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September 28, 2022

A couple of neuroscientists were surprised at the effect of boosting testosterone in male Mongolian gerbils:

In one experiment, a male gerbil was introduced to a female gerbil. After they developed a pair connection and the female got pregnant, the males displayed the typical cuddling behaviors toward their partners. The male individuals were subsequently given testosterone injections by the researchers. They hypothesized that the subsequent acute rise in a male’s testosterone level would reduce his cuddling behaviors since testosterone is generally an antisocial molecule. “Instead, we were surprised that a male gerbil became even more cuddly and prosocial with his partner,” Kelly says. “He became like ‘super partner.’”

Which is today’s reminder that the effects of hormones on behavior is complex. (Cite.)

Imaginary masculinity

September 27, 2022

As a matter of human biology, I am male because I produce sperm rather than releasing eggs. Hormonal differences during puberty and ongoing make it easier for me to do chin ups — as example of upper body strength — than for most women. Those morphological differences are mundane, and quickly veer in directions most people don’t know and don’t care. Such as the shape of the pubic symphysis.

Masculinity is a different matter. It is something socially constructed. Many of its presumed ties to biology are fanciful. The authoritarian right imagines particularly crazed and vicious forms of it. Madison Cawthorn wants parents to raise boys to be monsters. Tucker Carlson praises gangsters for their “honor” and defends fascist leaders. Ben Shapiro squeaks that our military is not masculine enough.

It would be easy to dismiss the primping of such clowns. Krugman laughs at those who heralded Putin for his manly efforts to restore Russia’s glory and traditional values.

What matters is that they are riding a popular wave, one that empowers dangerous politicians. Something we have seen before. This echo of machismo embeds three features it counts as “manly.” First, the capacity for cruelty. Second, a perverse sense of honor, more about posturing and willingness to revenge perceived grievances than any integrity in character. Third, an idealization of man as head of a “traditional” family, with woman subordinate, and other sexual or familial arrangements morally condemned. Alas, their own subordination in that does not prevent women on the right from lauding such notion.

Raise your children to imagine something better.

Imaginary apocalypse

September 26, 2022

zdzislaw-beksinski-pale-riderSomeone who believes that they have a source of True Knowledge about the world’s affairs, who sees that broadly ignored, and who observes most others taking courses contrary to that, might be tempted to believe that catastrophe is just around the corner. It may be that those who continually predict economic collapse because of the machinations of the WEF share cognitive patterns with those who predict cultural collapse because people aren’t right with Jesus. (Cite.)

As relevant example, Damon Linker writes about Ron Dreher’s turn to the apocalyptic. It’s interesting to observe, over the years, which writers remain relevant and interesting. And which go over some edge.

Earliest surgical amputation?

September 21, 2022

In 2020, archaeologists in Borneo uncovered a fossilized human skeleton 31,000 years old. Given modern archaeology, there is nothing surprising about such old remains. Nor that the left foot was missing, since old skeletons often are partial.

But closer inspection showed that the left foot wasn’t merely missing. It had been removed while the individual was a child, allowing regrowth of the tibia and fibula ends in the years since. It’s easy, of course, to imagine all the many ways a child might lose a foot. The authors considered them:

The trauma pattern observed is not consistent with clinical descriptions of non-surgical amputation, except in cases of modern trauma in which a large metal blade or a mechanical process has been involved. Non-surgical amputations, commonly as a result of accidents, do not cause clean oblique sectioning and are not clinically recorded to sever the lower limb of both the tibia and fibula, as is the case for TB1. Blunt-force trauma from an accident or an animal attack typically causes comminuted and crushing fractures, features that are absent from the clearly simple and oblique amputation margin of TB1. Amputation as punishment is considered unlikely, particularly given the careful treatment of the individual in life after the amputation and in burial, which is not consistent with someone considered deviant. Completely remodelled lamellar bone has enclosed the inferior margin of the fibula (Fig. 3e,f), indicating that TB1 died a minimum of 6–9 years after the initial trauma—confirming that this was not a fatal pathology. There is no evidence of infection in the left limb, the most common complication of an open wound without antimicrobial treatment. The lack of infection further rules out the probability of animal attack, such as a crocodile bite, because an attack has a very high probability of complications from infection owing to microorganisms from the animal’s teeth entering the wound.

Well, it still is a stretch to think surgeons were amputating limbs at that time. That conclusion remains a matter of elimination of other causes due to their probable effects. As easy example, infection and how quickly an individual clears it always is a roll of the dice. So I’ll remain skeptical of that claim, barring other discoveries that buttress it. I’m not saying it’s wrong. The far past is another world — actually, a series of worlds — that we see only dimly through clues it has left here and there.

Selling your fluids

September 20, 2022

Vanessa Veselka writes lucidly about how blood plasma is bought in the US:

Our system of “donation” is so successful that the United States provides about two-thirds of the plasma available worldwide, and accounts for 35 percent to 40 percent of the plasma used in medicine in Europe — so much of which comes out of the veins of America’s poor. The first time I heard that you could sell plasma was in the mid-1980s. I was 15 and living under a bridge. The people around me called the plasma center the “Stab Lab.”

Jan_HoremansI donate whole blood a few times a year. In the US, whole blood donation is not compensated. Well, you get a cookie and maybe a t-shirt. No cash. That makes a difference in the donor pool and in the social experience of donating. On the medical side, you still are interviewed and still recline for twenty minutes with a needle drawing from a vein.

Painting by Jan Horemans shows bloodletting in 17th century.

Child poverty

September 19, 2022

There has been quite a bit of media attention on the fortunate decline in childhood poverty. Renee Ryberg explains why that is important:

A childhood free of poverty predicts better adult outcomes in just about every area you can imagine, including education, earnings and health.

USChildPovertyFrom1980That said, I am underwhelmed by how most of the popular press reports on this. In trying to explain it, they focus entirely on government policy. The New York Times article from which the quote is taken at least looks at policy changes over the decades. Importantly, it provides a time series graph, covering a reasonable number of years, which is something everyone thinking quantitatively wants to see. (The articles that give one conveniently chosen starting point should be dismissed outright.)

USFertilityRateFrom1980The problem with gravitating to policy analysis is that something like childhood poverty has broad causes. Our society has seen many other kinds of relevant changes over those years. Let’s consider one example. The first graph above is from ChildTrends, showing US childhood poverty. I purposely clipped it to start in the year 1980, to align by year with the second graph. Which shows the US fertility rate over the same years, from this article. (Click either graph to enlarge.) While they do not align perfectly, they both show long term decline, both have a peak in the early 1990s, and both have that precipitous decline in the last decade. It is easy to understand how women limiting the number of children they bear thereby gain some family financial leeway.

Even so, establishing their causal relationship would require digging more closely into those statistics for different groups. Note it might play more role in some decades than in others. No doubt, more for some groups than others. (And similarly for any particular policy change.) The ChildTrends analysis claims the decline in fertility benefits the poorest:

While the dramatic decline in teen birth rates from 1993 to 2019 was not associated with decreases in child poverty rates, it was associated with a decline in rates of deep poverty among children. The decline in teen births was associated with 52 percent of the total decline in child deep poverty across this time.

If so, it seems odd it helps so much with the segment that suffers most, and not at all with the next. That answer strikes me as one that likely depends on the analytic lens brought to bear.

To be clear, I am not dismissing the importance of government programs. I support most aimed at childhood poverty. And would do so, even if they merely reduced the pain, while incidence increased from other causes.
But I also am leery of analysis that looks at just one kind of cause for long-term social trends. Society is a complex beast.

Matagorda channel expansion

September 15, 2022

Though Matagorda Bay gets its share of barge traffic, it doesn’t have the channels to handle the deep oil tankers. Those go to Corpus Christi. The inland waters nearby mostly serve shrimpers and recreational anglers. Port O’Connor is a small village on the ICW. It has a boat ramp that is quite busy, and a bait store, but doesn’t have a public marina. A few private slips for shrimp boats. The lucky boat going down the ICW can rent a private slip for a night or two.

I like Texas’s inland waters. Two years past, I berthed in Port O’Connor delivering a small Cape Dory to Corpus Christi. About then, Midstream Partners had purchased an oil terminal nearby. It wants to exand. Some locals concerned with those inland waters are calling foul on what all that dredging and ship traffic might do. The expansion has been delayed while both sides prepare for court.

Most of the residents on the Texas coast lean right politically. So far right they could be doing a side plank. Their automatic response to environmental concerns is that it all is far left nonsense. Except when it affects their fishing grounds or the waters in front of their vacation home. Then it is something different. There is nothing wrong with environmental concerns coming to for the forefront when they are in one’s own waters. But all environmental concerns are local to someone.


September 14, 2022

Presenting fake electoral slates was one of the more brazen parts of Trump’s coup attempt. Intuitively, those signing a fake certificate and those presenting it to the government as authentic, while knowing its statements are false, thereby should violate some law. That’s the case when people intentionally falsify a broad variety of mundane documents, from tax returns to real estate deeds. So it is good to see that the Justice Department recently served dozens of related subpoenas.

The MAGA world reacted by talking breathlessly about homes being raided. Palm Beach County Attorney David Aronberg said that “what [Steve Bannon] did was confuse search warrants with subpoenas.” Which goes too far to give the benefit of doubt. Bannon knows what a subpoena is: he is about to be sentenced in federal court for ignoring one.


September 13, 2022

This story about the nationalist right in Russia makes grim reading, on two grounds. First, it provides yet another example of how easily people gravitate to certain political tropes: hating foreign enemies, wanting leaders who draw a strong notion of victory, blaming those who don’t get behind such a program for their weakness or disloyalty or appeasement. Second, it is all too believable that Russia’s leadership in the not too distant future could derive from this movement.

I hope that Putin’s successors arrive soon, and are more liberal than he is. If so, they will become the targets of the nationalist right, and will have to fight it politically. What would they offer? More civil liberty? Rapprochment with liberal democracies? Weak tea, compared to making Russia great again.

Monk genes

September 12, 2022

Anthropologists at University College London studied villages in the eastern Tibetan plateau, where a young son often is sent to a monastery. They found:

Men with a brother who was a monk were wealthier, owning more yaks. .. Men with a monk brother had more children than men with non-celibate brothers; and their wives tended to have children at an earlier age. Grandparents with a monk son also had more grandchildren, as their non-celibate sons faced less or no competition with their brothers. The practice of sending a son to the monastery, far from being costly to a parent, is therefore in line with a parent’s reproductive interests.

Cornelisz._van_Haarlem_The_Monk_and_the_NunI’m a bit leery of an interpretation that is strictly biological. Human institutions have to serve some of their stakeholders to survive. It’s not surprising that sometimes aligns with reproductive benefit. But neither should we expect that always is the case. Despite the title of this post, there is little reason to suspect there are genes for monkhood. (Cite.)

The painting right is a 16th c. depiction of a monk and nun, by Cornelis van Haarlem.