How often does Donald Trump wash his hands?

How clean is that finger, Donald?
How clean is that finger, Donald?

Move over Nate Silver! The statistician and author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t may have called 49 out of 50 states right in the 2012 US Presidential election. But today I note that my predictions for the 2014 mid-term elections were 100 percent correct.

Mostly, that’s because I made only one. But it was a goodie. Noting the hysteria that then abounded about the West African Ebola outbreak, I predicted that it would propel a rightward swing in the mid-terms.

One might expect that an epidemic limited almost entirely to West Africa should be way, way down on the list of factors likely to swing American voters. What with ISIS, the economy, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues of greater direct relevance to the United States.

But a spectacularly scary hemorrhagic fever outbreak – ravaging countries a mere single plane flight from the USA! – holds the potential to propel a rightward swing next Tuesday.

Readers of this column will know of my obsession with understanding how evolved psychological traits shape ideological and political differences. My Elections in the Time of Ebola column drew a link between heightened disgust sensitivity, outgroup fear and conservative voting intentions. Noting the U.S. media’s apparent terror of Ebola reaching American shores (rather than, say, visiting horrific hemorrhagic death on hundred, and displacing or inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Africans), I suggested that keeping Ebola fears foremost might flush out the right-wing vote.

Turns out that’s exactly what happened. Psychological Science just published a paper by Alec T. Beall, Marlie K. Hofer and Mark Schaller with the captivating title Infections and Elections: Did an Ebola Outbreak Influence the 2014 U.S. Federal Elections (and if so, How)?. Schaller was the first to propose the crucial, to that time unexpected, links between disease, disgust and political traits like outgroup fear and conservatism. And his group lead the world in studying not only the links but the psychological basis for those links.

Outbreak

The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, and first gained international attention in March 2014. Six months later, the outbreak was ravaging West Africa, and flaring up in other parts of the world. On September 30 2014, The US Center for Disease Control confirmed that a man who had traveled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia had Ebola. He subsequently died, and two nurses who had treated him were infected but recovered. And on 23 October, Craig Spencer, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor who had cared for Ebola victims in Guinea became the fourth and last case in the US ‘outbreak’.

Once the CDC announced that Ebola had made it to the U.S.A., media coverage there intensified and people grew markedly more concerned about the possibility of an epidemic. Beall, Hofer and Schaller recognised the importance of this transition, and so they analysed polling trends from September and October, as well as the volume of Internet searches for the term “Ebola”.

Interestingly, after the first of October, once the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the USA became more salient, voters’ intentions swung discernibly toward Republican candidates. And the more voters searched for “Ebola”, the stronger the change in their voting intentions.

Interestingly, people’s concerns about Ebola appear to have influenced voting intentions in states that traditionally favour Republican candidates, but not in those that predictably vote Democrat. One might expect conservative politicians to play up disease fears particularly strongly within conservative electorates that appear to be flirting with swinging left.

Politicians should have clean hands
Politicians should have clean hands

The Hands of The Donald

Fortunately for West Africa, and for progressive politicians in general, the Ebola outbreak is largely over. That won’t stop politicians from appealing to voters’ basest fears. Donald Trump has done so shamelessly in his claims that Mexican immigrants bring “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border”.

From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s repeated characterisation of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” to Marco Rubio’s desperate attempts to imply a Trumpish deficiency in the penis department, Trump’s hands get a lot of attention. So much so that he recently saw fit to defend his own hands
in an interview with the The Washington Post’s editorial board:

“Normal,” the Republican presidential front-runner insisted. “Strong.” “Good size.” “Great.” “Fine.” “Slightly large, actually.”

Perhaps it isn’t the size of his hands that matters in this election. Perhaps we should be paying attention to how clean he can keep them?

AC/DC “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” Live at the River Plate.The Conversation

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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

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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.

The Conversation

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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.

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 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.

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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?

___________________________

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.

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Don’t fear the patriarchy, girls. Just keep your knickers on!

There’s a video out there on the intertubes that’s got conservatives cheering and lefties in a lather. Actually such videos are legion, but I’m talking here about a particular one with the rather broad and even-handed title of The Economics of Sex.

You can watch it, but I must offer a trigger warning that people who have ever had sex before marriage, or know someone who has, might find its pure, unadulterated truth-bombiness a little too much for their besmirched souls to withstand.

If you can’t bear to watch, here is a very brief precis of the argument:

  • marriage rates in the US are down. Like, worse than the Dow!
  • to understand this calamity we need to know more about the economics of sex
  • men have higher sex drives than women. That’s just the way it is
  • which makes sex a resource controlled by women. Always has been
  • sex is cheap these days – because the pill largely freed women the cost of becoming unexpectedly pregnant. Lower costs = more supply = lower prices
  • this created a “split mating market” – on one side, people “only interested in sex”, and on the other, people “largely pursuing marriage”
  • there are too many men in the sex market, so women can call the shots
  • but women outnumber men in the marriage market, putting blokes in the drivers’ seat
  • it’s always been up to women to set a high market value for sex by restricting supply
  • this unspoken female pact to set a high market value for sex has all but vanished: women compete for men by hopping in the sack with them, thus lowering the ‘price’
  • which is why Americans are less likely to marry, and do so later in life than ever before
  • if women just resume colluding to set a high price for sex, then men will be nicer, take women on more expensive dates, buy bigger diamonds and get busy marryin’
  • and then balance will be restored to the force.

Qualified admiration

This is a slick piece of strategy. It combines the electronic reach of the internet with a funky old-skool brown-paper and texta visual device sure to appeal to all those youngsters stumbling haplessly onto the sex-marriage market. Not so sure about the Sinatra backing tracks, but love and marriage certainly do go together like a horse and carriage. At least they did, back in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ day. Except when they didn’t.

Strategy? What strategy?

The video is a product of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture a Texas-based think-tank whose mission is “to be a leading resource for tested, rigorous academic research on questions of family, sexuality, social structures and human relationships”. By which they appear to mean research in favour of families with one father married to one mother (preferably stay-at-home).

The brains behind the Institute, according to the Austin Chronicle happens to be one Mark Regnerus, a darling of the pro-marriage (as long as its not gay marriage) right. Regnerus achieved fame/notoriety in 2012 for his New Families Structures Study of young adults who were raised by parents in gay relationships, compared with ‘still-married’ parents. And he’s not so keen on upwardly-trending masturbation tendencies, either.

Who ever said there’s no such thing as a conservative Christian sociologist?

The bulk of the video relies on Timothy Reichert’s economic argument that the contraceptive pill, in reducing the ‘price’ of pre-marital sex, has favoured mens’ interests at the expense of womens’. Reichert’s article, published in the religious organ First Things, even finishes with some helpful suggestions about the future of feminism:

What is needed is a movement of “new feminism” based on a deep understanding of the nature of woman and her role at the center of society.

Riechert and Regenerus’ ideas about a mating market cleft – by the pill – into those seeking sex and those seeking marriage, has long been popular with conservatives. Our very own Cardinal George Pell built an op-ed in The Australian around his work, lamenting the transformation 50 years of the pill had rent upon a formerly chaste and god-fearing society.

Suppression of female sexuality

The bit that interests me most about this video, however, is the way Regnerus uses an important 2002 paper by the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge with the title of The Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality. It doesn’t take much perspicacity to see that where sexual activity – from masturbation to extra-marital activity – is suppressed, women and girls bear much more of the cost than men and boys.

It might seem logical, then, to assume that sexual suppression is something men do to women; that it embodies patriarchal control of female sexuality. Yet Baumeister and Twenge present an impressive body of circumstantial evidence that women enthusiastically engage in policing one another’s sexual activity. From slut-shaming to female genital mutilation, the chief antagonists are often women.

The rationale? That if a majority of women restrict the supply of sex, then all women can drive a harder bargain on the marriage market. When women who engage sexually with a speed or abandon that exceeds the cultural norm get branded ‘cheap’, it isn’t a metaphor.

This idea that women control the price of sex like an unscrupulous cartel is an important one with many implications for our understanding of sexual behaviour and relationships. My reading of the evidence suggests that it is probably true. But that is not to say it is the only dynamic feeding the suppression of female sexuality. Many old ideas about the involvement of men, particularly husbands and religious leaders also appear to have strong support.

This is a very exciting and hotly contrested area of research right now. So I was struck by the sheer audacity when (6:35) the peppy female narrator confidently piped:

Here’s the thing: In the past it really wasn’t the patriarchy that policed women’s relational interests. It was women.

Yep. If women just collectively kept their knees together, they’d all find it easier to ensnare a guy who’d willingly fork up two months’ salary to another cartel – the deBeers diamond company – for a great big diamond ring. And then, as if in a Disney movie, all the bad magic wrought by the pill, including declining marriage rates and …. men playing video games …. would be magically erased.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Sneer as I might, there are interesting research questions embedded in this piece of conservative propaganda and in Regnerus’ research in general. I’m actually happy to entertain the idea that a loosening of cultural suppression of female sexuality may be driving the reduction in marriage rates. And possibly even the drift away from religion. But I’m interested, too, in the broader implications of what it all means.

Regnerus quite astutely summarises the conservative fears that underpin their deep hang-ups with female sexual freedom and the effect it has on supply, when he writes, in Slate:

Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

You don’t have to be a marrow-deep sexist to embrace this position. The psychoanalyst Mary Jane Sherfey, who bore the wrath of her male colleagues in emphasising the power of the human female sex drive and in questioning Freud’s insistance of the primacy of vaginal (over clitoral) orgasms, argued that suppressing women’s powerful, innate, sex drives was an essential stepping-stone to the success of agrarian societies and thus the rise of civilization.

And yet this idea that sex must be suppressed or all will be chaos hasn’t a whole lot of objective support. It seems to me to be a re-stating of an ancient bias – one that favoured older, wealthier men.

Since at least the dawn of the Roman republic, and probably well before that, conservative leaders have insisted that sexual liberty was the first step toward the end of civilization. The chastity of the Vestal Virgins was considered Rome’s primary safeguard against its enemies. How different is that from Reverends Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Rabbi Noson Leiter blaming calamities like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 on “abortionists, […] feminists, […] gays and the lesbians”?

It doesn’t seem like it should be controversial that all people – not just women – are better off in post-enlightenment wealthy societies where effective medical interventions limit deaths in childbirth, where women can make their own decisions about how many children to bear and when to have them, and in which people have greater choice about when to leave a dysfuntional marriage or whether to enter one in the first place. As Michelle Goldberg puts it, in her exceptional book, The Means of Reproduction, “there is no force for good as powerful as the liberation of women”.

And yet it is controversial. Regnerus and the Austin Institute want the suppression of female sexuality back, and they want it back badly. Women, they argue, should be doing it for their sisters. Now how far they want to wind the clock back they haven’t stated. Apart from the pill, which other forms of female suppression would they like to revoke? Voting rights? Laws against witch-burning?

The great R.E.M. in one of their finest moments. I’ve always loved Mike Mills’ backing vocal “It’s time I had some time alone”.

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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It’s Darwin Day, a celebration of science and reason

Happy Darwin Day!

Is that even an appropriate thing to wish somebody? Especially so close to Valentine’s day?

Charles Darwin in 1868. The white-bearded patriarch that haunts every creationist and reason-denier. By Julia Margaret Cameron, Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Darwin in 1868. The white-bearded patriarch that haunts every creationist and reason-denier. By Julia Margaret Cameron, Wikimedia Commons.

Darwin Day, according to the International Darwin Day Foundation, is “a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin”. The idea of the celebration arose in 1993 as part of the activities of the Stanford Humanist Community, then headed by biologist Robert Stephens. And in the intervening 21 years, it has proliferated, with hundreds of events listed in cities around the world.

I’m not normally one for celebrating birthdays. Kids’ birthdays are great fun, of course. And the odd 40th or 50th gives a good excuse for a party. But I know some adults who celebrate every birthday as if it were a surprising stroke of fortune. Some grown adults even see each birthday an occasion to take an entire day off work.

So you can imagine my ambivalence at celebrating the birth, some 205 years ago, of a scientist. Even a scientist as world-alteringly important and as genuinely beloved as Charles Robert Darwin.

As an evolutionary biologist, and a scientist who finds great joy and meaning in communicating with the public, I am thrilled that there is a day around which so many events and seminars can be organised. That these activities celebrate evolutionary biology, science, and reason is particularly special.

I laud the work if the Darwin Day Foundation and all the organisations and people who make Darwin Day a highlight for curious, open and intellectually alive citizens. The Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, which I direct at UNSW, has been running a veritable fiesta of the Darwinian, with a conference and public lectures last week, and a seminar by eminent evolutionary psychologist Martin Daly on Tuesday 11th.

But it bears reflecting on the importance and modern relevance of Darwin himself.

The great naturalist ranks among the most important scientists of all time, no less significant than Galileo, Newton or Einstein. But more than that, I agree with philosopher Daniel Dennett who argues that Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – the discovery of how natural selection works, is the ‘most important idea anyone ever had’.

Darwin’s discovery revealed the very process that made us who we are. Which is why evolution, and Darwin himself gets so infuriatingly up the nose of those who have the most to lose from a genuine understanding of how the world works and how humanity came to be. Paper over the cracked relationship between science and religion all you like, but natural selection changed everything about how we understand ourselves and our world. Which is why Darwin’s Origin of Species was an instant bestseller.

To borrow Dennett’s inimitable turn of phrase once again, the idea of natural selection is a “universal acid”:

it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.

Darwin’s impact on the world far transcends science. It overshadows the contributions of most of his contemporaries, including that other titan born on February 12th, 1809: Abraham Lincoln.

And yet, I’d be disappointed if this celebration of all things Darwinian began and ended with the great naturalist. Because I think a focus on the person tends to undersell the science, and the importance of science and reason in general.

Watching snippets of last week’s so-called debate between the improbably bow-tied pro-science persona, Bill Nye, and the insufferable Creation Museum director, Ken Ham, I was reminded of just how much the reality-deniers depend on Darwin.

Nye did a creditable job. With the characteristic humility of a true scientist he showed his willingness to admit what he doesn’t know. His smug opponent, of course, had all the answers, and they were all to be found in one particular book. Yet I am in the camp who believe Nye did a disservice to science by going mano-a-mano with the Ham actor, lending him false legitimacy, and implying false equivalence between reason and biblical literalism.

It irks me the way Nye, and others who engage with creationists, allow the likes of Ham to call evolution “Darwinism”, and those who can comprehend natural selecton and the overwhelming evidence for it “Darwinists”. An over-reliance on Darwin as our standard-bearer diminishes a broad and vibrant science, giving the impression it begins and ends with a guy who was born over 200 years ago. I believe the creationists and their dullard adherents go further, implying that one white-bearded gentleman is somehow being slyly substituted for another; Darwin supplanting God.

The beauty of an idea like natural selection is that it is true, whether or not you choose to believe it. It is true, even if nobody has yet had the idea or written it down. If Darwin hadn’t done so, Alfred Russell Wallace’s version might have swayed the Victorians. Or perhaps a version discovered some 50 years later.

Humanity owes a great debt to Darwin, and the history of science followed the course that it did because of him. But he isn’t the reason for the season; science does not need deities and messiahs. Darwin was merely the guy who figured it all out first and explained it to a world who were ready for the idea.

I am delighted to celebrate Darwin’s 205th birthday today. But I also think the old guy has done a good job and should not be leant upon like some deity, some final authority, the other 354 days a year.

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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Religiosity more about reproduction than cooperation

The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.
The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.

Why do religious beliefs vary so broadly? I’m not talking here about the near-cosmic diversity in the content of religious belief, number and identity of deities, or types of practice. Rather, I’d like to consider why some individuals seem fervently devout while others seem devoid of any superstition.

This question informs the bigger issues of how religions arise and spread, wax and wane, and what effects they have on contemporary society. One popular idea holds that religious belief enhances trust and cooperation within societies. Congregations often take an interest in the welfare of their members, and of others outside the flock. And religious texts contain injunctions in favour of neighbourly love and against homicide, theft and greed.

For many, belief in an all-seeing deity acts to deter bad behaviour. Many genuinely struggle to understand how atheists might be “good without gods”. I wrote last year about a study showing that being reminded of secular police presence can erode much of the mistrust the devoutly religious feel against atheists. When the cops are on the job, believers lighten up.

If the chief function of religion is to establish and enforce cooperative behaviour, then perhaps religions flourished by building healthy, cooperative and fair societies? These societies, in turn, succeeded commercially and in competition with their neighbours. Leaving those neighbouring societies to adopt the successful religion or something similar, or to wither and succumb.

As prominent Evolutionary Psychologist and co-author of a new study (more on that later), Robert Kurzban writes:

Of course a link exists between religion and cooperation, if only insofar as members of organized Western religions really do tend to cooperate with their co-religionists. Members of religious organization cooperate in any number of ways, of course, from bake sales to fund renovations of the nave to cooperative child care to going on Crusades.

But scholars differ on the importance of cooperation. Where some studies support a link between religiosity and cooperative morality, many others fail to find such links. Perhaps other functions of religion act in equally, or more important ways?

Perhaps religion flourishes by influencing reproduction? Religious teachings often concern themselves – sometimes creepily so – with matters of sex, reproduction, parenting and family life. One need only keep half an eye on the U.S. Republican Party to see what I mean by ‘creepy’. But were aren’t immune to reproduction-fixated politicians here, are we Reverend Nile?

Perhaps religion functions to enhance reproductive success? The Abrahamic religions and some animistic African practises, for example, obsess about the certainty with which a father can know that the children his wives bear also inherit his DNA.

Religious doctrine about marriage, contraception, fertility and gender roles might serve to support parents, or at least to enhance fertility. Since the dawn of agriculture, which also spurred the rise of major religions, families and societies that have grown fast have tended to supplant their slower-growing neighbours. Religious practices that supported their flock to ‘go forth and multiply’ would have outpaced their less reproductively-obsessed competitors.

In 2008, Jason Weeden, Adam B. Cohen and Douglas Kenrick suggested that religious attendance in the U.S.A. is a form of reproductive support. In a sample of over 20,000 people, religious attendance trumped other moral issues, as well as well-known demographic correlates such as age and gender, as predictors of religiosity. They suggested that individual commitment to investing in having and raising children (as opposed to enjoying a freer and more varied sex life and family arrangements) spurs greater in religious attendance. And attendance promotes marriage, monogamy and high investment in child rearing on believers.

The U.S.A. is only one country, however, and a rather odd one at that. Two recent international studies have extended tests of the links between religion, cooperative morality and reproductive morality to much larger and more diverse samples of people.

First, in 2011, Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat showed that00089-9/abstract) cooperative morals such as ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’, ‘Cheating on taxes if you have a chance’ or ‘Married men/women having an affair’ correlated with religious devotion in a sample of over 200,000 adults from 87 countries (from the immense ‘World Values Survey’ database).

They found that:

  • Those who believed in deities were less likely to rate moral transgressions as justifiable than non-believers.
  • Those who believed in heaven / hell also held stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions.
  • Believers in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those whose belief centred on a deity as a Spirit or Life Force.

They interpreted this finding as support for the idea that religions enhance cooperation by imposing an idea of ‘supernatural monitoring’ and ‘fear of supernatural punishment’.

Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)
Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)

The brand-new paper, by Jason Weeden (again) and Kurzban used the same World Values Survey data, but split the moral transgressions into those that concerned cooperation (e.g., fare evasion, tax evasion, receiving stolen goods) and those that concerned sex and reproduction (e.g. affairs, abortion, contraception, premarital sex).

How subjects answered questions about transgressing cooperative morals still correlated with religiosity, but the correlation between religiosity and ‘reproductive morals’ was about four times as strong and far more consistent across countries. But tellingly, when both cooperative and reproductive attitudes were put into the same statistical model, the effect of the cooperative attitudes disappeared while the effect of reproductive attitudes remained intact. It seems that the forms of morality most directly related to religiosity concern reproduction rather than cooperation.

So, belief in all-knowing deities with the power to condemn you to hell seems to shape people’s attitudes to abortion and extra-marital activity. But it doesn’t make you less likely to fiddle your taxes or drive when you’ve had a drink too many.

This study adds to the emerging picture that religious institutions, practices and doctrines take their shape from human nature. That makes it no concidence that young people often stray from the flock during periods of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, and that many return when they start families. Savvy pastoralists know this, providing creches, mothers’ groups and Sunday schools, making it easy for young families to attend services.

And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that theocrats so often bang a ‘Family First’ drum.

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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