What Makes Us Human?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorian clash of minds

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

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

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

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

Mind the gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, in Elders’ honour, Good Vibrations says:

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

Politics of the pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching the enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wins, who loses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the three?

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

 

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

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

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

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

Questionable figures

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

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

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

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

In whose interest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does it matter?

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

Paternity testing now much easier and cheaper.

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

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

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

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

What’s the answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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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.

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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.

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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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Égalité après la guerre: how war affects in-group fairness

Over the last few evenings, I inhaled Robert Harris‘ novelisation of France’s infamous Dreyfus affair. Told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, the intelligence officer whose scrupulous honesty finally established Dreyfus’ innocence, An Officer and a Spy breathes life into historic events. Events I last encountered in a claustrophobic mid-80’s high school class, from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) to J’Accuse, the impassioned open letter to the French President by which Émile Zola brought Picquart’s arguments to public light.

Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris' book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons
Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris’ book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons

More than a history, though, the novelist in Harris evokes the prevailing social milieu and the psychology of his characters. The loss of Alsace (where both Picquart and Dreyfus spent their early years) and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1870-1 hangs palpably on the ageing French generals. As a result they choose to protect their own in the army at the expense of truth and justice. That same loss also propels the rampant anti-semitism that makes Dreyfus such a convenient scape-goat.

War profoundly shapes the attitudes of those who survive it. Particularly the attitudes to one’s own people and to members of other groups. This might seem an empty truism; the horrors and privations of war can hardly be expected not to reshape attitudes. But to what extent could these reshaped attitudes be functional? And can we understand them in light of evolution and our species’ long history of warfare?

A paper published this week in Psychological Science shows that people affected by war take on different attitudes toward in-group members as a result. And they do so in a manner predicted by evolutionary biology.

Michal Bauer, Alessandra Cassar, Julie Chytiolová and Joe Henrich studied 543 school children in Georgia, 6 months after the brief conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. They also studied 586 adults (18-84 years) living in northwestern Sierra Leone, a region wracked by civil war between 1991 and 2002. In both places they recruited individuals who had not been directly affected, others who had been somewhat affected, and another group who had been profoundly affected, losing family members or being displaced by the fighting.

The investigators administered two economic games commonly used to distinguish selfish, egalitarian and altruistic tendencies. In the Sharing Game, participants choose whether to share a number of tokens (20 in Sierra Leone) evenly (10 each) with another, unseen, participant, or to take a larger share (15) for themselves, leaving fewer (5) for the other player. Self-interested players should always choose the larger share, but those inclined to egalitarianism often divide the tokens evenly.

The Envy Game asks the player to decide between an even split (10-10 again) or an uneven one in which both players get more than in the even split, but the player gets less (13 in the Sierra Leone study) than the other participant (16). The rational player should choose the unequal split, but players motivated to redress inequalities that disadvantage them often do plump for the even split.

In each game, players divided their tokens with someone from their own in-group (an unnamed member of their own class in Georgia, or of the same village in Sierra Leone) or an unrelated, but not hostile out-group (a class at another school, or an unspecified distant village). And the tokens had value. The Georgian schoolchildren could exchange their tokens for prizes. The Sierra Leonian villagers earned as much as or more than the national average per capita daily income.

In both experiments, individuals least affected by war treated in-group and out-group members no differently in the two games. But the more profoundly a subject had been touched by war, the more egalitarian they were in dealing with in-group members. Yet they were less likely, or at least no more likely, to treat outgroup members in an egalitarian fashion than the group least affected by war.

Numbers and cohesion

Why does war lead to stronger egalitarian impulses toward one’s in-group but not toward strangers? Bauer and his collaborators argue that the answer lies in group size and cohesion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to get nervous when adaptive explanations focus on what works best for a group. Group benefits, so beloved of pre 1970’s adaptive storytellers, tend to be undermined by individual self-interest. But war is one of those arenas in which the good of the individual and the good of the group often fall smartly into line.

For most of history, war has been a game of numbers and cohesion. In foraging and horticultural societies, larger groups win far more fights with smaller groups than they lose. And as societies have grown, numbers remained an important element of military success. Throughout Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, to briefly return there, the French generals fret over Germany’s three-to-two numeric supremacy.

So important are numbers that historians fast-track the immortalisation of dramatic victories for the outnumbered side. Hannibal’s victory over Rome at Cannae (216 BCE) is still studied by military tacticians. And Henry V’s thumping of the French at Agincourt shall be remembered, thanks to Shakespeare, from that St Crispin’s Day in 1415 ‘forward unto the ending of the world’.

The Battle of Agincourt, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V

Outnumbered sides that triumphed usually made up for their numeric weakness with some combination of technological advantage, superb tactical innovation and, especially, cohesion. Cohesion makes a difference not only among the troops but in the society as a whole. When people prioritise egalitarianism over personal gain, they are able to build greater in-group cohesion. And this means bigger group sizes, as fewer individuals or splinter groups feel they can do better by going it alone.

The Psychological Science study suggests that war changes the way individuals function in groups, making them more inclined to subvert their own interests in favour of equal outcomes for their in-group mates. The authors argue that this is an adaptive shift from more individualistic ways of behaving to more collective ones as a direct response to cues that the individual’s fate and evolutionary fitness will be tied to that of the collective group.

It remains to be tested whether other tribulations, like being affected by a natural disaster or a disease epidemic, have similar effects. Disasters certainly beget heart-warming tales of personal sacrifice, and occasional accounts of great selfishness. It would be interesting to know if people affected by disasters show the same biases toward in-group egalitarianism, or if any changes are directed more generally at other affected people.

Experiencing war profoundly changes individuals and, as a result, societies. Much attention has rightly been devoted to the profound psychological trauma and ongoing ramifications for mental health that war inflicts on soldiers and civilians. But the new study shows that war also has subtler – possibly adaptive – effects on in-group fairness and attitudes to out-group members.

Perhaps this research will, in time, lead to a better understanding of how to dismantle old out-group prejudices and hatreds before they lead on to more violence (or to Dreyfusian travesties). And how to kindle in more privileged generations the extraordinary cooperation and civic-mindedness often claimed to characterise generations who have experienced war.


A bonus for Shakespeare lovers. What better illustration of cohesion, of subverting one’s own interests to the cause, exists in art, than Henry’s rousing speech before Agincourt?

 

 

 

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It’s been a while. Meantime, here are some links. (Bullshit jobs, evolution & business, psych studies, atheist family values & evidence-based feminism)

It’s been three weeks, I am told. Time to list a few of my favourite recent reads.

  • By far my favourite read of the last few weeks is David Graeber’s piece about “Bullshit Nonsense Jobs“. Yes, all you generation Xers working in finance, I’m looking at you. Reminds me of a piece I read in the early 1990’s about how the vast majority of the industrialised world would need to be plugged in to entertainment to keep them passive. Cue reality TV and the iPhone. I don’t agree with everything Graeber says, but it’s entertaining, and I leant on it a bit when I wrote a last-minute pre-election piece about research groups and how they resemble small businesses.
  • Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson launched their Darwin’s Business blog at Forbes with a brief post on multilevel selection, cooperation and business with Sears Ignores the Invisible Band
  • Jamil Zaki makes an important point that most readers of non-fiction, especially popular psychology, evolution & economics stories already get: Psychological Studies are Not About You
  • You’ll know already that I enjoy reading studies in which atheists are compared to fundy’s. This article by Piper Hoffmann explains how Atheists have Better Family Values than Evangelicals. Not sure if that’s really something most atheists want to crow about, but it does bestow a certain schadenfreude.
  • Claire Lehmann, a Facebook and Twitter friend I have never met, posts a well-argued plea for evidence-based feminism.

Watch out! I am (supposed to be) doing some comedy at the Ultimo Science Festival’s Science Stand-Up Comedy night. I’ll be appearing witht he genuinely funny Justine Rogers and Simon Pampena.

Mate choice in the lab can teach us about ‘real life’ and speed dating encounters

Kip Dynamite, brother of Napoleon. Big with the on-line babes.
Kip Dynamite, brother of Napoleon. Big with the on-line babes.

My research group are always looking for subjects for our internet-based studies in which we measure how certain traits enhance or detract from an individual’s attractiveness. And we worry, like other researchers in the field, about whether these measured preferences tell us anything at all about real-life mating decisions. We’re encouraged, today, by a carefully-designed study showing that preferences can tell us quite a lot about the early stages of mate choice.

When asked about the characteristics they most desire in a potential mate, women and more likely than men to emphasise a potential partner’s wealth or ability to acquire resources. And men weight more heavily the importance of a woman’s physical attractiveness.

Findings like this draw criticism for the way they reinforce tired and oppressive stereotypes. But just because a finding is consistent with stereotype does not make it wrong. Stereotypes, after all, come from somewhere. Yes, the relative importance of various attributes varies with time, place, and the ways in which women and men make their livings economically. But the pattern is too strong, and too well replicated, to simply wish away.

At least it was, until evolutionary psychologists started to get their hands on data from modern speed-dating events. In one important 2005 study, both sexes relied almost entirely on physically observable traits: facial attractiveness, body shape, height, age and race. Actual decisions under the frenetic pressure created by speed-dating situations appear not to differ as much as the preferences scientists measure in carefully-controlled laboratory settings.

Some subsequent speed-dating studies found evidence more consistent with documented sex differences in preferences. But others did not. And few of the studies found that the preferences subjects admitted to, or expressed in laboratory tests, predicted much about who those subjects would like or want to see again after a speed-dating event.

Speed-dating events, like weddings, parties, and any invitation-only social event of the type where people used to meet before they had OKCupid, Ashley Maddison and Bang With Friends, are unusual in that only a very limited sub sample of humanity makes the invite list. All sorts of undesirable and invisible types have long since been screened out. So the strongest preferences, the ones by which individuals eliminate not-in-your-wildest-dreams unsuitable candidates never need to be expressed.

In their new paper, Norman P. Li and six collaborators recognise that speed dating events and similar arenas tend to screen out the least desirable candidates. After all, who would want – make that pay – to come to an event that captured an accurate sub-sample of humanity? Where ‘catches’ are outnumbered by the ones you’d be happy to let get away?

In a series of four experiments, they exercised considerable care to present a range of individuals who varied in social status or attractiveness. In one experiment, each subject spent seven minutes chatting on-line with a confederate of the experimenters. The confederate pretended to be either a high-school graduate working in a fast food restaurant, an undergraduate majoring in business, or a law student about to join a top law firm. Subjects were also shown a picture of the person they were ostensibly chatting to. The picture was actually experimentally assigned, with one third of subjects each seeing an unattractive, moderately attractive or highly attractive photograph.

After the chat session, subjects were asked a number of questions, including whether they would be interested in going on a date with their chat partner. Male subjects placed greater emphasis on the attractiveness of the photograph when making this decision. But women were more swayed by social status. More intriguingly, subjects who had in pre-experiment measures shown a strong preference for status or for attractiveness showed much stronger tendency to be influenced by those traits within the experiment.

Li and his coauthors used a similar experimental approach in two ‘modified speed dating’ trials. In one they went to considerable effort to recruit and present people of high and low socioeconomic status. In the other they sought out a mix of ‘unattractive and moderately attractive individuals’. How they screened these individuals is one detail I could not find in the methods.

Again, men responded more strongly to attractiveness than women did. And women responded more strongly to status. In both cases, the result was driven largely by the strength with which low attractiveness or low status individuals were rejected. Unattractive women and low status men seemed to be invisible – not even considered as possible mates.

In addition, the strength of these ‘real-life’ choice decisions was associated with the strength of preferences measured under standardised conditions. It seems that experiments, like the ones my students and researchers in countless other groups around the world do, certainly measure something real about the first filters by which we eliminate unsuitable potential mates.

What they can tell us about fine-scale choices among largely-compatible suitors has yet to be as well established.

Dating, as Napoleon Dynamite reminds us, is all about having skills. If you’re using those skills IRL or chatting on-line like Napoleon’s brother Kip

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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