pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Another interesting point for Perv is that individual men tend to have much narrower sexualities than individual women. This fits with my personal observations: women are more like to be bisexual, more like to switch in a BDSM sense, less likely to have a true paraphilia (something they cannot become aroused or orgasm without. As opposed to a kink, which is a non-standard sexual interest that someone enjoys but does not require for every sexual encounter). Of course, it's impossible to determine the extent of cultural influence from observation alone, but Perv introduces some animal evidence that males fixate to a narrower range of targets.

You might think that supports the idea that it's genetic, but it doesn't. The experiment in question swapped baby goats and sheep with each other, and observed the sexual behavior of the adoptees. Males of both species pursued females of their adoptive species, females remained receptive to both (book didn't mention the behavior of females adopted by the same biological species and I can't find the cite). Male goats do not have a sheep-fucking gene. What this actually shows is not that courtship targets are inborn, but learned from the environment, and that males narrow down their target in the time between birth and puberty in a way females do not.

This offers a really satisfying explanation for the range of human male sexual behavior. Most obviously, the wide range in beauty standards between cultures but narrow range within cultures, and in what an individual man finds attractive. Young male brains have the capacity to learn from the culture what is most advantageous to impregnate, and work with that, but have a hard time shifting targets later in life. It works for non-reproductive sex too: Pederasty will never result in a pregnancy, but if sex with young boys is correlated with gaining resources that will aid in reproduction (e.g. status in Ancient Greece), and the relevant section of the brain is taught that while young, it will find the idea exciting.

So once again, the answer to the question "what are humans programmed to do?" is "be astoundingly adaptive to local conditions."
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
You could be forgiven for thinking that getting "The HPV Vaccine", or worse, "The Cervical Cancer Vaccine" means you will never get HPV and/or cancer, because that's what a lot of news coverage has indicated, and because public health workers tend to overpromise and obscure details in order to motivate. The truth is that there are many strains of HPV (NIH says >100), there's no reason to believe our list is comprehensive, and a vaccine against one is not necessarily effective against another.

That's okay. HPV is incredibly common, to the point that some scientists think some strains be commensal. That makes it hard to prove what it's effects are: does increased prevalence of strain in renal patients mean it causes renal disease, that it's harmless but increases in prevalence in response to renal stress, or that it's harmless in healthy patients but harmful in the quantities seen in renal patients?

What we can agree on: some strains cause warts. Warts won't kill you, but they can hurt and create a vulnerable point other infections could use. How bad is that? For a modern American who wears shoes all day, plantar (foot) warts are more likely to harm you through bad ergonomics than an opportunistic infection.* If you are poor and shoeless in a sub-saharan Africa that vulnerability is a really big deal. Genital warts make it easier to catch another STD, but the exact probability HPV leads you to another STD you wouldn't otherwise have caught depends on the STD status of the people you have sex with.

We also agree that HPV can cause cancer. You can't prove it's impossible to get cervical cancer without it, but it's probably safe to say that if you do so you've either been storing nuclear waste in your vagina or severely pissed off a vengeful deity. Now that we're looking for it we're also finding certain strains associated with penile, rectal, and oral cancers.

Given that there are a large and growing number of identified HPV strains, some of which might even be beneficial**, and each strain must be separately cultured, increasing expense how do you decide which to vaccinate against ? When making Gardasil, Merck chose four strains, two of which caused 90% of genital warts, and two of which caused 70% of cervical cancer.

Or did they? New data is out suggesting that the vaccine is less useful in black women than white women because black women are more likely to have strains the vaccine doesn't cover. Some people are describing this as "less effective in black women", but that's misleading. As far as we know the vaccine is equally effective against the strains it claims to be effective against*** on a biological level. It's just not useful because black women are much more likely to be exposed to strains the vaccine doesn't protect against. By far the simplest explanation is that whatever study generated the prevalence estimates oversampled white women.

This demonstrates a couple of things. One, the importance of sampling across the entirety of the population you want the data to apply to even if you are really, really sure they're genetically identical. I would not be at all surprised to discover geographic differences in strain distribution. But if I'm correctly interpreting this newspaper article with no link to the underlying study, participants were recruited at the same site and so roughly the same geographic area. Assuming no racial influences on susceptibility or response, this suggests that white and black women, and their partners, are swimming in entirely separate sexual pools.

I'm not that naive. I knew people tended to have sex primarily with same-race partners. But my epidemiology intuition says it shouldn't take *that much* cross over for strains to reach prevalences much closer than what's being reported here, because once a strain has crossed over, it should rapidly colonize a wide open pool.

Alternate possibilities:
  • exposure to one strain makes you resistant but not immune to another, so which you strain you have is correlated much more heavily with early sexual partners than later ones. Without looking it up I'm pretty sure people's first partners are much more likely to be the same race as them. This suggests that the wrong-strain vaccines are still likely to be some helpful, but not as helpful as the right strain.
  • People who engage in interracial sex are atypical in their engagement with their own race. They might have fewer partners, observe a higher standard of sexual safety. or have sex nearly exclusively with members of that race, making them part of that cluster.
  • the true clustering is around a factor other than race but with a heavily non-random distribution, like location or SES.

    *True story: the only time I've ever used crutches is after having a plantar wart burnt off.

    **Commensal is defined as one side (HPV) benefiting and the other side (humans) receiving no benefit. However, if harmless HPV is taking up space on our skin that would otherwise be occupied by something damaging, that's a benefit, like those spiders that avoid humans and eat black widows. Or the HPV could be involved in some weird but ultimately beneficial cycle with the bacteria on our skin. We don't understand the ecosystems within our own bodies at all, and our overconfidence at what can be safely removed has caused a lot of trouble over the years.

    ***Never say never, but I'd be shocked if the per-strain effectiveness differed significantly between races, because even if there was a genetic component, race is a stupid categorization that tells you very little about an individual's genetics.
  • pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    Since leaving tiny ninjas, I've been teaching biology at a school for sick children and their siblings. The school is really there as a support system and to keep their brains busy, which is good, because the biology program is in terrible shape. I didn't get a textbook until this week, and it is terrible. There is no curriculum, and I'm completely unqualified to teach a real biology class. But I am reasonably qualified to show two kids things I find interesting and show them how to follow up on their own interests. It took me four weeks, but I finally got them to ask questions so I could start opening their minds to the wonders of science.

    Unfortunately, what they want to know about is the genetics of racial differences.

    They're asking innocently. They used the same tone when asking about the biology of zodiac signs, whether their red hair meant they were angrier, and if the doppelgangers from Vampire Diaries could actually exist. But it puts me in a tricky position. There is a lot of horrible psuedoscience used to support racism, and I don't want to lend credence to it. On the other hand, I don't want to teach them that questions with potentially unpleasant answers shouldn't be asked. Some day they may be doing medical research. Back on the first hand, stereotype threat is a real problem and truth is not an ultimately defense when it is involved. Also, I would like to not get in trouble.

    What I told them at the time was: most people talking about genetic differences between races are evil and also bad at science (bonus: they're young enough I can shock them by swearing!), there are often substantial differences between small populations, but two distinct Asian populations look as different from each other as they do from a European population. I threw in a bit about how the classic racial categories just are not biologically true, but maybe not enough. For homework I assigned them articles on sickle cell anemia and lactose tolerance, on the theory that malaria and pastoralism are neutral ways to talk about differences in environment applying selective pressure. I dream of ultimately finding one of those racist fact sheets and eviscerating it with them, which would be both anti-racism and pro-science, but we are not there yet.

    The problem is that a neutral reporting of the facts is not enough here. There's reasonably good statistical evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are slightly smarter than Europeans from the same geographic areas. There's super interesting speculation as to why*, and I have in fact discussed that speculation is detail with a very socially conscious Jewish friend. But if all I tell the kids is "Jewish people are smarter", I risk reinforcing some really horrible stereotypes. Luckily, the story of the selective pressure is intimately tied up with persecution and bigotry, so it's easy to bring up. If I talk about rice farming selecting for mathematical aptitude or poor hygiene in Europe selecting for a better work ethic, relative to south Asia, I risk reinforcing some really horrible stereotypes. But the things that would counter those stereotypes are outside the scope of a biology class.

    It'd probably be much the same if we cover reproduction (not guaranteed- kids are only here for a few months and I'm letting them choose the topics). In a world where kids learn all about enthusiastic consent and masturbation and queer sexuality, I could teach them the biology of reproduction and move on. In the current world, teaching reproduction reinforces the undeserved primacy of straight, cis, PIV sex.** But I don't thing I can assign What You Really, Really Want as part of biology class.

    I'm open to suggestions here, on both the meta issue and on specific examples I can explore with them.


    *Short version: the risk of spontaneous attacks by Christians rewarded medieval Jews for keeping forms of wealth that were easy to travel with and hard to seize. Farm land was the opposite of this. Gold was pretty good. Intelligence was perfect.

    **I have a BA in biology and the only time I ever heard vaginal wetness discussed in college was a psychology class, where they explained that arousal experiments were done primary on men because they were easier to measure.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    People say placebo effect like they mean "it didn't work" or "they made it up"; It puts me in mind of Bill's comment in True Blood: "No offense Sookie, but humans are shockingly susceptible to just about every form of thought manipulation."

    The thing is, the placebo effect isn't in our heads. It's chemically measurable- through an increase in dopamine levels when told you were going to get an an analgesic, through an increase in basophil leves when injected with homeopathic (i.e. nonexistent) levels of histamine*, and through a changes in ghrelin levels when given different expectations about the calorie content of a shake**. The original placebo effect- a decrease in pain when told a sugar pill was a pain medication- doesn't work if you introduce an opiate blocker. My psych 101 professor said women could gain about half a cup size over six months through hypnosis. And there's crazy doctor, who has drastically improved my life with the diagnosis and treatment of adrenal fatigue but recently disappointed me with her belief in homeopathy.

    Which leads me to conclude that human brain is just an astonishingly powerful device that hasn't yet figured out how to properly harness itself. Yet.

    *Extra interesting because most allergy tests use a saline injection as a negative control. Last time I had it done they told me which one was the control. I wonder what happens if they don't.

    **Hat tip: [livejournal.com profile] stolen_tea
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    So in the past month, HIV and its cousins* have**:

    1. Cured Leukemia
    2. Made kittens glow in the dark

    I only intellectually understand how terrifying AIDS was in the 80s, when it appeared to kill you in months and no one knew what it was. I grew up in a time when it was dangerous, but known- there's a test for it, and treatment that can extend your life. I'm getting the feeling that 200, or maybe even 100, years from now, people will view HIV as a tremendous gift that is the basis of immortality and six pack abs. And they'll read about the 80s and kind of get it intellectually, but not really, the way I don't understand fear of bacterial illness. Until their immortality shot mutates and kills them horribly, just like antibiotic-resistant bacteria are going to kill us.


    *by which I mean, heavily modified viral particles based on HIV and its feline equivalent

    **by which I mean, in the past month, I have heard about the following things that happened some time ago.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    I'm a big believer in using evolution as a lens to understand human behavior. For example: I have friends who go on multi day hiking/camping extravaganzas in groups of 3-6. None of them would mind if someone said "I'm tired, let's slow down". They would consider someone who did mind an asshole. And yet, to the one, they need to be near dying before they'll ask the group to rest. This seems illogical, but makes sense if you think about when humans lived in small, interdependent tribes, where being the weak one would be held against you- if not then, then eventually. And this explanation is useful, because it calms me down about speaking up in such a situation.

    But here's the thing. There are some very good evolutionary reasons to avoid smearing feces in your mouth. And I, like nearly all other people, have an aversion to doing so that feels so strong it must be inborn. But if you look at young children: it's not inborn. They have to be taught an aversion to feces. And saying they lack the intelligence isn't a valid argument, because it's incredibly easy to evolve instinctive reactions to smells, and "don't touch it" or "don't touch your mouth" are pretty simple reactions.

    This casts some real doubts on more complicated hypotheses, like "men should be more promiscuous than women". There are arguments for it that look valid. They feel true. But there are historical periods where the exact opposite was considered true. Of course historical people are idiots, but... humans are really complicated. And kids eat poop.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    I'm sure everyone has seen the NYT article on decision fatigue and how it relates to blood glucose levels. Some people (i.e., my dad) misinterpreted it as "people make bad decisions when they're hungry", but I think the truer statement is "risk taking depletes a pool that can be refilled by food." We don't actually know whether the judges have a reasonably good function for determining whether people will re-offend, and simply require them to meet a higher threshold as they get hungrier, or if they stop being able to accurately judge prisoners, in which case keeping them in prison is the more conservative thing but not necessarily the wrong thing, depending on how we weight the rights of good prison

    Around the same time, I'm reading another book on hoarding, which talks about a constellation of related traits that seem correlated with hoarding: perfectionism, indecisiveness, fear of making mistakes, fear of losing information, fear of loss (of stuff), fear of loss (of memory)**, inability to prioritize. All of which seem like they could stem from more rapid decision fatigue, be it because hoarders have fewer reserves or find each decision more taxing.

    Apparently I don't have anywhere to go with this, but I still thought it was interesting.


    *I would love to see a long term study of the recidivism rate of people paroled at various times during the day, and the prison behavior of people denied over the same distribution.

    **This is really interesting. Despite doing no worse than non-hoarders on memory tests, hoarders are disproportionately likely to be afraid they'll forget things, and to leave things out as a physical reminder. That's why some hoarders have piles of stuff out in the open, but empty filing cabinets.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    Do you know where the phrase "Natural Selection" comes from? Darwin was attempting to distinguish the artificial breeding managed by humans from what was going on the wild. No where is this clearer to me then when I look at my cat Pan, a being that would last about five minutes in the wild. It actually says that in the breed description "Do not let them outside. Their only defense is a quizzical stare." These cats have had every bit of fight bred out of them, and replaced with pure love. It's not a bad strategy, as these things go. But Pan may have taken it too far.

    First there is feeding him. I had three different types of food on a plate in front of him, all of which are things he has likes, topped with whipped cream, which he loves. Wouldn't touch it. Whined for food, wouldn't touch it. I place a small amount of food in a different bowl, warm it a bit, and place it next to the plate. Suddenly he's all about the original food on the original plate. It's worse right now because he's feeling icky, but even at the best of times it takes more work to feed him than mother nature is going to put in.

    He's only just getting some weight back on after May's shitting blood/refusing to eat episode, and now we're entering a pissing (minute quantities of) blood/frequent vomiting phase that is bad enough he's locked in the bathroom when I'm not watching him. I just got the results back from the vet that clearly something was wrong with his bladder but they needed more tests to determine what. Fingers crossed for a UTI that is making him vomit from pain, which is a single cause we can easily fix.

    My point is, don't get purebred cats out of the discount bin.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    Did you know that heritable, as in h^2, the scientific measure of heritability, has a very little in common with what we would think of as genetic determinism? Heritability is simply the measure of how much offspring resemble their parents, relative to the range in the population. Not even how predictive a parent's trait value is for their offspring, just how similar they are.

    This has a bunch of weird consequences. For example, in the Netherlands, skin tone has a higher heritability value in the winter, because in the summer young people tan more and it destroys the correlation between their tone and their parents'. Even more counter intuitive, sex has a heritability value of 0, because everyone has a parent of each sex.* Number of arms at birth is barely heritable, in that there are certain heritable defects that make you more prone to having less than two arms, but they're so rare they barely create a range for us to consider.

    Also, and this is important, heritability is only valid in the environment it is measured. A given trait is more heritable when the environment is more consistent. So when you see adoption studies saying parenting doesn't matter that much, what they mean is that across the variations in parenting seen in families that adoption agencies found worthy, parenting style doesn't matter much.

    *This absolutely has to be true as a consequence of how sex is defined biologically, regardless of the gender identity of either parent.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    In 2008, I had a combination wisdom tooth removal/jaw surgery to correct chronic pain in my jaw dating back to 2005. If you haven't had chronic pain, I'm not sure if I can convey how stupid it makes you. A mere six months after it started I told the dentist to go ahead and do the filling replacement under partial Novocaine, because the bitch didn't believe me when I told her I needed more and while she had injected a lot, wasn't doing so any faster than my body could clear it out, and I was desperate to get it treated. My dentist recommended the two surgeries after the second root canal failed to help, but it had to be scheduled out several months because I was terrified of general anesthetic* and insisted both be done at once, even though they required separate practitioners. I was contracting at the time and had made job-taking decisions based in part on scheduling around this surgery. Oh, and I had to get up very early in the morning for it, so I was sleepy.

    So when the receptionist told me it was standard practice to remove biopsied tissue to check for cancer, I signed the form. According the legal chapter in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the doctors and/or lab can legally do whatever they want with that tissue. If I had spontaneously donated that, that wouldn't bother me. If I'd been informed ahead of time and had carefully considered it, it wouldn't bother me. But I was not in a position to do any of those. I would have cut my wrist and signed the form in blood if it would get me into surgery faster. And my chronic pain wasn't even that painful, as these things go.

    I'm pretty convinced that what bothers people the most isn't that someone somewhere is making money off their tissues. It's that we're taking advice on things we don't understand from people who suspect don't like us very much, and while I'm sure no very few dentists have recommended surgery for the sole purpose of extracting tissue to sell for profit, the human brain forms associations. And if you have a more positive association with things that involve tissue removal you're going to, on the margin, recommend more tissue removal. And we're all so terrified of doing the wrong thing and so desperate to trust an authority figure that we seize on the one thing we can control.

    And then there's the fact that they can keep things like the state-mandated blood draws for genetic testing. That's just bullshit.

    That was really depressing, especially if you know that the surgery didn't help me either, and that it's impossible to know whether the initial trauma, the initial dentist fuck ups, the improperly anesthetized filling replacement, the root canals, or the surgery caused the lingering problem. So to end on a lighter note: oral surgery didn't actually leave any open wounds, except for where the wisdom teeth were and that's why I got dry socket, which to be fair made me forget about the low level chronic pain I was experiencing pretty quickly. Anyway, the surgery left no open wounds that needed band aids, but the IV for the anesthetic did. It was a My Little Pony bandaid, and I'm convinced it was classic MLP although given that I was still heavily sedated at the time, I'm not sure you should believe me. But I was clearly paying attention, because I asked the friend who was taking care of me why I had a My Little Pony bandaid no less than five times.


    *Tangent: I'm pretty sure I'd be less afraid of general anesthetic if doctors would just admit that it's to prevent you from from forming memories of terrible pain, not from feeling terrible pain. The fact that they won't admit makes me wildly inflate the percentages of people who wake up in surgery screaming.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    59 Seconds continues to commit the two major sins of happiness research: Confusing The Number Circles On The Form With Genuine Long Term Happiness, and Telling Stories. Let's tackle the stories first. There is at least one study, and possibly many (can't check, I'm listening to it on CD), showing that when people discuss a frustrating event with friends they leave the same or less happy, but when they write down the event they feel better afterwards. Technically the only facts are the exact numbers that came out of each study, but let's assume it's been replicated enough that we can call writing=feel better, talking=feel worse a fact. We can't, for a lot of reasons, but I can't get distracted by that right now. Because even if that were true, the researchers explanation for it- "talking just reminds people of things, writing makes them form a narrative"- is completely unfounded. To test that, you'd have to look at things like "what if we tell people to just complain when they write?", "what if we tell people to tell their friends stories?", "what if they read the helpful diary entry to a friend?" Until then, the explanation is just a story.

    And then there's the second sin, which I'm going to expand into a a general "extrapolaing from a distorted view of a single moment in time to all of eternity." My other book right now is Crucial Conversations. It doesn't have any scientific citations, but it is the only book on interpersonal skills I have ever found at all useful*, and that's even better. Technically, Crucial Conversations is telling the same story telling sin I accuse 59 seconds of, but it doesn't bother me because 1. it's not claiming to discuss specific studies, just trends, and 2. I can absolutely see how the stories they are true about my life and the corrections they suggest will make my life better. So I guess 59 Second's sin isn't telling stories, it's telling useless stories.

    I apologize for using the word "story" in both the metadiscussion and the specific discussion, because it's rapidly going to stop looking like a word. But soldiering on: one of the brilliant points in Crucial Conversations is that when we have an interaction with someone that goes poorly, we tell ourselves a story about why it happened. The fact is that the coworker excluded you from a conversation, the story is that he's doing it deliberately to cut you out because you're a woman. You could just as easily tell a story that he'd heard you were nervous and wanted to help you, or is a nervous talker and feels like shit now. You have to watch the stories you tell very carefully***, or you'll act inappropriately to the situation. But we tell these stories because in the short term, they make us feel better. SO it seems entirely plausible to me that people feel better immediately after writing down a negative event, because they've now got the fairy tale written, staring them, but that this locks them into repeating the same mistake over again.

    59 Seconds briefly rallied by providing scientific justification for a story I believe: the Getting Things Done Philosophy, in which storing information in your brain is anathema because it uses valuable mental ram, and you should do everything in your power to break things into loops you can offload onto storage and close as quickly as possible, because unclosed loops = occupied RAM = more stress + lowered productivity. Apparently the whole mental RAM thing is totally true: you do hold certain information and intentions in your brain until the whole project is finished, and then quickly wipe them. But Wiseman goes in the exact opposite direction for GTD on this: he suggests that procrastinators lie to themselves and say they'll work on a project for "just a few minutes", counting on the fact that once they start they won't be able to stop until they're done. That seems like a great plan. The first time. But it seems like over time it would increase your resistance to starting anything. But Wiseman doesn't know that because he hasn't looked past the first attempt

    *this sounds like damning with faint praise, but I'm actually finding it extremely interesting and expect it to be extremely useful when I have a chance to put it into practice.**

    **I've had this rant building for a while. I didn't share it because I'm trying not to rant but... screw it. I've basically given up on anything with "for introverts" in the title because they're inevitably written by extroverts. Now, extroverts are not bad people. Some of my best friends are extroverts. And I'm willing to concede that their extroversion makes them more successful at particular things and/or happier at life in general. But, and extroverted authors listen up because this is the critical point, just like you can't make pessimists happier by forcing them to pretend to be optimists, you can't make introverts happier by making them pretend to be extroverts. My goal is not to be more like you, it's to make being me easier. Being you just seems exhausting.

    ***Wow, this is getting all circular. I only just noticed that this is exactly the Sin of Story Telling I described in the first paragraph.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    A++, would read again.

    As I've been saying about autism and depression for years: it is possible for a psychological disorder to simultaneously be over diagnosed yet have its treatment methods underutilized. In some ways, people with real clinical disorders are the large print versions of everyone else, making it easier to see problems and test solutions. Proving exercise helps clinical depression* is easier than proving exercise helps you when you're having a bad day, but it's easy to see how the knowledge transfers.

    Stuff fits into that rather well. I watch Hoarders as a motivational tool, and they continually present you with truly awful cases- people who are are about to lose their children, spouse, or home due to their hoarding- but don't really explain why, beyond "it's a disease." Stuff goes into the psychology behind it: hoarding is associated with a constellation of other issues, including:

    • slow decision making
    • uncertainty in relationships with people and highly variable relationships with people
    • emotional deprivation in childhood (far moreso than physical deprivation, which surprised me)
    • intelligence (which is not the impression you'd get watching Hoarders, but of course the people who need to accept expensive 11th hour help in exchange for parading their problems on TV are not a random sample)
    • over anthropomorphism of objects
    • the construct of your stuff being an extension of you.
    • fear of waste/belief that being wasteful accrues you bad karma
    • fear of mistakes/fear of being wrong/perfectionism
    • greater than baseline need to prepare for eventualities
    • a lot of time spent thinking about using your stuff, relative to actually using it
    • a need for completeness
    • unwillingness to suffer short term pain for long term gains (possibly because they don't believe the long term gains will materialize)
    • ability to minimize the immediate term pain of not cleaning by filtering things out


    Not surprisingly, I see at least a few issues in me, my family, my friends, the people across the street, etc. This is where it would be really useful to find the hoarding equivalent of exercise, but the book doesn't cover that, apparently because it doesn't exist yet. We're only just beginning to understand hoarding and how it differs from OCD, and treatment is in its infancy. If the hoarding was brought on by specific trauma you can often help by treating the trauma, but many cases are not. They did mention the downward arrow technique as a tool, which looks neat.

    Pulling back from the content a bit, the book was extremely well written, well organized, and easy to read while still conveying the weight of the subject matter. Highly recommended.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    I'm really, really skeptical of happiness research in general and 59 Seconds in specific, because the author doesn't seem to distinguishing between "true internal happiness" and "the number we circle on the form." But he did just say something interesting: when coping with a recent misfortune, bitching to friends appears to be at best neutral at making you feel better,* but writing it down is genuinely helpful. The hypothesis he presents with no supporting evidence is that writing leads people to form narratives about their problems, while complaining just makes them thinking about it to no useful purpose. As a person who spends a lot of time trying to form narratives about everything, I find this fits nicely with my preexisting biases.

    And speaking of barely related factoids I've been looking for an excuse to use: did you know that in Russian, "to have a story with" means to be in love with? I like that.


    *at least in the timescale measured. In things like this and the pillow punching study, I don't think they're successfully distinguishing between letting a problem go and suppressing it.
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    You know, I criticize the yokels for not understanding the difference between homosexual and transsexual, but then scientists discover an apparently male skeleton with female burial accoutrements and the media is all gay caveman found.

    Sex at Dawn

    Apr. 4th, 2011 08:41 pm
    pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
    Sex at Dawn has been a shining example of why one should withhold criticism until one has read the book question. I may be jinxing the hell out of it by writing this halfway through. Anyway, it's by no means perfect, but it's not nearly as stupid as Dan Savage made it sound. It appears Savage may have selectively read and promoted the parts of the book that agreed with his existing worldview while disregarding nuance. I know, I was shocked too. One of the authors went along with it in web and podcast interviews, but if my choices were "selectively emphasize and overextrapolate from certain parts of my book, huge amounts of media coverage" or "stick to the exact truth as written, no media coverage", I would probably say what the columnist with an agenda wanted to hear as well.

    Which is not to say the book is entirely correct, either. It's a little hard for me to judge because this is related to what I studied at college, so there's an abundance of things they've simplified that I know more about (or simply don't know much about- the authors are a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and it's clear their knowledge of biology doesn't extend past apes, birds, and prairie voles, the species that come up most in pop evopsych). And a few things where I know they're not outright lying, but where the evidence either doesn't support or in toto runs directly counter to the point they're trying to make.* And a few more things that I don't know much about but don't pass the smell test: they heavily imply that because jealousy is considered shameful in certain societies, no one feels it. And it killed my inner biologist to see them cite societies where a woman's brother is a primary caretaker (in place of the genetic father) as evidence that genetic relatedness as unimportant.**

    This is perhaps typical of the minor strain of exotification running through the book. For a book that's about calling modern sexuality stupid, and takes pains to criticize anthropologists who constantly phrase their analysis of cultures as arising from the choices of men, it seems weird to see sentences like "During [Darwin's] circumnavigation of the glove on the Beagle, the young naturalist appears never to have gone ashore in search of the sexual and sensual pleasures pursued by many seafaring men of that era.", which appears to me to be treating the native women like especially awesome vending machines. Not to mention all the times they talk about rituals and protocols designed to combat jealousy that appear to boil down to "you have no right to say no," but don't actually say that outright.

    The truth is, I went into this book with my mind made up: humans are capable of a wide variety of behaviors, and they adapt those behaviors to the circumstances. Either they do it consciously, or the ones people who naturally do the now-advantageous thing have more babies.*** The evolution of sexual possessiveness in response to the emergence of the importance of property isn't humans being stupid, it's fascinating. And there's still room for the book I really want, which is an exploration of how different resource distributions lead to different bonding and parenting concepts.

    *They state it's a widely accepted fact that Homo erectus lived in single-male, multi-female harems, like gorillas. I can't prove they're wrong because very few cave man pre-nups survived into the present day, but I can mention that, to the best of our knowledge, H. erectus does not display the sexual size dimorphism typical of harem-keeping species.

    They're not so great at anthropology either: they conflate partible paternity- the belief that a baby can have more than one father- with the more specific belief that babies are made of accumulated sperm. I have the distinct feeling that if I knew more anthropology I'd be less impressed with the book.

    **Biology primer: caring for your sister's children, rather than your non-exclusive sexual partner's children, is a sign that you do care (in an evolutionary sense) about how genetically close you are to the children you're investing in, seeing as you're choosing to save your resources for children you know you're related to.

    ***In brief: in small tribes where resources are held nearly-in-common, it's not a big deal if you don't know if a kid is yours, or if you fall out of favor with your kid's father, because it doesn't change the transfer of resources from father to child much.

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