Review: There’s No Such Thing as The Female Brain

This is a review of an online debate organised by Intelligence Squared that took place on May the 6th. You can watch the debate here (£).

Is there such thing as ‘the female brain’?

The orthodox feminist position, taken to the extreme, is that there are no innate, evolved differences between the brains of men and women. According to this view, brains happen to be found in either a male or a female body, and any differences found between those brains (and between the behaviour of women and men) are incidental and can be explained by the sexism of society and the gendered way in which boys and girls are raised.

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The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. A review.

Why do obviously intelligent people believe things in spite of the evidence against them? Will Storr has travelled across the world to meet an extraordinary cast of modern heretics in order to answer this question.

Based on its blurb, what I was expecting from Heretics was essentially Louis Theroux in the form of a book. What I found is something much more thought provoking. Will Storr provides no shortage of Theroux-style gawping at humanity— the chapter recounting his undercover tour of Poland’s concentration camps with notorious Holocaust denier David Irving and a group of neo-Nazis being a particularly incredible highlight. But this book is more than just a series of drive-by debunkings of homeopaths and creationists.

It is easy to dismiss those with crazy-sounding beliefs as stupid, but this isn’t true at all. The question of why conspiracy theories have so much sway in the world is much more interesting when you understand that their proponents are often very intelligent, educated, and curious. Why, then, is their interpretation of evidence on these issues so different from other people’s? Delving into neuroscience and psychology, Storr shows that all of us are subject to powerful biases, which mean we are much, much less objective than we like to think.

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Notes from the henhouse: How the Rooster got his Crow

In my previous blog post about chickens, I mentioned that roosters crow a lot, and that they are surprisingly loud for such a small animal (male junglefowl typically weigh just slightly over a kilo). I spent last summer growing progressively more astonished at the sheer stamina and unflagging dedication these birds showed to the production of noise.

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Notes from the henhouse: mansplaining chickens?

For my PhD, started earlier this year, I am studying the behaviour of chickens. Chickens are easily the most populous bird on the planet, as about 50 billion of them live on farms worldwide: an ideal study population, with lots of data easily accessible. What’s more, because chicken eggs and meat form part of the diet of so many people, and because they’re much cheaper and more environmentally friendly to raise than many other animals, a detailed understanding of chicken behaviour can only be a good thing from a food security point of view, perhaps giving insights to keep them healthier and happier. Our species has such a significant relationship with these birds; shouldn’t we get to know them?

Much like the relationship between dogs and wolves, the chickens we are familiar with were domesticated thousands of years ago from a species called red junglefowl, which lives in the forests of Southeast Asia. Significantly smaller, more agile and active than their farmyard cousins, their behaviour is thought to be more ‘natural’ since they haven’t been extensively bred by humans. 

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Who are you calling a caveman?

This article features in the inaugral issue of The Oxford Scientist (formerly Bang! Magazine).

Our species, Homo sapiens, weren’t always the only humans. Around the world, fossil evidence provides tantalising hints of half a dozen or so human species that may have coexisted with our own. The best known of these is Homo neanderthalensis: the Neanderthals.  Continue reading

Genetics of Bird Migration

A few months ago, as part of a short training course in bioinformatics, I took part in a project looking into the genetics of bird migration. Bird migration is a really fascinating phenomenon, with many species travelling huge distances in astonishing feats of endurance- for instance, arctic terns fly up to 90,000km from pole to pole and back again every year. There is a lot that scientists don’t yet understand about how and why some birds do this, such as how they instinctively know which route to take, and why some species migrate while others do not.

I wrote a blog post about it for Microsoft, which you can read here (although, disclaimer: they have formatted it slightly weirdly- captions not my own- and the blog is written to their specifications, with lots of talk about how we made use of their cloud computing service, Azure).

Bang! talks to… Angela Saini

This is an interview I conducted for the November 2017 issue of Bang!, Oxford’s premiere student-run science magazine, of which I was editor this term. Check out the magazine’s website here.

Angela Saini is a science journalist and author. Her first book, Geek Nation, selected as an Independent book of the year, explored India’s rich scientific history and its future as an emerging scientific superpower.

Here, Ellen Pasternack asks about her most recent book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, published in 2017. Inferior reviews centuries of scientific thought on the female sex from a modern day feminist perspective, with a healthy open-minded scepticism and a journalist’s sharp eye for detail. Accessible and wide ranging, this book is sure to provoke discussion among scientists and non-scientists alike. Continue reading

Jane Goodall: A significant shaper of modern-day thought

Jane Goodall is well known as a jungle-dwelling, animal loving eccentric. In this piece for Bluestocking I argue that she deserves more reconition as somebody who has made many paradigm-shifting contributions to science.

Bluestocking Oxford

By Ellen Pasternack


“Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” This was the response of acclaimed palaeontologist Louis Leakey to Jane Goodall’s astonishing observation in 1960 of chimpanzees manufacturing tools, in the form of stems stripped of leaves, and using them to extract termites from nests. With this discovery, the adage ‘man the toolmaker’ as a watertight expression of humankind’s uniqueness was instantly punctured.

Chimpanzee tool manufacture was not the only one of Goodall’s discoveries to send shockwaves through the anthropological and zoological communities. Over decades spent studying the chimp community at Gombe, Tanzania, Goodall was the first to observe very unexpected behaviours, such as meat eating and warfare, as well as recognising that chimps have a complex social structure, form close bonds, experience emotions and have unique personalities. In doing so she utterly transformed our understanding of this previously little-studied species, and challenged long-held…

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Book review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

I wrote this review for Phenotype, Oxford University’s journal of biochemistry, to be published in an issue on the theme of neurobiology. You can view the original printed article here.

That women’s brains are different from men’s is often treated as common knowledge. Confidently proclaimed by respected academics, the tabloid media, an avalanche of self-help books, and ‘that guy’ in every psychology seminar, one could easily be forgiven for assuming this is established scientific fact. Separate but equal: men have evolved to be better at maths, creating Great Art, and thinking rationally, while women excel in other areas, like helping people and tidying up. You can’t argue with science, and that’s what the science says.

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Bang! talks to… Sally Le Page

This is an interview I conducted for the February 2017 issue of Bang!, Oxford’s premiere student-run science magazine, of which I was editor this term. Check out the magazine’s website here, or read the rest of the magazine online for free here.

Sally Le Page is a DPhil student in the Zoology department at Oxford. She has a very popular science channel on YouTube called Shed Science, and has also been widely involved in science communication in the ‘real’ world. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. Bang! gets to know her.  Continue reading