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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Links & News: Steven Pinker on “scientism”, male joblessness, political beliefs and decisions, luxury handbags and Hugo Schwyzer

I wanted to post regular updates of great reads. Weekly. Or even monthly. I really did. But I must accept that I’m better suited to providing irregular postings.I hope you enjoy these nonetheless.

For the first two articles, I must thank Claire Lehmann who always posts interesting content. Follow her @ClairLemon

  1. Steven Pinker at his brilliant best in New Republic, calling for a truce between science and those who feel threatened by it. Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.
  2. Sarah McDonald discusses How Male Joblessness Affects Women in Regular readers will spot one of my favourite themes here. I have more to say on this, just need to find the time to write about it.
  3. How (and Why) Political Beliefs Sway Supposedly Non-Political Decisions. David Berreby at
  4. Vlad Griscevicus and Yajin Wang tie luxury items (including handbags) to sexual jealousy in women. Interesting experiment, narrow interpretation in my opinion. Again, I hope to blog about this soon.
  5. Hugo Schwyzer, gender studies and history lecturer and prolific commentator has had a rough week (h/t to Rebecca LeBard for letting me know). He’s taken a fair amount of heat in recent times, for his opinions, his self-confessed troubled history and a recent affair. He quit the internetrepeatedly, to recover mentally and mend his personal life. He gave a seemingly ill-judged interview for the New Yorker. The the internet erupted with opinions about him; some wishing him well, others notsomuch. One of the most insightful, for me, is Melissa Petro’s On Hugo Schwyzer, Personal Essay Writing & Redemption.

Menopause wars: can male preferences for young women explain ‘the change’?

Why would an otherwise healthy animal stop reproducing? Natural selection usually favours genes that elevate reproductive success because the very act of reproduction is how genes proliferate. So adaptations that involve self-limited reproduction call for unusual evolutionary explanations.

Sterile worker ants and honey bees present one such unusual adaptation. These females forego any chance to reproduce so that they can help their sisters become queens. Insect sociobiologists have shown just how special the evolution of sterile workers is. The massive genetic lottery win that comes when a sister ascends to head a hive of her own more than compensates the worker for her life of sterile devotion.

But human women also stop reproducing around their late 40s. Menopause remains among the most hotly debated products of human evolution. I have written here before about the competing theories. And earlier this month Dyani Lewis wrote a very clear overview of the ideas surrounding the evolution of menopause.

But today I’d like to consider a computer simulation model published last Friday in PLOS Computational Biology. In the breathless style so beloved of journal publicity departments, the press release quotes author Rama Singh as saying:

Menopause is believed to be unique to humans, but no one had yet been able to offer a satisfactory explanation for why it occurs.

Singh, together with McMaster University colleagues Richard A. Morton and Jonathan R. Stone argue that the reason menopause evolved was that older men preferred young women as mates. Their logic resembles that behind successful theories for the evolution of ageing: natural selection grows weaker on older cohorts, allowing late-acting mutations to accumulate. Likewise, when older women get left on the shelf, late-acting mutations that rob them of their fertility are allowed to accumulate.

The paper builds on an intriguing earlier model in which men’s ability to sire offspring late in life, and the fact that many wealthy and powerful men have done just that for millenia, can have the incidental consequence of prolonging female lifespan as well, by weeding out some of the late-acting mutations that would otherwise act after women have ceased reproducing. That idea has some merit for explaining why women live a long time after menopause, but it says nothing about why they stop reproducing in the first place.

The new model shows that genes that lower the fertility of older women (but not men) can accumulate. But they do so in a rather artificial situation: the genes that alter age-dependent survival affect both males and females the same. I will wage that if the researchers had allowed mutations to affect male and female survival independently, female survival would have waned at least as much as female reproduction did. I think the assumptions of this model were artificially disposed to getting the observed outcome.

That’s not to say the idea lacks merit. I’m just not convinced that the study lives up to the press-release hype. Hype, I might add, that has seen more cut-and-paste action in the print and electronic media than a Year Three school project. Complete with stock images of ageing male celebrities stepping out with twenty-something “latest” girlfriends. Check out the Sunlight Foundation’s Churnalism, analysis of the Guardian’s version of the story.

In fact, my go-to source for garbled science news, The Daily Mail did a slightly better job than the Guardian and several other sites. They quote Oxford post-doc, Dr Maxwell Burton-Chellew, who didn’t mince his words, calling the study just ‘plain wrong’.

It seems to me infinitely more plausible and more consistent with decades of evidence that men’s preference for younger women evolved as a response to the declining fertility of older women, and not the other way around. That said, however, science doesn’t work by rejecting ideas on plausibility grounds alone. This new idea should be developed and considered more thoroughly, including the possibility of feedback loops between reproductive ageing and preferences for younger mates.

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

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Links and News of the Week – June 1-7, 2013

This is a new and, hopefully, regular kind of post. Shamelessly imitating Jason Collins’ excellent “Week of links” posts over at Evolving Economics.

I’ll list some news items and interesting reads I have encountered for the first time during the week. I will probably have tweeted most of these during the week.

  • Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes. Helena Lee at the BBC News Magazine looks at the boxes of clothing and other baby-rearing supplies provided to expectant Finnish parents, and the positive effects this 75 year-old institution has had on Finnish parenting and childhood. Much, much better than Australia’s “baby bonus” handout.
  • Are you racist? You might want to change your avatar. My good friend and collaborator, Michael Kasumovic, writes at The Conversation about how a short time ‘inhabiting’ a dark-skinned avatar can erode implicit assumptions about race.  Michael tweets as both @MKasumovic and @TheEvolvedGamer.
  • Vitamins: Stop Taking the Pills. Paul Offit at the Guardian takes a thorough look at vitamins and other dietary supplements, and suggests that most are not improving health or wellbeing and some, particularly vitamin megadoses, can cause substantial harm. I especially appreciate the considered take on the fad for antioxidants, and the nutrient industry’s narrative of a battle between good and evil.
  • The Pew Research Center in the USA published a valuable report on the rise of “breadwinner moms”: mothers who are wither the sole parent or the higher-earning parent in American households with children. Numbers have risen from around 11 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 2013. This is exactly the kind of issue that polarises discussion and sends news outlets and websites buzzing. Jason Collins and I chimed in at the invitation of Robert Kadar, managing editor at Evolution: This View of Life magazine. We also use the occasion to mention the Cooperation & Conflict in the Family conference, next February.


The costs of bearing (many) children in contemporary Israel

Large families, like this one, grow less common as societies industrialise. Yves Hanoulle on Flickr
Large families, like this one, grow less common as societies industrialise. Yves Hanoulle on Flickr

Becoming a parent isn’t easy. Okay, conceiving can be far too easy. But I mean all that stuff about nappies and midnight feeds, and the germs they bring back from daycare, and trying to understand school newsletters. That’s the difficult bit. And for mums, there’s the metabolically taxing business of carrying a baby to term and breastfeeding it. Not to mention the perilous nature of child birth.

In biological terms, reproduction constitutes the costliest thing most animals do. The more eggs an animal lays, chicks it hatches or babies it gives birth to, the less time and energy it has to devote to other things. Like looking after its body.

In the strange corner of evolutionary biology where I spend much of my research time, we talk of trade-offs. Investments in reproduction today exact their toll on the body, reducing both future reproduction and how long an animal can expect to live into the future.

But in humans, these trade-offs tend to be difficult to detect. The evidence rather tantalisingly suggests they exist, but it takes decades to see the effects of reproduction on a trait like survival. On top of that, variation in socioeconomic status, healthcare and diet can obscure trade-offs. Parents who are well-off or who eat well can, potentially, have more kids and live longer than less well-off or well-fed parents, even if having kids imposes a big cost.

Which is why I’m excited about a study published late last year of 40,454 mothers who gave birth to a total of 125,842 children in contemporary Jerusalem. Uri P. Dior and a team of Israeli collaborators followed mothers for up to 37 years after the birth of their first child. And the results provide evidence that having lots of children can hasten a mother’s mortality.

Mums who bore between two and four children were at lowest risk of mortality from all causes. Mothers who had five or more children lived shorter lives, on average. Analysis of the three types of disease responsible for most deaths showed that risks of cancer, circulatory disease and heart disease all rose dramatically in mums who had five or more children.

In fact, mothers with between five and nine kids had about two and a half times the risk of dying of heart disease or circulatory disease as mothers with fewer than five children.

This study adds to historic analyses showing similar costs but far less directly. For example, British aristocrats living between the 8th and 19th Centuries were far more likely to make it to the ripe old age of 80 if they were childless. While the Israeli study doesn’t compare mortality risks with childless women, it does provide a serious estimate of the mortality costs of reproduction in contemporary women.

I would love to see a similar study following fathers. I wrote last year about the effects of castration on male lifespan, and how they support the existence of a link between reproduction and longevity. But how does the effort men make in fathering their children alter their risks of dying?

Such a study is probably some way off, though, because fathers vary far more in the size of their contribution to child-rearing and the family. From the most devoted dads to men whose only contribution to the family was a few ounces of semen. That is not to say mothers’ contributions don’t vary. They certainly do, but gestation, child birth and to a lesser extent breast-feeding at least are currently inescapable aspects of reproduction that exact physiological costs on the body.

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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Explaining Schwarzenegger – men, biceps and the politics of getting what you want

This weekend I gained a grudging appreciation for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governator, not the Terminator.

Having watched Arnie’s political rise and fall from afar, he always seemed an odd chimera. Lines he’d delivered as the Terminator retrofitted to an ideology he’d borrowed from somebody else. A kind of populist piss-take exploiting name recognition among cinema-going-yet-politically-comatose voters.

But I’ve just read a paper that made Arnie slightly more intelligible to me. Entitled “The Ancestral Logic of Politics” the paper published last week in Psychological Science explored the link between male upper-body strength and assertion of economic self-interest.

The link between what and what?


The short story is that men with big biceps and who are relatively poor tend to be strongly in favour of social welfare, wealth redistribution and other economic programs associated with the political left. More so at least than equally poor but puny men. Whereas the exact opposite is true for wealthy men: the bigger the biceps the more right-leaning the inclination to economic redistribution.

Rational self-interest

In order to understand this finding we need to consider why people take on the political views they do. While people’s politics are shaped by many factors, self-interest is thought to be particularly strong. That’s not to say voters care only about themselves. But rather that an element of self-interest shaped their views.

With this in mind it isn’t hard to see why policies of social welfare and economic redistribution tend to win more support from the poor – they have much more to gain. Likewise, the twin obsessions of plutocrats – slashing spending and cutting taxes – really mean cutting expenditure on welfare and eliminating taxes that redistribute resources to those less fortunate or well-endowed.

If political views are forged out of rational self-interest, then attitudes to redistribution should follow a neat left-right divide, everything else being equal. But they seldom do.

The new paper, by Michael Bang Petersen, Daniel Sznycer, Aaron Sell, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby adds an interesting twist that might explain why the left-right distinction gets so very blurry.

They argue that for most of humanity’s evolutionary past, the biggest, strongest men were best able to assert themselves in negotiations, wrangling outcomes in their interest. Studies of negotiation and conflict in animals show that better fighters consistently gain a disproportionate share of any resource – without having to fight for it. Most negotiations are an ‘Asymmetric War of Attrition’ in which violence need not be deployed but only implied. The possibility of violence alone leads others to concede more than their share.

That’s where the expression “the lion’s share” comes from. Lions contribute little or nothing to most hunts, leaving the hard and dangerous work of killing prey to the lionesses. The lion then moves in and takes as much as he likes – and there is very little any lioness or cub can do about it.

People astutely judge the fighting abilities of other men – mostly by paying attention to upper body strength. And bicep size provides a most conspicuous, reliable cue of upper body strength.

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that men with greater upper body strength feel more entitled to having things go their way. And they become aggressive more easily. The same does not seem to apply – at least not to the same extent – among women.

The link between male upper body strength, fighting ability and dominance is nowhere near as strong today as it has been throughout our evolutionary past. And democratic processes ensure that strong men can no longer wrest political outcomes in their own interest. Or at least they can’t do so by brute strength alone.

Petersen and colleagues argue that we retain many of the psychological mechanisms whereby strong men assert themselves, and weaker men are more likely to concede. And that shows up in the conviction with which stronger and weaker men hold political views that are in their rational self-interest.

But the result does not apply among women.

Interestingly they repeated the same study in three countries: The USA, Argentina and Denmark. The pattern held in all three, although it was weakest in Denmark. I wonder if the lower income inequality in Denmark, and the social benefits of Danish social welfare programs have eroded the link between physical strength and convictions about redistribution?

Am I a robot?

This paper embodies the kind of evolutionary psychology that routinely gets people’s backs up. We often believe our convictions are reasoned, rational and reasonable. To be told that deeper motivations of which we are not even aware might sway our ideologies and beliefs can be awfully confronting.

The authors are not claiming that attitudes to economic redistribution are settled, hard-and-fast by some combination of socioeconomic status and bicep size. The value of this paper is in showing how our evolved biology and our contemporary politics can interlink in interesting ways, creating nuanced individual differences.

Readers of this column will be familiar with my obsessive interest in the links between biology and ideology. Particularly in the sphere of sex and reproduction, where insecurity over paternity, conflict between spouses and divergent attitudes regarding the regulation of fertility all generate deep political currents.

Readers will also know how I despise the idea that biological effects are “hard-wired” (a particularly dull computing metaphor for human behaviour) or immutable. The beauty of evolution, for me, is in the subtle play between biology and environment. Which is why I’m delighted that this simple (though logistically demanding) study has revealed yet another way in which evolved biology adds nuance to our understanding of political behaviour.

I am already thinking about how to measure the importance of the bicep-redistribution link relative to other influences on political attitudes. And about how to dissect the basis for the link?

Does going to gym reshape a man’s political outlook? Or do men more interested in asserting their self-interest politically tend also toward bicep-building exercise regimes?

And does one measure the bicep on the right or the left?

Arnie, the Republican

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s politics should never have surprised me. He may have played the fictional underdog Conan the Barbarian, but his speech at the 2008 Republican convention revealed that Arnie, since he first picked up a dumbbell in Graz, has been about the muscular, assertive kind of masculinity so beloved of Republicans and the right in general:

I finally arrived here in 1968. What a special day it was. I remember I arrived here with empty pockets but full of dreams, full of determination, full of desire. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race on TV. A friend of mine who spoke German and English translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering the taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican.” And I have been a Republican ever since.

P.S. About my Yoda complex

Those of us who study evolution and its relation to the human condition often note with a mix of amusement and concern for the future of humanity the ways in which the dankest backwaters of the internet distort our words.

Last week’s article on The Evolution of Lying caught the eye of “Creation Evolution Headlines” who managed to wrangle out of it the idea that the paper by Luke McNally and Andrew L. Jackson on which I was reporting somehow demonstrated that science and a rational world view constitute elaborate self-deception (shielding us from the blinding truth of fundamentalist literalism?).

They suggest McNally, Jackson and I all have “Yoda Complexes”. Interesting, because the Urban Dictionary indicates the Yoda Complex “is especially prevalent among political radicals, conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and schizophrenics”.

I don’t normally draw attention to this kind of nutbaggery, but their article ‘Evolutionists Confess to Lying’ contains such Onionesque self parody that it makes great entertainment.

I also mention it because Jackson (now tweeting as @yodacomplex) tweeted me the link while I was finishing this column. And what should I discover at the bottom of the post? Another incisive takedown – in this case of the Psychological Science paper on politics and bicep size.

I think not this could be a coincidence. THE FORCE, must it be. Hmmmmmm.

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 Evolution of Lying

Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature.

Thus concludes the abstract of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that considers the evolution of “tactical deception” using a theoretic model and a comparative study of primates.

I’m interested to see how the news media handle this paper. Because the main conclusion – that lying is a way of exploiting others’ cooperative behaviour – seems awfully obvious. But I suspect the true value of today’s paper is a bit more nuanced.

Cooperation evolves

Many species – most notably our own – have evolved quite extraordinary capacities to cooperate. We might take cooperation as an obvious facet of life, but long-term cooperative gain requires a willingness to put aside narrow self-interest in the short term. And that doesn’t evolve easily.

Cooperation makes it possible for some individuals to cheat, prospering off the cooperative efforts of others. Cooperate too readily and you might get taken for a ride. Cooperate only grudgingly and you don’t reap the benefits of working together.

Evolutionary biologists and economists find that even the simplest models of cooperation – such as the prisoner’s dilemma game, explained in the video below – can lead to complex rules about when an individual should cooperate and when it should try to cheat.

The prisoner’s dilemma.

Peer into the natural world, and the range of possible behavioural patterns that have evolved to fetter cheating and allow cooperation to flourish becomes even more complex.

Continue reading The Evolution of Lying

Penis size may be driven by women (oh, and it matters)

How important is penis size?

Authors from the Australian National University, Monash and La Trobe provide the most complete answer yet: the size of a flaccid penis can significantly affect how attractive a man’s body is to women.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (a journal commonly known by its initials as PNAS), Brian Mautz, Bob Wong, Richard Peters and Michael Jennions use a clever experimental manipulation of computer-generated imagery – CGI – to test the effects of variation in penis size relative to height and torso shape (shoulder width relative to waist width) on the attractiveness of male bodies to women.

While they found that torso shape was by far the most important determinant of attractiveness, penis size has about as much influence on attractiveness as height.

It’s the kind of science made for easy-reading 100 word news-porn in the tabloid press (“Size really does matter”). Or for wowser columnists to work up a morning’s indignation that a scientist somewhere did something interesting when everybody knows the rules:

Scientists should be finding new ways to extract coal-seam gas or cure the cancers that tend to afflict late-middle-age columnists (see the recent controversy when Fox News attacked Patricia Brennan’s research on duck penises).

If Tom Waterhouse wasn’t so busy swotting for Friday night football, he’d have already installed Mautz as hot favourite for the next igNobel Prize (for science that makes you laugh and then makes you think).

And yet for such a tabloid-ready topic, the paper itself is a study in how science should proceed in sober and restrained steps.

Evolution of penises

Genitalia tend to vary more dramatically than almost any other physical trait. And evolutionary biology has made stunning progress in resolving why.

For the most part, studies of animal penis size and shape have focused on the effectiveness of various structures in delivering sperm to where it needs to be, in removing sperm that a female had received from previous mates, in stimulating the female to use that male’s sperm, or even inflicting damage on the female so she would not mate again.

One of the more striking features of the human penis, when compared with other primates, is its length. Relative to body size, the human penis dwarfs that of bonobos, common chimpanzees, gorilla and orangutan. And our erect stance and face-to-face social interactions make the penis a highly conspicuous feature.

That conspicuousness has led anthroplogists and pop-scientists alike to speculate on the potential for penises to act as a sexual signal. Some have even suggested that a large penis may be a signal of more general health and vigour, and that the evolutionary loss of the human baculum (penis bone) may make the penis an honest signal because size and arousal can’t be faked. Continue reading Penis size may be driven by women (oh, and it matters)