Friday, August 15, 2014

Speed-Blogging, 8/15/14: On Ferguson, the Benefits of PMS and the First Woman to Win the Field Medal in Mathematics

This will be a hodgepodge of issues, as usual, but more than usual, because I intentionally avoided all news while recharging my batteries.  That made me blissfully and innocently uninformed, even happy, the way people living sane lives look to me.

Here it goes:

First, on Ferguson, wiser people have written about the horrors of racism, the militarized police shooting an unarmed young teenager and then using tear gas on mostly peaceful protesters, the arrest of journalists and so on, as well as the tone-deafness of the local police forces until last night.

But it's still worth pointing out that if Ferguson's 21,000 inhabitants are two-thirds black, to get a police force of 53 officers with just three black officers suggests that the selection process is not a random one in the sense of the applicant pool consisting of a fair sample from the community.  It takes more information than I have to analyze the reasons for that racial imbalance (is it straight racism, indirect racism, the reluctance of people of color to side with the "enemy" or what?), but surely the community efforts should be aimed at getting a more representative police force.  A more representative city council is also necessary.

Second, a "brave scientist" (to quote the popularization I read) has figured out the evolutionary edge PMS (premenstrual syndrome) gives to some women!  I bet you want to know what that might be:

Professor of Molecular Evolution, Michael Gillings, believes that in our evolutionary past there was a hidden selective advantage to PMS, because it increased the chance that infertile pair bonds would dissolve, thus improving the reproductive outcomes of women in such partnerships.
“In the past, women had many fewer menstrual cycles than women in modern societies, because they did not have control over reproduction and were either pregnant or breastfeeding most of the time,” said Gillings.
“Imagine that a woman was pair bonded with a sterile or infertile male. Then, even in the past, they would have had regular cycles. If women in these relationships exhibited PMS and this increased the likelihood of the pair bond dissolving, this would be a huge reproductive advantage.
Damn.  There goes my evolutionary edge, because PMS is not something I've ever experienced.

More seriously, perhaps professor Gillings is correct.  But perhaps he isn't.  Not everything that exists does so because it was advantageous for evolutionary reasons, though I have read serious ruminations (in evolutionary psychology literature, natch) on the idea that suicide conveys evolutionary benefits! It only remains to prove those benefits.

It's pretty hard to find out if prehistoric women were continually pregnant or breastfeeding, by the way.  Perhaps they were.  But pregnancy can be a pretty hormonal experience for some women, right?  According to Gillings, pregnancies might then have caused similar reasons to dissolve the pair bond.  And then there's the possibility that menstruation might have been infrequent not only because of pregnancies and breastfeeding, but because women cease to menstruate below a certain body weight.  If food was hard to get in those distant times, it could be the case that many women weren't menstruating that frequently.

And were people of the distant past pair-bonded in the first place?  If so, were the women free to walk out of that bond or not?

We cannot answer those types of questions without a time machine.  But what we can do, is to point out that the writer of this popularization began the piece with an extraordinary sentence:

A brave scientist has sought to answer a question that has baffled for centuries: why do women get premenstrual syndrome (PMS)?

When you combine that with the attached picture you get something very different from a neutral discussion of an article.

Finally, Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics:

Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal for her sophisticated and highly original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems.
"This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," Mirzakhani said. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."
Mirzakhani is Iranian by birth.  Iran's president supposedly tweeted congratulations to Mirzakhani.  The tweet shows her picture both with and without a head scarf.  More on that dilemma for Iranian newspapers here.