Thursday, November 09, 2006

Neandertals Interbred with Homo Sapiens After All?

In the midst of all the election results, big news just broke in anthropology in that a team of geneticists found a gene that likely came from interbreeding with Neandertals. The gene in question is the Microcephalin gene, which regulates brain size. The thought is that our large brains may have come in part from Neandertals -- they did have larger brains than Homo Sapiens.

Darth Quixote at GNXP talked about how hybrids of related species are hardier and tend to take over an environment, and the thought is that right about the time this gene was acquired is when the prehistoric cave artwork was drawn in places like Lascaux and Chauvet. Maybe this creative impulse came as a result of sudden larger brains due to inbreeding with Neandertals.

Here's where I'm particularly confused though: the articles keep talking about haplogroup D. Is that the Y-chromosome or mtDNA haplogroup? Wikipedia states that the mtDNA haplogroup D is in Asia, Sibera and North America; Y-Haplogroup D is Tibet and Japan, especially the Ainu. Steve Sailer compares the microcephalin variant to the ASPM variant, but skirts around an explanation. I'm sure this is such a newbie thing to these guys, but none of the lay articles explain it either. I'm hoping John Hawks adds this to his Introgression FAQ. I'll be re-reading all of these articles just in case I missed the explanation somewhere.

Razib over at Science Blogs has a photo of representation of a Neanderthal child and some good explanation on the issue.

John Hawks is evidently just about ready to publish a paper related to introgression, "living Neanderthals" and the "Celtic Fringe."

Oh John, you're such a tease!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Alpha Mommy Freaking Madness

Alpha Moms of the world unite. You now have your very own cable channel where you can (s)mother until your eyes roll into the backs of your heads. Alpha Mom TV is all about (s)mothering. As if it weren't already a 24/7 job. Why does this make me angry? Why doesn't it make me feel like I finally have found a place where I belong? Because this is just another example of the Cult of the New Momism. The smart-ass attitude in the book The Mommy Myth sums it up nicely. To quote The Mommy Myth:

"We are urged to be fun-loving, spontaneous, and relaxed, yet, at the same time, scared out of our minds that our kids could be killed at any moment. No wonder 81 percent of women in a recent poll said it's harder to be a mother now than it was twenty or thirty years ago, and 56 percent felt mothers were doing a worse job today than mothers back then. Even mothers who deliberately avoid TV and magazines, or who pride themselves on seeing through them, have trouble escaping the standards of perfection, and the sense of threat, that the media ceaselessly atomize into the air we breathe. . . like increasing numbers of women, we are fed up with the myth -- shamelessly hawked by the media -- that motherhood is eternally fulfulling and rewarding, that it is always the best and most important thing you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right, and that if you don't love each and every second of it there's something really wrong with you. . .

"This book is about the rise in the media of what we are calling the 'new momism:' the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfulled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet."

So, now, you can't just be a "Stay-At-Home Mom" or a "Working Mother," you must also be an ALPHA MOM. This conjures up images of a tigress defending her young or some such nonsense.

Alpha Mom TV says that you must "understand the meanings and functions of crying" in your infant, you must "be in sync with your child in order to develop effective discipline techniques," on long car trips you must "ensure that traveling with children will be an enjoyable experience for the entire family," and you must become a "parent doctor," effectively diagnosing your child's ADHD. (Except that it's OK if the "parent doctor" turns out to be Dad and not Mom, judging by the lone photo on the entire Alpha Mom site with a Dad and his kids.) Let's not even talk about the $35 sleeper oufits in the Alpha Mom TV Boutique. Pul-leeze.

Where's the Alpha Dad TV? Or better yet, where's the Alpha Parent TV? Or better yet, where's Smart Ass Parent TV?

UPDATE: The New York Times Magazine published an article on Alpha Mom TV founder Isabel Kallman, who gave up her 100-hour-a-week senior-vice-president position at Salomon Smith Barney to raise her son (and then launched a probably 100-hour-a-week job as a TV channel CEO). But it really burns my butter when she says that raising her high-energy son was a harder job than the SVP job. So, let's say this is true. Why aren't we paying our childcare workers the same, or more, than SVPs make? Money quote by the director of admissions to The Sunshine Kids' Club, where Kallman's son takes music lessons (he's two, BTW):

"They put more energy into it [parenting] than my generation. Like what’s the best stroller, the best nursery school, the best classes—all of it. It’s not like everyone doesn’t want the best for their child, but to me, it seems people these days have a more professional attitude toward raising their children. A lot of it is very intellectually thought-out and very scheduled, almost like they have a business plan for their children.” (Emphasis mine).

A business plan? Ug. It's never enough, is it? Kallman seems to me to be a highly-intelligent, motivated woman who cares about her family and wants to help other women. She's putting a lot of effort into this project. Why aren't we putting the same amount of effort into raising the quality of childcare? Kallman has a nanny (there's a photo of them together in the NYT Magazine article). She's got the income, education and clout to start up a new TV channel. What could she achieve if she devoted herself to raising the quality of daycare nationwide, which could potentially help a lot more families? I doubt she ever will -- what with having a nanny, a night nurse, a babysitter and an Alpha Mom TV intern -- group daycare isn't an issue that's anywhere near her radar.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Ancient faces brought to life

I'm intrigued when scientists/artists are able to recreate the faces of the past:
"It has always been Nguyen Van Viet’s dream to recreate the faces, and lives, of ancient people. After years of study abroad and hard work, Viet and his colleagues finally have a place in the sun with the recent Dong Xa excavation, which revealed a tomb with 20 2,000-year-old skeletons from three different races."

On Sex, Fertility & Motherhood

Catallaxy is blogging about an opinion article in the Sydney Morning Herald "In praise of female sexuality." It's ironic that the poster and all the commenters are male, so I thought a working mother should chime in with an opinion.

(1) Why does a woman have to choose exclusively motherhood or a career? Especially when a man is not required to make this choice? Are we that bound by biology that simply having a uterus means that if I want to procreate that I must spend 24/7 caring for my child and do nothing else? That no other caregivers will do? There's been plenty of studies about the good that daycare can do for children, the good that daddy-care can do, and the good that can come of children seeing their mothers achieve something outside of the home. It's high time that men pitch in -- and not just with supplying income. It's time that both parents forge a balance between family and career. This may mean an adjusting of society in the future. I can only hope so.

In the journal Brain and Mind (vol. 3, 2002, p. 79-100) Dr. Bruce D. Perry wrote the article "Childhood Experience and the Expression of Genetic Potential: What Childhood Neglect Tells Us About Nature and Nurture" where he says:
"For more than 90 percent of human history we have lived in bands, clans or extended families of roughly 40 persons. In the West, by 1500 the average household had decreased to 20 persons; by 1850 to ten; in the United States to less than three persons in the average American household by 2000.

"Our brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of generations in hominid and pre-hominid social groups. In these small hunter-gatherer bands a complex interactive dynamic socio-emotional environment provided the experiences for the developing child. At equilibrium in a group of fifty, there were three or more adult caregiving adults for every dependent child under age six. And there was little privacy. A dependent child grew up in the presence of the elderly, siblings, adults — related and not. There was a more continuous exposure and wider variety of socio-emotional interactions. The child in this situation had many opportunities to form relationships and, in a use-dependent way, develop the capacity to have a rich array of relationships. The genetic potential for healthy socio-emotional functioning — to be empathic, to share, to invest in the welfare of the community —is better expressed in children living in hunter-gatherer bands or extended families or close-knit communities in comparison with our compartmentalized modern world." (Read the entire article here, or read a Science News article on a similar topic here.)

Childcare has been shared for eons. The present notion of a mother being the only caregiver is not how our brains are wired.

(2) The SMH article cites prime fertility for females between the ages of 17-23. While men don't have a fertility peak, they do have a sexual peak in their early twenties and it's well-known that women don't hit their sexual peak until around 35. Certainly, it's true that while sperm quality or quantity may not wain with age in the healthy male, the ability to ejaculate does change with age and vascular deterioration. What this comes down to is that hormonally both sexes are primed for procreation in their late teens and early twenties. However, there are all sorts of other medical problems for mother and baby associated with teenage pregnancy. So, even if the ovaries are primed to procreate before age 20, other parts of a woman's body aren't ready at all and can actually be detrimental to life. This dicotomy means that biology isn't everything. Older parents are more patient and concentrate more of their time willingly to parenting because they've already experienced having a career.

Certainly having parents who want to be parents, and have the maturity and the income to support children, are advantages that outweigh any biological clock ticking.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Geek Girl Musings

My friend Mara over at Knitting Obsession posted a link to a New York Times article called "The Male Condition" by Simon Baron-Cohen, which speaks to brain scans being used to study gender differences and how it might relate to autism. Specifically, it talks about how levels of prenatal testosterone affect fetal brains. Mara wonders if she falls into the 17% of women who have a "male brain," and I'm wondering the same thing about myself. The study broke participants down into three categories based on their score on the Systemizing vs. Empathizing spectrum -- Type E were those who tested high for empathy, Type S were for those who tested high on systemizing and Type B were those who tested equally in both areas.

Like my friend, I like being female, but my interests have always leaned toward typically male interests (yes, I played with Barbies, but she stole G.I. Joe's gun and went on her own missions). Even today, I make my living designing and programming web sites. Prior to that I worked in television behind the camera. I had much more fun running cables and lugging around equipment than I ever did as on-air talent. However, like many women I have a well-developed sense of language. I have, in fact, written two novels. Though unpublished, the sheer ability to write 180,000 words coherently means an above average ability with language. So, I don't know if this ability is a mild obession with a language system (see Baron-Cohen's theory on autism and obsessions with systems), or if it's having a typical female brain with thicker connective tissue between hemispheres granting better facility with language. Or pehaps my ability to perform activities that require both sides of the brain to work together (both web design and writing involve simultaneous use of the creative and systemic thinking modes), means that I fall into the Type B category.

(On the language front, I should disclose that my grandfather spoke five languages and my father speaks two, so perhaps it's just lucky genetics.)

I do have a tendency to concentrate on one particular thing at time -- I listen to a CD and only that CD in the car until I get sick of it; I find an author that I like and read all of her novels in a row; I continually obsess about this blog. . . I don't enjoy multi-tasking, but can do it when required of me. I always chocked it up to just having a one-track mind, a simple personality quirk, but maybe it's not. Hmm. Or maybe I'm just an original.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Straight Talk About Gays

Gene Expression has a post titled "More Fodder for the SPLC and James Dobson" on two articles about research into the biological underpinnings of homosexuality. The Boston Globe article "What Makes People Gay?" mentioned in the blog entry does a nice job of summarizing the various studies that have been done and in the end decides that there's definitely a biological/nature factor.

The big problem with positing that homosexuality is driven by genetic factors is how is it not eliminated by Natural Selection? The author brings up baseless suppositions that homosexuality is caused by a virus, and gleans over other explanations that cite compensatory benefits.

Leonard Shlain in his book Sex, Time and Power thinks maybe the main benefit to having a homosexual male in a hunter/gatherer family is the extra meat he brings in that he doesn't have to share with a mate or children -- in that case he'd most likely share it with a sister and her children. A similar benefit with lesbianism is that without children of her own she'd be free to help her siblings with their children. Shlain says (pg. 241):
"Although poorly understood, selective pressures in the human species have ensured gay behavior in every generation and in every culture. [Homosexuality's] ubiquity suggests that it is a very old trait and was likely present at the dawn of our species. Perhaps this unique development arose from the need to enhance the survival of a primate species that had precipitously switched its diet from roots and shoots to haunches and hamhocks in order to provision burdened mothers and their children with intelligence-enhancing brain food. The insertion of [homosexuals] into the human genome was one of four adaptations that Natural Selection cleverly slipped in among the chromosomes to assist newly minted Homo sapiens hunter in his deadly competition with other species for survival. A dollop of the same mysterious formula was also ladled into Gyna sapiens chromosomal potpourri, so that lesbians would also be mixed into each generation. . . I shall call my thesis the Theory of Eights. Four unique human traits appear in any given Homo sapiens population, and each one uncannily hovers around the stable level of 8 percent of the males. The four are [homosexuality], color-blindness, left-handedness, and baldness. Eight percent roughly equals about one out of twelve men. I believe that these four traits taken together represent a constellation of genetic adaptations that enhanced the success of the original human male hunting band."

Now, Shlain isn't an evolutionary biologist (he's the chief of laparoscopic surgery at California-Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco) and I don't know how you could test this hypothesis. However, I like this theory because it provides an explanation for homosexuality without claiming that it's some kind of malformation, problem with embryonic development or some other way abnormal. I'd also like to check his 8 percent number for the occurence of color-blindness, left-handedness and baldness.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Galaxy of One's Own

Not so long ago science fiction was purely the realm of geek testosterone, but the Broads have invaded. As more and more women enter scientific and technology fields, more and more of them are writing, reading and watching science fiction books and movies. Female science fiction writers are changing the face of science fiction and men don't seem to mind.

Mostly gone are the days when female characters in science fiction were simply "trophies to be rescued, or smoldering, sexual beings that really didn't contribute to the overall plot other than as the hero's love interest." (Michaela Drapes, Burgundy Nails and Rose Tattoos: The Women of Cyberpunk)

When Star Wars A New Hope came out in 1977, this shift was just beginning and the Princess Leia character was a woman who could rescue as well as be rescued, shoot a blaster better than just about anyone, and in the next breath negotiate a treaty. (About the only thing that might have made Leia better would have been to give her a lightsaber, but I digress.) In any book or movie the writer creates expectations about her work. Audiences expect sequels to continue in the same vein as the first installment. That's why many Star Wars fans skim over the stilted dialogue and overblown special effects of the second trilogy - that's what we expect from George.

I also expected Padmé to be from a similar feminist mold as Princess Leia, not the simpering gestator she turned into in Revenge of the Sith. I expected George to once again be at the forefront of writing about strong female heroines, but he fell far short of the mark. Not only did Padmé not stack up, but other female characters were poorly representated as well.

Case in point, Lucas repeatedly missed opportunities to show female characters as equal in power to their male counterparts and often these changes would not have altered the overall story. Not once do any of the female Jedi on the Council speak - all of the lines spoken by Jedi Council members are from male members.

I also found it a bit too coincidental that the Twi'lek female Jedi, Aayla Secura, is dressed nearly as scantily as any other Twi'lek female in the Star Wars movies, but all of the other female Twi'leks are slave girls or part of the Coruscant "entertainment industry." One assumes that slave girls don't have much choice in how skimpy their attire is, but a Jedi would. Maybe Secura chose the skimpy outfit, but the coincidence makes me wonder. There are two male Twi'leks in the movies; both are clothed in long robes.

Back to Padmé. In Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Padmé showed promise. Like Leia, she still didn't have a lightsaber, but other women in Star-Warsland did, which was a step forward. Padmé was highly educated, had reached the pinnacle of political success on her homeworld at a very young age, stormed her own palace with her handmaidens a la Artemis and fought off nasty monsters on Geonosis.

Once Padmé became pregnant, though, all that changed and all she did was sit around wringing her hands over Anakin's fate and talking about losing her job because of the pregnancy. This latter point seems totally out of sync with what is supposed to be a near-post-utopian society. Also, Padmé's inaction is completely out of character as is dying of a broken heart without seeing to the welfare of her children. Truer to character would have been a heartbroken Padmé going on for the sake of keeping her twins safe and to continue her opposition to Palpatine by being integral to the forming of the Rebellion.

I suspect that George wanted to have an Ophelia moment for Padme (floating on that coffin-barge with flowers in her hair) despite the fact that in Return of the Jedi Leia remembers her mother. How that's possible if Padmé died when Leia and Luke were minutes old, I don't know. I suppose you could attribute it to the Force, but neither Padmé nor Leia are ever considered to be particular Force adepts in the movies.

Still, I could let that go if Padmé had had a better end. It would have been much more poignant if Anakin had actually hurt Padmé in some way (domestic violence during pregnancy is much more common than one might think), but she manages to survive long enough to deliver, then to ask her trusted colleague Bail Organa to adopt Leia, ask Ben to take Luke to Tatooine - and then dies. A broken heart could even have been a contributing factor, but the difference is she would have taken care of loose ends instead of ending her life in an act of selfish suicide, which is essentially what she did.

Last Thoughts

Where the heck was Mon Mothma? She had an action figure, why wasn't she in the movie? Evidently, in the novelization, Padmé is busy working with Bail Organa organizing a coalition of Senators who are against Palpatine being invested with more power, but that it was cut. If that's the case, you know it's going to end up in another DVD version down the road. Maybe that's what happened to Mon Mothma as well. That bit of the story would have gone far to make Padmé seem less like a doormat.

My friend Snickle over at Random Piffle brought up the interesting notion of the German Spieltod, "which is basically a death in a play that must occur for dramatic purposes, but is carried out in a silly way. In Buddenbrooks, a main character dies suddenly of a toothache at the point where it was most dramatically necessary for him to be dead. Padmé's death by losing the will to live was supremely silly and lame."

I have a hard time believing even the Force couldn't help a woman deliver a child in the contraption George concocted for the delivery scene. Women in reality are fighting tooth-and-nail for dignity during childbirth, and here's 1950s-style childbirth depicted in a near-utopian society. The message is, no matter what girls, you can't ever deliver your own babies under your own steam.

I wore my "Someone's got to save your skins" Princess Leia t-shirt to see Revenge of the Sith and am so glad I did, if only to remember what potential Star Wars had for females in science fiction.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Mommy Freaking Madness

There's been a rash of books and articles (Newsweek, Salon) lately on how "intensive parenting" is driving women off the deep end, ruining marriages and creating spoiled kids. I have a few thoughts as an anxiety-ridden working mother in a major metropolitan area.

(1) National Daycare Standard. We need a national standard for daycare and we definitely need affordable part-time daycare, which doesn't currently exist. Daycare providers, a center or a home provider, ulitimately need to make money. They make more money on full-time care than on part-time, it's that simple.

(2) Sometimes you just need grandma. I want to live closer to my extended family. Daycare is great, but sometimes you just need grandma. Unfortunately, our jobs are here and mom is there. Having a backup daycare option is wonderful, but when your child is sick, and one of you can't be there yourself, you don't want to send your child to someone she doesn't know.

(3) The Family Bed/Attachment Parenting. Letting your child sleep with you is sometimes about getting some sleep yourself -- even if it means being nailed in the nose by toddler feet -- instead of being a political statement about attachment parenting. There is a happy medium between "Ferberizing" and Attachment Parenting. When my daughter was about 10 months old I came to the conclusion that I'd rather sleep with her in my bed then either let her "cry it out" or continue to rock/pace/soothe at 3am for nearly an hour nearly every night. I can't sleep if she's "crying it out." The Ferber method doesn't work for everyone, nothing does.

(4) Society trying to push women around is nothing new. Read getupgrrl's "And The Soup Of The Day Is: It's All Your Fault!" rant. The question is, what's the motivation behind the push for "intensive parenting" today?

(5) Many fathers under 35 are equal partners in the home. In many of the families I know of my own generation (born in the 1970s) fathers are equal partners in child rearing and household duties. There are still ego-centric little boys who want to be married to June Cleaver, but they're becoming a rare find in someone under 35.

I just finished reading The Mommy Myth by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels and I am hearing the battle cry of "No More!" I do remember my parents being more relaxed. I remember watching TV most evenings. I remember watching TV many an afternoon. And wouldn't you know it, I turned out OK. I love to read, got good grades in school, managed to avoid making really stupid decisions and generally have a nice life.

Last thoughts. There's a moment that struck me more than all of these articles and books and, believe it or not, it's from TV. When character Lynette on "Desperate Housewives" hits bottom after downing her kid's Ritalin meds, she ends up alone on an abandoned soccer field (what better place for a down-and-out soccer mom?). Two of the other female characters track her down and Lynette says that it's over, she can't do the Mom Thing anymore. She's terrible at it, she says. The other two chime in with how often they've felt the same way and it makes Lynette realize that she's not alone. She doesn't have to be Super Mom. We should tell each other these types of stories and talk to each other more as women-who-are-also-mothers. I love my daughter, but my name is not "Lauren's Mom." We all feel like we're effing things up 90% of the time.