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.

Is there really a single ideal body shape for women?

Boticelli's "Birth of Venus" c. 1486.
Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” c. 1486.

Many scholars of Renaissance art tell us that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus captures the tension between the celestial perfection of divine beauty and its flawed earthly manifestation. As classical ideas blossomed anew in 15th-century Florence, Botticelli could not have missed the popular Neoplatonic notion that contemplating earthly beauty teaches us about the divine.

Evolutionary biologists aren’t all that Neoplatonic. Like most scientists, we’ve long stopped contemplating the celestial, having – to appropriate Laplace’s immortal words to Napoleon – “no need of that hypothesis”. It is the messy imperfection of the real world that interests us on its own terms.

My own speciality concerns the messy conflicts that inhere to love, sex and beauty. Attempts to cultivate a simple understanding of beauty – one that can fill a 200-word magazine ad promoting age-reversing snake oil, for example – tend to consistently come up short.

Waist to hip

Nowhere does the barren distinction between biology and culture grow more physically obvious than in the discussion of women’s body shapes and attractiveness. The biological study of body shape has, for two decades, been preoccupied with the ratio of waist to hip circumference.

With clever experimental manipulations of line drawings, Devendra Singh famously demonstrated that images of women with waists 70% as big as their hips tend to be most attractive. This 0.7:1 waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), it turns out, also reflects a distribution of abdominal fat associated with good health and fertility.

Singh also showed that Miss America pageant winners and Playboy playmates tended to have a WHR of 0.7 despite changes in the general slenderness of these two samples of women thought to embody American beauty ideals.

Singh’s experiments were repeated in a variety of countries and societies that differ in both average body shape and apparent ideals. The results weren’t unanimous, but a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 came up as most attractive more often than not. The idea of an optimal ratio is so appealing in its simplicity that it became a staple factoid for magazines such as Cosmo.

There’s plenty to argue about with waist-hip ratio research. Some researchers have found that other indices, like Body Mass Index (BMI) explain body attractiveness more effectively.

But others reject the reductionism of measures like WHR and BMI altogether. This rejection reaches its extremes in the notion that ideas of body attractiveness are entirely culturally constructed and arbitrary. Or, more sinisterly, designed by our capitalist overlords in the diet industry to be inherently unattainable.

The evidence? The observation that women’s bodies differ, on average, between places or times. That’s the idea animating the following video, long on production values, short on scholarship and truly astronomic on the number of hits (21 million-plus at the time of writing):

This rather questionable video, called ‘Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History’, is getting a lot of airplay on YouTube.

I note that Botticelli’s Venus looks more at home in the 20th Century than among the more full-figured Renaissance “ideals”. So do the Goddesses and Graces in La Primavera. Perhaps there was room for more than one kind of attractive body in the Florentine Renaissance? Or is the relationship between attractiveness and body shape less changeable and more variegated than videos like the one above would have us believe?

Not that I’m down on body shape diversity. Despite the fact that there seems to be only one way to make a supermodel, real women differ dramatically and quite different body types can be equally attractive. The science of attractiveness must grapple with variation, both within societies and among cultures.

Enter the BodyLab

For some years our research group has wrestled with exactly these issues, and with the fact that bodies vary in so many more dimensions than just their waists and their hips. To that end, we established the BodyLab project, a “digital ecosystem” in which people from all over the internet rate the attractiveness of curious-looking bodies like the male example below.

Example image from the BodyLab ‘digital ecosystem’. The VW Beetle is provided as the universal symbol of something-slightly-shorter-than-an-adult-human. Faces pixellated to preserve any grey people’s anonymity. Rob Brooks/BodyLab.biz
Example image from the BodyLab ‘digital ecosystem’. The VW Beetle is provided as the universal symbol of something-slightly-shorter-than-an-adult-human. Faces pixellated to preserve any grey people’s anonymity.
Rob Brooks/BodyLab.biz

We call it a “digital ecosystem” not to maximise pretentiousness, but because this experiment involved multiple generations of selection and evolution. We started with measurements of 20 American women, a sample representing a wide variety of body shapes.

We then “mutated” those measures, adding or subtracting small amounts of random variation to each of 24 traits. Taking these newly mutated measures we built digital bodies, giving them an attractive middle-grey skin tone in an attempt to keep variation in skin colour, texture etc out of the already complex story.

If you want to help out with our second study, on male bodies, visit BodyLab and click through to Body Shape Study and then Rate Males (Generation 6).

This all involved considerable technologic innovation, resulting in an experiment unlike any other. We had a population of bodies (120 per generation) that we could select after a few thousand people had rated them for attractiveness. We then “bred” from the most attractive half of all models and released the new generation into the digital ecosystem.

What did we find? In a paper just published at Evolution & Human Behavior, the most dramatic result was that the average model became more slender with each generation. Almost every measure of girth decreased dramatically, whereas legs and arms evolved to be longer.

In eight generations, the average body became more slender. Waist, seat, collar, bust, underbust, forearm, bicep, calf and thigh girth all decreased by more than one standard deviation. At the same time, leg length (inseam) rose by 1.4 standard deviations. Rob Brooks
In eight generations, the average body became more slender. Waist, seat, collar, bust, underbust, forearm, bicep, calf and thigh girth all decreased by more than one standard deviation. At the same time, leg length (inseam) rose by 1.4 standard deviations.
Rob Brooks

That may not seem surprising, particularly because the families “bred” from the most overweight individuals at the start of the experiment were eliminated in the first few generations.

But, after that, more families remained in the digital ecosystem, surviving generation after generation of selection, than we would have expected if there was a single most attractive body type. The Darwinian process we imposed on our bodies had started acting on the mutations we added during the breeding process.

More meaningful than the mean

Those “mutations” that we introduced allowed bodies to evolve free from all the developmental constraints that apply to real-world bodies. For example, leg lengths could evolve independently of arm lengths. Waists could get smaller even as thighs got bigger.

When we examined those five families that lasted longest as our digital ecosystem evolved, we observed a couple of interesting nuances.

First, selection targeted waist size itself, rather than waist-hip ratio. No statistical model involving hip size (either on its own or in waist-hip ratio) could come close to explaining attractiveness as well as waist size alone. Our subjects liked the look of slender models with especially slender waists. There was nothing magical about a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio.

Second, within attractive families, which were the more slender families to begin with, evolution bucked the population-wide trend. These bodies began evolving to be more shapely, with bigger busts and more substantial curves.

It turns out there’s more than one way to make an attractive body, and those different body types evolve to be well-integrated. That’s a liberating message for most of us: evolutionary biology has more to offer our understanding of diversity than the idea that only one “most attractive” body (or face, or personality) always wins out.

What about the cultural constructionists? Are body ideals arbitrary, or tools of the patriarchal-commercial complex?

Our results suggest that the similarities between places, and even between male and female raters, are pretty strong: the 60,000 or so people who viewed and rated our images held broadly similar ideas of what was hot and what was not. But their tastes weren’t uniform. We think most individuals could see beauty in variety, if not in the full scope of diversity on offer.

What’s cool about our evolving bodies, however, is that we can run the experiment again and again. We can do so with different groups of subjects, or even using the same subjects before and after they’ve experienced some kind of intervention (perhaps body-image consciousness-raising?). I’m hoping we can use them to look, in unprecedented depth, at the intricate ways in which experience, culture and biology interact.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Can science finger a philanderer? Not like this!

Two left hands make a heart. Source: Leon Brocard/Flickr
Two left hands make a heart. Source: Leon Brocard/Flickr

Are people naturally monogamous, polygamous or promiscuous? It’s one of those questions that most people feel quite confident in answering. Ask a few people and you’re likely to come up with a variety of contradictory answers, each delivered with considerable confidence. But the question is far more slippery than it first appears.

I will return later to the question of humanity’s “natural” mating system, but lately I’ve been far more interested in why people hold such strong opinions on the subject. And I think it’s mostly out of keenness to understand ourselves and those we love, to navigate the perilous tension between monogamy and non-monogamy that runs through our own lives. And, often, to validate our own proclivities.

With the Hallmark Holiday of St Valentine’s Day just a few days away, a recent study that touches on the monogamy-promiscuity tension deserves close examination. Particularly because various media outlets made it sound like a litmus test of whether someone is a likely ‘strayer’ or a certain ‘stayer’.

Sociosexuality

In ‘Stay or Stray: evidence for alternative mating strategy phenotypes in both men and women’, Rafael Wodarski, John Manning and Robin Dunbar probe the statistical distributions of two traits related to sexual behaviour. They ask whether sociosexuality and the relative lengths of the second and forth fingers (2D:4D ratio) conform to distributions with one peak or two. A bimodal distribution, with two peaks, suggests there may be two different groups of individuals within a given sample.

An individual’s sociosexuality reflects how restricted their attitudes toward sex and their sexual behaviours are. Wlodarski’s team used answers from the following six questions in the 9-item Revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI):

  1. With how many different partners have you had sex within the past 12 months?
  2. With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse on one and only one occasion?
  3. With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse without having an interest in a long-term committed relationship with this person?
  4. Sex without love is OK. (this and the next two questions answered on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree)
  5. I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying “casual” sex with different partners.
  6. I do not want to have sex with a person until I am sure that we will have a long-term, serious relationship.

High scores (plenty of agreeing, and lots of casual sex) characterise an unrestricted sociosexuality, whereas people with restricted sociosexuality tend to get low scores.

The statistical tests showed that within fairly large samples of British and American subjects, there was evidence that both women’s and men’s SOI scores are distributed bimodally. But there’s plenty of overlap between the peaks (modes). The authors infer that within each sex exists a more restricted, monogamous group of individuals and another group of unrestricted promiscuous people.

Here, and in almost every study using SOI, men tend to have more unrestricted sociosexuality than women, on average. The difference in means could be pinned on small differences in the percentages of men and women in the restricted and unrestricted SOI groups.

Digit Ratios

The group also analysed a sample of hand measurements of 1314 British subjects. They looked at the ratio of the index finger (second digit, or 2D) to the ring finger (4D). Adults who were exposed to higher levels of testosterone when they were in the womb, tend to have relatively short index fingers (small 2D:4D ratio).

Hand with index finger shorter than the ring finger, resulting in a small 2D:4D ratio, pointing to a high exposure to testosterone in the uterus. source: Wikimedia Commons
Hand with index finger shorter than the ring finger, resulting in a small 2D:4D ratio, pointing to a high exposure to testosterone in the uterus. source: Wikimedia Commons

Now that you’ve stopped looking at your fingers, can we move along?

Prenatal testosterone exposure is also thought to bias individuals toward more promiscuous sexuality when they reach adulthood. The pattern also works across species: monkey and ape species with long-term pair bonds and a knack for monogamy tend to have high 2D:4D ratios.

Interestingly, when Wlodarski’s team applied their statistical tests to the distribution of 2D:4D ratios, they again found evidence of bimodality. A similar pattern in two very different traits associated with promiscuity-monogamy suggested to them a provocative conclusion:

Perhaps we are dealing here with two different types of people.

What if some folks are good at monogamy whereas others are rather better at … the other stuff? Perhaps. Funny thing about sex research is that any conclusion you arrive at will leave some people feeling validated and an almost equal number something more like violated.

We go on foot from here

But the idea is worth exploring. The valuable thing about this study is that it challenges our too-common tendency to see every trait as a continuum, with a few individuals at either end and the majority somewhere in the middle.

Interestingly, the two measures, SOI and 2D:4D ratio were from different samples. At no point did the researchers provide any evidence that the two groups separated on digit ratio were the same individuals as those separated on SOI. They couldn’t be: they were different samples.

The links between SOI and 2D:4D ratios are, at best, equivocal. Some studies find that low 2D:4D is associated with higher SOI. Other studies fail to find such effects. And a study of women and men from Brazil and from the Czech Republic, found that in both sexes a more feminine (higher) 2D:4D ratio is associated with less restricted sociosexuality.

But you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. The Daily Mirror over-promised, trumpeting that “Boffins” have learned “How to work out if your partner is cheating on you? Check their fingers.” Well, checking if they’ve been hiding their wedding ring might tell you something, but checking out their 2D:4D ratio won’t help at all. Nonetheless, Valentine’s Day dinners are going to involve a lot of quizzical staring at fingers this year. (And not out of daydreaming that he might just put a ring on it.)

The Telegraph took a more introspective line under the headline “Are you promiscuous or faithful? Measure your index finger to find out.” Actually, a better way to figure out if you are promiscuous or faithful, or if you are likely to be in the future, is to ask yourself the questions in the Sociosexual Inventory. It’s pretty straightforward: if you’ve had plenty of one-off sex and lots of partners in the last year, then odds are that you bend toward promiscuity. At least at this point in your life. But I can imagine folks on both side of the 2D:4D distribution reassuring themselves that they are doing the right thing.

Sometimes I wonder why scientists even bother talking to the media. The public love to learn the latest things that “boffins have figured out”, but they deserve journalism that makes at least a token effort to grapple with the research or speak to said boffins.

What are we?

The distribution of SOI and 2D:4D cannot tell us all that much about humanity as a whole, other than that both women and men vary in their openness to casual sex and their proportional finger length.

But this variation is part of what makes human sexual behaviour so fascinating. Some people do seem at ease with life-long monogamy whereas others are shockingly bad at it.

How that variation arises presents a very interesting bevy of questions. Cue the usual intellectually bereft wrangling over nature and nurture as though the two were alternatives.

I’m sure there is more than one reason, but an obvious candidate for variation in sociosexuality is religion. Perhaps those who buy in to religious practices are more likely to be on the “restricted” end of the sociosexuality distribution, whereas those who have rejected or never embraced religion are more likely to be in the “unrestricted” peak?

For now, my preferred answer to the question “Are people naturally monogamous, polygamous or promiscuous?” is “YES”.

We have evolved adaptations that make some of us rather good at monogamy, some of the time. Until we’re not. We also have an evolved capacity to leave one partner for another, or to partner up with more than one person at a time, depending on our circumstances.

If you’re looking for natural history to vindicate your own particular preferred way of life over the alternatives, then you’re always going to be disappointed.

Monogamy can be complicated too. The Police knew this. Check out “Wrapped Around Your Finger

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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A complex cocktail: alcohol, sex and cute monogamous mammals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Don’t fear the patriarchy, girls. Just keep your knickers on!

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

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

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

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

Qualified admiration

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

Strategy? What strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suppression of female sexuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

Don’t sleep with mean people

By Rob Brooks

That’s the message uber-cerebral Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman wants to spread. He’s Crowdfunding a music video and short documentary in support of what he calls the new Golden Rule of Sex.

Video for Baba Brinkman’s “Don’t Sleep with Mean People” Crowdfunding campaign

How cool can an artist be who debuted rapping the Canterbury Tales, moved on to Evolution and Human Nature and is now rapping about the biology of cancer (see Revenge of the Somatic)?

Plenty, if you ask me. And his ability to condense complex theories and evidence into pithy, whip-smart performances win him admiration from scientists and science-lovers wherever he takes his shows. Those shows have thrived off-Broadway and at Edinburgh fringe. And he incorporates peer review by scientists*.

The placard says it all. johndrogers on Flickr
The placard says it all. johndrogers on Flickr

The hippies taught us that “Bombing for Peace is Like Fucking for Virginity”, but the generation of free love never really answered to my satisfaction whether it is possible to fuck for peace. Can we transform a society by some form of erotic collective action? And isn’t it worth a try anyway?

Brinkman’s art provides a never-ending supply of teachable moments. His broader point is that every time a still-fertile heterosexual chooses a mate, every time one decides whether to get naked with somebody, they contribute to the process of sexual selection. Prefer people who can express themselves coherently and in full sentences? You’re selecting for smarts. And your kids may have a chance of passing the dreaded Selective High Schools test. Geoffrey Miller made a compelling case in The Mating Mind that our prodigious human intelligence arose as a result of sexual selection operating this way over many millenia.

There’s a question of timescale here. Obviously no deliberate campaign, Crowdfunded or not, is going to effect mass changes in gene frequencies anytime soon. Concerted campaigns of directed sexual activity are more likely to work by shifting incentives for good behaviour. “Behave badly and you aren’t getting any”.

Brinkman himself draws inspiration from the efforts of Lysistrata and her band of war-weary Athenian women in Aristophanes’ 411 BC play. By witholding sex from all Athenian men, they effected the end of the Peloponnesian War. Yet for most of us, collectively or individually training our mates, like Sea World dolphins, just isn’t practical.

Come over to the Dark Triad

In general, people don’t set out to mate with mean people. But, unfortunately, some of the meaner traits in the human repertoire seem to elevate mating success. Work by Peter K. Jonason (now at the University of Western Sydney), Norman P. Li and collaborators reveals that people expressing the ‘Dark Triad’ traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy – are more successful at initiating new sexual relationships, especially when poaching or being poached by somebody in an existing relationship. When it comes to long-term relationships, those in whom the Dark Triad is strong don’t fare so well.

It might seem a little obvious; psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellian types, uninhibited by the pain and inconvenience they might cause others, get more matings but can’t sustain exclusive monogamy as well as other people. But the key here is that any genes underpinning Dark Triad traits get passed on whenever one of those short-term matings succeeds. And without the encumbrance of empathy or a commitment to monogamy, that can mean a lot of successful matings – especially for men.

So don’t sleep with narcissists, manipulators or psychopaths. Great advice we wish our mother had given us when we were young. Actually, she probably did when she warned us against that bad girl or boy. And yet there is no denying the lust-inducing appeal of the right level of badness.

Bombing for virginity

2013’s most bewildering bad boy is accused of genuine, world-shaking badness. He is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of carrying out April’s devastating bombing of the Boston marathon with the help of his now-dead brother. And he controversially graces the cover of August 3’s issue of Rolling Stone.

RollingStoneAug2013
The controversial cover of Rolling Stone’s August edition, featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev under the headline “The Bomber”. EPA/Rolling Stone

 

You won’t count me among those boycotting the issue. In fact I’ve already been to the news agent, only to find it hasn’t reached our shores yet. And in the 60 seconds I was in the shop, another person asked for it. I’m predicting this issue will sell more copies than any other since the start of the GFC.

Andy Ruddock has already done a marvellous job dissecting the cover and discerning why Rolling Stone did what they did. I look forward to reading the story because home-grown fundamentalist terrorism is too important an issue to be filed under “evil” and hysterically dismissed in the way that Fox News and its charge-of-the-apoplectic clones would like.

Both fundamentalism and the actions that a small number of fundamentalists take need a more complete understanding. Which is why I’m with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Mark Joseph Stern who reckons “Rolling Stone’s cover of suspected Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is brilliant – deal with it”. Rolling Stone has a long history of serious and edgy journalism, including formative work by Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Tom Wolfe. What contemporary subject could be more ripe for genuine journalistic exposition than the making of good-boy-turned-bomber Tsarnaev?

In putting The Bomber on its cover, Rolling Stone draws a disturbing yet obvious parallel between Tsarnaev and the rock ‘n’ roll’s bad boys. The connection is obvious because of the legion of followers devoted to Dzhokhar and convinced of his innocence. Like Jim Morrison in 1969, they reckon he’s persecuted and misunderstood. They can be found with the #FreeJahar hashtag on Twitter and in manifold dark corners of the internet. Word from that parrallel universe has it that the girls a cranky because the picture wasn’t ‘dreamy enough’.

Linda Peach wrote an intriguing introduction to the mostly young, mostly female FreeJahar crowd a few weeks ago. I was not convinced by her favoured explanation which relied on social role theory and ambivalent sexism theory via a weak Prince Charming trope. But that is an argument for another day. As she well explains, the denialist netherworld of FreeJahar throbs with teenage female lust.

My point is that the bad boy mystique of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards imbued them with sexual magnetism of the most potent kind. This was a dark force, domesticated and sometimes manufactured by later rockers and their publicists. But it made the stars, Rolling Stone and even rock itself what it is.

The crimes that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been accused of are so much less commonplace and more dramatic than the darkness at the heart of rock-god sexual magnetism. And I put it that way neither to diminish the far-reaching heinousness of what he and his brother are alleged to have done nor to trivialise the misogyny and abuse that accompanied so much of sex, drugs and rock. But I’m willing to bet that Tsarnaev’s sexual magnetism is not an entirely different species from 1963’s hysteria for the ‘Stones.

If reproductive success could be allocated by virtue by following Baba’s Golden Rule of sex, I’m pretty sure humans would domesticate quite nicely in a few hundred years. And it’s certainly worth a try. But the FreeJahar groundswell convinces me that the odds stack mightily against any chance of long-term success.


  • Disclosure: Baba provided a cover blurb for my book, Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll, and, in turn, based some of his show Ingenious Nature on elements of the book. I was delighted to peer-review the full script for the show. I only wish I had been able to see it in New York.

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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