All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Galapagos Giant Tortoises Make a Comeback, Thanks to Innovative Conservation Strategies

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous as a laboratory of biological evolution. Some 30 percent of the plants, 80 percent of the land birds and 97 percent of the reptiles on this remote archipelago are found nowhere else on Earth. Perhaps the most striking example is the islands’ iconic giant tortoises, which often live to ages over 100 years in the wild. Multiple species of these mega-herbivores have evolved in response to conditions on the island or volcano where each lives, generating wide variation in shell shape and size. Over the past 200 years, hunting and invasive species reduced giant tortoise populations by an estimated 90 percent, destroying several species and pushing others to the brink of extinction, although a few populations on remote volcanoes remained abundant. Now however, the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists. Together we are advancing a broad multiyear program called the Giant …

Is Crime Genetic? Scientists Don’t Know Because They’re Afraid to Ask

The U.S. has made unprecedented strides in the fight against crime. Both violent and non-violent crime are way down from their highs in decades past. This is great news, of course, but the success could easily lull us into a false sense of security, believing that we have the problem solved. Indeed, what if much of what we know about the causes of crime is either deeply flawed or flat out wrong? Imagine the trial of a new drug for an ailment that is as intractable as it is lethal. Researchers find 100 people with the disease and give the new drug to the first 50 patients who show up to the clinic. The next 50 trial participants are placed into a control group and given no treatment. The drug has a truly shimmering success rate. As you may have guessed, problems abound with this experimental design. For starters, because it isn’t randomized and because preexisting differences among the participants aren’t taken into account, the study can’t answer the question: Did the new drug cause …

Why Growth Most Often Occurs When We Fall Apart

In many ways, our current society is set up to avoid as much pain as possible. Whether it is new technology, new medical or pharmaceutical advancements, or the self help industry, everything is set up to make our lives easier, simpler, and more uniquely tailored to our every individual need. Even the names of products such as the iPhone and iPad nod to the symbiotic merger of products and people. But the question remains, does all of this avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure really make us any happier or more resilient? Obviously, new technological and medical advancements have helped millions of people rise out of poverty or overcome disease, but overall our social levels of happiness haven’t risen. Indeed, studies have shown that use of social media such as Facebook is correlated to depression and unhappiness. Other studies have shown that there is some increase in levels of happiness when individuals rise out of poverty, but material possessions beyond that don’t make much of a difference. Anyway, this avoidance of pain isn’t just relegated …

How the Fall of the Berlin Wall Created Political Gridlock in the U.S.

The deeply divisive 2016 presidential election and its aftermath provide the clearest evidence to date of the bitterness that increasingly plagues American politics. Russia stands accused of attempting to influence the outcome and undermine faith in the election, but in fact their destructive impact on U.S. politics has been far more profound and pervasive than that. Russia has been steadily undermining U.S. political effectiveness simply by virtue of their decline over the past 25 years. Indeed, endemic Russian weakness has not only led to the gridlock, extreme partisanship, and toxic political climate that pervades the U.S., but has also made Putin one of the most popular politicians on the planet. Political commentators have explained the current American political climate in different ways, but most focus on political or societal events such as globalization, gerrymandering, Roe v. Wade, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Gingrich’s Contract with America. Many also point to traditional and social media echo chambers, which exacerbate partisanship through their polarizing effects on group attitudes and the creation of parallel news-universes. …

Stereotypes Can Hold Boys Back in School, Too

By age six, girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant and express interest in activities described as for “really, really smart” children, according to new research published in Science. Many major media outlets reported these findings. Most of the coverage, however, overlooked another key finding from the same study: Boys were less likely to say their own gender gets top grades in school. The beliefs of children matter because they could shape students’ interests and achievement over time, other research suggests. For instance, one 2013 experiment found that telling elementary school children “girls do better than boys” in school made boys — but not girls — perform worse on a series of academic tests. These expectations can work both ways: When researchers told children that boys and girls would perform the same, boys’ academic performance improved. There are real and persistent gender achievement gaps in the U.S. For instance, boys tend to get worse grades than girls, but girls are few among top scorers on standardized math tests. While much research …

If You’re Reading This Essay, You Should Probably Have (More) Children

The 20th century saw explosive population growth, fueled by a combination of declining infant mortality, decreasing violence and steady growth in agricultural productivity. These trends resulted in large part from technological advances  —  like chemical fertilizers, genetically modified food, antibiotics, and vaccines  —  which acted as a tremendous boon to human welfare. By the 1970s, some were convinced that population growth would soon lead us back to a dark age of famine, disease and war. But they were wrong. Instead of the downward spiral forecasted by Thomas Malthus, a somewhat unexpected trend emerged. Citizens of industrialized countries in the late 20th century began having fewer children. So few, in fact, that current fertility rates in Europe, Australia, East Asia and other developed regions are well below replacement levels. The result has been an aging population that faces workforce shortages and empty nests. Despite these facts, some journalists and pundits have renewed the call to have fewer kids. Why? Their main worry is climate change. A number of popular articles (and books) have implored people to …

Why Did Humans Evolve Big Penises But Small Testicles?

Humans have a much longer and wider penis than the other great apes. Even the largest of gorillas, more than twice as heavy as a human, will have a penis just two and half inches long when erect. However our testicles are rather small. A chimpanzee’s testes weigh more than a third of its brain while ours weigh in at less than 3%. The relative size of our penis and testes is all down to our mating strategies, and can provide some surprising insights into early human culture. Primates exhibit all sorts of mating behaviour, including monogamous, polygynous — where males have multiple mates — and multimale-multifemale. One indicator of which behaviour occurs in a species is the size difference between males and females. The greater this sexual dimorphism, the more likely the mating is either polygynous or multi-male to multi-female. This can be shown by observing chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest living relatives. Male chimpanzees are much larger than females, and they have a multi-male to multi-female mating system. Essentially, male chimps have sex all the …

Conservatives Are Politically Correct, Too

As the majority of Americans and the world at large hunkers down for a Trump presidency, many commentators have blamed his rise to power on a backlash against unchecked political correctness. Of course, those who voted for the now-45th President despite his antics are solely responsible for their decision — and will likely have a lot of explaining to do over the next four to eight years — but the criticism of political correctness among the left should not be dismissed, whether or not it really did drive people to elect the billionaire last November. The phenomenon threatens the academic environment on college campuses and may be actively harming students’ mental health. It often breeds hostility that prevents the frank discussion of important ideas like human nature, innate differences between men and women, and the role of Islam in acts of terrorism. And it fosters a divisive political climate that polarizes rather than compromises. The result, predictably, is that too many not-so-savory characters are permitted — if not outright encouraged — to relinquish their inhibitions …

Interview with Debra W. Soh, Sex Researcher and Neuroscientist

Meet Debra W. Soh, a sex researcher and neuroscientist in Toronto, Canada. I learned about Debra through reading her LA Times op-ed on the futility of gender neutral parenting. I got in touch with Debra because I wanted to learn more about her field of sex neuroscience, her own research and her thoughts on studying sex differences in the brain. Because the study of sex and sex differences is often fraught with political roadblocks, I also wanted to get a picture of how a neuroscientist-sex researcher approaches some of these contentious issues. Hi Debra, thanks for chatting to Quillette. Can you briefly tell us who you are — where you studied, who was your supervisor and what made you interested in neuroscience, in particular sex neuroscience? I am a sex researcher at York University in Toronto and I write about the science of sex for several media outlets, including Playboy. For my PhD, which I just defended, I worked with Dr. Keith Schneider, who has pioneered new methods in high-resolution fMRI and is the Director of …

Does Religion Cause Violence?

The streets of small rural towns in United States are typically tranquil places, but they are especially still on Sunday mornings. On those mornings, people dutifully report to their local places of worship, pay their tithes, listen to the sermon, sing the hymns, and bow their heads for the prayers. Religion is a cultural bulwark; it is a glue of the community. But southern piety, like all incarnations of faith, harbors a dark history. One spotted with racism and contempt for minorities, and incredulity that women might do much else than sing in the choir. What’s worse is that there is no shortage of scripture from which to justify these iniquities. And God, at least in the past it seems, provided ready dispensation. More insidious are the acts of violence and aggression committed under the auspices of religion: the crosses burned, the houses of worship destroyed, and the lives taken, all with the apparent sponsorship of no less than the “creator of the universe“. Religion, it would seem — all brands included, but some more …