion that humans are born early.)

[the following grafs are from Dunsworth 2018]

To appreciate how far OD-thinking has spread beyond the academy, we can read the popular science literature where, for example, Meredith Small wrote in Our Babies Ourselves (1999) that “women couldn’t walk” if the birth canal were widened to accommodate a more developed neonate. In Paleofantasy (2013) Marlene Zuk penned, “You can’t give birth to large-brained infants and also walk on two legs trouble-free…” And there is the vast influence of Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby” enterprise, where he advises parents to treat their newborns like fetuses, asserting that human babies are ‘evicted’ early. To further demonstrate the reach of the OD, we can listen to the opening verse of the title track to Father John Misty’s 2017 Grammy-nominated album “PureComedy”:

The comedy of man starts like this:
Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips
So, nature, she devised this alternative:
We emerge half-formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough
To fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since

OD thinking is everywhere, and I helped with that. As a graduate student at Penn State I taught this narrative to my students while I was also enshrining it in a small reference volume, Human Origins 101 (2007), which I was writing alongside my dissertation. About our narrow-hipped direct ancestors of the species Homo erectus, I wrote how they “may have shortened gestation (i.e. the period of fetal development in the uterus) [in order] to be physically capable of giving birth to large brained babies through [their] relatively small birth canal. An earlier birth results in a more helpless, less developed, altricial infant. “ (p. 139) After that passage I listed all the significant aspects of being human that may have evolved as consequence of the evolution of this hips-induced earlier birth: Paternal investment, food-sharing, home bases, loving adult relationships, free time, elaborate language, singing, music, wit, dancing. Wow. 

[end of material from Dunsworth 2018]

As OD thinking goes, there’s a dilemma (big brains versus bipedalism) and it’s been solved (early birth). But without that solution, then where’s the dilemma? I think it's nowhere.

We have big brains.

We are bipedal.

We give birth to big babies whom we care for intensively.

Childbirth typically sucks, despite it being the most common “best day of my life." Oh, wow. Yes it was!

And the evolution of big brains, big babies, and bipedalism must have something to do with that.


We did not shorten pregnancy/gestation.

We are not born early.

[the following grafs are from Dunsworth 2018]

[When I began investigating the OD,] I wanted to see for myself was how short our pregnancies are compared to other primates. I found very easily that they are not. Our pregnancies are as dreadfully long as chimpanzees’, bonobos’, gorillas’, and orangutans’ and even a bit longer. Of all the primates, the great apes have the longest pregnancies (ranging across species from roughly 30-39 weeks; Animal Diversity Web), and among them humans lie at the long end, with maybe a few weeks more. This long, not truncated, human pregnancy defied my OD expectations and sparked my doubt of the entire story. 

When you read the scientific literature that covers birth-related variables across primates, humans don’t stick out as strange save for four traits. First, there is that detail about us having the longest pregnancies. Second, we are the fattest baby primate (Kuzawa 1998) and this contributes to our absolutely largest neonatal size. Third, we are born with the absolute largest brains of all baby primates. And, fourth, for a baby primate, we are relatively small-brained at birth (DeSilva and Lesnik 2006; for all four traits see also Dunsworth et al. 2012). Notice how a fifth trait is not the tight fit at birth. There are monkey species that have tight fits at birth.

Despite having absolutely long gestations, large bodies, and big brains at birth, the relative view of neonatal brain size is what convinces people that we are born early and seduces them over to the OD. By “relative” brain we are talking about newborn brain size divided by adult brain size—that is, the proportion of the adult brain that a baby has at birth and, by extension, how much of a brain the baby will need to grow.  Born with the smallest relative brain size, roughly only 30% of our adult brain size, it necessarily follows that humans have the most postnatal brain growth to accomplish of all the primates. But why should the perinatal proportion of our adult brain size be evidence that we’re born early?

One answer dominates the thinking but it is not a perspective I share any longer. It is this: Chimpanzees are born with 40% of adult brain size, eclipsing our mere 30%.  This difference requires an explanation. And so, the thinking goes, humans should be born with just as much growth accomplished towards their adult-sized brain as those apes, but that we are not means that something must be preventing it. Tradition assumes that something is the bipedal pelvis.

On his website for The Happiest Baby, Harvey Karp explains how, “I always tell my patients that babies are born too soon” and how, “your baby’s brain was so big that you had to ‘evict’ her after 9 months, even though she was still smushy, mushy and very immature. As a result, she isn’t quite ready for the big, bad outside world. So, for the first months, it can help to think of her like a fetus…outside the womb.” This is the basis for the “fourth trimester” concept he uses to advise parents in how to care for their newborns. This is very much out of the academic tradition that emphasizes, despite the absolute large, “so big” size of the newborn human brain, how relatively small it is—a focus that has been strongly influenced by classic works of Adolph Schultz (1949), Adolf Portmann (1969), and Stephen Jay Gould (1977), whose book Ontogeny and Phylogeny was read beyond anthropological and human evolutionary biology circles. [In his collection of essays, Gould even described human babies as embryos.] In the tradition of their great influence folks continue to assume that humans really should be gestating our fetuses longer.

Portmann even described humans as “secondarily altricial,” a term that has long populated lists of uniquely human traits. Primates as an order are precocial. For an example of a typical, and extreme, precocial mammal, “consider the horse,” as Mr. Foster in Huxley’s Brave New World said. ‘Precocial’ describes how horse foals and primate infants are far more developed at birth than species on the other side of the spectrum dubbed “altricial,” like most carnivore and rodent species—which are extremely helpless as newborn pups and cubs, usually furless, blind, parked in a den or nest, and incapable of clinging to their mothers except to suckle. Deeming humans “secondarily altricial” suggests we share significant traits in common with wolves and rats to hold us apart from the rest of the primates and that the Homo lineage has reverted back to a deeply ancestral altricial condition after a precocial phase in our more recent primate ancestry. And, what was powerful enough to cause this major, unique evolutionary shift in human evolution towards altriciality? A pelvic constraint due to bipedalism, so the OD thinking goes.

But, by having the largest adult brain of all the primates, doesn’t it just make sense that we would be born with the smallest relative brain size, regardless of the pelvis? Maybe it does not now, but it will after a closer look at other primates.

Chimpanzees and bonobos (closely related apes of the genus Pan) have the largest adult brains and the smallest relative brains at birth out of all the nonhuman primates. Born with roughly 40% of their adult brains, as mentioned above, chimpanzees have the most postnatal brain growth to accomplish of all the nonhuman primates. What is the explanation? Not the OD. Chimpanzees do not have a tight fight between bony birth canal and neonate and they are not habitually bipedal. But, of all the primates except for humans chimpanzees are also the most helpless as infants (they are intensely coddled by their mother because they cannot strongly cling to her, cannot walk independently, and are only active for a small portion of the day). With only 40% of their brain growth achieved at birth, they have the longest period of postnatal brain development of all the nonhuman primates. Those circumstances are significant “solutions” to the OD for humans, but there is no special explanation for them in our ape relatives. No one to my knowledge is suggesting chimpanzees are born “early.”  No one is suggesting that, given the roomy birth canals, they should be born later when they’re more developed and easier to care for.  No one is suggesting that they should be born with more brains, or that they should be born with 50% of adult brain size like capuchin monkeys are. No one is offering up an elegant hypothesis for chimpanzee gestation length and infant helplessness that is unique to their lineage’s evolution, and that conveniently links up to bony anatomy that fossilizes so the hypothesis can extend back to scientific interpretations of relics from their ancient past.

For humans to mimic chimpanzees and birth our babies with 40% of their adult brain size, we would need to lengthen gestation seven more months to a pregnancy of 16 months. At seven months of age, we have 40% of our adult brain size. [Past estimates by Portmann, and then echoed by Gould put our pregnancy at 21 months! But based on updated knowledge of neonatal brain growth in chimps and humans, 16 months is a better number (DeSilva and Lesnik 2006).] Could our pelves accommodate this slightly larger infant head, with its 3-4 cm increase in diameter? It is difficult to say with certainty. However, women already vary by this magnitude in dimensions of the bony birth canal and no one has correlated this to meaningful variation in their walking or running ability. Further, no one has demonstrated that increasing the present average in bony birth canal dimensions by 3-4 cm would ruin bipedalism. While many reactions I’ve received to this thought experiment highlight the very real trouble our broad neonatal shoulders and large neonatal body size can cause, the point is to shine light on the weak assumptions of the OD.

The simple act of searching what is known and what is unknown about the very simple, seemingly straightforward assumptions and assertions in the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis convinced me that it is flawed. If OD thinking sees the shortest kid in class as a unique biological circumstance, then I now saw her as being short for basically the same reasons as the next shortest kid in class. Human gestation is much more like other primates’ and other mammals’ than OD thinking had led me to believe—a realization which led me to doubt our pelvis was a unique influence on its duration.

As I pored over published charts of primate and placental mammal pregnancy length I learned how it scales nicely with maternal body mass. The larger the mother’s body, the longer the pregnancy, which explains why the great apes have the longest pregnancies of all the primates. Body mass is often a proxy for metabolic rate, which factors greatly into both enabling and constraining a species’ average gestation length and fetal growth. I was delighted to see that maternal mass was just as fundamental to pregnancy in whales and dolphins which lack bony birth canals (Sacher and Staffeldt 1974).

What jumped out to me was that maternal-fetal physiology is the primary constraint on placental mammal gestation and fetal growth, including the construction of costly brains. That constraint in humans is not reached until we grow our fetuses right up to the size of the bony birth canal, which is usually just big enough.  In other words, the tight fit at birth makes it seem like we are stuck in this uniquely human obstetrical dilemma, when really, we are just basically doing what placental mammals do—albeit with an often terribly laborious labor at the end of it.

With our relatively small brains at birth human newborns are given an “early” introduction to the world. But with our absolutely large brains and bodies at birth and our absolutely long pregnancies, surely our gestation was not cut short. [If humans are exceptional then perhaps it is our souped up metabolisms compared to our closest relatives (Pontzer et al., 2016).] And, surely our pregnancies were ending due to the fundamental metabolic constraints and energetic costs of growing a fetus shared across species, not because of a uniquely human premature evacuation of the fetus.  It was difficult from this point on for me to imagine what, if anything, the bony birth canal could have to do with the evolution of human gestation length and fetal size.

To be clear, we have only superficialities in common with actual “altricial” mammals like rat pups and wolf cubs. Our helplessness at birth is largely determined by our small relative brain size (constrained by the EGG hypothesis) and its relationship to motor-neuronal development. We also lost our grasping feet by 3.6 million years ago [see the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania that lack grasping big toes], which changed how we carry babies and how they cling (or not) to us. As toddlers, we develop bipedalism when it is expected for a mammal, based on brain mass, which is a good predictor of the time it takes to develop the brain (Garwicz et al. 2009). And unlike actual altricial animals that are born prior to peak brain growth rate, we are born after that peak like precocial mammals (Halley 2017). Humans do have a long developmental period during which we grow our enormous brains and during which we wire them up in wonderful ways, like for music and wit and other wows of humanity. But it does not deserve a uniquely human explanation. All big-brained primates take longer to develop than their smaller-brained relatives, and while they do so, they learn complex behaviors, just not as complex as ours.

Fans of Brave New World have long been aware of the consequences of our species’ stretched out life history:  “...at thirteen a man is not yet sexually mature; and is only full-grown at twenty. Hence, of course, that fruit of delayed development, the human intelligence.” In this vein, Portmann (1969) and others have argued that we are born early, not because of the hips, but because of selection for additional extrauterine stimulation and its intellectual fruit (see Dunsworth 2016b). But like the OD, that idea is also misguided because of its unfounded assumption of our early birth. So far it is strongest to assume that we are living proof of a birth canal that is large enough to accommodate what mother’s metabolism can grow in utero. Neither bipedalism nor selection for a longer postnatal learning period are significant determinants of gestation length or fetal growth—at least, we have no such evidence at this time.

I learned over the years that academic arguments can get personal. But the OD is not a person and it surely is not God, so I hope to offend no one when I repurpose Enlightenment lore here: We have no need of that hypothesis.

[end of material from Dunsworth 2018]

Bipedalism and the evolution of large-bodied, big-brained neonates do seem to have contributed to childbirth difficulty. Acknowledging that and researching that can occur outside the OD framework.  Here’s an example: https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1036&context=soc_facpubs

There is much about the OD that is unsupported, weak, and questionable in terms of its logic and what has counted as evidence for it. I am extremely comfortable saying “there is no obstetrical dilemma” until/unless the evidence changes. 

No one has demonstrated that human babies are born early. If someone does, then that would be the first step towards supporting the OD, but it would still not seal the deal. Good luck demonstrating that (a) humans are indeed born early and *also* that (b) the cause of that early birth is the bony birth canal and not something else.  No, seriously, good luck. I’d go back in a DeLorean and re-do my dissertation if I could. Demonstration or failure, either way, would be equally awesome. No offense to Proconsul feet, because they led me to some great field seasons and they led me to here, but, wow… what a humdinger of a dissertation that would be!

Love & Evolution,




Animal Diversity Web. (retrieved Feb. 22, 2018) https://animaldiversity.org/

DeSilva, J, and J Lesnik. 2006. “Chimpanzee neonatal brain size: Implications for brain growth in Homo erectus.J Hum Evol 51: 207-12.

Dunsworth, HM and L Eccleston. 2015. “The evolution of difficult childbirth and helpless hominin infants.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 55-69.

Dunsworth, HM, Warrene,r A, Deacon, T, Ellison, P, and H Pontzer. 2012. “Metabolic hypothesis for human altriciality.” 2012. PNAS USA 109(38): 15212-15216.

Dunsworth, HM. 2016a. “Chapter 2: The ‘obstetrical dilemma’ unraveled.” In Trevathan W and K Rosenberg, editors: Costly and Cute: Helpless infants and human evolution.  Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research.

Dunsworth, HM. 2016b. “Thank your intelligent mother for your big brain.” PNAS USA 113(25): 6816–6818.

Dunsworth, H.M. 2018. “There is no ‘obstetrical dilemma’: Towards a braver medicine with fewer childbirth interventions.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 61(2): 249-263. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30146522/. OA preprint: https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=soc_facpubs

Dunsworth, HM. 2007. Human Origins 101. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 

Halley, AC. 2017. “Minimal variation in eutherian brain growth rates during fetal neurogenesis.”  Proc R Soc B 284: 20170219.

Huxley, A. 1932. Brave New World. New York: Harper and Row.

Garwicz, M, Christensson, M,and E Psouni. 2009.” A unifying model for timing of walking onset in humans and other mammals.” PNAS USA 106(51): 21889-93.

Gould, SJ. 1977. Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Karp, H.  “What is the fourth trimester?” (retrieved Feb. 22, 2018) https://www.happiestbaby.com/blogs/blog/fourth-trimester

Kuzawa, C. W. 1998. “Adipose Tissue in Human Infancy and Childhood: An Evolutionary

Perspective” Am J Phys Anthropol 41: 177–209.

Misty, FJ. 2017. Pure Comedy [Official Music Video]. YouTube  (retrieved Feb. 22, 2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKrSYgirAhc

Portmann, A.1969. A Zoologist Looks at Humankind. Schwabe: Basel. Translated in 1990 German text by Schaefer J. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Sacher, GA, Staffeldt, EF. 1974. “Relation of gestation time to brain weight for placental mammals: implications for the theory of vertebrate growth.” Am Nat 18(963): 593-615.

Small, M. 1999. Our Babies, Ourselves: How biology and culture shape the way we parent. New York, NY: Anchor.

Trevathan, W. and K. Rosenberg. 2016. “Human evolution and the helpless infant.” In Costly and Cute: Helpless infants and human evolution, edited by Trevathan, W. and K. Rosenberg, 1-28. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

Zuk, M. 2013. Paleofantasy. New York: W.W. Norton.



Monday, August 10, 2020

A Sunshine Sonnet

Here's a song for solar, sitting in sun on the roof

Saving climate-warming smoke from smogging up the air

There to soak up sunlight--and not at all to seem aloof--

Helping make our climate cooler and, if cloudier, more fair!

To leave our vital orb in peace, up there at work alone

And be benign to living creatures here and yet to come

So even at our story's end, when we ourselves are done

Our followers find fallow earth abed in fertile loam

Still able to bear fruit on which those who come will live

A ready harvest for their livelihood, for them and for their foals,

Of man and beast, of flow'r and crop, ability to thrive

An ample source of nutrients alike for all their souls:

This is a basic wish, if as well a fervent plea

To give the future what we had--a decent destiny.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Philosophy of Science? Who needs it?

What is 'philosophy' of science?  Does anyone actually need it?
When I was an undergraduate, I was a math major and took an unofficial philosophy minor.  Why I chose these, and in this order, I can't really remember--maybe because I didn't want to be a pre-med, or was decently good in math, or because a classmate's enthusiasm led me to it.

I never became a mathematician, though I did do some professional computer programming, and more of that years later as a graduate student.  I never took further philosophy courses, but kept my interest, both as a graduate student and then during my career as a geneticist and epidemiologist.

Math is of course a tool with many practical uses, and discovering facts about logic and numbers and the like is of interest in its own right (to some people, at least, including those with the level of abilities needed to probe these sorts of things).   But mathematics is not just about practicalities of quantitative things.  It's also about logic, and reasoning, and mind-bewildering things like aspects of 'infinity'.  That's a word easy to write but a concept very difficult to intuit (even if one can, properly trained, manipulate infinities mathematically).

Infinity can be handled mathematically, but what does it mean?  How can some thing in or about Nature actually be 'infinite'?  We can write down numbers without ever coming to an end, and mathematicians can write down theorems (and even prove them) about infinity--indeed, about levels of infinities!  

But what about the real world?  Can space, for example, really be infinitely large (which, among other possible interpretations, means it goes on 'forever', without any kinds of boundaries).  Well, we can imagine that there is nowhere a Keep Out fence at the limits of space, with literally nothing (not even 'nothing'!) on the other side.....well, can we really imagine that?

In fact (not fiction!), mathematicians have long dealt with different levels or degrees of 'infinity'.  There are the integers 1,2,3.... which go on without end, at least in principle.  No matter what number might seem to be at the end, you can always add a '1' to it and write the next number in line.  It's a countable kind of number even if it's not practically countable.

But infinity can be like the number of points between any two spots on, say, a ruler.  Like, say, one inch.  That number is not limited.  You can identify tenths of an inch, and make little marks, or hundredths, or thousandths....  but this has no end.  Of course, you can't actually physically find such spots on a ruler, but they exist in theory.....don't they?  How do we know that?  How do we know that an inch in some ruler or some place in space, actually has trillionths of an inch inside it?  We can write down such numbers, and manipulate them, but how do we know they actually exist?

How can we know that space, our universe, had some sort of 'beginning' and what was before that?

Mathematicians and relevant scientists can write down all sorts of things about these entities.....or facts.....or whatever they really are.  They can add and subtract them and express them as angles or distances and so on.  But is this kind of thing real in some sense?  How can we know?  How can we know that there are quadrillionths of an inch (indeed, exactly a quadrillion of them!) not just in this or that inch, but in every inch!?  These concepts are imagined, and we think they are, in some sense, real.  But are they and in what sense?

Why, in this sense, does mathematics actually work, not just on paper in a class but in the real world out there--indeed, our here and there and everywhere?

What about stuff and processes?
Well, it's more than just numbers.  How can we know that stars are actually there (or, rather, that they at least were there when the light we see from them left them)?   In what sense do we know that gravity is real?  If I drop my pen, it will fall at a certain speed that I can measure.  But if I pick it up and drop it again, why am I very sure that the same will happen if I drop it again?

The basis of what we call 'science' is the assumption that the universe is orderly, here and everywhere, and that 'orderly' means that it follows certain rules or is controlled by certain forces, or something of that sort, that are general rather than locally ad hoc.  For example, the force of gravity depends on various things, like nearby masses, but given that it is universal.  And it weakens in an orderly way universally.  And carbon is carbon....everywhere!

How do we....how can we....know such generalizations?  Here are some thoughts about this....

In our world, they must be true!
One answer to such a question is a rather fundamental kind of assumption.  On earth, since the beginning of what we now call 'science', people have observed the regular predictability of things.  Long ago, quantitatively inclined observers noticed that they could develop methods to describe and even predict things about the real world--we call that 'mathematics' and it works to extreme precision.

The universe seems orderly in a universal sense!
What we can see of the universe, through telescopes and space-craft suggests this kind of universal uniformity.  We haven't explored it enough to be absolutely sure, of course, but spacecraft seem to behave just as we'd expect if physical universality were true.  There are, of course, those who posit other universes, and of course there could be different laws of nature in different universes.....although if they are all made from the same beginning (or infinitely long existence), we would expect them to be the same or, at least, to change in some orderly way.  So, to me, multiverse theories don't really bear on the question for our universe.

It's not just math--it's the universe--that's.....universal!
We can do math here, there, or everywhere, since math per se is just the manipulation of symbols according to certain rules that we, ourselves, have posited.  In that sense, it's just a kind of fiction and indeed once we've somehow decided on our axioms, rules for logical reasoning, and so on--our 'givens'--everything else follows 'automatically' (that is, for those clever enough to make the deductions properly).

What is perhaps most interesting about math is that, given these basic assumptions, mathematical reasoning and the deductions it leads to seem to fit the world....perfectly and universally!  There is, to take a baby example, no place anywhere in which 2 + 2 does not equal 4.  We might say, indeed, that this equation 2+2=4 is just a description, in terms we devised, of reality.  But to assume that is a correct assessment, we have further to assume that the reasoning in that equation is universal.  In fact, the symbols and basic precepts are in a sense just descriptions or labels.  Mathematicians get very intricate with this, but it boils down to manipulating symbols according to some axioms, or rules, that we assume are universal.  Indeed, we define '2' and '+' and  '=' in a way that makes the equation a shorthand for what we observe.  Complex equations just express more complex situations, and to show that an equation or generalization is 'true' we use rules of reasoning to construct proofs.

It so happens that this was done with the real world in mind, so the results generally apply to the real world, but there could be types of 'math' that have assumptions that don't fit the observed world, and we could see where that leads....just for interest.

But for aspects of math, or other sciences, that we find to apply generally here on earth, or seem to apply to what we can see in space, can we say that they are 'universal'?  There may be 'universes' where these things don't work, but these are, so far, just imaginary.

The mystery of mathematics, like much else in science, is the philosophical one: we can make observations, here and there, and then make generalizations about them that we often call 'laws' of Nature, because they seem to apply everywhere, even to areas of observation that had nothing to do with the formation of these 'laws'.  Indeed, in the history of science, sometimes data did not do that, and we had to reformulate our theory of knowledge.  The obvious case is the way in which observational and theoretical science based on observation replaced received explanations (such as evolutionary biology having replaced biblical Genesis accounts of the living world).

Still, science provides what seem to be generalizations but we can rarely (if ever) prove that the latter are universally true, or permanently true....unless just by definition, and that may not be very interesting or even helpful in our wish to understand existence!

It is the philosophy of science that in a sense accounts for our willingness to accept that what we call 'science' is more than just a list of what we've observed so far, and indeed that it applies to what we will see in the future.  Careless or casual or philosophically uninterested scientists may just putter along, applying current theories and the like and doing real science in their daily lives.  But history shows that at various times, such routine 'normal science' runs into technical, or even conceptual barriers to further progress. At such points we struggle to explain what we see in various ways--as mistakes, for example--or to shoe-horn the findings into the current theory.

We can always account for what we see by saying, for example, that "God made it so."  Such an assertion cannot be falsified, but is so ad hoc that it provides no help for what we might want or expect to observe tomorrow.  That is where science comes in, because it generalizes about Nature and makes predictions possible and makes new findings fit in with existing explanations.

Indeed, when this is not possible it forces us to seek better explanations, or new theories!  If we can't rely on saying "God just made it so," we have to try to fit diverse observations into the same explanatory framework, the same kinds of causes we know about, and so on.  That's basically what science is.

The philosophy of science is the study of how and why this works.  Many scientists never studied the philosophy of science and scoff at its importance.  But they use it, implicitly, every day.  That is what they're doing when they do something different from what's been done in the past, but assume it will work  because Nature has a structure--it is generalizable.  It has regularities--'laws'.

Without belief that Nature really is law-like in this way, science as we know it would be impossible.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Barely thinking

Barely thinking

Barely clad, and strutting close along the shore

Of Covid's threat they barely think, and show no fear;

They romp and show off most of fronts and hinds,

As evening functions dance enticing in their minds.

But fancied dance is not their only form of 'ance':

Defiance is another, also known as ignorance!


So gaily run are toes through shifting grains of sand

No virus seen, and outdoor fun is oh, so very grand!

While unseen germs bind silently to inner cells

With damage that may anon cause deathly ills:

Do they imagine that then their friends will come to call?

Instead of saying "Who? Someone I barely know at all!"


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Miracle Waters?

This verse is inspired by Emile Zola's 1890 novel, Lourdes, but still 

seems cogent for our time.


On the road to Lourdes

The passengers who ride the desperation train

Seek healing waters in the cave at Lourdes.

They travel thinking it is not in vain:

Was not the fount put there by God

To give relieving cure of painful ills

Assuaging fears and easing sores away--

A remedy for ineffective pills?

Thus the faithful seeking cures did pray!


A cathedral rides upon the hill above

The cave that to the faithful offers cures,

Who there as hopeful pilgrims come in droves,

Buying idols, trinkets, and of miracles assured.

While after hawking baubles all day long

And oe'r the fount, inside a grand aerie,

The clergy dine in style above the throng.

O, is that e'er how power doth betray?


It isn't just the Church that lives this way

By making vows to bleed the trusting crowd:

The politicians use this ploy to tax our pay

For feathered nests of empty promised vows;

They tell voters if elected they'll serve them

But once in office dine and wine in style

Their sinecures as glitt'ry as fine gems

As thus their greed they service all the while


The lesson for those who in  need of aid

Is that the con-man hovers like a hawk

Looking for a sucker's purse to raid

In silence, or with laws, they seek their mark.

But are the 'holy' sites a different ilk--

Of truth well-proved or at least true believed,

Or but another way the pilgrim's purse to pick

And of their wealth to sorely be relieved?


So: could a 'Lourdes' be of a proper kind--

Of more than just the clerics' means of gain

That doesn't prey on people sore of mind

But finds a way to salve their inner pain?

Instead of tacky tourist souvenirs

Can honest help be offered those in need

By means that help abate their blank-eyed fears

And truly be of kind and selfless deed?


If thus, the road to Lourdes would be well-paved

By softly easing anguished inner pains

And lives still here on earth that can be saved

Thus truly taking care of healing aims,

A living Lourdes that lessens illness' toll

Instead of just a gawking tourist's cave:

Ah, making that would be a worthy goal

If the aim were needy souls to save!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Olde Tyme Nostalgia: Bye-bye Pub!

We have spent quite a lot of time in England--I originally for several years on the east coast as an Air Force weather officer, and then later on academic sabbaticals in Oxford and Cambridge...and our son and his wife have even taken British dual citizenship because they like the style of life so much there.  Over the years we've seen the relentless, remorselessly insatiable corporate takeover of the pub, so to speak, as vapid bottled commercial brews (by whatever mega-corporation) have overtaken the original, traditional local British brews-on-tap.  Going fast are the 'pint of bitters' or 'half and half'.....  Profit over all, the way of our commercial world, a greedy genie that our societies somehow can't put back in the bottle, so to speak.  So, here's a bit of nostalgia.....

The Passing Pub

Bye-bye, pub, we’ll see ya, pints

Your ales are in an ailing state!

Bud and Miller, bottled mints

Make changing ‘pubs’ to ‘bars’ your fate


To sit and chat o’er beer that’s flat

And slowly drain a mug’s contents

In contemplation or idle chat

Of soccer scores or cricket runs


Ah, there were once our evenings spent

Uniquely British, that they were

With pints in mugs, day’s main events...

But now it’s just a plain ol’ bar


Of bottles drunk up, slug by slug:

Off the cap and down the hatch

Not even from a glass or mug

Without the quiet talk to match


Oh, pub!  Oh, pub!  Where have you gone?

We miss you badly, now you’ve changed:

Of pints of bitters from tap drawn

And British culture.....we’ve been drained!


Monday, June 1, 2020

It is unethical to teach evolution without confronting racism and sexism (updated, additional resources)

It's been 1.5 years since I posted this: https://ecodevoevo.blogspot.com/2018/11/it-is-unethical-to-teach-evolution-no.html

There were so many ugly comments under its repost at the Evolution Institute.  But what was actually worse than the white supremacist shit on social media was a not insignificant resistance among professors and teachers who teach biology/evolution and who felt strongly that confronting racism was not their job. 

"There's no room in the semester" was common, and there was also plenty of "that's not my problem." 

Maybe recent, intense anti-racist activism in response to a rapid series of horrific, racist violence on top of a racist pandemic on top of a blatantly and shamelessly racist Administration has changed some of those scientists' minds about what is and what is not their problem.  

If so, perhaps these resources I'm sharing below will help others design their approaches to tearing down racism and sexism in their evolution courses, like I try to do. 

In the 2018 post, I suggested that people bring in anthropologists, social scientists, journalists, historians, etc to deal with racism and sexism if they'd rather collaborate or punt on the problem, but I guess that working with colleagues in other departments isn't taken as a serious suggestion. No idea. But it was a serious suggestion. I'm not great at this but I'm always trying to get better and I'm more than willing to help colleagues who are less experienced than I am. I'm experienced enough to get my human evolution course designated to count for "diversity and inclusion" general education credit and so are many anthropologists, some of whom may be working at your very institution! Look around!

I teach a whole unit on race/racism and sexism in my introductory Human Origins and Evolution course (APG 201). It's at the very end. I begin the unit with our first coverage of Neanderthals and we explore how they've been othered throughout history. Students easily see how the history of the scientific treatment of Neanderthals fits with how Linnaeus and his peers and those he influenced (like Darwin) othered and categorized humans, justifying human oppression with bad evolutionary "logic," in an increasingly global political economy through to today.  Darwin's just-so story about how intelligence evolved is just horrid and so are his passages about the "lower races" and how they relate to other primates (as opposed to Europeans who are, you guessed it, the higher races). It's always a struggle to decide whether to read those passages from Descent of Man aloud or not; some semesters I have and others I haven't, but I always share Darwin's b.s. on race (and gender), even if I don't read it out loud.  After that history lesson about the foundations of evolutionary biology, we cover eugenics, Ota Benga, and how race, the system of oppression, has had negative biological consequences on human health.  It's important that students learn that "race" is not a synonym for biological variation, ancestry, or skin color. Despite many of them being so progressive, many still think "race" is just human biological variation. It's clear, for many of them who take APG 201, that there is no race without racism which is why race is not merely about how humans vary in skin color and so talking about skin color variation, for example, is not talking about the complex social-political phenomenon of race. We consider, deeply, how observed physical differences are too easily parlayed into imaginary evidence for imaginary cognitive and behavioral differences. We challenge the old, exclusive, oppressive history of the telling of our shared human origins story in order to tell a new story that can be embraced by us all. 

Not being able to lead those weeks of lecture and discussion in the classroom, and, instead, having to somehow lead 120 students through these issues remotely during the pandemic this semester wasn't ideal.  But the discussion prompts that they worked on, remotely, are prompts that I will be keeping even when we return to face-to-face learning. I'm pasted them here, and at the end of this post, I included the letter I wrote to my students at the end of the semester. 

Wednesday, April 15
Ancestry is not race is not human biological variation

TODAY’S PROMPT: Distinguish all three of the following from one another: ancestry, race, and human biological variation.

Resources for your contributions towards your group’s answer to today’s prompt: 
These are the only resources you may use. Obviously there are far more than you need in order to contribute and obviously they are not all required. 

·Human Races are not like dog breeds - Norton et al. (EEO)
·         Chapter 15: Ten Facts about human variation – Marks (Human Evolutionary Biology)
                https://webpages.uncc.edu/~jmarks/pubs/tenfacts.pdf (copy and paste that URL into your  browser because just clicking on it may not work)
·         There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label: It's been used to define and separate people for millennia. But the concept of race is not grounded in genetics—Kolbert (NatGeo) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/
·         Surprise! Africans are not all the same (or why we need diversity in science) – Lasisi
·         Human Skin Color Variation (NMNH): http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/skin-color
·         Skin color is an illusion – Nina Jablonski (14 mins video): https://www.ted.com/talks/nina_jablonski_skin_color_is_an_illusion?language=en
·         Skin Deep. By: KOLBERT, ELIZABETH, National Geographic, 00279358, Apr2018, Vol. 233, Issue 4 (via URI library, and you may have to go in and find it yourself, but here’s the link just in case… ) http://web.a.ebscohost.com.uri.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=a198d26e-2dc0-4a4e-90fb-5bef0a9b910c%40sdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=129188416&db=a9h

Friday, April 17
There is no race without racism; Racist science

TODAY’S PROMPT: Support the fact that there is no “race” without racism.

Resources for your contributions towards your group’s answer to today’s prompt: 
These are the only resources you may use. Obviously there are far more than you need in order to contribute and obviously they are not all required. 

·         'National Geographic' Reckons With Its Past: 'For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist'
·         There's no such thing as a 'pure' European—or anyone else – Gibbons (Science)
·         Frederick Douglass’s fight against scientific racism – Herschthal (NYT)
·         The unwelcome revival of race science—Evans  (The Guardian)
·         A lot of Southern whites are a little bit black – Ingraham (Washington Post)
·         Skin Deep. By: KOLBERT, ELIZABETH, National Geographic, 00279358, Apr2018, Vol. 233, Issue 4 (via URI library, and you may have to go in and find it yourself, but here’s the link just in case… ) http://web.a.ebscohost.com.uri.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=a198d26e-2dc0-4a4e-90fb-5bef0a9b910c%40sdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=129188416&db=a9h
·         From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo (NPR): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5787947
·         [Note! This is a fictional account based on the real history.]  A True and Faithful Account of Mr. Ota Benga the Pygmy, Written by M. Berman, Zookeeper – Mansbach  http://adammansbach.com/other/otabenga.html
·         [Note! This is very dark sarcasm and not to be taken literally.] How to write about Africa – Wainaina (Granta):  https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/
·         Anthropological genetics: Inferring the history of our species through the analysis of DNA – Hodgson & Disotell (Evolution: Education and Outreach)
·         Paternity Testing: Blood Types and DNA – Adams (Nature Ed)
·         Colonialism and narratives of human origins in Asia and Africa— Athreya and Ackerman
·         #WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color—Lasisi
·         In the Name of Darwin – Kevles (PBS) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/darwin/nameof/
·         Why be against Darwin? https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ajpa.22163
·         Human Skin Color Variation (NMNH): http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/skin-color
·         On the Origin of White Power – Johnson (SciAm blogs)
·         White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness—Bazelon (The New York Times) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/magazine/white-people-are-noticing-something-new-their-own-whiteness.html
·         Surprise! Africans are not all the same (or why we need diversity in science) – Lasisi
·         Why white supremacists are chugging milk (and why geneticists are alarmed) – Harmon (NYT)
·         Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis - Villarosa (The New York Times) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html
·         The labor of racism –Davis (Anthrodendum) https://anthrodendum.org/2018/05/07/the-labor-of-racism/
·         Human Races are not like dog breeds - Norton et al. (EEO)
·         Against Human Nature—Ingold
·         Skin color is an illusion – Nina Jablonski (14 mins video): https://www.ted.com/talks/nina_jablonski_skin_color_is_an_illusion?language=en
·         Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States (NYTimes) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/coronavirus-race.html
April 22
Sex, gender, sexism, and science

TODAY’S PROMPT: Consult your friends, family, or the Internet, or all and you’ll find that people associate evolution with sexism (like they also do with racism).  Explain this association with either (a) science’s history of ignoring and misinterpreting the evolution of the human female, and/or (b) the enduring, infuriating misapplication of bad science to justify the evolved “inferiority” of women.

Resources for your contributions towards your group’s answer to today’s prompt: 
These are the only resources you may use. Obviously there are far more than you need in order to contribute and obviously they are not all required. 

·         Sex Redefined – Ainsworth (Nature)
·         The book that fights sexism with science – review of Saini’s book (Guardian)
 Darwin was sexist and so are many modern scientists – Horgan (Sci Am) https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/darwin-was-sexist-and-so-are-many-modern-scientists/
·         Bluebirds, babies, and orgasms: the women scientists who fought Darwinism’s sexist myths – Saini (Prospect) https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/science-and-technology/bluebirds-babies-and-orgasms-the-women-scientists-who-fought-darwinisms-sexist-myths
·         How Donald Trump Got Human Evolution Wrong – Dunsworth (Washington Post – In case this is paywalled for you, I have posted the pdf under Resources on Sakai)
·         Sexual selection – Brennan (Nature Ed)  http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/sexual-selection-13255240
·         How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy – Romano (Vox)
·         The Clitoris, Uncovered: An Intimate History (scroll down to see 8 mins video) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-clitoris-uncovered-an-intimate-history/

May 14, 2020

Dear APG 201ers,

This is my last email blast to the class.

Grades are posted. Don’t panic if there is a mistake. Mistakes are possible because of these strange circumstances and because mistakes are in my genome. Just double-check your grades in the gradebook on Sakai and then let me know what’s wrong, ASAP. If you want to take the S/U option, then get cracking immediately with the URI procedures (https://web.uri.edu/coronavirus/alternative-grade-option/overview/).

Your Books of Origins were the best I’ve ever seen. The sheer volume of awesomeness was overwhelming! I wish you could all bask in this pile of art and ideas as I have—truly wonder-full.

If you plan on returning to campus when it reopens for face-to-face classes (whenever that will be), then please come by my office (Chafee 132A) and pick your book up. Pick your friends’ up too if that helps them out. It will be great to see you in person! I’d love to talk about answers to  any questions you posed directly to me in your book or that you would like to chat about, period. I will hold onto these books through summer 2021.

If you take any more courses with me, which I hope you do (APG 282G Sapiens: The changing nature of human evolution; APG 399 Sex and Reproduction in Our Species; APG 411 Paleoanthropology;  APG 412 Primatology) then you can just get your book then. I hope you do take more anthropology courses even if they’re not biologically-themed (i.e. taught by me) because we have a great program that has lots of general education offerings for people who like to dabble in anthro but don’t wish to add the anthropology major. Though, you should add the anthropology major because it complements everything wonderfully. To find out more about that and/or the minor, just reach out to me! 

If you are not planning to return to campus because you’re graduating, transferring, or for whatever reason, then please email me your address so that I can snail-mail your back to you. I am not extending this offer to those who are returning to campus because the cost will add up and we can just hand it off in person!

Congratulations on getting through this semester. Whether you think it was a success or not, it’s over. Before I wish you a good summer, I want to leave you with two important sentiments that I wish I could have shared with you in the classroom…

  1. Facts are good and all, but…
While it may seem like learning facts is the point of courses like APG 201, they’re not.  You’re in college to learn how to make knowledge, that is, to learn about how knowledge gets made so that you can make knowledge your own and so that you make knowledge yourself. No one goes to culinary school to learn recipes or to learn about cooking.  They go to culinary school to learn how to cook, to learn how to make food. No one joins a sports team to learn the rules of the sport. They do it to play the sport. Going to college is no different. You are not here to learn about something, you’re here to do something.  What is that something? Making knowledge, which is, simply put learning and thinking and learning and thinking, on repeat, forever. Facts are good and all but what good are facts if you can’t think like a professional thinker about them? Thinking like a professional feels especially crucial now in this pandemic and also this time of political disinformation. Thinking is our species’ superpower but for most of us, realizing our potential requires much practice and much training, and that’s what you’re doing in college. Facts came from human thinking. That’s you. Thinking. You. Thinking is active, it’s doing. You’re here to do. There are facts and there are stories we tell about those facts, which are not the facts themselves but are the way all humans make sense of the facts! It’s up to YOU to tell better stories than your ancestors. You will because you’ll have no choice but also because you’ll be trained thinkers. It is your superpower.

  1. Being kind to people isn’t going to end racism, sexism, etc… It takes hard work.
Everyone experiences racism and sexism. If you are a man, then you experience it by not being a woman.  If you are white, you experience it by being arbitrarily privileged over people of color merely for being white.  If you have never had a negative racist or sexist thing directed at you, those experiences still affect you personally because someone you know has experienced them, and their lives affect yours. No one is an island; Everyone’s lives affect everyone else’s and that’s never been more palpable or salient for so many people than it is now during this pandemic.

By your writing, I glean that a good majority of you have bought the myth that racism is treating people badly because of their race and that racism is mostly a thing of the past (presumably because you don’t see people treating people badly very often).  I call that racism a “myth” not because it’s not real and harmful, but because believing that is all that racism is, is to obscure the much tougher issues that are harder for white people to know exist, to understand, and to try to help change if/when they do know they exist and understand them. Racism is built into our sociocultural, economic, and political systems which were founded in, and on the backs of, a horrific slave-labor economy that simultaneously drove away and killed indigenous peoples across this continent. Racism is built into how America runs and, in spite of the Statue of Liberty, the United States has historically been terribly anti-immigrant too. Because of history we have present-day systematic oppression that excludes people from equal opportunity, from equal protection, from full participation, and from power.  That’s not freedom!

Not knowing that racism is built into our culture is like not knowing that we’re built from ancient fishes, monkeys, apes, and our parents. Once you know history, you can’t deny how it has shaped our present.  “We are history” was an important quote from Alice Roberts’ book for so many of you.  One important difference between our evolutionary history and our sociocultural-political-economic history, is that while our biology cannot evolve into the future without our parents’, ape, monkey, fish (etc) ancestry encoded in our genomes, our culture CAN evolve into the future in such a way that eradicates the racism that is encoded in our social, political, and economic institutions. Please, do keep being kind. But, white people, we must do more than be kind to be not-racists. Being kind  and having beautiful beliefs about how we’re “all one human race” is not enough; it’s not even close to enough.

Instead of squandering their privilege, white people must disrupt and change our society’s white supremacist culture. Instead of squandering their privilege, men must disrupt and change patriarchal traditions of oppression. It should help a great deal to know, as you do as APG 201ers, that racism and sexism have no legit footing in science, human evolution, or fantasies about “human nature. ” We must continue to learn about race and racism and sex and sexism (and other forms of oppression) above and beyond what we’ve done in this course and you must carry that work forward, far beyond what you do at URI, for as long as you’re capable.  I’ll keep learning and fighting too; I promise.  

Have a great summer, and never stop evolving!

Professor Holly Dunsworth