Prompt: The following appeared as part of a letter to the editor of a scientific journal.
"A recent study of eighteen rhesus monkeys provides clues as to the effects of birth order on an individual's levels of stimulation. The study showed that in stimulating situations (such as an encounter with an unfamiliar monkey), firstborn infant monkeys produce up to twice as much of the hormone cortisol, which primes the body for increased activity levels, as do their younger siblings. Firstborn humans also produce relatively high levels of cortisol in stimulating situations (such as the return of a parent after an absence). The study also found that during pregnancy, first-time mother monkeys had higher levels of cortisol than did those who had had several offspring."
Write a response in which you discuss one or more alternative explanations that could rival the proposed explanation and explain how your explanation(s) can plausibly account for the facts presented in the argument.
In the prompt, the scientific journal chronicles a study done on monkeys that observes the effects of birth order and how birth order influences reaction to stimuli. The major finding in this research is that the earlier a monkey is born, the more cortisol its body can produce. According to the journal, cortisol is released in the primate body during situations of unfamiliarity. However, this is not necessarily true in the human body. Contrary to the journal’s findings, cortisol is a hormone that is released during stressful situations. The amount of cortisol found in a body does not correlate to the order in which a human is born. Actually, higher cortisol levels are present and produced in the human body during situations that induce stress on the human body.
As mentioned in the journal, human beings were found to produce more cortisol due to events such as the return of a parent. The example of a parent’s return is one that comes as a form of relief after being stressed out by the parent’s absence. The body would produce cortisol to overcome the body become tense and anxious after the unknown length of time in which the parent would be absent. Stress and cortisol levels in the body are not impacted by birth order; the changes in the levels of cortisol in the body depend on environmental stressors.
In social sciences, environmental stressors can range from a noxious physical environment (ex. polluted air) to emotional stressors such as off-color comments. Multiple studies have been conducted to show that environmental stressors increase stress in the body and over produces cortisol. This phenomenon has been linked more explicitly to the effects racism has on the human body. Studies have shown that people of color have higher amounts of cortisol in their bodies versus their white counterparts due to stress from racism. When the body has exceeded certain levels of cortisol production, this can lead to a host of health problems such as increased risk of heart attack and higher blood pressure levels. Therefore, it should be no surprise that African Americans are the group that have the highest rates of heart attacks and high blood pressure in the United States.
In the case of cortisol and racism, birth order cannot decrease chances of being influenced by environmental stressors. For example, a person could be a third generation Chinese immigrant and experience emotional stressors due to racial comments. Being the third child in a clan of five siblings does not reduce one’s chances of having less cortisol in the body. Similarly, the amount of cortisol produced in the body of a third generation Chinese immigrant is not automatically less than that of a first- born Italian American immigrant’s body; the time spent in the United States doesn’t change the cortisol levels: it’s the experiences and exposure to these stressors that ultimately makes the difference.
The main issue present in the article is that it mistakes the role of cortisol in the human body. Although humans and primates share many similar mannerisms and traits, cortisol is not one of them. For monkeys, cortisol may function as a response to stimulation, regardless if its positive or negative stimulation. However, in the human body, cortisol does not function like adrenaline or endorphins, which are released in stimulating or enjoyable situations.
In fact, cortisol is specifically created to respond and to reduce stress in the body. The only time that this connection is drawn in the article is when it discusses the pregnancy of first time mother monkeys versus those with several offspring. The unknown expectations coming with giving birth to a monkey could be stressful, and therefore induce the need for cortisol to be released in the monkey’s bloodstream. This would align closely with how the human body internalize and respond to stress.
Had the scientific journal taken to consideration the different effects cortisol has in a primate’s body versus the human body, the findings and assumptions based upon those findings would be completely different.