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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why complex Interplay(on human nature in brief)

When Beth and I decided to start this blog it was to create a forum to share some of the thoughts we had on human nature and news on the types of things that interested us. Beth and I both are fascinated by both Human nature and Nature in general one the things that makes Human nature so fascinating is the complex interplay of biological and cultural influences. Both of us are fascinated by this but we come have different perspectives due both to different educational backgrounds and just different personalities. Beth tends to see cultural influences were I see biological influence and vice versa but the important point we agree upon is that both influences are valid ways of looking at human behavior and what matter is determining the true origins of behavior not adhering strictly to one ideological bent be it cultural or biological determinism.

I find it important to defend the influence of biological factors in human behavior because I think far to many people dismiss them out of hand for no more reason then they find the idea political repugnant. They associate any argument for a biological base to human behavior with sexism and racism. The idea being that if we are in fact different one sex to another or one race to another it indicates that one group must be superior and another inferior. The tendency to reject valid data and valuable insights on human nature simply because they maybe political incorrect is both saddening and frustrating to me. I believe strongly in the equality of all human beings in the sense that we each deserve the same, rights, and opportunities. I call this philosophy egalitarianism. I believe that the case of true egalitarianism is threatened as much by well meaning rejections of a biological human nature as by racist or sexist assertions of genetic determinism.

To make an example take the issue of womens equality in the work place, with in the last 50 years we have seen a huge change in patterns of male and female employment within the western world. Women have left the traditional roles of mother and housewife for the corporate world to the point they have almost reached numerical equality with males in the work place. However this equality in numerical strength has not been equaled by equality in economic strength, women still earn lower wages for the same work, are less likely to be promoted and are much less likely to be attain executive positions. Now if you assume this is caused sole by cultural factors you approach to dealing with this will be different then if you seek also to understand if their are any biological factors at play. A cultural determinism perspective is likely to see the cause primarily as sexism and differences between men and women's cultural taught social norms. So if we can train or force people not to be sexist and train men and women to have the same social norms when it comes to work then we should be able to achieve equality in the workplace. However if there do exist underlying biological differences in men and womens behavior then this training may fail or even backfire. If for instance men or women are biological inclined to communicate a different way, then the two sexes may fail to understand and appreciate the contributions made by other sex through no other prejudice then ignorance. Since the institutions of the modern work place were predominately designed by men and the positions of power are primarily filled by men the fallout from this misunderstanding is most likely to fall on women. In this case trying to bridge the male female gap through affirmative action or trying to train people who are already not sexist to not be sexist may result in resentment and anger fueling sexism itself as some studies have in fact shown such policies to do.

It is easy to imagine the case of a seemingly enlightened male boss who would love to promote his female employees but failing to understand they way the communicate and express leadership simple misses the signs that they deserve promotion.

Studies have shown that men and women do tend to communicate and express leadership differently and most of these traits are cross cultural consistent indicating a biological component to their expression. I will not state absolutely such differences are biological or the reverse my point is simply that by choosing not to look at one set of data we limit our ability to approach a problem effectively.

I think it is absolutely vital to understand that the belief that people deserve the same rights is not dependent on the belief that people are all the same. To take an extreme example look at someone with genetic condition like downs syndrome its quite obvious that cultural influences aside their mental and physical capacities are not the same as people without that genetic condition. Can we not still recognize the same essential humanity and with it the grant them the same rights.

With that stated, I believe that the evidence for both biological and cultural influences on human behavior are in fact indisputable both from personal experience and from taking an interest in studies of human behavior. Studies in cognitive science, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology have indicated biological influence on behavioral differences between individuals and in between the sexes and possible in between various population groups.

On a more personal note I work with children and get the chance to observe their behavior regularly its astonishing to me that any who works with children could ignore the biological influences on behavior. The differences between boys and girls behavioral are extremely striking and very consistent and seem to be very independent of the behavioral expectations of their parents.

Lets look at just one trait one that has been extensively studied and shown a strong cross cultural consistent difference between boys and girls. Aggressive play. The boys in my gymnastics classes are constantly pushing, shoving, wrestling, punching, and kicking each other to my constant annoyance and despite my constant admonishments to save that type of play for a different context. A few of my more enthusiastic students have actually tackled me. This behavior does occur amongst the girls as well but at a several degree's of magnitude lower rate. Furthermore I reward my students regularly with rough and tumble games at the end of class, the boys almost invariable jump straight into these games with no hesitation and never seem to tire of them, were the girls often need some convincing to play(though the usual enjoy the games to) and are much more likely to grow board with the game and request a different game.

Of course one could postulate that the boys this difference is cultural conditioned, but just from anecdotal experience this does not make sense to me. If levels of aggressive play was primarily cultural determined one would expect that minimal variation within each sex, or that the child nurture environment would determine there interest in aggressive play. My observations unscientific as the maybe are not consistent with this prediction, their is good deal of individual variance in aggressive play and the most aggressive females overlap with least aggressive males, the reactions of the parents to this play seems to have very little effect on the childs likelihood to engage in it and from what I an observe of the parents behaviors this does not seem to be that predicative either.

However biological factors do seem likely to me to have an effect, the most agressive boys are usually the more muscular heavy boned and generally more masculine boys, the least aggressive boys are often slender and more androgynous, likewise for the girls the more muscular lean strongly featured girls tend to express this type of play more and the slender or softer girls tend to express it less. Of course this is also consistent with studies on the effects of testosterone in behavior from species to species. Female Hyenas are extremely agressive and physical dominant the are also slightly bigger then males and have genitalia that mimic those of the males of their species, they also have circulating testosterone levels that are the same as the males in their species. Testosterone has specific effects, you can see this studying comparing boys to boys, boys to girls, cross cultural and looking at other species. It simple makes no sense to think that this would be entirely cultural mediated.

Humans are subject to the same biochemical processes as other animals, the fact we have developed the most complex cultural complexes of any species yet does not mean that our biological nature simply disappeared at some point. For instance one cultural determinist perspective that has always baffled me is the idea that our sex drive is entirely cultural derived. If our biological nature was successful in getting us to bread going back to the dawn of sexual reproduction I don't see any reason why it would be evolutionarily abandoned when culture came along. Or even how such a process would happen. According to most cultural determinist human culture in it modern form is only 35,000-75,000 years old a mere eye blink of evolutionary time.

On the flip side it is also clear we are not biological automatons. While all human culture engage in sex, in acquiring and consuming food, raising children etc, the ways in which we go about this can be markedly different in a variety of ways and this is were we come to our cultural nature. Biology is entirely insufficient explanation for the differences in social mores concerning say sexual behavior between the USA and say the middle east.

Were human nature gets interesting to me is in those areas were the influence of culture and biology are inextricable linked were you can't easily point to a one or the other as the primary causal influence. Our behavior is so fascinating and my opinion so variable precisely because it is effected by such a wide range of influences, genetic, cultural and environmental. That is the particular interest of this web log.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Women's cultural role in physical exursion

A woman tried to invade a sumo ring in Japan today, which if she had succeeded according to custom would have made the ring unclean. In the article it says Japanese women were also once not allowed to climb mountains or enter mines. Maybe it's just because I had just read this blog about the Masai people (where women really get the short end of the stick), but it just makes me sad how women are considered unclean, tainted, not as good as men, in so many cultures, and how that is reflected in what chores are traditionally assigned to them in different cultures.
Most women were banned across the board from sports until recently, but it was expected of them to do back breaking labor in the fields, or with livestock, or simply building shelter for their families. They have to do all the hard, boring stuff, but men get to have all the fun activities. It is still an issue in some places to allow women to join the country's military (see my earlier post).
Yes, traditionally men go out and hunt for women and children. They go to war. They put their lives on the line for their families. But that shouldn't make women automatically second-class citizens, especially in a culture where food is provided primarily by agriculture and/or livestock (something both genders can do equally well), and war is no longer a common problem.
For the Masai this is not the case. Even though they are technically pastoralists, the men still go on cattle raids regularly and are gone from home a lot risking their lives. But in contrast, even though the Japanese (and the U.S.) have been in major wars in the past 60 years, they've moved beyond their traditional gender roles in so many other ways one would think they'd be able to move past restriction of women in certain arenas or activities as well, and especially using the "cleanliness" of a person's gender as the main criteria.
At the same time, I believe in upholding and preserving traditions and customs. It's also true Japan had very strict gender roles until much more recently that the U.S. or U.K., and really in the end the act of excluding women from the Sumo wrestling ring isn't a huge deal. It's just the overarching trend of looking at women as second-rate when it comes to physical abilities or activities that irks me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Interesting tidbit about how the internet is taking the place of gossiping - or rather forming strong social bonds - around the campfire.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Attachment and detachment

There have been a lot of studies in the news lately about how humans make connections, with humans and the outside world.
First is an interesting study about how there is a correlation between moms' mental states and what side of their bodies they hold their kids on. What was really interesting to me is according to the study the mom's dominant side (left-handed vs. right-handed), didn't matter.
Speaking of kids, another study showed that kids are able to think abstractly, or "use their imaginations" as the study put it, by age 2, which is earlier than originally thought.
Another study found that college age guys surveyed say they will choose romantic partners over career goals. This survey is actually horribly done, as author of the article points out, because it doesn't specify whether the college age dudes thought of "partner" as a hook-up or as a long-term partner. As also stated in the article, men usually work for prestige and career goals so they can have high status in society and have better luck with chicks; however, if they can skip all that and get a chick anyway, most would. Interestingly, most college-aged women surveyed chose career and education over romantic partner. Smart women.

And finally, though this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, scientists have found a so-called "skinny gene."
What worries me about this is that many people immediately are jumping on the idea that now all we have to do is turn on that gene and it will make everyone skinny, forgetting that gene therapy is still in its infancy (like pre-natal), this gene is everywhere in the body so we don't know what other affects it has (as some clever scientist states in the article), and would be really expensive to do.
All the effort seems a lot harder than just exercising regularly and eating more vegetables. Yes, I know this study proves that some people have to work a lot harder than others at staying slim, but I'm sticking by my guns when I say that the American diet is extremely unhealthy (note the study about an increase of cancer in Chinese women who have adopted a western diet), and if we all just ate more fruits and veggies and less Doritos and Coca-Cola we'd be a lot better off.