Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving!



I have very mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. As someone who does not support genocide or turkey-icide, it's hard to get excited about a holiday that seems to support both. Nonetheless, I have A LOT to be thankful for this thanksgiving, and I'm feeling quite grateful for it all.

But first, this Thanksgiving, remember the Native Americans who lost lives, land, and loved ones due to colonization and American expansion. You might want to read Rethinking Thanksgiving if you get a chance.

Next, Positively Present has some great posts on Happiness and Gratitude and The Benefits of Being Grateful.

I have a lot too be thankful for this year. I've acquired some wonderful furry friends, as well as one scaly friend, and met a wonderful guy. I've had the joy of attending four good friends' wedding in the past 5 months, and they have been wonderful reunion with old friends. I've also successfully passed my candidacy exams and have received $20,000 from Wenner-Gren, which will make my dissertation research possible. Additionally, while it's been a while since I've been able to see my spiders in the wild, I've gotten to visit captive spiders at the Como Zoo and Cleveland Zoo.

Finally, check out Orangutans at the Cleveland Zoo enjoying pumpkin!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

evolution, women in science, oxytocin, and grandmothering macaques

Here's a random assortment of interesting stuff I've come across recently....

I really enjoyed this article in Newsweek about teaching evolution to children, as well as this link about how kids just "get" natural selection.

Also in Newsweek, there's a blog post entitled "Is Motherhood Keeping Good Scientists Down? How to Fix Research's 'Mommy Gap.'"

Unfortunately, it brings up a very difficult point:

"It’s not innate gender differences that hold women back (just look at this year’s Nobel Prize winners in science). It’s not even gender bias (OK, maybe a little, but that’s not the biggest problem). It’s that science is demanding and very, very competitive. No matter how family-friendly a given university is, a scientist who chooses to have a baby risks having her next big breakthrough scooped up by a competitor who chooses to spend 24/7 in the lab. Changing that will take more than a handful of policies; it will require changing the nature of the game itself. I don't think that's possible, and I'm not entirely convinced it's desirable. It’s competition, after all, that spurs innovation and advancement."

I do agree that is the problem--there will always be people that are willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING else in their lives to get ahead. Choosing to have a family means (or should mean) that you aren't willing to sacrifice that for your research or career. Furthermore, I disagree with the author here--I think changing of the nature of the game may be difficult (I have no idea if it's possible or not), but I think it would be desirable. I believe maintaining creative, insightful scientists with different live experiences and interests will spur innovation and advancement more than cutthroat, sacrifice-all competition. Any thoughts?

In other news, The New York Times has an interesting article about oxytocin. I absolutely love this quote:

"Above all, be thankful for your brain’s supply of oxytocin, the small, celebrated peptide hormone that, by the looks of it, helps lubricate our every prosocial exchange, the thousands of acts of kindness, kind-of kindness and not-as-nakedly-venal-as-I-could-have-been kindness that make human society possible."


Finally, head over to the Prancing Papio to read about Grandmothering in Japanese macaques.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kids are smarter than we give them credit for

There's some really interesting advice from kids, in an interview in which they answered what they wish parent's know. You can read about it here. Overall, the younger ones want parents to remember that they need to support and attention; the older ones want parents to realize that they still need support, but also that they worry and stress about their parent's concerns. Honestly, I think they kids have figured out the important things in life: social support is essential, if you're angry, you need to remember that it hurts the people around you, and stress can be contagious.

My favorite quote though, comes from one of the youngest interviewees, Amy, age 3:

"Everyday, please, cuddles and marshmallows, please!"

I may be 25 years older, but I feel she's figured out exactly what would cheer me up. I'm going to go cuddle with my kitties and eat some (vegetarian, gelatin-free) marshmallows :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Illiniois GAs demand a living wage

Full story here

I hope they succeed in getting their demands met. It shouldn't be considered so radical for grad students to get paid enough to live on--it should be the standard everywhere. Grad students at Illinois were responsible for the majority of my undergrad education and they deserve to be adequately paid for their work. It's ridiculous how much undergrads pay for tuition (even in-state tuition) given how little of that money actually goes toward their "education."

Now if perhaps GESO at OSU could follow suite in making such demands... I would greatly appreciate it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Baboons!

There's a couple interesting posts on baboons that I wanted to link to... Raymond at the Prancio Papio has an interesting post about Behavioral Synchronization in Chacma Baboons, and Beast Ape has a post on Contagious Yawning in Geladas.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

L'Empathie

In French, but has some amazing footage of interspecies affection, bonding, caretaking, and helping behavior... as well as some commentary on human empathy (I think, my french isn't quite up to par)... I think it really illustrates the strength of mammalian instincts for bonding and caretaking behaviors.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Life choices, happiness, and hormones



The blogs I read fall into three general categories, 1)Academic/life balance, 2) happiness and 3) behavior/endocrinology. My posts are focused on #3, and I never thought I'd write a post that incorporates all three... but I think today I will.

This post is inspired by a post by Balancing Act on Being a Real Person and a Graduate Student and Isis on the compatibility of motherhood and science. Balancing Act writes about how her life of being a real person, with a family, hobbies, and a life outside of grad school is often considered inconsistent with being a graduate student, and both Isis and her readers comment about whether having kids detracts from having a scientific career.

Academia requires a huge commitment. I remember being told by friends (that were conducting their dissertation research) the year before grad school that in this field (specifically, primatology, though this probably applies to other academic fields as well) that it is IMPOSSIBLE to have a successful personal life and a successful professional life--because there are enough people willing to sacrifice everything for their professional life, and those are the people that get ahead. And back then, I hoped it wasn't true. But I do feel that for the two years before grad school (in which I did various internships and field positions), and most of grad school, I have, whether intentionally or not, had very little in the way of a life outside of grad school/primatology.

In the words of Balancing Act, I would be the traditional graduate student. During my masters, I lived alone, without pets, without a tv, and my only friends in town were fellow grad students. And I was INCREDIBLY productive. My social life consisted of going to coffee shops to study with friends, and then occasionally doing dinner or a movie after. I spent the majority of my time holed up in my apartment, sitting at my computer doing work, and in those two years, I got a hell of a lot done. And that level of productivity and constant working is probably what is expected of a typical graduate student.

Since moving to my PhD program, my level of productivity has slowly fallen. I still technically live alone, and lack a tv, but I got a cat. I started to socialize more, watch dvds more frequently, watch tv shows on hulu, and have increasingly become addicted to facebook, checking news sites, blogs, etc. In short, I've lost some of my productivity, and have become much more easily distracted. Nonetheless, I have still managed to get a lot done (though it never seems to be enough). And most importantly, I had a realization that keeping up the breakneck pace of productivity, and having absolutely no life, was making me incredibly unhappy. I want to have a successful professional life, but I've already sacrificed all of my post-undergrad life to doing work. I realized that if I kept this up my entire life, yes, I could be productive, I could probably be successful, but I'd be miserably unhappy and watch life just pass me by.

Since then, my life has changed a bit. A month before my candidacy exams (last April), I took in a foster dog, who I still have. A couple of people have voiced their opinion that I shouldn't have taken in a dog when I was studying for candidacies, because it would be a distraction--but having a dog around made me so much happier. And I started dating someone right before I took my exams (which also makes me happy). And in my post-candidacy slump, I haven't been very productive, but have been enjoying having a life for a change. I've gotten to spend more time outdoors, gone hiking and camping, and rediscovered my love of reading (for fun!) and recently, painting.

Now, in addition to my one original cat, and my foster dog, I have a second cat (a 14-year-old I took in because she desperately needed a peaceful home where she wouldn't get picked on by other cats), and my boyfriend's cat has joined my household (his other cat died, and this cat is too sociable to be alone). In addition, my boyfriend spends most of his time here when he's not at work. Not to mention I have a snake, and will probably be adding another...

So I can't comment specifically on motherhood, because I don't have children. But, it struck me that some of the comments about it was that it took time away from productivity, was exhausting, involved cleaning up bodily fluids, and sadly, at least one commenter said that it made her less of a scientist. And granted, I'm sure it does take away from productivity, must be exhausting, and requires cleaning up a lot of messes. But while pets aren't quite the same, having four of them around can be a lot of work, and I seem to be cleaning up some form of accident quite a lot, and it gets frustrating. I do seem to ask myself why I've acquired this many pets, and I know some of my fellow grad students have commented that they think I'm crazy. But the thing is, they are also incredibly rewarding. They make me happy. I have a wagging tail greeting me at the door, I go on long walks outside with a incredibly cheerful and happy dog, and I spend time cuddling with sweet, purring kitties who are incredibly affectionate. I'm much happier than I used to be, and I think a lot of that comes from the oyxtocin rush I get from having a relationship with these wonderful (though at times, challenging) animals, and all the daily contact and cuddles i get (granted, having a boyfriend now also probably contributes to that).

And so I assume that children have some of those same benefits. Yes, I have no doubt that they are an incredibly amount of work, and probably drive you crazy, and I'm not sure how parents handle the sleep deprivation. But still, just like my cute doggy and kitties, babies have evolved these incredibly appealing characteristics that tap into our hormonal caregiving systems and elicit not only caregiving behaviors, but also a hormonal rush of contentment and connectedness. And I'm sure as they get older, they continue to demonstrate some of the amazing features of being unique human beings, while providing their parents with love and affection.

As an anthropologist, I feel it's easy to see how having kids would in some ways contribute to your scientific ideas. Just thinking about the balance women face between juggling children and work has fueled a lot of interesting questions in my mind, and I think in the future I'd really like to study maternal investment/trade-offs and the underlying endocrinology. And even though I don't study canids or felids, I still think having my pets contributes to my thinking about the questions I study, particularly as I watch their interactions, and their clamoring for affection and attention. My research is on social relationships and stress, and so more than anything, that extensive studying I did for my candidacy exams drummed into my head the importance for humans, and other social animals, of having strong social connections, and the health benefits it provides, both mentally and physically.

While I think one path to being a good scientist might be locking yourself away in the lab, the office, or a remote field location and devoting your life wholesale to your research, I also think having a life of your own can contribute to being a good scientist. By living a full life, complete with social relationships, pets, kids, and hobbies, I think you engage with many of the same aspects of the world that inspired us to become scientists. Most of us didn't fall in love with learning or science because it meant shutting us from the rest of the world--we fell in love with it because we watched the world around us, and were fascinating with how things work, and why wanted to know how and why. And by continuing to engage with the world, and our lives, we maintain that sense of curiosity and wonder we used to have. I believe that engagement can fuel our scientific imaginations and lead us to knew insights and directions to explore in our research. And in doing so, we'll also get those dopamine rushes from learning and action, and those oxytocin rushes from connection with others, and be able to feel happy and fulfilled as we go about doing great science.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hormone that affects finger length key to social behavior

Here's a really interesting press release on an article being published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology...

Hormone that affects finger length key to social behavior

The hormones, called androgens, are important in the development of masculine characteristics such as aggression and strength. It is also thought that prenatal androgens affect finger length during development in the womb. High levels of androgens, such as testosterone, increase the length of the fourth finger in comparison to the second finger. Scientists used finger ratios as an indicator of the levels of exposure to the hormone and compared this data with social behaviour in primate groups.

The team found that Old World monkeys, such as baboons and rhesus macaques, have a longer fourth finger in comparison to the second finger, which suggests that they have been exposed to high levels of prenatal androgens. These species tend to be highly competitive and promiscuous, which suggests that exposure to a lot of androgens before birth could be linked to the expression of this behaviour.

Other species, such as gibbons and many New World species, have digit ratios that suggest low levels of prenatal androgen exposure. These species were monogamous and less competitive than Old World monkeys.

The results show that Great Apes, such as orang-utans and chimpanzees, expressed a different finger ratio. The analysis suggests that early androgen exposure is lower in this groups compared to Old World monkeys. Lower androgen levels could help explain why Great Apes show high levels of male cooperation and tolerance.

Emma Nelson, from the University of Liverpool's School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, explains: "It is thought that prenatal androgens affect the genes responsible for the development of fingers, toes and the reproductive system. High androgen levels from a foetus or mother during pregnancy, may alter gene function and lead to subtle changes in relative digit length and the functioning of the reproductive system. Finger ratios do not change very much after birth and appear to tell us something about how very early androgens affect adult behaviour, particularly behaviour linked to mating and reproduction."

Dr Susanne Shultz, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, said: "Humans are unique in that they live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, but maintain strong bonds and show high levels of group cooperation in both males and females. In most other species males are competitive rather than co-operative. Research from finger ratios may help us understand more clearly the development of human sociality and its evolutionary origins."

###

This research, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, is supported by the British Academy Centenary Research Project, Lucy to Language - a multi-disciplinary project that aims to understand the complexities of human social evolution.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Defense of Anthropomorphism





Is it really anthropomorphic to to apply human emotions and motivations to behaviors in anthropoid (ie, human-like) primates? What about non-anthropoid (ie, prosimian) primates? Non-primate mammals? Where should we be drawing the line? Which is the worst "sin" in science, using anthropomorphic reasoning to attribute certain emotions/motivations/meanings to animal behavior, or to use anthropocentric reasoning to deny commonalities in our behavior and that of other animals?

This is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, and I'm definitely a primatologist who prefers to err on the side of anthropomorphism rather than anthropocentrism. But the inspiration of this post came from some discussions I read a while back on ScienceBlogs, where a call for photographs of animals "kissing" (to be used in a book on the evolution of kissing), drew some irate responses insisting that referring to such images as "kissing" was anthropomorphic, inappropriate, unscientific.

Anthropomorphism can be problematic, particularly if it is applied without careful consideration of the species, the behavior, and the underlying neuroendrocine mechanisms in question. However, in most of western science, an inaccurate anthropocentric view, based on some of the mistakes of western philosophy (particularly due to Descartes's mistaken belief that animal were mere automatons that did not truly feel), which in turn were rooted in western religious distinctions between humans and animals, have in some ways hampered animal behavior research. For example, in Japan, where the human/animal dichotomy was not present in cultural perceptions, recognizing individual monkeys as unique actors embedded in a social network resulted in insights into social behavior and relationships that took much longer to recognize in western science.

Darwin challenges this human/animal dichotomy; one of his lesser known books was on the commonality of expressions and emotions in humans and other animals. However, even within Darwinian science, a focus on objective, dispassionate science, combined with biases regarding human uniqueness, have often fostered a very anthropocentric viewpoint. Jane Goodall challenged one aspect of this standpoint, by giving her focal subjects names instead of numbers, and by being willing to vocally defend this. Nonetheless, a few years ago, when I was a field assistant working on research on Cayo Santiago (an island off of Puerto Rico with free-ranging rhesus macaques), where all the monkeys were assigned numbers, the naming vs. numbers debate still seemed to active among researchers (personally, I felt that learning names in conjunction with traits helped me to learn the monkeys faster).

"We scientists are privy to a rare and precious opportunity when we come to know intimately nonhuman animals living in their own worlds. We have a responsibility to these animals to show other people who they really are--sentient beings who matter to one another, living lives as full of drama and emotion and poetry as our own. To perceive the planet as populated with billions of such creatures staggers the imagination, but it is true, and if we want the world of the future to retain this richness, we need to become ever more conscious of this reality before it is too late." --Barbara Smuts



I'm lucky that I've been inspired by great primatologists who do not shy away from anthropomorphism. Barbara Smut's quote reminds me that as someone who has the privilege to get to intimately known animal's lives, I have an obligation to share the beauty of their complex social world, including relationships, emotions, triumphs, and tragedies, with the rest of the human world. And I'm lucky that Jill, my master's advisor, recognizes the commonality between human and primate lives, and takes what could be cosnidered a fairly anthropomorphic view--which in turn, I believe, has helped facilitated her research (you can read more about her and her research, as well as some of the issues with anthropomorphism issue in the National Geographic article Almost Human).

Basically, if you are unwilling to attribute human-like emotion or motivation to primates' (and other animals') behavior, you might miss out on a lot of some of the most interesting aspects of primate behavior. The use of planning in tool use, creative innovation, the strengths of social bonds and attachments, deception, manipulation, grief... all of these things that require recognizing these commonalities. And aside from missing so much, if we avoid being anthropomorphic, sometimes we avoid being parsimonious as well. For animals that are so closely related to us, that share the same neural architecture that govern emotions, and the same neurotransmitters and hormones, it's puzzling to assume a huge emotional gulf. And furthermore, if we assume that fundamental disconnect, than we must also assume that our own neuroendocrine mechanisms and neural architecture evolved independently of our closely relatives--and I have my doubts that many scientists truly do that. Most of the biomedical research carried out on other animals including primates as well as other mammals (especially rats), is based on the assumption that we share these qualities as a result of our shared evolutionary past. Thus, to assume that we cannot share the same emotions/motivations requires simultaneously, unquestioningly, holding two conflicting viewpoints (which humans seem to be proficient at doing).

Clearly, I'm coming down on the side of advocating anthropocentrism rather than anthropocentrism. Nonetheless, this does not mean that I advocate careless anthropocentrism. Rather, I believe we should use reasoned anthropocentrism in interpretating primate behavior (as well as other animal's behavior). Instead, I think we need to carefully consider the behaviors, in terms of its operational definition, the underlying neuroendocrine mechanisms, and its proximate functions. For example, in considering a picture we might see of animals kissing, we might want to consider to following questions:





1) Does the behavior fit the operational definitions we would use for a corresponding human behavior?

*ie, two individuals pressing each others lips together, or one individual pressing their lips against another individual's skin.

2) What are the assumed functions/motivations of the behavior?

*ie, in humans, we assume that a kiss is an expression of love and affection, and a sign/mechanism of social bonding.

3) What are the underlying physiological mechanisms?

*ie, in humans, the actions of oxytocin are thought to underly expressions of love and affection, and facilitate social bonding.

4) Does this species share the same physiological mechanism?

*other mammals share the same hormone, and it fulfills the same function--most of our understanding of this hormone is due to research conducted in rodents.

5) If we assume a commonality in intention/motivation, is it consistent with the social structure/organization/behavior of these species? Are there possible alternate explanations?

*If we are looking at a species in which social bonds are important, this would support the assumption that the "kiss" behavior may be fulfilling this function. If ware looking at a species that does not form strong social bonds, then we should consider the possibility that this is NOT a homologous behavior. Furthermore, if there is a possibility that this behavior may be the result of other mechanism (ie, it could potentially be two unfamiliar individuals sniffing each other to gain olfactory information, if it could potentially be one individual preparing to bite the other individual, etc.)

Essentially, when we look at behavior, and we try to infer motivations/intentions, we really need to use the same process we would use in determining if certain anatomical features are similar as a result of homology (ie, similar due to common ancestry), or analogy (ie, similar due to common function, but arose independently).

If we look at many of the behaviors we see in primates (as well as many other animals, particularly other mammals) what is termed "anthropomorphism" is often an interpretation based on assumptions of homology.