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From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.
- The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
- Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are much to blame for the mistaken notion of women as cold, passive, and little more than a "mutilated man."
- Thanks to this dubious science, and the likes of Sigmund Freud, we live today with a legacy that judges women according to antiquated biology and psychology.
The story of medicine has not been particularly kind to women. Not only was little anatomical or scientific research done on women or on women-specific issues, doctors often treated them differently.
Even today, women are up to ten times more likely to have their symptoms explained away as being psychological or psychosomatic than men. Worryingly, women are 50 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack, and drugs designed for "everyone" are actually much less effective (for pain) or too effective (for sleeping) in women.
Are these differences real or imagined? And what can the history of female medicine teach us about where we are today?
A mutilated male
Aristotle is rightly considered one of the greatest minds of all time and is recognized as the founding father of many disciplines, including biology. He was one of the most rigorous and comprehensive scientists and field researchers the world had known. He categorized a large number of species based on a wide range of traits, such as movement, longevity, and sensory capacity. His views on women, then, stemmed from what he thought of as good, proper study. The problem is that he got pretty much all of it wrong.
According to Aristotle, during pregnancy, it was the man who, alone, contributed the all-important "form" of a fetus (that is, its defining nature and personality), whereas the woman provided only the matter (that is, the environment and sustenance to grow the fetus, which was provided by the menstrual blood).
From this, Aristotle extrapolated all sorts of dubious conclusions. He ventured that the man was superior, active, and dominant, and the woman inferior, passive, and submissive. As such, the woman's role was to nurture children, run a household, and be silent and obedient — political and cultural manifestations of dodgy biology. If women did not provide a child's form and nature, how important could they really be?
Given this passivity, Aristotle argued that the woman must be associated with other passive things, like being cold and slow. The man, being dynamic and energetic, must be hot and fast. From this, Aristotle concluded that any defects or problems in childbirth can only be due to the sluggishness of the female womb. Even the positive biological aspects of being female, such as greater longevity, were put down to this cold rigidity — a lack of metabolism and spirit. Most notorious of all, since Aristotle believed that female children were themselves the result of an incomplete and underdeveloped gestation, women were simply "mutilated males" whose mothers' cold wombs had overpowered the warm, vital, male sperm.
Aristotle can still be counted as a great mind, but when it came to women, his ideas have not aged well in just how far they negatively influenced what came after. Given that his works were seen as the authority well into the 16th century, he left quite the pernicious legacy.
A wandering womb
But, how much can we really blame Aristotle? Without the aid of modern scientific equipment, physicians and biologists were left to guess about female anatomy. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and Aristotle's ideas of a troublesome uterus became so mainstream that they led to one of the more bizarre ideas in medical history: the wandering womb.
The "wandering womb" is the idea that the womb is actually some kind of roaming parasite in the body, possibly even a separate organism. According to this theory, after a woman menstruates, her womb becomes hot and dry and so becomes extra mobile. It is transformed into a voracious hunter. The womb will dart from organ to organ, seeking to steal its moisture and other vital fluids. This parasitic behavior caused all sorts of (female only) illnesses.
If a woman had asthma, the womb was leeching the lungs. Stomach aches, it was in the gut. And if it attacked the heart (which the ancients thought was the source of our thoughts), then it would cause all manner of mental health issues. In fact, the Greek word for womb is "hystera," and so when we call someone (often a woman) hysterical, we are saying that their womb is causing mischief.
The "solutions" or "remedies" for a wandering womb were as strange as the theory. Since the womb was supposed to be attracted to sweet smells, placing flowers or perfumes around the vagina would "lure" it down. On the flip side, if you smoked noxious substances or ate disgusting foods, it would "repel" the womb away. By using all manner of smells, you could make the womb move wherever you wanted.
The oddest "remedy" — and most male-centric of all — is that, since the wandering womb was said to be caused by heat and dryness, a good solution would be male semen, which was thought of as cooling and wet. And so, the ancient and highly inaccurate myth was born that sex could cure a woman of her "hysteria."
A lingering problem
We live today with the legacy of this kind of thinking. Freud was much taken with the idea of "hysteria," and although he did accept that men could be subject to it as well, he believed it was overwhelmingly a female problem caused by female biology. The woman, for Freud, is mostly defined by her "sexual function." What Freud calls "normal femininity" (the preferred and best outcome) is defined by passivity. A woman's ideal development is one which moves from being active and "phallic" to passive and vaginal.
Nowadays, Freud and Aristotle's legacy lies in just how easily women are defined by their sexuality. Given that men and women, both, are equally dependent on their biology, it is curious how much more often women are reduced to theirs. The idea that women are more emotional or slaves to their hormones than men is still a depressingly familiar trope. It is an idea that goes back to the Greeks.
If we think biology is important to who we are (as it most certainly is), we ought to make sure that the biology is as good and accurate as it can be.
English is a dynamic language, and this summer's new additions to dictionary.com tell us a lot about how we're living.
- The summer update to Dictionary.com added hundreds of new words and definitions.
- Many of them are in areas related to justice, technology, and COVID-19.
- The new slang terms will leave more than a few people confused.
In any given year, new words are added to the dictionary to reflect how society's use of them has changed, often in response to ongoing events. For Summer 2021, more than 1200 new, improved, and revised definitions were introduced to Dictionary.com, including 231 entirely new words. A review of those words, the subjects they cover, and the stories behind their creation tells a rich story about the times we live in.
A word by any other definition?
You might wonder why we need to carry out such extensive addition and redefining campaigns. John Kelly, the Managing Editor of Dictionary.com, explained in a statement why these changes were made and their importance:
"The latest update to our dictionary continues to mirror the world around us. Long COVID, minoritize, 5G, content warning, domestic terrorism — it's a complicated and challenging society we live in, and language changes to help us grapple with it. But sometimes language changes just for fun. Yes, yeet is now in the dictionary, which may prompt some of us to use one other of our new entries: oof! Perhaps these lighter slang and pop culture newcomers to our dictionary reflect another important aspect of our time — a cautious optimism and a brighter mood about the future ahead after a trying 2020."
The English language isn't static, so it is up to lexicographers to get the dictionaries up to speed. Let's face it, we might need more than a few new words to talk about last year.
The times they are a-changin'
Good Communication 101: Mirroring, Jargon, Hifalutin Words | Alan Alda | Big Think www.youtube.com
Words that describe the continuing COVID-19 pandemic are still being added. The recent additions, which include long haul and long hauler may speak to the shift in how we interact with the pandemic — it is now a long-term rather than an acute concern for many people. Changes to our lives as a result of the pandemic and new ways to cater to those challenges, like ghost kitchen and side hustle, also made their way in.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Americans searched for terms related to racial issues at significantly higher levels than before. This not only called for updates and additions to words in this area last year but a continuing review, which has added new terms like the acronyms JEDI and DEI and the new word one-drop rule. Other terms long included, like Jim Crow and Black Codes, saw updates this summer.
Technology continued to advance through thick and thin as well. Terms like 5G, asynchronous, and abandonware made it into the recent update. Given how much time we all spent using tech in the last year and a half, it is only fitting that we would need these terms. 5G also has the unfortunate distinction of being both a telecommunications technology and a target for conspiracy theorists, perhaps making a dictionary entry for it all the more important.
Other words previously defined as regional or cultural in nature have been redefined in the light of their evolving use. Y'all is now listed as its own term and deemed an "informal" pronoun rather than a mere variant of "you-all." The post explaining the update noted that the term is now more known for informality than regionalism and has enjoyed a surge in use as a gender neutral pronoun.
Mind hack: 7 secrets to learn any new language | Steve Kaufmann | Big Think www.youtube.com
Perhaps it is necessary that after a year that required so many of the above words to be added or clarified, there are new slang terms that will seem like absolute gibberish to somebody disconnected from popular culture. New words like yeet, zaddy, and oof were added this year, showing that even in difficult times, fun new ways to use language are cropping up all the time.
The website's lexicographers also saw fit to officially add one of the honorable mentions for 2020's word of the year to the list of vulgar slang terms. Regrettably, it is unfit for publication, but it rhymes with spit-snow.
So, now that y'all know about these updates, perhaps we can all order from the new ghost kitchen from apps on our 5G smartphones before getting back to our side hustles. Yeet!
By slowing down aging, we could reap trillions of dollars in economic benefits.
- People want to live longer, but only if those years are healthy.
- A new study argues that targeting the underlying cause of aging could yield trillions of dollars of economic benefits.
- This could be, by far, the best way to "stimulate" the economy in the long-term.
With greater age comes greater wisdom and (often) happiness. But biologically speaking, everything else pretty much sucks. Age is a risk factor for a number of conditions such as dementia, diabetes, and cancer. As our cells slowly deteriorate, our bodies stop working as intended. Our joints hurt, our bones are fragile, and we develop wrinkles.
Biomedical science has largely been concerned with extending our lifespans. But people do not want to live a long life if that means being in pain or a burden to others. Therefore, at the present time, it is probably better for researchers to focus on improving our quality of life in old age rather than on extending our life expectancies even further.
To that end, a new study published in Nature Aging argues that targeting the underlying cause of aging could provide an enormous boost to the economy.
Quality of life and longevity
Over the past few decades, there have been marvelous improvements in life expectancy for people around the world. The mortality rate for those already in old age has also continued to decline. However, the number of years of good health a person can expect to live in proportion to their overall life expectancy has remained stubbornly constant. This means that more people are living in poor health for longer periods of time.
This is a big deal. One recent study in Norway demonstrated that aging Norwegians would like to live to a ripe old age, but not if they could expect to get dementia or suffer from chronic pain.
There are financial considerations as well. A person about to turn 65 in the U.S. can expect to spend anywhere from $142,000 to $176,000 on standard long-term care once they start needing help with things like eating or bathing. Multiply this by a few million people, and the economic implications become staggering.
Models of aging: Dorian Gray, Peter Pan, Wolverine, Struldbrugg
To crunch their numbers, the authors of the study used a method called value of a statistical life (VSL). This method allows researchers to determine how much people would pay to reduce the risk of death.
While it is discomforting to reckon the value of an improved human life in terms of money, it is very easy to do (and economists seem to love doing it). It also allows for easy comparisons between choices. This particular method is also widely used and provides interesting insights into how the estimated benefits of a particular policy or program evolve over time that methods with less tangible units of measure cannot provide.
The authors used VSL to create four models of life expectancy improvement. Each was named for a character from literature that lives in the manner described: in the "Dorian Gray" model, a person lives a normal lifespan but has more years of healthy life; in the "Peter Pan" model, people live longer and healthier lives; in the "Wolverine" model, a person's biological clock is set back to a younger time; and in the "Struldbrugg" model, people live longer lives but in increasingly poorer health.
By applying the VSL method, the researchers were able to determine how willing people were to pay for an extra year of life under each model. It turns out the highest values are placed on methods that target aging directly and thereby increase both lifespan and years of good health. By doing so, a virtuous cycle is created where people are healthier longer, meaning that there are more people to benefit from further interventions directly targeting aging.
In financial terms, the calculated value of a one-year increase in life expectancy from this method would be $37.6 trillion, with the value rising further as more healthy years of life are added on. For comparison, that value is higher than the total benefit of eradicating a number of age-related diseases by themselves, including cancer, dementia, and depression.
Aging is the real boogeyman that biomedical science should target.
Some of these trends may be due, in part, to the lockdown.
- Mortality rates from drug overdoses, homicides, and unintentional injuries increased since the pandemic began.
- Surprisingly, the suicide rate was below expectations.
- Cancer deaths may increase in coming years due to delayed diagnosis and reduced treatment.
In the U.S. the COVID pandemic cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Most deaths were directly attributable to the virus, but a substantial number were caused through the exacerbation of chronic social problems.
A catastrophic increase in drug overdoses
For instance, the CDC recently announced that drug overdose deaths last year jumped 30 percent from 2019, the worst single-year increase ever recorded. In 2020, there were roughly 93,000 overdose deaths, with 48 out of 50 states experiencing an increase. The New York Times reported:
"Several grim records were set: the most drug overdose deaths in a year; the most deaths from opioid overdoses; the most overdose deaths from stimulants like methamphetamine; the most deaths from the deadly class of synthetic opioids known as fentanyls."
While drug overdose deaths — particularly from fentanyl — have been a problem for several years, the lockdown worsened drug use nationwide.
Photo: Igor Normann / Adobe Stock
Homicides and accidents
Unfortunately, there was a notable increase in other causes of death, as well. A new paper in JAMA shows that from March to August 2020, homicides and unintentional injuries were higher than expected. The only good news is that deaths by suicide were lower than expected, a particularly surprising finding given that mental health issues skyrocketed during the pandemic.
To arrive at their conclusions, the authors investigated cause-specific mortality rates from January 2015 to February 2020. This allowed them to calculate an "expected" number of deaths from March to August 2020, which were then compared to the observed number of deaths during the first six months of the pandemic.
If the COVID pandemic had not occurred, the authors expected 1,404,634 Americans to die in the six months from March to August 2020. In reality, 1,661,271 died, an excess of 256,637 deaths. Of these, 174,334 were due to COVID-19, leaving 82,303 excess deaths in need of an explanation. Drug overdoses, homicides, and unintentional injuries accounted for many of them.
The authors speculated that drug overdose deaths and homicides may have increased due to economic stress. Also, treatment programs for substance abuse may have been disrupted.
Blame COVID for cancer, too
The pandemic will continue to shape cause-specific mortality in unexpected ways. According to new research in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, there will be 2,487 excess breast cancer deaths by 2030 due to decreased screening, delayed diagnosis, and reduced treatment, representing a 0.52 percent cumulative increase over the number of expected breast cancer deaths.
Hospitals have also reported an increase in admissions for alcohol-related liver disease. USC has experienced a 30 percent uptick since March 2020.
Society will be dealing with the fallout of COVID for years to come.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A new study from Iceland confirms that a shorter workweek improves productivity.
- A study in Icelandic government offices again shows the benefits of a shorter workweek.
- Productivity rose enough to ensure that all services were still provided as needed.
- Because of the study's success, 86 percent of Icelanders now or soon will have the right to a shorter workweek.
In 1886, the standard workweek in the United States consisted of six, ten-hour days. On May 4th of that year, a riot took place in Chicago after an unknown person threw a bomb at officers trying to break up a peaceful rally in favor of the then-radical notion of an eight-hour work day. While it took a few more decades to get there, today, the eight-hour workday seems quite natural.
Today, the discussion centers around the possibility of a further cut in the workweek, from five days to four days. Joining the pile of studies on this topic is a new report out of Iceland documenting the recent success of one of the largest experiments to date on a reduced workweek. Carried out by the Icelandic government and published by Autonomy, a UK think tank, the report suggests that a substantial portion of the economy could switch over to a short workweek tomorrow with little in the way of negative effects.
An experiment in Iceland
Icelandic workers spend more hours per year in the office than do those of several other European nations and can be less productive during that time than some of those other workers. The experiment was designed in hopes of meeting the work-life balance of Icelanders, improving productivity in the workplace, and providing a route for bringing hours in line with their neighbors.
The first of the trials was carried out by Reykjavík's city government between 2014 and 2019 at a few government offices and service centers. The trials eventually expanded to include more than 2,500 workers at "playschools, city maintenance facilities, care-homes for people with various disabilities and special-needs, and beyond."
Workers in the experimental locations saw their hours reduced from 40 to 36 or 35 hours per week with no loss in pay. The exact way these hours were organized was determined by the individual workplace involved. Many opted to split the hours among four days, while others worked a five-day week with one workday being shorter.
A second trial was carried out by the Icelandic national government at about the same time, starting in 2017 and ending in 2021. This involved 17 workplaces across the country.
Iceland, home of the four-day workweek
Both studies produced similar results. The reduction in hours caused either no change or an increase in productivity and improvements in the reported work-life balance of employees. While many employees were concerned that more work would be crammed into less time, the data show that the workers were actually working less.
Improvements in efficiency were found in every workplace. Employees worked faster. Time-wasting events, like unnecessary meetings, were curtailed. Routines were changed to be more efficient, and shifts and schedules were restructured. Overtime was needed in some offices, but only sparingly.
Importantly, services were provided at the same levels as they were before the reduction in work hours. The well-being of workers dramatically improved, with many reporting increased time with their families, lower stress levels, and a better ability to balance their work and home lives.
The two trials included more than 1 percent of Iceland's workforce. Thanks to its success, 86 percent of Icelandic workers are on contracts that either reduce their workweek or grant them the right to reduce their workweek in the future.
Work smarter, not harder
The idea of a four-day workweek or reduced hours with no cut in pay is being discussed and tested in many places. The six-hour day has been tried in Sweden to great fanfare. Offices in New Zealand saw dramatic gains in productivity after switching to a shorter week. Microsoft tried a four-day week in Japan and got similar results.
Indeed, the results from Iceland are typical. Anna Coote, principal fellow at the New Economics Foundation, explained in an email to BigThink how the report was well in line with previous studies:
"It confirms other evidence that reduced working time is popular with employees, provided there is no loss of pay. It also confirms the importance of combating low pay at the same time as moving towards shorter working hours. A four-day week (or its equivalent in hours) must benefit lower income groups, not just those on higher pay. No one should have to work long hours just to keep a roof over their head and food on the table."
A four-day workweek is coming
In the book The Case for a Four Day Week, Coote and her co-authors examine the impact of a four-day workweek on society. They foresee a number of changes for society at large.
For example, it is still the case that women do more housework than men. However, the Iceland experiments showed that men in the study performed a larger share of household duties due to spending less time at the office. A four-day week could also benefit the environment through wasting less energy and fewer commutes.
In an email to Big Think, Coote reminds us that a "new normal" may be coming:
"What is 'normal' is not natural or heaven sent — it is constructed over time by human-made structures and systems. Yesterday's 'normal' was a 10-hour day. Working people won the right to an eight hour day through a protracted struggle over many years of social and economic change. Tomorrow's 'normal' is likely to be a 4-day week or its equivalent in hours across a week, month, year or lifetime."
If the four-day workweek indeed becomes the norm, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Iceland.
Your life is far more arbitrary than you might think.
- Jorge Borges' story, The Library of Babel, asks us to imagine all the books that could be written using a random shuffling of 25 characters.
- Daniel Dennett argues that, in some ways, the genetic makeup of all life is similar but with only four characters.
- The history of the universe is only one possible way our story could have gone. Much of our reality is simply arbitrary.
Imagine all the lives you didn't live. A life where you never met your partner. Where you never had a brother or sister. Where you got a tattoo. Where that horrible event never happened. Or where one did. The story of your life could be written in a nearly infinite number of ways. When we reflect on the one, narrow, unlikely path that we are on now, it can feel mind-boggling.
This is one of the ideas from Jorge Borges' short story, "The Library of Babel," and it has fascinating connections to our world today — and all possible ones.
The stories never told
Borges asks us to imagine an impossibly vast library divided into a series of hexagonal rooms. Every room contains four walls of shelves that hold every possible variation of books there could be. Using 25 characters (including periods, commas, and full stops), the books are seemingly a random mishmash of gibberish. Most of the books in the library are wholly incomprehensible — a letter explosion — but somewhere in the library, there is any book that might ever have been.
There's Lord of the Rings with Sauron winning. There's Harry Potter with Hermione as a Death Eater. There's the Bible with Jesus being released. But also, there's the story of every life, including yours. One book in this library will be, word for word, the story of your existence. It will recount your first steps, all of your life events, every word you have uttered, your most private thoughts, and even how you will die.
The genetic shuffle
Borges' work resists simple interpretation, but one way to view this is through the lens of genetics.
In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett remade the idea as "The Library of Mendel." In this version, you have all the possible genomes of any organism that might exist. Rather than the 25 characters in Borges' original, in genetics you have only four — A, C, G, and T. We humans have roughly three billion of these "letters" in our genome. If you were to randomly shuffle the letters, it's mind-boggling to think of the enormous variety of humans there might be — the incredible diversity of minds and talents, as well as of pathologies and disabilities.
Of course, in the same way a random mélange of letters will create a lot of nonsense, a random shuffling of genes most often will create unviable forms of life. Certain genomes will create something that won't respire, reproduce, metabolize, or function at all. This allows us to appreciate life all the more and to recognize just how unfathomably lucky we are to be here. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said, "However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead."
Dennett's Library of Mendel also shows us just how arbitrary and improbable the diversity of our world's lifeforms actually is. For instance, the story of mankind, of intelligent bipedal primates dominating the world, is simply one story that could have been told. (It could have been lizards.) It's a story of four letters. It's the set of improbable random mutations that won.
What could have been
Borges' Library of Babel is like our universe. Given enough time, every possible story could be told — the insane and the weird, as well as the oh-so-nearly identical. A world where your skin is slimy and green, but also a world where you have one less hair strand. With every huge planetary event, as well as with every microscopic particle collision, the universe continues on one storyline. Viewing things this way gives incredible gravity to our choices.
Every decision we make and every path we choose will echo throughout the universe. When I choose to pick up a coffee with my left hand rather than my right, I have added to and defined the universe's story. We exist as the latest chapter in the book, and we are helping to write how it will go on. Though I might play an infinitesimal role, I have had the honor of adding my bit to the greatest book of all.