- Melinda Gates wrote a powerful piece for CNN on the occasion of the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur. Empowered women make nations strong.
- The usually spot-on Hugo Schwyzer gets it dead wrong in the Atlantic: “What if Men Stopped Chasing Much Younger Women?” I’m looking to post a piece soon, maybe in The Conversation about where Hugo goes wrong.
- I’m afraid Linda Peach is not even wrong with this piece in the Conversation about the way young women are swooning over Boston bombing suspect Dzokhar Tsarnaev: One day my prince will bomb: why teenage girls love a killer. Reverting to Social Role Theory and Ambivalent Sexism theory, she falls for the temptation to blame “media”, “society” and “romantic fantasies of heroes”, throwing biology out the window just when it could have been really useful.
- On a more positive note, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into a contribution that seriously consideres how environment and biology interact: Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary neurodevelopmental theory. H/T Evolution & Medicine Review.
- Adrian Raine gave a wonderful interview to Radio National’s Lynne Malcolm about his new book The Anatomy of Violence. He advocates neurocriminology, a mix of social and biological (especially neurobiological) approaches to understanding criminal behaviour. And his explanations of how biology and environment interact are as good as any I have heard.
“This,” as I believe it is now fashionable to say, “is actually a thing.”
Where by this I mean Sexcereal. A his and hers line of wholefood cereals that tout themselves as
the world’s first all-natural, GMO-free gender-based breakfast cereal, formulated by a team of nutrition and quality-control professionals. And as far as we know, it is also the first food product to go viral!
Tip of the hat to Dr Michael Kasumovic for bringing this to my attention. It’s us and our colleagues giggling and punning away for a few weeks now.
“Can a gender-based wholefood also be low in trans-fats?”
“Is it high in irony?”
This product represents so much of what is wrong about the world in general, and modern ideas about nutrition in particular. So much so that I can only gape, awestruck at the whole confection, assembled to part the gullible and desperate from their cash (online orders cost about $10 Canadian per 300g, before shipping costs).
First, it builds a foundation of expertise, talent and passion:
To create the two formulas I enlisted the help of a fantastic team of nutritional and quality control experts. Jane Durst Pulkys, Tim Lance, Ariel Chen and Joy McNamara were those experts and their talent and passion for the job comes through in every one of the 3-tablespoon serving [sic] you eat.
These experts throw in a handful of ingredients that sound like they could be potent aphrodisiacs:
Ingredients include maca, camu camu, black sesame seeds, ginger, cocoa beans and goji berries to create a powerhouse cereal with your sexual health in mind, an essential facet to our overall well-being.
Then the branding savants slap on a layer of 1970s style sexual politics:
Is there a better way to start your day?
Well yes, there is, actually. By getting on the job. The clear implication being that cereal consumers might soon enjoy that option a little more often.
I know, in drawing attention to this product, I’m contributing to the senseless memetics of its ‘viral’ marketing. Although not sure if calling one’s product “the first food product to go viral” is going to play well with all potential customers.
Him, her, sex, food
Should we entertain, even for a moment, Sexcereal’s hype about being designed precisely to deliver sexual health benefits? Or that it is tailored to the apparently self-evident ‘different needs’ of women and men? Unfortunately their website is long on narrative and short on real evidence.
One rolling graphic claims the “hers” cereal is a great source of iron and fibre, tastes great and “supports hormonal balance”. The “his” product also gets ticks for iron, fibre and taste. It’s only stated point of difference is that it “supports testosterone”. Can this be the big endocrine-nutritional breakthrough we’ve been waiting for? Men need help with their T, while women need to be supported so their hormones (presumably including T) don’t get imbalanced.
Translation: in this crazy modern world, men need a cereal that keeps them manly, and women need to eat something that prevents them from getting all topsy-turvy hormonal.
A look at the “nutritional information” on the his and hers cereals doesn’t give too much away about which nutrients are delivering the desperately-needed sex-specific benefits. I’m no nutritionist, but these tables look pretty close to indistinguishable.
Which leaves me wondering about the point of the exercise. While we learn that women and men are different, with different nutritional needs, we never learn what these differences are. So I’m busting to learn what bee pollen, black sesame, camu camu, maca, chia seeds, goji berries and cacao nibs do for a man. And what women gain from cranberries, sunflower (petals? seeds?), almonds, flax seeds and ginger.
And most of all, if I mistakenly eat the wrong cereal, will I find myself suffering too much hormonal balance. Or would a woman who ate the “his” cereal have such good testosterone support that she’ll have to pee standing up?
I have no problem with the idea that people may benefit from tailoring their diets to suit their circumstances and genotype. And sex differences could be among the most dramatic sources of variation in nutritional needs. For example, pregnant women and women who plan on becoming pregnant need more folate than other adults.
I’m even open to the idea that women and men might need to eat different amounts of macronutrients. That is certainly the case in many animals, including the crickets we study in our lab. Males and females invest different kinds of resources in reproduction and so their needs may be quite different.
But the idea that libido and sexual health can be enhanced in sex-specific ways by tailored, expensive whole foods stretches credulity. It looks to me like cynical sex-sells with a veneer of pseudoscience. Almost as dodgy as the so-called MILF Diet (and if you want to ask what MILF stands for, try to suppress the urge).
Nutrition facts wielded by the people selling you the product should always be treated with extreme caution. Such “facts” can range from encouragement to go long on expensive rubbish, as much of the current fad for Superfoods appears to do, to the downright harmful, like this convoluted claim that Angelina Jolie could have averted breast cancer by diet alone.
We should apply double the usual dose of scepticism to claims that particular foods or nutrient supplements will improve our sex lives. I am reminded of the very reason we have breakfast cereal at all. Dr John Harvey Kellogg, the notorious prude and equally notorious quack, invented the cornflake in order to suppress the libido. An insipid vegetarian brekkie, taken with cold milk, was his prescription for a much-needed defusing of sexual shenanniganising and self-pollution.
Sales of cornflakes and other equally insipid cereals over the last century must number in the tens of billions. But they were nowhere near enough to prevent sex and masturbation from shedding a great many taboos. Even among avid cereal eaters.
Why would an otherwise healthy animal stop reproducing? Natural selection usually favours genes that elevate reproductive success because the very act of reproduction is how genes proliferate. So adaptations that involve self-limited reproduction call for unusual evolutionary explanations.
Sterile worker ants and honey bees present one such unusual adaptation. These females forego any chance to reproduce so that they can help their sisters become queens. Insect sociobiologists have shown just how special the evolution of sterile workers is. The massive genetic lottery win that comes when a sister ascends to head a hive of her own more than compensates the worker for her life of sterile devotion.
But human women also stop reproducing around their late 40s. Menopause remains among the most hotly debated products of human evolution. I have written here before about the competing theories. And earlier this month Dyani Lewis wrote a very clear overview of the ideas surrounding the evolution of menopause.
But today I’d like to consider a computer simulation model published last Friday in PLOS Computational Biology. In the breathless style so beloved of journal publicity departments, the press release quotes author Rama Singh as saying:
Menopause is believed to be unique to humans, but no one had yet been able to offer a satisfactory explanation for why it occurs.
Singh, together with McMaster University colleagues Richard A. Morton and Jonathan R. Stone argue that the reason menopause evolved was that older men preferred young women as mates. Their logic resembles that behind successful theories for the evolution of ageing: natural selection grows weaker on older cohorts, allowing late-acting mutations to accumulate. Likewise, when older women get left on the shelf, late-acting mutations that rob them of their fertility are allowed to accumulate.
The paper builds on an intriguing earlier model in which men’s ability to sire offspring late in life, and the fact that many wealthy and powerful men have done just that for millenia, can have the incidental consequence of prolonging female lifespan as well, by weeding out some of the late-acting mutations that would otherwise act after women have ceased reproducing. That idea has some merit for explaining why women live a long time after menopause, but it says nothing about why they stop reproducing in the first place.
The new model shows that genes that lower the fertility of older women (but not men) can accumulate. But they do so in a rather artificial situation: the genes that alter age-dependent survival affect both males and females the same. I will wage that if the researchers had allowed mutations to affect male and female survival independently, female survival would have waned at least as much as female reproduction did. I think the assumptions of this model were artificially disposed to getting the observed outcome.
That’s not to say the idea lacks merit. I’m just not convinced that the study lives up to the press-release hype. Hype, I might add, that has seen more cut-and-paste action in the print and electronic media than a Year Three school project. Complete with stock images of ageing male celebrities stepping out with twenty-something “latest” girlfriends. Check out the Sunlight Foundation’s Churnalism, analysis of the Guardian’s version of the story.
In fact, my go-to source for garbled science news, The Daily Mail did a slightly better job than the Guardian and several other sites. They quote Oxford post-doc, Dr Maxwell Burton-Chellew, who didn’t mince his words, calling the study just ‘plain wrong’.
It seems to me infinitely more plausible and more consistent with decades of evidence that men’s preference for younger women evolved as a response to the declining fertility of older women, and not the other way around. That said, however, science doesn’t work by rejecting ideas on plausibility grounds alone. This new idea should be developed and considered more thoroughly, including the possibility of feedback loops between reproductive ageing and preferences for younger mates.
Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This is a new and, hopefully, regular kind of post. Shamelessly imitating Jason Collins’ excellent “Week of links” posts over at Evolving Economics.
I’ll list some news items and interesting reads I have encountered for the first time during the week. I will probably have tweeted most of these during the week.
- Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes. Helena Lee at the BBC News Magazine looks at the boxes of clothing and other baby-rearing supplies provided to expectant Finnish parents, and the positive effects this 75 year-old institution has had on Finnish parenting and childhood. Much, much better than Australia’s “baby bonus” handout.
- Are you racist? You might want to change your avatar. My good friend and collaborator, Michael Kasumovic, writes at The Conversation about how a short time ‘inhabiting’ a dark-skinned avatar can erode implicit assumptions about race. Michael tweets as both @MKasumovic and @TheEvolvedGamer.
- Vitamins: Stop Taking the Pills. Paul Offit at the Guardian takes a thorough look at vitamins and other dietary supplements, and suggests that most are not improving health or wellbeing and some, particularly vitamin megadoses, can cause substantial harm. I especially appreciate the considered take on the fad for antioxidants, and the nutrient industry’s narrative of a battle between good and evil.
- The Pew Research Center in the USA published a valuable report on the rise of “breadwinner moms”: mothers who are wither the sole parent or the higher-earning parent in American households with children. Numbers have risen from around 11 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 2013. This is exactly the kind of issue that polarises discussion and sends news outlets and websites buzzing. Jason Collins and I chimed in at the invitation of Robert Kadar, managing editor at Evolution: This View of Life magazine. We also use the occasion to mention the Cooperation & Conflict in the Family conference, next February.