Mate Shapes

30 09 2010

A study of couples in France reveals the discrepancy between “preferred” versus “actual” mate shapes. Men tended to state a preference for women slimmer than the women they actually paired with, whereas for women the correlation was weak (in other words, they paired with men that didn’t necessary fit their preference).

We simultaneously measured mating preferences for stature, body mass, and body mass index, and recorded corresponding actual partner’s characteristics for 116 human couples from France. Results show that preferred and actual partner’s characteristics differ for male judges, but not for females. In addition, while the correlation between all preferred and actual partner’s characteristics appeared to be weak for female judges, it was strong for males: while men prefer women slimmer than their actual partner, those who prefer the slimmest women also have partners who are slimmer than average. This study therefore suggests that the influences of preferences on pair formation can be sex-specific. It also illustrates that this process can lead to unexpected results on the real influences of mating preferences: traits considered as highly influencing attractiveness do not necessarily have a strong influence on the actual pairing, the reverse being also possible.





Of Sex, Gametes, and Judd Apatow.

26 09 2010

Last week after writing about my favorite primate, the bonobo (sorry humans), I got thinking more about the biological basis for how our society is ordered. I also got thinking more about sex. Given the base level amount of thinking I do about that (which is quite a bit), this means I was thinking, really, quite a lot about it. And while this may have been a cause for concern to friends when I happily informed them that I’d been having sex dreams about them, it was nevertheless fairly welcome. There’s no greater freedom, I think, than sex. It wasn’t lasciviousness that moved George Orwell to focus so heavily on Winston and Julia’s sex life in 1984, to have The Party’s secret police working on a way to “abolish the orgasm.”

...but it's all they have

There are a lot of psychological and emotional issues tied up with sex that can add dimensions to it; but in all-things-equal conditions, sex is the highest form of intimate interaction humans have one to another.

Socially, sex is tied to gender roles. Learning to be both an object and agent of lust and taking pleasure in both is not easy (which is very unfortunate). Thinking about sex got me thinking about gender roles, and in outlining this here piece I began to worry that it’d be taken as reducing women’s rights to a question of their sexuality. That’s a dangerous thing, and not at all my intent. But ultimately we are one species with two genders, and those genders are, equally, sexes. Who we are as men and women is derived to a great deal from our sexuality. Our biology determines that much at least. The strong impulse to sexual pleasure and gratification is one of our most animating human urges. It isn’t dirty, it isn’t unfortunate, it isn’t shameful or lewd. It’s beautiful. It’s comes as close to being a “gift” as anything we’ve developed over the course of millions of years of evolution. The combination of self-awareness and sexual pleasure make us so fortunate among all the animal kingdom that, ironically, I’m almost compelled to infer a designer. (Though, I’m totally not ever going to infer a designer).

I’ll never understand why “foodies” can flaunt their gluttony, taking digital pictures of their food at restaurants, shamelessly overpreparing meals they then catalog for the public, but discussing your affection for various kinds of sex play is lewd. Frankly foodies gross me out. Lustiness I adore. Fetishizing food is odd. Passion is inborn.

What biology has determined in us and in our sexuality doesn’t make the social institutions which, over the course of human history, have bonded women to inferior status, segregated them into caregiver labor, and otherwise shackled them to the “household,” natural or morally right.

Women represent 91% of graduates from nursing school. Ninety eight percent of preschool and elementary school teachers are women; 82% of elementary school teachers, too, are women. The majority of workers in elder care are women. Women have always been tasked as caregivers by the division of labor in human societies. At least now they’re getting paid for it–or are more likely to be getting paid for it. But why, in our supposedly egalitarian society, are the high-stress, high-burnout, low-pay, caregiver fields almost exclusively the wheelhouse of females?

I have made no bones about the fact that identity politics is deleterious to human progress. A proper material analysis of the systems of society lead inexorably to the conclusion that only class-based solutions can justly reorder society.

That said, it can’t be doubted that throughout human history, it has rained shit on one gender more than the other. That there has been essentially an uninterrupted chain of uneven exploitation of women since humanity’s social beginnings makes it almost silly to refer to the “plight” of women. At this point it isn’t a plight. It’s the way things are.

While Europeans were exploiting Black and brown people, Islamic expansionism was destroying indigenous cultures, various indigenous American empires were overrunning each other, and the poor were being exploited since…well, basically since the agricultural revolution, within each of those societies, women have been exploited in their labor, denied active liberty and self-determination, been controlled sexually, and otherwise made appendages of their fathers and husbands.

We needn’t even go so far back. According to Gordon Wood (or, as he was referred to in Good Will Hunting, Gwahdan Wood) in his seminal The Radicalism of the American Revolution, many of the court records found in pre-revolutionary America didn’t refer to women by their names, but by their relationship to men, referred only as “Wife to” “sister to” “daughter of.” Like slaves, a woman’s social and civic identity was defined wholly by her relationship to the patriarchal head of the household.

Why?

The Gamete Game

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Go Agave Go!

23 09 2010

A rare blooming agave plant burst through the glass ceiling of the Garfield Park conservatory today. You go biomass.





Grass Throws a Shoot

23 09 2010

Love this bit of biomass. Didn’t even know there was a grass in this pot, then it throws up this amazing shoot. Way to go little guy.





On the Origin of Clothing

22 09 2010

Put cloth on them!

Hey, did you guys get your latest issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution? Mine came with a mix CD of Peanut Butter Wolf and Mad Lib tracks.

Anyway, the latest issue features a paper that aims to tell the true story of our first fig leaf.

There’s a fascinating piece in it that seeks to pinpoint the origin of clothing on anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens). This is of interest because it will give a clearer picture of when humanity was capable of moving out of Africa and into more challenging climates. Evolutionary scientists are using the DNA of lice to build their hypotheses, by figuring out when the modern clothing louse speciated from the head or hair louse. Their estimate? As late as “83,000 and possibly as early as 170,000” years ago. Given humanity’s origins of 300,000 to 600,000 years ago, that makes our development of clothing fairly early in our history.

Andrew Kitchen of Pennsylvania State University helped pioneer this field of study, and, it goes without saying, there are competing estimates for the origin of clothing.





Sisterhood is Power: The Fear of Science

17 09 2010

Paradise.

Bonobos are awesome. As closely related to us phylogenetically as our very violent cousins the chimpanzees, bonobos exist in refreshingly peaceful social groups. Those groups are dominated by females, although there is some dispute as to whether they are strictly matriarchal.

The status of males in bonobo communities is related to the status of their mothers, and the status of females is generated by the relationship of females one to another. The mechanisms of status in their society are based on cooperation with regards to food, grooming, and casual sex and sex play, including both opposite- and same-sex genital rubbing and oral sex. Bonobo males are also distinct from chimps in one very important regard: they are attentive and affectionate to the young of the group–all the young of the group. Chimps, on the other hand, tend to murder the children of rival males.

Monkey cousins.

The “selfish gene” theory gets a bad rap for its supposed implications for human society. The gene-centered view of evolution by natural selection, which says that natural selection operates on the level of the gene rather than the individual, makes people, particularly social theorists, very uncomfortable, exactly because of things like male chimp infanticide tendencies–not to mention chimp patriarchy and forced copulation. If humans are nothing but elaborate mechanisms meant to perpetuate individual genes, are we reduced to our biological imperatives? “Should” our society look like that of our closest relative? Is our society ordered against our will, by millions of years of primate evolution?

English moral philosopher Mary Midgley must’ve felt shaken, dismissing Richard Dawkins’ seminal The Selfish Gene by saying she hadn’t “attended” to it because she thought “it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.” In 1997, Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh were disturbed enough by what they termed “secular creationism” to write an essay, “The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack” specifically about the academic tendency to dismiss evolutionary exploration of human society. They illustrated their point with a horrifying anecdote about a presentation by social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, wherein Ellsworth’s mention of DNA prompted a fellow academic to incredulously ask, “You believe in DNA?”
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Home Is Where The Heart Is

15 09 2010

After years of plotting, I finally have the cross-stitched sign I’ve wanted to hang over my bed. Makes one feel welcome while setting some ground rules.