Do a PhD with us at UNSW Sydney: Economic inequality as a driver of sexual competition and gendered traits

Could this PhD project explain Kimye? We reckon it could unlock this and other important mysteries.

This is an exceptional opportunity at UNSW Sydney for students interested in how evolved traits interact with economic circumstances to shape behaviour in contemporary societies.

Students may be trained in evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, economics or other disciplines.

This position is supported by the generous Scientia PhD Scholarship Scheme at UNSW Sydney, Australia. In addition to a stipend of $40K p.a. There is a $10k p.a. Travel allowance, and other opportunities for career development.

The supervisory team is:

Project Description

We propose to test the exciting idea that economic inequality among households also shapes mating competition, giving rise to many of the stark sex differences in dress, spending patterns, and mental and physical health that pervade societies. While wealthy Western countries have progressed steadily toward gender-equitable opportunities over the last century, differences between women and men in aggression, interests and the incidence of diseases like anxiety and depression have, paradoxically, increased. It is clear that ossified old ways of understanding gendered traits as either biologically essential o

r socially constructed have little to offer in terms of further understanding.

Our approach transcends old territorial boundaries, and promises a newer, better and more general way to understand gendered behaviours, including those implicated in harm to mental health, safety, and happiness. The work will involve both experimental psychological research and analysis of economic data. The project will be designed in collaboration between student and supervisors.

There may be opportunities for field work in Australia or the Pacific islands.

This is a highly competitive scheme, with excellent support, open to students from any country.

Interested students must express interest by 21 July (20 July in the Western hemisphere due to time differences). To learn more and to express interest visit the official UNSW page.

At the same time as you fill out the form, please email rob.brooks – at – unsw.edu.au a CV, academic transcript, and a few paragraphs on why you are interested int his project, plus any questions you have for us.

Up to 2 students will be asked to submit full applications in August.

There is also a lot more about the scheme at http://bit.ly/2sbUtJE

How often does Donald Trump wash his hands?

How clean is that finger, Donald?
How clean is that finger, Donald?

Move over Nate Silver! The statistician and author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t may have called 49 out of 50 states right in the 2012 US Presidential election. But today I note that my predictions for the 2014 mid-term elections were 100 percent correct.

Mostly, that’s because I made only one. But it was a goodie. Noting the hysteria that then abounded about the West African Ebola outbreak, I predicted that it would propel a rightward swing in the mid-terms.

One might expect that an epidemic limited almost entirely to West Africa should be way, way down on the list of factors likely to swing American voters. What with ISIS, the economy, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues of greater direct relevance to the United States.

But a spectacularly scary hemorrhagic fever outbreak – ravaging countries a mere single plane flight from the USA! – holds the potential to propel a rightward swing next Tuesday.

Readers of this column will know of my obsession with understanding how evolved psychological traits shape ideological and political differences. My Elections in the Time of Ebola column drew a link between heightened disgust sensitivity, outgroup fear and conservative voting intentions. Noting the U.S. media’s apparent terror of Ebola reaching American shores (rather than, say, visiting horrific hemorrhagic death on hundred, and displacing or inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Africans), I suggested that keeping Ebola fears foremost might flush out the right-wing vote.

Turns out that’s exactly what happened. Psychological Science just published a paper by Alec T. Beall, Marlie K. Hofer and Mark Schaller with the captivating title Infections and Elections: Did an Ebola Outbreak Influence the 2014 U.S. Federal Elections (and if so, How)?. Schaller was the first to propose the crucial, to that time unexpected, links between disease, disgust and political traits like outgroup fear and conservatism. And his group lead the world in studying not only the links but the psychological basis for those links.

Outbreak

The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, and first gained international attention in March 2014. Six months later, the outbreak was ravaging West Africa, and flaring up in other parts of the world. On September 30 2014, The US Center for Disease Control confirmed that a man who had traveled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia had Ebola. He subsequently died, and two nurses who had treated him were infected but recovered. And on 23 October, Craig Spencer, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor who had cared for Ebola victims in Guinea became the fourth and last case in the US ‘outbreak’.

Once the CDC announced that Ebola had made it to the U.S.A., media coverage there intensified and people grew markedly more concerned about the possibility of an epidemic. Beall, Hofer and Schaller recognised the importance of this transition, and so they analysed polling trends from September and October, as well as the volume of Internet searches for the term “Ebola”.

Interestingly, after the first of October, once the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the USA became more salient, voters’ intentions swung discernibly toward Republican candidates. And the more voters searched for “Ebola”, the stronger the change in their voting intentions.

Interestingly, people’s concerns about Ebola appear to have influenced voting intentions in states that traditionally favour Republican candidates, but not in those that predictably vote Democrat. One might expect conservative politicians to play up disease fears particularly strongly within conservative electorates that appear to be flirting with swinging left.

Politicians should have clean hands
Politicians should have clean hands

The Hands of The Donald

Fortunately for West Africa, and for progressive politicians in general, the Ebola outbreak is largely over. That won’t stop politicians from appealing to voters’ basest fears. Donald Trump has done so shamelessly in his claims that Mexican immigrants bring “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border”.

From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s repeated characterisation of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” to Marco Rubio’s desperate attempts to imply a Trumpish deficiency in the penis department, Trump’s hands get a lot of attention. So much so that he recently saw fit to defend his own hands
in an interview with the The Washington Post’s editorial board:

“Normal,” the Republican presidential front-runner insisted. “Strong.” “Good size.” “Great.” “Fine.” “Slightly large, actually.”

Perhaps it isn’t the size of his hands that matters in this election. Perhaps we should be paying attention to how clean he can keep them?

AC/DC “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” Live at the River Plate.The Conversation

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

Is there really a single ideal body shape for women?

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

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

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

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

Waist to hip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the BodyLab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More meaningful than the mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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
ss

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.

Worse than sex? M is for May and for Masturbation Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, in Elders’ honour, Good Vibrations says:

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

Politics of the pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching the enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wins, who loses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the three?

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

 

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

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

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

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

Questionable figures

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

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

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

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

In whose interest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does it matter?

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

Paternity testing now much easier and cheaper.

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

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

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

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

What’s the answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation

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

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Fear not the hipster beard: it too shall pass

If you haven’t been outdoors in a few years, you might not have noticed that beards are back. Back in such a big way that apparently many New York hipsters are paying north of US$8,000 for “facial hair transplants” to embellish their patchy beards.

While the hipster subculture appears to be ground zero for the latest swerve toward beardedness, men who would not be seen dead in skinny jeans or thrift-shop cardigans are letting the whiskers grow in a way that hasn’t been fashionable for decades.

Why are beards sprouting from the unlikeliest faces? And is there anything that might make them stop?

The advantage of rarity

Today in Biology Letters we provide experimental insights into why beard fashions come and go, and why there is no single optimum pattern of facial hair. By we, I mean my former Honours student Zinnia Janif, my colleague and Zinnia’s co-supervisor Dr Barnaby Dixson and me.

We speculated that a phenomenon called “negative frequency dependence” (NFD) might help explain diversity in facial hair patterns. Negative frequency dependence simply means that rare traits enjoy an advantage.

In evolutionary genetics, NFD selection is an important force, favouring rare genetic alleles over more common ones. In guppies, for example, males bearing rare combinations of coloured spots are both less likely to be preyed on and more likely to gain matings in the wild. So a rare colour pattern can spread very rapidly until it becomes so common it attracts attention from predatory fish and starts looking like old hat to female guppies.

A sample of male guppies, caught from Alligator Creek, North Queensland, where they occur ferally. The size and placement of colour spots in male guppies is among the most genetically variable traits yet studied.
Rob Brooks

The selective advantages enjoyed by rare colour patterns explain why guppy colour patterns are among the most genetically variable traits yet studied. Could more subtle forms of NFD selection explain why so much genetic variation persists in most traits, even though natural selection is expected to remove genetic variation by eliminating “bad” genes. Under NFD, “good” or “bad” depends on how common the gene is.

What if, we speculated, rarity also operated in the world of fashion? In this case, what if rare patterns of facial hair enjoy an advantage purely on account of their rarity?

Experiment

To test this idea we set up a simple experiment using a suite of photographs of 36 men. Each man had been photographed when clean-shaven, with five days of growth (we call this light stubble), 10 days of growth (heavy stubble) and at least four weeks of untrimmed growth (full beard).

One subject displaying the four levels of beard: clean shaven, five-day growth, 10-day growth and full beard.
Barnaby Dixson

Subjects, recruited via our research group webpage (where we are always seeking subjects and Facebook – thanks IFLS for the traffic), each rated 36 faces – one of each man. Over the first 24 faces we manipulated the rarity of beard types. Subjects either saw all 24 men clean shaven, all 24 with full beards, or six men from each of the four levels of beardedness.

We then analysed how subjects rated the same – last – 12 pictures comprising three from each beard level. In line with our prediction, when clean-shaven faces were rare (among the early 24 pictures) they enjoyed a significant premium in attractiveness ratings (in the last 12) over when they were common. And when full beards were rare or when the four levels of beardedness were evenly distributed, full beards enjoyed significantly higher attractiveness than when full beards were common. Five- and 10-day stubble did not really vary in attractiveness across the three treatments.

What this means is that, under experimental conditions at least, patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they are common. Whether this scales to more nuanced judgements in the more complex and varied real world remains to be seen. But it suggests that beard styles are likely to grow less attractive as they become more popular. And that innovative new styles may enjoy a premium while they are still rare.

Fashion and facial hair

Negative frequency dependent choices might well be an important ingredient in changing facial hair fashions. The current fad for facial hair is just the latest development in a long history.

Dwight E. Robinson went to the trouble of scoring the facial grooming of all men pictured in the London Illustrated News between 1842 and 1972. In the 1890s, more than 90% of men pictured had some form of facial hair, a figure that dropped to below 20% by 1970. Sideburns occupied the news in the mid-19th century, whereas full beards reigned from 1870 to 1900, only to be replaced by moustaches.

Negative frequency dependence might play a role early in an establishing fashion.

The New York Times reckons the current beard trend emerged among local hipsters in late 2005. I’m not sure the NYT would notice anything that happened or – heaven forbid – started outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. But suffice to say the current fashion has been almost a decade in the making.

Noveau-beard has been propelled along the way by various sportsmen, movie stars and musicians. But the fashion has now spread to the point where astute commentators reckon the tide of hipster cool has turned. When Buzzfeed breathlessly lists the “51 Hottest Hollywood Beards”, it’s time to seek higher ground to avoid the tsunami set off by the implosion of cool.

That is one way in which negative frequency dependence can work: when a fashion goes mainstream it loses the advantage of rarity. And so it begins to subside.

“Joaquin Phoenix is a Poser”. Graffiti stencil, New York City.
David Shankbone/ Flickr

Not everybody should grow a beard

Much of this discussion has concerned the attractiveness of beards. But although many hirsute men have formed the zealous conviction that their beards place them at an advantage with the ladies, evidence is far more equivocal.

Dixson’s previous research has shown that heavy stubble – a substantial growth that is well kept – is more attractive than clean shaven, light stubble or a full beard. And individual women vary in their tastes, some are pro, and others vehemently anti-whisker.

Far less ambiguously, beards tend to make those men who can grow them look more masculine. Hardly surprising, actually, given the ability to grow facial hair kicks in during puberty, marking the transition to manhood. The beard might be as much a signal to other men as it is to women, which might explain why so many warrior cultures grew resplendent beards, and why professional sports teams grow beards in playoff-time solidarity.

Female attraction to bearded men can arise due to the manly connotations of facial hair. Nicki Daniels certainly makes this point in her hilarious Open letter to bearded hipsters.

Unfortunately, you guys have turned it into a fashion statement. The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity. Sure it looks sexy, but whatcha got under there? There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks, and most of you can’t change a fucking tire.

If the messages signalled by growing facial hair are diminished when every man-boy over 20 is sporting a beard, that constitutes another way in which negative frequency dependent choice might work.

The reasons beards diminish in value when everyone is wearing them remain to be teased apart, but the fact that they do suggests that the hipster beard, like the handlebar moustache, the mutton chop and countless other fashions before them, will, in time, pass.


“Jimmy Niggles”, grew Australia’s highest-profile contemporary beard to raise awareness about melanoma. Now he’s looking to sell it for A$1million to support cancer research.
Tim Jones

P.S. Beard Season is coming up

You may already have encountered Jimmy Niggles (aka Scott Maggs) and friends who are raising awareness about melanoma – in honour of their mate Wes who lost his life to melanoma at age 26 – through their Beard Season campaign. Jimmy uses his resplendent beard to start conversations with strangers (and leverage considerable media interest) about the importance of having their skin checked. Jimmy is currently selling his beard for A$1 million in order to raise money for melanoma research.

Talk about a positive expression of contemporary masculinity.


The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Can monogamy undermine intelligence?

Yes

At least over 100 generations in Drosophila melanogaster vinegar flies.

“Male cognitive performance declines in the absence of sexual selection” proclaim Brian Hollis and Tadeusz Kawecki in the title of a paper out this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

It’s the kind of experiment I love to see done – in somebody else’s lab. Set up some populations (lines) of a fast-breeding animal. Let some lines compete for mates but impose strict life-long monogamy on the other lines. Repeat. Then, a couple of years down the line, if all goes well, measure various traits you predict will be affected by the presence (competition) or absence (monogamy) of sexual selection.

Normally, monogamous lines end up more productive. When there is no advantage to males of jostling for dominance over one another or competing frantically for female attention, the fittest males are usually those that stay alive and don’t harm the females. But in lines where males have to compete with one another, females often end up collateral damage of the robust competition between males and even the chemical warfare between their ejaculates.

But this particular paper looked at male smarts.

Put a male vinegar fly into a vial with one receptive and a few non-receptive females, and he will court them all. How quickly he realises which female he should be courting can be used as a measure of his mating savvy.

No surprises that this measure of smarts declined after 100 generations of enforced monogamy. Each monogamous line male comes from a long line of male flies who never had to decide which female to court.

But it turns out that males from monogamous lines were also much slower to learn to associate a particular smell with the likelihood of their vial being shaken (a nasty thing for a fly to endure). So, it seems there’s some kind of general decline in cognitive performance in those lines where monogamy has been enforced for 100 generations.

Sexual selection for smarts

It’s a pretty neat finding from a purely genetic and evolutionary point of view. That removing the normally hectic competition among males (by enforcing monogamy) to find, court and sometimes coerce female flies leads to the whithering of cognitive performance reveals the role of sexual competition and mate choice in the evolution of cognitive capacity.

Of course the Drosophila study says very little directly about human intelligence. It’s value – apart from the discipline-specific genetic issues it addresses – is the clean experimental evidence it provides that sexual selection can favour the evolution of cognitive performance.

But this evidence cannot help but stir human curiosity. To what extent do we owe our much-celebrated human intelligence to sexual selection?

In The Mating Mind, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller made the intriguing case that we owe much of human intelligence to the never-ending competition to out-compete our rivals in love and to find, court, keep and even manipulate potential mates. In the past decade or so, support for Miller’s hypothesis has accumulated from a variety of sources.

Does this mean we’re getting dumber?

Ever since Darwin gave us a viable process – natural selection – by which evolution occurs, some thinkers have fretted about whether people are getting dumber. In 2012 I wrote about one such argument in which Stanford geneticist Gerald R. Crabtree lamented that humanity is “almost certainly” losing its superior intellectual and emotional capacities.

Such worries seem to come from a misplaced nostalgia about the purifying nature of natural selection in the past. The idea that back-in-the-day, those of below average intelligence fell victim to lions, wolves or starvation. But modern human institutions, by mollycoddling the intellectually weak, are somehow undermining our collective genetic intelligence.

It’s the kind of argument one might expect to find in a 21st Century tabloid lamenting the rise of the welfare state. But it’s not too far from Plato either.

Coming from exactly this position, Herbert Spencer mangled Darwin’s idea of natural selection into the pithy but hopelessly wrong notion of “survival of the fittest”. When Spencer co-opted natural selection to substantiate laissez-faire capitalism and oppose the “poor laws”, he diminished evolutionary thinking in a way that it has never quite shaken.

Likewise, Francis Galton drew on the work of his cousin – Charles Darwin – to argue that governments protecting the weak and infirm thwart natural selection’s role in improving humanity. In so doing he gave us several important statistical concepts, including correlation, regression to the mean. And he extended it to suggestions for action that initiated modern eugenics, another shameful perversion of evolutionary thinking.

The idea that human intelligence is on a slippery evolutionary slope lubricated by the protections societies provide to their less fortunate or well-endowed citizens has always been a dangerous one. But while Spencerian survival of the fittest doesn’t hold as much cachet as it once did, I am still often asked by well-meaning readers whether an apparent decoupling between intelligence and reproduction is leading us up the evolutionary garden path.

The questioners seem propelled by the same intuition that had people giggling at the band Harvey Danger’s 1997 observation that “only stupid people are breeding”. It’s an impulse that fuels much of the prurient interest in and sneering about shows like Maury or Jersey Shore.

Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta. Relevance? 0:57.

It would be impossible to replicate the Drosophila experiment in humans. Randomly assigning individuals to life-long total monogamy for generation after generation is a fate, once you think of it, far worse than it even sounds. Hopefully the mistakes governments made with eugenics have taken half-baked social engineering programs of this nature off the table.

Modern civilisation has – thank goodness – eliminated many of the ghastly ways in which our ancestors could die. And that has dampened natural selection on survival. But sexual selection is always happening. And much of sexual selection’s power comes from the fact that humans aren’t life-long exclusive monogamists.

People compete for status and wealth with which to attract mates, they do the most outlandish things to get noticed and they engage in the most elaborate forms of persuasion to court and seduce their mates. Either to find somebody to settle down with, or to find another, or another. These are all expressions of intelligence, and while smarts don’t always win out, they usually help.

In fact, Mark Roeder, in his new book Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth, argues that the anthropocene has seen intelligence eclipse strength vigour as determinants of success. If that is the case, then sexual selection may well ensure that 100 generations – say 2,500 years – from now, humans will have evolved to be much, much smarter than they are today.

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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Don’t fear the patriarchy, girls. Just keep your knickers on!

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

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

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

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

Qualified admiration

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

Strategy? What strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suppression of female sexuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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