Is there really a single ideal body shape for women?

Boticelli's "Birth of Venus" c. 1486.
Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” c. 1486.

Many scholars of Renaissance art tell us that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus captures the tension between the celestial perfection of divine beauty and its flawed earthly manifestation. As classical ideas blossomed anew in 15th-century Florence, Botticelli could not have missed the popular Neoplatonic notion that contemplating earthly beauty teaches us about the divine.

Evolutionary biologists aren’t all that Neoplatonic. Like most scientists, we’ve long stopped contemplating the celestial, having – to appropriate Laplace’s immortal words to Napoleon – “no need of that hypothesis”. It is the messy imperfection of the real world that interests us on its own terms.

My own speciality concerns the messy conflicts that inhere to love, sex and beauty. Attempts to cultivate a simple understanding of beauty – one that can fill a 200-word magazine ad promoting age-reversing snake oil, for example – tend to consistently come up short.

Waist to hip

Nowhere does the barren distinction between biology and culture grow more physically obvious than in the discussion of women’s body shapes and attractiveness. The biological study of body shape has, for two decades, been preoccupied with the ratio of waist to hip circumference.

With clever experimental manipulations of line drawings, Devendra Singh famously demonstrated that images of women with waists 70% as big as their hips tend to be most attractive. This 0.7:1 waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), it turns out, also reflects a distribution of abdominal fat associated with good health and fertility.

Singh also showed that Miss America pageant winners and Playboy playmates tended to have a WHR of 0.7 despite changes in the general slenderness of these two samples of women thought to embody American beauty ideals.

Singh’s experiments were repeated in a variety of countries and societies that differ in both average body shape and apparent ideals. The results weren’t unanimous, but a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 came up as most attractive more often than not. The idea of an optimal ratio is so appealing in its simplicity that it became a staple factoid for magazines such as Cosmo.

There’s plenty to argue about with waist-hip ratio research. Some researchers have found that other indices, like Body Mass Index (BMI) explain body attractiveness more effectively.

But others reject the reductionism of measures like WHR and BMI altogether. This rejection reaches its extremes in the notion that ideas of body attractiveness are entirely culturally constructed and arbitrary. Or, more sinisterly, designed by our capitalist overlords in the diet industry to be inherently unattainable.

The evidence? The observation that women’s bodies differ, on average, between places or times. That’s the idea animating the following video, long on production values, short on scholarship and truly astronomic on the number of hits (21 million-plus at the time of writing):

This rather questionable video, called ‘Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History’, is getting a lot of airplay on YouTube.

I note that Botticelli’s Venus looks more at home in the 20th Century than among the more full-figured Renaissance “ideals”. So do the Goddesses and Graces in La Primavera. Perhaps there was room for more than one kind of attractive body in the Florentine Renaissance? Or is the relationship between attractiveness and body shape less changeable and more variegated than videos like the one above would have us believe?

Not that I’m down on body shape diversity. Despite the fact that there seems to be only one way to make a supermodel, real women differ dramatically and quite different body types can be equally attractive. The science of attractiveness must grapple with variation, both within societies and among cultures.

Enter the BodyLab

For some years our research group has wrestled with exactly these issues, and with the fact that bodies vary in so many more dimensions than just their waists and their hips. To that end, we established the BodyLab project, a “digital ecosystem” in which people from all over the internet rate the attractiveness of curious-looking bodies like the male example below.

Example image from the BodyLab ‘digital ecosystem’. The VW Beetle is provided as the universal symbol of something-slightly-shorter-than-an-adult-human. Faces pixellated to preserve any grey people’s anonymity. Rob Brooks/BodyLab.biz
Example image from the BodyLab ‘digital ecosystem’. The VW Beetle is provided as the universal symbol of something-slightly-shorter-than-an-adult-human. Faces pixellated to preserve any grey people’s anonymity.
Rob Brooks/BodyLab.biz

We call it a “digital ecosystem” not to maximise pretentiousness, but because this experiment involved multiple generations of selection and evolution. We started with measurements of 20 American women, a sample representing a wide variety of body shapes.

We then “mutated” those measures, adding or subtracting small amounts of random variation to each of 24 traits. Taking these newly mutated measures we built digital bodies, giving them an attractive middle-grey skin tone in an attempt to keep variation in skin colour, texture etc out of the already complex story.

If you want to help out with our second study, on male bodies, visit BodyLab and click through to Body Shape Study and then Rate Males (Generation 6).

This all involved considerable technologic innovation, resulting in an experiment unlike any other. We had a population of bodies (120 per generation) that we could select after a few thousand people had rated them for attractiveness. We then “bred” from the most attractive half of all models and released the new generation into the digital ecosystem.

What did we find? In a paper just published at Evolution & Human Behavior, the most dramatic result was that the average model became more slender with each generation. Almost every measure of girth decreased dramatically, whereas legs and arms evolved to be longer.

In eight generations, the average body became more slender. Waist, seat, collar, bust, underbust, forearm, bicep, calf and thigh girth all decreased by more than one standard deviation. At the same time, leg length (inseam) rose by 1.4 standard deviations. Rob Brooks
In eight generations, the average body became more slender. Waist, seat, collar, bust, underbust, forearm, bicep, calf and thigh girth all decreased by more than one standard deviation. At the same time, leg length (inseam) rose by 1.4 standard deviations.
Rob Brooks

That may not seem surprising, particularly because the families “bred” from the most overweight individuals at the start of the experiment were eliminated in the first few generations.

But, after that, more families remained in the digital ecosystem, surviving generation after generation of selection, than we would have expected if there was a single most attractive body type. The Darwinian process we imposed on our bodies had started acting on the mutations we added during the breeding process.

More meaningful than the mean

Those “mutations” that we introduced allowed bodies to evolve free from all the developmental constraints that apply to real-world bodies. For example, leg lengths could evolve independently of arm lengths. Waists could get smaller even as thighs got bigger.

When we examined those five families that lasted longest as our digital ecosystem evolved, we observed a couple of interesting nuances.

First, selection targeted waist size itself, rather than waist-hip ratio. No statistical model involving hip size (either on its own or in waist-hip ratio) could come close to explaining attractiveness as well as waist size alone. Our subjects liked the look of slender models with especially slender waists. There was nothing magical about a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio.

Second, within attractive families, which were the more slender families to begin with, evolution bucked the population-wide trend. These bodies began evolving to be more shapely, with bigger busts and more substantial curves.

It turns out there’s more than one way to make an attractive body, and those different body types evolve to be well-integrated. That’s a liberating message for most of us: evolutionary biology has more to offer our understanding of diversity than the idea that only one “most attractive” body (or face, or personality) always wins out.

What about the cultural constructionists? Are body ideals arbitrary, or tools of the patriarchal-commercial complex?

Our results suggest that the similarities between places, and even between male and female raters, are pretty strong: the 60,000 or so people who viewed and rated our images held broadly similar ideas of what was hot and what was not. But their tastes weren’t uniform. We think most individuals could see beauty in variety, if not in the full scope of diversity on offer.

What’s cool about our evolving bodies, however, is that we can run the experiment again and again. We can do so with different groups of subjects, or even using the same subjects before and after they’ve experienced some kind of intervention (perhaps body-image consciousness-raising?). I’m hoping we can use them to look, in unprecedented depth, at the intricate ways in which experience, culture and biology interact.

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Can science finger a philanderer? Not like this!

Two left hands make a heart. Source: Leon Brocard/Flickr
Two left hands make a heart. Source: Leon Brocard/Flickr

Are people naturally monogamous, polygamous or promiscuous? It’s one of those questions that most people feel quite confident in answering. Ask a few people and you’re likely to come up with a variety of contradictory answers, each delivered with considerable confidence. But the question is far more slippery than it first appears.

I will return later to the question of humanity’s “natural” mating system, but lately I’ve been far more interested in why people hold such strong opinions on the subject. And I think it’s mostly out of keenness to understand ourselves and those we love, to navigate the perilous tension between monogamy and non-monogamy that runs through our own lives. And, often, to validate our own proclivities.

With the Hallmark Holiday of St Valentine’s Day just a few days away, a recent study that touches on the monogamy-promiscuity tension deserves close examination. Particularly because various media outlets made it sound like a litmus test of whether someone is a likely ‘strayer’ or a certain ‘stayer’.

Sociosexuality

In ‘Stay or Stray: evidence for alternative mating strategy phenotypes in both men and women’, Rafael Wodarski, John Manning and Robin Dunbar probe the statistical distributions of two traits related to sexual behaviour. They ask whether sociosexuality and the relative lengths of the second and forth fingers (2D:4D ratio) conform to distributions with one peak or two. A bimodal distribution, with two peaks, suggests there may be two different groups of individuals within a given sample.

An individual’s sociosexuality reflects how restricted their attitudes toward sex and their sexual behaviours are. Wlodarski’s team used answers from the following six questions in the 9-item Revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI):

  1. With how many different partners have you had sex within the past 12 months?
  2. With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse on one and only one occasion?
  3. With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse without having an interest in a long-term committed relationship with this person?
  4. Sex without love is OK. (this and the next two questions answered on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree)
  5. I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying “casual” sex with different partners.
  6. I do not want to have sex with a person until I am sure that we will have a long-term, serious relationship.

High scores (plenty of agreeing, and lots of casual sex) characterise an unrestricted sociosexuality, whereas people with restricted sociosexuality tend to get low scores.

The statistical tests showed that within fairly large samples of British and American subjects, there was evidence that both women’s and men’s SOI scores are distributed bimodally. But there’s plenty of overlap between the peaks (modes). The authors infer that within each sex exists a more restricted, monogamous group of individuals and another group of unrestricted promiscuous people.

Here, and in almost every study using SOI, men tend to have more unrestricted sociosexuality than women, on average. The difference in means could be pinned on small differences in the percentages of men and women in the restricted and unrestricted SOI groups.

Digit Ratios

The group also analysed a sample of hand measurements of 1314 British subjects. They looked at the ratio of the index finger (second digit, or 2D) to the ring finger (4D). Adults who were exposed to higher levels of testosterone when they were in the womb, tend to have relatively short index fingers (small 2D:4D ratio).

Hand with index finger shorter than the ring finger, resulting in a small 2D:4D ratio, pointing to a high exposure to testosterone in the uterus. source: Wikimedia Commons
Hand with index finger shorter than the ring finger, resulting in a small 2D:4D ratio, pointing to a high exposure to testosterone in the uterus. source: Wikimedia Commons

Now that you’ve stopped looking at your fingers, can we move along?

Prenatal testosterone exposure is also thought to bias individuals toward more promiscuous sexuality when they reach adulthood. The pattern also works across species: monkey and ape species with long-term pair bonds and a knack for monogamy tend to have high 2D:4D ratios.

Interestingly, when Wlodarski’s team applied their statistical tests to the distribution of 2D:4D ratios, they again found evidence of bimodality. A similar pattern in two very different traits associated with promiscuity-monogamy suggested to them a provocative conclusion:

Perhaps we are dealing here with two different types of people.

What if some folks are good at monogamy whereas others are rather better at … the other stuff? Perhaps. Funny thing about sex research is that any conclusion you arrive at will leave some people feeling validated and an almost equal number something more like violated.

We go on foot from here

But the idea is worth exploring. The valuable thing about this study is that it challenges our too-common tendency to see every trait as a continuum, with a few individuals at either end and the majority somewhere in the middle.

Interestingly, the two measures, SOI and 2D:4D ratio were from different samples. At no point did the researchers provide any evidence that the two groups separated on digit ratio were the same individuals as those separated on SOI. They couldn’t be: they were different samples.

The links between SOI and 2D:4D ratios are, at best, equivocal. Some studies find that low 2D:4D is associated with higher SOI. Other studies fail to find such effects. And a study of women and men from Brazil and from the Czech Republic, found that in both sexes a more feminine (higher) 2D:4D ratio is associated with less restricted sociosexuality.

But you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. The Daily Mirror over-promised, trumpeting that “Boffins” have learned “How to work out if your partner is cheating on you? Check their fingers.” Well, checking if they’ve been hiding their wedding ring might tell you something, but checking out their 2D:4D ratio won’t help at all. Nonetheless, Valentine’s Day dinners are going to involve a lot of quizzical staring at fingers this year. (And not out of daydreaming that he might just put a ring on it.)

The Telegraph took a more introspective line under the headline “Are you promiscuous or faithful? Measure your index finger to find out.” Actually, a better way to figure out if you are promiscuous or faithful, or if you are likely to be in the future, is to ask yourself the questions in the Sociosexual Inventory. It’s pretty straightforward: if you’ve had plenty of one-off sex and lots of partners in the last year, then odds are that you bend toward promiscuity. At least at this point in your life. But I can imagine folks on both side of the 2D:4D distribution reassuring themselves that they are doing the right thing.

Sometimes I wonder why scientists even bother talking to the media. The public love to learn the latest things that “boffins have figured out”, but they deserve journalism that makes at least a token effort to grapple with the research or speak to said boffins.

What are we?

The distribution of SOI and 2D:4D cannot tell us all that much about humanity as a whole, other than that both women and men vary in their openness to casual sex and their proportional finger length.

But this variation is part of what makes human sexual behaviour so fascinating. Some people do seem at ease with life-long monogamy whereas others are shockingly bad at it.

How that variation arises presents a very interesting bevy of questions. Cue the usual intellectually bereft wrangling over nature and nurture as though the two were alternatives.

I’m sure there is more than one reason, but an obvious candidate for variation in sociosexuality is religion. Perhaps those who buy in to religious practices are more likely to be on the “restricted” end of the sociosexuality distribution, whereas those who have rejected or never embraced religion are more likely to be in the “unrestricted” peak?

For now, my preferred answer to the question “Are people naturally monogamous, polygamous or promiscuous?” is “YES”.

We have evolved adaptations that make some of us rather good at monogamy, some of the time. Until we’re not. We also have an evolved capacity to leave one partner for another, or to partner up with more than one person at a time, depending on our circumstances.

If you’re looking for natural history to vindicate your own particular preferred way of life over the alternatives, then you’re always going to be disappointed.

Monogamy can be complicated too. The Police knew this. Check out “Wrapped Around Your Finger

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Sexually despotic men rewrite history

Alfred L. Kroeber (left) with Ishi, the last member of California’s Yahi people, in 1911. Wikimedia Commons
Alfred L. Kroeber (left) with Ishi, the last member of California’s Yahi people, in 1911. Wikimedia Commons

“Heredity”, opined the pioneering cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber in 1915, “cannot be allowed to have acted any part in history”. I have yet to encounter a crisper expression of the view that biological explanations have no place in the study of society and history. Kroeber’s words have resonated through the social sciences for a century, divorcing nurture from nature, social from biological, at considerable harm to our understanding of society and what it means to be human.

 

Fortunately, many 21st Century anthropologists, economists, neuroscientists, geneticists, sociologists and thinkers so busily inter-disciplinary that they defy dusty departmental labels, are consigning the hoary distinction between nature and nurture to the past. Likewise the distinction between heredity and history is steadily dissolving as the where intimate links between evolutionary fitness and major historic transitions come into view.

Last week’s European Journal of Human Genetics, for example, carried a fascinating article led by evolutionary geneticist Patricia Balaresque exploring the signature of historic population expansions in the distribution of Y-chromosome genotypes of men alive today.

The Y of who, what and when

The the human Y chromosome represents a tiny portion of the genome, including the genes that trigger a foetus to develop into a male, rather than following the default female pathway. Every now and then a small change occurs in one of the less important parts of a Y-chromosome’s DNA. Such a change is passed to a man’s sons, those sons’ sons, and so on. That means there’s quite a bit of variation in these Y-chromosome sequences in any human population.

Marco Polo at the Kublai Khan. Miniature from the Travels of Marco Polo c 1298.
Marco Polo at the Kublai Khan. Miniature from the Travels of Marco Polo c 1298.

So if a man happens to have many sons, who each go on to have many sons and so on, one might detect a sudden surge in the frequency of the Y-chromosome sequence borne by that line of men (patriline). In 2003, a large team from Oxford University detected evidence of just such an event. Across much of Asia, one particular Y-chromosome sequence was carried by 8 percent of all men. In a paper pithily titled “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols”, they famously fingered Genghis Khan as the chief suspect.

The pattern of variation within the lineage suggested that it originated in Mongolia approximately 1,000 years ago. Such a rapid spread cannot have occurred by chance; it must have been a result of selection. The lineage is carried by likely male-line descendants of Genghis Khan, and we therefore propose that it has spread by a novel form of social selection resulting from their behavior.

Where by ‘behaviour’ they mean more than the Great Khan’s triumph in unifying the Mongols and establishing the largest continuous empire history has ever known. For Khan was as much about the establishment of a genetic dynasty as a political one. According to one disputed quote, he once said:

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

Or words to that effect.

Such a genetic legacy is far more than the work of a single man. It is likely that Khan’s uncles, brothers and cousins, played a substantial role, too. And his direct male descendants spread both his empire and his genetic legacy. Ghenghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, married four main Empresses, but, according to Marco Polo’s Travels was attended to by hundreds of beautiful young women, working five at a time in three-day shifts. And a much greater number of women, recruited to the palace but, after a second round of screening, not deemed perfect enough for the Khan himself, were bestowed on Kublai’s nobles, many of whom would have been relatives sharing his patriline and Y-chromosome.

Khan not the only one

The Mongol expansion is far from the only such event to leave a genetic signature. A 2005 paper identified a particularly successful lineage that expanded about 500 years ago in Northeastern China, possibly through the lineage who established the Quing Dynasty.

Last week’s findings report on a survey of 5321 men from 127 Asian populations, testing for evidence of similar population expansions. Belaresque and her collaborators identified eleven such events, including the ones tied to the expansions of the Mongols and the Qing dynasty. And some of those events date back as far as 2100 BCE.

The earliest expansions, between 2100 and 300 BCE, are associated with the flourishing of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, East India, and South East Asia. As agriculture took hold, elites accumulated wealth and influence beyond anything our hunter-gatherer ancestors could have conceived. These represent perfect conditions for sexual despots: male rulers who take many wives, keep numerous concubines or mistresses, and have many offspring. They also establish successions that favour their male descendants, handing them the wealth and power to become sexual despots themselves.

Another expansion began around 1100 CE in the Near East and expanded to the South East Indian coast. This might be a signature of the “rapid expansion of Muslim power … after the establishment of a unified polity in the Arabian peninsula by Muhammad in the 7th Century and under the subsequent Caliphates”.

The Mongol and Qing expansions, and another from Northeast China beginning no earlier than 850 CE, were not associated with the establishment and spread of agriculture, but rather with nomadic, pastoral lifestyles made possible by the domestication of horses. Pastoral nomads ruled the steppes for thousands of years, thanks to their horse-powered mobility and fighting ability.

They established several empires, giving rise to hierarchies, elites and patrilineal reproductive despots like the Khans and the Qing. And their Silk Road trade corridor facilitated westward expansion of their genetic dynasties.

Heredity and History

Even in the rather well-studied case of Genghis Khan we are well beyond certain idenfification of the individual progenitors whose success sparked each expansion. Innovative analyses and lucky ancient DNA finds may yet do so for some cases. But the ability to detect great tides of patrilineal descent in societies of various types offers far more interesting possibilities than compelling personal narrative.

The evidence shows that with great power and wealth can come great evolutionary fitness. The tools are now falling into place to assess how much the psychological adaptations that shape reproductive success have given history its shape.

This is one tale where History certainly represents HIS Story. The fact that new Y chromosome sequences can spread so fast and so wide when history’s tide turns suggests that a very small number of sexually despotic men can leave massive numbers of descendants. But each man who traces his descent back to Genghis Khan or another such super-ancestor through an unbroken male line has sisters who do so too, save for the very last branch in their family tree. If 2% of people in Asia descend on a male-only lineage from the same male ancestor as Khan, then how many times do they descend from him through at least one female ancesor?

Each of us descends many times over from a great many sexual despots. It would be Kroeber-like wilful ignorance to be think we don’t also inherit many of the genes that biased their behaviour toward the accumulation of power, the vanquishing of rivals and reproductive despotism.

And when I say “we”, I don’t only mean men. Every man has a mother. Every descendant of Ghenghis Khan is also a descendant of his mother Hoelun.

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Economic dependence promotes prudishness

Stay home, bake whitebread, don't sleep around.
Stay home, bake whitebread, don’t sleep around.

Marriage, according to those who habitually preface the word with “traditional”, is a collaboration. With complementary roles, filled as predictably by one woman and one man as peanut butter fills the gap between two slices of white bread.

If you encounter somebody clinging to this view of marriage in which women happily traipse down the church aisle into economic dependence on their menfolk, then I’m sure you can predict their views on sex and the thousand other issues that inhere to sex:

Sex education? Abstain until marriage, ‘cos true love waits.

The pill? Okay if you’re using it to control your acne.

Abortion? Causes all those calamities the greenies like to pin on climate change.

Okay, my clumsy stereotype grows unkind. My point is that more often than not women’s economic dependence on men is bundled up with strong views against sexual promiscuity.

But why? Are economic dependence and anti-promiscuity morality both symptoms of the same cause? Patriarchy, perhaps? Or does one bring about the other? A new study in Archives of Sexual Behaviour suggests that economic dependence might lead to anti-promiscuity views.

Paternity no laughing matter

Visiting friends or relatives in the neonatal ward isn’t the place to crack jokes about paternity. In fact, most people, especially relatives of the new mum, go to great efforts to comment on the newborn’s likeness to the guy who thinks he’s dad.

Paternity stikes such a raw nerve with men because they can never be truly sure that they’re the father. At least they couldn’t until recent technological developments in DNA analysis made it possible.

And yet throughout our evolutionary past, some men thought they were working hard to raise their own genetic progeny where they were actually rearing the young of another. Men who were suspicious, jealous and not prepared to raise another man’s children might not have won any nice-guy prizes, but they did ensure their hard work contributed to the success of their own genes. Including any genes that disposed them to jealousy and vigilance about paternity. Unfortunately, we are all descended from many such men.

Today, humanity’s long history of insecurity over paternity can be seen in the politics of paternity testing and the undignified squabble over how many children are really sired by someone other than dad.

Sensitivities over paternity have shaped religious practices, laws, customs for the inheritance of wealth, and behavioural norms.

In their pop bestseller Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argued that sexual jealousy and paternity insecurity are newcomers to human society, almost unknown in our species’ long hunting and gathering past where love flowed more freely and couples stayed together only briefly. The economic changes wrought by farming tied families to the land, necessitating cultural innovations to ensure wealth and land stayed within the family.

Ryan and Jethá make several mistakes, including unduly romanticising our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and viewing culture as something separate from biology. The cultural practices that surround fidelity and conception are more usefully viewed as extensions of men’s evolved paternity insecurity. And the scale of those extensions varies among places and over time.

When to worry about promiscuity

When women depend economically on their husbands or partners, then both women and men should value paternity certainty more highly. Men working hard to raise a family have plenty to lose in evolutionary terms if the children they raise are actually sired by somebody else. When men don’t do much for their partners or the offspring, they should be much more chilled about paternity, and thus much more relaxed about sexual promiscuity.

Likewise, when a woman depends heavily on a man’s labour, or the money he brings in to the household, then the cost of losing him is much greater. There are two ways she might lose him through extra-pair sex: if he has other sexual relationships he could run off with one of the other women, leaving his existing family in the lurch. But when she has extra-pair sex and gets busted, she might lose him. Or worse. Jealousy can trigger psychological abuse and violence.

In the recent paper that inspired this column, psychologists Michael E. Price, Nicholas Pound and Isabel M. Scott, from Brunel University in the U.K., sought to test the links between women’s economic dependence and both women’s and men’s attitudes to promiscuity.

From online surveys of more than 5000 Americans, Price and his colleagues showed that when the women in a subject’s social network depend economically on men, then subjects tend to judge promiscuity more harshly. And the effects weren’t spurious consequences of religion, or ethnicity or political conservatism. When they fitted these other variables into their statistical tests, the association between female economic dependence and opposition to promiscuity remained.

Price also asked whether the association arose as an artifact of geography: Texas and Utah, for example differ culturally on questions of morality and gender roles from, say, Massachusetts or California. States in which women earned more were also more relaxed about promiscuity. And this result arose out of the effects women’s earnings had on female economic independence.

Even more compelling, by comparing the attitudes of geographic neighbours, in the same or nearby zip codes, Price and his colleagues found that the association held. Irrespective of where you live, the economic dependence of the women a person’s social network predicts how they feel about promiscuity and non-marital sex.

We’ve known for some time that variation among societies in sexual morality is associated with variation in gender roles and, especially, earnings. The exciting development is how the new research suggests the patterns emerge from the bottom upward, with individual attitudes being shaped by prevailing economic circumstances in their close social network. At least in part.

I’m interested to know what the authors think about the relevance of their data to Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs’ ideas on sexual economics in which women restrict the supply of sex under circumstances when they have the most to gain from a high price. This interpretation is not inconsistent with Price et al’s arguments about paternity certainty. But high female economic dependence presents exactly the kind of economic situation in which women need to drive a hard bargain in the sexual marketplace. Intriguingly, women took stronger anti-promiscuity stances, on average, than men did.

There are so many studies I would like to see done with a view to teasing out the causal relationships, and how attitudes to promiscuity change in the headwind of religion and other cultural forces. But this finding explains much about some of the trickiest ideological differences both within and among societies.

It could explain how economic changes since the Second World War paved the way for the sexual revolution. And why conservative politicians, especially in the U.S.A. seem equally hung-up on sexual liberty and the growing proportion of breadwinner moms.

And it may form an important ingredient in the ever-growing and dangerous ideological chasm between patriarchal theocracies and more gender-egalitarian democracies.

Thom Yorke singing Radiohead’s True Love Waits

P.S. I always relish seeing how other media cover research concerning issues touching sexual morality. According to “News Staff” at Science2.0, “If women want their promiscuity to be accepted they have to earn more money say evolutionary psychologists”. Keith Perry of the Telegraph reckons “Promiscuous women more likely to be tolerated if they are high earners”. And Lydia Smith, writing in the International Business Times got even more pithy, declaring “Only poor women are branded sluts”.

These were the first three links to news stories that popped up on Google. Not one headline reflects the real message of the study, but they all find a short path to slut shaming. For the record, the study tracked attitudes to women’s and men’s promiscuity.

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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.

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Ovulatory overtures: do women’s preferences shift with their fertility cycle?

About a month ago, I stumbled across a paper that left me with the warm reinforcing glow that comes with being right. The rather artificial experiment played female subjects two pieces of music varying in complexity, and then asked each subject which of the male composers they preferred sexually.

All the subjects had to go on was the piece of music. Women at the fertile peak of their menstrual cycles preferred the composer of the more complex tune for a short-term thing. At other times, or if asked to rate the composers for suitability as a long-term mate, subjects showed no preference.

Does the attractiveness of musicians depend on the fertility of the beholder? Source: True British Metal/Flickr
Does the attractiveness of musicians depend on the fertility of the beholder?
Source: True British Metal/Flickr

My vindication was the paper’s support for the idea that music-making ability is preferred by those seeking mates. Such a preference is one possible way in which our ability to make and to appreciate music might have evolved, a position I happen to think is right. The paper’s test is pretty simplistic, but the addition of a new line of evidence gives the idea of sexually selected musicality another strand of support.

As a scientist I should be wary of my own reaction to the evidence. It is all too easy to count the “hits” that confirm one’s world view and ignore the “misses” that contradict it. Such confirmation biases build distorted and, left uncorrected, incorrect beliefs. They constitute the prime ingredient in religious faith and ideological zeal of all stripes. And science, done properly, is the only known antidote.

But what happens when science probes the most ideologically polarising questions themselves? Well, a very interesting case is unfolding right now concerning the science of how women’s fertility cycles shape their mating preferences.

Shifting cycles

The musical complexity paper builds on an idea in evolutionary psychology that women’s sexual preferences and desire “shift” at the time they are most likely to conceive, favouring men of superior genetic quality over the kinds of men likely to make good long-term partners and co-parents.

This “ovulatory shift” idea contains many moving parts, each of which has at least some support.

The best man to raise a child with is not necessarily the best available gene-donor. So women might profit, in evolutionary terms, from pairing up with a nice guy – hard-working and safe to be around – while discreetly also mating with a different, highly masculine, ridiculously good-looking paragon of genetic endowment.

Such liaisons come with risks, however, including being abandoned – or worse – by the cuckolded long-term partner. So it’s only worth “gene shopping” when you stand a good chance of conceiving.

The very idea makes many people squirm. But not everybody is squirming for the same reasons.

Mating preferences, and even how revealingly a person dresses may be influenced by where in her ovulatory cycle a woman is. This isn’t a popular idea with some ideologies and religions. Nathan Rupert/Flickr
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Social conservatives and religious traditionalists are often confronted by the sexual freedom and agency implicit to ideas like ovulatory shifts. It’s just too much to accept that some “good” women – wives even! – might play the odd away game for biologically rational reasons. Much easier to wash all that complicated evolutionary nuance away with a cleansing deluge of scriptural literalism.

Interestingly, evolutionary accounts of human behaviour come under equally heavy fire from the opposite end of the political spectrum, where biology can play no role in understanding society.

Cultural creationists, most of whom show no evidence of ever having attempted to understand evolution, prefer to flail at “biological determinism”. In their cartoon world, those wearing the white hats shoot from the hip at oppressive biological stereotypes, secure in the conviction that everything interesting about human behaviour arises as the results of learning, culture and social construction.

But here in the 21st century, serious academic research should be above the ancient laziness of pitting nature and nurture as competing alternative explanations. Unfortunately that habit remains too hard for some authors to break.

I’m certainly not claiming we shouldn’t be very careful about biological explanations. When it comes to women’s hormonal cycles, history shows the merit of treating biological claims sceptically. One can draw a straight line from Classical Greek ideas that the uterus wandered about the body causing all sorts of ailments to the popular diagnosis of “hysteria” for almost any psychological and many somatic complaints in 19th century Europe and America. The very word “hysteria” derives, after all, from the Ancient Greek for uterus.

Biological ideas are still widely used to confine and oppress women. Consider the recent controversial review of studies concerning mood and the menstrual cycle. Here at The Conversation, Jane Usher took that paper as reason to dismiss premenstrual moodiness as a myth. Jayashri Kulkarni responded that PMS is real and denying its existence harms women.

What about the evidence?

Whatever our political predispositions, surely we should be led by the evidence in deciding whether ovulatory shifts are real?

An impressive number of studies show that women in the “fertile phase” of their cycle express different preferences from those in less fertile phases and women on hormonal contraception. In particular, preferences for typically masculine male faces, behaviour, personality traits and health all peak in the fertile phase. And at peak fertility, women in long-term relationships more often report attraction to men other than their partners, and weaker attraction to their partners. Especially when those partners aren’t paragons of masculine attractiveness.

Many other studies, however, have found no evidence of ovulatory shifts. And who knows how many unpublished studies languish in researchers’ file drawers? This is just the job for a meta-analysis, the suite of statistical techniques for sifting a body of published results to extract the overall level of support for a hypothesis.

Recent months have seen not one, but two meta-analyses of the subject. One, led by Wendy Wood at the University of Southern California, concentrated only on preferences for high testosterone, masculine, dominant or highly symmetric men. Their meta-analysis of 45 published and 13 unpublished studies found no overall support for shifting preferences across the menstrual sample.

Across town at UCLA, Kelly Gildersleeve, Martie Haselton and Melissa Fales meta-analysed 134 effects from 38 published and 12 unpublished studies. In contrast with the USC paper, the UCLA team found robust cycle shifts when women were asked to assess men as short-term mates, but not when assessing long-term partners.

Two meta-analyses, published within months of each other, asking more-or-less the same questions, but getting different answers. That’s not how science – and meta-analysis in particular – is meant to work!

But, strangely, it’s not an unusual turn, particularly when the research concerns polarising issues. My good friend Michael Kasumovic pointed me to the following meta-analytic back-and-forth on the links between videogames and violence. His precis:

2001: Video games cause aggression.

2007: No, no, it’s a publication bias.

2007: See, it really is a publication bias.

2010: No! They really cause aggression!

2014: Actually, violent games increase aggression, and pro-social games increase prosocial behaviour …

… and so on it rolls. Meta-analyses of existing data do not provide the hoped-for panacea, much less change minds, particularly when the issues at stake are ideologically infused. At least not instantaneously.

This ovulatory shift story is far from done. The differences in sampling and analytic approaches between the two teams are still shaking out. I’ve been in touch with both groups and will shortly write another column trying to get to the bottom of how they reached such different conclusions. Before I do so, I’m waiting for one more paper to hit the presses, in order to be sure both teams have similar opportunities to present their cases.

Look who’s celebrating

For now, it remains worth asking what’s at stake. This rather intriguing business represents just the latest squall in the tempestuous relationship between the biological and social sciences. And it’s in danger of descending into rude tribalism.

Claims about ovulatory shifts are seen in some quarters as just another example of women’s cyclical biology being used to deny their agency and independence.
Wood’s meta-analysis invigorated anti-biology defenders of the faith. Consider Amanda Hess, whose Slate column often oozes thoughtful analysis. Whenever Hess strays near evolution, however, she becomes unwilling to weigh complex ideas on their merits. Her column on the Wood et al paper ran with a weak “patriarchal scientists don’t understand female bodies or the ineffability of culture” trope.

Her own biases confirmed, and making no mention of the earlier-published Gildersleeve meta-analysis, Hess rejoices that “a woman’s cultural conditioning is even more powerful than progesterone”. To pilfer an expression as hackneyed as Hess’ argument, 1975 called, and they want their false nature-nurture dichotomy back.

This kind of buy-in to outmoded all-biology-equals-determinism thinking seems so at odds with the way evolutionary psychologists and biologists really view behaviour. But look at what the journalists were working with. The press release USC put out quotes Wood:

A complete model of human reproduction needs to acknowledge women’s impressive capacity to regulate their own behavior and not fall into the trap of biological determinism […] Regardless of what might have been normative in ancestral history, with the advent of cultural roles and complex group living, women showed the capacity to tailor their reproductive activities to a variety of social roles.

Resistance to the notion of ovulatory shifts, then, springs from the fear that if hormones influence behaviour, then that robs women of their capacity to act independently and in their own interests. Claire Lehmann provides a scathing rebuttal of this argument, skewering wilful cultural creationist ignorance of how biology really shapes behaviour.

What fascinates me about this issue is how the anti-biology crowd are jumping at shadows. If evolutionary psychology conferences are secret gatherings of patriarchs out to perpetuate the status quo, then their cover is outstanding. What I see is a vibrant field concerned with the subtle ways in which women and men act in their own evolved interests.

Ovulatory shift research in particular, conducted by far more women than men, uncovers ever more intriguing nuances to women’s motives, actions and how they interact with deliberate and equally strategic behavioural self-regulation. Those most interested in gender equity and the liberation of female sexuality from that other – original – kind of creationism might well benefit by paying close attention to the field of evolutionary psychology.

Science is always done by people, and we all bring our own personal and scientific preferences and biases to the enterprise. What we do with those influences in the face of the evidence is what really matters.

The Conversation

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Fred dives, Neymar scores, Brazil wins! Straight out of the textbook

The soccer World Cup (yes, I persist in calling it “soccer”) is the one time in every four years I pay any sustained attention to the round-ball game. There is so much to love about the world’s most popular sport, played by its best players, with fanatical but mostly benign national supporters.

And yet by tournaments’ end I cannot bear to watch another dive, any more theatrical writhing on the ground or another posse of 20-something millionaires heatedly admonishing an official. Perhaps it’s something in the water at my place or a consequence of being thrashed too frequently in high school, but I prefer the stoic deference to authority of rugby union, in which backchatting the referee automatically moves the penalty 10m closer to your goal line.

So, with all the bright-eyed hope in the world game, I rose this morning at six to watch Brazil’s inevitable dismantling of Croatia. But Croatia’s Portuguese interpreter clearly couldn’t understand the memo, written as it was in Português do Brasil. Unaware they were supposed to be dismantled, they had the temerity to go ahead in the 11th minute.

A cracking contest, then, made even when Neymar slipped one just inside the Croatian post in the 29th minute. Very little remonstrating, some robust challenges but not too much play-acting, and very few dives. Until the 71st minute.

This is why soccer players dive. “Scientifically proven” as they say in pseudoscientific advertisements for fast-moving consumer goods. In this case, Fred’s dive fits perfectly with a scientific analysis of soccer diving by Gwendolyn David in 2011 and a team of collaborators at the University of Queensland.

In order to understand the dynamics of who dives and when, David viewed 2,800 falls in 60 matches of soccer across 10 professional leagues. David’s PhD supervisor and collaborator on the paper, Robbie Wilson, and Amanda Niehaus wrote about the paper’s findings and implications for The Conversation when the paper was published. As they put it:

It turns out that diving is more common when there’s more to gain by it: in the offensive half of the field – specifically, in or near the penalty box – and when scores between the teams are tied.

That’s exactly what happened this morning. Fred dived in a part of the field where he had everything to gain and almost nothing to lose. And it isn’t just Croatian supporters who thought the decision to award a penalty – the penalty that broke the tie – diminished an exciting game of football.

I’ll probably get up most mornings to watch the games, but I’d rather see referees take a harsher line on the theatrics. Like those zero-tolerance rugby referees, I’m pretty sure a few more yellow cards would tone down the histrionics and improve the overall spectacle. In fact David’s analysis shows that in leagues where refs are tough on diving, players do it less often.

My daughter was born the night John Aloisi scored that goal to put Australia through to compete in Germany 2006. And all Australian supporters know where that campaign ended up. Two words: Fabio Grosso.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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What Makes Us Human?

What separates humans from other animals, including our closest relatives?

Thomas Henry Huxley was a dynamic chalk-and-talk lecturer and a fabulous anatomist. Here he is lecturing on the anatomy of the gorilla skull.
Thomas Henry Huxley was a dynamic chalk-and-talk lecturer and a fabulous anatomist. Here he is lecturing on the anatomy of the gorilla skull.

It’s one of those big questions perennially posed by the evo-curious public. But until recently I seldom gave it much thought. Mostly because the answers tend to get hung up on one trait that differs from our closest great ape relatives: our upright stance, the shape of our toes, the size of our brains.

Millions of years of separate evolution has, of course, resulted in considerable divergence in all manner of traits. It makes no sense to elevate one particular one to some kind of special status – the one thing that makes humans … human.

Questions about what separates us from other animals also carry some unfortunate baggage. The belief that there is something inherently special about humans and the way we arose is more suited to creation mythologies and religious doctrine than to a scientific, testable view of the world. The notion of special creation, and those perversions of evolutionary thinking that defend humans as exceptions, tend to come pre-fitted with taxonomic chauvinism of the following sort:

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Victorian clash of minds

The shard of evolutionary thought that most gets under the skin of religion is the notion that humans are not created special, are not made in any divine image. Darwin’s contemporary, the great anatomist Richard Owen, fiercely defended humanity’s paragon status and the Victorian English status quo from transmutationalism (as evolutionary thought was then known) and the bestialisation of man.

When the first pelts and skulls of a large newly discovered “indescribably fierce” African ape (the gorilla) sensationalised 1850’s London, they piqued the curiosity of a working class then challenging ideas of human uniqueness and a divine social order. Owen lectured the British Association in 1854 that human brains bore special structures – such as the hippocampus minor – lacking in apes. Here, Owen claimed, lay the evidence for human uniqueness.

A young Thomas Henry Huxley located the gorilla’s hippocampus minor (remember they were working with skulls) in March 1858 (months before the Darwin-Wallace paper on natural selection), showing himself the better anatomist. More important, Huxley’s interpretation that chimps, gorillas and humans are at least as similar to one another as any is to baboons – now common knowledge – devastated Owen’s claims to human uniqueness.

One by one, all claims to human uniqueness have similarly fallen aside. For example, in 1960 Jane Goodall, refuted the idea that human tool use set us apart from our closest relatives. Perhaps the entire enterprise of looking for traits that distinguish us from other apes is misguided and the differences are more quantitative than qualitative?

Mind the gap

Last month I enjoyed the pleasure of discussing this topic with UQ’s Professor Thomas Suddendorf at the Sydney Writers Festival. Suddendorf was at the festival to talk about his book The Gap: The science of what separates us from other animals (Basic Books) recently published to enthusiastic reviews.

The Gap tackles the difficult question of what separates humans from other animals, but part of its genius is the way it begins by putting humans into a biological context. Only by viewing humans as organisms can we begin to test the idea that humans differ from other organisms, and what those differences might be.

Professor Thomas Suddendorf talking at TEDxUQ about the evolution of human minds and some of the science he writes about in The Gap

A psychologist, Suddendorf works with both human children and other primates to understand mental evolution and the development of those mental capacities in childhood. The Gap considers in detail the mental traits most likely to have effected the ecological success of humans relative to our great ape relatives. Where orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees languish in ever-shrinking patches of rainforest, he points out, humans now make up more than seven times the biomass of all other wild mammals combined. Something sets us apart, ecologically at least, from our closest relatives.

After reviewing the current scientific evidence of human and ape capacities in the areas of language, mental time travel (the capacity to imagine the past and the future), theory of mind, intelligence, culture and morality, Suddendorf arrives at the conclusion that across these domains, two major features set humans apart:

Our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together.

That’s as good an answer to the questions about human uniqueness as I have ever encountered. What is more, the answer, and Suddendorf’s fascinating path to that answer has made the very question of human uniqueness interesting again.


Couldn’t resist this 1988 Pixies performance of ‘Where is My Mind?’ Science has unequivocally answered the ‘Where’ question as well as resolving many of the evolved differences between our human minds and those of our surviving relatives.

The Conversation

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Atheism snookered by moral snap-judgements

When Jack was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighbourhood.

As an adult, Jack found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighbourhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.

Now, knowing what I have just told you about Jack, is it more probable that Jack is: A) A teacher. Or B) A teacher who does not believe in God?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles (1481), from the Sistine Chapel.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles (1481), from the Sistine Chapel.

If you answered “B”, you would not be alone. An average of 50 percent of people in a recent suite of experiments gave the same answer. The wrong answer.

Wrong not because Jack believes in God – we have no way of knowing what Jack believes. B is necessarily incorrect because the entirety of group “B” the teachers who don’t believe in God, are also members of group “A”, the teachers. It is impossible for B to be more likely than A, but it is likely that a great many people in group A do not belong to B.

The question about Jack exploits the conjunction fallacy by which additional detail makes a scenario seem intuitively more likely. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman showed that people make this mistake by applying a simple rule called the “representativeness heuristic”; additional detail that seems to match the description biases people toward believing that the detailed option is more likely.

Which makes exercises like the question about Jack an interesting tool with which to study the intuitions people harbour about certain groups.

That’s exactly what the University of Kentucky’s Will M. Gervais did in a recent paper in PLoSONE. He presented subjects with stories of heinous moral transgressions: the one above, one involving incestuous relations between adult siblings, and one particularly imaginative scenario involving a man “making love” to a chicken carcass before roasting it. (Don’t worry, the man used a condom and fully sterilized the carcass before roasting it).

Subjects, after reading one of these scenarios, were then asked to make a choice in a conjunction fallacy exercise. Some subjects, under option B, were given the conjunction “… does not believe in God” that I presented in the example above. Others, however, were presented with conjunctions specifying that the morally suspect protagonist was Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

The experiment amounts to a comparison of how many subjects made the conjunction fallacy with each group. People make the conjunction fallacy more readily when the additional detail confirms their prior biases about the group involved.

Only 5-20 percent of subjects made the conjunction fallacy with any of the religious groups. Not many people felt a religious descriptor matched neatly with the description of the moral transgression being presented.

But fully half of all subjects fell for the fallacy when the morally suspect person was described as not believing in God. Clearly there is a near-unshakable intuition among much of the public that atheists are morally bereft.

That’s no surprise. The outwardly devout often express disbelief that without a celestial policeman or the threat of eternal damnation or some such, there can be any morality. Gervais opens his paper with a pithy quote to this effects from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?

Of course that isn’t true: a lack of belief does not necessarily mean that anything goes. But the relative morality of atheists and believers is a subject for another day. What matters here – particularly for atheists – is the overwhelming tendency for people to associate amorality with atheism. A fascinating Pew Centre report showed that world-wide, people tend to hold the opinion that belief is essential to morality.

Believers mistrust atheists and their unconcern for the afterlife. I’ve written before about Will Gervais’ research with Ara Norenzayan showing that this distrust can be ameliorated by gently reminding believers of the existence of secular authorities like the police. The rise in effective secular institutions of justice may well be part of slow dwindling of religious devotion in much of the world.

But the conviction that faith is not only a virtue itself but the source of virtue is a gift that keeps on giving for religions, their leaders, and the politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves. Misconstruing secularists and atheists has long been political sport in the U.S.A. George H.W. Bush, for example, wore his irrational contempt for atheism as a badge of honour:

I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.

Pre-formed ideas about the morality of those who don’t profess belief are also likely to be important in Australia’s ostensibly secular society. Last week’s budget pain for school and university education was accompanied, to much outrage, by a $245 million splurge on the school chaplaincy program. That decision, and the ongoing battles over Religious Instruction, Special Religious Education and ethics classes, represent part of an ongoing challenge to secularism in Australian public schools and institutions.

Atheists and humanists and various others trying to convince the world that one can be good without God and that societies benefit from secularization face the considerable obstacle of representative heuristics about atheist amorality. Unfortunately for them it isn’t just believers who hold these heuristics. Gervais took a more detailed look at the actual beliefs of his subjects, and found that even the atheists among them tended to make the conjunction fallacy more often regarding non-believers than any of the other groups.

If non-believers themselves jump to the conclusion that immoral deeds are more representative of the godless, then religion has an even bigger advantage in the turf-war over morality than previously thought.

The ConversationTim Minchin reckons we should judge people not by their group membership but by their deeds. How, though, does one overcome representativeness heuristics?

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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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Worse than sex? M is for May and for Masturbation Month

Workers of the world can have their International Labour Day, or Workers Day or whatever. But the month of May belongs to an equally fundamental dignity: masturbation.

The fact that a whole month is devoted to self-pleasure raises two important questions: who decides these things? And what are people meant to do over the 11 months from June to April?

On the latter, it seems that anyone can declare a day, a month or even a year be dedicated to a particular cause. The UN endorses some of these. Last year, 2013, for example was both the International Year of Water Cooperation and the International Year of Quinoa. Oh yes it was!

Perhaps I needn’t say it, but International Masturbation Month has not been recognised by the UN. Yet.

Like many ideas surrounding sex, Masturbation Month is American. Formerly “National Masturbation Month”, it did not require Republicans and Democrats working “across the aisle” to enact a special law. It only took a unilateral declaration of self-service by Good Vibrations sex shop in response to the firing of US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders.

Elders’ dismissal followed comments at the UN World AIDS Day in 1994. Asked whether promoting masturbation might discourage school-age children from riskier sexual activity, Elders agreed, noting that children should be taught that masturbation is a natural part of human sexuality.

Conservatives, already outraged by her progressive views on abortion and drugs, construed her as saying masturbation should be taught in schools. An embattled President Clinton, whose own seed-spilling later sucked the life out of his own presidency, saw this as a step too far.

So, in Elders’ honour, Good Vibrations says:

We started National Masturbation Month – now International Masturbation Month with people celebrating across the globe! – to raise awareness and to highlight the importance of masturbation for nearly everyone: it’s safe, it’s healthy, it’s free, it’s pleasurable and it helps people get to know their bodies and their sexual responses. Of all the kinds of sex people can have, masturbation is the most universal and important, yet few people talk about it freely – worse, many people still feel it is “second best” or problematic in some way. Masturbation Month lets us emphasise how great it is: it’s natural, common and fun!

Politics of the pull

The US political battle over masturbation that led to Elders’ firing nearly two decades ago represents one minor shift in a centuries-old ideological tug-of-war over self pleasure.

The history of attitudes to masturbation makes fascinating reading, from the Egyptian god Atum who masturbated the universe into being and then, generously, continued to control the Nile’s flooding by his ejaculations, to the rather athletic how-to instructions provided in the Kama Sutra.

The cover of the 1875 Italian version of Samuel Auguste André David Tissot’s pamphlet “Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism”. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photograph by Giovanni Dell’Orto
The cover of the 1875 Italian version of Samuel Auguste André David Tissot’s pamphlet “Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism”. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photograph by Giovanni Dell’Orto

The Judeo-Christian tradition has usually not embraced, and occasionally condemned, the solitary vice. But things got seriously weird in the 18th century, when masturbation attracted the blame for all manner of evils and ailments. One early pamphlet, published anonymously, really says it all in the wonderfully descriptive title: Onania, or the Heinous Sin of self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice.

Nineteenth century quacks such as Reverend Sylvester Graham lectured against the dire health consequences of “venereal excess” and the corrupting evils of self pollution. His health advice looks, today, like common sense: exercise, bathing, brushing teeth, drinking clean water and a diet of mostly vegetables and whole grains.

Visionary as he was, he is remembered because the bland diet he promoted, and the whole-wheat Graham cracker he invented, were designed to dampen libido. Likewise, the equally odd Dr John Harvey Kellogg proclaimed: “if illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution is a crime doubly abominable.” Masturbation is worse than sex? Not as good, maybe, but worse? Kellogg’s lasting contribution to suppressing libido was the insipid corn flake.

And it wasn’t only the self-abuser who was in line to suffer. In “What a Young Woman Ought to Know”, Mary Wood Allen councilled young ladies to consider the fate of their as-yet unborn offspring. Does this sound familiar?

The results of self-abuse are most disastrous. It destroys mental power and memory, it blotches the complexion, dulls the eye, takes away the strength, and may even cause insanity. It is a habit most difficult to overcome, and may not only last for years, but in its tendency be transmitted to one’s children.

Touching the enemy

All of this excitement proved baseless. Masturbation now seems, at least to the educated, to be the quintessential victimless crime. At least when practised alone or among consenting adults. And as long as the method of fantasy doesn’t impinge on anybody else’s rights. Yet the subject still cleaves opinion in contemporary educated societies.

Consider the recent cringe-worthy campaign by Brigham Young University – Idaho that considered modern masturbation and porn use patterns alarming enough to erect a turgid war metaphor. The masturbators are personified by spent soldiers, left dying (and, it seems, tugging) on the battlefield by their fellows. Which of course invites the question of what the soldiers are masturbating against in this so-called “Great War”?

Last May, Hugo Schwyzer made a very interesting proposal in The Atlantic of the controversy that still inheres to self-pleasure.

Tell me how you really feel about masturbation, and I can more or less predict how you’ll feel about the more frequently debated “sex war” issues.

His point was that all the issues at stake in the “sex wars”, by which I would include the ideological tussles over abortion, contraception, promiscuity, sexual autonomy, sex education, mens’ and womens’ work and roles, homosexuality, gay marriage and even the importance of gender, are polarised on the question of what sex is for. If you believe sex is exclusively about connecting intimately with one other person and, thereby, producing children, then you will tend to take the conservative positions on these issues. You will also tend to view masturbation as wrong, wasteful or even sinful.

On the other hand, “delighting in something that, first and foremost, belongs to us as individuals” tends to be associated with more progressive attitudes about all of these issues. And what purer expression of sex belonging to individuals can be found than the art of self-pleasure?

Who wins, who loses?

Where does this tension about what sex is for come from?

Much resistance to masturbation turns on the perception that it represents a theft, robbing those who take matters in hand of their own health, vitality or ambition, or of taking something essential from the partner and the family unit. Some of the shame and stigma attached to masturbation in contemporary society prods at an inadequacy. Calling someone a wanker implies that whatever they are doing, that isn’t the way proper grown-ups roll.

Is masturbation only for losers, the terminally unattractive, and those stuck in sexless relationships? A large study of masturbation behaviour in the US suggests the reality is far more complex. For some, masturbation “compensated for a lack of partnered sex or satisfaction in sex” while for others it “complemented an active and pleasurable sex life”.

The fact that the most sexually satisfied subjects were also most directly in touch with their bodies supports the positions taken by Jocelyn Elders, and others who advocate masturbation is part of normal human sexuality. Masturbation is also most prevalent among the highly educated, and those not in conservative religious groups. That is to say those least likely to be swayed by supernatural or secular authority.

The narrow conception that sex is for procreation and the satisfaction of life-long spouses has served religions, monarchs and political leaders at various times. For one thing, it restricted the supply of sex. As I recently wrote, conservatives aren’t too keen on an over-supply of sex because that lowers the price – how hard men have to work to have (proper, married) sex. Mark Regnerus, in-house sociologist at the conservative Austin Institute, warns: “Don’t forget your Freud: civilisation is built on blocked, redirected, and channelled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex.” But to whose ultimate benefit that work goes remains opaque.

The societal changes associated first with the enlightenment, then with first-wave feminism and, eventually, the sexual revolution, concerned the elevation of the individual, and the capacity for men, and especially women, to own themselves. If people are not the property of a deity, a religious institution, or even a spouse, then they are not bound by the narrow conceptions of sexuality that suit the interests of those other “owners”.

This line of thought may provide one reason why the enlightenment, early feminism and the sexual revolution caused both new, more progressive attitudes to sex and strong backlashes – led by the likes of Tissot, Graham, Kellogg and BYU-Idaho – against those new attitudes.

Have a good month appreciating self-ownership in your own chosen way.

.

The Conversation

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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What are the chances that your dad isn’t your father?

How confident are you that the man you call dad is really your biological father? If you believe some of the most commonly-quoted figures, you could be forgiven for not being very confident at all. But how accurate are those figures?

Questions of paternity are built over the deepest well of human insecurity, for children searching to know who they are, for fathers wanting to know whose kids they are raising and for mothers uncertain about the strength of the bonds holding their families together.

I consulted on an episode of SBS’s Tales of the Unexpected documentary series, “Who’s Your Daddy?” (screening this Sunday April 20) which looks at the issue in some detail.

The program explores the question of paternity certainty, combining three moving tales – each involving a DNA paternity test – with a poll of sexual behaviour in Australia and the US and an exposition of why uncertain paternity presents such a sensitive issue.

One of the three?

How many children are the genetic offspring of someone other than the guy who thinks he is the father?

 

If you have read, heard or watched anything on this question, you will have encountered many estimates, from 9% to more than 30%. The idea that almost one in three people might be the result of what we biologists rather matter-of-factly call “extra-pair copulations” titillates and horrifies in equal measure.

These estimates surprise most people when they first hear them. So much so that the numbers tend to stick in our minds. But do these numbers bear any truth?

The problem with most data on paternity is the near impossibility of obtaining an unbiased sample. A paternity clinic, for example, is a bad place from which to estimate the rate of misattributed paternity. Many clients are there because at least one party isn’t convinced.

Likewise, any study recruiting families – however randomly – might have more success recruiting mothers who harbour no doubts about their children’s paternity.

Questionable figures

Swinburne University sociologist Michael Gilding, who also appears in the SBS program, has thoroughly researched the origins of the popular belief that 10% to 30% of paternities are misattributed.

He traced the source of the high estimate – 30% – to the transcript of a symposium held in 1972 in which British gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Elliot Philipp mentioned an estimate from a small sample of parents.

This brief conversation took on a life of its own, despite the fact that Dr Philipp never published the findings of his study. As a result, his precise tests and his population sample were never identified.

Of the many studies that have attempted to estimate the rate of misattributed paternity, the higher estimates have tended to grab headlines, whereas more modest estimates sink without trace.

In whose interest?

Prof Gilding implicates two groups for inflating the public perception of misattributed paternity rates: evolutionary psychologists and fathers’ rights groups.

Evolutionary psychologists, according to Gilding, are so invested in their ideas about the nuanced mating decisions women make that they overestimate how often women mate outside their long-term relationships. My impression is that this may be an accurate assessment of some headline-grabbing research but not universally true of the field.

Fathers’ rights groups represent men negotiating the heartbreak of family break-up. Some such groups also host strident activists propelled by a conviction that the law and society have been utterly corrupted by feminism, gynocentrism and misandry.

The blogs and forums of this netherworld amplify any finding, however flimsy, implying that women are rampantly promiscuous or cynical swindlers looking to part men from their hard-earned cash or dupe them into caring for kids that don’t bear their DNA.

They call this “paternity fraud” and some claim it “worse than rape”.

You won’t find on their websites a critical analysis of the sampling methods or techniques used to estimate paternity misattribution rates, just titanium-reinforced convictions that 25% to 30% of children are being raised or supported by the “wrong” guy.

Why does it matter?

In the ever-dynamic game of sexual relations, the one factor that has always weighed decisively in the favour of womankind is the secure knowledge that she is the mother of her children. According to an old aphorism: “Maternity is a matter of fact, whereas paternity is a matter of opinion.” At least it used to be.

Paternity testing now much easier and cheaper.

Fast-moving developments in molecular biology make paternity testing faster, cheaper and more accurate than ever before. Analysis of foetal DNA in the mother’s blood enable paternity assignment as early as eight weeks into a pregnancy.

Interweaving strands of evolutionary research suggests that paternity confidence forms part of the glue bonding men to their children and to the women who bore them. Undermine that confidence and men invest less readily in the subsistence and safety of their families, and become more likely to abscond.

That is not to say that all men are calculating Darwinian cynics. Many men make magnificent fathers to children that do not bear their DNA. But men get immoderately touchy about paternity. Insecurity over paternity has tectonically shaped much that is least admirable about male behaviour and twisted societies.

But knowledge about paternity can be empowering. It can reassure an uncertain father. It can vindicate an impugned mother or assist her in a paternity suit. And it can help a child understand who they are and where they come from.

What’s the answer?

So how many children are sired by someone other than “Dad”?

Population-wide random-sample DNA testing remains financially and ethically unviable. But to understand some of the behaviours that might lead to paternity misattribution, the SBS documentary producers commissioned Roy Morgan Research to poll samples of Australian and American women.

They asked a number of questions including whether they had conceived a child at a time when they had multiple sexual partners? I was surprised that no more than 2% of women admitted to this.

That suggests a low rate of misattributed paternity; but note the data are presented per woman, not per child. The poll does suggest that mating with multiple men around the time of conception is neither rampant nor pathologically rare.

These results marry comfortably with DNA estimates of misattributed paternity from samples that cross a broad range of societies which suggest the rate is between 1% and 3%, and with Prof Gilding’s estimate of between 0.7% and 2%.

The number of children whose biological father isn’t their social dad is probably far smaller than you’ve been led to believe, although the 30% figure seems to be a zombie-statistic that refuses to die.

But even a 1% rate of misattributed paternity still adds up to millions of individual children, world-wide, each part of an interesting, sometimes tenuous and often heart-breaking story.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He consulted, without remuneration, with the production company (Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder) on the design of the paternity poll and the content of the show, and appears in the program mentioned here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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