In lecturing about behavioral biology (in any of a number of classes) it has been hard for me to avoid the lion story and the languar story. Both involve infanticide and selfish strategies by individuals. In both cases, females do things that are unexpected from the middle class heternormative Caucasoidowestern perspective. Babies die. For all these reasons, the stories wake up the students, get the students interested, and stuff gets learned. The key pedagogy here is this: If you are presented with a counter intuitive situation (and you are alert enough to recognized its counterintuitiveness even if it wasn’t natively counterintuitive for you personally), and then you study the situation long enough and deeply enough to understand why it is NOT really counterintuitive, then you are now in a new place. Good for you.
With the lions, the main counterintuitive part is this: After one or more male lions drive off the resident pride’s male lions, taking over said pride, and they have finished the job of killing off all the baby lion cubs, the females become sexually receptive and mate with these kitten-killers. They mate with the lions that killed their own babies. That whole process takes days, but not too many days. The languar story has it’s own interest as well, but I won’t describe that here.
One day I was talking about this in class and part of that involved describing the dimorphism (behavioral and physical differences) between female and male lions. This in turn involved explaining the lion’s mane. As one part of that explanation I mentioned that the mane is said to help in fighting … like a break-away shirt worn by a football player, if “grabbed” by the clawed paw of another male, a bunch of hair comes out and the swipe was thus less effective than if it had hit flesh. There were other reasons for the mane suggested at the time, but I do not remember what I said. Since signaling is important both in mammalian biology and in my own thinking about behavioral biology, I probably said something about that as well. And, I do know that this would have been during week four of a 12 week course.
So I was both intrigued and disturbed … after the semester ended and grades were given out and we received the student evaluations that had been filled out on the last day of class … to read this from one of the students (I paraphrase):
Laden is full of shit. He told us that the mane of a lion is to help in fighting but my other professor who is an expert on lions told us that this is an old idea that is no longer true. the mane of the lion tells the female how much testosterone he has. Now I know that every other thing Laden said is wrong. What a waste of time taking his course.
Now, I will tell you unabashedly that of the 200 or so evaluations with comments I would receive for this course of 500-600 students, most were good to non-committal, dozens were outstanding, over the top positive about how wonderful I am, and between one and five for a given semester were astonishingly negative (“this person should never be allowed in front of a group of students, ever” and so on). Unfortunately, it was very rare to have actual useful criticisms, but I got plenty of those from the dozen or so teaching assistants involved in the course. Naturally, a certain number of the negative reviews were politically motivated, easily discerned by the commentary attached (“Global Warming is not too realz!!11!!” or “There is no way that it is tru that athletes and teh gayz are the same thing on that graph he showd!!11!!” or “Laden never once gave proof that god does not exist, so why do I want to believe this evolution bunk???11??” and so on).
I characterize these comments to make the point that it is possible that the “Laden is full of shit” comment was actually political, or meta-political, and served as a way for this student to avoid accepting anthropogenic global warming or evolution or the fact that everybody is a little gay or some other outlandish thing I may or may not have said in class. But even if that is true, it is still an example of a phenomenon that is always disturbing, and happens here on the blogosphere now and then.
This is the phenomenon of people, often the young but sometimes just the ingenuous, characterizing an entire paradigm, or an entire person’s repertoire of thought, or an entire complex perspective, as totally wrong because one thing is found out to be wrong.
Let me explain what happened with the lions, which is kind of funny and very instructive. The reason I originally mentioned the break-away mane is because my grad school advisor, Irv DeVore, had mentioned this idea years earlier to me as something he had heard from a lion researcher he hat met in Tanzania a year or two earlier. The student, I’m pretty sure, was also taking Craig Packer’s class. Craig Packer is the world’s leading expert on African Lions. About six months after the above mentioned semester, Packer’s research team published a paper showing the link between testosterone levels and mane size and color. It seemed at the time that this link more than adequately explained the lion’s mane, and other explanations, while perhaps somewhat relevant, seemed much less important. I’m guessing (though I never asked him about this) that Craig was doing what everyone does: Mentioning the current research, stuff that is about to come out or that is in process, during class. For all I know, the lion expert with the break-away theory encountered by DeVore was Packer or one of his team. In fact, that is fairly likely. So it is all one big interconnected complex whole.
So, I didn’t know what had not been published yet, therefore I knew nothing. If I misspel a word, everything I say is wrong, or at least, highly questionable.
The belief that one wrong thing equals all is wrong is a known feature of student thinking in early development, from an educational perspective. Many students enter higher education simply wanting to know what is true or not true, so they can respond correctly to exam questions. Then, they encounter this problem where ‘truth’ and stuff is complex. The idea that an instructor would have something “wrong” and therefor has most stuff wrong is one of many similar totally stupid ideas that many students have at least a few times during the transition OUT of this early “just the facts, please” stage. As the students learn that there is complexity, a common response is to believe that instead of everything being simple and made of truths that one can learn, everything is complex and there are no truths anywhere. Some people get stuck in that modality and they enter the humanities. Others continue to develop and eventually understand that it is quite possible to have a sense of truth, to even accept immutability in some cases as long as one understands what that really means, and to have in some cases multiple alternative conflicting models of an important aspect of reality and understand that this complexity is not only how life works, but what makes live interesting. (Those that truly embrace this also usually develop an excellent sense of humor and also enter the humanities but in much smaller number.)
Everything I say in this essay is true except one thing.