Thursday, September 13, 2012

Evolution's Rainbow Part 1

I'm hoping to go see the new Resident Evil movie this weekend, so expect some sort of a review on it next week. I have to say that as a zombie franchise, it's done quite well for itself. I feel like the first movie still holds up as a great and interesting take on the zombie genre, and I'm looking forward to this fifth installment. It occurs to me that maybe sometime soon, I should do a full review-a-thon of the series...maybe I'll start that next week.

Today, though, I plan to conduct a blog-speriment...normally I just write about what I'm thinking and feeling, but I don't really get all rigorous and analytical, which means that when I'm in a debate I can end up appealing to emotion instead of cold hard facts, which means I tend to fail at pursuasion. So, in the spirit of being more, reviewer-y? I'm going to review a science book as I read it! And I'm going to take notes! And be thorough!

My partner's mom takes notes when she reads nonfiction, and that blew my mind! It meant that she had a bunch of talking points handy when she wanted to discuss the subject (the book was "Civilization: The West and the Rest" which is sitting, neglected, on my bedside table because the author's bias is actively hostile toward my bias on the subject of cultural relativity, and so it hurts to read). I've never ever done this before: I barely even used my highlighter when reading textbooks for school, but it seems like a good habit to get into.

So, to start off my blog-speriment, I'm picking up a book that I read some time ago (is this cheating? It's my blogsperiment so I say No) and quite enjoyed, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People by Joan Roughgarden (University of California Press, 2004). My impressions from the book the first time around were that the introduction and first chapter were a little challenging for me in that they seemed to bring in a lot of pseudo-scientific-sounding ideas and suggestions (an early "policy suggestion" is to erect a diversity monument on the West Coast of the US to mirror the Statue of Liberty, which seemed to come out of nowhere and seemed a little too crunchy-granola for my tastes), but that the section on biological diversity when it comes to gender was really eye-opening and seemed scientifically sound. Roughgarden is a biologist by trade and has (according to her intro and the blurb) previously worked on "textbooks, monographs, and symposium procedings" (as a non-scientist, only the first part of that holds any real meaning for me), so I trust her biological standings. The other two parts, on human biology and development and human cultural diversity, left a smaller impact on me the first time around, so we'll see how this goes.

I'm only a couple of chapters in, where Roughgarden is laying down the basic premises of the book. The first chapter deals with sexual and biological diversity as it's been seen in biology. She discusses two broad views in the scientific communities, one that's diversity affirming, the other diversity denying. Guess which view I'm partial to.

She takes aim at Darwin's theory of sexual selection, arguing that it is incomplete at best. Looking at the bulk of species on our planet, sexual reproduction is by far the most successful: most species reproduce sexually, and those animals that don't (excepting some of the simpler life-forms) tend to be the shorter branches on the evoltuionary tree. Reproducing sexually has some kind evolutionary benefit. The diversity denying side argues that sexual reproduction allows harmful mutations to be cancelled out, that sexual reproduction helps to stabilize a species' genetic make-up and reduce the number of mutations in the gene pool. Diversity affirming arguments say that sexual reproduction helps to increase diversity, by allowing variation to spread widely in a population, giving an advantage to some individuals in varying environments (which, welcome to Earth, our environments do indeed vary).

The second chapter gets down to defining sex and gender. Roughgarden is quick to adopt a biological definition of sex as being strictly related to gamete size. In species that produce different sizes of gametes (eg, egg and sperm), the larger gamete is female, the smaller is male. Even at this early stage in the book, it's becoming clear that diversity is the rule in biology, not the exception...while most sexually reproducing species produce two sizes of gametes, some animals (she uses a species of fruitfly as an example) produce more. In the case of fruitflies, there are three sizes of sperm, one gigantic (twenty times as long as the male fly itself), and two smaller, overlapping sizes. While males produce all three, it's theoretically possible that each sperm size could be made by only one type of male, which would mean a species with four sexes. Science! In general, though, sex seems to fall under a binary of large gametes vs small gametes.

Defining gender, though, is much more complicated. Despite our assumptions, gamete size tells us very little about how males and females actually look and behave. A lot of people tend to assume that males are bigger, that females gestate the young, that there are only two genders, that gender is static throughout the life of an organism etc, etc. But there is variation on all of these points. In fact, the idea that our ideas about gender are just "nature's way" falls woefully short in biology: nature uses all the ways nature can get.

The next few chapters deal with sex and bodies, and sex roles, followed by an overview of 2-gender and multiple gender families, so I'll write up a post about those next week...but first, I'll have a post about zombies!!

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