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Testosterone Study Doesn't Prove Men Are "Meant" To Do Childcare
Take two strapping young men. Give one of them a job as a lifeguard from May until September. For the same period, pay the other one to "farm gold" in World of Warcraft, sitting in a windowless basement. Come fall, the one who has been baked by the sun will be tan (a consequence of his skin's having produced more melanin in response to all those rays). The other guy, after months in front of a glowing screen, will be vampire-pale. Does the first guy's tan prove that men are "meant" to be lifeguards? Nope. Evolution equipped him with a biological response to his circumstances, but a biological process is not a destiny. Back in the real world, this study shows a similar effect, except the substance in question is testosterone. It's an important demonstration that testosterone drops when men care for children. But the hype around it—that human males are "designed" for fatherhood—is nonsense.
The study, published yesterday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was born out of a fascinating project that has tracked hundreds of males from birth through adulthood in the Philippines. It compared the waking testosterone levels of 624 young men and found that single men had higher levels of the hormone then did men with partners, while men who had children had even lower levels. Moreover, the men who were the most heavily engaged in caring for children had the lowest levels of all.
Other studies have made the link between fatherhood and a drop in testosterone, which occurs in many species where males care for offspring. But because they couldn't track the same man from singlehood to partnership to fatherhood, these were vulnerable to alternative explanations: Maybe, rather than fatherhood causing a drop in testosterone, it was simply the case that lower-testosterone men were more likely to be fathers.
The new paper, by Lee T. Gettler, Thomas W. McDade, Alan B. Feranil, and Christopher W. Kuzawa, seems to close that door. Human males, like those of a lot of birds and some other creatures, appear to have higher testosterone levels when "mate-seeking" and lower ones when child-rearing. Does it then follow that, as Harvard's Peter Ellison told Pam Belluck, that us human males are "meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring"?
I think not. What the study has shown is a causal link from behavior to testosterone level—in a man caring for children, levels go down. But the crucial cause-and-effect runs in the other direction: We need to know that a drop in testosterone level causes fatherly behavior. The study didn't address that (and there's no reason it should have). Instead, people chatting up the study have presumed that losing testosterone is a cause of general fatherly niceness.
At first blush, of course, it seems a safe presumption. Testosterone is supposed to be associated with aggression and status-seeking and sex-chasing, so it "makes sense" that men who need patience, kindness and loyalty should have less. But an intuition isn't proof. Though measurable, the difference in testosterone levels between active fathers and bachelors may not have any practical effect on their behavior. It may, in other words, be like the difference in melanin levels in my hypothetical example: A biological difference caused by different environments, licensed by evolution but behaviorally meaningless. (I'm not saying this is more likely; but the fact that it's possible means people who say men are meant to do childcare are jumping the explanatory gun.)
Even if the connection is made between testosterone levels and prosocial behavior, that still wouldn't establish that human males are naturally supposed to do childcare. As Belluck writes, among the previous studies of fatherly testosterone is this study of East African men, which compared Hadza fathers, who are heavily involved in childcare, with Datoga, who are not. The Hadza men had lower testosterone levels than did the Datoga men. Interesting and informative, but let's just remember why the study was possible: the Datoga men exist. Their culture is as real as the Hadza or ours. Evolution permits a wide range of being male, and apparently that includes both Hadza and Datoga ways.
Of course, evolution doesn't "mean" us to do anything. It's not God. If we want to personify it, call it a gambler, throwing us out into the world, learning from what happens as we cope. The PNAS paper offers a fascinating and important result about the physiology of parenthood. But it's not a guide to life. So fear not, oh bachelors and Don-Draper style fathers. You're as natural as the rest of us.
Gettler, L., McDade, T., Feranil, A., & Kuzawa, C. (2011). Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1105403108
Muller, M., Marlowe, F., Bugumba, R., & Ellison, P. (2009). Testosterone and paternal care in East African foragers and pastoralists Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1655), 347-354 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1028
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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