Epic sciencey sexism takedown

Kate Clancy blogs on SciAm about a paper in PLoS Computational Biology that supposes that menopause evolved because dudes like their chicks young: "I can’t believe my feminism blinded me to such a raw, important truth. I now realize that, throughout the hominin lineage, the women were just sitting silently to the side, quivering, reproducing when commanded but otherwise riding the coattails of man’s evolution." Needless to say, there's another explanation for menopause. (via Skepchick)

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  1. About time! I saw the original article and downloaded it for fun. You should see the citations, or rather, the lack of citations for biologists. Sarah Hrdy looked at all this over a decade ago. There are evolutionary reasons for menopause, and they don't involve the need for hawt gals. Hint - menopause also exists in elephants, another species where offspring have long development and rely on post-menopausal elephants to help with successful calf rearing.

    At least, if memory serves it was elephants, and one other species that escapes me. Hey, it's been a decade, but I'm still ahead of other researchers. Less Freud, more Darwin.

  2. I'm not sure I can go along with this. The paper provides an additional perspective on menopause in the context of a number of alternative, established hypotheses. The first table in the paper provides a listing of such alternatives, which is more exhaustive than the one provided in the takedown. The authors give the impression of being aware of the context of their work. Maybe they have missed one or two possibilities, but papers are rarely perfect (and sometimes cannot be due to space constraints). At no point do the authors claim that these alternatives are wrong.

    I seriously doubt that the researchers were primarily motivated by their desire to put men in the center of all things. Is it possible that this played a role, maybe on the subconscious level? Yes. Is it useful to always assume the worst possible intention behind a new piece of research? No.

    It's a paper. It suggests an explanation for something the authors deem to be previously underexplained. Maybe they're wrong, and maybe their models are simplistic, in which case everyone is welcome to write up a detailed critique and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. Just science in the process of happening, nothing to see here, move along.

    For all anyone here knows they might end up being right. Hopefully, more research will tell us. Being outraged will bring noone closer to the truth.

  3. I still think we should focus on the technical content (which may well be insufficient, I'm not an expert), rather than on the assumed intentions of the authors. The linked "takedown" doesn't do this. It is outraged about the hypothesis itself rather than about the way the authors go about evaluating it.

  4. Your repeated use of the word outraged is sending me into hysterics.

  5. kai says:

    I'm in applied math myself.

    I agree that this is a problem with all sciences; but I feel that in most fields (certainly in anything physics based) one starts with equations of motion or whatever for some system and the question is how do I implement this computationally. That might be really hard like in the case of geology or climate modeling, but at least you have a fairly good idea of what the system is you're trying to simulate (granted modulo some issues like cloud formation in climate science etc.)

    In mathematical biology a lot of the time the process is the inverse of this. Some phenomenon is observed (in this case menopause), and then people try to cook up some model that reproduces it. The problem is that this inversion procedure is not well posed. There are many different models you can formulate that will give you the phenomenon in question.

    It might be the case that the above procedure is the only way to try to study phenomena in complex biological systems. But in this case I think one has to be really aware of the fact that reproducing the phenomenon does not mean one captured some real truth in one's model.

    And my other problem with a lot of the work in this field is what I stated before. Presumably the models in geology you're referring to make some quantitative predictions? They may be hard do verify experimentally but still. The authors of agent based models in biology like this often don't even claim any quantitative predictions can be made with the model; the game is simply lets see if these rules for the agents make them do something interesting. Again, if a tight connection to the real world dynamics is not made, and one can't actually get quantitative predictions from the model than what's the point? If they analyzed the model analytically maybe at least there would be interesting math, but it seems like the model was just simulated. I really dont understand who benefits from stuff like this.

    That was really long. Sorry.

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