Why the masculine face? Genetic evidence reveals drawbacks of hyper-masculine features

Miranda Kerr’s face typifies the properties of feminine youthfulness, including a short face, small chin, thick lips and small brow. Source: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Commons
Miranda Kerr’s face typifies the properties of feminine youthfulness, including a short face, small chin, thick lips and small brow. Source: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Commons

Studying sex differences seldom gets boring. While the origins of differences in behaviour and cognition remain fiercely – and quite rightly – disputed, we don’t sweat quite as much about why women and men differ in size and strength. The Darwinian process of sexual selection, in which genes that improve an individual’s reproductive success get inherited by the fruits of that reproduction, does a good job explaining sexual dimorphism (male-female differences) in these traits.

For most of our evolutionary past, bigger men fended off rivals for female attention and out-competed other men to secure status and resources that made them useful contributors to a family. These advantages offset the energetic costs and higher disease risk of building a bigger body. But what of other manly features? What use is masculine hairiness? Or those features that tend to distinguish male from female faces.

Like many other traits, from height to interest in the affairs of the sisters Kardashian, facial features differ between women and men, on average, but there is much overlap between the sexes. Using just the distances between ‘landmark’ features, the differences between masculine and feminine faces come down to complex multivariate vectors, but features like brow prominence, chin size and lip thickness play a big part.

Women and men both rate female faces bearing typically feminine features as more attractive than female faces with more masculine combinations of traits. Which might explain why Miranda Kerr’s full-lipped, round-faced, small-chinned visage seems to be everywhere these days.

So it would be reasonable to predict that lantern-jawed, Neanderthal-browed men at the far-masculine end of the facial distribution would be sought-after by women. But reality is far more varied and interesting.

Women don’t usually find masculine faces more attractive than more feminine male faces. For every Javier Bardem or Josh Brolin, there’s an Orlando Bloom or Zac Efron down the girly end of the man-tinuum. More studies report an overall preference for ‘feminine’ male faces than for ‘masculine’ ones.

Javier Bardem’s prominent cheeks, large brows and jaw give his face an exaggerated masculinity. Georges Biard, Wikimedia Commons
Javier Bardem’s prominent cheeks, large brows and jaw give his face an exaggerated masculinity. Georges Biard, Wikimedia Commons

It seems that women vary in how attractive they find masculine faces. Women at the fertile peak of their cycle favour more masculine faces, or at least less-feminine ones, than women not at the fertile peak or on the pill. Women who rate their own partners as highly masculine, or who describe their ideal partners as highly masculine, prefer more masculine faces in experiments. And women contemplating once-off sex or infidelity are keener on masculine-looking men.

The prevailing view in evolutionary psychology is that highly masculine men make great sperm donors but not necessarily awesome partners and fathers. First the downside: highly masculine men are less committed as fathers and partners, less cooperative, more sensation-seeking in outlook and more likely to seek short-term sexual encounters than less-masculine looking men. These downsides of pairing with a masculine man are thought to result from testosterone’s effects on behaviour.

While low-T, less-masculine guys might make better long-term partners, there might be benefits of a fleeting attraction, at peak fertility, to manly men if they are more likely to sire genetically well-endowed kids. It’s an idea bolstered by the findings that women living in countries with lots of disease prefer faces of more masculine-looking men. As do women primed with images of body fluids, skin lesions and other cues of disease. Developing highly masculine features takes plenty of testosterone, an immunosuppressing hormone. Which means only those with the best immune genes can afford to be taxed with high-T levels in puberty. Or so the story goes.

This is one of those ideas with prurient appeal, but patchy evidence. It’s morphing into what my UNSW colleague Angela Moles calls a ‘Zombie Idea’: compelling and considered self-evidently true by many, but not actually that well supported. Every link, from the attractiveness of masculine facial features to the immunosuppressive nature of testosterone to the claim that masculine-looking men have good immunity genes is contested. We don’t know how big the genetic benefits to children might be, much less whether they can offset the costs to a woman of mating with a highly masculine man.

New kinds of evidence

Only with new kinds of evidence can this complex question be more rigorously tested. And such new evidence has emerged, in the form of a paper in Psychological Science by Anthony J. Lee, Brendan Zietsch* and collaborators.

From an exhaustive suite of measures taken from photographs of teenaged identical and non-identical twins and their non-twin siblings, Lee dissected the extent to which variation in facial masculinity-femininity is due to genetic variation. Interestingly, around half the variation in both male and female facial masculinity could be attributed to additive genetic variation. This is the kind of variation on which the idea of “gene shopping” for genetically superior mates depends.

The extensive genetic variation in masculinity makes more plausible the idea that choosing to mate with a masculine man can result in more attractive offspring. But the genes that made a male face more masculine did not make it more attractive. Worse, these same genes made female faces more masculine and thus less attractive. Families that make manly-looking sons tend also to make masculine-looking daughters.

Overall, this paper deals a substantial blow to the idea that masculine men make good genetic sires. Of course, the genes that confer masculinity on both sons and daughters might have other positive effects, including but not limited to improved immunity. That remains to be assessed, hopefully with the same kind of quantitative genetic evidence.

So, why the manly face?

The evidence that masculine faces predict other testosterone-dependent traits typically associated with men suggests the strong action of sexual selection, but the evidence that female mate choice drives that sexual selection is far from settled. Perhaps masculine looks, like size, are more about signalling to other men. It would be better, for the average dude, not to mess with a manly looking man in a tussle or a fight in just the same way he’d avoid a tall, muscular opponent.

Women’s varied and subtle preferences for masculine looks might be a response to the upside of having a mate who is competitive and intimidating toward other men. Some collaborators and I have shown that those countries where disease is rife and women prefer more masculine men are also characterised by high income inequality – a driver of man-on-man competition and violence. Manly, competitive men might have been better providers and defenders throughout a history more violent and competitive that suburban life is today.

Much about the variable preference for manliness and for bad boys remains to be explained. Much, I fear, might be inexplicable. Like the Tumblr “Hot and Busted” of good-looking arrest mugshots. Or the FreeJahar teens who profess to love the alleged Boston Bomber. But none of it is boring.


Disclosure: I have collaborated with Lee and Zietsch on studies of attractiveness unrelated to this new paper.

Bonus: Is this what the Village People were singing about in “Macho Man”?

Macho Man, one of the Village People’s great international nerve-touchers

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

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The selfie, the tummy and the act of war: a dispatch from the battle over female attractiveness and sexuality

When is a selfie a selfie? And when does it become act of war?

Over at mamamia.com, Bec Sparrow has the answer. When the selfie is of six-packing fitness-blogging Norwegian Caroline Berg Eriksen posing in tiny underwear four days after giving birth, it’s an act of war.

Caroline Berg Eriksen’s infamous selfie, posted four short days post-partum. Instagram
Caroline Berg Eriksen’s infamous selfie, posted four short days post-partum. Instagram

Sparrow recognises the hostile intent behind Eriksen’s Instagram posting. What she does not seem to recognise quite as clearly is that her exasperated article is another act in the same war. And that for all their salvos against body-image stereotypes and everything having to be sexy, sites like mamamia.com are part of the fight they claim to be trying to end. A war in which women are the main combatants and the principal casualties.

Much thinking about sexism and the judgments people make about women’s bodies implicates men and the male gaze. Women are objectified by men who desire them, or by women who seek to emulate them and, in turn, be desired.

Challenging men’s behaviour has helped break down objectification. But the very real oppression many women feel in the face of wall-to-wall sexy images and – especially – improbably skinny actresses, celebrities and models remains. Some even claim it is getting worse.

Perhaps we need a transfusion of new ideas to help make sense of the mess? You may not be surprised to learn that I think I know just where to go: evolutionary biology.

Choice and competition

Evolutionary biologists study, among other things, how sexy traits evolve by a process called sexual selection. That’s just a form of natural selection in which traits that give an individual a mating advantage tend to be retained and embellished. Why? Because those individuals who enjoy mating advantages become the parents of the next generation, bequeathing their sexy genes to their offspring.

Sexual selection happens in either of two ways: members of one sex choosing among members of the other, or members of one sex competing with one another. Biologists have long tended to concentrate on competition among males (think of antelope clashing with their horns) and of females choosing the most decorative males (think dowdy bird-of-paradise hens being wooed by the most extravagantly plumed cock).

The study of human mate choice has also paid much more attention to competitive males and choosy females than the reverse. Although we’ve known for some time that both women and men choose their mates, and that women also compete with one another for good mates and for resources.

Competition among women is enjoying a surge of attention right now. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London recently hosted a special issue on female competition and aggression, with some of the highlights profiled in the New York Times. And The Atlantic got involved too, with a piece provocatively titled The Evolution of Bitchiness.

According to the New York Times article:

Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.

Perhaps the most important development in this area comes from psychologist Roy Baumeister and an assortment of his collaborators who have pushed a body of ideas they call “sexual economics”. Pregnancy, menstruation and menopause mean that most women spend fewer days (across their lifetimes) willing and able to engage in sex than most men do. As a result, at any time there are more men than women participating in the “market place”. As a result, sex becomes by-and-large a commodity supplied by women and demanded by men.

Likewise, in most societies men have more access to the resources families use to raise their children. The truer this is, the more incentive women have to control the supply of sex, and to exchange it for male-controlled resources. Women get the best “price” for sex when they restrict supply. Which is why, Baumeister and his collaborator Jean Twenge argue that women, rather than men, are the main culprits when it comes to suppressing female sexuality. They marshall much circumstantial evidence that women drive those customs that keep other women from behaving promiscuously, from slut-shaming, to criticising other women’s bodies and dress-sense, to female genital mutilation.

I can never bring myself to trust black-and-white answers to tricky social and political questions. I’ve considered Baumeister and Twenge’s paper at some length, and their argument is convincing. But I’m also dubious that the entire blame for suppressing female sexuality and judgments of women’s appearances can be shifted from men to women. The key idea that new evolutionary and economic thinking has brought to the study of cultural phenomena like the suppression of female sexuality and the incentives to appear attractive is that female-female competition is an important and long-ignored piece of the puzzle.

And my regular peeks at Mamamia.com convince me that columnists like Bec Sparrow and Mia Freedman are far from passive correspondents in the war over women’s bodies and their sexualities. They are combatants.

Madonna-bloggers and whores

Bec Sparrow’s outrage over the 4-days postpartum selfie was, in my opinion, raw and righteous. Carrying a baby to term and giving birth imposes profound demands on a mother’s body. The last thing any new mother needs, amid a fog of sleep-deprivation, isolation, mastitis and post-natal depression is the sense that returning to her pre-baby size and shape should be first thing on her to-do list.

Sparrow has a point when she fumes “I’m beginning to feel like women posting post-labour photos of themselves is the equivalent of men flopping out their johnsons to see whose is the biggest”. Only I don’t know many men who do that.

But I get the metaphor.

Bec Sparrow would rather know how the new mother is feeling:

Are you coping okay? How are you feeling about being a mum? How are you feeling about your new baby? Connected? Disconnected? Nothing? Are you feeling traumatised about your labour? Did you end up with or choose to have a cesar (sic)? Has your milk come in? Having breastfeeding issues? Wanting to bottle feed but feeling alone? Wanting to cry all the time for no particular reason?

But then I’m not so sure that her readers would find that quite as fascinating. In fact, “minor web celebrity discusses how she feels post-partum” doesn’t make much of a story now, does it?

What does get under the skin of Mamamia readers – a very maternal demographic – is a piece fulminating over how sexy post-baby pictures, be they in glossy magazines or on Instagram, are a sign of all that is wrong in the world. Even better if, at the same time, those articles implicitly criticise the flat-bellied subject’s maternal skills.

Sparrow’s Eriksen piece reminded me of an article by Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman herself, not six weeks ago, criticising a selfie by an altogether more famous new mum. With Kim Kardashian: Are you a mother or a porn star?, Mia joined the on-line rush for the slut-shaming cover of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. Either you’re a good mommy or the shameless strumpet who got famous because of a strategic sex-tape.

The Kim Kardashian selfie that got the Internet and Mia Freedman all animated. Source: Instagram
The Kim Kardashian selfie that got the Internet and Mia Freedman all animated. Source: Instagram

You won’t get a defence of the sisters Kardashian from me. And yet I wonder about the purpose of outrage at those women whose career trajectory has been propelled by sexy images when they dare to try regain that trajectory instead of (or as well as) joining a play-group. Is this kind of story likely to affirm readers who are grappling with the challenges of motherhood? Will it genuinely dampen the intensity of competition among women to be sexy?

What if the outrage at mothers who have the temerity to flaunt their sexiness is a symptom of sexual competition itself? Make it impossible to reconcile sexy and “new mother” and you’ll never have to feel inferior at mother’s group again.

Glamour magazines and websites seem awfully preoccupied with “having it all”. They gush about celebrity couples too surgically enhanced and PR-airbrushed to ever be attainable role models, about those couples’ massive engagement rings, faux-mantic proposals and awkwardly-named babies. Mamamia.com hardly opted out of the psuedo-news of one Kim Kardashian’s engagement to one Kanye West.

Nearly everything in a magazine like Cleo or Cosmo, or a website like Mamamia.com fuels the competition among women: to be hot, to be thin, to be well-dressed, to keep an impeccable home, to succeed in a career, to marry a man wealthier and more successful than yourself and – the cherry on the top – to be an unimpeachable mother.

That is not to engage in the hollow pursuit of media-blaming. The acts of war by Mesdames Eriksen and Kardashian were self-published social media shots. And the thousands of individuals, mostly women, who retweeted or commented on the pictures committed small foot-soldierly acts of war too. As did the many columnists, including Sparrow and Freedman, and their commenters in turn. The competition among women to make the best life for themselves, with male (and female) partners and colleagues who value looks, and wealth and success is not going to disappear any time soon.

Rhapsodising about fairytale engagements, red-carpet gowns, bikini bodies, perfect mommies and the like only creates the ecosystem in which the 4-day-post-baby-selfie can thrive. And so, when a mother tries to be the woman she was – be it by flaunting her sexiness or returning to her career – there seem to be legions of other mothers willing to block her path to the mythical land of having-it-all.

It’s not my place to take sides here*. From where I view it, evolved urges to compete with sexual rivals operate mostly beneath any deliberate intent. But they can be stoked or doused. And publishers – especially ones who want to opt out of harmful stereotyping – should be aware of which one they are doing.

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

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Égalité après la guerre: how war affects in-group fairness

Over the last few evenings, I inhaled Robert Harris‘ novelisation of France’s infamous Dreyfus affair. Told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, the intelligence officer whose scrupulous honesty finally established Dreyfus’ innocence, An Officer and a Spy breathes life into historic events. Events I last encountered in a claustrophobic mid-80’s high school class, from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) to J’Accuse, the impassioned open letter to the French President by which Émile Zola brought Picquart’s arguments to public light.

Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris' book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons
Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris’ book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons

More than a history, though, the novelist in Harris evokes the prevailing social milieu and the psychology of his characters. The loss of Alsace (where both Picquart and Dreyfus spent their early years) and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1870-1 hangs palpably on the ageing French generals. As a result they choose to protect their own in the army at the expense of truth and justice. That same loss also propels the rampant anti-semitism that makes Dreyfus such a convenient scape-goat.

War profoundly shapes the attitudes of those who survive it. Particularly the attitudes to one’s own people and to members of other groups. This might seem an empty truism; the horrors and privations of war can hardly be expected not to reshape attitudes. But to what extent could these reshaped attitudes be functional? And can we understand them in light of evolution and our species’ long history of warfare?

A paper published this week in Psychological Science shows that people affected by war take on different attitudes toward in-group members as a result. And they do so in a manner predicted by evolutionary biology.

Michal Bauer, Alessandra Cassar, Julie Chytiolová and Joe Henrich studied 543 school children in Georgia, 6 months after the brief conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. They also studied 586 adults (18-84 years) living in northwestern Sierra Leone, a region wracked by civil war between 1991 and 2002. In both places they recruited individuals who had not been directly affected, others who had been somewhat affected, and another group who had been profoundly affected, losing family members or being displaced by the fighting.

The investigators administered two economic games commonly used to distinguish selfish, egalitarian and altruistic tendencies. In the Sharing Game, participants choose whether to share a number of tokens (20 in Sierra Leone) evenly (10 each) with another, unseen, participant, or to take a larger share (15) for themselves, leaving fewer (5) for the other player. Self-interested players should always choose the larger share, but those inclined to egalitarianism often divide the tokens evenly.

The Envy Game asks the player to decide between an even split (10-10 again) or an uneven one in which both players get more than in the even split, but the player gets less (13 in the Sierra Leone study) than the other participant (16). The rational player should choose the unequal split, but players motivated to redress inequalities that disadvantage them often do plump for the even split.

In each game, players divided their tokens with someone from their own in-group (an unnamed member of their own class in Georgia, or of the same village in Sierra Leone) or an unrelated, but not hostile out-group (a class at another school, or an unspecified distant village). And the tokens had value. The Georgian schoolchildren could exchange their tokens for prizes. The Sierra Leonian villagers earned as much as or more than the national average per capita daily income.

In both experiments, individuals least affected by war treated in-group and out-group members no differently in the two games. But the more profoundly a subject had been touched by war, the more egalitarian they were in dealing with in-group members. Yet they were less likely, or at least no more likely, to treat outgroup members in an egalitarian fashion than the group least affected by war.

Numbers and cohesion

Why does war lead to stronger egalitarian impulses toward one’s in-group but not toward strangers? Bauer and his collaborators argue that the answer lies in group size and cohesion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to get nervous when adaptive explanations focus on what works best for a group. Group benefits, so beloved of pre 1970’s adaptive storytellers, tend to be undermined by individual self-interest. But war is one of those arenas in which the good of the individual and the good of the group often fall smartly into line.

For most of history, war has been a game of numbers and cohesion. In foraging and horticultural societies, larger groups win far more fights with smaller groups than they lose. And as societies have grown, numbers remained an important element of military success. Throughout Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, to briefly return there, the French generals fret over Germany’s three-to-two numeric supremacy.

So important are numbers that historians fast-track the immortalisation of dramatic victories for the outnumbered side. Hannibal’s victory over Rome at Cannae (216 BCE) is still studied by military tacticians. And Henry V’s thumping of the French at Agincourt shall be remembered, thanks to Shakespeare, from that St Crispin’s Day in 1415 ‘forward unto the ending of the world’.

The Battle of Agincourt, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V

Outnumbered sides that triumphed usually made up for their numeric weakness with some combination of technological advantage, superb tactical innovation and, especially, cohesion. Cohesion makes a difference not only among the troops but in the society as a whole. When people prioritise egalitarianism over personal gain, they are able to build greater in-group cohesion. And this means bigger group sizes, as fewer individuals or splinter groups feel they can do better by going it alone.

The Psychological Science study suggests that war changes the way individuals function in groups, making them more inclined to subvert their own interests in favour of equal outcomes for their in-group mates. The authors argue that this is an adaptive shift from more individualistic ways of behaving to more collective ones as a direct response to cues that the individual’s fate and evolutionary fitness will be tied to that of the collective group.

It remains to be tested whether other tribulations, like being affected by a natural disaster or a disease epidemic, have similar effects. Disasters certainly beget heart-warming tales of personal sacrifice, and occasional accounts of great selfishness. It would be interesting to know if people affected by disasters show the same biases toward in-group egalitarianism, or if any changes are directed more generally at other affected people.

Experiencing war profoundly changes individuals and, as a result, societies. Much attention has rightly been devoted to the profound psychological trauma and ongoing ramifications for mental health that war inflicts on soldiers and civilians. But the new study shows that war also has subtler – possibly adaptive – effects on in-group fairness and attitudes to out-group members.

Perhaps this research will, in time, lead to a better understanding of how to dismantle old out-group prejudices and hatreds before they lead on to more violence (or to Dreyfusian travesties). And how to kindle in more privileged generations the extraordinary cooperation and civic-mindedness often claimed to characterise generations who have experienced war.


A bonus for Shakespeare lovers. What better illustration of cohesion, of subverting one’s own interests to the cause, exists in art, than Henry’s rousing speech before Agincourt?

 

 

 

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Are you a feminist? Two simple ways to tell.

Are you a feminist?

It’s a question I ask of my third-year Animal Behaviour class every year. I ask the question in a lecture, near the end of the course, about human sexuality. It’s a part of the lecture where I discuss sexual conflict: the idea that what’s best for one mate isn’t necessarily best for the other.

This leads on to discussion about how sources of power (such as the work women and men can do in a society), and customs that shape the supply and demand of sex can dramatically change human mating patterns. It’s one of those areas where evolutionary biology offers remarkable, powerful insights into difficult political and ideological issues.

I’m always surprised at how few students answer in the affirmative. Last week, when I asked the question, just two students raised their hands. And rather sheepishly, at that.

Many probably equivocated and held back, reluctant to take a position in front of their classmates. Others have probably not really thought about it that much. And others, sympathetic to ideas of equity have been turned off the idea by negative stereotypes of feminism.

Whether or not to identify with feminism, or as a feminist, has never, it seems, been quite as complicated as it is today. Why wouldn’t it be? Hear the words of one of 2013’s most influential women, Beyoncé, this very week playing to packed Australian arenas.

I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.

The ridiculously confusing bit (something we used to call irony before the hipsters thought it was cool), as Hadley Freeman pointed out in The Guardian earlier this year, is that Beyoncé shares this wisdom in American GQ:

A men’s magazine in which she poses nearly naked in seven photos, including one on the cover in which she is wearing a pair of tiny knickers and a man’s shirt so cropped that her breasts are visible.

Ruminating this weekend over why so few of my smart, engaged students would self-identify as feminists, I was delighted to see this flow-chart in an article by Rebecca Searles, an editor at Huffington Post.

Uncomplicating feminism

Rebecca’s flow-chart is, of course, a massive oversimplification. With a delectable bit of polemicism thrown in: if you aren’t in favour of equal rights and opportunities then “you probably suck as a person”. It probably won’t become the new litmus-test for a suddenly unified global feminism. But she makes a valuable point that, in a world where rights and opportunities are far from equal, those in favour of equality, or equity, should seek to find and identify with one another.

Searles designed the flow-chart in exasperation at contemporary pop-stars and teen role models who misuse the term “feminist”, thus both undermining feminism and sounding “like idiots”.

If you’ve read this column, or my book, you’ll have a fair idea of my politics. Many of my favourite commentators on this site call me a feminist, thinking it’s a perjorative term. Which makes them sound, as Rebecca Searles might say, “like idiots”. But forced to label myself, I’d call myself pro-feminist.

Why so reluctant to call myself a feminist? As a man, I’ve always felt it safest to stay outside the tent, happy for the title to be conferred from within but reluctant to claim it for myself.

It’s a position reinforced earlier this year with the spectacular fall from grace of Hugo Schwyzer, the internet’s erstwhile highest profile male feminist. Schwyzer rather dramatically quit the internet (how is that even possible?), twice, when his troubled personal history and a recent affair caused a rather spectacular swing against him in his own constituency [I’ve collated some of the key links here].

There is inherent peril, I feel, for a man who leans too heavily on his feminist credentials. Some, like Schwyzer, have Tyrannosaur-like skeletons in their closets. All of us have the inevitable flaws to which human flesh is heir.

I’m not the only one for whom the word “feminist” conjures an exclusively feminine image. Consider the hilarious Caitlin Moran. In her recent book How to be a Woman, Moran first laments the same confusion among women over whether to identify as feminists:

We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?

Moran then offers what, after Searles’ flow-chart, must be the second most pithy test for the question “Am I a feminist?”

So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.

a) Do you have a vagina? and b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

Moran’s book is, of course, about How to be a Woman – it says so in the title. She writes for the Beyoncés and the Katy Perrys, and more particularly for the women who revere them and think that Keeping up with the Kardashians might be a pretty neat idea. She’s not offering serious “am I a feminist?” advice to academic men who understand that equitable societies are the best kind to live in.

But Moran’s rather anatomic test reinforces my concerns about whether a man can ever claim to be a feminist in the same rock-solid way a woman can. Even though I’m entirely clear on the importance of feminism and of equity.

But it does seem clear to me that the question “am I a feminist?” should be a simple one for any woman to answer, irrespective of whether they use Searles’ method or Moran’s.

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

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Religiosity more about reproduction than cooperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They found that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s been a while. Meantime, here are some links. (Bullshit jobs, evolution & business, psych studies, atheist family values & evidence-based feminism)

It’s been three weeks, I am told. Time to list a few of my favourite recent reads.

  • By far my favourite read of the last few weeks is David Graeber’s piece about “Bullshit Nonsense Jobs“. Yes, all you generation Xers working in finance, I’m looking at you. Reminds me of a piece I read in the early 1990’s about how the vast majority of the industrialised world would need to be plugged in to entertainment to keep them passive. Cue reality TV and the iPhone. I don’t agree with everything Graeber says, but it’s entertaining, and I leant on it a bit when I wrote a last-minute pre-election piece about research groups and how they resemble small businesses.
  • Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson launched their Darwin’s Business blog at Forbes with a brief post on multilevel selection, cooperation and business with Sears Ignores the Invisible Band
  • Jamil Zaki makes an important point that most readers of non-fiction, especially popular psychology, evolution & economics stories already get: Psychological Studies are Not About You
  • You’ll know already that I enjoy reading studies in which atheists are compared to fundy’s. This article by Piper Hoffmann explains how Atheists have Better Family Values than Evangelicals. Not sure if that’s really something most atheists want to crow about, but it does bestow a certain schadenfreude.
  • Claire Lehmann, a Facebook and Twitter friend I have never met, posts a well-argued plea for evidence-based feminism.

Watch out! I am (supposed to be) doing some comedy at the Ultimo Science Festival’s Science Stand-Up Comedy night. I’ll be appearing witht he genuinely funny Justine Rogers and Simon Pampena.

Blurred double standards

All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. All these bad books have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. (Robert Harris: The Ghost)

The same can be said, probably more so, for pop songs.

For months now I’ve been resisting the temptation to write about Robin Thicke’s international nerve-toucher, Blurred Lines. And for the past week, that temptation has doubled, since Miley Cyrus’ bizarre VMA Awards performance alongside Thicke. Yesterday’s accounts that YouTube pulled the plug on a Blurred Lines parody video was the last straw. I can no longer resist the temptation to write about the same damned thing everyone else on the interthewebz is writing about.

I’ll try to keep it brief.

My interest in Blurred Lines springs from a fascination for those songs that tap into the dark and fascinating ambiguities at the heart of sex. My own research concerns the sometimes cooperative, often conflict-ridden tensions that thrum between mates, and between sexes in humans and other animals.

To misquote Robert Harris, bad love songs all have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. Torch songs and saccharine ballads seek to paper over the darker and more delectable aspects of sex. Which is why songs imbued with the sinister or ambiguous make much more fascinating listening.

Thinking about my younger years, the music that lasted was definitely not the stuff about being young and wild and free. Yes, for my dear friends, the best days of our lives had a Bryan Adams soundtrack. But for me, R.E.M. (think I Took Your Name), the Violent Femmes’ (Prove My Love), and The Cure (Lullaby) sang about rejection, insecurity and unrequited love in far more fascinating ways.

And I was not an especially melancholy youth.

At its best, and I use the term “best” with some hesitation, Blurred Lines threatens to explore the space between two people orbiting one another. Orbiting with mutual, if not explicit, intention to get it on. In the end, however, it merely prods at the hellz-tricky issue of how a “good girl” can want it too.

The sanitised video of “Blurred Lines”.

What starts out as a rather catchy lament of the ambiguous line between Madonna and whore descends into a rather nasty description of what Robin Thicke is offering to do to the nasty-good girl. I’ll leave you to decipher the lyrics or read them yourself, but one isn’t left wondering why Thicke is considered by some to personify misogyny and “rape culture”.

Listening to his lyrics is a bit like watching a Connery-era Bond film. It’s vaguely enjoyable until the bit where you recognise that you’re witnessing a sexual assault.

The enormous traction of Blurred Lines comes not only from the dubious lyric, but also from the not-safe-for-work version of the video featuring several women, topless and wearing the scantiest flesh-coloured briefs, writhing for Thicke and, we are led to believe, whatever rhymes with Thicke.

But the impression I’m left with is that it’s fine for the good girls to get nasty if they’re under tight masculine control. It’s as sexless as Robert Palmer’s contrived video for Addicted to Love. I’ve never fathomed why some people find that video sexy. I think the lipsticked droid-like automata float some people’s boats because they don’t threaten to talk.

Addicted to love. A joyless, lifeless piece of work.

In my opinion, Blurred Lines ultimately fails because the balance is all wrong. And as a result the song, like Addicted to Love fails to ring true. Thicke man-splains a feminine dilemma with the transparent say-anything cynicism of the desperate would-be seducer. The clean lines of the music and the spotless video serve to make a rather sordid story more clinical. A story ripe for parody.

The Blurred Lines parody video – currently not banned from YouTube.

Apparently this parody by a group of Auckland University law students was blocked by YouTube, but it is up and running today. Nonetheless, accounts of it’s banning certainly created a teachable moment about sexism and double standards. And granted it the kind of notoriety necessary for viral success. First objective achieved, I imagine. If UNSW Law Revues were consistently like this, I might even consider going.

But what about Miley Cyrus?

If you have been living on a remote planet for the last ten days, then you’d better find a way to avoid watching this:

Miley Cyrus’ now-infamous performance at the VMAs. The key bit happens around 4.00.

Yes, it was a bizarre performance. But not bizarre enough to be considered avant-garde. There’s been a lot of talk about the performance. Maybe, maybe too much talk. Mostly in faux-concern for Ms Cyrus, general uproar about sexualising children (Miley, it turns out was once a child), or flat-out misogyny. I won’t add to these lines of considered analysis.

But what I loved was the way in which Miley broke Blurred Lines.

A 20-year-old former child star, who the public is simply unready to see as a sexual being, had a whole lot of fun sending up Thicke and his plodding, misogynist lyrics. She’s the good girl who ain’t too worried about the fallout from getting nasty. She made sex, and the ambiguity of lines that sometimes do blur, very very messy again. She dragged Thicke away from his tightly-controlled video romp with picture-perfect topless models and into a messier world where women talk, and sing, and “twerk”.

Look at his face around four minutes into the video and you know he knows it. Hannah Montana has dragged him, dick first, far off-brand.

What was Miley thinking? I couldn’t tell you. And that’s the interesting bit. I know rather too much about the content of Robin Thicke’s controlled and sterile fantasy. And I’d rather not.

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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Mate choice in the lab can teach us about ‘real life’ and speed dating encounters

Kip Dynamite, brother of Napoleon. Big with the on-line babes.
Kip Dynamite, brother of Napoleon. Big with the on-line babes.

My research group are always looking for subjects for our internet-based studies in which we measure how certain traits enhance or detract from an individual’s attractiveness. And we worry, like other researchers in the field, about whether these measured preferences tell us anything at all about real-life mating decisions. We’re encouraged, today, by a carefully-designed study showing that preferences can tell us quite a lot about the early stages of mate choice.

When asked about the characteristics they most desire in a potential mate, women and more likely than men to emphasise a potential partner’s wealth or ability to acquire resources. And men weight more heavily the importance of a woman’s physical attractiveness.

Findings like this draw criticism for the way they reinforce tired and oppressive stereotypes. But just because a finding is consistent with stereotype does not make it wrong. Stereotypes, after all, come from somewhere. Yes, the relative importance of various attributes varies with time, place, and the ways in which women and men make their livings economically. But the pattern is too strong, and too well replicated, to simply wish away.

At least it was, until evolutionary psychologists started to get their hands on data from modern speed-dating events. In one important 2005 study, both sexes relied almost entirely on physically observable traits: facial attractiveness, body shape, height, age and race. Actual decisions under the frenetic pressure created by speed-dating situations appear not to differ as much as the preferences scientists measure in carefully-controlled laboratory settings.

Some subsequent speed-dating studies found evidence more consistent with documented sex differences in preferences. But others did not. And few of the studies found that the preferences subjects admitted to, or expressed in laboratory tests, predicted much about who those subjects would like or want to see again after a speed-dating event.

Speed-dating events, like weddings, parties, and any invitation-only social event of the type where people used to meet before they had OKCupid, Ashley Maddison and Bang With Friends, are unusual in that only a very limited sub sample of humanity makes the invite list. All sorts of undesirable and invisible types have long since been screened out. So the strongest preferences, the ones by which individuals eliminate not-in-your-wildest-dreams unsuitable candidates never need to be expressed.

In their new paper, Norman P. Li and six collaborators recognise that speed dating events and similar arenas tend to screen out the least desirable candidates. After all, who would want – make that pay – to come to an event that captured an accurate sub-sample of humanity? Where ‘catches’ are outnumbered by the ones you’d be happy to let get away?

In a series of four experiments, they exercised considerable care to present a range of individuals who varied in social status or attractiveness. In one experiment, each subject spent seven minutes chatting on-line with a confederate of the experimenters. The confederate pretended to be either a high-school graduate working in a fast food restaurant, an undergraduate majoring in business, or a law student about to join a top law firm. Subjects were also shown a picture of the person they were ostensibly chatting to. The picture was actually experimentally assigned, with one third of subjects each seeing an unattractive, moderately attractive or highly attractive photograph.

After the chat session, subjects were asked a number of questions, including whether they would be interested in going on a date with their chat partner. Male subjects placed greater emphasis on the attractiveness of the photograph when making this decision. But women were more swayed by social status. More intriguingly, subjects who had in pre-experiment measures shown a strong preference for status or for attractiveness showed much stronger tendency to be influenced by those traits within the experiment.

Li and his coauthors used a similar experimental approach in two ‘modified speed dating’ trials. In one they went to considerable effort to recruit and present people of high and low socioeconomic status. In the other they sought out a mix of ‘unattractive and moderately attractive individuals’. How they screened these individuals is one detail I could not find in the methods.

Again, men responded more strongly to attractiveness than women did. And women responded more strongly to status. In both cases, the result was driven largely by the strength with which low attractiveness or low status individuals were rejected. Unattractive women and low status men seemed to be invisible – not even considered as possible mates.

In addition, the strength of these ‘real-life’ choice decisions was associated with the strength of preferences measured under standardised conditions. It seems that experiments, like the ones my students and researchers in countless other groups around the world do, certainly measure something real about the first filters by which we eliminate unsuitable potential mates.

What they can tell us about fine-scale choices among largely-compatible suitors has yet to be as well established.

Dating, as Napoleon Dynamite reminds us, is all about having skills. If you’re using those skills IRL or chatting on-line like Napoleon’s brother Kip

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

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

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

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

Happy National Orgasm Day

Today, I have just learned from Katherine Feeney’s column in the Sydney Morning Herald, is National Orgasm Day. What that is and how you celebrate it remains a little opaque to me*. Will there be organised pageantry and fireworks later on? Should one share this knowledge with a loved one? Or simply mark the occasion alone?

National-Orgasm-Day

But my recent post on the function of orally-induced orgasm stimulated so much discussion, I thought I’d dip into the pages of Archives of Sexual Behaviour for an appropriate reading to mark NOD. And the journal did not disappoint.

The paper I chose, so steaming hot out of peer review that it has only just been published online, concerned female orgasm as a signal. Readers of my previous column might recall my irritation that the social feedback of unselfish stimulation and orgasmic response seemed to be a missing dimension in the Evolutionary Psychology paper that precipitated that post.

Today’s paper tested two predictions concerning womens’ orgasms as signals. First, that orgasms signal a woman’s sexual satisfaction and thus her likely fidelity as a partner (the Female Fidelity hypothesis). And second that women orgasm to signal an increased chance of conception (the Sire Choice hypothesis). Yes, I know it seems a little man-centric to frame these questions with reference to the man, rather than the subject of the orgasm herself. But at least we’re talking about orgasms as part of the give-and-take commerce of sex and satisfaction.

The authors, Ryan M. Ellsworth from the University of Missouri and Carnegie Mellon’s Drew H. Bailey, administered a questionnaire to 138 women and 121 men, each currently in a heterosexual romantic relationship. Through a rather exhaustive bank of questions, they estimated each participant’s relationship satisfaction, partner investment, sexual fidelity, sexual behaviour and orgasm history.

Women reported orgasming during sexual intercourse 61 percent of the time. More than half of the women (58%) reported faking orgasms sometimes, with 18% of copulations with current partners resulting in faked orgasms. Men, you might not be surprised to learn, underestimated the rate of faked orgasms. Only 21 percent reported that their partners faked, and only estimated that women faked about 5 percent of the time. Women who faked a lot also reported having fewer real orgasms.

The other main findings by which Ellsworth and Bailey tested their hypotheses included:

  • Women satisfied in their relationships also reported orgasming more intensely and more frequently.
  • Women whose partners invested plenty of effort in them and their relationships also had more intense and more frequent orgasms.
  • Women who reported past infidelity reported having more orgasms.
  • Women who report being open to future opportunities for infidelity reported having more orgasms, and more intense orgasms.
  • Women who reported having past infidelity or openness to future infidelity also reported more frequently faking orgasms.
  • Men in satisfying relationships reported higher rates of partner orgasm and lower rates of partner faked orgasm.
  • Men who have been unfaithful to their partners report that those partners have fewer orgasms.

Taken together, these results suggest that female orgasm and faked orgasm are involved in the quality and dynamics of the relationship, but in more nuanced and complex ways than predicted by the two hypotheses being tested. Female orgasm does not seem to signal female fidelity, and frequent, intense orgasms don’t seem to convince men of their partner’s fidelity. Instead, it seems that faked orgasms are associated with past and likely future infidelity.

It seems more likely that genuine orgasm is either a happy cause or a thrilling consequence of relationship satisfaction. So far so good, but it also seems that a high rate of both true and faked orgasm makes for an especially high chance of infidelity. Given the prevalence of the faked orgasm, and men’s ineptitude at detecting it, perhaps this is one of those cases in which the fake is at least as interesting as the original?

Well, scientifically at least.


* I have elsewhere seen it claimed that National Orgasm Day is to be celebrated on every day that ends in a “Y”

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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