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’.


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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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.

The Conversation

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Science in 140 Characters: Tweeting Back when Academic Colleagues Grumble about Social Media

By Steven Hamblin; Michael Kasumovic, and Rob Brooks

With each passing year, technology percolates further into academic life. The year 2013 might look, in hindsight, like the year academic social media use went mainstream.

Numbers of tweets and Facebook likes are no longer the sole obsession of Conversation authors. They now get tallied by university administrators, funding bodies and journal publishers as “AltMetrics”, and soon academics may be judged on their social media performance as much as they are on their teaching evaluations and grant success.

Academics have embraced social media for a variety of uses: networking, teaching, collaborating, open research, activism and more. Opportunities for fruitful conversation and new approaches to our work abound; and yet, the halls of the ivory tower (which, for ethical and budgetary reasons, is now made of melamine) reverberate with grumbling disaffection about the place of social media in academia.

If you’re an academic who uses social media, you’ve almost certainly heard the complaints and questions; if you’re an academic who doesn’t, then you’ve probably uttered them yourself.

There are plenty of helpful people on Twitter willing to let you know what they think. Twitter

We asked our followers on Twitter what they thought, and here we tackle the most common of these objections head on.

How else? We’ll tweet the answers.

‘It’s only for students and early-career types. I don’t need it or it doesn’t need me’

As social media (SM) take-up is age-dependent, we present views of an early-career researcher (Steven: @BehavEcology), a lecturer (Mike: @mkasumovic) and an ossified professor (Rob: @Brooks_Rob).

[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: I wouldn’t force SM on anyone but to say that we don’t need you b/c you’re not a grad student is just wrong. We need more voices, not fewer.[/colored_box]

[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: “Only for young people” is a typical crusty academic objection. They said the same thing about the Rolling Stones. And the internet. Who looks silly now?[/colored_box]

[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: But then again, we don’t need folks that don’t want to be there. That being said, don’t grumble when you’re left in the dust …[/colored_box]

‘You can’t speak in full sentences or say anything useful in 140 characters’ via @BioInFocus

[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Tweeting is a form of conversation. Monologues always stifle conversation – a point to note for verbal interaction. 1 tweet=1 thought.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: Short tweets also allow others to chime in with their own ideas. More contributors can mean more flow in a discussion.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: It’s useful to practice concision (ahem #3), and appropriate simplification is not the same as dumbing down.[/colored_box]

Twitter founder Evan Williams explains how the idea of twitter started at a TED. jurvetson

[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: All media have strengths & limits. Blogs provide unlimited space, you can go for hours on YouTube. Choose the right medium for your message.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: 3hr videos & 7K word blog posts are often ignored. Simplifying & clarifying a msg is a highly useful skill that requires deep understanding.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: Now if only scientists could hone that skill for use in their research contributions. Think about how much easier papers would be to read![/colored_box]

‘There’s too much noise and not enough signal’

[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: Noise is common in today’s world. Learning how to sift through it is another valuable skill.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: True, in a random sample of @Twitter. Don’t be random: follow good people, unfollow blatherers & curate lists of people worth following.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: SM can be a firehose. Don’t be afraid to miss important things, because if they’re important, you’ll see them again (retweets, shares, etc).[/colored_box]

[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: SM allows you to move in and out of connections and conversations at your own pace. It’s not like exercise where it’s something you have to do.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: Also: garbage in, garbage out. If you want more signal from social media, create it by interacting with people that you find interesting.[/colored_box]

‘It’s too hard to get into. I don’t know what to do’ via @phylorich

[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: Technology is only going to get more complicated no matter how much Apple tries to simplify things. Technological literacy is important.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: Social media requires some effort to find interesting people. Start slowly; use search to find people you know / admire on that platform.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Like all conversations, listen in for a while. Find good people to follow. Don’t try to read it all. Expect trial & error.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: And really, what’s simpler than just writing down a thought. It just means that it may lead to a conversation and discussion. Isn’t that good?[/colored_box]

‘It’s a waste of time / reduces productivity / creates opportunity cost for writing papers and grants!’ via @cmbuddle, @nhcooper123 and more

[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: I’ve heard the same said about writing for @ConversationEDU which is among the most rewarding things I have done as an academic.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: Productivity can only be judged in hindsight. I’ve read some great articles through Twitter links that gave me some new research directions.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: SM can also lead to new collaborations, invited talks, job & grant proposals, etc. that help your career. All of these have happened to me.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Social media are tools. Use them well and they can enhance your work. Use them poorly and you can waste a lot of time.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: No one is productive for a straight 8 hours. Everyone needs breaks. Twitter simply provides snapshots of what going on in digestible bits.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: It can and should be said that SM isn’t for everyone. It also requires a lot of effort for these benefits, which don’t appear magically.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: The net reaches a lot of people who could be subjects for a survey, or who might know the answer to an arcane question. And some make an art-form of helping.[/colored_box]

@ResearchGosling is always happy to help social and psychological researchers, and to offer affirmation and support. Twitter

‘It’s narcissistic / it’s just self-promotion’ via @CoopSciScoop and others

[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: Postdocs and grad students like me could stand to learn a little self-promotion. It’s a hard scientific economy out there.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: What’s wrong with stating how awesome videogames are, or how they can change kids’ world views?[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Media stories focus on top tweeting celebutantes and entertainers. Their narcissism is outweighed by humble people tweeting genuine news & high concepts.[/colored_box]

Some really good examples of people to follow:

  • @ClairLemon mentions and analyses interesting stories about sex, gender and evolution faster than anyone I know.
  • PhD student @Tomhouslay covers evolutionary topics in my areas of specialty. I often find new papers through him.
  • @DrEmmaLJohnston tweets on environmental change, ecology and marine science.
  • If you’re not reading people like @edyong209, @carlzimmer or @marynmck (among many others) then you’re missing out on great science writing.
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: But not everything you say needs to be “high concept” or self-promotion. Not even an opinion![/colored_box]

‘It’s not supported by senior admin’ or ‘senior admin are pushing it’ via @cmbuddle and others

[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: I’ll admit that this isn’t one I’ve run into so far. Everything I’ve done with SM has generally been ignored by admin. Lucky?[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Social media is a versatile extension of your professional & personal self. Beware admin attempts to brand, standardise or sanitise it![/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: It’s important to keep social media out of the reach of senior admins, but also important to remember you are responsible for what you say.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Administrators should be happy: social media reduces the financial and time costs of networking.[/colored_box]

Why we use Twitter and what we’ve gained

[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: By following @JennyJohnsonHi5 I can have a laugh & folks like @TomEdWhite can keep me abreast of conferences I can’t attend. How versatile![/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: Travel, for Austral academics, is more onerous than for our boreal colleagues. Social media enables me to build and maintain networks without spending all year on ‘planes.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: I’ve met a lot of people at conferences by organising tweetups (meetings of people tweeting at a conference). It’s a great ice-breaker![/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”yellow”]@mkasumovic: It allows me to learn about topics I’d like to pursue. Following @LGamesNetwork provides insight into how to educate using games.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”blue”]@Brooks_Rob: This cross-discipline conference I am organising next year arose out of social media contact with Jason Collins who writes the exceptional Evolving Economics blog.[/colored_box]
[colored_box color=”green”]@BehavEcology: There’s new ways to gain from SM every day. Example: no journal club in your dept.? Start one of your own online! [/colored_box]

Commenters get extra points for keeping it within 140 characters!

Michael Kasumovic receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Rob Brooks receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Steven Hamblin 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.

The Conversation

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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)

The left-wing ‘War on Science’: what to do when new knowledge challenges our beliefs and interests

Is there a left-wing “War on Science”?

Influential American sceptic Michael Shermer devotes his latest column in Scientific American to arguing exactly this. Bloggers have already sent some considerable heat in Shermer’s direction, particularly because he implies that anti-science attitudes on the political left are somehow equivalent to those on the right in the contemporary USA.

Michael Shermer. Photograph by Byrd Williams, from Wikimedia Commons
Michael Shermer. Photograph by Byrd Williams, from Wikimedia Commons

Much of Shermer’s scorn seems to grow out of a distrust of technology within the environmental movement:

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food. Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs – genetically modified organisms – in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.

I am not the only one who think he draws too-long a bow. In the USA, the Republican party has turned ignorance into a virtue through its embrace of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and the Tea Party. Republican politicians and their commercial and clerical backers, well aware that an educated polity and a strong research establishment threaten their vested interests, seek quite deliberately to trash both the public image once enjoyed by science and the public good it delivers.

The threat from the left seems to me far less well-coordinated and less substantial. Anti-vaccination activism remains fringe and far from confined to the left. Not all environmentalist lefties see a global conspiracy behind every GMO. And scepticism about profit motives plus a respect for evidence about the consequences of genetic modification are not necessarily a rejection of science.

Shermer, of all people, understands that political ordination doesn’t always fall on a strict left-right axis. He is possibly the world’s most prominent sceptic, an outspoken atheist who has written important books on evolution, but he is also a devoted libertarian and, until recently, a life-long gun owner. He is unusually consistent in his commitment to evidence and a sceptical view, although when he waxes positive about libertarianism I wonder if I detect a slight glow of devotion. Not a common combination of traits, and impossible to peg on a strict left-right continuum.

And yet despite some unease, I find myself in broad agreement with Shermer’s piece. Particularly it’s more modest but informative sub-heading: “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum”.

Shermer’s criticism of the anti-science left is strongest when he pins the “cognitive creationists”: those who “accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain”. Cognitive creationists (I prefer the label “Cultural Creationists”) come almost exclusively from the political left, and their agenda is the complete rejection of a role for biology in human affairs.

Anybody who writes about evolution and the human condition understands just how easy it is to incense both the left and right at once. I imagine if you come back to this page in a day or two, you’ll see direct evidence (although most readers of The Conversation seem to be polite and open to reasoned argument). Continue reading The left-wing ‘War on Science’: what to do when new knowledge challenges our beliefs and interests