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Why Fossils Are Mostly Male (atlasobscura.com)
56 points by mellowhype 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

> [Male wooly mammoths] were more likely to do silly things, like die in tar pits

Apparently, across many mammalian species, males are more likely to take risks and explore than females. This seems to be good evidence that not all gendered behavior is socialized. That would seem to be a silly straw man argument to knock down, if it were not so widely held.

A related theory is the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variability_hypothesis

The idea being that males tend to have flatter/wider distributions of traits, leading to higher populations at the extremes of those traits. This can include aggression, risk aversion, etc.

More at the Heterodox Academy - https://heterodoxacademy.org/the-greater-male-variability-hy...

It is a silly straw man argument that should be knocked down. Society has completely lost it trying to ignore science and claim that there's no biological differences between genders. It's a joke if you're even slightly educated on the subject.

Is anyone claiming that there are no biological differences between genders? It's very blatantly obvious that there are. I think the idea that many people oppose, is that the existence of some biological differences justifies other social differences.

Yes, unfortunately there are a number of people, some in positions of power and authority over some sporting bodies, that believe there is no meaningful difference between sexes.

The most notable result I've seen is a transgender (recently transitioned) MMA fighter fracturing the skull of an opponent in an appallingly one sided and brutal fight.

Denying the most basic facts of hormone effects (muscle and bone density effects of testosterone and then the bone density sparing effects of estrogen) that have not even been questioned for decades is now unfortunately a thing.

I feel like the technically-correct thing to say is that there are no essential differences between genders (since you can have whatever gender identity you want) or between sexes (because your sex doesn't guarantee your hormonal makeup) but there are essential differences between people of who have had long periods of differing hormonal makeup—whether natural or induced.

Which is to say, we probably shouldn't be grouping athletes by gender/sex, but rather imposing a threshold of testosterone, and having a league for people with (historic) low T and a league for people with (historic) high T.

There'd likely be an interesting opportunity in the middle for co-ed athletics leagues, where the people of both physical sexes that have "average" historic T levels (i.e. who fall on the mean of T levels of all humans) could compete fairly with one-another.

Also, as a tangent: an interesting question brought up by that, is that some athletes actually have an inherent T level that would be considered "using steroids" if a person of average T took TRT to achieve that level. Should such athletes be allowed to compete, if others aren't allowed to achieve their level? (IMHO, it's a bit like a sport where tallness is an advantage allowing people with natural gigantism, but banning people who've been given limb-lengthening surgery.)

Why was the fighter even allowed to compete in the new league? Do you have a reference for the fight?

Fallon Fox vs Tamikka Brents

Thanks, that was brutal.

Surprisingly, this is a real position of many people today, that gender is entirely a social construct. It's pretty clear there are both social and biological underpinnings to gender - I don't know why some people insist on taking the black or white view.

Gender is an entirely social construct. You and the earlier commenters are using the word “gender” when you mean “sex.”

I think it is closer to the truth to say that gender is a social construct in the same way language is a social construct. The Universal Grammar Theory[0], pioneered by Noam Chomsky, gives evidence that language arises from a biological predisposition that is cross-cultural. The social construct arises from the biological construct.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar

This is another example of people redefining words then claiming other people are unenlightened because they use the original meaning and not the redefinition.

Gender has been used as a synonym for sex for a long time. Merriam-Webster and The Free Dictionary list that meaning before the more recent meaning.

You're simply wrong to claim the way you use the word is the only way it can be used.

It could be useful to have a way to distinguish between the biological and social aspects of sex/gender, though. Because those are different things, so it kinda makes sense to have different words for it.

In which case you'll need to invent a new word, not tell people they're wrong to use a word the way it's long been used.

Telling people they're wrong to use a word in an old way is not very constructive, but language changes all the time, and when everybody starts using the words that way, then that's what they will mean.

The comment that started all this was:

> You and the earlier commenters are using the word “gender” when you mean “sex.”

Clearly not everybody is using the word that way.

Those words are used interchangeably in modern discourse. But it's not like the craziness goes away if you define the terms more carefully. There are people who seriously beleive there is no biological difference between the sexes when it comes to internal characteristics like mind and personality. The external differences are, I hope, obvious to all with eyes to see.

Not answering your question exactly, but there are many people, especially in academia, who believe that there are no biological differences between the genders that account for our interests:

8:10 and 33:00 https://vimeo.com/19707588

(The whole piece is excellent though)

The notion that there are any biological differences between genders that can affect anything other than explicitly gendered biological processes, seems to be commonly considered highly "toxic" and "problematic" amongst modern progressives.

Knowing the common predispositions of genders is useful if you need to make an educated guess about the expected behavior of a random person.

Sometimes the problem lies in trying to raise boys or girls to fit these "expected predispositions". Or judging someone who is "outside their gender norm".

So, yes if I pick a random boy and girl out of a crowd, I would expect differences and could make reasonable guesses about those differences.

So, it's not bad if you know these common gender differences as long as you are able to quickly discard them when you're getting to know someone at a deeper level than their gender.

> Society has completely lost it trying to ignore science and claim that there's no biological differences between genders.

Could you describe in more detail some specific claims you've seen made that fall under this?

The reason some people claim this is twofold:

First, that contrary to prior common belief, the range of possible physical strength, endurance, pain tolerance, and all types of personality expressions of women is effectively the same as that for men.

Second, that regardless of scientific evidence, the belief in differences between the sexes has been very widely used to oppress women in so many ways, including but in no way limited to prohibiting them from voting, limiting what types of job they were legally permitted to hold, and effectively treating them as the property of their husbands or fathers, with no will or agency of their own.

Until the generations that were actively involved in doing these things finish dying out, and probably the ones that were taught by them, too, claiming there is no biological difference between men and women, regardless of its veracity, will be a completely justifiable defense mechanism against being told to shut up and make sandwiches for the rest of their lives.

Males are certainly more likely to be ostracized for aggressive behavior in social species... why assume their apparent solitude is because they are “taking risks and exploring” instead of having nowhere else to go?

Aggressive behaviour is extremely risky, the payoffs and costs are both very high. And indeed, one of the potential costs is social ostracism. It counts under the taking risks part of 'taking risks and exploring'.

I am not sure of the point you are trying to argue here.

> why assume their apparent solitude is because they are “taking risks and exploring” instead of having nowhere else to go?

Pretty sure the point was to note that the "taking risks" part of that could have been the initial aggressive stance that got them ostracized. As the GP noted, there's a specific risk/payoff to behavior in a social group that might pay off well (more social status) or be very detrimental (ostracization), and given how detrimental being ostracized could be, I think many would consider that "risky behavior".

The comment you’re responding to only suggests that some behavior is related to biological sex and not socialized, and doesn’t call out any particular behavior.

It specifically calls out “taking risks” and “exploring.”

Those are pretty general, nonspecific traits, unlike “enjoys tar pits”

your comment seems to suggest that animals aren't social and their behaviour is pure biological.

It literally does not and I’m not sure how you interpret “some behaviors” as “all behaviors”

How dare you injure my tiny fragile male ego thusly.

> that not all gendered behavior is socialized

animals also live in societies, complex societies in cases of elephants. it can be that those behaviours are learned in those societies.

nobody says that gendered behaviour is caused by society norms only in humans.

> "This has less to do with misogyny"

How did they shoehorn in sexism into an article about animals? This has nothing to do with misogyny because animals are incapable of reason.

The sexism would be coming from the people collecting fossils and curating the museums. Later in the article they mention that human biases affect the gender ratios of collections of extant organisms (although not for sexist reasons) so it's not a completely absurd thing to rule out.

That theory is excluded earlier in the article: If you’re lucky enough to have a whole bone, such as a skull, the size, shape, and dimensions might differ between male and female. In the case of fragments, researchers might have to dig into DNA

If obvious differences are very rare ("very lucky") then the bias can not come from collectors.

The sentence about misogyny not being the cause is the start of the second paragraph. The sentence you're quoting is in the third paragraph.

So the argument would be the the (male) paleontologists, museum curators, etc. had such a burning hatred for women that they chose male specimens to cultivate and display?

Please do not flame the discussion with strawmans. This is a very uncharitable interpretation of what OP wrote. It is not about hatred, it is about minor subconscious preferences that if they exist, the can cause noticeable effects in aggregate.

What I wrote is not a strawman, it is the definition of misogyny. Perhaps you are conflating this with sexism. The article used the word misogyny, so that is what I am using.

The article said there was no misogyny. My comment also said that. No one is arguing that people were being driven by misogyny.

The article starts by mentioning "less to do with misogyny".

My comment is about sexism, specifically misogyny (as used by the article).

You reply to my comment taking about how it can be plausible that it is misogyny.

I believe we are talking about misogyny.

My comment was that it's not completely absurd to rule out sexism because human biases have affected the gender composition of similar collections. That's pretty far from making a specific argument about how misogyny is involved.

It is completely absurd as you have absolutely less than zero evidence to support it has occurred.

The main problem here is the binomial distribution, not any other kind of bias.

Fossils are rare enough that even a small change in behavior could really stack the deck.

Do you think the was perhaps a child bias in Homo fossils caused by curators? (They're overrepresented probably for obvious reasons.)

If there is less than zero evidence to support that something happened, isn't that an appropriate time to rule it out?

Everyone agrees that this is not due to sexism. What's the problem with saying so in an article?

or simply that male subjects are for some reason or another easier to present in an interesting way, as decided by curators etc of any gender.

How would that be a case of misogyny, then?

It isn't. No one is saying that it is.

No, the argument is that this didn't happen.

You've got it, there's even a paper on this regarding glaciology see https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/030913251562336...

I (unfortunately) cannot access this paper because it is behind a paywall, but surely it must be satire?

Someone saved you the trouble of reading it https://ricochet.com/320028/archives/i-read-the-famous-femin...

Many people were confused as to this being satire or not but one of the authors did a Q&A to help clear things up


it's a joke

I don't see the humor.

Explaining the joke to you: Whenever we discover unexpected bias due to sex we usually first assume sexism at work, but that's funny here because ancient megafauna aren't sexist.

I understand why it might be considered a joke, but it doesn't make sense (and is not funny), because the subject in question is not human.

Is it possible you are too caught up in being triggered about gender issues to find anything funny, anymore?

not everyone has a sense of humor

Or is it?

the plot thickens

> because animals are incapable of reason.


This article misses some steps...

Just because a male might be likely to go do something risky and die young, that wouldn't explain more male fossils. After all, the female that didn't do something risky will also die. All things die.

Are they trying to claim that females who die are less likley to turn into fossils, perhaps because of the locations the deaths occurred in?

Fossilization of bone generally requires animals to die such that they're buried pretty quickly. The swampier parts of swamps, river banks, tar pits, that sort of thing. Risky areas for megafauna, not places they're going to be, say, sleeping if they can avoid it. The exceptions are when there were, for example, flash floods that quickly swept & covered ordinarily-safe-and-fertile flood plains, or when predators dragged carcasses to such places for whatever reason (big crocodiles, maybe), volcanic eruptions, stuff like that. A large land animal killed not by some disaster, that ended up fossilized, probably didn't die of old age or of predation by something common to the animal's preferred habitat, unless they were (for example) swamp dwellers to begin with.


> Are they trying to claim that females who die are less likley to turn into fossils, perhaps because of the locations the deaths occurred in?

Yes, I think that's it.

Strange that they haven't considered chemical reasons: Males have more iron / more hemoglobin...perhaps male bones are just more likely to fossilize for some chemical reason(s)?

There wouldn't be small fossils if blood volume was that important to bone fossilization.

I would assume bone structure is generally bigger and stronger, lasting longer

I can't imagine there's such substantial sexual diamorphism across all species to account for that.

How much bigger/stronger would bones need to be for this to hold true? Also, what about the variance between species? Hypothetically, would that then go Male Large Dino > Female Large Dino > Male Medium Dino > Female Medium Dino...? We'd expect to see more females of large dinos than any medium males in that case.

The article mentions 25% of fossils are female. Females would need 75% less bone mass to account for that.

That's not quite how the math works. Assuming there was a size/mass minimum for fossilization, and that we expected that to be the only qualifier for fossil occurrence, we'd just need to expect X% of species to exhibit sexual dimorphism depending on how frequently we see males&females of the same species.

For example, if you needed a bone to weigh 5kg/meter and males are 5kg/meter but females are 4.5kg/meter then you'd expect to see a very low number of females even though they're only 10% smaller.

Obviously none of this is the case, and this isn't the deciding factor on why it's happening. Just pointing out where you missed things slightly.

You're right, but that doesn't fit in a snarky one-liner.

If we were serious about this bone mass minimum, we'd need to consider why there are fossils of smaller animals, or big but hollow-boned animals. That's a rabbit hole with many hypothetical variables.

I don't understand the argument. All mammoths die.

Yes, but not all mammoths fossilize.

Fossilization is rare. Most deaths result in recycling the animal into nutrients for other things (animals, fungi and bacteria). For land animals, fossilization involves either dying under circumstances that are likely to promote fossilization or under circumstances that are likely to quickly move your body to a location that allows fossilization. Getting stuck in a quagmire or tar pit, or getting swept away trying to ford deep, fast-moving water drives your chances of fossilization up considerably.

1) location of death (or final resting place, anyway) matters a ton for likelihood of fossilization,

2) not all animals die in the same places,

3) if sex has an influence on the distribution of likelihood of dying (or ending up in—water carries corpses, predators and carrion-eaters may drag them) in fossilization-friendly locations, we'd expect to see a difference in the rates of fossil discovers of that species by sex, different from whatever actual distribution there was of male & female in the original population.

Could females be eaten more so there is less remains?

Most animals don't eat bone though

The patriarchy strikes again.

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