Ovulatory overtures: do women’s preferences shift with their fertility cycle?

About a month ago, I stumbled across a paper that left me with the warm reinforcing glow that comes with being right. The rather artificial experiment played female subjects two pieces of music varying in complexity, and then asked each subject which of the male composers they preferred sexually.

All the subjects had to go on was the piece of music. Women at the fertile peak of their menstrual cycles preferred the composer of the more complex tune for a short-term thing. At other times, or if asked to rate the composers for suitability as a long-term mate, subjects showed no preference.

Does the attractiveness of musicians depend on the fertility of the beholder? Source: True British Metal/Flickr
Does the attractiveness of musicians depend on the fertility of the beholder?
Source: True British Metal/Flickr

My vindication was the paper’s support for the idea that music-making ability is preferred by those seeking mates. Such a preference is one possible way in which our ability to make and to appreciate music might have evolved, a position I happen to think is right. The paper’s test is pretty simplistic, but the addition of a new line of evidence gives the idea of sexually selected musicality another strand of support.

As a scientist I should be wary of my own reaction to the evidence. It is all too easy to count the “hits” that confirm one’s world view and ignore the “misses” that contradict it. Such confirmation biases build distorted and, left uncorrected, incorrect beliefs. They constitute the prime ingredient in religious faith and ideological zeal of all stripes. And science, done properly, is the only known antidote.

But what happens when science probes the most ideologically polarising questions themselves? Well, a very interesting case is unfolding right now concerning the science of how women’s fertility cycles shape their mating preferences.

Shifting cycles

The musical complexity paper builds on an idea in evolutionary psychology that women’s sexual preferences and desire “shift” at the time they are most likely to conceive, favouring men of superior genetic quality over the kinds of men likely to make good long-term partners and co-parents.

This “ovulatory shift” idea contains many moving parts, each of which has at least some support.

The best man to raise a child with is not necessarily the best available gene-donor. So women might profit, in evolutionary terms, from pairing up with a nice guy – hard-working and safe to be around – while discreetly also mating with a different, highly masculine, ridiculously good-looking paragon of genetic endowment.

Such liaisons come with risks, however, including being abandoned – or worse – by the cuckolded long-term partner. So it’s only worth “gene shopping” when you stand a good chance of conceiving.

The very idea makes many people squirm. But not everybody is squirming for the same reasons.

Mating preferences, and even how revealingly a person dresses may be influenced by where in her ovulatory cycle a woman is. This isn’t a popular idea with some ideologies and religions. Nathan Rupert/Flickr
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Social conservatives and religious traditionalists are often confronted by the sexual freedom and agency implicit to ideas like ovulatory shifts. It’s just too much to accept that some “good” women – wives even! – might play the odd away game for biologically rational reasons. Much easier to wash all that complicated evolutionary nuance away with a cleansing deluge of scriptural literalism.

Interestingly, evolutionary accounts of human behaviour come under equally heavy fire from the opposite end of the political spectrum, where biology can play no role in understanding society.

Cultural creationists, most of whom show no evidence of ever having attempted to understand evolution, prefer to flail at “biological determinism”. In their cartoon world, those wearing the white hats shoot from the hip at oppressive biological stereotypes, secure in the conviction that everything interesting about human behaviour arises as the results of learning, culture and social construction.

But here in the 21st century, serious academic research should be above the ancient laziness of pitting nature and nurture as competing alternative explanations. Unfortunately that habit remains too hard for some authors to break.

I’m certainly not claiming we shouldn’t be very careful about biological explanations. When it comes to women’s hormonal cycles, history shows the merit of treating biological claims sceptically. One can draw a straight line from Classical Greek ideas that the uterus wandered about the body causing all sorts of ailments to the popular diagnosis of “hysteria” for almost any psychological and many somatic complaints in 19th century Europe and America. The very word “hysteria” derives, after all, from the Ancient Greek for uterus.

Biological ideas are still widely used to confine and oppress women. Consider the recent controversial review of studies concerning mood and the menstrual cycle. Here at The Conversation, Jane Usher took that paper as reason to dismiss premenstrual moodiness as a myth. Jayashri Kulkarni responded that PMS is real and denying its existence harms women.

What about the evidence?

Whatever our political predispositions, surely we should be led by the evidence in deciding whether ovulatory shifts are real?

An impressive number of studies show that women in the “fertile phase” of their cycle express different preferences from those in less fertile phases and women on hormonal contraception. In particular, preferences for typically masculine male faces, behaviour, personality traits and health all peak in the fertile phase. And at peak fertility, women in long-term relationships more often report attraction to men other than their partners, and weaker attraction to their partners. Especially when those partners aren’t paragons of masculine attractiveness.

Many other studies, however, have found no evidence of ovulatory shifts. And who knows how many unpublished studies languish in researchers’ file drawers? This is just the job for a meta-analysis, the suite of statistical techniques for sifting a body of published results to extract the overall level of support for a hypothesis.

Recent months have seen not one, but two meta-analyses of the subject. One, led by Wendy Wood at the University of Southern California, concentrated only on preferences for high testosterone, masculine, dominant or highly symmetric men. Their meta-analysis of 45 published and 13 unpublished studies found no overall support for shifting preferences across the menstrual sample.

Across town at UCLA, Kelly Gildersleeve, Martie Haselton and Melissa Fales meta-analysed 134 effects from 38 published and 12 unpublished studies. In contrast with the USC paper, the UCLA team found robust cycle shifts when women were asked to assess men as short-term mates, but not when assessing long-term partners.

Two meta-analyses, published within months of each other, asking more-or-less the same questions, but getting different answers. That’s not how science – and meta-analysis in particular – is meant to work!

But, strangely, it’s not an unusual turn, particularly when the research concerns polarising issues. My good friend Michael Kasumovic pointed me to the following meta-analytic back-and-forth on the links between videogames and violence. His precis:

2001: Video games cause aggression.

2007: No, no, it’s a publication bias.

2007: See, it really is a publication bias.

2010: No! They really cause aggression!

2014: Actually, violent games increase aggression, and pro-social games increase prosocial behaviour …

… and so on it rolls. Meta-analyses of existing data do not provide the hoped-for panacea, much less change minds, particularly when the issues at stake are ideologically infused. At least not instantaneously.

This ovulatory shift story is far from done. The differences in sampling and analytic approaches between the two teams are still shaking out. I’ve been in touch with both groups and will shortly write another column trying to get to the bottom of how they reached such different conclusions. Before I do so, I’m waiting for one more paper to hit the presses, in order to be sure both teams have similar opportunities to present their cases.

Look who’s celebrating

For now, it remains worth asking what’s at stake. This rather intriguing business represents just the latest squall in the tempestuous relationship between the biological and social sciences. And it’s in danger of descending into rude tribalism.

Claims about ovulatory shifts are seen in some quarters as just another example of women’s cyclical biology being used to deny their agency and independence.
Wood’s meta-analysis invigorated anti-biology defenders of the faith. Consider Amanda Hess, whose Slate column often oozes thoughtful analysis. Whenever Hess strays near evolution, however, she becomes unwilling to weigh complex ideas on their merits. Her column on the Wood et al paper ran with a weak “patriarchal scientists don’t understand female bodies or the ineffability of culture” trope.

Her own biases confirmed, and making no mention of the earlier-published Gildersleeve meta-analysis, Hess rejoices that “a woman’s cultural conditioning is even more powerful than progesterone”. To pilfer an expression as hackneyed as Hess’ argument, 1975 called, and they want their false nature-nurture dichotomy back.

This kind of buy-in to outmoded all-biology-equals-determinism thinking seems so at odds with the way evolutionary psychologists and biologists really view behaviour. But look at what the journalists were working with. The press release USC put out quotes Wood:

A complete model of human reproduction needs to acknowledge women’s impressive capacity to regulate their own behavior and not fall into the trap of biological determinism […] Regardless of what might have been normative in ancestral history, with the advent of cultural roles and complex group living, women showed the capacity to tailor their reproductive activities to a variety of social roles.

Resistance to the notion of ovulatory shifts, then, springs from the fear that if hormones influence behaviour, then that robs women of their capacity to act independently and in their own interests. Claire Lehmann provides a scathing rebuttal of this argument, skewering wilful cultural creationist ignorance of how biology really shapes behaviour.

What fascinates me about this issue is how the anti-biology crowd are jumping at shadows. If evolutionary psychology conferences are secret gatherings of patriarchs out to perpetuate the status quo, then their cover is outstanding. What I see is a vibrant field concerned with the subtle ways in which women and men act in their own evolved interests.

Ovulatory shift research in particular, conducted by far more women than men, uncovers ever more intriguing nuances to women’s motives, actions and how they interact with deliberate and equally strategic behavioural self-regulation. Those most interested in gender equity and the liberation of female sexuality from that other – original – kind of creationism might well benefit by paying close attention to the field of evolutionary psychology.

Science is always done by people, and we all bring our own personal and scientific preferences and biases to the enterprise. What we do with those influences in the face of the evidence is what really matters.

The Conversation

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

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

What Makes Us Human?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorian clash of minds

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

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

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

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

Mind the gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, in Elders’ honour, Good Vibrations says:

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

Politics of the pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching the enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wins, who loses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

The Conversation

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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It’s Darwin Day, a celebration of science and reason

Happy Darwin Day!

Is that even an appropriate thing to wish somebody? Especially so close to Valentine’s day?

Charles Darwin in 1868. The white-bearded patriarch that haunts every creationist and reason-denier. By Julia Margaret Cameron, Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Darwin in 1868. The white-bearded patriarch that haunts every creationist and reason-denier. By Julia Margaret Cameron, Wikimedia Commons.

Darwin Day, according to the International Darwin Day Foundation, is “a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin”. The idea of the celebration arose in 1993 as part of the activities of the Stanford Humanist Community, then headed by biologist Robert Stephens. And in the intervening 21 years, it has proliferated, with hundreds of events listed in cities around the world.

I’m not normally one for celebrating birthdays. Kids’ birthdays are great fun, of course. And the odd 40th or 50th gives a good excuse for a party. But I know some adults who celebrate every birthday as if it were a surprising stroke of fortune. Some grown adults even see each birthday an occasion to take an entire day off work.

So you can imagine my ambivalence at celebrating the birth, some 205 years ago, of a scientist. Even a scientist as world-alteringly important and as genuinely beloved as Charles Robert Darwin.

As an evolutionary biologist, and a scientist who finds great joy and meaning in communicating with the public, I am thrilled that there is a day around which so many events and seminars can be organised. That these activities celebrate evolutionary biology, science, and reason is particularly special.

I laud the work if the Darwin Day Foundation and all the organisations and people who make Darwin Day a highlight for curious, open and intellectually alive citizens. The Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, which I direct at UNSW, has been running a veritable fiesta of the Darwinian, with a conference and public lectures last week, and a seminar by eminent evolutionary psychologist Martin Daly on Tuesday 11th.

But it bears reflecting on the importance and modern relevance of Darwin himself.

The great naturalist ranks among the most important scientists of all time, no less significant than Galileo, Newton or Einstein. But more than that, I agree with philosopher Daniel Dennett who argues that Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – the discovery of how natural selection works, is the ‘most important idea anyone ever had’.

Darwin’s discovery revealed the very process that made us who we are. Which is why evolution, and Darwin himself gets so infuriatingly up the nose of those who have the most to lose from a genuine understanding of how the world works and how humanity came to be. Paper over the cracked relationship between science and religion all you like, but natural selection changed everything about how we understand ourselves and our world. Which is why Darwin’s Origin of Species was an instant bestseller.

To borrow Dennett’s inimitable turn of phrase once again, the idea of natural selection is a “universal acid”:

it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.

Darwin’s impact on the world far transcends science. It overshadows the contributions of most of his contemporaries, including that other titan born on February 12th, 1809: Abraham Lincoln.

And yet, I’d be disappointed if this celebration of all things Darwinian began and ended with the great naturalist. Because I think a focus on the person tends to undersell the science, and the importance of science and reason in general.

Watching snippets of last week’s so-called debate between the improbably bow-tied pro-science persona, Bill Nye, and the insufferable Creation Museum director, Ken Ham, I was reminded of just how much the reality-deniers depend on Darwin.

Nye did a creditable job. With the characteristic humility of a true scientist he showed his willingness to admit what he doesn’t know. His smug opponent, of course, had all the answers, and they were all to be found in one particular book. Yet I am in the camp who believe Nye did a disservice to science by going mano-a-mano with the Ham actor, lending him false legitimacy, and implying false equivalence between reason and biblical literalism.

It irks me the way Nye, and others who engage with creationists, allow the likes of Ham to call evolution “Darwinism”, and those who can comprehend natural selecton and the overwhelming evidence for it “Darwinists”. An over-reliance on Darwin as our standard-bearer diminishes a broad and vibrant science, giving the impression it begins and ends with a guy who was born over 200 years ago. I believe the creationists and their dullard adherents go further, implying that one white-bearded gentleman is somehow being slyly substituted for another; Darwin supplanting God.

The beauty of an idea like natural selection is that it is true, whether or not you choose to believe it. It is true, even if nobody has yet had the idea or written it down. If Darwin hadn’t done so, Alfred Russell Wallace’s version might have swayed the Victorians. Or perhaps a version discovered some 50 years later.

Humanity owes a great debt to Darwin, and the history of science followed the course that it did because of him. But he isn’t the reason for the season; science does not need deities and messiahs. Darwin was merely the guy who figured it all out first and explained it to a world who were ready for the idea.

I am delighted to celebrate Darwin’s 205th birthday today. But I also think the old guy has done a good job and should not be leant upon like some deity, some final authority, the other 354 days a year.

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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Religiosity more about reproduction than cooperation

The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.
The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.

Why do religious beliefs vary so broadly? I’m not talking here about the near-cosmic diversity in the content of religious belief, number and identity of deities, or types of practice. Rather, I’d like to consider why some individuals seem fervently devout while others seem devoid of any superstition.

This question informs the bigger issues of how religions arise and spread, wax and wane, and what effects they have on contemporary society. One popular idea holds that religious belief enhances trust and cooperation within societies. Congregations often take an interest in the welfare of their members, and of others outside the flock. And religious texts contain injunctions in favour of neighbourly love and against homicide, theft and greed.

For many, belief in an all-seeing deity acts to deter bad behaviour. Many genuinely struggle to understand how atheists might be “good without gods”. I wrote last year about a study showing that being reminded of secular police presence can erode much of the mistrust the devoutly religious feel against atheists. When the cops are on the job, believers lighten up.

If the chief function of religion is to establish and enforce cooperative behaviour, then perhaps religions flourished by building healthy, cooperative and fair societies? These societies, in turn, succeeded commercially and in competition with their neighbours. Leaving those neighbouring societies to adopt the successful religion or something similar, or to wither and succumb.

As prominent Evolutionary Psychologist and co-author of a new study (more on that later), Robert Kurzban writes:

Of course a link exists between religion and cooperation, if only insofar as members of organized Western religions really do tend to cooperate with their co-religionists. Members of religious organization cooperate in any number of ways, of course, from bake sales to fund renovations of the nave to cooperative child care to going on Crusades.

But scholars differ on the importance of cooperation. Where some studies support a link between religiosity and cooperative morality, many others fail to find such links. Perhaps other functions of religion act in equally, or more important ways?

Perhaps religion flourishes by influencing reproduction? Religious teachings often concern themselves – sometimes creepily so – with matters of sex, reproduction, parenting and family life. One need only keep half an eye on the U.S. Republican Party to see what I mean by ‘creepy’. But were aren’t immune to reproduction-fixated politicians here, are we Reverend Nile?

Perhaps religion functions to enhance reproductive success? The Abrahamic religions and some animistic African practises, for example, obsess about the certainty with which a father can know that the children his wives bear also inherit his DNA.

Religious doctrine about marriage, contraception, fertility and gender roles might serve to support parents, or at least to enhance fertility. Since the dawn of agriculture, which also spurred the rise of major religions, families and societies that have grown fast have tended to supplant their slower-growing neighbours. Religious practices that supported their flock to ‘go forth and multiply’ would have outpaced their less reproductively-obsessed competitors.

In 2008, Jason Weeden, Adam B. Cohen and Douglas Kenrick suggested that religious attendance in the U.S.A. is a form of reproductive support. In a sample of over 20,000 people, religious attendance trumped other moral issues, as well as well-known demographic correlates such as age and gender, as predictors of religiosity. They suggested that individual commitment to investing in having and raising children (as opposed to enjoying a freer and more varied sex life and family arrangements) spurs greater in religious attendance. And attendance promotes marriage, monogamy and high investment in child rearing on believers.

The U.S.A. is only one country, however, and a rather odd one at that. Two recent international studies have extended tests of the links between religion, cooperative morality and reproductive morality to much larger and more diverse samples of people.

First, in 2011, Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat showed that00089-9/abstract) cooperative morals such as ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’, ‘Cheating on taxes if you have a chance’ or ‘Married men/women having an affair’ correlated with religious devotion in a sample of over 200,000 adults from 87 countries (from the immense ‘World Values Survey’ database).

They found that:

  • Those who believed in deities were less likely to rate moral transgressions as justifiable than non-believers.
  • Those who believed in heaven / hell also held stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions.
  • Believers in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those whose belief centred on a deity as a Spirit or Life Force.

They interpreted this finding as support for the idea that religions enhance cooperation by imposing an idea of ‘supernatural monitoring’ and ‘fear of supernatural punishment’.

Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)
Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)

The brand-new paper, by Jason Weeden (again) and Kurzban used the same World Values Survey data, but split the moral transgressions into those that concerned cooperation (e.g., fare evasion, tax evasion, receiving stolen goods) and those that concerned sex and reproduction (e.g. affairs, abortion, contraception, premarital sex).

How subjects answered questions about transgressing cooperative morals still correlated with religiosity, but the correlation between religiosity and ‘reproductive morals’ was about four times as strong and far more consistent across countries. But tellingly, when both cooperative and reproductive attitudes were put into the same statistical model, the effect of the cooperative attitudes disappeared while the effect of reproductive attitudes remained intact. It seems that the forms of morality most directly related to religiosity concern reproduction rather than cooperation.

So, belief in all-knowing deities with the power to condemn you to hell seems to shape people’s attitudes to abortion and extra-marital activity. But it doesn’t make you less likely to fiddle your taxes or drive when you’ve had a drink too many.

This study adds to the emerging picture that religious institutions, practices and doctrines take their shape from human nature. That makes it no concidence that young people often stray from the flock during periods of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, and that many return when they start families. Savvy pastoralists know this, providing creches, mothers’ groups and Sunday schools, making it easy for young families to attend services.

And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that theocrats so often bang a ‘Family First’ drum.

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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Does it matter if atheists are smarter than believers?

News just in, guaranteed to stir smug nods from non-believers and incite irritation among the devout: intelligence correlates negatively with religious belief. You may have seen similar – or contradictory – reports in the past. That’s because scores of studies have asked if religiosity is associated with intelligence. But a just-published meta-analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Review considered the evidence from 63 different studies. Overall, the meta analysis establishes the existence of a “reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity”.

Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.
Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.

University of Rochester psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman, together with Judtih A. Hall from Boston’s Northeastern University, gathered 80 years of published studies that estimate correlations between religious belief or behaviour (like attendance at religious services) and intelligence. By intelligence, they mean analytic intelligence, also known as the g-factor, which captures the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”. Only 2 of the 63 studies found statistically significant positive correlations between religiosity and intelligence, whereas 35 showed significant negative correlations.

Intelligence linked more tightly to religious belief than religious behaviour. While some studies showed that smarter children were less likely to believe, the pattern was weakest among school-age subjects. The links grow stronger in adulthood and remained strong at older ages. Intelligence at one age also predicted religiosity some years later – an additional indication that intelligence shapes religiosity.

Here, then, is one of those thorny issues, guaranteed to stir circular discussion. It confirms what many atheists and agnostics have always felt – that the mere flexing of one’s intellectual fibres, particularly when accompanied by the scientific method, leads a great many smart people from the path of religious belief.

And yet the finding, and the very act of me writing this column, drips with confrontational implications. Does the fact that non-believers are, on average, more intelligent than believers also imply that the religious are all low-g? Or that believers are inferior?

Of course not. The ranges overlap, and many very smart people are, or profess outwardly to be, believers. And I’m sure most people know some rather dull atheists or agnostics, too.

It’s what you do with it

There’s a cringe factor at play here, too. Many people who flirt with unbelief can’t quite bring themselves to accept that the vast majority of humanity who profess a belief in one or more deities are somehow missing the obvious fact that gods don’t exist. This – the very embodiment of humanist humility – probably keeps a good chunk of non-practising folk from admitting – even to themselves – their absence of faith.

Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons.
Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons.

That same unwillingness to call believers dumb, even implicitly, underpins the cringe many secularists experience at the term Bright – an adjective turned into a noun by a vibrant community who organise around their naturalistic worldview. Prominent brights include atheist pin-ups Dan Dennett, Margaret Downey, and sceptic James Randi.

Richard Dawkins – another Bright – gave atheist intellectual superiority a fine point in The God Delusion. I’ve long supported Dawkins, excusing his haughtiness as old-school Oxbridge irascibility. But his clumsy recent tweets about the state of science in the contemporary Islamic societies show just how obnoxiously patronising his view of religious people has become. Perhaps those who doubt but can’t bring themselves to admit that believers are wrong or ignorant, are timid? But perhaps they are wise?

What CAN we learn

Beyond the posturing or smug self-assurances, can any good come from considering the links between intelligence and belief? I believe that it can. In understanding how those associations arise, we learn about the nature of intelligence, the nature of belief, and – just maybe – how to build a world that transcends ignorance, nepotism, exploitation and mumbo-jumbo.

Education, particularly in the sciences, tends also to diminish belief. One can see why some big religious institutions, with the most to lose from the progress of secularism, proudly foster spectacular ignorance like Kentucky’s Creation Museum. That is not to say that all religious outreach propogates ignorance, but only that many organisations – historic and contemporary- do a pretty good job of it, and seem to benefit directly as a result.

The new meta-analysis by Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall does a thoughtful job of considering the processes that might cause the association between intelligence and religiosity. They discuss three main suites of ideas, none exclusive of the others, underlying what might be quite complex dynamics:

  • Intelligent people are more likely than their peers to defy convention and conformity. This makes them resistant to religious dogma and to the social pressures that bind people together in professed belief.
  • Intelligent people adopt analytic thinking styles. Last year I posted about how a few simple exercises in analytic thinking can erode belief. Folks who score lower for g tend to rely more heavily on intuitive thinking styles, which tend to suit religious learning.
  • Religion confers on adherents benefits such as building secure social attachment, mandating self-control and building a sense of self-worth. On top of that it can provide rules by which to navigate difficult social and moral waters: monogamy, loyalty, commitment. People who do well on intelligence tests tend also to find these areas easier to navigate unaided. Nobody does so perfectly, of course, but perhaps intelligent people have less need, on average, for religious belief and practises.

That said, perhaps the high self-confidence and self-esteem that often accompany intelligence give people a confidence – often misplaced – that they can navigate life’s tricker passages without assistance, supernatural or otherwise.

As a not-entirely-on-topic treat for anyone patient enough to reach the end of this article, Tim Minchin’s animated movie, Storm, explores pseudoprofound mumbo-jumbo of all types.

This post is, as always, a mere taste of the material I’m reporting on. If this question interests you, I do recommend you get hold of the meta-analysis, which contains a very full discussion of the complex issues underpinning the religiosity-intelligence association.

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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In the name of the father: the links between religion and paternity

Religion and sex have had a complicated relationship since the very beginning. Adam & Eve, 1504. Albrecht Dürer

Religious leaders and holy texts share deep preoccupations with sex and reproduction. From Islamic purdah to Jewish menstrual purity laws, to Vatican neuroses about everything from contraception to masturbating nuns, it isn’t difficult to see in all major religions a masculine obsession with reproductive control.

 

But how did religion and reproduction become so entangled? Perhaps it’s just a hangover from a simpler time, near the genesis of religious beliefs, when sex and reproduction were more straitened. Or maybe societies do better with strong – apparently divine – rules and laws about marriage, fidelity and paternity.

Or perhaps religions arose as a way for the powerful and the anointed to control the reproductive lives of others – particularly for men to control women’s sexual behaviour and reproduction.

We may never get to the bottom of all these questions, but new research suggests religious practices can very effectively assure paternity – the aspect of reproduction that undoubtedly causes men most anxiety (especially in the post-Viagra era). Continue reading In the name of the father: the links between religion and paternity