Life’s short, have you had an affair?

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”.

Shhhhh! Ashley Madison screenshot.
Shhhhh! Ashley Madison screenshot.

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.

According to Leonard Cohen (Live in London), “Everybody Knows that you’ve been faithful. Give or take a night or two”.

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.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Menopause wars: can male preferences for young women explain ‘the change’?

Why would an otherwise healthy animal stop reproducing? Natural selection usually favours genes that elevate reproductive success because the very act of reproduction is how genes proliferate. So adaptations that involve self-limited reproduction call for unusual evolutionary explanations.

Sterile worker ants and honey bees present one such unusual adaptation. These females forego any chance to reproduce so that they can help their sisters become queens. Insect sociobiologists have shown just how special the evolution of sterile workers is. The massive genetic lottery win that comes when a sister ascends to head a hive of her own more than compensates the worker for her life of sterile devotion.

But human women also stop reproducing around their late 40s. Menopause remains among the most hotly debated products of human evolution. I have written here before about the competing theories. And earlier this month Dyani Lewis wrote a very clear overview of the ideas surrounding the evolution of menopause.

But today I’d like to consider a computer simulation model published last Friday in PLOS Computational Biology. In the breathless style so beloved of journal publicity departments, the press release quotes author Rama Singh as saying:

Menopause is believed to be unique to humans, but no one had yet been able to offer a satisfactory explanation for why it occurs.

Singh, together with McMaster University colleagues Richard A. Morton and Jonathan R. Stone argue that the reason menopause evolved was that older men preferred young women as mates. Their logic resembles that behind successful theories for the evolution of ageing: natural selection grows weaker on older cohorts, allowing late-acting mutations to accumulate. Likewise, when older women get left on the shelf, late-acting mutations that rob them of their fertility are allowed to accumulate.

The paper builds on an intriguing earlier model in which men’s ability to sire offspring late in life, and the fact that many wealthy and powerful men have done just that for millenia, can have the incidental consequence of prolonging female lifespan as well, by weeding out some of the late-acting mutations that would otherwise act after women have ceased reproducing. That idea has some merit for explaining why women live a long time after menopause, but it says nothing about why they stop reproducing in the first place.

The new model shows that genes that lower the fertility of older women (but not men) can accumulate. But they do so in a rather artificial situation: the genes that alter age-dependent survival affect both males and females the same. I will wage that if the researchers had allowed mutations to affect male and female survival independently, female survival would have waned at least as much as female reproduction did. I think the assumptions of this model were artificially disposed to getting the observed outcome.

That’s not to say the idea lacks merit. I’m just not convinced that the study lives up to the press-release hype. Hype, I might add, that has seen more cut-and-paste action in the print and electronic media than a Year Three school project. Complete with stock images of ageing male celebrities stepping out with twenty-something “latest” girlfriends. Check out the Sunlight Foundation’s Churnalism, analysis of the Guardian’s version of the story.

In fact, my go-to source for garbled science news, The Daily Mail did a slightly better job than the Guardian and several other sites. They quote Oxford post-doc, Dr Maxwell Burton-Chellew, who didn’t mince his words, calling the study just ‘plain wrong’.

It seems to me infinitely more plausible and more consistent with decades of evidence that men’s preference for younger women evolved as a response to the declining fertility of older women, and not the other way around. That said, however, science doesn’t work by rejecting ideas on plausibility grounds alone. This new idea should be developed and considered more thoroughly, including the possibility of feedback loops between reproductive ageing and preferences for younger mates.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The placenta and the pace of life

The poor old placenta. It really doesn’t get much public attention. And yet it does a crucially important job – acting as the interface between the mother’s blood supply and that of her developing foetus.

Every molecule of glucose, oxygen and many other essential compounds consumed by the voracious offspring passes across the placenta – from the mother’s blood to the foetus’. And waste products pass back the other way to be detoxified and excreted by the mother’s organs.

Given these roles, one might be tempted to see the mammalian placenta as a discreet anatomic servant, working tirelessly, unseen and largely without thanks for the mutual good of mother and foetus. Only to be discarded or eaten after birth and spared no further thought.

And occasionally be venerated in YouTube videos with mystical soundtracks:

But such a view underrates one of the most interesting organs that ever evolved.

For one thing, the placenta varies more among mammal species than almost any other organ. And research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA provides some clarity on how this diversity evolved. Continue reading The placenta and the pace of life

Is human longevity due to grandmothers or older fathers?

Why do humans tend to live such a long time? Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, can last into their mid forties in the wild. Yet somewhere in the last six million years, human lifespans have lengthened dramatically, so that living into our seventies is no big surprise.

The last few weeks have seen some exciting new developments in this area. First, a recent paper featured in The Conversation showed that at all ages, humans are less likely to die than chimps.

Excitingly, however, modern health care, diets and the steady decline in violent deaths have slashed mortality rates of young adults. People in societies like Japan are now almost 200 times less likely to die in at a given age than people of the same age in hunter-gatherer societies.

The dramatic declines in modern mortality rates are almost entirely due to technological developments, but the lengthening of the maximum potential human lifespan since we diverged from the other great apes poses an intriguing evolutionary problem.

Our bodies only function as well as they do because we have a quiver-full of cellular repair and maintenance mechanisms. For example, we have systems that correct mistakes in DNA replication, and others that detect and kill off pre-cancerous clusters of cells.

But natural selection optimises those mechanisms to operate during our expected lifespan. Modern people who live beyond seventy are much more likely to suffer from cancers, dementia and other diseases of old age. Few of our ancestors – even the most recent ones – lived that long, and these late-onset diseases didn’t interfere with their successful reproduction. By the time they got the diseases, our ancestors had already passed their genes on – and that’s why we carry those same genes.

Six million years ago, the diseases of old age probably kicked in before our great-ape ancestors hit forty. The evolution of a longer lifespan involved a steady postponement of ageing. But only if older individuals contribute to the success of their own genes can this actually happen. Continue reading Is human longevity due to grandmothers or older fathers?