Recent Interesting Science Articles (September ’09)Monday, October 5, 2009 17:16
A little late this month because I made more posts last week than I’d originally planned for but here are three articles for September, all of them related in some way with human nature and with two of them related to video gaming. Two of the articles are from The Economist. I suppose I should try to find the time to read more widely.
The first article from The Economist covers the development of muscles in human males as a way to attract mates. Naturally, muscles in human males are useful because men do most of the fighting and hunting, tasks in which physical strength is a great asset. However, William Lassek of the University of Pittsburgh and Steven Gaulin of the University of California, Santa Barbara believe that the evolution of prominent and visible muscles in men are also driven by sexual selection, just as the tail feathers of male peacocks are. Working on the assumption that sexually selected characteristics are expensive to maintain, the researchers found that men generally consume fifty percent more calories than women do, even after adjusting for different levels of physical activity.
They also found that the most reliable predictor of calorie consumption levels is muscle mass, more than either occupation or body mass index. The final twist however is that maintaining muscles has another biological cost: muscular men have weaker immune systems, which become worse the more muscular they are. The corollary is that muscles do work to attract the opposite sex as the researchers found that more muscular men do tend to have more sexual partners over their lifetimes and tend to have their first sexual experience at an earlier age than non-muscular men.
The second article from The Economist relates the story of a new type of school in New York. Called “Quest to Learn”, it is a tax-payer funded initiative that will attempt to do away with the old “chalk and talk” method of educating students by entirely replacing them with educational video games. This project draws from a diverse set of research findings supporting these novel methods. Of course, the students won’t be playing commercially available video games at the school. Instead, they will be supplied with specially designed games that attempt to teach specific things. The idea is that the games will be doing the teaching while the teachers will be reduced to an advisory role.
Another part of their innovation is that teaching will no longer be classified into the traditional subjects, such as English, mathematics, science, history etc. Instead, closely related subjects will be grouped and taught together as an integrated whole. For example, there is a class called “The Way Things Work” which integrates mathematics and the sciences while another class called “Being, Space and Time” integrates English and the social studies. The article further provides examples of what the students are expected to do. In one “Being, Space and Time” unit, the student takes on the role of a Spartan who must evaluate the strengths of their Athenian rivals and recommend the best course of action to deal with the threat. The idea is that they will learn not only language use but also history, geography and public policy along the way.
Personally, I’m extremely skeptical of these types of educational reform. I understand that the idea is to make learning engrossing and fun rather than forcing bored students to sit through lectures. While thinking of ways to keep students engrossed is a laudable goal and I’d agree that the very novelty of this approach will certainly guarantee that the students will pay attention at least in the short term, I believe that in the long run once students get used to the idea that this is what goes on in school, they’ll go back to zoning out in class. Over the long term, the only way to motivate students is to convince them that education is important for their own future and the only way to do that is to have good teachers and engaged parents.
Our final article is from New Scientist and it’s about how competitors can rein in or unleash their aggressiveness depending on whether they’re competing against someone from their own group or a complete stranger. David Geary and his colleagues at the University of Missouri in Columbia used testosterone levels as a measure of aggressiveness in their study. Their problem was that physical exertion also boosts testosterone production so that they had to find a way to study aggressive behaviors without much physical exertion. They turned to video games, in the case using Unreal Tournament 2004, a multiplayer shooter with cooperative team-based mechanics.
The students who participated in the study were divided into groups and were encouraged to bond with each other by having practice sessions together. They were first told to compete against other teams with the winning teams being paid a bigger prize than the losing team to make the competition more real. After that, the team members were told to fight amongst themselves with the player who scored the most kills against his team mates being paid the prize money. The researchers found that when the teams scored a victory against rival teams their testosterone levels spiked, yet when the team was told to fight amongst themselves, the testosterone levels of the winner was actually lower than those of the losers.
The researchers take these results to mean that the gamers tap into the same biological mechanisms as warfare. When competing against another group, greater aggressiveness is useful as there is reason for the competitors to hold back so their testosterone production is increased. However, when competing against others that they perceive to be part of their own “tribe”, the players hold back because it doesn’t make sense to really harm or alienate friends that they will need to rely on later.