Thursday, October 21, 2010

Around the web: childhood

The "Around the Web" series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

This week I spent some time on things like Meaney's mice and cross-fostering experiments, as well as 2D:4D digit ratios and prenatal hormone concentrations, as a way to get at how our development impacts behavior. I also discussed some of the main hypotheses regarding why childhood evolved in humans, since it's a unique life stage. And as always, I'll throw in a few random links at the end that I just think you should be reading.

Meaney's mice

Michael Meaney isn't just known for his cross-fostering experiments (like those described in Crabbe and Phillips 2003); they are part of a broader research program to understand stress and behavior. Here are a few stories about his other work, which is also relevant to this week's material.

Here's an interesting article from the Dana Foundation on recent advances in the genetics of psychiatric disorders. If you scroll your way down, however (or just CTRL-F "Meaney," to make it easy), the author reviews two interesting pieces of research from Meaney's lab on both rodents and humans, and the impact of poor care in childhood. I hadn't read anything on the human work before -- his lab group looked at the brains of suicide victims with and without known histories of child abuse, and found notable differences. Sad, but important work.

The other link also covers Meaney's rodent work. In both cases, they describe work that shows how stress is modulated in rodents who were groomed and licked by their mothers. It seems as though positive, caring behaviors have a positive impact on the stress response.

What do your fingers say about you?

We talked about digit ratios and prenatal hormones this week. I showed my class some good evidence, and I showed some graphs that looked like someone drew a regression line through a sneeze. I found a blog that weirds me out a little bit -- someone actually has a blog just about digit ratios. And of course, the reviews of the literature are that digit! ratios! tell us! about! our! kids! There's no point to parenting, because your child's digit ratios tell you what they'll be like when they grow up!

I actually think the prenatal hormone material is compelling in a lot of ways, and I know some really great scholars in the area. I'm just not crazy about every article I've happened to read on it (of course, can't we say that about all fields?). But who knows, maybe we'll repeat some of these experiments soon and have it confirmed that men with higher androgen digit ratios are better at trading in the stock market.

Where I tend to get a touch queasy is under those occasional conditions where an author tries to take this proximate level analysis -- an understanding of the impact of prenatal androgen exposure -- and pull it up into the ultimate level -- essential differences between women and men. When we get to that part of the semester, I have a link round-up that will put these other Around the Webs to shame.

The evolution of childhood

I only found one link on this, and it is a summary of some paleo evidence for when childhood may have evolved in our lineage. Fossil evidence was found of a 160,000 year old child with growth patterns that suggest it grew the way modern children grow.

Variation in childhood

First, a brief interview with Mel Konner about his recent book, The Evolution of Childhood (it sounds great! I would also recommend Meredith Small's Our Babies, Ourselves). Then there's also a nice post over at Neuroanthropology's old digs on a recent special issue of Anthropology News -- they have direct pdf links to some very interesting articles. Finally, and this is related to something we only touched on in lecture but I'll give us some time to discuss next week -- check out this table of child well-being in rich countries (click on the table to embiggen, and the link under it for the full report). Might come as a surprise to see where the US ranks...

Your weekly dose of random

A lot of fun stuff this week for the college-aged. If you don't read Female Science Professor, you should: she has an interesting blog post about the professor's side of the story when a study says "I couldn't come to class yesterday. Did I miss anything important?" See also this poem, and the post's comments.

Also, if you're a college student and don't follow the Cronk of Higher Education, you're missing some funny stuff. This week: Campus Reels as Freshman Discovers She is Not Best Friends With Roommate.

Next, a press release about an article showing better student performance with peer learning. This is why you all should be attending Undergraduate Mentor Office Hours!

Finally, what Around the Web post goes without linking to Ed Yong at least once? Here's his take on research on strongly held beliefs: When in doubt shout -- why shaking someone's beliefs turns them into stronger advocates. As usual it's an elegant and lively explanation of some very interesting research. And in the face of lots of pseudoscience, mistrust of science, and low science literacy, our understanding of how and why these things happen is very important.

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