HB = Hannah Boomershine, HR = Heather Reynolds, JG = Justin Garcia
JG: Could we imagine, by understanding difference in people's biology, individual differences in who we are, can we harness that to have better medicines, better therapies, better ways to negotiate our lives, and our relationships and our happiness?
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VO: Welcome to Diversity Difference Otherness. This podcast is part of Themester 2017, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m your host, Hannah Boomershine, a senior in the Media School. In each episode, we invite faculty members to share their work and how it relates to this year’s theme.
Today, we explore “difference.” How do we bridge the gap between civilization and the natural world? How do our biological differences affect our romantic and sexual relationships? Our guests are Professors Justin Garcia and Heather Reynolds. They explore these questions and more about the difference within nature and our bodies. Up first, we have Heather Reynolds, an associate professor in the Department of Biology.
HR: My research is focused in plant community ecology, which has to do with understanding how natural, and urban, and agricultural ecosystems are put together, specifically with regard to the vegetation, and how different plant communities, how different plant species, can coexist with one another, and what their interactions are with one another, and with soil and and the microbes, as well as animals. So, it's about the web of interrelationships, and my research is directed at understanding those relationships, and then applying them to design more sustainable ecosystems, whether that be agricultural, or urban woodlands or prairie ecosystems, for example.
HB: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this idea of bringing society and nature together, which I think a lot of people think of them as being really different, and separate, and I know that’s a broad topic, so maybe you could start off by talking about what is green infrastructure? What does that mean?
HR: Sure, simply, green infrastructure refers to green space. So vegetated space, and not just the vegetation, but again, the animals, the microbes that interact with those plants. So green space is an ecological system. And green infrastructure is green space, essentially, and it’s — green infrastructure is the application of green space to meeting human needs. So, an easy thing people can think of is a garden, is green infrastructure. It meets needs, aesthetic needs for people. If it's a food garden, it meets food needs. And then you can contrast green infrastructure with gray infrastructure, which simply means the human built environment: buildings, roads. Think of asphalt, pavement, impervious or non-water penetrating surfaces. Often gray or dark-colored. And, so, contrasting these two terms, or thinking about them, allows us to understand that we can actually replace a lot of our gray infrastructure, which is highly fossil-fuel dependent, often very polluting, and often not nurturing of the human spirit and the need for human contact with nature, with green infrastructure. Because it turns out that so many of the things that we make gray infrastructure for, can be provided by green infrastructure.
HB: Yeah, what is an example of something that is gray infrastructure right now that can be, or you know, in many cities right now, that can be changed into something that is green infrastructure?
HR: Sure. A great example that’s readily understandable is thinking about a rooftop, okay? So a building's roof, a building is gray infrastructure, that's classic gray infrastructure, okay. And the roof of a building is typically just some kind of inert material right? It's cement, or maybe stone, brick. Green infrastructure replacement for that would be a so-called green roof, otherwise known as a living roof. It just means a vegetated roof. And you can actually, with fairly little technology, apply a vegetated layer to a roof and turn that gray roof, and that great piece of gray infrastructure, into green infrastructure. When you do that, you gain all kinds of things. You are helping to reduce the building’s heat load, so you're reducing energy costs. You are helping to absorb stormwater that vegetation is soaking it in, and evaporating it back to the atmosphere, so that's reducing flooding. And you are cleaning the air: vegetation filters all kinds of air pollutants. You might be might grow food, there are gardens on top of roofs. It's a place for humans to go, so you get aesthetic enjoyment. And this points to a classic feature of green infrastructure, is typically, it is much more multi-functional than gray infrastructure. You're getting one thing from gray infrastructure. You're getting a multiple of things from green infrastructure, typically much more multifunctional than gray infrastructure. You’re getting one from gray infrastructure, you’re getting multiple things from green infrastructure, typically with much lower energy and resource use, and so that's good for sustainability.
HB: What are some of the challenges and obstacles that people are facing, maybe to converting their roof into a garden, or using some other methods to create more green infrastructure in our cities?
HR: Well, that's a good question. I mean, I think in broad terms, you know, cities did start out very green. Cities had, they had city gardens for example -- cities grew food for themselves. And then, little by little, right, we got more and more centralized with so many of our services, so we have a very centralized industrial agriculture system now, with basically, you know, the short answer to your question is fossil fuel: the availability of abundant and therefore cheap fossil fuel supplies has allowed our society to go industrial, right? We had the Industrial Revolution, and we're still in that mindset, even though many experts believe that fossil fuel supplies are peaking, which means they are becoming more and more expensive, harder to find. And then we have the other side of the coin which is global warming. So I think that that poses many challenges. And we see strong lobbies for fossil fuel and its related industries and against renewable technologies, which I would put renewable technologies, like solar, on the spectrum of green infrastructure, which is basically working with nature to meet human needs.
HB: Yeah, and there are two sides that I'm seeing here, you know, it's beneficial to nature but also to human beings as well, and to our health both physically and mentally. Could you talk a little bit about those benefits?
HR: Sure, and I would direct people, of course, Richard Louv that's L-O-U-V, who's famous for his works on nature deficit disorder. And he's written a number of books now summarizing the literature on nature and its mental and physical benefits to humans, but yeah, there's just a ton of scientific literature out there — studies where people's health, recovery in hospital rooms, or you know, other kinds of therapeutic situations, older people, people with Alzheimer's, troubled youths, and just everyday people with stress relief — measuring people's responses to nature in various ways and seeing that contact with nature has a number of therapeutic benefits. So, I think everybody has experienced that themselves, when maybe they're stressed and may go out for a walk, and I would encourage students to do this.
HB: Mhmm. Yeah, so even just immediate benefits from that, yeah.
HR: Right. And it brings people into contact with other organisms. I think that humans, it’s clear, have a love affair with birds and butterflies, for example. So not just flowers and plants, which I think also make people very happy. And green space, green infrastructure, especially when it's done with a focus on biodiversity, brings in all of these other organisms too. And the ability to see and hear a birdsong and see the colorful nature of insects, such as butterflies really lifts people's spirits.
HB: Yeah, absolutely, and just too, I think having cities being so separate from nature often doesn't make any sense, just based what you're saying, from like the benefits it brings humans, but also that, you know, we maybe view ourselves as being separate from nature.
HR: Right, and it's a false disconnect, of course. You know, you can get into philosophical discussions, of course, about well, everything is natural, even human industry is natural, right? You know, you can go in circles. I think it is useful to make a distinction between human activity and the rest of nature just because we have become such a dominant force, and it’s useful to think then how we can bring back the greenness of nature into our lives. And again, with the rise of industrialization and increasing use of gray technology, whether that's your smartphone, or whatever, it has disconnected people from the more natural world, the green world of living organisms. And people in terms of their food, in terms of everything, all of their clothing… they don't see where it comes from. It seems to come from gray infrastructure, right? From a grocery store, or you know, from a shopping mall or something. But of course, it doesn't. We are removed from nature, but we still depend on it, and that separation, unfortunately, causes a lot of problems. If you try to meet people’s needs locally, you can engender a lot more accountability. And of course, if people are doing things locally, they can see how they’re done. If there's pollution happening, then of course they want to clean it up because they're being exposed to it, as opposed to, if it's pollution in some other country where food or clothing or products are being produced in, people never know about it. They're not exposed to it. So, that disconnection causes a whole host of problems that lead to unsustainable situations.
HB: Thank you so much, I really appreciate you coming by.
HR: Sure, no problem, it was fun.
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VO: There is beautiful difference in nature, as well as within our very own genomes. Our next guest studies the evolutionary variation of people’s romantic and sexual lives. Justin Garcia is an associate professor of gender studies and the associate director for research in education at the Kinsey Institute.
JG: By training, I’m an evolutionary biologist, and my research program focuses on people’s romantic and sexual lives throughout the life course. And in particular, I'm interested in diversity of traits, and diversity of things like monogamy, or gender and sexuality, so a lot of my research questions, and my research program looks at tensions between what's called social and sexual monogamy or between gender and sexuality. And what I really get excited about is how those tensions and those variations and differences shake out in people's romantic and sexual lives, whether they be heterosexual, or in a same-sex couple, or bisexual, or whether it be in a monogamous couple or a consensually non-monogamous couple, like poly, which is not a couple. There could be be three or more people involved. So I'm interested in how relationships vary and what the consequences of that diversity is for people's lives.
HB: When I was listening to you talk about that, I was also wondering you know about some of the challenges that you might have when discussing topics like race, like gender, and sexuality when we know that they are socially constructed, but you are pointing to… there are also biological realities that we also need to learn about too. So what are some of the challenges in reconciling these social constructions, but also with the biological realities that we have?
JG: Yeah, I think you’ve gotten right at the heart of some of the most complicated issues for this topic -- for the whole Themester — what we, what the entire college is going to be exploring together. What are these things? What does it mean? What does diversity mean? What does difference mean? What does otherness mean? And how do we get at particular angles, whether it be the social sciences, the arts and humanities, or what we’ll be doing in my class, on the natural science side? And, there’s not an easy answer to it, but I think for me personally, it’s interesting because my own research program is often on biocultural models, or biopsychosocial models. So I’m interested in these sort of intersections of social construction and biology. And I think it’s important, what you said, to really understand what is the, what is the mechanism? So if we think about, if we turn on the radio and we hear Lady Gaga singing “Born This Way,” it's great song, but it's also a controversial song for some people, because what does that mean, particularity if you talk about sexual orientation? What is it, and what are the consequences of meaning someone is “born that way?”
For years people have searched for the “gay gene,” or understanding the biological basis of sexual orientation. People have been put into brain scanners, hormone studies have been done. Other physiological autonomic studies have been done to understand: why is there variation in sexual orientation? Not just in humans, but in dozens, hundreds of animal species that have been studied in the natural world. And why is that variation there? Is it adaptive, or is it just a variation? So in evolutionary models, we know Charles Darwin talked about variation as being a key ingredient to the evolutionary process. You can't have natural and sexual selection, you can’t have adaptation without some variation. That's what selection works on. So that variation is hugely important in my world, in my theorizing about these questions and these issues. But we can also ask, is the variation, while it's there and is it important, is itself adaptive? And by that I mean, if you to see a small percentage of a population who has a different trait, so let's say like sexual orientation, we can ask ourselves, is it adaptive? Is having a certain number of people who are not heterosexual in a population, is it actually there for a reason? Is it there because of natural or sexual selection?
So, I went off thinking about sexual orientation, but to come back to that example, this “Born This Way” quote. And for some it’s a mantra. What does that actually mean? And how does that change the conversation if you were born with a particular sexual orientation, as opposed to whether you have the ability to not be that way. So we hear about things in the popular news all the time about conversion therapies, people who try to pray the gay away. And what are those programs? Are they in line with the science that we really know about what is sexual orientation as a psychological and biological construct? Can people really will their orientations? Well, it turns out there are actually quite complicated debates from various camps. From scientists and people in the humanities, from people who come from religious ideologies, to people who do not. From politicians to citizens. So these debates have huge consequences for our lives, for the regulation of things like race, gender, and sexuality, by institutions, all sorts of institutions in our lives. They have huge implications understanding who we are. Understanding why in some ways are we so similar to the people all around us, and in some other ways we can be so different? And behaviorally, psychologically, biologically. And I think I want to tell the story of the biology that underlines all of that. That makes us both the same and different.
HB: And then when looking at the biology of say, race, sexuality, or gender, are you more interested in looking at differences or similarities, and how do you decide with that? So thinking about the Themester theme, Diversity Difference Otherness, focusing in on difference. You talked about finding shared humanity. Do you think maybe then it's important to look more at what we have in common or to focus on, say, biological differences, evolutionary differences?
JG: Oh, that’s such a great question, and I think I'm for me personally, I really, I think they're not mutually exclusive. I think if we're going to talk about difference, we have to talk about sameness. Part of that is understanding the sort of statistics of difference. So if we say that there's a 20 percent difference in a study, or in a finding, between men and women, what does that mean? Does that also mean if there's an 80 percent overlap in similarity? So every time we talk about difference we have to talk about the similarity. Every time we talk about how similar we are, we have to talk about the variation, including the difference. There are a lot of things about humans that are remarkably similar. About the, you know, our general size, our general ability to communicate, our general cognitive capacities, our humor. I mean, there are so many things that are quite unique to us as a species, but that we share as a species. But then there are also significant, and what at times appear to be enormous differences between different individuals. And that could be because of where they come from in the world, it could be because of their own biological makeup, could be because of their early life experiences. Those early life experiences themselves can sometimes become embodied and have biological consequences. So we often think, that biology then is the sort of base starting point, and that influences all the output. So, let's say if you have a biological predisposition that influences your behaviors later in life, but we are starting to better understand now is how things like early experience, things like epigenetics. That you can have a social, environmental experience that can actually change that can actually change your biology. So the relationship between environment and biology is a two-way street. It's not just that your biology dictates your behavior, it's never that. We’re not prisoners of our biology. Sometimes our very experiences can change how we interpret our environment, how we interpret, and how we respond to that environment later.
JG: Did that get at your question? Sorry.
HB: Yeah, yeah, that was excellent. Yeah, and that has me curious too… I mean, you touched on this idea of, you know, not being prisoners of our biology, and, but the way to do that is to learn about you know, what parts of our biology are affecting our perceptions of other people, our biases and how to work against them, or overcome them, or at least keep them in check. Could you talk a little bit about maybe an example of something in your own research, if you have something in your research that relates to this idea of, this is our biology, once we understand it, we can work to change things for the better.
JG: Sure! So, I think one good example is a study we did several years ago on a gene called DRD4. It's a gene that regulates the dopamine system in our brain, and dopamine is involved in reward processing, among other things. And everyone's got this gene, but a certain variant of it, the long allele variant, is associated with more sensation-seeking and risk-taking behaviors. And those people tend to do things -- they're more likely to experience alcohol use and abuse, they're more likely to be risk takers, they're more likely to gamble, but I was interested in how it might affect people's sexual lives. And what we found is people with the sensation-seeking variant, the long allele of this gene called DRD4, were also more likely to commit infidelity, and of those that did commit infidelity, they did it more often. And they also had more uncommitted sexual partners. So there was something about this variation in this gene that's associated with pleasure responses and reward processing in the brain, that these same people also had different sexual output. So when the study came out, a couple of news reports were calling it “The cheating gene.” I said, no, no, no, that’s a bit of an oversell. We don't want to call it that. We have to be responsible with the science, and it hadn’t been replicated yet. But, certainly there was a genetic association between certain types of sexual behavior, more unrestricted sexual behavior, and variation in this dopamine gene.
Now, to your to your question, I think it was important for us, and we did do this when the study came out, we made clear that we're not prisoners of our biology. Just because you have this, plenty of people who have this variation of the gene, and they never cheat on a partner, they never have uncommitted sexual activity. There are plenty of people who do not have that variation in that gene, and they commit infidelity, they have uncommitted sex. So, it’s not to say that it’s a one-to-one relationship, but it's the say that there are some people, that they wake up in the morning, and they think a little differently than some other people. There're some people that wake up and have different motivations. There are some people have different cravings. And can we understand how that influences someone's lives, and their behavior? It’s not an excuse, I don't think -- I had one person write me one day, who said, “I keep cheating on my spouse, can you test me for this gene, maybe that's why?” And it’s an interesting email to receive, you say, well, you know you just need to talk to your spouse about this, and maybe a therapist, and even if we find this gene, it’s not an excuse. But it can help us, I think, understand, why some people are motivated differently, and it can also help certain people themselves understand why they might feel certain ways. I mean, after we did this study, we heard from endless people who said, I cheated on my partner but I really do love them. And I think that’s an interesting comment to make, and I don't doubt that’s true. I think is very true for many people. So coming to understand the many reasons why people might engage in infidelity, and that some of them are biological.
Now, how do we harness that, was your real question. I think the benefit of that is then if we understand that, then we can understand that there’s some people, people themselves understand, that if you wake up and you are, want more sensation, it doesn't mean that you need to necessarily end your relationship, it doesn't mean necessarily, that there's something wrong with you, or with your relationship, it's that you have different cravings. And some people wake up and they really want something sweet in the morning, some people wake up and they really want something savory. That doesn't mean that there's necessarily something wrong with your taste buds or your nutrition, or there could be all sorts of reasons, but that biology might be one of the things that influence those interests, those desires. And I think that's something important for us to know as scientists about understanding variation in human, in the human experience, but it's also something that's useful for people to know in our own lives, all of our own lives, about why some of us might feel compelled to do things that we don't always understand. Could we imagine, by understanding difference in people's biology, individual differences in who we are, can we harness that to have a better medicines, better therapies, better ways to negotiate our lives, and our relationships and our happiness? I think we can.
HB: Great. Thank you, that was wonderful. Thank you so much for coming in.
JG: Oh, thanks for having me.
VO: I’m Hannah Boomershine, and this is Diversity Difference Otherness from Themester at College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University. Our theme music was created by IU Jacobs student Kyle Schardt.