Thursday, September 30th 2010

Around the web: sexuality

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis week I have been trying to finish up two large writing projects: a new IRB and a manuscript draft. So posting has been light. I also admit to having a little trouble figuring out whether to foreground this particular Around the Web post with some of my own thoughts about this topic. I’ve decided to risk it.

I have two main thoughts I want to offer, one on each half of the lecture I gave Tuesday; these comments will ground the links I’m sharing.

Honest signaling and mate preferences

Due to time constraints, I didn’t feel I could go into much detail about my unease about this particular field of research. Much of the work done on human mate preferences is quite good, especially the work that either links the preferences to fecundity/fertility (i.e., Jasienska et al 2004), or to actual reproductive success (i.e., Apicella et al 2007). What worries me when I teach this material in a large, introductory setting is that, despite any caveats I may offer about the research, students often walk away from lecture thinking that all women like strong, masculine men who are good hunters, and all men like young, feminine women with big birthing hips. This is simply not true. You can look at the assortment of who marries who and find a lot more variation, and that’s because there is so much variation in mating strategy. Perhaps if someone gives you a range of faces and asks you which you prefer you choose one in line with honest signals for immune health or fertility. But do you have sex with this person or enter into a long-term relationship with this person? Not necessarily, because honest signals of health are only ONE of many factors you consider when choosing a mate. Cultural conditioning, humor, kindness, proximity, religion, political leanings… these are all issues that confound choice purely for good genes. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, an interesting article just came out that shows how some traits in preferred versus actual mates are similar, and how some are different. Definitely worth a read!

Dr. Petra Boynton, sexpert, therapist, blogger, and all-around cool person, has a wonderful blog relevant to this week’s topic. I’ll send you over with one of my favorite posts, but check out the whole site: ten tips for successful dating.

I also have to pass on an article sent to me by a student (hooray, I love when students send me stuff!). I’m very glad Davis Shannon sent me this article about body versus face preferences in men looking for one night stands. Of course, the style of the story is pretty offensive. I was also pretty appalled at the quote from the lead author. But in addition to exposing you all to a new study on this topic, it exposes you to an example of very bad science reporting. I think this is very useful to students learning to filter good information from bad.

Finally, in an example of GOOD science journalism, I give you several selections from Not Exactly Rocket Science: one on male bowerbirds influencing mate choice in nestmaking, and one that is only barely related to this week’s topic, on masturbating squirrels. You heard me right. Go read it, it’s great.


I had a rather devastating interaction with a student after class this week. This student approached me and asked me why I thought there was such a thing as homophobia. The student explained that a group of male students behind him/her were making offensive jokes during my portion of the lecture on homosexuality and were dismissive of the idea that there is a spectrum of human sexual preference that is quite normal and reflected in behaviors we see in the animal kingdom. Both the student, and I, were very upset by this, and I didn’t have a particularly good answer.

Oppressive behaviors of one group of people towards another are not new. But I find it especially disappointing when I hear of my own students behaving in this way, especially when I have invested so much in creating lectures with active learning components that give them space to think critically. Like I said, I have no good answers, except to have zero tolerance for such behavior if I am ever in earshot. Perhaps if more people understood that, for some people in our society, it is a huge personal risk to simply express who you love, and those of us who have a more socially-condoned sexual preference can never quite understand the toll this can take on a human being.

Of course, it may be an additional condolence to find out that those individuals who are most homophobic are most likely to have hidden gay urges. No, I didn’t make that up. It’s SCIENCE!

And for every story of teachers suspended for assigning articles on gay animals or assistant attorney generals using internet bullying tactics on gay students, there are stories of LGBT-inclusive immigration legislation or UN efforts to end laws that discriminate against homosexuals.


Apicella, C., Feinberg, D., & Marlowe, F. (2007). Voice pitch predicts reproductive success in male hunter-gatherers Biology Letters, 3 (6), 682-684 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0410

Jasienska, G., Ziomkiewicz, A., Ellison, P., Lipson, S., & Thune, I. (2004). Large breasts and narrow waists indicate high reproductive potential in women Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271 (1545), 1213-1217 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2712

Friday, September 24th 2010

Around the web: evolution!

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

This is a good week for Around the Web. There are myriad resources on the internet, as well as just some great writing, regarding evolutionary theory and the forces of evolution. I have a few more lectures for you, a few websites that provide good primers on science and evolution, some interesting blog posts… even a web comic. So here we go.

Resources on evolution

Professor Stephen Stearns never disappoints with his online lectures at Academic Earth. Check out these on the nature of evolution, natural selection, genetic drift, and how selection changes the genetic makeup of a population.

Another wonderful video resource comes from a Discover Magazine contest on how to explain evolution in two minutes or less. Greg Laden posts the winner and runner up here. Short and sweet!

But perhaps you prefer to read to learn, rather than watch. Here is a great set of lecture notes by Bora Zivkovic for his BIO101 class that teaches evolution, from genes to species.

Maybe you want to forego watching videos or reading anything, and would rather look at a single web comic. Well then, here is one often-misunderstood aspect of evolution, very clearly demystified!

Edited to add: Robert Luhn at NCSE emailed to kindly point out I left out two great resources… one being, of course NCSE, and the other being Understanding Evolution, at Berkeley. Thanks Robert!

Blog posts on evolution, the media and scientific literacy

While I have tons of posts on evolution, I thought it would be interesting this time to highlight some recent ones that discuss how the media talks about Darwin and evolution.

At The Guardian, Adam Rutherford wrote an article entitled “Beyond a ‘Darwin was wrong’ headline: The media love to give undue coverage to flimsy attacks on evolutionary science. And leave others to clean up the mess.” In it, he writes about why heavy coverage of a rather problematic book by non-evolutionary biologists Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini entitled “What Darwin Got Wrong” is problematic.

Rutherford quickly clears up two issues for his readers:

Of course, there are plenty of things that Darwin got wrong. That is the nature of science, and indeed good scientists love to be wrong. It means that the theory will subsequently be refined to be more right. Darwin knew, as does every subsequent evolutionary biologist, that natural selection is the major, but not the only contributing factor to evolution.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini seem oblivious to this. They base their whole argument on either misunderstanding what real evolutionary biologists think, or by simply ignoring it. They describe processes in evolution that are easy to understand and are part of evolutionary theory, and quote them as a means to knock down that exact same theory. Repeating and enhancing these brainwrongs so elegantly, as Burkeman does [a journalist Rutherford criticizes for giving attention to the book with the Darwin was wrong headline], simply makes matters worse.

First: in science, we expect people to be wrong all the time, and for lots of things that we once believed to turn out to not be true. Evolutionary theory doesn’t fall into this category because it has been so robustly supported in so many studies, over so many decades, that even we skeptical scientists are now quite happy with it. Second, a critical reading of this book is necessary by those who seek to cover it.

Ed Yong weighed in on a similar issue when he covered a journal article on phylogeny in his post Do new discoveries rewrite evolutionary history? There, Yong discussed the phenomena of scientists and the media shouting from the rooftops that the history of some lineage has been rewritten because of a new phylogenetic analysis or new fossil finding. He reviews an article by Tarver et al in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Series B that looked at claims of “rewriting” evolutionary history in the reconfiguration of catarrhine (apes and old world monkeys) and dinosaur phylogenies when new discoveries are made. Go have a look, it’s very interesting!

Finally, this post isn’t directly about evolution but I think describes the problems in how we define scientific literacy very nicely. Alice Bell wrote this lovely post The Myth of Scientific Literacy, and to me, this post links to those about how to communicate science, particularly evolution, because of what we think our students know, and what they actually know and believe, when they arrive in college classrooms.

Wednesday, September 22nd 2010

Women sciencebloggers, exposure, and my path to blogging

If you have been following this story, or follow me on Twitter, you probably saw something interesting happen last week when Wired announced their line-up of new sciencebloggers: of the five, only one is a woman. This led to a lot of Twitter activity (largely me, Ed Yong, Alex Wild, Christine Ottery, Jenny Rohn, Bora Zivkovic, Dave Munger, and Martin Robbins, but others in this conversation feel free to mention it and link yourself in the comments) and two important blog posts and comment threads — a graph of women’s representation in five major scienceblogging networks by Jenny Rohn and a list compiled of women sciencebloggers on Twitter using the hashtag #wsb by Martin Robbins (again, if there are more blogposts I’m missing, feel free to link in the comments).

Following this, Dave Munger began doing some of his own research on women in science, women in researchblogging, and women in scienceblog networks. His column on this issue appears today in Seed Magazine. It features a recent article by Anne Jefferson and colleagues about women geobloggers that I feel is relevant to my own blog story below, and Morgan Jackson has done an analysis of entymology bloggers that is also worth a read.

My story

This issue of women in the academic blogosphere, and specifically the science blogosphere, is close to my heart for a number of reasons. As Dave mentions in his column (I was interviewed for it), I have been hanging around the academic blogosphere for a long time, since early grad school, and have been reading and writing blogs since my junior year in college (that’s about eleven years, if you’re counting). At first, I read academic blogs by women. They were all pseudonymous, and there were regular flare-ups about who was a serious blogger or not based on whether they dared to use their real name. Many pseudonymous women wrote beautiful posts about what it means for them to reveal their thinking in a safe space, to make connections to other women when they feel isolated in their institutions, to give and receive true mentoring online when they weren’t getting it in real life. Writing pseudonymously often seemed a way to be able to write about sexism without fear of being seen as a less serious scholar (because serious scholars can always rise above sexism since academia is a well-functioning meritocracy, right?), and without fear of personal attacks (though being outed was still occasionally a concern).

Anyway, after a while I realized that there was this thing called scienceblogging, where people didn’t just write about their lives in academia or issues in the institution of higher education (two very important topics that I still read regularly), but also about the science they do.

And that’s where all the men were. (There were some pseudonymous men, but also men blogging under their real name in a higher proportion, in the neighborhood of academic blogs I originally read.)

I found scienceblogs about denialism, about pseudoscience, medicine, anti-woo, evolution, atheism, science and religion, politics and science. I found researchblogging that cited specific sources. I found shouting matches. I also found lots of cool, sweet, nice, interesting people. And even though the tone was very different, and I often felt as though I had to shoulder my way in, I was hooked. A space where I could talk about science!

But I worried that authors of papers would hate me forever if I said anything bad online about their publications. I worried about employers firing me if they didn’t like what I had to say. I worried about being attacked if I ever revealed experiences I have had over the years with sexism, or observed regarding racism. So I still didn’t do it for a while. I had no idea if blogging under my real name would be safe or not.

Teaching and blogging

A few things happened that made me decide to do it even if there were consequences. Once I became a tenure-track professor, and specifically an instructor of Anth 143, a life science gen ed here at the University of Illinois, I noticed that my students sometimes came in with a smaller skill set on how to understand science than I expected. Many did not know how to read or interpret graphs or tables, at all. Many were unfamiliar with the scientific method. And many both hated science and were petrified of it. Mind you, these are very intelligent, fun, bright, attentive students looking to do well in class. It’s not that they couldn’t handle the material. It’s not that they were not smart. Instead, they often described very specific experiences where someone had told them they weren’t good at science, or described the pace of their classes as overwhelming, or even had very early experiences where they were encouraged to pursue fields other than science. Many of these students were women and people of color.

I redesigned my classes to teach more fundamentals on the scientific method and evolution. I did more testing and assessment on graph-reading. I incorporated active learning and more interaction-rich online learning into the course. But I also wanted to make science more accessible and fun, just to show students its potential. I find learning new things in my field and across science disciplines incredibly exciting, and I love reading good science writing. I love the tangents my mind wanders towards after linking something I’m doing in my research with teaching or a blog post I’ve read. And I wanted to see if I could do anything to foster that excitement in my students and a broader lay audience, at least in the topics where I have expertise and personal interest.

I tentatively started to blog at my lab website in May of 2009. I wrote about topics that I found interesting, specifically around women’s reproductive functioning, and how anthropological interpretations of data and symptoms are very different than those of medical doctors. However, I worried that my own voice would overshadow the lab space, so in August of 2010 I created this blog, Context and Variation (you can read the about page for what it all means). Here, I have been trying to do some of my usual writing on women’s health and reproductive functioning, as well as link round-ups that would be useful for new readers of scienceblogs, as well as for my Anth 143 students. I hope to get up the nerve to write about science more outside of my field of expertise in the coming months.

I have found it very difficult to figure out how to encourage more people to comment here, but also difficult to figure out how to promote my blog and increase my exposure. I would like to increase the number of blog posts I can submit to ResearchBlogs, but those kind of posts seriously eat into manuscript and grant writing time. Posts where I write about my life would be easier and faster to write, but then I risk being taken less seriously. In my interview with Dave Munger, we briefly touched on the ways in which men are more likely to be able to talk about their home lives at work without being targeted for attacks on whether they are serious about their work. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be evasive or not share information about their private lives. These are of course generalizations, and there are negative consequences for this sexism for men too (like men who are committed to co-parenting and raising their children being called just “babysitters” of their own children). And while personal posts always seem to generate more comments, science content posts seem to get the most respect as serious scholarship.

Thus women sciencebloggers, who, if my experience is generalizable, may first join the academic blogosphere for community and to contradict their isolation. They may find that if they use their real names they are suddenly censoring themselves in what they can write about (or at least, this is what I find about myself). I often wonder if the way we unintentionally create scienceblog hierarchies — blogs about science above blogs about the life or process of science (and controversial topics or those where attacks of the author are common getting a lot more attention as well) — is part of what keeps fewer women blogging, and those women who do blog from gaining much exposure.

Exposing more readers to women sciencebloggers: one solution

Christine, Jenny and I discussed on Twitter whether it made sense to create a women-only scienceblog network. I was hesitant to create a network that was women-only, because, as I tweeted, “I’d rather fight to play in th big kid sandbox rather than create my own, and help other women within it.”

Still, I felt compelled to do something. And Christine several times made the point that we can’t just complain, that we should come up with a solution. I am pretty sure it was Bora who first had the idea to aggregate women sciencebloggers, but I cannot find the tweet. So, knowing absolutely nothing about how to aggregate blogs, I went to the two posts over at to learn how. I cloned the FieldOfScience Yahoo Pipe first. Once the list got to be of a certain size (over seventy or so) the Pipe seemed to stop working and wouldn’t save my work. So then I tried Xfruits. Turns out you can’t aggregate more than thirty RSS feeds there either. So then I turned to Friendfeed, and thankfully Bora helped me figure out how to use it with a few comments in the Friendfeed stream and Twitter comments.

So currently there is a public Women Sciencebloggers Friendfeed group that you can subscribe to. Right now anyone can comment and add to the feed. Eventually I am going to make it a standard feed and see if I can convince a few other people (Jenny? Christine?) to help me be admins.

There are still some kinks with the Friendfeed. Some of the links that seemed to work in Yahoo Pipes are not working in Friendfeed. And again, now that the list is large, I am getting a lot of timeouts and errors. I am having trouble always important the feeds of group blogs correctly so that only the female bloggers are featured. So you may occasionally read a man in the feed (horrors!), or you may find your blog that was listed on Martin’s #wsb list not yet in the feed. This is why having one of you volunteer to help me would be fantastic.

But not to fear. For now, I have come up with a relatively simple mechanism for you to tell me what blogs to add: you can email Make sure you provide the link, but also if it is a multi-authored blog the names of the women bloggers. I will not be able to update all that often, given the tenure-track job, teaching 700 students, raising a toddler and playing roller derby thing. But at least you have a place to remind me of women scienceblogs that need to be added to the friendfeed. And that means they will eventually make it in.

Once I’m comfortable that I have done the aggregating correctly, I’ll submit this to in the hopes that they will feature it on their site. If you have other ideas to promote this feed and promote women sciencebloggers, however, I want to hear it in the comments!