Biosocial Interactions

Jeanne Altmann • Jeanne Brooks-Gunn • Janet M. Currie • Noreen Goldman • Douglas S. Massey • Sara F. McLanahan • Germán Rodríguez


In Jeanne Altmann’s research on wild baboons and how social networks predict gut microbiome composition, Altmann and colleagues Jenny Tung (Duke University), Luis B. Barreiro (Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Center, University of Montreal, Canada), and Jean-Christophe Grenier (Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Center, University of Montreal, Canada), Michael B. Burns, Josh Lynch (University of Minnesota) et al. found that social relationships have profound effects on health in humans and other primates, but the mechanisms that explain this relationship are not well understood. Using shotgun metagenomic data from wild baboons, Altmann and her colleagues found that social group membership and social network relationships predicted both the taxonomic structure of the gut microbiome and the structure of genes encoded by gut microbial species.


Jeanne Altmann, working with Courtney L. Fitzpatrick (Duke University) and Susan C. Alberts (National Museums of Kenya, Institute of Primate Research), found that the paradigm of competitive male baboons vying to in?uence female mate choice has been repeatedly upheld, but, increasingly, studies also report competitive females and choosy males. One female trait that is commonly proposed to in?uence male mate choice is the exaggerated sexual swelling displayed by females of many Old World primate species. They found that high-ranking males did not prefer females with larger swellings (when controlling for cycle number and conception) and that females with larger swellings did not have higher reproductive success.


Jeanne Altmann along with Amanda J. Lea and Jenny Tung (Duke University), and Susan C. Alberts (National Museums of Kenya, Institute of Primate Research) studied two sets of wild female baboons: those born during low-rainfall, low-quality years and those born during normal-rainfall, high-quality years. They found support for the developmental constraints hypothesis over the predictive adaptive response hypothesis in that females born in low-quality environments showed greater decreases in fertility during drought years than females born in high-quality environments, even though drought years matched the early conditions of females born in low-quality environments.


Jeanne Altmann and colleagues A. Catherine Markham (Princeton University) and Susan C. Alberts (National Museums of Kenya, Institute of Primate Research) assessed the use of multiple sleeping sites by five wild baboon (Papio cynocephalus) social groups to evaluate how sites were exploited at both the population and group level. On average, individual groups left sleeping sites after one to two nights of continuous use, and the same group did not reuse a site for an average of 45 nights. The number of trees in a sleeping site and the time since a site was last used were significant factors distinguishing sites used on a given night by the most dominant versus most subordinate social group. These findings highlight the importance of evaluating resource use at multiple levels of social organization.


Working with colleagues Franz Mathias (Duke University) and Susan C. Alberts (National Museums of Kenya, Institute of Primate Research), Jeanne Altmann found that social network structures can crucially impact complex social processes such as collective behavior or the transmission of information and diseases. They tested this hypothesis using long-term data on a natural population of baboons, examining the effects of 29 natural knockouts of alpha or beta males on adult female social networks. The only significant effect that they found was a decrease in mean degree in grooming networks in the first month after knockouts, but this decrease was rather small, and grooming networks rebounded to baseline levels by the second month after knockouts.


Jeanne Altmann, Jordi Galbany (The George Washington University), Jenny Tung (Duke University) and Susan C. Alberts (National Museums of Kenya, Institute of Primate Research) evaluated sources of variance in canine growth and length in a well-studied wild primate population because of the potential importance of canines for male reproductive success in many primates. In their analysis of maturation, they compared food-enhanced baboons (those that fed part time at a refuse pit associated with a tourist lodge) with wild-feeding males, and found that food-enhanced males achieved long canines earlier than wild-feeding males.


Jeanne Altmann and colleagues Mathias Franz and Emily McLean (Duke University), along with Susan C. Alberts (National Museums of Kenya, Institute of Primate Research) specifically tested for winner and loser effects on male hierarchy dynamics in wild baboons. For this study they used a novel statistical approach based on the Elo rating method for cardinal rank assignment, which enables the detection of winner and loser effects in uncontrolled group settings. They hypothesized that, despite variation in individual attributes, winner and loser effects exist (i) because these effects could be particularly beneficial when fighting abilities in other group members change over time, and (ii) because the coevolution of prior attributes and winner and loser effects maintains a balance of both effects.


In the American Economic Journals: Economic Policy, Janet Currie and Lucas Davis (University of California, Berkeley), Michael Greenstone (University of Chicago) and Reed Walker (University of California, Berkeley) published their findings in a paper titled, “Environmental Health Risks and Housing Values: Evidence from 1,600 Toxic Plant Openings and Closings.” They found that the regulatory oversight of toxic emissions from industrial plants and the understanding about these emissions' impacts are in their infancy. Applying a research design based on the openings and closings of 1,600 industrial plants to rich data on housing markets and infant health, they found that: toxic air emissions affect air quality only within one mile of the plant; plant openings lead to 11 percent declines in housing values within 0.5 mile or a loss of about $4.25 million for these households; and a plant's operation is associated with a roughly 3 percent increase in the probability of low birthweight within one mile.


Noreen Goldman’s research has focused on the linkages among socioeconomic status, stressful experience, physiological mechanisms, and health. She designed an NIA-funded national survey in Taiwan (SEBAS), fielded in 2000 and 2006, that provides a unique source of social, health, biological and clinical information. Goldman has continued to participate in surveys administered by the Ministry of Health to provide updated health and survival data for the participants and has published extensively from these data. Among other findings, research over the past two years has assessed the utility of biological markers for mortality prediction; linkages between telomere length, inflammation and survival; the impact of educational level of children on parental mental wellbeing; and identification of the strongest predictors of survival among older adults in middle and high income countries.


In “Brave New World of Biosocial Science,” published in Criminology, Douglas Massey revisits the marriage of biological and social science which was pursued in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when neither biology nor social science was very well developed, leaving scientists in both disciplines ill positioned to make use of the two perspectives. The field of genetics, in particular, was in its infancy; Social science for its part had only recently been invented and powerful statistical techniques, complex data sets, and sophisticated analytic models lay years in the future resulting in much theorizing and little hard data analysis, yielding slow progress adjudicating between competing concepts and theories. This reality left ample room for

fallible human scientists to project their own prejudices into the theoretical schemes they constructed, leading to a proliferation of competing schools of thought—structuralist, functionalist, Marxist, Freudian, and Darwinian—all with very different political implications.

Massey discusses examples that concretely reveal the importance of biosocial mechanisms in the production of social strati?cation in the United States and underscore the importance of such mechanisms in understanding the production and reproduction of poverty in contemporary society. Not only do genes and environment interact to affect the heritability and expression of genes, often in ways that undermine individual life chances, but the conditions

in the social environment interact with other biological processes such as telomere regulation and allostasis to shape human destinies in potentially powerful ways. Biological scientists might understand the molecular and physiological processes underlying these phenomena, but they do not necessarily understand the social structures and processes that give rise to the environmental context in which these biological processes play out.

Massey stresses that it is essential that social scientists take part in the ongoing investigation of the growing array of biosocial processes that play out in strati?ed social structures. To accomplish this goal, social scientists need to establish a ?rmer grounding in the basics of contemporary biological thinking and, especially, to move beyond outdated Mendelian concepts of inheritance and gene expression. The incipient understanding of sociobiological dynamics increasingly suggests that many maladies that the poor and excluded exhibit are not caused by choices or behaviors so much as by the biological consequences of their long-term exposure to stressful circumstances associated with their disadvantaged position in a strati?ed social structure.


In “Family Structure Instability, Genetic Sensitivity, and Child Well-Being,” published in the American Journal of Sociology this year, Sara McLanahan and colleagues Colter Mitchell (University of Michigan), Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (Columbia University), Daniel Notterman (Princeton University), John Hobcraft (University of York), and Irwin Garfinkel (Columbia University) examined how genetic sensitivity moderates the association between family structure instability and child wellbeing. The paper found that father exits from the household were associated with increases in boys’ antisocial behavior and also a strong predictor of health and wellbeing in adulthood. Patterns for father entrances were more complicated, with entrances by a biological father being associated with lower antisocial behavior, and entrances by a social father being associated with higher antisocial behavior. The study also found that boys with genetic variants that make them more “sensitive” to their environment responded more negatively to father exits and more positively to biological father entrances.


Germán Rodríguez continues to collaborate with Noreen Goldman and Maxine Weinstein on various aspects of their NIA-funded Social Environment and Biomarkers of Aging Study (SEBAS) in Taiwan, with spillovers to related research questions on reproductive aging and health.