Tag Archives: Society

Science may not be the meritocracy we thought it to be: gender and race discrepancies are prevalent

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers highlighted the disparities in the scientific community in the US. Simply put, the US scientific workforce is not representative of the population. Barriers to entry and participation prevent important segments of the population, especially when it comes to race and gender.

Concepción Feminist Mural in Madrid. Wikimedia commons.

Researchers investigated the representation of different groups between more than 1 million articles in the Web of Science between 2008 and 2019. The groups are racial categories constructed in the American society: White, Black, Asian, and Latinx. These categories were also divided by gender (male and female).

The data showed that women, Black and Latinx scientists are underrepresented in various different scientific topics, while White and Asian men are generally overrepresented. In Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Black, Latinx, and White women are underrepresented and Asian women have a medium representation. This is different in Psychology and Arts, both Asian women and men are underrepresented.

The most over-represented group in STEM are Asian men and, and the same carries in social sciences more related to economy and logistics topics. Black scientists are better represented only in research fields related to racial inequalities and African or African American culture. Something similar happens to Latinx authors that seem to be more involved in topics such as immigration, political identities, and racism. 

This graphic shows the representation of various racial, ethnic, and gender groups as published authors in various fields. It shows that Latino, Black, and white women are significantly underrepresented as authors in engineering and technology, mathematics, and physics publications and are heavily overrepresented in health fields. Credit: Diego Kozlowski/University of Luxembourg.

The authors also compared how specialized each group is. Asian scientists are more focused on a specific topic compared to White authors who are more scattered among the topics. In contrast, topics regarding gender identity and inequality are the focus of Black and Latinx women, emphasizing the gender role imposed in society and signaling that women are trying to shift perceptions in this field.

In terms of citation, Asian men are more cited in Social Sciences and are more likely to be involved in topics that are highly cited. In the Health topics, White authors are more cited, followed by Black, Asian, and Latinx. This is a clear confirmation that minoritized groups are more cited in topics less favored in the scientific community and are less cited in both lowly and highly cited topics.

These inequalities are indicative of the inequalities in American society. While this study focused on the US, this is a global problem that needs to be addressed. In addition to making academia fairer and more inclusive, research has also shown that diversity among research teams fosters innovation and more impactful research. For now, it appears the open and fair academia may not be all that open and fair after all.

Gorillas and humans treat their territory the same way, study finds

Gorillas seem to be very territorial, a new study shows, but they seem to understand ‘ownership’ similarly to humans.

Image credits Christine Sponchia.

The study is the first one to demonstrate that gorillas are territorial in nature, unlike previous assumptions. At the same time, the findings suggest that these primates can recognise “ownership” of specific regions in a very human-like manner, and will attempt to avoid contact with other groups while travelling close to the centre of neighbouring ranges in order to avoid conflict.

Which seems like the polite thing to do!

My turf, your turf

“Gorillas don’t impose hard boundaries like chimpanzees. Instead, gorilla groups may have regions of priority or even exclusive use close to the centre of their home range, which could feasibly be defended by physical aggression,” says lead author Dr. Robin Morrison, who carried out the study during her PhD at the University of Cambridge

“Our findings indicate that there is an understanding among gorillas of ‘ownership’ of areas and the location of neighbouring groups restricts their movement.”

Because their home ranges often overlap, and because they’re quite peaceful to other gorilla groups, gorillas have long been assumed to be non-territorial. This would make them markedly different from chimpanzees, who have no qualms about using extreme violence to protect their home turf.

The new study, however, suggests that gorillas are, in fact, territorial animals — but they also display quite nuanced behavior around the issue. The study focused on monitoring the movements of the western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. These animals are notoriously difficult to track, so the team placed video cameras at 36 feeding “hotspots” across a 60-square-km area of the park to help them monitor eight different groups of gorillas.

The team reports that the movements of each group are strongly influenced by the location of their neighbours, being less likely to feed at a site visited by another group earlier that day. They would also try to steer clear of the centre of their neighbours’ home range.

“At the same time groups can overlap and even peacefully co-exist in other regions of their ranges. The flexible system of defending and sharing space implies the presence of a complex social structure in gorillas,” explains Dr Morrison.

“Almost all comparative research into human evolution compares us to chimpanzees, with the extreme territorial violence observed in chimpanzees used as evidence that their behaviour provides an evolutionary basis for warfare among humans,” says co-author Dr Jacob Dunn from the Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).

Dr. Dunn adds that the findings showcases our similarities with the wider primate family, not just with chimpanzees. Observing the way gorillas interact over territory — setting up small, central areas of dominance and wider liminal areas of tolerance of other groups — could help us better understand early human populations. Just like us, he explains, gorillas have the capacity to both violently defend a specific territory and to establish between-group ties that lead to wider social cooperation.

The paper “Western gorilla space use suggests territoriality” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Gorillas have ‘old friends’ and other elements of complex societies

Gorillas have complex relationships and social tiers, a new study reports. The system bears striking similarities to human society.

Gorillas resemble us in more than one way.

The way human society is arranged is pretty neat: it starts with a nuclear group of our closest family and friends, which is nested in increasingly larger units. We don’t exactly know when and how humans transitioned from small and autonomous groups to increasingly larger and tiered social systems, but it is a key part of what enabled us to thrive as a species.

But this system might not be unique to us among primates: a new study also reports that gorillas share a similar system.

Gorillas are not easy to study. Not only do they live in inaccessible areas, but they also tend to avoid humans without previous habituation. This study used over six years of data from two research sites in the Republic of Congo, where scientists documented the social exchanges of hundreds of western lowland gorillas.

“Studying the social lives of gorillas can be tricky,” said lead author Dr Robin Morrison, from the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge. “Gorillas spend most of their time in dense forest, and it can take years for them to habituate to humans.”

“Where forests open up into swampy clearings, gorillas gather to feed on the aquatic vegetation. Research teams set up monitoring platforms by these clearings and record the lives of gorillas from dawn to dusk over many years.”

Gorillas live in family groups, but these groups are very different from what we humans have. Typically, a group consists of a dominant male, a few females, and offspring. Meanwhile, the other males live as solitary “bachelors”. But there’s more to the story than that.

After the immediate family, there’s an extended group with which gorillas interact regularly — this group features 13 gorillas on average. Beyond this, there’s a further tier, which averages 39 gorillas and also features regular (though rarer) interactions. There’s also a different type of group formed by male gorillas who are old enough to leave their group but not old enough to fully care for themselves. They form an all-male group to help them cope.

Does all this sound familiar? That’s because it’s a lot like what we humans do.

“If we think of these associations in a human-centric way, the time spent in each other’s company might be analogous to an old friendship,” she said.

The similarities run even deeper. Not only did the team find permanent relationships, they also found periodic interactions, similar to annual gatherings or festivals. For gorillas, these seem to be based around fruiting events (although they are a bit too infrequent to draw definite conclusions from them).

This could also offer new insight regarding the evolution of this type of behavior. Humans (and primates, for that matter) are not the only ones to employ this type of hierarchy.  A small number of mammal species have been found to have similar structures, and these are typically the species relying on “idiosyncratic” food sources — such as elephants looking for irregular fruitings or dolphins hunting for mercurial fish schools. Furthermore, all of them have well-developed spatial memory centers, much like humans do.

However, our closest relatives, chimpanzees, have a very different social structure: they live in small territorial groups with fluctuating and aggressive alliances. The findings suggest that either the behavior evolved independently in humans and gorillas or, more likely, it stretches down to the common ancestors of humans and gorillas

The findings suggest that the origins of our own social systems stretch back to the common ancestor of humans and gorillas, rather than arising from the “social brain” of hominins after diverging from other primates, say researchers.

“While primate societies vary a lot between species, we can now see an underlying structure in gorillas that was likely present before our species diverged, one that fits surprisingly well as a model for human social evolution.”

“Our findings provide yet more evidence that these endangered animals are deeply intelligent and sophisticated, and that we humans are perhaps not quite as special as we might like to think,” concludes Morrison.

The study “Hierarchical social modularity in gorillas” was published in Proceedings of Royal Society B.

Ornaments.

The earliest monument in east Africa was built without anyone being ‘the boss’

A massive cemetery complex in the plains of Kenya shoots down the theory that social hierarchy is required to build monuments.

Location.

The site’s location.
Image credits Elisabeth A. Hildebrand et al., 2018, PNAS.

An international team of researchers has uncovered the earliest and largest monumental cemetery in all of Eastern Africa. Christened the Lothagam North Pillar Site, the monument complex was built over 5,000 years ago. The most surprising bit? Its builders were simple herders living around Lake Turkana, Kenya. They’re believed to have had an egalitarian mindset, rejecting any social stratification.

The discovery contradicts the long-standing view that a stratified society, split between rulers and ruled, is required to construct large public buildings or monuments.

Communal building

The site represents a communal cemetery built and used over a period of several centuries (between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago, roughly), the team reports.

It is comprised of a round platform about 30 meters in diameter, in the center of which the early herders dug a large cavity to inter their dead in. After this cavity was filled, they capped it with stones and placed megalithic pillars on top. These pillars were sourced from as far as a kilometer away.

The team estimates that a minimum of 580 individuals were “densely buried” in this central cavity. There doesn’t seem to be any particular individual that received special treatment — people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, were buried here. All individuals were buried with personal ornaments but nobody stands out as being poorer or wealthier than their peers. In fact, the distribution of ornaments is surprisingly even throughout the cemetery, which the team takes as an indicator of a relatively egalitarian society without strong social stratification.

Stone circles and cairns were subsequently erected at the site over time.

Ornaments.

Ornaments and palette recovered from Lothagam North.
Image credits Elisabeth A. Hildebrand et al., 2018, PNAS.

Given the expenditure of both effort and resources required to build large structures, as well as the logistical hurdles associated with organizing the whole thing, archaeologists simply took it as a given that a group needs a political structure to be able to undertake such projects. There’s also the fact that the roles these buildings played — they’re reminders of shared history, culture, religion, or ideas — are indicative of a settled, socially stratified society with abundant resources and strong leadership.

Taken together, it made archaeologists view ancient monuments as definite indicators of complex societies that allow specialization of work — and, through it, differentiated social classes.

The people who built the Lothagam North cemetery, however, were simple herders. We have no evidence that they had a rigidly-tiered society; if anything, their burial site suggests they were all equal in their society’s eyes.

“This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality,” explains Elizabeth Sawchuk of Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.”

The discovery could lead historians to reshape how we understand the emergence of complex societies.

The authors write that Lothagam North was likely built during a period of profound change. The Turkana Basin had so far been populated by diverse groups of fisher-hunter-gatherers, but now groups of herders had started settling in and around the basin. So on one hand, these new arrivals brought about massive innovation — from hunter-gathering to animal husbandry. At the same time, the area experienced a drop in rainfall levels, causing Lake Turkana to shrink by as much as fifty percent, the team explains.

It’s possible, then, that the herders constructed the cemetery as a place for people to come together to form and maintain social networks to cope with major economic and environmental change.

“The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties, and reinforce community identity,” says co-author Anneke Janzen. “Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape.”

It took several centuries for pastoralism to overtake hunter-gathering as the main source of sustenance in the basin, and for the lake to stabilize. After this happened, however, the cemetery ceased to be used — further supporting the team’s hypothesis.

“The Lothagam North Pillar Site is the earliest known monumental site in eastern Africa, built by the region’s first herders,” Hildebrand adds. “This finding makes us reconsider how we define social complexity, and the kinds of motives that lead groups of people to create public architecture.”

The paper “A monumental cemetery built by eastern Africa’s first herders near Lake Turkana, Kenya” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Western civilization could collapse within a decade due to political in-fighting

We might be in for a bit of rough and tumble — the civilization-collapsing kind, according to Professor Peter Turchin from the University of Conneticut’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology. He believes sweeping political turmoil could lead to a complete social collapse in the West sometime in the following decade.

Image credits Unsplash / Pixabay.

Professor Turchin is one of the leading proponents of cliodynamics, a field of science that mixes history, sociology, mathematics, with a bunch of other disciplines to understand the forces that have shaped humanity over the centuries — forces that still shape us today.

According to the tenets of cliodynamics, historical events such as crises or the rise of fall and empires follow clear patterns. Patterns that can be measured, quantified, and anticipated. Turchin started out by using mathematic models to predict human activity from 1500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E. Three years ago, using similar models, he began to forecast what’s to come. The results have led Turchin to believe that America is in for a grim future — one that could lead to its downfall, similar to the empires of old. Should the United States collapse, western civilization will likely suffer a similar fate, he further cautions.

“We should expect many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s,” he writes in an article published on Phys.

“But this is a science-based forecast, not a ‘prophecy’. It’s based on solid social science.”

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Turchin considers that a process called “elite overproduction” is at the root of the issue. As the rich elite of society grows in number, it becomes even more disconnected and distant from the poorer members. They’re all fighting over a slice of the pie — but there’s more of them now, and the pie isn’t getting any bigger. This leads to increased tensions and more rivalry in the political and ruling class, gradually undermining any co-operation efforts.

“This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.”

He also says that falling revenues and rising expenses will lead to the “stagnation and decline” of individual living standards and the fiscal health of the state. The economic hardships could become so severe that the state won’t be able to recover.
Turchin says that exactly what will happen when this ‘peak’ occurs is unknown. The theory does not predict events only trends.

But there is a difference between us and the civilizations that came before: we know it’s happening.

“Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster,” Turchin said. “Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge.”

“The descent is not inevitable,” he continued. “Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether.”

And no, it’s not Trump’s fault. The results of the recent presidential campaign are likely a symptom, not a cause. Turchin says that the election “changes nothing in this equation”.

“It did not predict that Donald Trump would become the American President in 2016. But it did predict rising social and political instability.”

“And, unless something is done, instability will continue to rise.”

Which basically means that we’re in for it no matter who’s in power.

The full paper “Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade” has been published in the journal Nature.