Monday, November 23, 2015

Facts about the human body. Did you find them as (un)fascinating and (un)weird as me?

A friend posted a link on his FB wall whose click-bait title blares, "23 Fascinating and Weird Facts About The Human Body. Wow."

When friends post these sort of fact lists, I often like to go through them to challenge their initial premise (usually that I will be shocked, amazed, fascinated, tickled, or some other sharp reaction). I have yet to find a list that actually I actually found lived up to its premise, and I have also yet to find a list of facts that is 100% factual.

So here's the list of the 23 "Fascinating and Weird Facts" and my responses to them:

1.The brain doesn’t feel pain: Even though the brain processes pain signals, the brain itself does not actually feel pain.

Not fascinating; the brain was not evolved to be in direct contact with the environment. If the brain actually could feel any pain, *that* would be fascinating.

2. Women have a better sense of smell better than men: Women are better than men at identifying smells.

Women - on average - have a better sense of smell than men - on average. Again - on average - women are better than men - on average - at identifying smells. Many specific cases will differ.

3. Babies are stronger than oxen: On a pound for pound basis, that is. For their size, babies are quite powerful and strong.

This is not only limited to babies and oxen. This is a general characteristic among any group of animals of a type. Pound-for-pound, a mouse is stronger than an elephant; an ant is stronger than a samurai beetle; and a house cat is stronger than a great dane. But so what? This is due to issues of scaling and inherent limitations of physics and biology that come with larger body size.

4. A higher I.Q. equals more dreams: The smarter you are, the more you dream. A high I.Q. can also fight mental illness. Some people even believe they are smarter in their dreams than when they are awake.

I am skeptical. I haven't heard of the study that came up with this result, and given the problems of whether IQ tests actually measure intelligence and the many flaws with dream recollection studies, I'm wondering how much validity this statement carries.

5. Your smell is unique: Your body odor is unique to you — unless you have an identical twin. Even babies recognize the individual scents of their mothers.

No duh. Just like finger prints and DNA. Even between identical siblings; if one sibling eats only Indian food and the other eats only Japanese food, they will have different body odors. If they grow up in different places, they will also have different body odors.

6. A sneeze can exceed 100 mph: When a sneeze leaves your body, it does so at high speeds — so you should avoid suppressing it and causing damage to your body.

Yes, this is true. But learned once, its repetition hardly fascinates any more.

7. Your nose remembers 50,000 scents: It is possible for your nose to identify and remember more than 50,000 smells.

Yes, this is true. But learned once, its repetition hardly fascinates any more.

8. Your hearing decreases when you overeat: When you eat too much food, it actually reduces your ability to hear. So consider eating healthy — and only until you are full.

Ah. This is something new. And now that I have read the blurb, it is no longer fascinating.

9. Babies always have blue eyes when they are born: Melanin and exposure to ultraviolet light are needed to bring out the true color of babies’ eyes. Until then they all have blue eyes.

This is blatantly false. Go to East Asia. Go to the maternity wards. Look at the eyes of the East Asian babies. You can go through ward after ward without coming across a blue-eyed newborn. (Although blue-eyed East Asian babies do exist; they are really friggin' rare.) I was not born with blue eyes. My wife was not born with blue eyes. Our daughter was not born with blue eyes. The only fascinating thing about this "fact" is that it blatantly isn't.

10. Most men have regular erections while asleep: Every hour to hour and a half, sleeping men have erections — though they may not be aware of it.

Not really fascinating; if you are male then you have personally experienced this, and (unless you are a solipsist or an egomaniac) you likely have come to realize that you are not a special case. If you are female, you likely don't really think about this.

11. Sex can be a pain reliever: Even though the “headache” excuse is often used to avoid sex, the truth is that intercourse can provide pain relief. Sex can also help you reduce stress.

If you've had sex in the past, you might well have encountered the many psychological and physiological benefits that sexual intercourse *can* bring about. If this is a fascinating fact, you either haven't had sex, or you haven't had sex that moved you in this manner.

12. Your brain operates on 10 watts of power: It’s true: The amazing computational power of your brain only requires about 10 watts of power to operate.

Key word here is *about* 10 watts. The other thing though, is to recognize that your brain is an energy *hog* - and that energy conversion from food is not terribly efficient. A significant portion (if not the majority) of your caloric use during the day actually goes to feeding your brain.

13. Chocolate is better than sex: In some studies, women claim they would rather have chocolate than sex. But does it really cause orgasm? Probably not on its own.

Chocolate is better than sex for some women and almost no men.

14. Your feet can produce a pint of sweat a day: There are 500,000 (250,000 for each) sweat glands in your feet, and that can mean a great deal of stinky sweat.

See comment on #8.

15. Throughout your life, the amount of saliva you have could fill two swimming pools: Since saliva is a vital part of digestion, it is little surprise that your mouth makes so much of it.

See comment on #8.

16. You probably pass gas 14 times a day: On average, you will expel flatulence several times as part of digestion.

See comment on #8.

17. 80% of the brain is water: Instead of being relatively solid, your brain 80% water. This means that it is important that you remain properly hydrated for the sake of your mind.

See comment on #8.

18. Bones can self-destruct: It is possible for your bones to destruct without enough calcium intake.

Yeah. It's called osteoporosis.

19. You are taller in the morning: Throughout the day, the cartilage between your bones is compressed, making you about 1 cm shorter by day’s end.

See comment on #6.

20. Your tongue is the strongest muscle in your body: Compared to its size, the tongue is the strongest muscle. But I doubt you’ll be lifting weights with it.

See comment on #3.

21. Being right-handed can prolong your life: If you’re right-handed, you could live up to nine years longer than a lefty.

As a lefty, I learned about this study a long time ago. It's based on correlation, not causation. Also, see comment on #6.

22. It takes more muscles to frown than to smile: Scientists can’t agree on the exact number, but more muscles are required to frown than to smile.

See comment on #6.

23. Pinkie toe: There is speculation that since we no longer have to run for our dinner, and we wear sneakers, the pinkie toe‘s evolutionary purpose is disappearing — and maybe the pinkie itself will go the way of the dodo.

Or it could go the way of the appendix. This is not so much fact as wild conjecture. True, there is no apparent value to the presence of a pinky toe, but there also isn't any natural selection pressure to get rid of the pinky toe.

So, yeah, a bunch of *yawn*, with one blatant falsehood (#9) and one general arm waving (#23). I remain unfascinated.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How I think about the question of bathrooms, changing rooms, and transgender students in school

Looks like I am again on a different side of another social issue from a friend of mine. And potentially many of their friends and family. This time, it's about whether transgender kids can use the bathroom of the sex they identify as (as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth.) As a preface, I don't know how my perspective stacks up with that of the "social justice warrior" types which tend to flog these issues with authoritarian zeal we so often see associated with authoritarian mindsets, but I think that I can say that my perspective is likely (hopefully) somewhat different. But I want to first start with the position that one's conclusions may likely differ greatly depending on whether you believe sex and gender to be the same or different.

This is what my friend's comment was on the topic:
While I sympathesize with transgender individuals, I will not let [my daughter] share a locker room with a male. ... The school already made reasonable accommodations. If this is how public schools will work, [my daughter] will not be attending.

As a biologist, I read my friend's comment and thought, "How are you defining 'male' here, since we both know the dominant role that hormones play in determining primary sex characteristics during development and secondary sex characteristics during puberty?" From this perspective, we can see how biological sex and socially defined gender don't always match up. Given the various ways that biological outcomes don't align with strict US gender norms of recent history, there are a number of cases where a child can be sex-ambiguous, but have their gender assigned to them by a doctor at birth, only to have that designation change later in life, as in the case of intersex and hormone-deficient individuals. Neither of these cases are necessarily "transsexual" (let alone transgender), but given how little people understand about physiology and gender identity, they will likely get folded in with transgenderism.
  • Therefore, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who is intersex, was assigned the male sex at birth, but then developed as a female during puberty?
  • Also, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who, due to a hormone deficiency condition, has been taking hormone therapy since before they started puberty?
  • Furthermore, in both of the above cases, even if these classmates developed as female throughout puberty, what would your position be if they publicly identified (or privately confided to your daughter) that they were male?

These issues of how biological sex doesn't align with socially defined gender create some problems with consistency, since saying that an intersex child who was designated male at birth but then naturally develops as female *should* be allowed to use the girls locker room, despite believing themselves to be male can easily appear to be creating a double standard on sex and gender identity. True, you could make the big lift of attempting to educate the entire populace about the biological definition of intersex and how it's different from questions of transgender, but I doubt that it will be very successful. But beyond the problems that biology throws in the path of sex and gender, there are alternate scenarios that are actually about transgenderism and identity:

  • Imagine a scenario in which one of your daughter's classmates (or friends) underwent sex transition and became male (i.e., took their transgenderism into transsexualism, which is currently quite rare, but could become more common in the next 17 years). Would you insist that this classmate (or friend) now use the male changing room (since they are now male) or continue to use the female changing room (since they were born female)? (Would that answer be different prior to starting the sex change? And, if so, at what point during that transition would you insist that this classmate use the other locker room?)
  • Given the size of public schools, it is quite possible that one of your daughter's schoolmates will be transgender. Would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who doesn't publicly identify as transgender during their school years, but in adulthood comes out as transgender? Yes, this means that there could be a student who is born female, secretly (or publicly) identifies as male, and is in the locker rooms having fantasies about their classmates, and might even imagine what it could be like to marry one of their classmates after they change their sex or marry their classmate despite choosing not to change their sex or any number of adolescent fantasies about their crushes (who they happen to be sharing the locker room with, since locker room assignment is based solely on sex).

And then there is the personal scenario:
  • Would you have a problem if your daughter told you that she actually identified as male, and was being being barred from using a toilet and changing room by other parents' unfounded preconceptions about the motivations of your child?

In addition to the above biological and conditional questions, there is the humanitarian question of what to do with someone who, by announcing that they are a gender non-conformist, automatically out themselves as a major potential social pariah. From this perspective, what is the potential benefit that an individual would have in outing themselves as a "boy who says he's a girl"? Unlike what some people might fantasize, I would posit that this an announcement that is unlikely to win you any brownie points. Even if you can win the public fight to use toilets and changing rooms that better align with your identified gender, once you go into that room, you are only going to be met with suspicion, scorn and ostracism by the vast majority of fellow students in there. Your motivations will continue to be questioned at every turn, as will your worth as a person. For the imagined boy who is going to try this in order to take a peek at girls or somehow bully and abuse their female classmates, this is a markedly stupid and shortsighted plan; he will be ostracized from many male groups and he will be ostracized from many female groups; his potential options for "sneaking a peek" at his classmates will almost assuredly be thwarted, and any opportunity he does have will likely be punished by his new gender peers. And for the girl who identifies as male? It will likely be just as bad, but in different ways. So I doubt that the majority of students who are saying they identify as transsexual are doing it for the jollies.

In sum, with the ability that we have in changing biological sex - a technical capability that is continually advancing - we are moving into a world in which biological sex can be as arbitrary as cultural definitions of gender. I think that it is because of sex transition that I think is one of the major reasons why transgender has become increasingly visible. However, in the case of children and adolescents, there continues to be a general hesitancy in going through with sex reassignment (although there are some cases where it is happening, and it could well become more common as our children grow into adults), which reduces the question to one in which individuals with one set of sex organs can only say they don't identify as being part of the larger group of people who have those same sex organs, but remain unable to do much about it until they become adults. (With a proportion of those then choosing to undergo the sex transition they were unable to do as minors.)

At the end of the day, the genie is out of the bottle, Pandora's box has been opened, etc. The question (at least in my mind) is not how to continue to enforce what is becoming a set of social norms that are incongruous with physical, technical, and (increasingly) social reality, but rather how to seek ways in which we can reassess social norms (which are - in the end - highly arbitrary) to better match the world that we are becoming, while trying simultaneously to cleave to core tenets of what it means to be who we are. And no, I don't consider toilet and locker room sex assignments to be a core tenet, just like I don't consider slavery or women not being able to vote core tenets, despite them both playing central roles in shaping the US during its history.

On the question of toilet and locker room access, my position is actually to have gender neutral locker rooms as an option for students who don't identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or by society. If you do identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, then you use the sex-defined bathroom and changing room. Boom. This option can also include people who are non-sexual, many of whom have similar levels of angst and paranoia when it comes to the question of sex segregation and toilets. Yeah, some might call this special pleading based on gender, but I agree with that argument as much as I agree with the historical argument that allowing women to attend university is special pleading based on gender.

There are plenty of other points that could be raised (including a comparison of gender norms across societies and through US history, how toilets became sex segregated in the US, or how demanding sex segregation based on birth sex actually creates very troubling outcome scenarios, especially when it comes to people who have undergone a sex change transition), but one of the main problems that I see is that of imposing social gender norms on a perceived binary in which sex=gender, despite it being more complicated than that. And as the fluidity in sex moves toward the fluidity of gender, the strict sex=gender binary of bathrooms and locker rooms (as with anything where there is a strict sex=gender binary) will come increasingly under question, uncovering the real interesting complexity of humanity that the binary merely obscured, but actually existed there the whole time. The knee-jerk response of, "not for my society!" only serves to create second-class citizens within a democratic system that is meant to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. And those are my two cents.