Early bird gets the sperm … to the egg

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Before morning has broken, and some time before blackbird has spoken, songbirds rise for sex. And a clever new experiment reveals just how important it is for male songbirds not to sleep in.

A great many species of songbirds nest in pairs, presenting to the world a facade of monogamy. Until the 1990’s, songbirds were rhapsodised by social conservatives as paragons of family values, mother and father working together faithfully to fledge their demanding chicks. Until new genetic technologies revealed that most socially monogamous birds were playing a lot of away games.

For a long time, ornithologists failed to spot the shennaniganising because most of it happens just before dawn, when even the hardiest birdo is still rubbing sleep from their eyes. That’s actually a bit unfair: ANU’s Professor Andrew Cockburn and his many collaborators have risen unspeakably early for decades to study Australia’s superb fairy wrens, revealing them to be Olympic medallists of extra-pair sex. Female wrens leave the nest before dawn, heading straight to males singing in the dawn chorus.

This kind of behaviour gives male birds two reasons to rise early: to prevent their social mate from mating with another male, and perhaps to get a little bit on the side from some other male’s social mate. European blue tit males who start singing early in the morning sire more chicks with other females, chicks he doesn’t have to raise because the female and her social mate do all the heavy lifting.

No wonder those Three Little Birds were cheerful when Bob Marley rose and smiled with the rising sun!

Consequences

But how do early and late risers do with their social mates? A team based at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, found an ingenious way to answer this question.

By inserting slow-release melatonin implants beneath the skin of free-living male Great Tits, just before the breeding season, they tweaked the birds’ circadian rhythms. The body releases the hormone melatonin at night, and animal circadian activity patterns are cued by melatonin levels. Nocturnal animals are stirred into activity and dirurnal animals to sleep by rising melatonin.

Early rising male Great Tits can get the sexy stuff over with and spend the res of the day looking fabulous. Israel Gutiérrez/flickr
Early rising male Great Tits can get the sexy stuff over with and spend the res of the day looking fabulous. Israel Gutiérrez/flickr

Male great tits in the control group became active about 22 minutes before dawn, but those with melatonin implants took an extra ten minutes to get going. They were no less active during the day, and they stopped for the night at the same time, a few minutes before dusk.

But those extra ten minutes cost the males dearly. Twelve percent of chicks fledged from the nests of control males were sired by another male, but 42 percent of chicks in the nests of melatonin-implanted males had been conceived with another male’s sperm.

As an early riser, I’d like to claim victory for the early birds at this point. But of course I can’t. For humans, Sex at Dawn remains niche. Many even prefer to rise early for bird watching.

The night time is where the action is for our species. Night owls tend to be more extrovert, novelty-seeking, and night-owl men (but not women) report having more sexual partners. Night-owls are more likely than early risers to be single and open to short-term commitment-free sex. Being a night owl is associated with risk-taking in women on a levels similar to males (both night-owls and early risers). Risk-taking predicts short-term sexual behaviour, suggesting that female night owls might be especially oriented toward sex.

Interesting, it’s true, but not yet the basis for any firm prescriptions. Unless you’re Charlotte Alter writing at Time Magazine. Anybody spot the implicit bias and rampant earlybirdophobia?

Women who stay up late are more likely to get laid, but less likely to get married than women who get up early to do a sun salutation or whatever.

Whatever indeed!

Up all night to get lucky? Thank you Daft Punk!

The Conversation

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

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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.
Read the original article.

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.
Read the original article.

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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Fear not the hipster beard: it too shall pass

If you haven’t been outdoors in a few years, you might not have noticed that beards are back. Back in such a big way that apparently many New York hipsters are paying north of US$8,000 for “facial hair transplants” to embellish their patchy beards.

While the hipster subculture appears to be ground zero for the latest swerve toward beardedness, men who would not be seen dead in skinny jeans or thrift-shop cardigans are letting the whiskers grow in a way that hasn’t been fashionable for decades.

Why are beards sprouting from the unlikeliest faces? And is there anything that might make them stop?

The advantage of rarity

Today in Biology Letters we provide experimental insights into why beard fashions come and go, and why there is no single optimum pattern of facial hair. By we, I mean my former Honours student Zinnia Janif, my colleague and Zinnia’s co-supervisor Dr Barnaby Dixson and me.

We speculated that a phenomenon called “negative frequency dependence” (NFD) might help explain diversity in facial hair patterns. Negative frequency dependence simply means that rare traits enjoy an advantage.

In evolutionary genetics, NFD selection is an important force, favouring rare genetic alleles over more common ones. In guppies, for example, males bearing rare combinations of coloured spots are both less likely to be preyed on and more likely to gain matings in the wild. So a rare colour pattern can spread very rapidly until it becomes so common it attracts attention from predatory fish and starts looking like old hat to female guppies.

A sample of male guppies, caught from Alligator Creek, North Queensland, where they occur ferally. The size and placement of colour spots in male guppies is among the most genetically variable traits yet studied.
Rob Brooks

The selective advantages enjoyed by rare colour patterns explain why guppy colour patterns are among the most genetically variable traits yet studied. Could more subtle forms of NFD selection explain why so much genetic variation persists in most traits, even though natural selection is expected to remove genetic variation by eliminating “bad” genes. Under NFD, “good” or “bad” depends on how common the gene is.

What if, we speculated, rarity also operated in the world of fashion? In this case, what if rare patterns of facial hair enjoy an advantage purely on account of their rarity?

Experiment

To test this idea we set up a simple experiment using a suite of photographs of 36 men. Each man had been photographed when clean-shaven, with five days of growth (we call this light stubble), 10 days of growth (heavy stubble) and at least four weeks of untrimmed growth (full beard).

One subject displaying the four levels of beard: clean shaven, five-day growth, 10-day growth and full beard.
Barnaby Dixson

Subjects, recruited via our research group webpage (where we are always seeking subjects and Facebook – thanks IFLS for the traffic), each rated 36 faces – one of each man. Over the first 24 faces we manipulated the rarity of beard types. Subjects either saw all 24 men clean shaven, all 24 with full beards, or six men from each of the four levels of beardedness.

We then analysed how subjects rated the same – last – 12 pictures comprising three from each beard level. In line with our prediction, when clean-shaven faces were rare (among the early 24 pictures) they enjoyed a significant premium in attractiveness ratings (in the last 12) over when they were common. And when full beards were rare or when the four levels of beardedness were evenly distributed, full beards enjoyed significantly higher attractiveness than when full beards were common. Five- and 10-day stubble did not really vary in attractiveness across the three treatments.

What this means is that, under experimental conditions at least, patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they are common. Whether this scales to more nuanced judgements in the more complex and varied real world remains to be seen. But it suggests that beard styles are likely to grow less attractive as they become more popular. And that innovative new styles may enjoy a premium while they are still rare.

Fashion and facial hair

Negative frequency dependent choices might well be an important ingredient in changing facial hair fashions. The current fad for facial hair is just the latest development in a long history.

Dwight E. Robinson went to the trouble of scoring the facial grooming of all men pictured in the London Illustrated News between 1842 and 1972. In the 1890s, more than 90% of men pictured had some form of facial hair, a figure that dropped to below 20% by 1970. Sideburns occupied the news in the mid-19th century, whereas full beards reigned from 1870 to 1900, only to be replaced by moustaches.

Negative frequency dependence might play a role early in an establishing fashion.

The New York Times reckons the current beard trend emerged among local hipsters in late 2005. I’m not sure the NYT would notice anything that happened or – heaven forbid – started outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. But suffice to say the current fashion has been almost a decade in the making.

Noveau-beard has been propelled along the way by various sportsmen, movie stars and musicians. But the fashion has now spread to the point where astute commentators reckon the tide of hipster cool has turned. When Buzzfeed breathlessly lists the “51 Hottest Hollywood Beards”, it’s time to seek higher ground to avoid the tsunami set off by the implosion of cool.

That is one way in which negative frequency dependence can work: when a fashion goes mainstream it loses the advantage of rarity. And so it begins to subside.

“Joaquin Phoenix is a Poser”. Graffiti stencil, New York City.
David Shankbone/ Flickr

Not everybody should grow a beard

Much of this discussion has concerned the attractiveness of beards. But although many hirsute men have formed the zealous conviction that their beards place them at an advantage with the ladies, evidence is far more equivocal.

Dixson’s previous research has shown that heavy stubble – a substantial growth that is well kept – is more attractive than clean shaven, light stubble or a full beard. And individual women vary in their tastes, some are pro, and others vehemently anti-whisker.

Far less ambiguously, beards tend to make those men who can grow them look more masculine. Hardly surprising, actually, given the ability to grow facial hair kicks in during puberty, marking the transition to manhood. The beard might be as much a signal to other men as it is to women, which might explain why so many warrior cultures grew resplendent beards, and why professional sports teams grow beards in playoff-time solidarity.

Female attraction to bearded men can arise due to the manly connotations of facial hair. Nicki Daniels certainly makes this point in her hilarious Open letter to bearded hipsters.

Unfortunately, you guys have turned it into a fashion statement. The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity. Sure it looks sexy, but whatcha got under there? There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks, and most of you can’t change a fucking tire.

If the messages signalled by growing facial hair are diminished when every man-boy over 20 is sporting a beard, that constitutes another way in which negative frequency dependent choice might work.

The reasons beards diminish in value when everyone is wearing them remain to be teased apart, but the fact that they do suggests that the hipster beard, like the handlebar moustache, the mutton chop and countless other fashions before them, will, in time, pass.


“Jimmy Niggles”, grew Australia’s highest-profile contemporary beard to raise awareness about melanoma. Now he’s looking to sell it for A$1million to support cancer research.
Tim Jones

P.S. Beard Season is coming up

You may already have encountered Jimmy Niggles (aka Scott Maggs) and friends who are raising awareness about melanoma – in honour of their mate Wes who lost his life to melanoma at age 26 – through their Beard Season campaign. Jimmy uses his resplendent beard to start conversations with strangers (and leverage considerable media interest) about the importance of having their skin checked. Jimmy is currently selling his beard for A$1 million in order to raise money for melanoma research.

Talk about a positive expression of contemporary masculinity.


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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A complex cocktail: alcohol, sex and cute monogamous mammals

Influencing the drinking patterns of others. Apart from being in a short, overly fussy glass and sporting a slice of lemon rather than a lime, the good thing about these gins and tonics is they were made by somebody else. And so I’m not complaining. Source: cyclonebill/Flickr
Influencing the drinking patterns of others. Apart from being in a short, overly fussy glass and sporting a slice of lemon rather than a lime, the good thing about these gins and tonics is they were made by somebody else. And so I’m not complaining.
Source: cyclonebill/Flickr

How does alcohol consumption affect romantic life? Let me count the ways.

If popular advertising is to be believed, the consumption of high-end spirits almost guarantees a steady variety of glamorous amour. I was always surprised that James Bond – before Daniel Craig – opted to take his vodka martinis shaken rather than stirred. Bond was never short of anyone to stir his martinis.

From Dutch courage to a shared glass of champers to drunken would-rather-never-remember sex, alcohol’s tendency to reduce our inhibitions has changed the way drinkers meet and mate. But drinking is also a cause and a consequence of relationship breakdowns and considerable associated misery.

Which is why I’m fascinated to see how the world’s media covers a paper out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the US (PNAS). It has an irresistible combination of clickbait-ready elements: a cute small mammal, booze and serious questions about monogamy.

The first element, the cute mammal, is the prairie vole, poster-child for wishful thinking anthropomorphising about monogamy and the power of love. Male-female pairs form long-lasting bonds, sleeping together, grooming one another and raising pups together.

The prairie vole looks even more virtuous alongside its shadier close relative, the montane vole, which tends to mate promiscuously and form no such pair bonds. Which means comparisons of the two species, from ecology to the molecular biology of receptors on the brain, can help resolve the mechanisms involved in prairie vole monogamy.

Early work on these species implicated the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin. Block their release in prairie voles, and they come over all promiscuous – just like montane voles. And it turns out the reward centres of prairie vole brains bustle with receptors for these hormones, but montane vole brains don’t. Decades of work on these closely related vole species have resolved, in considerable detail, the brain regions, receptors and molecules involved in regulating prairie voles’ much-admired mostly monogamous ways. Last June even saw the 21st century’s dark magic – epigenetics – implicated in understanding the neuroscience of how prairie voles “fall in love”.

But like so many mythologised monogamous relationships, a dark secret stalks the prairie vole love story. Because the vole has a bit of a drinking problem.

Not only do voles “self-administer” in much the same way that I do when I mix a gin and tonic, they can also “influence the drinking patterns of a social partner” in exactly the same way I do when I make one for a friend or beloved. But instead of the taste sensation of Hendricks, tonic and a quarter lime, the little fuzzies opt for a 1:10 mix of ethanol and water. They prefer it to plain water.

With an eye for a compelling study, Allison M.J. Anacker and colleagues saw an opportunity to study how self-administered alcohol consumption affects social bonding and the neural mechanisms by which prairie voles form monogamous couples. The effects of alcohol, it turns out, differed between female and male prairie voles.

Huddling up together is a reliable predictor that a couple of voles are likely to mate. Male voles that drank alcohol during a period of cohabitation were as likely to huddle up with a strange female as with a sexually receptive partner. Males who drank only water strongly preferred the partner animal over a strange female. Alcohol, it seems, disrupted the males’ tendency to behave like monogamous paragons of pair-bonded virtue.

Female voles that had been drinking alcohol, on the other hand, grew slightly more likely to huddle up to their partner and not a strange male. It seems that alcohol might enhance female pair-bonding at the same time as diminishing the male commitment to pair-bonding.

Detailed study of the voles’ behaviour as well as, eventually, their brains, revealed that alcohol directly affected the brain structures responsible for pair bonding rather than exerting indirect effects by causing drowsiness or altering levels of aggression. Alcohol, drunk during cohabitation with a potential mate, seems to affect male and female brains and behaviour differently.

Of course humans aren’t voles. Deciding how much to infer about human behaviour from a study on some other organism always presents a tricky challenge. It would be far too much to infer that drinking influences human pair-bonding in exactly the same way as it does for voles. But it would be ignorant to imagine that voles can teach us nothing of value here.

Insights from voles have already led to intriguing findings about the roles of vasopressin, oxytocin and their receptors in human commitment to their romantic partners and families. Men with a particular form of the vasopressin receptor gene, for example, exhibit a suite of traits that suggest they don’t form the same deep pair bonds that other men form: they make less committed partners, suffer from more marriage problems, are more likely to be unfaithful mates and, as a result, their relationships don’t last as long.

Alcohol inhabits a prominent yet complex place in the social and sexual lives of many adults. It can enhance bonding, ease courtship and foster closeness. And it can both moderate and cause stress, dominance/control issues and violence. The issues surrounding alcohol are so important, and so pervasive, that they should not be oversimplified or narrowly construed.

For me the most interesting thing about the vole study is the sex-specific way in which alcohol influenced pair bonding and behaviour. The study of sex differences in brain anatomy and function is an area replete with controversy and contesting ideological claims. Here is an area in which the study of sex differences can transcend simplistic ideological bickering about sexism and gender-free wishful thinking. Surely understanding the ways in which environments, genes and brains interact – over questions as socially pressing and consequential as alcohol and family function – could potentially be harnessed to great effect.

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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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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Why the masculine face? Genetic evidence reveals drawbacks of hyper-masculine features

Miranda Kerr’s face typifies the properties of feminine youthfulness, including a short face, small chin, thick lips and small brow. Source: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Commons
Miranda Kerr’s face typifies the properties of feminine youthfulness, including a short face, small chin, thick lips and small brow. Source: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Commons

Studying sex differences seldom gets boring. While the origins of differences in behaviour and cognition remain fiercely – and quite rightly – disputed, we don’t sweat quite as much about why women and men differ in size and strength. The Darwinian process of sexual selection, in which genes that improve an individual’s reproductive success get inherited by the fruits of that reproduction, does a good job explaining sexual dimorphism (male-female differences) in these traits.

For most of our evolutionary past, bigger men fended off rivals for female attention and out-competed other men to secure status and resources that made them useful contributors to a family. These advantages offset the energetic costs and higher disease risk of building a bigger body. But what of other manly features? What use is masculine hairiness? Or those features that tend to distinguish male from female faces.

Like many other traits, from height to interest in the affairs of the sisters Kardashian, facial features differ between women and men, on average, but there is much overlap between the sexes. Using just the distances between ‘landmark’ features, the differences between masculine and feminine faces come down to complex multivariate vectors, but features like brow prominence, chin size and lip thickness play a big part.

Women and men both rate female faces bearing typically feminine features as more attractive than female faces with more masculine combinations of traits. Which might explain why Miranda Kerr’s full-lipped, round-faced, small-chinned visage seems to be everywhere these days.

So it would be reasonable to predict that lantern-jawed, Neanderthal-browed men at the far-masculine end of the facial distribution would be sought-after by women. But reality is far more varied and interesting.

Women don’t usually find masculine faces more attractive than more feminine male faces. For every Javier Bardem or Josh Brolin, there’s an Orlando Bloom or Zac Efron down the girly end of the man-tinuum. More studies report an overall preference for ‘feminine’ male faces than for ‘masculine’ ones.

Javier Bardem’s prominent cheeks, large brows and jaw give his face an exaggerated masculinity. Georges Biard, Wikimedia Commons
Javier Bardem’s prominent cheeks, large brows and jaw give his face an exaggerated masculinity. Georges Biard, Wikimedia Commons

It seems that women vary in how attractive they find masculine faces. Women at the fertile peak of their cycle favour more masculine faces, or at least less-feminine ones, than women not at the fertile peak or on the pill. Women who rate their own partners as highly masculine, or who describe their ideal partners as highly masculine, prefer more masculine faces in experiments. And women contemplating once-off sex or infidelity are keener on masculine-looking men.

The prevailing view in evolutionary psychology is that highly masculine men make great sperm donors but not necessarily awesome partners and fathers. First the downside: highly masculine men are less committed as fathers and partners, less cooperative, more sensation-seeking in outlook and more likely to seek short-term sexual encounters than less-masculine looking men. These downsides of pairing with a masculine man are thought to result from testosterone’s effects on behaviour.

While low-T, less-masculine guys might make better long-term partners, there might be benefits of a fleeting attraction, at peak fertility, to manly men if they are more likely to sire genetically well-endowed kids. It’s an idea bolstered by the findings that women living in countries with lots of disease prefer faces of more masculine-looking men. As do women primed with images of body fluids, skin lesions and other cues of disease. Developing highly masculine features takes plenty of testosterone, an immunosuppressing hormone. Which means only those with the best immune genes can afford to be taxed with high-T levels in puberty. Or so the story goes.

This is one of those ideas with prurient appeal, but patchy evidence. It’s morphing into what my UNSW colleague Angela Moles calls a ‘Zombie Idea’: compelling and considered self-evidently true by many, but not actually that well supported. Every link, from the attractiveness of masculine facial features to the immunosuppressive nature of testosterone to the claim that masculine-looking men have good immunity genes is contested. We don’t know how big the genetic benefits to children might be, much less whether they can offset the costs to a woman of mating with a highly masculine man.

New kinds of evidence

Only with new kinds of evidence can this complex question be more rigorously tested. And such new evidence has emerged, in the form of a paper in Psychological Science by Anthony J. Lee, Brendan Zietsch* and collaborators.

From an exhaustive suite of measures taken from photographs of teenaged identical and non-identical twins and their non-twin siblings, Lee dissected the extent to which variation in facial masculinity-femininity is due to genetic variation. Interestingly, around half the variation in both male and female facial masculinity could be attributed to additive genetic variation. This is the kind of variation on which the idea of “gene shopping” for genetically superior mates depends.

The extensive genetic variation in masculinity makes more plausible the idea that choosing to mate with a masculine man can result in more attractive offspring. But the genes that made a male face more masculine did not make it more attractive. Worse, these same genes made female faces more masculine and thus less attractive. Families that make manly-looking sons tend also to make masculine-looking daughters.

Overall, this paper deals a substantial blow to the idea that masculine men make good genetic sires. Of course, the genes that confer masculinity on both sons and daughters might have other positive effects, including but not limited to improved immunity. That remains to be assessed, hopefully with the same kind of quantitative genetic evidence.

So, why the manly face?

The evidence that masculine faces predict other testosterone-dependent traits typically associated with men suggests the strong action of sexual selection, but the evidence that female mate choice drives that sexual selection is far from settled. Perhaps masculine looks, like size, are more about signalling to other men. It would be better, for the average dude, not to mess with a manly looking man in a tussle or a fight in just the same way he’d avoid a tall, muscular opponent.

Women’s varied and subtle preferences for masculine looks might be a response to the upside of having a mate who is competitive and intimidating toward other men. Some collaborators and I have shown that those countries where disease is rife and women prefer more masculine men are also characterised by high income inequality – a driver of man-on-man competition and violence. Manly, competitive men might have been better providers and defenders throughout a history more violent and competitive that suburban life is today.

Much about the variable preference for manliness and for bad boys remains to be explained. Much, I fear, might be inexplicable. Like the Tumblr “Hot and Busted” of good-looking arrest mugshots. Or the FreeJahar teens who profess to love the alleged Boston Bomber. But none of it is boring.


Disclosure: I have collaborated with Lee and Zietsch on studies of attractiveness unrelated to this new paper.

Bonus: Is this what the Village People were singing about in “Macho Man”?

Macho Man, one of the Village People’s great international nerve-touchers

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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Praying for a Silent Night: Rage against the Christmas Music Machine

This article (or something resembling it – could not resist the urge to tweak) first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 20 December 2011 under the heading “Praying for a real silent night this Christmas“, and later here under “Raging Against the Christmas Music Machine“.

I was reminded of it by the news, on Twitter, yesterday that R. Kelly has signalled his intention to make an album of “Love-Making” Holiday Music for the 2014 Festive Season. Working title: “12 Nights of Christmas”, of course. I cannot imagine the toe-curling horror of this project, particularly when ’12 Nights’ falls into the hands of misanthropic retail managers. Apparently R says “But I don’t believe in just putting out a Christmas album just to sell records”. Now, I would have thought that was the only possible reason.

I’m heading overseas with the family to escape the usual Christmas horror this year. But I today I noticed many hypertensive drivers queueing in 34 degree heat to get into shopping centres where they can listen to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sing about snow, and reindeer and other shit that doesn’t really work here in the Southern Hemisphere. I thought it time to republish my fulmination against Christmas Music. If it reaches one receptive soul, I’ll consider my work done. You can thank me later.

Boney M. Who grew very wealthy from inflicting serious shopping-mall related damage.

Thanks to the sentimental Charles Dickens and the fabulous Dr Seuss, we have words in English for those who dare to question any facet of the Christmas spirit: Scrooges and Grinches. Childish name-calling seems the only defence against those of us who dodge hall-decking and dissent from artificial Yuletide cheer.

Well, this year I’m reclaiming those rights. Consider me Professor Scrooge McGrinch.

There is plenty to loathe about Christmas; from the tedious rounds of workplace parties, to the obscene garbage we buy as gifts, to the cynical attempts by Christians to hijack the whole fiesta for their own religious ends. (And I’m not just talking about Sarah Palin’s imaginary ‘War on Christmas’).

I love Christmas lights, and my house has been seen from the International Space Station. I’m happy to put up with greedy, materialistic kids, and with months of family intrigue over whether we are going full-turkey or cold-seafood this year (inevitably, despite the near paralysing suspense, it always ends up being a bit of both). I even laugh when discount warehouse staff intrude into traffic, like Johannesburg hijackers, offering a seven-metre inflatable Santa for $29.95. But one feature of Christmas automatically induces a month-long migraine: the music.

Once, when I was 18, I took a trip on Vancouver’s ”Carols Boat”, a two-hour-long harbour trip that cemented two rules by which I have since lived: never attend a social occasion on a boat (you can’t get off), and never go carolling. I survived because the wintry beauty of Vancouver’s light-bedecked mansions more than compensated for the carols rasping through the boat’s speakers. The carolers on my boat lost conviction after about 15 minutes.

Continue reading Praying for a Silent Night: Rage against the Christmas Music Machine

The selfie, the tummy and the act of war: a dispatch from the battle over female attractiveness and sexuality

When is a selfie a selfie? And when does it become act of war?

Over at mamamia.com, Bec Sparrow has the answer. When the selfie is of six-packing fitness-blogging Norwegian Caroline Berg Eriksen posing in tiny underwear four days after giving birth, it’s an act of war.

Caroline Berg Eriksen’s infamous selfie, posted four short days post-partum. Instagram
Caroline Berg Eriksen’s infamous selfie, posted four short days post-partum. Instagram

Sparrow recognises the hostile intent behind Eriksen’s Instagram posting. What she does not seem to recognise quite as clearly is that her exasperated article is another act in the same war. And that for all their salvos against body-image stereotypes and everything having to be sexy, sites like mamamia.com are part of the fight they claim to be trying to end. A war in which women are the main combatants and the principal casualties.

Much thinking about sexism and the judgments people make about women’s bodies implicates men and the male gaze. Women are objectified by men who desire them, or by women who seek to emulate them and, in turn, be desired.

Challenging men’s behaviour has helped break down objectification. But the very real oppression many women feel in the face of wall-to-wall sexy images and – especially – improbably skinny actresses, celebrities and models remains. Some even claim it is getting worse.

Perhaps we need a transfusion of new ideas to help make sense of the mess? You may not be surprised to learn that I think I know just where to go: evolutionary biology.

Choice and competition

Evolutionary biologists study, among other things, how sexy traits evolve by a process called sexual selection. That’s just a form of natural selection in which traits that give an individual a mating advantage tend to be retained and embellished. Why? Because those individuals who enjoy mating advantages become the parents of the next generation, bequeathing their sexy genes to their offspring.

Sexual selection happens in either of two ways: members of one sex choosing among members of the other, or members of one sex competing with one another. Biologists have long tended to concentrate on competition among males (think of antelope clashing with their horns) and of females choosing the most decorative males (think dowdy bird-of-paradise hens being wooed by the most extravagantly plumed cock).

The study of human mate choice has also paid much more attention to competitive males and choosy females than the reverse. Although we’ve known for some time that both women and men choose their mates, and that women also compete with one another for good mates and for resources.

Competition among women is enjoying a surge of attention right now. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London recently hosted a special issue on female competition and aggression, with some of the highlights profiled in the New York Times. And The Atlantic got involved too, with a piece provocatively titled The Evolution of Bitchiness.

According to the New York Times article:

Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.

Perhaps the most important development in this area comes from psychologist Roy Baumeister and an assortment of his collaborators who have pushed a body of ideas they call “sexual economics”. Pregnancy, menstruation and menopause mean that most women spend fewer days (across their lifetimes) willing and able to engage in sex than most men do. As a result, at any time there are more men than women participating in the “market place”. As a result, sex becomes by-and-large a commodity supplied by women and demanded by men.

Likewise, in most societies men have more access to the resources families use to raise their children. The truer this is, the more incentive women have to control the supply of sex, and to exchange it for male-controlled resources. Women get the best “price” for sex when they restrict supply. Which is why, Baumeister and his collaborator Jean Twenge argue that women, rather than men, are the main culprits when it comes to suppressing female sexuality. They marshall much circumstantial evidence that women drive those customs that keep other women from behaving promiscuously, from slut-shaming, to criticising other women’s bodies and dress-sense, to female genital mutilation.

I can never bring myself to trust black-and-white answers to tricky social and political questions. I’ve considered Baumeister and Twenge’s paper at some length, and their argument is convincing. But I’m also dubious that the entire blame for suppressing female sexuality and judgments of women’s appearances can be shifted from men to women. The key idea that new evolutionary and economic thinking has brought to the study of cultural phenomena like the suppression of female sexuality and the incentives to appear attractive is that female-female competition is an important and long-ignored piece of the puzzle.

And my regular peeks at Mamamia.com convince me that columnists like Bec Sparrow and Mia Freedman are far from passive correspondents in the war over women’s bodies and their sexualities. They are combatants.

Madonna-bloggers and whores

Bec Sparrow’s outrage over the 4-days postpartum selfie was, in my opinion, raw and righteous. Carrying a baby to term and giving birth imposes profound demands on a mother’s body. The last thing any new mother needs, amid a fog of sleep-deprivation, isolation, mastitis and post-natal depression is the sense that returning to her pre-baby size and shape should be first thing on her to-do list.

Sparrow has a point when she fumes “I’m beginning to feel like women posting post-labour photos of themselves is the equivalent of men flopping out their johnsons to see whose is the biggest”. Only I don’t know many men who do that.

But I get the metaphor.

Bec Sparrow would rather know how the new mother is feeling:

Are you coping okay? How are you feeling about being a mum? How are you feeling about your new baby? Connected? Disconnected? Nothing? Are you feeling traumatised about your labour? Did you end up with or choose to have a cesar (sic)? Has your milk come in? Having breastfeeding issues? Wanting to bottle feed but feeling alone? Wanting to cry all the time for no particular reason?

But then I’m not so sure that her readers would find that quite as fascinating. In fact, “minor web celebrity discusses how she feels post-partum” doesn’t make much of a story now, does it?

What does get under the skin of Mamamia readers – a very maternal demographic – is a piece fulminating over how sexy post-baby pictures, be they in glossy magazines or on Instagram, are a sign of all that is wrong in the world. Even better if, at the same time, those articles implicitly criticise the flat-bellied subject’s maternal skills.

Sparrow’s Eriksen piece reminded me of an article by Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman herself, not six weeks ago, criticising a selfie by an altogether more famous new mum. With Kim Kardashian: Are you a mother or a porn star?, Mia joined the on-line rush for the slut-shaming cover of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. Either you’re a good mommy or the shameless strumpet who got famous because of a strategic sex-tape.

The Kim Kardashian selfie that got the Internet and Mia Freedman all animated. Source: Instagram
The Kim Kardashian selfie that got the Internet and Mia Freedman all animated. Source: Instagram

You won’t get a defence of the sisters Kardashian from me. And yet I wonder about the purpose of outrage at those women whose career trajectory has been propelled by sexy images when they dare to try regain that trajectory instead of (or as well as) joining a play-group. Is this kind of story likely to affirm readers who are grappling with the challenges of motherhood? Will it genuinely dampen the intensity of competition among women to be sexy?

What if the outrage at mothers who have the temerity to flaunt their sexiness is a symptom of sexual competition itself? Make it impossible to reconcile sexy and “new mother” and you’ll never have to feel inferior at mother’s group again.

Glamour magazines and websites seem awfully preoccupied with “having it all”. They gush about celebrity couples too surgically enhanced and PR-airbrushed to ever be attainable role models, about those couples’ massive engagement rings, faux-mantic proposals and awkwardly-named babies. Mamamia.com hardly opted out of the psuedo-news of one Kim Kardashian’s engagement to one Kanye West.

Nearly everything in a magazine like Cleo or Cosmo, or a website like Mamamia.com fuels the competition among women: to be hot, to be thin, to be well-dressed, to keep an impeccable home, to succeed in a career, to marry a man wealthier and more successful than yourself and – the cherry on the top – to be an unimpeachable mother.

That is not to engage in the hollow pursuit of media-blaming. The acts of war by Mesdames Eriksen and Kardashian were self-published social media shots. And the thousands of individuals, mostly women, who retweeted or commented on the pictures committed small foot-soldierly acts of war too. As did the many columnists, including Sparrow and Freedman, and their commenters in turn. The competition among women to make the best life for themselves, with male (and female) partners and colleagues who value looks, and wealth and success is not going to disappear any time soon.

Rhapsodising about fairytale engagements, red-carpet gowns, bikini bodies, perfect mommies and the like only creates the ecosystem in which the 4-day-post-baby-selfie can thrive. And so, when a mother tries to be the woman she was – be it by flaunting her sexiness or returning to her career – there seem to be legions of other mothers willing to block her path to the mythical land of having-it-all.

It’s not my place to take sides here*. From where I view it, evolved urges to compete with sexual rivals operate mostly beneath any deliberate intent. But they can be stoked or doused. And publishers – especially ones who want to opt out of harmful stereotyping – should be aware of which one they are doing.

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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