Archive for October, 2015

Differences Between Male and Female Brain Area? Big Data Says Not Really


Leave a comment »

Amazingly, We Can See Infrared Light Scientists investigate the weirdness of infrared light — and how we perceive it.

Leave a comment »

Mother of all apes—including humans—may have been surprisingly small

This ancient ape had the face and small body of a gibbon, but a relatively large brain.
This ancient ape had the face and small body of a gibbon, but a relatively large brain.

Mother of all apes—including humans—may have been surprisingly small

Ann is a contributing correspondent for Science

Email Ann
By Ann Gibbons 29 October 2015 2:00 pm 0 Comments
From sturdy chimpanzees to massive gorillas to humans themselves, the living great apes are all large-bodied, weighing between 30 and 180 kilograms. So for years most researchers thought the ancestral ape must have tipped the scales as well. But the partial skeleton of an 11.6-million-year-old primitive ape may force scientists to reimagine the ancestor of all living apes and humans. With a muzzle like a gibbon but a large brain for its body size, the ancient primate has traits that link it to all apes and humans—yet it weighed only 4 kg to 5 kg, according to a report today in Science.

The ancient skeleton was found near Barcelona, Spain. If that seems strange, that’s because a bewildering number of extinct apes once roamed far and wide across the forests of Europe, Asia, and Africa during the Miocene Epoch, 5 million to 23 million years ago. After the ancestors of apes and monkeys split into two groups roughly 25 million years ago, apes underwent a remarkable florescence, evolving into more than 30 different types. About 17 million years ago, these early apes diverged into two distinct groups—the “lesser apes,” small-bodied, tree-living creatures represented today by gibbons and siamangs, and the great apes, which include chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans—and humans.

Until recently, most researchers assumed that the fossils of small Miocene apes were the ancestors of gibbons or extinct lineages of little primates, whereas the larger bodied fossil apes were the forebears of greater apes and humans. “For decades, the small stuff was thought to be related to gibbons and the big stuff was thought to be related to great apes,” says paleoanthropologist John Fleagle of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. And many researchers have thought that a large-bodied, 18-million-year-old ape called Proconsul from Kenya offered the best model for the ancestor of all apes.

This neat split is now being challenged by a strange new Miocene ape—Pliobates cataloniae, named for the province of Catalonia in Spain. In January 2011, a team of paleontologists monitoring bulldozers excavating a landfill 50 kilometers northwest of Barcelona found 70 crucial pieces of an ancient primate skeleton: the cranium (the top of the skull), chunks of the upper jaw and muzzle, plus arm, hand, and hind bones, all buried in a layer of sediment reliably dated to 11.6 million years ago.

The bones of the skull were crushed against each other, so rather than trying to break them apart, paleobiologists David Alba and Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Sabadell, Spain, and their colleagues scanned the entire chunk of skull and rock using computed tomography. Then they created a 3D reconstruction of the skull. They noted that this fossil had primitive traits, such as a monkey-size brain, small teeth with sharp cusps, and eye sockets that telescoped out, similar to those of a gibbon. But it also had more modern or derived traits that link it to great apes, including a short, wide cranium. What really caught the team’s attention were elbow and wrist bones that would have allowed Pliobates to rotate its wrist and forearm for climbing and clambering in trees. Great apes including humans have these traits, but lesser apes do not.

This unusual mosaic of primitive and modern traits suggests that Pliobates didn’t launch itself from branch to branch like gibbon apes, but instead climbed relatively slowly in the trees, moving atop the branches carefully to eat fruit. Given its mix of characteristics, the authors suggest Pliobates was related to both lesser apes and greater apes. “I could imagine something with the face of a gibbon but moving much more slowly than a gibbon, like a slow loris atop the branches … eventually being able to suspend below them,” Alba says.

But Pliobates lived too recently to be the actual common ancestor of all apes and humans, Alba says. Instead, his team proposes that it was a late-surviving, relatively primitive descendant of that ancestor, a creature that provides our closest glimpse yet of the original apes. If so, Pliobates knocks Proconsul from its perch as the previous closest ancestor and suggests “the last common ancestor of great apes and lesser apes looked nothing like chimpanzees or gorillas,” Alba says. That would mean it was the great apes, not the lesser ones, which diverged most from their ancestral petite body plan. “We should be careful about discounting small-bodied taxa as the last common ancestor,” Alba says.

Fleagle agrees: “You can’t ignore all the little guys.” Paleoanthropologist Terry Harrison of New York University in New York City, who has been a lone voice suggesting that the last common ancestor was small, thinks that the Spanish team has made a “compelling” case that Pliobates represents a primitive ancestor of apes.

Not everyone is convinced: Paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto in Canada still thinks the relatively large Proconsul is the closer relative, because the new fossil’s teeth and cranial base are so primitive that they “outweigh the derived attributes of the limbs.” Regardless of where Pliobates sits on the primate family tree, it “will shake things up, fuel new debates, and allow us to rethink what we thought we already know,” Harrison says.

Posted in Evolution

Leave a comment »

Canny corvids curb cooperation with cheaters

Why Evolution Is True

Excuse the alliteration, as I’m tired this morning. But not too tired to report on a new paper in Nature Scientific Reports by Jorg Massen, Caroline Ritter, and Thomas Bugnyar (free access and pdf, reference below, popular summary at IFL Science). It shows something heretofore unrecognized as a behavior in birds: a recognition of cheaters and a refusal thereafter to cooperate with them.

The paper begins with a useful literature survey of animals that cooperate with others (killer whales, Harris’s hawks, chimpanzees), animals that wait for another individual to arrive to help them perform a cooperative task (capuchins, bonobos, Asian elephants), and animals known to discriminate with respect to partners, choosing to work with those that have been more helpful (chimpanzees and coral trout (!).

But that kind of partner discrimination hadn’t been described in birds. Now it is, thanks to a clever experiment in which ravens (Corvus corax

View original post 1,056 more words

Leave a comment »

The Evolution of Human Gluttony

The Human Evolution Blog

Gluttony is the overindulgence and over-consumption of food and drink and its something pretty much all of us are guilty of from time to time. We all love to eat. We especially crave rich, calorie-packed foods. Knowing that we “shouldn’t” often makes no difference at all. How often has your willpower collapsed at the sight of a scrumptious and moist chocolate cake? Our drive to eat goes way beyond basic hunger.

I think I speak for pretty much everyone when I say that if there were a magic pill that would allow me to eat anything I wanted in unlimited quantities and not suffer any weight gain or health risks, I would eat about six gigantic meals a day. And pecan pie. Lots of pecan pie.


There is a drive within all of us to eat, eat, and eat some more. What’s worse is that this drive seems pretty well…

View original post 1,669 more words

Leave a comment »

the big bang…

Leave a comment »

Masculinity Is Killing Men: The Roots of Men and Trauma We begin the damaging process of turning boys into men long before boyhood ends.

“The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to ‘be a man,’” —Joe Ehrmann, coach and former NFL player

If we are honest with ourselves, we have long known that masculinity kills men, in ways both myriad and measurable. While social constructions of femininity demand that women be thin, beautiful, accommodating, and some unattainable balance of virginal and fuckable, social constructions of masculinity demand that men constantly prove and re-prove the very fact that they are, well, men.

Both ideas are poisonous and potentially destructive, but statistically speaking, the number of addicted and afflicted men and their comparatively shorter lifespans proves masculinity is actually the more effective killer, getting the job done faster and in greater numbers. Masculinity’s death tolls are attributed to its more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism and violence. Even when it does not literally kill, it causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, dissociated and often unknowingly depressed. (These issues are heightened by race, class, sexuality and other marginalizing factors, but here let’s focus on early childhood and adolescent socialization overall.) To quote poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “tis not in death that men die most.” And for many men, the process begins long before manhood.

The emotionally damaging “masculinization” of boys starts even before boyhood, in infancy. Psychologist Terry Real, in his 1998 book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, highlights numerous studies which find that parents often unconsciously begin projecting a kind of innate “manliness”—and thus, a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection—onto baby boys as young as newborns. This, despite the fact that gendered behaviors are absent in babies; male infants actually behave in ways our society defines as “feminine.” As Real explains, “[l]ittle boys and little girls start off… equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection. At the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.”

Yet both mothers and fathers imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys. Even when researchers controlled for babies’ “weight, length, alertness, and strength,” parents overwhelmingly reported that baby girls were more delicate and “softer” than baby boys; they imagined baby boys to be bigger and generally “stronger.” When a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.”

Intuitively, these differences in perception create correlating differences in the kind of parental caregiving newborn boys receive. In the words of the researchers themselves, “it would seem reasonable to assume that a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.” That theory is bolstered by other studies Real cites, which consistently find that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” To put it bluntly, we begin emotionally shortchanging boys right out of the gate, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

It’s a pattern that continues throughout childhood and into adolescence. Real cites a study that found both mothers and fathers emphasized “achievement and competition in their sons,” and taught them to “control their emotions”—another way of saying boys are tacitly instructed to ignore or downplay their emotional needs and wants. Similarly, parents of both sexes are more punitive toward their sons, presumably working under the assumption that boys “can take it.” Beverly I. Fagot, the late researcher and author of The Influence of Sex of Child on Parental Reactions to Toddler Children, found that parents gave positive reinforcement to all children when they exhibited “same-sex preferred” behaviors (as opposed to “cross-sex preferred”). Parents who said they “accepted sex equity” nonetheless offered more positive responses to little boys when they played with blocks, and offered negative feedback to girls when they engaged in sporty behavior. And while independent play—away from parents—and “independent accomplishments” were encouraged in boys, girls received more positive feedback when they asked for help. As a rule, these parents were unaware of the active role they played in socializing their children in accordance with gender norms. Fagot notes that all stated they treated sons and daughters the same, without regard to sex, a claim sharply contradicted by study findings.

Undeniably, these kinds of lessons impart deeply damaging messages to both girls and boys, and have lifelong and observable consequences. But whereas, as Terry Real says, “girls are allowed to maintain emotional expressiveness and cultivate connection,” boys are not only told they should suppress their emotions, but that their manliness essentially depends on them doing so. Despite its logic-empty premise, our society has fully bought into the notion that the relationship between maleness and masculinity is somehow incidental and precarious, and embraced the myth that “boys must be turned into men…that boys, unlike girls, must achieve masculinity.”

Little boys internalize this concept early; when I spoke to Real, he indicated that research suggests they begin to hide their feelings from as young as 3 to 5 years old. “It doesn’t mean that they have fewer emotions. But they’re already learning the game—that it’s not a good idea to express them,” Real says. Boys, conventional wisdom holds, are made men not by merely aging into manhood, but through the crushing socialization just described. But Real points out what should be obvious about cisgender boys: “[they] do not need to be turned into males. They are males. Boys do not need to develop their masculinity.”

It is impossible to downplay the concurrent influence of images and messages about masculinity embedded in our media. TV shows and movies inform kids—and all of us, really—not so much about who men (and women) are, but who they should be. While much of the scholarship about gender depictions in media has come from feminists deconstructing the endless damaging representations of women, there’s been far less research specifically about media-perpetuated constructions of masculinity. But certainly, we all recognize the traits that are valued among men in film, television, videogames, comic books, and more: strength, valor, independence, the ability to provide and protect.

While depictions of men have grown more complicated, nuanced and human over time (we’re long past the days of “Father Knows Best” and “Superman” archetypes), certain “masculine” qualities remain valued over others. As Amanda D. Lotz writes in her 2014 book, Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century, though depictions of men in media have become more diverse, “storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting…male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a ‘preferred’ or ‘best’ masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.”

We are all familiar with these recurring characters. They are fearless action heroes; prostitute-fucking psychopaths in Grand Theft Auto; shlubby, housework-averse sitcom dads with inexplicably beautiful wives; bumbling stoner twentysomethings who still manage to “nail” the hot girl in the end; and still, the impenetrable Superman. Even sensitive, loveable everyguy Paul Rudd somehow “mans up” before the credits roll in his films. Here, it seems important to mention a National Coalition on Television Violence study which finds that on average, 18-year-old American males have already witnessed some 26,000 murders on television, “almost all of them committed by men.” Couple those numbers with violence in film and other media, and the numbers are likely astronomical.

The result of all this—the early denial of boy’s feelings, and our collective insistence that they follow suit—is that boys are effectively cut off from their feelings and emotions, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. Historian Stephanie Coontz has labeled this effect the “masculine mystique.” It leaves little boys, and later, men, emotionally disembodied, afraid to show weakness and often unable to fully access, recognize or cope with their feelings.

Leave a comment »