Essay topics: 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."
The similarities observed in the cortisol levels of humans and rhesus monkeys from this particular study are a result of several unwarrented assumptions that the author has failed to address. There are a significant number of dissimilarities and ambiguities that render the study’s inferences highly suspect. Without justifying these assumptions, the author’s argument is weak and lacks enough evidence to draw parallels regarding the levels of cortisol in humans and rhesus monkeys.
One of the most significant drawbacks of the study is that it was conducted on only a small sample of 18 monkeys. The observations made on such small samples usually tend to be highly skewed and not generic. There could be several other explanations due to which the high cortisol levels were observed in the monkeys. The high cortisol levels could be a result of the monkeys being studied in captivity and in stressful situations. Also, the chances that the relationship between the birth order and a cortisol levels observed are coincidental due to the small number of monkeys studied. In order to make a definitive conclusion, the sample size must be increased significantly and the monkeys should be studied in all sorts of habitats.
The fact that the study was conducted on monkey rather than humans is also a weak link in the author’s argument. What applied to monkeys may not apply to humans. For example, the effects of several drugs are first tested on animal subjects before humans. Very often, researchers find that the drugs show different effects on animals and humans. Though monkeys are closely related to humans, the author should not have assumed that what applied for the rhesus monkeys, would apply for humans as well. Also the author has failed to mention in how many cases first born humans had higher cortisol levels. In general, for a large population, this might not be the case.
There exist some key differences in the observations made on humans and rhesus monkeys in this study. The author has failed to define what exactly constitutes a “stimulating situation”. In the case of the monkeys, it was an encounter with an unfamiliar monkey, which possibly led to aggression. For humans, the example of a parent returning after an absence possibly led to the emotion of happiness. Though both these emotions can be considered “stimulation”, they are fundamentally distinct. The author needs to clearly state what a stimuling situation means and conduct the experiment on similar situations that lead to similar emotions to prove the validity of the study.
Finally, the high cortisol levels in offspring can be attributed to the high cortisol levels in first-time mother monkeys. To show any similarity between humans and rhesus monkeys, similar observations need to be made on first time human mothers to see if any co-relation exists. This is a factor that the author has failed to address and one which he should to prove that similarities exist between the rhesus monkeys and humans.
In conclusion, the author’s claims and the results of the study are deeply flawed and several other possible explanation could exist for the observations made. The author needs to conduct further research that address the points mentioned in order to arrive at the conclusion that the cortisol levels in rhesus monkeys or humans are related to birth order.
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