This is an exceptional opportunity at UNSW Sydney for students interested in how evolved traits interact with economic circumstances to shape behaviour in contemporary societies.
Students may be trained in evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, economics or other disciplines.
This position is supported by the generous Scientia PhD Scholarship Scheme at UNSW Sydney, Australia. In addition to a stipend of $40K p.a. There is a $10k p.a. Travel allowance, and other opportunities for career development.
We propose to test the exciting idea that economic inequality among households also shapes mating competition, giving rise to many of the stark sex differences in dress, spending patterns, and mental and physical health that pervade societies. While wealthy Western countries have progressed steadily toward gender-equitable opportunities over the last century, differences between women and men in aggression, interests and the incidence of diseases like anxiety and depression have, paradoxically, increased. It is clear that ossified old ways of understanding gendered traits as either biologically essential o
r socially constructed have little to offer in terms of further understanding.
Our approach transcends old territorial boundaries, and promises a newer, better and more general way to understand gendered behaviours, including those implicated in harm to mental health, safety, and happiness. The work will involve both experimental psychological research and analysis of economic data. The project will be designed in collaboration between student and supervisors.
There may be opportunities for field work in Australia or the Pacific islands.
This is a highly competitive scheme, with excellent support, open to students from any country.
At the same time as you fill out the form, please email rob.brooks – at – unsw.edu.au a CV, academic transcript, and a few paragraphs on why you are interested int his project, plus any questions you have for us.
Up to 2 students will be asked to submit full applications in August.
In light of Brexit, and the United States election campaign that gave us President-elect Donald J Trump, Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” its 2016 word of the year. In keeping with the disdain for veracity that it embodies, the word of the year is not even one word, but rather two.
Brexit, the US election and the parlous state of public leadership in Australia are not anomalies. They represent a dire crisis of public confidence in expertise, knowledge and evidence. And they present an uncomfortable challenge for universities and civil societies.
As we seek to lead and elevate debate on the most important issues facing society, such as climate change, refugees and migration and inequality, I discern a common thread. That is, the triumph of tribal conviction over knowledge.
Humans find meaning in belonging to a group, adhering to an ideology, identifying with a religion, culture or merely a conviction. Such tribalism defined so many of the unsavoury themes that galvanised the Brexit and Trump votes.
And it made it all too easy to sneer at the “leavers” and the “deplorables” as racist, sexist, anti-intellectuals. Yet the failure of the left to understand Trump supporters, Brexiters and Hansonites on their own terms is also a symptom of tribalism.
Every one of us is vulnerable to thinking that the ideas we hold dear are reasoned or principled positions. But how many of our ideas are adopted and defended as part of our tribal identity?
Today, in the challenge-free spaces and echo-chambers of our social media feeds, we are arguably becoming ever more vulnerable to tribal convictions. Almost half of us now get all our news from Facebook, for example; information that is digitally targeted to align with our interests. As a consequence, that “information” reflects, and so reinforces, our biases far more than it informs.
In this atmosphere, it takes a special kind of intellectual honesty to interrogate our own ideas as rigorously as we do other people’s, to listen to other arguments, and to discard our own bad ideas. But this is the only way to break the self-reinforcing binds between tribal identity and conviction.
My own research field, the evolution of sexual behaviour, fights not one but two long-running tribal conflicts. Creationism still represents the textbook example of tribal conviction trumping honest understanding. Darwinian natural selection confronts the Creationist urge to see humanity as a special part of a grand plan that divinely orders the living world.
However, any student of natural history understands that adaptation is neither grand nor planned, and that imperfect patterns emerge from the bottom-up as individuals strive to maximise their own fitness at the expense of others.
A more vexed contemporary tribal conflict lies in the tensions between biological and cultural explanations of human behaviour. This polarises nature from nurture, genes from environment and the biological from the social, as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives rather than interacting dynamics.
These represent merely the latest in a long line of false dichotomies that go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle.
Together, these false dichotomies build what neuroscientist Stephen Pinker calls “the last wall standing in the landscape of knowledge”. As always, when humans cling to conviction as a signifier of belonging, we find it easier to huddle on our own sides of the last wall, than to venture into the vast, less familiar landscape of knowledge and discovery.
Back to the facts
Biology and the social sciences are now moving beyond their tribal infancy and surly adolescence toward rediscovering one another. When used together, they reveal a more nuanced, complete and, ultimately, more useful view of sex, reproduction and why they grow so complicated.
More broadly, places of learning and research must similarly find their way in this apparently post-truth world, to help us navigate past the old tribal certainties to effectively address the many complex challenges humanity faces. This demands a willingness on all sides to explore uncomfortable ideas.
It also demands that we seek out the areas of genuine, productive disagreement. Rather than allowing those who benefit from obfuscation, inaction and division to grow rich and powerful by framing issues to suit their own interests, universities must use their wealth of expertise to define and lead public debate.
Evolutionary biologists have long known not to debate creationists; their calls for debate amount to cynical time-wasting. Likewise, scientists should focus on the productive debates that will help us to save our world, not time-wasting tribal titillations with those who deny reality.
As we put this post-truth year behind us, my hope is that next year brings a resurgent courage to apply the intellectual tools, developed over centuries, for separating good ideas from bad. And that we begin to again recognise that subjective experiences, compelling storytelling and tenacity of conviction do not alone make an idea worthwhile.
I wrote the following in 2012, about a year after my mother, Patricia (Patti) Elaine Brooks died. I revisited it today, on the fifth anniversary of her departure, and it seemed a worthwhile time to share it. Perhaps because I lived on another continent from her for 15 years before she died, I haven’t had to look for her in the next room, only to find she isn’t there. The memories be green.
I learned a lot about death last year. I kept no count of the number of public figures whose passing moved me, but my impression is they were many. Two close colleagues died, within weeks of each other. And between their funerals, I made two trips to South Africa. One with my children to say a long and very positive goodbye to my mother, and another, barely a week after I had returned to Sydney, for her funeral.
From diagnosis with a brain tumour in late September 2009, Patti lived a little over two years. Not long, but not bad for a stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme patient in her sixties. She enjoyed well over a year of good health, between the initial operation and her eventual decline. She even snuck in a visit to Sydney, inspiring all of us who loved her by climbing the Harbour Bridge.
Hitch prepared us for his impending death with characteristic honest candour, and refused to accept the consolations of religion in a way that gave me, and I am sure many other atheists, enormous strength. He was happy for people to pray for him, as long as they were aware they were doing so for their own benefit, rather than his. And he took immense pains to ensure that nobody had any grounds to claim he’d taken the cowardly Pascal’s wager and converted to religion on his deathbed.
I don’t mean, in writing this article, to compare my mum to Christopher Hitchens. Like any two randomly chosen people they shared many differences and several similarities. One similarity, it turns out, was dying from cancer at similar ages and within two months of each other.
Mum, for one thing, was a practicing Anglican, who drew strength and consolation from the prayers offered by others, and whose faith grew stronger as she recovered from her operation. Yet she died with as much dignity and honesty as Hitchens. It matters nothing to me whether she held any religious beliefs or not.
Between my parents, my sister and I, our family comprised four very different takes on religion. We have always been at peace with this, without constructing artificial rules about not discussing religion. We simply love each other and respect one another’s choices. I despair when I hear of families or communities ruined by religious difference, when everything in my background says it need not be an issue. Mum’s funeral and my many treasured discussions with my Dad and sister gave me plenty of chance to reflect on religion and how it deals with death.
Mum’s memorial rites were steeped in Christian ceremony and the consolations that religion seems to bring so many at these difficult times. Other atheists sometimes profess to envy these consolations, but I did not feel that way myself.
Yet I found myself – a scientist even at the least opportune times – observing and marvelling at the reassurances that death isn’t final, and that this life is but an overture to a more glorious afterlife.
My favourite book in the so-called New Atheist ouvre isn’t Hitchen’s God is not Great, or even fellow evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The one I enjoy most is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. One of the many ways in which religion, according to Dennett, emerges from the cognitive and social machinery that we evolved long before anybody ever conceived a deity, has to do with dying and grieving.
Our species is, by any measure, a supremely social one. In order to operate in our complex human societies, we have evolved the remarkable ability not only to recognise and remember other individuals, but also to conceive and decipher their intentions, wants and needs. Psychologists call this ‘theory of mind’ – one person has an understanding or theory (however limited) of the mind of another.
This remarkable ability allows us to think about and continue our relationships with several people, even when they are not present. This might seem an obvious capacity, but that doesn’t make it trivial. Imagine what your love life would be like if, when you are at work or anywhere else away from home, you were unable to think about or even imagine your significant other, much less remember that she asked you to pick up milk, eggs and some tuna for dinner.
So for each of our relationships, we have a kind of mental filing cabinet for each person, where we stash our concept of them – a concept that we often access and update. The great thing about these files is we can access them whenever we want to – even if we haven’t seen the person for years. When my colleagues go home at the end of the day, I know they are still alive, and I am not surprised when they return the next day.
But what is the difference between somebody dying and somebody simply going away on a journey?
In one sense, there is no difference at all. When somebody – especially somebody close like a parent or a spouse – dies, we are left with that bulging file that contains not just our memories of them, but our entire concept of them.
Somebody who dies is no less real in our social imagination than somebody who has just left on vacation. Anyone who loses a loved one knows how often we make a mental note to share an anecdote with the deceased, how we pick up the phone to call them or even go from one room to the next in search of them only to painfully catch ourselves with the realisation that the anecdote, phone call or search will forever go uncompleted. Only with practice do we come to recognise this.
Dennett points out that religions, as they form, very quickly invent the idea that the deceased has gone on a journey or ascended to some divine destination. Religions invite us to stash our files in the great virtual data cloud, where we can continue to access them, secure in the knowledge that the departed is in a better place. How soothing a thought, that we need only perform the little mental trick we already do hundreds of times a day, of telling ourselves that the departed has left the building, than that we accept the far more obvious fact that she simply is no more.
Religions console the bereaved this way. At funerals the main repeated message is that the loved one is not gone, but that in some form she still exists. I am attracted to the idea that this is the chief purpose of the funeral or memorial service; for all those who knew the departed to align their accounts of where she has gone and to share this one last common memory of her. That way our files, divergent as they are on some of the content of her life, can all end on more or less the same note?
My view on heaven and the departure of any kind of soul from the body, as you can probably tell, is completely materialistic, as it is for most of the growing number of us who hold no religious beliefs. Folks like me tend to fixate, often to the irritation of the religious, on the reality – or the realness of things. So it might seem strange that here I quote Professor Dumbledore, himself appearing as heavenly apparition to Harry Potter, recently arrived in a celestial parallel of King’s Cross station, having departed at the hand of Lord Voldemort’s killing curse:
‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. ‘Is this real. Or has this been happening inside my head?’
Dumbledore beamed at him …. ‘Of course it has been happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’
The most real form of our love is what happens inside our heads. We might not notice this in everyday life, when our love is materially manifested in our actions and the words we exchange, the gifts we buy and the sacrifices we make. But when somebody has died, we have only our memories – our files where we have stashed our concept of that person. We have only the real essence of love that exists in our brains – our magnificent social brains – that enable us to think of somebody who isn’t here as if they were in the next room or the next village.
I never quite trust myself when writing like this, not to lapse into the kind of pseudoprofound garbage that corrupts otherwise honest thoughts in sentimentality or faux spritualism. I had been struggling for a while to articulate my thoughts about this and how it relates to my mother’s death, when I received a wonderful and thoughtful email from my dad. In it, among many things, he speaks of his conception of heaven:
Heaven , to me, is the continuing relationship of love. I have felt that so often [since mum died] …. It is a flow of love from as well to. ….. Those whom we love live on in so many ways, that’s …. in her children and grandchildren and the hundreds of lives which she enriched. Once you have been part of this world you will always be part of this world. She lives on in multitudinous ways and her love also reaches me in so many ways. I pray that mine is reaching her. That would be heaven.
I love my dad’s idea of heaven. It is infinitely more generous and loving than the mean-spirited version peddled by many organised religions. Before I ever identified as an atheist, the idea that there was an afterlife to whom admission was restricted to those who had accepted some mumbo-jumbo account of salvation or submission struck me as a mean and childish form of social exclusion.
What kind of deity would run an exclusive frequent-flier departure lounge only for that small subset of people who had heard, grasped and embraced a particular set of beliefs? If those are the rules for entry, then I don’t want to go to that party. No matter who else is there.
My mum’s cancer illustrated very clearly to me another problem I have with heaven and the idea of any kind of afterlife. In the last few weeks of her life, the growing tumour steadily destroyed not only her motor coordination, but it seemed to me that it also eroded her memory and those parts of her social brain where she filed her sense of other people and of herself.
Many people remarked how she never once bemoaned her fate. When I visited her, and told her how much I loved her and how proud I was of her, she smiled to acknowledge it, and I thought she understood that this was my way of saying a little goodbye every day. Yet she never spoke what those of us around her knew – that she would never get better.
To this day I cannot tell whether she was incredibly stoic or if her disease had insulated her from conceiving her fate. Stoic as I know she was in other matters, my own limited ability to fathom her mental state suggests that the one mercy her tumour extended to her was to spare her deep insight into her rapid decline.
In other small ways, we knew that her social brain was succumbing. Misplacing names, forgetting faces, drawing false distinctions between the young version of my dad who married her in 1968 and the 2011 version who cared for her every day of her illness. The mistakes came and went, but we couldn’t escape the certainty that not all of her – of whatever made her her – was present.
So what does this have to do with heaven? Well, which version of Patti is supposed to have ascended? It may be comforting to believe that somebody who was here yesterday has now stepped into another realm as into another room, but it is harder to imagine this feat for somebody whose sense of self has seriously faltered.
For those of us who accept the prosaic fact that our loved one simply is no more, and that the most real thing about them is the love they had for us and the love we had and continue to have for them, our acceptance is more difficult and yet much simpler. Like the patient who has to endure painful surgery to set a broken limb, the short term agony for me is better than the long-term complications.
Dad wrote to me about how ‘now it is time to dwell not on life without her but on how fortunate I was to have so many years with her.’ For me, that transition sums up everything profound about losing her. I too have come to accept that even though it feels like she could be just a hand’s touch away, she isn’t.
Being able to talk honestly about her and appreciate and be grateful – not to anyone, just grateful – for our time together in the real world is more important and more comforting than easy promises about a cosy afterlife reuinion could ever be.
How do sex differences arise? Few questions animate as much disagreement and contention, in everyday society and in academic study. For as long as the question has been asked, the answers have fallen between two extremes: sex differences arise innately, or they come from social experience.
That same polarity defines much of the study of human behaviour and society, and has done since the ancient Greeks asked whether ideas arose innately (Rationalism) or from experience (Empiricism). The modern fault-line runs deepest between rationalist biology and empiricist socialisation.
Impossible as it might seem for any serious thinker, awake and aware and living in the current Century, to dismiss either biology or socialisation, you might be surprised. Dogmatism and ignorance still stifle the study of human behaviour, and the topics of gender and sex differences in particular. And the lay public is equally awash in tightly-held, but often flimsy ideas about how women and men come to differ, on average, in all sorts of traits.
The evidence is in: samples of women and men differ, on average, in a vast number of personality, emotional, behavioural, cognitive and attitudinal measures. Yes, the sexes overlap. And one cannot and should not rush to inferring anything about a person from the average properties of those who share the same genital configuration. But sex differences are present, found in many replicate studies, and often similar in magnitude across societies.
Rationalist biology holds that such differences have evolved. The combination of traits that made our male ancestors successful fathers differ from those that turned our female ancestors into successful mothers. This idea chimes with the repeated presence of so many sex differences across cultures, but the fact that the magnitude of the differences varies considerably among cultures suggests much more than biological determinism.
The Empiricist thinking that has dominated the study of gender in the social sciences for more than half a century holds that sex differences arise from extensive socialisation, and differences in the power that women and men hold and wield. This view brings us the notion that by ceasing to socialise boys and girls into stereotyped sex roles, and breaking down power inequities within societies, sex differences will diminish.
The idea that teaching, socialisation and structural change will progressively erode sex differences and gendered behaviour has a powerful hold. It underpins social interventions from “No Gender December” (a.k.a. the Christmastime war on pink toys) to the current Stop it at the Start campaign against domestic violence.
A testable prediction
A recent book chapter by eminent evolutionary psychologist David P. Schmitt adds an interesting dimension, sure to be controversial, but also with considerable potential to rejuvenate debate. The book, The Evolution of Sexuality (Springer, editors Todd K Shackleford and Ranald D. Hansen), at US $139 will likely prove inaccesible to readers without access to an academic library.
Alice Eagly, Wendy Wood and Mary Johannesen-Schmidt, among the most persuasive advocates for the primacy of socialisation into sex roles, predicted that increasing gender equality would lead to “the demise of many sex differences”. That prediction seems so intuitive, so consistent with contemporary thinking about gender equity, that it hardly needs testing. But Schmitt didn’t think so. He recognised that not only should the idea be put to the test, but that there exists a wealth of data on cross-cultural on variation in personality, behavioural and other traits that could be matched with good measures of gender equity and sex role ideology.
Counter to the prediction of social role theory, in only 2 out of 28 traits examined by Schmitt did sex differences narrow as gender equity increased. In six traits, the sex difference remained stable, and in 20 traits it widened.
For example, women tend to score higher than men on personality tests for extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Gender equity tends to elevate all three of these traits, but it does so more in women, widening the average sex difference.
Likewise, men score higher than women for the “Dark Triad” traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy. Gender equity has the salutary effect of reducing each of these three rather nasty traits, but it does so more for women than for men, resulting in wider sex differences.
The two traits in which gender equity narrowed sex differences are instructive, too. Women are more likely than men to value resources and wealth in a mate. Gender equity reduces this preference, but does so more in women, narrowing the sex difference. And men tend to report a more unrestricted sociosexuality – fantasising about, attitudes toward and engaging in uncommitted sex – than women do. Sexuality grows less restricted with gender equity in both sexes, but more so in women, again narrowing the sex difference.
The narrowing of sex differences in preference for wealthy mates and sociosexuality are to be expected, and very much in line with the politics of sexual and domestic liberation. This is exactly what any observer of contemporary society would have expected, irrespective of the moral valence they give to the issues involved.
Many behavioural traits showed general changes for the better with increasing gender equity. Personalities take on more socially desirable forms. Couples emphasise love within their romantic relationships. Intimate partner violence declines. And rates of depression decrease. And yet the fact that sex differences in so many of those traits increased opens up considerable new space for empirical study, and for us to question dogma and doctine of all kinds about how sex differences arise.
This study is just a start. There remains some way to travel if we are to make stronger inferences about causation. But it is worth wrapping our head around the paradox that moves toward gender equity in opportunity, including the dismantling of patriarchal power structures, might, paradoxically, also widen sex differences.
As if it weren’t hard enough. Being assessed and judged all the time, on our looks, our deeds, our works, the contents of our refrigerators. We are also judged by the company we keep, and in ways that leave me pessimistic about the prospects for gender equity.
My wonderful PhD student Amany Gouda-Vossos just published her first scientific paper, in the journal PLoSONE. Amany came to our research group, the SexLab with an interest in sexism and how it might grow from the evolutionary conflicts among men, among women and between women and men that infest human sexuality. Yes, sex can be beautiful, cooperative bliss. But in the animal world it is often competitive, manipulative and even destructive. And humans are, demonstrably, nothing but mammals.
Amany wanted to see how the judgements observers made about a (target) person’s attractiveness or their status was modified presence of another person. So she gathered three photographs each of 20 women and 20 men. In one photo the person of interest was alone, in another they posed alongside a man, and in the third, alongside a woman. We then invited people from all over the world to rate, on a website, the pictures. Each observer rated either the attractiveness or the status of the target person. Our imperfect measure of status was to ask the observer to predict how much the target person earns.
The attractiveness results did not surprise us. Observers rated men as more attractive when they were photographed alongside a woman, an effect that has been documented before and called “mate choice copying”. The idea is that a man already associated with a woman may be more attractive than he would have been alone. Any number of reasons could underpin this: such men may be more pleasant, safer to be around, or the woman in frame might have already found he had charms that were not immediately visible.
Not every study that tests for them finds evidence of mate choice copying effects, but they are sufficiently common to suggest something important is going on. That great branch of applied evolutionary psychology – dating advice – has already cottoned on to the value of a good “wingwoman” to the single man trying to pick up.
Company also altered women’s attractiveness, but not in the same way. Women photographed alongside another woman were rated less attractive than those with a man or alone. Again there exist too many possible reasons to get much of a grip on, beginning with the social implications of encountering women in pairs or groups rather than alone or as part of a heterosexual couple.
Company also altered how the observers rated a person’s likely earnings. And here we find the most interesting result. Men who were photographed alongside men were rated as earning more than those photographed alone or with a woman. We speculate that men at obvious ease in another man’s company might be inferred to be adept at negotiating the blokey politics of success in the workplace. But a thousand other possibilities exist and our study was not designed to distinguish them.
Women who were presented alone were predicted to earn most, almost 10 percent more than those photographed with other women, and 20 percent more than those photographed alongside a man. But the truly surprising bit was that the effect the man had on a woman’s earnings depended on how much he had been rated to earn in the male side of the experiment. Men who observers had rated, when they viewed the man alone, to be the highest earners did not constrain the women’s earnings when they were photographed together. But men who observers thought were not high earners put an effective ceiling on the amount that women they were photographed with were thought to earn.
Our study should be replicated, and probed, in order to see how general this finding is. But the implications for those of us interested in eliminating arbitrary inequities are clear: how we judge women’s status and economic clout, even in a very abstract study of photographs, is constrained by the status and clout of the bloke standing next to them.
This kind of effect might present yet another factor contributing to wage inequalities. As Amany put it in our paper:
Stereotypical or implicit assumptions that women earn less money than the men they work with, are romantically involved with, or whose company they otherwise keep, can be both shaped by and feed back into sex-differences in earnings.
These assumptions also distort the blend of evolutionary and economic factors that shape dating and mating. In speed dating scenarios, men value women’s intelligence and ambition, but only to the point where they match the men’s own, beyond which men become less attracted to smarter and more ambitious women. And some fabulous work on large data sets of American marriages, led by Marianne Bertrand, shows that when the woman’s income approaches or exceeds herhusband’s, the marriage becomes more likely to dissolve. Or else the high earning woman compensates for her failing of ‘earning too much’ by quitting work, working fewer hours, embracing extreme feminine grooming and behavioural stereotypes, or taking up more household chores.
Can you see why I’m pessimistic?
There remains so much to learn about how and why women’s earnings, and our judgements of their status, are constrained by the male company they keep in ways that simply do not pertain in the reverse. The vague society-wide forces so often demonised in the study of gender can only take us so far; understanding how and why high-achieving women are so often socially and romantically excluded will take a focus on individual drivers and the evolutionary and economic dynamics that shape them.
Mostly, that’s because I made only one. But it was a goodie. Noting the hysteria that then abounded about the West African Ebola outbreak, I predicted that it would propel a rightward swing in the mid-terms.
One might expect that an epidemic limited almost entirely to West Africa should be way, way down on the list of factors likely to swing American voters. What with ISIS, the economy, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues of greater direct relevance to the United States.
But a spectacularly scary hemorrhagic fever outbreak – ravaging countries a mere single plane flight from the USA! – holds the potential to propel a rightward swing next Tuesday.
Readers of this column will know of my obsession with understanding how evolved psychological traits shape ideological and political differences. My Elections in the Time of Ebola column drew a link between heightened disgust sensitivity, outgroup fear and conservative voting intentions. Noting the U.S. media’s apparent terror of Ebola reaching American shores (rather than, say, visiting horrific hemorrhagic death on hundred, and displacing or inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Africans), I suggested that keeping Ebola fears foremost might flush out the right-wing vote.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, and first gained international attention in March 2014. Six months later, the outbreak was ravaging West Africa, and flaring up in other parts of the world. On September 30 2014, The US Center for Disease Control confirmed that a man who had traveled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia had Ebola. He subsequently died, and two nurses who had treated him were infected but recovered. And on 23 October, Craig Spencer, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor who had cared for Ebola victims in Guinea became the fourth and last case in the US ‘outbreak’.
Once the CDC announced that Ebola had made it to the U.S.A., media coverage there intensified and people grew markedly more concerned about the possibility of an epidemic. Beall, Hofer and Schaller recognised the importance of this transition, and so they analysed polling trends from September and October, as well as the volume of Internet searches for the term “Ebola”.
Interestingly, after the first of October, once the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the USA became more salient, voters’ intentions swung discernibly toward Republican candidates. And the more voters searched for “Ebola”, the stronger the change in their voting intentions.
Interestingly, people’s concerns about Ebola appear to have influenced voting intentions in states that traditionally favour Republican candidates, but not in those that predictably vote Democrat. One might expect conservative politicians to play up disease fears particularly strongly within conservative electorates that appear to be flirting with swinging left.
From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s repeated characterisation of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” to Marco Rubio’s desperate attempts to imply a Trumpish deficiency in the penis department, Trump’s hands get a lot of attention. So much so that he recently saw fit to defend his own hands
in an interview with the The Washington Post’s editorial board:
Today, millions of very nervous adults are furtively checking sites like “Have I been Pwned” to check if their account details at Ashley Madison have been leaked. Others are checking if their partners or acquaintances had accounts. The hacking and subsequent release of data from the world’s biggest infidelity-focussed dating service continues to reverberate, provoking an interesting suite of ethical questions.
Unless you’ve confined your news intake to re-runs of Jarryd Hayne’s BIG MOMENT in a trial game for the 49ers, you will be well aware that a group calling themselves Impact Team hacked the systems of Avid Life Media (ALM), who operate a number of sex and dating websites. Impact Team threatened to release sensitive information about users unless ALM close down Ashley Madison, which specialises in connecting people looking to have extra-relationship affairs, and Established Men, which they argue is a “website for rich men to pay for sex”. Established Men, understandably, puts it a little more gently: “connecting young, beautiful women with interesting men”.
So much for the libertarian hacker stereotype. Impact Team are waging a moralist crusade against both the websites themselves, and the people whose extra-marital or transactional sex shennanigans the websites enable.
Neither website has been shut down and yesterday Impact Team uploaded information about over 30 million users, including their email addresses. Security experts quoted in news outlets seem to agree that the data dump is genuine.
The media coverage has varied from titillating attempts to dissect where the “cheating” hotspots are to the very real personal stories of spouses who’ve been busted. Sydney radio station NOVA even tried, and rather spectacularly failed, to turn it into edgy commercial radio, searching the database on behalf of callers. They very quickly learned how spectacularly bad their idea was when they found the husband of one of their callers was indeed subscribed to Ashley Madison.
Nobody wins here. The whole business reeks of weakness and failure. As Gaby Hinsliff put it in the Guardian,
it’s hard to decide which of the activities involved – cyber blackmail, building a business on wrecking marriages, or just good old-fashioned philandering – is least charming.
More than gossip
But some people seem bouyed by the whole business. I’m intrigued by the level of schadenfreude; so many people are relishing the slow implosion of Ashley Madison and the exposure of millions of people’s most embarrassing intimate details. What disappoints me most is how the exposure of 30 million people is being shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all view of sex and relationships. How this is all about “cheating”, and that infidelity means the same thing in every relationship.
We might not like to admit it to ourselves, but relationships differ enormously from one another. So do the reasons people have sex, both within and outside of committed relationships. Yes, a great many – probably most – Ashley Madison clients were furtively seeking extra sexual partners without the knowledge and consent of their long-term partners. And many did so despite their relationships being otherwise functional, productive and respectful. This kind of infidelity has its victims: the partners who remain at home, pouring their selves into the shared enterprise of coupledom, unaware that the other party isn’t matching their effort and commitment.
And yet nobody can properly evaluate another’s relationship from outside, much less 30 million relationships. The evolutionary sciences continue to show that humans have a marvellous capacity to form loving, cooperative relationships, to remain sexually faithful to one another, and to work hard to build both families and wealth. Marvellous as those relationships can be, profound as the love that binds us together might feel, not all relationships remain functional.
One of the less-explored dimensions of the Ashley Madison schamozzle is the fact that many people had quite defensible positions for looking outside their relationships. Their current relationships might be loveless, sexless, dysfunctional, exploitative or even abusive. They may be in the process of coming out to themselves, facing the daily dissonance of being gay in a straight marriage.
A great many people are trapped by economic circumstances and questions of child custody in hellish relationships. Who would deny those people the chance to connect with another, perhaps to find the courage or even the ally they need to escape, or perhaps to enjoy being loved, appreciated and getting properly laid?
How many people, whose names appeared on that database last night, had to go home to their controlling, jealous, or abusive partners? How many people, living straight lives, many in countries where homosexuality is illegal and harshly punished, were outed by Impact Team’s self-righteous moralism?
Beyond the many dysfunctional relationships from which affairs might offer respite or escape, the Ashley Madison affair forces us to confront even more uncomfortable realities about relationships. Even “a mommy and daddy who love each other very much” are likely to find that they cannot be everything one another needs. Our evolved capacity to be really quite good at monogamy has its limits. We have also evolved, thanks to our ancestors’ tastes for sexual intrigue, an exquisitely context-dependent capacity to throw off the shackles of monogamy when it suits us. It takes a spectacular denial of human nature to believe that life-long heterosexual monogamy represents some kind of social zenith and that deviations from this one true path represent deep aberrations.
On-line dating has imposed what economists call a “technological shock” on the mating market, reshaping how people meet, court and, ultimately, mate. Ashley Madison’s success, and the marketing genius behind it’s quasi-inspirational slogan (“Life’s short. Have an affair.”), reshaped the extra-couple mating market. And the realisation to which so many customers are waking today, that even a website set up to guarantee discretion in extracurricular hooking up is vulnerable to hacking and public shaming, will change the dynamics of sex once again.
I would be disappointed if the whole business turns into a witchhunt on “cheaters”, if we slide back toward the puritanism that had Hester Prynne wearing the Scarlet Letter. Perhaps we need to embrace the messier, more complex reality that sex does not equal love, and love does not always mean exclusively and forever. Our relationships are negotiated every day in the way we treat one another and accept our partners, and lovers, as they are, rather than packing them into the neat box of a one-size-fits-all relationship.
Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia
What gets you out of bed in the morning? Before morning has broken, and some time before blackbird has spoken, songbirds rise for sex. And a clever new experiment reveals just how important it is for male songbirds not to sleep in.
A great many species of songbirds nest in pairs, presenting to the world a facade of monogamy. Until the 1990’s, songbirds were rhapsodised by social conservatives as paragons of family values, mother and father working together faithfully to fledge their demanding chicks. Until new genetic technologies revealed that most socially monogamous birds were playing a lot of away games.
For a long time, ornithologists failed to spot the shennaniganising because most of it happens just before dawn, when even the hardiest birdo is still rubbing sleep from their eyes. That’s actually a bit unfair: ANU’s Professor Andrew Cockburn and his many collaborators have risen unspeakably early for decades to study Australia’s superb fairy wrens, revealing them to be Olympic medallists of extra-pair sex. Female wrens leave the nest before dawn, heading straight to males singing in the dawn chorus.
This kind of behaviour gives male birds two reasons to rise early: to prevent their social mate from mating with another male, and perhaps to get a little bit on the side from some other male’s social mate. European blue tit males who start singing early in the morning sire more chicks with other females, chicks he doesn’t have to raise because the female and her social mate do all the heavy lifting.
But how do early and late risers do with their social mates? A team based at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, found an ingenious way to answer this question.
By inserting slow-release melatonin implants beneath the skin of free-living male Great Tits, just before the breeding season, they tweaked the birds’ circadian rhythms. The body releases the hormone melatonin at night, and animal circadian activity patterns are cued by melatonin levels. Nocturnal animals are stirred into activity and dirurnal animals to sleep by rising melatonin.
Male great tits in the control group became active about 22 minutes before dawn, but those with melatonin implants took an extra ten minutes to get going. They were no less active during the day, and they stopped for the night at the same time, a few minutes before dusk.
But those extra ten minutes cost the males dearly. Twelve percent of chicks fledged from the nests of control males were sired by another male, but 42 percent of chicks in the nests of melatonin-implanted males had been conceived with another male’s sperm.
As an early riser, I’d like to claim victory for the early birds at this point. But of course I can’t. For humans, Sex at Dawn remains niche. Many even prefer to rise early for bird watching.
The night time is where the action is for our species. Night owls tend to be more extrovert, novelty-seeking, and night-owl men (but not women) report having more sexual partners. Night-owls are more likely than early risers to be single and open to short-term commitment-free sex. Being a night owl is associated with risk-taking in women on a levels similar to males (both night-owls and early risers). Risk-taking predicts short-term sexual behaviour, suggesting that female night owls might be especially oriented toward sex.
Interesting, it’s true, but not yet the basis for any firm prescriptions. Unless you’re Charlotte Alter writing at Time Magazine. Anybody spot the implicit bias and rampant earlybirdophobia?
Women who stay up late are more likely to get laid, but less likely to get married than women who get up early to do a sun salutation or whatever.
Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia
By any metric, Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons article in Science, a copy of his address as 1968 president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, rates among the most important in the history of ecology. Hardin’s thesis builds around the metaphor of the commons, a pasture open to all, on which it benefits each herder to run as many livestock as possible, and to pay no heed to the inevitable degradation and collapse. His pessimistic message: that individual self-interest makes restraint in reproduction and consumption irrational, leading to irreversible pollution and environmental damage.
Hardin’s vision and eloquence make him essential reading in many disciplines. But his pessimism, and his suggestion that only “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” could resolve the commons-like tragedy of human overpopulation, have also seen him parodied as a crank by more optimistic economists and opponents of environmental prudence.
I’m less interested today in the importance of Hardin’s thesis than his amazing 26000+ citations. I mean who doesn’t love a good metric? I’m also interested in something he said about young people playing their music too loud (hell, it was1968!), and advertisers polluting our visual landscape:
In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost no restriction on the propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government is paying out billions of dollars to create supersonic transport which will disturb 50,000 people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travellers.
Hardin was lucky enough to live and work in an era less obsessed than our own is with feedback, surveys and metrics. If he had been with us today, I’m sure he would have saved a special place on the degraded commons to relegate those who inflict upon us all the burden of collecting meaningless data and unheeded opinion.
What better way to ruin a perfectly nice stay in a hotel than to spy, propped on the crisp white pillow case, an obsequious request that we rate how the room has been turned out? Can there be any more irritating feature of buying a new app or e-book than a pop-up message asking us to rate the experience?
I bought the product, I stayed in your hotel. If you want to know if this time worked, then see if I come back and buy something else. You have the information in your databases and frequent-visitor files. Pay somebody with quant skills to find the real answer.
If you need to know if the room is being attended well then quietly tally up the complaints! I don’t ask you to fill out a form to ask if you liked the colour of my credit card, the angle of my signature, when I paid the bill. Do I?
Every meaningless survey is doing the world damage. In academia two types of survey have the potential do more damage than most: the student survey and the management survey – often administered by monkey.
Any well-designed measurement tool, properly applied, can provide useful information for lecturers to improve their teaching and their courses. Just as well-designed assessment can give students the kinds of guidance they need to learn properly.
Once upon a time lecturers designed their own surveys, which they asked students to fill in in the final lecture. Conscientious lecturers asked questions to gauge what students were learning well, or not so well, and how the lecturers might improve. And improve they did; the student survey became an important tool of the good lecturers, the ones who were responsive to students, deliberate in how they taught, and willing to change in order to improve.
Little wonder, then, that administrators, often with the support of student leaders, saw the potential to measure and improve teaching quality. And so they pushed toward standardised item banks and then just a few standard questions, rolled them out across universities and started using them in promotion and performance review processes. Standardisation, and careful thought about questionnaire design certainly improved measurement, but at the cost of the kinds of information most useful to lecturers who want to improve.
Instead, by the peculiar alchemy that happens when people quantify rather than think, student assessment scores transmuted into shiny fool’s gold, a glimmer of a tool which, viewed from just the right angle, might tell us how much students really really like the lecturer. Those lecturers who scored highly used the numbers in their promotion applications. Those who didn’t waited for another year in the hope of showing evidence of “feedback-driven improvement”.
And students went from filling out one survey per semester, during class time, to doing it for every lecturer in every course. In the students’ own time on their own computers. Little wonder then that return rates of 10-20 percent are now considered normal.
I believe that by and large they don’t measure anything at all. When fewer than one in five students responds, you aren’t measuring anything more than idiosyncratic noise in how motivated students are to fill in yet another survey. Because students have been treated like the overgrazed commons, chronically over-surveyed since the day of enrollment. No lecturer benefits from opting out of the relentless evaluation cycle (except for not having to confront one’s “numbers” and read the more toxic open-ended responses). Few heads of teaching benefit by encouraging staff to focus on their teaching and treat evaluations for the flawed tool they are.
If student surveys are to be used for anything meaningful, we need to recognise the costs to students and the value of drawing a representative sample. Make it easy for them to respond. And always obey the first commandment I got from my honours supervisor:
don’t gather information if you don’t know exactly what you are going to do with it.
But instead of restraint, surveys continue to degrade due to careless over-use, from once-useful tools for measurement, into misunderstood and misapplied metrics. The descent is complete when the metric falls into the wrong hands. When some managers (and I stress the some) place blind faith in the pseudonumbers that dribble forth from broken student surveys, reading what amount to no more than tea-leaves with the confidence of cops operating a fine-tuned academic radar gun.
Surveys, monkeys, keyboards
Second, and somewhat more benign, is the pseudo-consultation via survey. I know of academic leaders, fortunately not my direct managers, who can’t decide what colour shirt to wear without the help of Survey Monkey. Instead of making eye contact, asking a question and listening to a well-chosen sample of their staff, they run off an electronic survey.
It’ll only take 5 minutes!
Five minutes times 100 staff equals eight person hours. What you are really saying when you send out a survey is that your own time is more valuable than that of all the people on whom you have inflicted your email. Just as one should never convene a meeting unless the benefit to be gained from it exceeds the person-hours spent by people attending it, so should it be with surveys.
Which is why I have a policy of never speaking to survey monkeys.
I recently spent an enjoyable hour over beer with a colleague designing a system by which anyone who sends out a survey must first reimburse the budgetary units that employ each subject for the time involved in reading the email, deciding whether to respond, and then responding. The surveys would be fewer, but the data far more valuable.
The economists call this internalising negative externalities. That’s the kind of solution that makes the tragedy of the commons – and other apparently intractable problems – far easier to crack than Garrett Hardin could ever have predicted.
Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia
Is alcohol-fuelled violence caused by the booze itself or by the macho culture in which the drinking occurs? If we are to believe a recent study commissioned by the alcohol company Lion, it’s the culture that’s to blame. That’s a rather convenient conclusion for the alcohol industry. But it hinges on a fallacy and has the potential to cause much damage.
The study was conducted by Dr Anne Fox, consultant anthropologist and founding director of Galahad SMS Ltd (SMS stands for Substance Misuse Solutions) who studies drinking cultures. Fox has been promoting her report in the broadcast media and op-eds, pushing her conclusion that
It is the wider culture that determines behaviour while drinking, not the drinking per se. While there are very good health reasons to reduce excessive drinking, you must influence culture if you want to change behaviour.
The Lion and the Fox
Fox’s report reads as a series of anecdotes and quotes, gathered during discussions with drinkers in a variety of situations, workers in bars, taxi drivers, police, emergency workers, government officials and various other people. Fox’s observations are organised thematically, interspersed with folk-evolutionary speculation of the following kind:
Could ritualised drunken behaviour be a re-enaction of an evolved ancient need for joyous bonding that still persists? Given what we know about alcohol and the brain, and the evolution of the brain itself, the question can at least be asked.
And simplistic characterisations of national drinking cultures, such as:
Spaniards and Italians … are culturally much more emotionally extroverted and do not associate alcohol so much with romantic or sentimental expression.
There is no attempt to grapple with numbers surrounding violence, or the consumption of alcohol. In fact there seems to be no way of sifting evidence with any kind of fairness to the competing alternatives at all. Instead, as might be expected when a liquor company commissions an expert on ‘drinking culture’ to study what causes the violence that too-often erupts in and around venues where alcohol is served, the conclusions seems inevitable: you have to change the culture in which the alcohol is consumed.
And which aspects of culture are most in need of changing? Why, masculinity, of course. As Fox put it in the Sydney Morning Herald:
The way to tackle the real underlying causes of anti-social behaviour is to address the cultural reinforcers of violence, misogyny, and aggressive masculinity in all its cultural expressions from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media.
Could it work?
The Fox/Lion report reminds me of nothing more than the American gun lobby slogan that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. By reducing the complex issues of gun-related homicide to two apparently contradictory alternatives, those most wedded to their right to bear arms find rhetorical – if not logical – comfort in blaming the shooter and not the weapon.
Having read the report, I think there are interesting observations about the relationships that Australians and New Zealanders have with alcohol, well worth injecting into the national debate on antisocial behaviour. But should we leap from observing that culture is important to focusing all interventions on the remodelling Austral masculinity? I’m sure the liquor lobby would like to do so, but I’m not the only one who disagrees.
It’s not correct to say you can’t “alter the culture of violence and anti-social behaviour in any meaningful way” by tackling the way people drink. There is a lot of evidence showing that changing people’s drinking hours and consumption patterns reduces violence and hospital admissions – which is a lot more significant than tinkering at the margins of culture.
Cultural creationist wishful thinking
It seems that those who study ‘culture’, that slippery omnipresence in which we all wallow, inevitably conclude that the only way to improve society is to change culture. Drain the toxically misogynist, masculine swamp, and replace it with a more rarified egalitarian pond, and everything will be okay.
Changing ‘culture’ isn’t easy. And it certainly amounts to far more than education campaigns, shaming and punishing bad behaviour.
Fox, to her credit, doesn’t insist on throwing out all biological insights. She recognises that night-time drinking among young people is about meeting evolved biological needs, for bonding, belonging and courtship. And that young men competing with men, and seeking to impress women are the well-spring of most of the anti-social behaviour.
Her report considers the example of Icelanders who consume more booze and own more guns, but do far fewer stupid, violent things per capita than Australians. She even recognises that Iceland’s low-levels of economic inequality remove some of the incentives for young men to pose, to impress, and to take out the competition.
If Australia wants to “change the culture” in which drinking takes place, it will have to change more than arbitrary social sanctions and “culturally constructed” ideas of what it means to be a manly man. If that is even possible. It will have to recognise that economic conditions, create the incentives for young men to strive, to compete and to take stupid risks.
And that means resisting the temptation to blame single causes. It isn’t just the booze, it isn’t just the blokes, it isn’t just the economy and it certainly isn’t just the culture. What matters is how those ingredients combine.
Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia