Tag Archives: Sex differences

The Fall Olympics #Sochi2014

Remember the Fall Olympics in Vancouver? That was the year that skaters … not the racing ones but the dancing ones … were falling all the time as if they had some kind of special extra slippery ice on the skating rink. Well, this year, at Sochi II, we are witnessing the Fall Olympics mainly on the snow slopes and half pipe, where lousy snow conditions, caused by warm conditions with some rain, have messed everything up.

But there is an interesting twist this year. According to a piece in the New York Times, women are being affected more than men:

…most of the injuries have been sustained by women.

Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The proportion of injuries to women is greater than it appears given that the men’s fields are generally larger.

Twenty-two falls, with 16 as women, is statistically significant (Chi squared = 4.545 with 1 degrees of freedom, two-tailed P=0.0330)


Generally, but not always, women and men have different rules or equipment when they play similar sports. In basketball, the rules seem about the same, and the court and the nets are the same, but for women’s basketball the ball is slightly smaller, I’m told. For hockey, as far as I know, the equipment is the same, but women are not allowed to body slam each other. But for many other sports, including a lot of summer and winter Olympic sports, there isn’t any difference as far as I know. Obviously, when there is no need for a different set of rules or alternate gear, there shouldn’t be any difference.

Women use a different downhill course than men, shorter and with, it appears, fewer jumps. That is a little hard to understand since there is no clear difference between what the two sexes are expected to do. On the other hand, I’m not a skier. Perhaps the body strength required to not buckle under the g-forces for so long is sufficiently different for men and women. On the other hand, isn’t this mostly lower body strength, and wouldn’t women have an offsetting advantage having less bulky upper body mass to work against? Any skiers out there want to comment on this?

It is interesting to watch the half pipe. The men and women have the same pipe, the same rules, the same judging, and in the end, produce the same array of spectacular gravity defying moves. In fact, given the standard half-pipe mode of attire, it is not easy to tell which gender is doing the deed. (That could just be me … maybe I need a bigger TV.) This applies to varying degrees across most of the fancy skiing events. But the suggestion has been made that this could be changed. From the same NYT piece:

“Most of the courses are built for the big show, for the men,” said Kim Lamarre of Canada, the bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, where the competition was delayed a few times by spectacular falls. “I think they could do more to make it safer for women.”

Think back to the afore mentioned Fall Olympics in Vancouver. As I recall, a very large proportion of the ice-dancy people fell during their performances. But in previous Olympics, and during the current Olympics, this has not been the case. Aside from some physical explanation, i.e., that Canadian Ice is extra slippery (unlikely!), I would attribute this to a behavioral syndrome. Some sort of demand for a certain kind of extra jumpy move that would lead to more slippage may have emerged in the sport, peaking at the time of the Vancouver games, and since then either all the skaters learned how to handle this with additional training and experience, or as a group, they’ve shifted their expectations.

Something similar may be happening with the Sochi snow sports. One of the downhill women’s races had several bad runs in a row, and the coaches were able to pass information on to the skiers so they could avoid one particularly bad spot on the run, a jump that was often followed by an out of control spinning off the mountain effect, so the latter half, roughly, of the runs did not abort. A similar cultural, or training related, effect may be at work at Sochi’s slopestyle event for women. Check this out:

J. F. Cusson, ski slopestyle coach for Canada and a former X Games gold medalist, said that his women’s team usually did not practice on jumps as large as the ones the men use, for fear of injury.

“But when they compete, they have to jump on the same jumps, so they get hurt,” he said. “It’s a big concern of mine.”

It seems reasonable to assume that if the women trained for the setting they would be competing in, they would not have as much trouble. This vaguely reminds me of the early days of the Olympics (early 20th century, not Ancient Greek) when women were for the first time allowed to engage in a foot race, a 100 meter dash or something along those lines. It was hot, they were untrained, they wore petticoats. They all fainted. That was not because they were women unable to run. It was because they were women set up for failure, and expected to faint. I’m sure a lot of guys found that to be as hot as the weather was that day.

In a way, the Olympics are a slow and ponderous thing, since they happen only every four years. I suspect that the sex difference in wipe-out and injury rates we saw today will be attenuated in future games due not to adjustments in context or gear but rather to changes in training and preparation.

Photo Credit: jsmezak via Compfight cc


In an old colonial-looking restaurant that served ten kinds of steaks, I met up with an experienced explorer and a local farmer, to have dinner and discuss plans for an upcoming research project that would be managed by The Explorer and that would partly be on The Farmer’s land, which adjoined a rather extensive and remote wilderness area. I don’t remember a lot about the conversation, but one memory of the evening stands out: That was when The Farmer, rooting around in a bag for some cash to tip the waitress, pulled out this big-ass gun … a small cannon, really … that was in the way. For just a moment, the gun came out of the bag and went on the table, then back in the sack. I wondered if this was a random event or if it was a not too subtle way to let everyone around see that This Particular Farmer was packing Major Heat. I’d seen that move before in this part of South Africa, which is where, by the way, this dinner was being enjoyed.

Earlier that day, The Explorer, whom I had commissioned to be my field logistics manager, drove me out to a possible research site — an island centered in one of Southern Africa’s more significant rivers. The island had once been part of a farming project, now defunct, and at some point a levy was built there to divert water into an irrigation system. The now defunct and overgrown levy was about four kilometers long, flat topped, and exactly the width of a vehicle’s wheel-base plus 30 centimeters. There were numerous erosional cuts on both sides of it, so as The Explorer drove our truck along the top of the vegetation-covered berm, the wheels would take turns dropping into these open-ended Potholes-Of-Death. I wondered what would happen if we hit an erosional gully that was a bit bigger than the others, or two at once, and just as I was wondering about that, The Explorer uttered some words that made all that seem less important. Continue reading Manspace

Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

The title of this post is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods that I write about, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
Continue reading Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

Understanding Sex Differences in Humans: What do we learn from nature?

Nature is a potential source of guidance for our behavior, morals, ethics, and other more mundane decisions such as how to build an airplane and what to eat for breakfast. When it comes to airplanes, you’d better be a servant to the rules of nature or the airplane will go splat. When it comes to breakfast, it has been shown that knowing about our evolutionary history can at times be a more efficacious guide to good nutrition than the research employed by the FDA, but you can live without this approach. Nature works when it comes to behavior too, but there are consequences. You probably would not like the consequences.

The question at hand is this: Should men and women be given fundamentally different rights? Would it be OK if men and women had different pay for the same job, or different access to jobs? Would it be OK if men and women were treated differently by the law in a way that accounted for the behavioral differences between them that arise from their biology which, in turn, may be partly a function of their evolutionary history? Should men and women have different status because of their gender? Similar questions can be extended to people that are biologically different in other ways, such as by age, gender orientation, physical handicap or, should it be proven a valid categorization, race. But for now, let’s stick with the basic adult male vs. female difference.

Continue reading Understanding Sex Differences in Humans: What do we learn from nature?

Male vs. Female Brains

The male and female human brains are different. Some of the better documented differences are similar to differences seen in other mammals. They are hard to find, very small, and may or may not be of great significance. Obviously, some are very important because they probably relate to such things as the ability … or lack thereof … to bear offspring. But this is hardly ever considered in the parodies we see of these differences.

[Repost from Gregladen.com]
Continue reading Male vs. Female Brains

Marta’s (good) questions, … fur

Why did humans evolve hairlessness? Hair (fur) protects mammals from heat and cold, what would be the benefit from losing this asset?

I think the most commonly held theory is that fur works on quadrupeds, but once you stand upright, it is less effective, and less fur works better. For later time periods, clothing works better than fur because it is more adaptable. Consider that whatever fur-based system human ancestors had was based on needs in the tropics where it does not get that cold, so it is not hard to imagine that clothing is much more effective.

Recent studies of body parasites suggest that body lice unique to humans differentiated genetically only fairly recently, in the range of several tens of thousands of years. This body lice requires clothing … human clothing on human bodies is the habitat for these lice. This suggests there may have been a reduction from a certain level of furriness only with modern humans living in a wide range of environments and using controlled fire, clothing, and some kind of shelter (hut/house) to deal with the elements. So it is possible that the immediate ancestors to modern humans (perhaps Homo erectus?) were actually fairly furry.

As for details of the body hair, this is also interesting. Why do humans have pubic hair but not a lot of other hair? Why to males have more body hair than females in many cases? Why to human males have facial hair? The African Apes have much less facial hair than most modern human males. It has been suggested that this has to do with sexual selection. It is important to distinguish between the idea that the starting condition is a lot of fur and that females may have lost more than males, vs. the starting condition was very little hair and males have added more. The amount of fur, it’s appearance, etc. may be related to testosterone (this is true in males and females but more obvious in males) so facial hair may be a signal of “quality” in males.

Race, Gender, IQ and Nature

ResearchBlogging.orgNature, the publishing group, not the Mother, has taken Darwin’s 200th as an opportunity to play the race card (which always sells copy) and went ahead and published two opposing views on this question: “Should scientists study race and IQ?

The answers are Yes, argued by Stephen Cici and Wendy Williams of the Dept of Human Development at Cornell, and No, argued by Steven Rose, a neuroscientist at Open University.

I would like to weigh in.

Continue reading Race, Gender, IQ and Nature