If you have a deep interest in natural history, then chances are Caitlin O’Connell’s name is already familiar. And if not: simply put, she’s like Jane Goodall, but with elephants.
The author’s note for Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse (University of Chicago Press) identifies O’Connell as author of “the acclaimed science memoir The Elephant’s Secret Sense,” from the same publisher, “and the Smithsonian channel documentary 'Elephant King,’” which I am going to watch just as soon as this column is done. For in fact the topic was of no particular interest to me before noticing Elephant Don, with its arresting and beautifully composed cover photo of several tuskers gathered on a dusty plane in Namibia -- a portrait of “the boys’ club,” as O’Connell dubs a roving group she’s studied in the wild for many years.
Portions of the book are adapted from postings to the New York Times’s Scientist at Work blog that the author wrote while also publishing more technical presentations of her findings in Ethology Ecology & Evolution, American Zoologist and other peer-reviewed journals. When not doing fieldwork in Namibia, O’Connell is an instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her vita also lists her as co-author (with Donna M. Jackson) of The Elephant Scientist -- an award-winning children’s book -- to which Elephant Don is something like the grown-up’s sequel.
O'Connell's earlier writings, both scientific and popular, reported on research into elephants’ ability to communicate through their feet, via seismic waves. A bull in heat can “hear” the distinctive stomps of an amorous female and make his way in her direction. Elephants do not have a herdwide mating season. Mature individuals of either sex go into heat on their own cycle, for periods of four to six weeks, every five years or so. Without the earthshaking mating call, they might never hook up.
Why not? It’s a matter of gender politics: male offspring have a place in the herd until they reach sexual maturity. The surge of hormones turns the male calf into enough of a pest that the matriarchy pushes him out to fend for himself in a world full of predators and loneliness. (The men’s rights movement would be hard-pressed to adduce a more pitiful injustice.)
Elephant Don chronicles the life and times of a group of adult males who come to Mushara -- the watering hole where the author and her coworkers have established their observation post -- during several summers, beginning in 2005. The size and composition of the cohort change over time, but researchers can distinguish the animals by variations in size, tusk length and ear characteristics -- identifying them by nicknames that seem to become more comical from one year to the next, including Luke Skywalker, Keith Richards, Rocky Balboa and Captain Picard.
The de facto leader of the group -- the one who gets the best spot at the watering hole and decides when it’s time to leave -- is an old bull called Greg, also known as “the don,” for reasons that become clear after he takes his place:
“[The] subordinates line[d] up to place their trunks in his mouth as if kissing a Mafioso don’s ring…. Each bull approached in turn with trunk outstretched, quivering in trepidation, dipping the tip into Greg’s mouth. It was clearly an act of great intent, a symbolic gesture of respect for the highest-ranking male. After performing the ritual, the lesser bulls seemed to relax their shoulder as they shifted to a lower-ranking position within the elephant equivalent of a social club.”
The don bellows and flaps his ears to signal that it’s time to roll, and his loyal subordinates bellow in reply while making sure that the younger bulls don’t fall behind.
Hierarchy and communication are well-established aspects of life in the matriarchal herd, but O’Connell indicates that social order among exiled males is a much less studied topic. She observes other behavior that seems to express or maintain the leadership arrangement, such as one bull turning his back to acknowledge his subordinate position to another, or holding his trunk over a younger or smaller bull’s head, which seems to express camaraderie.
Another set of signs accompany the onset of musth, the mating phase, when a bull’s testosterone level shoots up to 20 times normal. He walks around in a state of constant arousal, dribbling urine and ready for action. Once in an all-male group, a young bull’s musth-driven aggression (fighting and mounting everyone in sight) will be met by shoves and head butting from his elders. O’Connell hypothesizes that such disciplinary action may cause “socially induced hormone suppression,” as happens with other species.
It doesn’t always work, and a couple of the book’s most dramatic chapters describe challenges to the don’s authority by low-ranking but high-testosterone young bulls. There is also a period when most of Greg’s entourage disintegrates under the stress of a drought, partially reassembling around his leadership when conditions improve later.
Giving the elephants human names, while a matter of convenience in recording their behavior, is already a step towards anthropomorphizing them, and the process is irreversible once you add narrative. That’s fine in popular exposition, since the stories O’Connell has to tell -- both about the elephants and about life in the field, with poisonous snakes and infrequent access to a shower -- are certainly absorbing.
But I wondered for a while if the ascriptions of personality and motive to her “pachyderm posse” might not embellish things beyond credibility. Only halfway through the book do we get a chapter reviewing scientific findings about elephants’ cognitive powers -- pages that put the question in a new light.
Seismic communication itself is pretty impressive, but elephants also have the capacity to solve problems (say, by throwing rocks or an uprooted tree onto an electrified fence to disable it) and to fine-tune tools: “In one study, for example, elephants were shown to use their highly muscular prehensile trunks to modify branches for optimum use as switches to repel flies.” Their proverbial memory may be superior to that of humans, and experiments have shown them to be able to understand iconic symbols and to remember distinctions for long periods.
So the possibility that they have rituals and a social order is not, on the whole, that much of a stretch. It’s enough to make you wonder what they think of us, assuming they even bother.
The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.
No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.
The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.
STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.
Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.
We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.
I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.
Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.
For decades, debates about gender and science have often assumed that women are more likely than men to “leak” from the science and engineering pipeline after entering college.
However, new research of which I am the coauthor shows this pervasive leaky pipeline metaphor is wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering. It also devalues students who want to use their technical training to make important societal contributions elsewhere.
How could the metaphor be so wrong? Wouldn’t factors such as cultural beliefs and gender bias cause women to leave science at higher rates?
My research, published last month in Frontiers in Psychology, shows this metaphor was at least partially accurate in the past. The bachelor’s-to-Ph.D. pipeline in science and engineering leaked more women than men among college graduates in the 1970's and 80's, but not recently.
Men still outnumber women among Ph.D. earners in fields like physical science and engineering. However, this representation gap stems from college major choices, not persistence after college.
Other research finds remaining persistence gaps after the Ph.D. in life science, but surprisingly not in physical science or engineering -- fields in which women are more underrepresented. Persistence gaps in college are also exaggerated.
Consequently, this commonly used metaphor is now fatally flawed. As blogger Biochembelle discussed, it can also unfairly burden women with guilt about following paths they want. “It’s almost as if we want women to feel guilty about leaving the academic track,” she said.
Some depictions of the metaphor even show individuals funneling into a drain, never to make important contributions elsewhere.
In reality, many students who leave the traditional boundaries of science and engineering use their technical training creatively in other fields such as health, journalism and politics.
As one recent commentary noted, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel were leaks in the science pipeline. I dare someone to claim that they funneled into a drain because they didn’t become tenured science professors. No takers? Didn’t think so.
Men also frequently leak from the traditional boundaries of science and engineering, as my research and other studies show. So why do we unfairly stigmatize women who make such transitions?
By some accounts, I’m a leak myself. I earned my bachelor’s degree in the “hard” science of physics before moving into psychology. Even though I’m male, I still encountered stigma when peers told me psychology was a “soft” science or not even science at all. I can only imagine the stigma that women might face when making similar transitions.
For this fellowship, I worked with two computer science graduate students and one bioengineering postdoc on a “big data” project for improving student success in high school. We partnered with Montgomery Public County Schools in Maryland to improve their early warning system. This system used warning signs such as declining grades to identify students who could benefit from additional supports.
This example shows why the leaky pipeline narrative is so absurd. Many leaks in the pipeline continue using their technical skills in important ways. For instance, my team’s data science skills helped improve our partner’s warning system, doubling performance in some cases.
Let’s abandon this inaccurate and pejorative metaphor. It unfairly stigmatizes women and perpetuates outdated assumptions.
Some have argued that my research indicates bad news because the gender gaps in persistence were closed by declines for men, not increases for women. However, others have noted how the findings could also be good news, given concerns about Ph.D. overproduction.
More importantly, this discussion of good news and bad news misses the point: the new data inform a new way forward.
By abandoning exclusive focus on the leaky pipeline metaphor, we can focus more effort on encouraging diverse students to join these fields in the first place. Helping lead the way forward, my alma mater -- Harvey Mudd College -- has had impressive success in encouraging women to pursue computer science.
Maria Klawe, Mudd’s first female president, led extensive efforts to make the introductory computer science courses more inviting to diverse students. For instance, course revisions emphasized how computational approaches can help solve pressing societal problems.
The results were impressive. Although women used to earn only 10 percent of Mudd’s computer science degrees, this number quadrupled over the years after Klawe became president. To help replicate these results more widely, we should abandon outdated assumptions and instead help students take diverse paths into science.
David Miller is an advanced doctoral student in psychology at Northwestern University. His current research aims to understand why some students move into and out of science and engineering fields.