Does biology explain the sex ratio in tech?

Here’s what bugs me about James Damore’s recent anti-Google screed: it’s a terrible misuse of biology.

The question he addresses is: Why are there so few women in tech and tech leadership? In his memo to Google, Damore offered an explanation (note: I added the numbers):

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

(1) They’re universal across human cultures

(2) They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

(3) Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

(4) The underlying traits are highly heritable

(5) They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that points (1)-(4) are more or less true. Continue reading →

Pitting science against media

Laysan albatross pair

Photo by Dick Daniels from Wikimedia Commons.

Odds are that the Laysan albatrosses in the photo above are a male and his female mate, but it’s worth checking their sex chromosomes to be sure. The reason? In this long-lived species, most of the adults are females, and two females often pair up to raise chicks (fertilized by other males of course). In some populations, up to a third of the nesting couples are female-female pairs1.

They’re not alone – plenty of other organisms engage in same-sex courtship, copulation and even long-term pairing. And it’s often for a good reason. Take the deep sea squid Octopoteuthis deletron. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium recently took to the deep in submarines to study their sex lives. They observed sperm packets attached to the bodies of both male and female squid, suggesting that males inseminate every other squid they can, “indiscriminately and swiftly” – a good strategy in a dark habitat where it may be hard to tell who you’re looking at2.

The media response was predictable, calling the squid bisexual, sex-starved, same-sex swingers. Promiscuous? Maybe. Indiscriminate? Yes. But pervy? I’m not so sure.

It’s an issue that Andrew Barron and Mark Brown commented on recently in the journal Nature3. Sensationalized coverage of research, especially when it makes great leaps to compare animal behaviour to human sex, can do real damage – to science and to society as well, by dredging up tired stereotypes about sex.

That was Barron and Brown’s main point, and I certainly agree. But their article got me far more worked up than the sex-starved squid.

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A royal waste?

Giant pandas are in the news again, this time for their annual date night at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. But hardly a day goes by without a report somewhere on the latest captive panda birth, strategic breeding attempt or panda relocation.

A blogger at the London Review of Books compared the bears to members of the British royal family: both are suffering from shrinking ecological niches and in serious danger of extinction, hanging on by virtue of their marketing potential. The similarities don’t end there. Giant pandas, like royals, are expensive to house, with a fee of over $1 million per year for a zoo to lease a pair from China. Naturally, the breeding activities of giant pandas are as intensely scrutinized as those of Prince William.

This entails some surprising efforts when it comes to the pandas. The history of captive breeding for Ailuropoda melanoleuca is no sordid royal affair. It’s long, and for the most part, pretty unfortunate; zoos have been failing to produce heirs to the panda legacy for decades.

For starters, it’s nearly impossible to get the bears to mate in captivity, and it’s not just their deficiency in the looks department, as comedian Mike Birbiglia suggests. Captive pandas can’t seem to figure out a working sexual position1. Females often start things off all wrong by lying down, but the males are just as clueless. This led to panda porn: zoos started making videos of pandas achieving copulatory success, as training tools for the more hapless bears2. Other attempts to use Viagra on pandas were less encouraging, but the porn worked – for females as well as males – leading to a boom in captive births in recent years3.

Giant panda cub

Visitors can pay to see the cubs at the Chengdu giant panda breeding centre. File photo modified from newssc.org.

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Not when cupid strikes

Raphael's The Triumph of Galatea

“Not when cupid strikes.”

That was Christine Drea’s response at the Animal Behavior meeting last summer. She had just given a talk on her latest study, showing the dramatic effects of hormonal contraception on the way lemurs communicate with the opposite sex1. I was asking her what advice she gives to women about birth control. On the 50th anniversary of the Pill, scientists like Drea were adding to the evidence that we might want to think twice about our widespread use of these drugs. The lemur research suggests that hormonal contraception could be replacing one “problem that has no name” – Betty Friedan’s idea of the dissatisfaction felt by modern women – with another2.

Like many primates, ring-tailed lemurs have a complicated system of signaling to one another through scent. Males are able to detect the sex, fertility and even the identity of a particular female by smell alone3. At first glance, the connection to humans might seem far-fetched, since our noses are pretty poor compared to other mammals. But we are relatively well-endowed when it comes to scent production: humans have more scent glands on the surface of our skin than any other primate4.

We also have some surprising olfactory abilities lurking beneath the surface. The classic example is the T-shirt test. In the 1990s, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland gave a group of men T-shirts to take home, with instructions to sleep and sweat in them over the next two nights5. When women were later asked to sort the dirty T-shirts based on pleasantness of smell, they did something surprising. Their rankings came down to genes: the more genetically distinct a man was from a female rater, the more she liked his scent.

Continue reading →