Do a PhD with us at UNSW Sydney: Economic inequality as a driver of sexual competition and gendered traits

Could this PhD project explain Kimye? We reckon it could unlock this and other important mysteries.

This is an exceptional opportunity at UNSW Sydney for students interested in how evolved traits interact with economic circumstances to shape behaviour in contemporary societies.

Students may be trained in evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, economics or other disciplines.

This position is supported by the generous Scientia PhD Scholarship Scheme at UNSW Sydney, Australia. In addition to a stipend of $40K p.a. There is a $10k p.a. Travel allowance, and other opportunities for career development.

The supervisory team is:

Project Description

We propose to test the exciting idea that economic inequality among households also shapes mating competition, giving rise to many of the stark sex differences in dress, spending patterns, and mental and physical health that pervade societies. While wealthy Western countries have progressed steadily toward gender-equitable opportunities over the last century, differences between women and men in aggression, interests and the incidence of diseases like anxiety and depression have, paradoxically, increased. It is clear that ossified old ways of understanding gendered traits as either biologically essential o

r socially constructed have little to offer in terms of further understanding.

Our approach transcends old territorial boundaries, and promises a newer, better and more general way to understand gendered behaviours, including those implicated in harm to mental health, safety, and happiness. The work will involve both experimental psychological research and analysis of economic data. The project will be designed in collaboration between student and supervisors.

There may be opportunities for field work in Australia or the Pacific islands.

This is a highly competitive scheme, with excellent support, open to students from any country.

Interested students must express interest by 21 July (20 July in the Western hemisphere due to time differences). To learn more and to express interest visit the official UNSW page.

At the same time as you fill out the form, please email rob.brooks – at – unsw.edu.au a CV, academic transcript, and a few paragraphs on why you are interested int his project, plus any questions you have for us.

Up to 2 students will be asked to submit full applications in August.

There is also a lot more about the scheme at http://bit.ly/2sbUtJE

Gender equity can cause sex differences to grow bigger

1960 Le Lac des cygnes ballet - Jean-Paul Andreani and Claire Motte performing on stage at Opera de Paris.  Credit: Christjeudi10, Wikimedia commons
1960 Le Lac des cygnes ballet – Jean-Paul Andreani and Claire Motte performing on stage at Opera de Paris. Credit: Christjeudi10, Wikimedia commons

How do sex differences arise? Few questions animate as much disagreement and contention, in everyday society and in academic study. For as long as the question has been asked, the answers have fallen between two extremes: sex differences arise innately, or they come from social experience.

That same polarity defines much of the study of human behaviour and society, and has done since the ancient Greeks asked whether ideas arose innately (Rationalism) or from experience (Empiricism). The modern fault-line runs deepest between rationalist biology and empiricist socialisation.

Impossible as it might seem for any serious thinker, awake and aware and living in the current Century, to dismiss either biology or socialisation, you might be surprised. Dogmatism and ignorance still stifle the study of human behaviour, and the topics of gender and sex differences in particular. And the lay public is equally awash in tightly-held, but often flimsy ideas about how women and men come to differ, on average, in all sorts of traits.

The evidence is in: samples of women and men differ, on average, in a vast number of personality, emotional, behavioural, cognitive and attitudinal measures. Yes, the sexes overlap. And one cannot and should not rush to inferring anything about a person from the average properties of those who share the same genital configuration. But sex differences are present, found in many replicate studies, and often similar in magnitude across societies.

Rationalist biology holds that such differences have evolved. The combination of traits that made our male ancestors successful fathers differ from those that turned our female ancestors into successful mothers. This idea chimes with the repeated presence of so many sex differences across cultures, but the fact that the magnitude of the differences varies considerably among cultures suggests much more than biological determinism.

The Empiricist thinking that has dominated the study of gender in the social sciences for more than half a century holds that sex differences arise from extensive socialisation, and differences in the power that women and men hold and wield. This view brings us the notion that by ceasing to socialise boys and girls into stereotyped sex roles, and breaking down power inequities within societies, sex differences will diminish.

The idea that teaching, socialisation and structural change will progressively erode sex differences and gendered behaviour has a powerful hold. It underpins social interventions from “No Gender December” (a.k.a. the Christmastime war on pink toys) to the current Stop it at the Start campaign against domestic violence.

Stop it at the Start video, part of an Australian Government campaign to combat domestic violence against women.

A testable prediction

A recent book chapter by eminent evolutionary psychologist David P. Schmitt adds an interesting dimension, sure to be controversial, but also with considerable potential to rejuvenate debate. The book, The Evolution of Sexuality (Springer, editors Todd K Shackleford and Ranald D. Hansen), at US $139 will likely prove inaccesible to readers without access to an academic library.

Alice Eagly, Wendy Wood and Mary Johannesen-Schmidt, among the most persuasive advocates for the primacy of socialisation into sex roles, predicted that increasing gender equality would lead to “the demise of many sex differences”. That prediction seems so intuitive, so consistent with contemporary thinking about gender equity, that it hardly needs testing. But Schmitt didn’t think so. He recognised that not only should the idea be put to the test, but that there exists a wealth of data on cross-cultural on variation in personality, behavioural and other traits that could be matched with good measures of gender equity and sex role ideology.

Counter to the prediction of social role theory, in only 2 out of 28 traits examined by Schmitt did sex differences narrow as gender equity increased. In six traits, the sex difference remained stable, and in 20 traits it widened.

For example, women tend to score higher than men on personality tests for extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Gender equity tends to elevate all three of these traits, but it does so more in women, widening the average sex difference.

Likewise, men score higher than women for the “Dark Triad” traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy. Gender equity has the salutary effect of reducing each of these three rather nasty traits, but it does so more for women than for men, resulting in wider sex differences.

The two traits in which gender equity narrowed sex differences are instructive, too. Women are more likely than men to value resources and wealth in a mate. Gender equity reduces this preference, but does so more in women, narrowing the sex difference. And men tend to report a more unrestricted sociosexuality – fantasising about, attitudes toward and engaging in uncommitted sex – than women do. Sexuality grows less restricted with gender equity in both sexes, but more so in women, again narrowing the sex difference.

The narrowing of sex differences in preference for wealthy mates and sociosexuality are to be expected, and very much in line with the politics of sexual and domestic liberation. This is exactly what any observer of contemporary society would have expected, irrespective of the moral valence they give to the issues involved.

Many behavioural traits showed general changes for the better with increasing gender equity. Personalities take on more socially desirable forms. Couples emphasise love within their romantic relationships. Intimate partner violence declines. And rates of depression decrease. And yet the fact that sex differences in so many of those traits increased opens up considerable new space for empirical study, and for us to question dogma and doctine of all kinds about how sex differences arise.

This study is just a start. There remains some way to travel if we are to make stronger inferences about causation. But it is worth wrapping our head around the paradox that moves toward gender equity in opportunity, including the dismantling of patriarchal power structures, might, paradoxically, also widen sex differences.

Bohemian Like You, the Dandy Warhols.

The Conversation

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

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

How often does Donald Trump wash his hands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outbreak

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

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

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

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

Politicians should have clean hands
Politicians should have clean hands

The Hands of The Donald

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life’s short, have you had an affair?

Today, millions of very nervous adults are furtively checking sites like “Have I been Pwned” to check if their account details at Ashley Madison have been leaked. Others are checking if their partners or acquaintances had accounts. The hacking and subsequent release of data from the world’s biggest infidelity-focussed dating service continues to reverberate, provoking an interesting suite of ethical questions.

Unless you’ve confined your news intake to re-runs of Jarryd Hayne’s BIG MOMENT in a trial game for the 49ers, you will be well aware that a group calling themselves Impact Team hacked the systems of Avid Life Media (ALM), who operate a number of sex and dating websites. Impact Team threatened to release sensitive information about users unless ALM close down Ashley Madison, which specialises in connecting people looking to have extra-relationship affairs, and Established Men, which they argue is a “website for rich men to pay for sex”. Established Men, understandably, puts it a little more gently: “connecting young, beautiful women with interesting men”.

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

So much for the libertarian hacker stereotype. Impact Team are waging a moralist crusade against both the websites themselves, and the people whose extra-marital or transactional sex shennanigans the websites enable.

Neither website has been shut down and yesterday Impact Team uploaded information about over 30 million users, including their email addresses. Security experts quoted in news outlets seem to agree that the data dump is genuine.

The media coverage has varied from titillating attempts to dissect where the “cheating” hotspots are to the very real personal stories of spouses who’ve been busted. Sydney radio station NOVA even tried, and rather spectacularly failed, to turn it into edgy commercial radio, searching the database on behalf of callers. They very quickly learned how spectacularly bad their idea was when they found the husband of one of their callers was indeed subscribed to Ashley Madison.

Nobody wins here. The whole business reeks of weakness and failure. As Gaby Hinsliff put it in the Guardian,

it’s hard to decide which of the activities involved – cyber blackmail, building a business on wrecking marriages, or just good old-fashioned philandering – is least charming.

More than gossip

But some people seem bouyed by the whole business. I’m intrigued by the level of schadenfreude; so many people are relishing the slow implosion of Ashley Madison and the exposure of millions of people’s most embarrassing intimate details. What disappoints me most is how the exposure of 30 million people is being shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all view of sex and relationships. How this is all about “cheating”, and that infidelity means the same thing in every relationship.

We might not like to admit it to ourselves, but relationships differ enormously from one another. So do the reasons people have sex, both within and outside of committed relationships. Yes, a great many – probably most – Ashley Madison clients were furtively seeking extra sexual partners without the knowledge and consent of their long-term partners. And many did so despite their relationships being otherwise functional, productive and respectful. This kind of infidelity has its victims: the partners who remain at home, pouring their selves into the shared enterprise of coupledom, unaware that the other party isn’t matching their effort and commitment.

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

And yet nobody can properly evaluate another’s relationship from outside, much less 30 million relationships. The evolutionary sciences continue to show that humans have a marvellous capacity to form loving, cooperative relationships, to remain sexually faithful to one another, and to work hard to build both families and wealth. Marvellous as those relationships can be, profound as the love that binds us together might feel, not all relationships remain functional.

One of the less-explored dimensions of the Ashley Madison schamozzle is the fact that many people had quite defensible positions for looking outside their relationships. Their current relationships might be loveless, sexless, dysfunctional, exploitative or even abusive. They may be in the process of coming out to themselves, facing the daily dissonance of being gay in a straight marriage.

A great many people are trapped by economic circumstances and questions of child custody in hellish relationships. Who would deny those people the chance to connect with another, perhaps to find the courage or even the ally they need to escape, or perhaps to enjoy being loved, appreciated and getting properly laid?

How many people, whose names appeared on that database last night, had to go home to their controlling, jealous, or abusive partners? How many people, living straight lives, many in countries where homosexuality is illegal and harshly punished, were outed by Impact Team’s self-righteous moralism?

Beyond the many dysfunctional relationships from which affairs might offer respite or escape, the Ashley Madison affair forces us to confront even more uncomfortable realities about relationships. Even “a mommy and daddy who love each other very much” are likely to find that they cannot be everything one another needs. Our evolved capacity to be really quite good at monogamy has its limits. We have also evolved, thanks to our ancestors’ tastes for sexual intrigue, an exquisitely context-dependent capacity to throw off the shackles of monogamy when it suits us. It takes a spectacular denial of human nature to believe that life-long heterosexual monogamy represents some kind of social zenith and that deviations from this one true path represent deep aberrations.

On-line dating has imposed what economists call a “technological shock” on the mating market, reshaping how people meet, court and, ultimately, mate. Ashley Madison’s success, and the marketing genius behind it’s quasi-inspirational slogan (“Life’s short. Have an affair.”), reshaped the extra-couple mating market. And the realisation to which so many customers are waking today, that even a website set up to guarantee discretion in extracurricular hooking up is vulnerable to hacking and public shaming, will change the dynamics of sex once again.

I would be disappointed if the whole business turns into a witchhunt on “cheaters”, if we slide back toward the puritanism that had Hester Prynne wearing the Scarlet Letter. Perhaps we need to embrace the messier, more complex reality that sex does not equal love, and love does not always mean exclusively and forever. Our relationships are negotiated every day in the way we treat one another and accept our partners, and lovers, as they are, rather than packing them into the neat box of a one-size-fits-all relationship.

The Conversation

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

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

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.
Read the original article.

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.
Read the original article.

Fear, conservatism and out-group attitudes: a genetic link?

Australia’s eight-month election campaign is apparently underway. It’s a prospect that excites only those shady consultants, pollsters and party power-brokers whose livelihoods depend on running focus groups, devising strategies and pulling political strings.

Instead of ignoring the whole show, I have been reading up on insights that biology can provide into an election campaign. Perhaps some political consultants will want to gratuitously overpay me to talk about this stuff at some posh lunch or dinner?

For more than 60 years, psychologists have probed the underpinnings of variation in political opinion and, especially, left-right differences. Ten years ago, a meta-analysis of 88 studies across 12 countries and over 22,000 cases showed that political conservatism is strongly predicted by local instability of conditions, as well as an individual’s anxiety about death, inability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, needs for order and structure, fear of threat and loss.

Conservatives are also less open than other people to new experiences and have somewhat lower self esteem, on average.

New developments in personality psychology, evolution and neuroscience have added to what we know about the left-right divide. Last year’s interminable American election campaign unleashed a slew of studies and books concerning the ways in which biology shapes politics, campaigning, and election outcomes. A lot of the research documents differences between Republicans and Democrats. Some of the insights are peculiar to the US. Others provide general perspectives on the reflexes and intuitions underpinning conservative or progressive political identities.

Last year, in this column, I touched several times on the biological underpinnings of political opinion:

 

Fear

Cooperation with members of one’s own group, and mistrust of strangers who are not part of one’s own group, provides a central tension in all human social living. This tension constitutes the origin of xenophobia as well as its mirror-twin: zealous nationalism or patriotism.

Some new research adds considerably to our understanding of the relationships between fear, feelings toward out-group members and left-right political attitudes, as well as to why not everybody responds to fear in the same way.

Peter K. Hatemi and colleagues report in the American Journal of Political Science that people more disposed to social fears tend also to be less tolerant of immigrants and people of other races, and they identify more often as politically conservative. That’s old news. What sets this paper apart is that it comes from a study of nearly 30,000 people in over 8,636 families. And this allowed the authors to explore how genetic relatedness and shared environment shape the associations between fear, out-group attitudes and political conservatism.

Some 62% of the association between fear and conservatism was due to shared genetic origins, and 75% of the association between fear and negative attitudes toward outgroups came from a shared genetic basis. This makes the associations much more powerful than mere correlations: it suggests that the genes that dispose individuals to fear also tend to dispose them toward conservative attitudes, especially a mistrust of out-groups.

How these associations develop with experience, and why these traits share so much of their genetic basis remain to be tested. Just because two traits share considerable genetic variation does not mean political attitudes are fixed by some nightmarish determinist destiny. The associations between fear and attitudes grew weaker, in this study, in more educated individuals.

People’s political identities and attitudes are built from a bewildering number of environmental and genetic sources. I predict than in time the interactions between environment and genotype will be exposed as complex and shifting.

One thing I noticed from the first figure in the AJPS paper (see below) is that low fear levels don’t reveal much about a person’s politics. Low-fear people can be found across the political spectrum. But high-fear people tended to be universally conservative.

 

As Rose McDermott, the study’s second author put it:

It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative.

Stay vigilant

Politicians have always known that they could channel the fears of voters for short-term electoral gain. I recall from my teenage years in South Africa how, whenever P.W. Botha’s apartheid government seemed vulnerable, they, and the state broadcaster, would revert – entirely without subtlety – to emphasising “swart gevaar” (Afrikaans for “black danger”).

In Australia, as in many other parts of the world, immigration and the issue of refugees stokes out-group fear. And one can be certain that politicians will provide a rich supply of oxygen to those fears over the coming campaign.

Conservative thought has plenty to offer, and there are usually many good reasons to consider conservative ideas. But politicians who cynically prod the fear reflexes of their constituents to tap into their ancient prejudices are sacrificing the public good for their personal gain. And they should be challenged and ridiculed when they do it.

Hopefully, an emerging understanding of exactly how the well-worn links between fear and voter conservatism work can be used to blunt the effectiveness of scaremongering politicians. And perhaps an understanding of how promoting and valuing rational thought can be used to elevate the quality of our politics?

Not for the first time, I think Noel Turnbull’s recommendations from an article he published at Crikey.com last year bear quoting in full:

One way to encourage the slower, more rational thoughts, which also encourage our better angels is very much in the hands of politicians. For instance, if it was left to a vote capital punishment would never have been abolished in many Western countries but politicians took the leap on moral grounds helped by extensive public campaigns.

When politicians reverted to pro-capital punishment atavism, such as former Victorian Liberal opposition leader Alan Brown, their leadership came under threat. In contrast one of his successors, Jeff Kennett, was extraordinarily principled on questions such as race and just refused opportunities to add to the fires and the atavistic comments while publicly demonstrating a strong commitment to multiculturalism.

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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Shutting that whole thing down: Todd Akin, rape, pregnancy and abortion

Like almost everybody else I spoke to today, I was staggered, this morning, to hear Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy. The Missouri Republican, who is running for Senate, was justifying his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, when he offered up the following cringeworthy utterance:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

It’s possibly the biggest news story in the world right now, but if you missed it, Nicole Hemmer has done a wonderful job here at The Conversation dissecting the responses to Akin’s comments and their likely campaign-aborting implications.

As Hemmer and others point out, Akin’s comments are very much an extension of the so-called “Republican War on Women”. The Republican party finds itself unfortunately captive to evangelical zealots whose bronze-age cosmology is matched only by an antediluvian attitude to sexuality, sex and reproduction. It should surprise nobody that women (like atheists and homosexuals) are far less likely to vote Republican than men are. What surprises me is how many women do vote Republican.

I couldn’t do justice to just how ignorant Akin must be to even consider qualifying “actual rape” from any other. Fortunately columnists, bloggers and tweeters everywhere have been hard at it since Sunday morning. But what struck me most was his pseudo-medical contention that “the female body has ways to try shut that whole thing down.”

That is an assertion that strays right into my research specialty: the biology of sexual conflict. I’ve written many times before about the fact that the reproductive interests of a man and a woman are seldom perfectly aligned and can be quite profoundly out of whack. A wife and husband who differ on whether to have another child are in mild sexual conflict, whereas a rapist and his victim are – it would be hard to overstate this – at profound odds (evolutionarily and otherwise).

Women and men, like all sexually reproducing animals, negotiate the decision over whether to mate or not. The outcome isn’t always a happy compromise because sometimes the mating is worth much more to one party than the other. But in some species, a female can choose – after copulating – not to use the sperm of a male.

In the Australian Black Field Crickets we use in my lab, the male cannot copulate forcibly with the female. She has to mount him voluntarily and she is unlikely to do so unless he has a sexy song. But once she has mated him and he has attached a bag of his sperm (a spermatophore) to her abdomen, she often chooses to remove it before its entire contents enter her body. This isn’t in the male’s interests and he harasses her to prevent her reaching around and removing the spermatophore.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing Todd Akin had in mind? Post-rape female choice in humans in which women have some kind of adaptation that prevents conception with the sperm of a rapist. I always savour the irony when an evangelical evolves into an armchair adaptationist.

If such an adaptation existed, it certainly doesn’t work particularly well. According to one U.S. study, “national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age”.

My point here is not to get sidetracked in the largely irrelevant biology of whether women can, somehow, discriminate against the sperm of a rapist. I would rather highlight the fact that the way in which women discriminate against men whose children they do not want to carry is by not having sex with them in the first place. A measure of the extent to which a society deserves to consider itself civilized can be gained from the extent to which its citizens recognize this fundamental and inviolable right.

When this right is violated or subverted, be it via incest, or violent coercion, or any other means whatsoever, the result is rape. To suggest that some forms of rape earn that name more legitimately than others is to deny women this right and to defend the agenda of the rapist.

But in societies like ours, there are other very effective mechanisms by which women can choose not to bear a child by a particular man, including a rapist: abortifacient drugs and abortion. Bill Clinton famously asserted that “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare”. Even the most ardent pro-choice advocates agree that abortion should be rare, but without legal and safe abortion women fare considerably worse in the messy business of sexual conflict and in society as a whole.

What strikes me about the anachronistic attitudes of evangelicals and their Republican puppets to abortion, contraception, family planning, female economic empowerment and feminism in general is just how unambiguously male these attitudes are. All of these issues are informed by what suits men’s evolutionary and economic interests. Or more precisely by what suited the interests of men, especially rich and powerful men, before the industrial revolution.

An entire political party in one of the most advanced and educated countries on earth has become a caricature of the most basal evolved insecurities about masculinity. They seem terrified of losing control over the means of reproduction and petrified of cuckoldry.

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

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