Did Men Create Gender Inequality?

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I wrote a piece for the BlueSci magazine blog. They’re a student run magazine at the University of Cambridge, and I’m their new Head of Radio. I shall be bringing you a science radio show in the next week or two – how exciting!

Did Men Create Gender Inequality?
Jessica Valenti would have us believe that “Gender inequality is a problem men created – now they have to help fix it.” I agree it’s a problem men must help fix, but I believe there is a fundamental biological reason behind gender inequality – that men are not responsible for creating the problem. And pointing fingers like that isn’t going to help the situation.

Have a read.

http://www.srcf.ucam.org/bluesci/2016/02/did-men-create-gender-inequality/

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Animals Behind Bars

elephant locked up

Is it fair to capture wild animals and keep them in captivity for our entertainment?

 

We lock many animals into tiny cages or swimming pools despite their clear intelligence, emotions and self-awareness. Dolphins, chimpanzees, elephants and killer whales are just a handful of animals that can certainly find captivity as stressful and horrific as would you or I. Imagine being in the Truman Show but confined to a small house, with strange things staring into your windows, laughing and flashing bright lights at you. Even tapping the glass in the hopes that you’ll move or do something interesting.

OrcaKiller whales locked up at SeaWorld. Watch the documentary Blackfish on netflix and see how corporations like SeaWorld lie and cover up their mistreatment of orcas and their own trainers.

 

Maybe we should draw a line and only allow lower, less complex and intelligent animals to be kept in zoos and aquariums; animals which don’t have the cognitive capacity to feel the emotional trauma of being locked up. Ignoring for a moment the difficulties of making such a distinction, would it be fair to give different rights to different animals? Shouldn’t all animals have an equal right to live freely in their natural environment?

Well we already apply animal rights differently across species. For example in scientific and medical research there is a hierarchy of increasingly strict test regulations through from plants to insects to mammals to primates and finally to humans.

A complicated grey area comes when considering if we can or should be allowed to own an animal. Perhaps you could argue ownership is merely an asymmetric symbiosis, where both parties benefit (the owner by using the other, and the owned by being looked after and protected). But in each scenario with zoos and domestic livestock, the animals don’t have a say in the matter, they’re under lock and key.

I’m not a vegetarian, but I do care deeply about animal welfare. I think that for domesticated animals, agriculture is their natural environment, so I don’t have a problem as long as their welfare is ensured. Many animals have been changed so drastically through selective breeding that they are no longer adapted to a wild home. That being said, it’s very clear that we’re simply using and exploiting these animals, hence why I believe their wellbeing and fair treatment is absolutely crucial.

When it comes to animals at zoos and aquariums, there are some non-selfish justifications for keeping them. There is potential for preventing extinctions by having animals in captivity, but really most effort should be in protecting the species in its wild habitat. Another possible benefit of zoos is their outreach and inspiration for the general public. It may be that an encounter with captive animals increases people’s willingness to support their conservation in the wild.

I’ve been to zoos, as you probably have too, and it is quite extraordinary to be able to see amazing creatures up close and personal. The cultural value they provide us, when they’re managed and designed well, is priceless. Whether or not this is worth the psychological suffering of some of the animals we’re viewing is debatable. Unfortunately, I think zoos also propagate the false sense of entitlement and dominance that our species has over the rest of our planet, which has led to our destruction of the natural world. It’s hard to see animals as our equals when every animal except us is locked up. Perhaps adding a caged Homo sapiens exhibit would start to rectify the situation.

Homo sapiens zoo exhibitZagreb Zoo in Croatia allows people to enter a Homo sapiens exhibit. The idea is there but they fail to get the whole message across, as they let people leave at will.

 

Meat and the Environment

The meat industry is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change. Plus it requires very large areas of land for production – tens of times more land (not to mention water and energy) than the equivalent weight of plant based food. In our rapidly developing world there is a growing demand for meat which is causing greater CO2 emissions and greater pressure to increase land available for agriculture, which typically comes at the expense of biodiverse forests, leading to further climate change. A simple way we can choose to combat this is by reducing the amount of meat and animal products in our diet. I love meat as much as the next person, but I love our planet even more!

 

Meat in Moderation.

 

Hometree fallingHometree burningPristine forests being destroyed to allow the exploitation of mineral resources in the poignantly environmental film Avatar. Director, James Cameron urges “You cannot claim to be an environmentalist if you’re still eating meat and dairy”.

The Goals of a Gene: Should We Help Our Selfish Genes?

You’ve probably heard that genes want to make copies of themselves, and try to ensure survival and reproduction of their host so they make it into the next generation. These anthropomorphic phrases are useful shorthand for biologists, as most genes act as though they selfishly wish to reproduce, and it is easier for us to think about them if we imagine that they have intentions. However, it can be misleading and warp some people’s ideas of evolution if they believe genes are literally selfish, for example.

Genes have absolutely no desires, and therefore no will to get themselves replicated. It would be just as accurate (or inaccurate) to describe genes as wanting to cease to exist and have no further copies of themselves made. In reality, the reason the genes we see today are here is because of the fact that they are good at building survival machines and reproducing. It is simply the case that those genes that were most successful in reproducing became more common and survived this far, and it now appears as though those genes actually want to continue to reproduce into the future. What appears to be purposeful design (genes that are good at replicating themselves indirectly via survival machines) is actually just the result of billions of years of cumulative evolution that has favoured the best replicators, generation after generation.

There is a big difference between genes, without any motives, and individual survival machines, which follow goal-driven patterns of behaviour in order to (ultimately) reproduce. Genes are made up of a sequence of DNA, a code which can be read and translated into functional proteins that build up and create a working organism. Without a nervous system and capacity to think, it is clear that genes cannot truly have motives or goals. However, genes programme organisms to have proximate goals such as eating, mating and surviving. Emotions as we know them are our genes motivating our minds to do (or not to do) something. But genes are given no motivation and being successful is just something that occurs if their effect is to encode a survival machine that is well suited to reproducing in its particular environment.


It is interesting to be a human being, and ponder about our evolutionary past and its effects on our behaviour. We know that most of our actions exist to increase the spread and therefore success of our genes, but we have no qualms about thwarting them. Our genes don’t have a sense of happiness so we needn’t feel bad about doing it. But it seems inescapable to conclude that our genes created us to propagate them as much as possible. So are we somehow misbehaving or overruling them when we use birth control or adopt children?

The distinction to be made is whether we view genes as wanting to do something in future, or simply as the result of evolutionary history. Our genes did not create us so we could aid their replication. They created us because their lineage happened to be highly successful at replicating since life began on this earth! And they were successful because they had the effect of building appropriate survival machines. We needn’t try to help them, as they aren’t trying to do anything themselves. They simply exist due to the past successes of their lineage.

Genes drive our behaviour in ways that generally increase their chances of replication. However, we are not precisely motivated to replicate our genes – if we were there’d be long lines for donating to sperm banks and we wouldn’t use contraception. We’re actually motivated to find happiness by eating tasty foods, having sex with attractive partners, having friends, finding love, raising happy children and to have fun, satisfy our curiosity and find meaning in our lives. We’re programmed by our genes but we don’t seek to replicate them, we instead follow our human desires and goals wherever they may lead us.

Should Same-Sex Couples Be Allowed To Adopt?

Of course they should. But I was at a wedding last weekend and found myself listening in to a heated argument that centred on whether or not gay men should be allowed to adopt and raise children. The opposition to said rights was shocking in his distorted understanding and use of the principles of evolution and what is natural, in defending his position. He passionately argued that since gay men could not naturally produce a child together they should never be provided with this opportunity. “It’s not natural, it’s not natural”, he kept repeating. He is right about the impossibility of two men conceiving a child, however his beliefs were a perfect example of the naturalistic fallacy, as I pointed out to him. This fallacy is easily simplified as ‘the misunderstanding that everything that’s natural is good, and everything that’s unnatural is bad’. Infanticide, rape and war are all perfectly natural components of many animals’ societies, including our own, but this does not mean that they are right or good. As an intelligent and moral species we can see that these behaviours are terrible and should be penalized in order to reduce their occurrence.

Coming back to the topic of having children, many heterosexual couples find that they are unable to conceive naturally, but IVF treatment allows them the joy of bringing a child into this world. The process is as unnatural as you can imagine, and using a Darwinian moral compass they should be denied this right along with homosexual couples. But nobody in their right mind uses this compass and falls for the naturalistic fallacy so completely that they would seek to deny the right to have children to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

That being said, this man’s beliefs ran further still and he went on to argue that homosexuals in general were not natural since they couldn’t reproduce. This simply isn’t true. Being homosexual is partly genetic and there are no right and wrong genotypes; there are many variations each with their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the environmental conditions. Being homosexual usually results in less offspring but may allow greater care of nieces and nephews, resulting in overall greater fitness. The frequency of male and female homosexuals worldwide is far higher than would be predicted, given the fact that they don’t directly pass on their genes. So it is probable that their relatives (who share their genes) have a corresponding increase in reproductive output, which their homosexual kin lose, thus maintaining the genes for homosexual orientation. There is absolutely nothing unnatural about homosexuals. And there’s nothing unnatural about homosexuals raising children that aren’t their direct descendents. If there were evidence suggesting future psychological problems for adopted children then this would need considering, but there is no grounds for denying these rights by virtue of it being unnatural.

This is a classic case of people twisting and distorting principles of natural selection in order to justify their prejudices. Some people dislike homosexuals so they try to demonize them and limit their rights as human beings. It is the exact same principle as eugenics that the Nazi’s infamously took to extremes. But the idea is completely flawed. There is no right set of genes that make up a human or any other animal, so there can be no perfect specimen to try to breed towards. Any person advocating or subjugating a particular race or trait is simply imposing their opinion with absolutely no scientific evidence to support it. And we must not take such behaviour lying down.

Facebook’s Emotion Study Under Ethical Scrutiny

A controversial paper has just been published in PNAS that studied the effects of the emotional content of posts that appear in a person’s news feed on Facebook. The number of positive and negative posts that appeared was manipulated without the person’s knowledge to look at what effect it had on the emotional content posted by the user. Their results show that emotional contagion (transfer or sharing of an emotional state) can occur through online social networks. However, the effects reported in the study were very small. As they put it, “people’s emotional expression is difficult to manipulate” as mood is affected by many experiences throughout the day.

More interesting than the results is Facebook’s ability and willingness to cause changes in emotions in an enormous number (689,003) of unknowing ‘participants’. There was no consent given for involvement in the study and it is looking as though no ethical approval was ever received by the researchers. The rather serious implications are that the data use policies of companies like Facebook and Google can allow them to legally experiment and tinker with the emotions and thoughts of their users. Don’t get me wrong collaboration between universities and private companies is desirable, but there surely must be greater transparency and regulation to limit behavioural manipulation of the public.