Thursday, June 25, 2009

my kind of inspiring science news

As a romantic, I've always despised evolutionary psychology. It feels too much like an atheist's form of original sin: we behave badly because bad behavior helped our ancestors survive. I understand why its adherents like it: it explains everything. People are consoled by belief systems that explain everything.

But I'm really glad human behavioral ecology is the next step in understanding what we are. A few excerpts from a fascinating article, Can We Blame Our Bad Behavior on Stone-Age Genes?
Hill had something almost as good as a time machine. He had the Ache, who live much as humans did 100,000 years ago. He and two colleagues therefore calculated how rape would affect the evolutionary prospects of a 25-year-old Ache. (They didn't observe any rapes, but did a what-if calculation based on measurements of, for instance, the odds that a woman is able to conceive on any given day.) The scientists were generous to the rape-as-adaptation claim, assuming that rapists target only women of reproductive age, for instance, even though in reality girls younger than 10 and women over 60 are often victims. Then they calculated rape's fitness costs and benefits. Rape costs a man fitness points if the victim's husband or other relatives kill him, for instance. He loses fitness points, too, if the mother refuses to raise a child of rape, and if being a known rapist (in a small hunter-gatherer tribe, rape and rapists are public knowledge) makes others less likely to help him find food. Rape increases a man's evolutionary fitness based on the chance that a rape victim is fertile (15 percent), that she will conceive (a 7 percent chance), that she will not miscarry (90 percent) and that she will not let the baby die even though it is the child of rape (90 percent). Hill then ran the numbers on the reproductive costs and benefits of rape. It wasn't even close: the cost exceeds the benefit by a factor of 10. "That makes the likelihood that rape is an evolved adaptation extremely low," says Hill. "It just wouldn't have made sense for men in the Pleistocene to use rape as a reproductive strategy, so the argument that it's preprogrammed into us doesn't hold up."
...If the environment, including the social environment, is instead dynamic rather than static—which all evidence suggests—then the only kind of mind that makes humans evolutionarily fit is one that is flexible and responsive, able to figure out a way to make trade-offs, survive, thrive and reproduce in whatever social and physical environment it finds itself in.
...Called behavioral ecology, it starts from the premise that social and environmental forces select for various behaviors that optimize people's fitness in a given environment. Different environment, different behaviors—and different human "natures." That's why men prefer Ms. 36-25-36 in some cultures (where women are, to exaggerate only a bit, decorative objects) but not others (where women bring home salaries or food they've gathered in the jungle).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mosuo: the Kingdom of Women

NO-FATHERS DAY: Remote Group Has No Dads, And Never Did
"They are a society that we know hasn't had marriage for a thousand years, and they've been able to raise kids successfully," said Stephanie Coontz, family studies professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Why some people see "other": the Other-Race Effect

Several studies have been done to see whether babies have a preference for faces from their own racial group, and to learn why many people are better at recognizing faces from their own racial group. The following results are from
Note: I've made tiny changes, mostly in punctuation, to make the following more readable, but what follows is my edit, not my prose. Click the asterisk by each point for the original wording and context.

* Adults typically find it easier to recognize faces from their own racial group, as opposed to faces from other racial groups. This is commonly known as the other-race effect.

* The preference for own-race faces doesn’t exist at one month of age.

* The own-race face preference develops by 3 months of age.

* Babies raised with frequent exposure to people of other races don’t develop this early bias.

* One study investigated 3-, 6-, and 9-month-old Chinese infants’ ability to discriminate faces within their own racial group and within two other racial groups (African and Caucasian). The 3-month-olds demonstrated recognition in all conditions, whereas the 6-month-olds recognized Chinese faces and displayed marginal recognition for Caucasian faces but did not recognize African faces. The 9-month-olds’ recognition was limited to Chinese faces. This pattern of development is consistent with the perceptual narrowing hypothesis that our perceptual systems are shaped by experience to be optimally sensitive to stimuli most commonly encountered in one’s unique cultural environment.

* Although the face processing system appears to undergo a period of refinement during this time of life, it does not become fixed. This is attested to by the finding that Korean adults who were adopted by French families during their childhood (aged 3–9 years) demonstrated the same discrimination deficit for Korean faces shown by the native French population (Sangrigoli, Pallier, Argenti, Ventureyra, & de Schonen, 2005). This finding is highly indicative of a face representation that remains flexible throughout both infancy and childhood. Although the face representation emerges early in life based on differential experience, it appears to retain its plasticity until at least 9 years of age.

* A plausible scenario for the emergence of the ORE is as follows: Predominant exposure to faces from a single racial group leads to greater visual attention toward those faces that in turn produces superior face recognition abilities with faces from that group and poorer recognition abilities with faces from racial groups that are not frequently viewed in the visual environment.

* Over three decades of research on the cross-race effect (CRE) suggests a rather robust phenomenon that carries practical implications for cases of mistaken eyewitness identification, particularly in situations that involve a poor opportunity to encode other-race faces and when a significant amount of time occurs between observation of the perpetrator and a test of the witness’s memory. While the CRE has not generally been observed in the accuracy of descriptions for own-race vs. other-race faces, research has found that individuals often attend to facial features that are diagnostic for own-race faces and misapply these feature sets when attempting to identify and describe other-race faces. As such, theorists have proposed that encoding and representational processes are largely responsible for the CRE, including the role of interracial contact and perceptual categorization processes.

* Significant exposure to other-race faces can block the development of own-race preference.

Or, as it's put in one of the few Rodgers-Hammerstein songs that I like:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHKzn8aHyXg&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

sexism was the first classism

I'm reading Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, partly because a mention of it in Indian Givers intrigued me. Many of its examples are dated now, but the book stays relevant because of its ideas—anyone interested in the history of feminism should read it. For example, Engels writes:
In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: “The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.” And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.

Friday, June 12, 2009

class war in the Confederacy

from Heather Gray: A New Perspective on the Confederacy
The South realized with the election that it was not going to have its way with the Republican Party or with the northern Democrats. Karl Marx, as ever the profound analyst, wrote in the German “Die Presse” in 1861, “When the Democrats of the North declined to go on playing the part of the poor whites of the South” the Southern elite took their sword from the scabbard (Marx,1861).

The southern elite also faced a growing poor white population that was becoming harder to control. Poor white voters were increasing and they were making more demands through their franchise. Some have inferred, including Williams, that one reason the South went to war was because the elite were more concerned about poor whites than anything else. “The poor hate the rich” was the cry from South Carolina planter James Henry Hammond, who went on to say that the poor make war on the rich “especially with universal suffrage” (Williams, 2008). The elite began to explore ways to control the vote through class-based restrictions on white suffrage. Placing this “class” antagonism and passion of poor whites into a war was certainly one way to control them and diffuse the anger.

mobbing: "feelings of bewilderment and dread"

'Mobbing' Can Damage More Than Careers, Professors Are Told at Conference - Chronicle.com

Friday, June 5, 2009

race and history: weirder than you think

In some times and places, "white" just meant "American." From The great Arizona orphan abduction by Linda Gordon:
James Young, a black man at the Contention mine in nearby Tombstone, remarked "Si White and I were the first white men in Tombstone after Gird and Schieffelin."