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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Around the web: put attention where it needs to be put

Yesterday I submitted a book chapter and a journal manuscript. I have two substantial blog posts I’m working on, but neither will be ready for this week. However, I have been slowly accumulating Posts of Awesome that I’d like to share. I want to highlight people, writing, and topics that need and deserve more attention in the science blogosphere. I mention a lot of these things on Twitter, but I know a lot of my followers don’t use Twitter. So here goes.


If you have any interest in pregnancy, labor and birth, I do hope you’re reading Science and Sensibility. S&S is a evidence-based blog written by practitioners and scientists, sponsored by Lamaze International. I really like their more technical, informative posts on labor and birth, and today’s post on positioning during the second stage of labor is a winner. The writing is always accessible for layfolks, yet still provides great information for scientists and medical folk.

Remember that Wax et al (2010) article showing homebirth had a mortality rate three times higher than a hospital birth (and the sensational Lancet editorial)? A lot of folks came down hard on the article when it first came out, myself included, but two more pieces came out yesterday that call into question the authors’ conclusions. The first issue is that there were actual mathematical errors in the data (meaning, the data was probably entered into an excel sheet incorrectly), the second is that they fundamentally did the meta-analysis wrong. Wrong. As in, according to one statistician who had no stake in the story or topic, so wrong as to overlook all its other problems.

A few more spicy tidbits: cosmetic breast surgery is on the rise, and one county in Florida has a 70% cesarean rate. Seventy. Percent. Due to some smart marketing and bad decisions, a treatment to prevent pre-term birth that used to be affordable is now more expensive than gold.

Something a little more fun: older female elephants make better leaders. Here’s a video to go with the paper.

Finally, this is sort of ladybusiness, but as Dr. Isis points out, it should really be family (or even just human) business: Why it’s alright to not be your mother, a guest post on AGORA.

Queering biology

The reverberations from Jesse Bering’s post on homophobia as an adaptation continue. And the responses have been brilliant. I especially love Jeremy Yoder’s take over at his blog, Denim and Tweed: An adaptive fairytale with no happy ending.

And then today, DeLene Beeland shared this great post on Twitter: How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time over at Orion Magazine. This is a beautifully-written, thoughtful takedown of the naturalistic fallacy.

Other things to read right now

Danielle Lee has two great pieces worth reading (and I found them both because of Greg Laden): an article on the contribution of Henrietta Lacks, and the Black community, to cell culture, and a profile on Danielle in a natural hair series at Essence.com.

I read this article today by Gina Trapani on her work to make the technical world more friendly to women and other underrepresented or new folks.

An interesting interview and review of the book Consumption, by Kevin Patterson: How western diets are making the world sick.

A piece on Impostor Syndrome at SciAm (behind a paywall). I don’t want to pathologize all underrepresented groups in science (because frankly, these feelings make sense in the context of environment, even if it’s desirable to move beyond them), but issues around impostor syndrome resonate with me.

The video for the MLK, Jr session from Science Online 2011 is now up. Alberto Roca, Danielle Lee and David Kroll are the fabulous panelists.

Things I wish I didn’t have to link to

Our amusement with Charlie Sheen just demonstrates how little we care about violence against women — especially certain kinds of women. Read The Disposable Woman.

Skepchick Rebecca Watson shares some of her hate mail, and why she doesn’t feel like internetting today: Why I deserved to be called an offensive bitch.

Pat Campbell reposted a twelve-year-old manifesto on gender and education that still holds true: The Gender Wars Must Cease.

Some LOLz and some cutes: a section I added because the last three links were so depressing

This first link doesn’t exactly bring the LOLz, but is an enjoyable read: Female Science Professor continues her series on Academic Novels.

Some great apes from Zooborns: a two new baby orangs, and baby chimp. They put my maternal instinct into overdrive.

And a LOLcat via Scicurious: I’z in yer papers, messin’ wit yer stats.


Wax, J., Lucas, F., Lamont, M., Pinette, M., Cartin, A., & Blackstone, J. (2010). Maternal and newborn outcomes in planned home birth vs planned hospital births: a metaanalysis American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology DOI: 10.1016/j.ajog.2010.05.028

Editorial staff (2010). Home birth–proceed with caution. Lancet, 376 (9738) PMID: 20674705

The Open Laboratory 2010: for sale now!

Looking for once place to read the best science writing of 2010? Want a peer-reviewed resource that you can show your colleagues that are social media naysayers to demonstrate the power of science blogs? Look no more: Open Lab 2010 is now available for purchase at Lulu.com!

Two of my posts on IVF were selected for Open Lab (to be put into one essay). I’m brushing shoulders with some very fancy writers. I do hope you’ll buy it.

Science Online 2011: Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name

If you haven’t seen it yet, or just want to relive it, our women in science blogging panel is now available for viewing:

Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name from Smartley-Dunn on Vimeo.

Key highlights: when I told the audience about how I squatted over a toilet to birth my baby. Oh, there was also a lot of great feminism in there too.

This is the panel that inspired this post, and then these great posts.

On bad first drafts

From I Can Haz Cheezburger.

My blogging mojo has been channeled almost entirely towards a book project I’ve undertaken with Julienne Rutherford of UIC and Katie Hinde of UCLA (though shortly to be of Harvard). The book is called Building Babies: Primate Development in Proximate and Ultimate Perspective and it will be published by Springer in 2012. Each co-editor has a chapter in there, and then we have a number of other rather fancy-pants contributors as well.

The first drafts of the chapters were due yesterday. I did not submit my chapter (er, to myself). I’m running about a week late. I thought I would come clean with this, because there are a number of elements of the writing process that I think remain obscure for students and other junior scholars. And after I share a few thoughts about academic writing, I thought I would show you some of the draft I’m working on.

First drafts suck

They really, really do. If you think your first draft is amazing, give it to someone else, and that someone else can’t be a pet, spouse or parent. First drafts suck because we write the most obvious things in them, the most vague. First drafts don’t have enough context. First drafts are where you use cliches because you haven’t figured out how to say what you’re saying in a sophisticated way. They are often under-cited. They are out of order. And, they aren’t that compelling.

This is why so much student writing is bad — but it’s not their fault. Close together deadlines, ones that align with other projects, and little teaching of time management means most students start writing projects just before they are due. So they essentially submit first drafts of papers, with a little copyediting if you’re lucky. Plus, somehow a lot of students have picked up this idea that first drafts are better or more authentic than revisions. This is patently false. They are simply the place our favorite worst stuff goes to die (this is why revision is so often called killing our darlings, to use a term from scio11, though its origin is much older).

But everyone has bad first drafts, so it is absolutely useless to feel bad about them. Give them to your advisor or your colleague if they have said they will read a first draft (otherwise, revise it after consulting with someone else first). They write bad first drafts too. You have to write a first draft in order to get to the revision, and to me, this was a liberating realization. Get it all out now! Don’t worry about using the right word! Just get the words on the page, get about the right content in about the right order, and if something is repetitive, just leave it for now. Because after a little breather away from it, or a look from a trusted colleague or advisor, you will hack it up and remake it into something far better.

Revising only sucks sometimes

Revising sucks when you get your first comments back from a colleague, because it is terrifying to share that vulnerable, bad first draft with another person (ever had that moment after you print it out or hit send when you realize your prized metaphor was a trembling nod to your failed attempt as a fiction writer?). It sucks at those moments when you feel at cross-purposes with the thesis of your paper. And it’s frustrating, also, that revising is the most important yet under-taught skill in academic writing.

But here’s the thing. Revising can be glorious. If you abandon any sense that you own your words, and remember only to own your mind, it allows you to be merciless in cutting out all the badness of that first draft: the cliches, the vague repetition, the jargon. If you return again and again to your outline, or abstract, or data, or whatever materials you keep to help you remember what the paper is about, you will start to see the right shape of the piece. And then you can also build in the context.

The best moments of revision are when you remember why you were writing the piece in the first place. Do you want to produce a fundamental review that will be useful to other practitioners in your field? Do you have an amazing piece of data to share? A well-grounded hypothesis that you want to articulate? What was surprising or compelling about that work when you first set fingers to keyboard?

One last thing I’ll say about revising is that owning your mind is not the same as owning your ideas. You need to be willing to let go of being right, and you need to be willing to change if the evidence is against you. Accepting reality and working with it in an interesting way is the mark of a good scientist, and a good revision.

My first drafts suck

The title of my chapter is: “Inflammatory factors that produce variation in ovarian and endometrial functioning” (eventually, I think, I will need to change the title to better reflect the manuscript). I thought this would be an easy piece for me, since I have been doing a lot of work on C-reactive protein, a biomarker for systemic inflammation, and I have been studying the endometrium and ovaries for many years.

I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

A few quick searches pulled up an embarrassingly large number of citations for chemokines and cytokines, for toll-like receptors, natural killer cells, and other immunological terms I barely remembered from high school and college. So I re-drafted my outline, set aside a lot of time for reading (as in, several days straight), and then finally set to work.

The problem with the literature on this topic is that it is wholly mechanistic. I can now tell you what interleukins are expressed in the periovulatory phase versus the implantation window, or which ones are suppressed or overexpressed for certain pathologies, but I can’t tell you what that means in a broader sense, or what produces variation in any of these immunological factors in a systemic way that might impact local inflammation in the female reproductive system.

Here is my section on normal endometrial functioning (alas, given the literature, the section on pathology in the endometrium is far, far longer). First draft ahead! Remember, I am sharing this embarrassingly bad prose for the good of SCIENCE.

The endometrium is composed of the functionalis and basalis layers; the functionalis comprises two thirds of the endometrium and is the part that proliferates and sheds each reproductive cycle. The basalis is adjacent to the myometrium, and is the place from which the endometrium regenerates after menses. The proliferative (also known as follicular) phase is when estradiol promotes proliferation of endometrial tissue, where the secretory (also known as luteal) phase is characterized by progesterone control of decidualization and menstruation. The endometrium typically proliferates with narrow, straight glands and a thin surface epithelium, and angiongenesis continues as ovulation nears (King and Critchley 2010). After ovulation and during the secretory phase, the endometrium differentiates: endometrial glands become increasingly secretory, and by the late secretory phase spiral arterioles form. If implantation does not occur, the corpus luteum degrades, progesterone declines, and this triggers a cascade of events to produce menstruation.

Menstruation is a key inflammatory process of the endometrium. Menstruation is when the functionalis are shed at the end of the human reproductive cycle. The basalis regenerates over the course of the next cycle. The demise of the corpus luteum and the associated withdrawal of progesterone precipitate inflammatory mediators that cause tissue degradation. For instance, progesterone inhibits nuclear factor κ B (NF-κB), which increases the expression of inflammatory cytokines like IL-1 and IL-6 (Maybin et al. 2011). The withdrawal of progesterone is also associated with an increase in endometrial leukocytes and IL-8, which regulate the repair process (Maybin et al. 2011). At this time other inflammatory factors promote MMP production to break down endometrial tissue (Maybin et al. 2011). Further, it is thought that progesterone withdrawal, not an increase in estradiol concentrations, leads to the repair of the endometrium so that it can resume activity for the next cycle (Maybin et al. 2011). Thus, variation in progesterone concentrations may lead to variation in inflammatory activity, degradation, repair and cycling in the endometrium.

First question: why should I care about any of the above? So what if any of this happens? Then, you might not know this, but I do: the only two citations in these two paragraphs are both review papers, and one of the authors overlap between them. Therefore, it’s quite under-cited. To be fair, in this section it is less important that I demonstrate the depth of the literature, but a review that only cites two other reviews isn’t doing its job.

Do I inspire excitement in my field? No. Do I provide an appropriate context for this material in order to situate the reader? Not so much. Right now, these two paragraphs contain the exact information I wanted them to contain, based on what was in my outline. That is, I’ve described the basic functioning of the endometrium, and menstruation. It’s flat because that’s all that I did.

My job in this chapter is to take this vast reproductive immunological literature, pair it with what little we have in anthropology and ecology that helps us understand the way genes and environment might produce this variation, and then describe the necessary context in future work to understand these mechanisms. In some places, a lack of context may help me make my case, because it will demonstrate why anthropologists need to be in the field. But if my whole manuscript looks like the two paragraphs above, it will be an unreadable yawnfest that doesn’t contribute a thing to anthropology.

So, I guess I would expand the “kill your darlings” advice. First, accept your darlings. Accept that you have them like everyone else, and that darlings aren’t just turns of phrase but entire ideas, hypotheses, fields of thought. Then, once you have accepted that your darlings make you just like every other academic writer out there, from the middle schooler to the full professor, kill them. With fire. Finally, make sure you provide what is left with context or else there is no reason to read what you wrote.

And now, I have been sufficiently inspired to go finish my bad first draft.


King, A., & Critchley, H. (2010). Oestrogen and progesterone regulation of inflammatory processes in the human endometrium The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 120 (2-3), 116-126 DOI: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2010.01.003

Maybin JA, Critchley HO, & Jabbour HN (2011). Inflammatory pathways in endometrial disorders. Molecular and cellular endocrinology, 335 (1), 42-51 PMID: 20723578

Around the web: sex, birth, brainz

This semester I have decided not to do weekly roundups of links useful to the courses I teach, because last semester it was exhausting to me, and as it turns out only minimally read by my students. However, I continue to bookmark stuff I find interesting, and I have reached such a critical mass that I’ve decided to share it. Some of what I want to share is focused on the ladybusiness, but I also want to share some links on brainz, and for students.

Let’s talk about sex

A few posts have come out recently on sex: who wants it, who gets it, and the sexual health of adolescents. Mark Regnerus writes “Sex is Cheap: Why young men have the upper hand, even when they’re failing at life,” which I thought was reductive and pretty disparaging to both young men and women. I was surprised at how the author talked only about heterosexual sex (why is this ok? why is this interesting?), and how he shared a single quote for each woman he interviewed, and magically it fit nicely into his own narrative. It seems like the story here is in the choices young women and men are making… so it would make sense to share the more nuanced results of the interviews Regnerus says he conducted. That said, I did learn a few things, the most disheartening related to unwanted sex:

“Finally, as my colleagues and I discovered in our interviews, striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they’d prefer or mimicking porn (being in a dating relationship is correlated to greater acceptance of and use of porn among women).”

Unwanted sex is one of those gray areas where the sex is technically consensual… but one partner doesn’t really want to do it. How have we gotten to the point that more young women don’t feel it’s ok to say no to their partners? I don’t think it’s because of a poor dating pool as seems to be the working hypothesis of the author, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
To contrast, Yes Means Yes is an anthology edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti that became a blog to continue the conversation on rape culture and female sexual empowerment. In a post on said blog, Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research they look at some of the same material as the post above, as well as a new paper by Terri Conley showing that men and women aren’t that different in their perspectives on casual sex as was once thought. The blog contributor, named Thomas, does a great rundown of the study’s findings and explains how earlier studies of casual sex — like the study many of you have likely heard of, where men and women are randomly propositioned in public — is both unlikely and particularly repulsive to women given rape culture, and therefore sets up a sex difference that a more nuanced study easily demolishes.
Birth and babies
Randi Hutter Epstein, author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, wrote a short but sweet piece on labor inductions in Psychology Today. She shares some of the shortcomings of a medical model that thinks that any labor over thirty seven weeks can be safely induced. This relates to a recent story about a March of Dimes initiative to reduce early inductions, and some hospitals in the Chicago area are taking part.
And, while I wrote this a little while ago, it seems important to link the above to the kerfuffle that arose when a study came out last year claiming that home births were far more dangerous than hospital births, and the editors of the Lancet used the study as a chance to jump up and down on home birth. Given that only half of a percent of women in the US do home births, it makes more sense to use this as an opportunity not to bash home births but have a frank conversation about whether the cascade of interventions guaranteed by stepping into a hospital to give birth leads to a safer delivery for mom and baby.

Next, Scicurious of tag-team blogging fame and general awesomeness, has a real winner. Today, she reviewed cool research on sex roles from the seventies. She shows how our perception of the gender of a baby impacts how we treat it (and how dolls might make better toys than footballs for babies, no matter what).

And then, for your dose of cute (well, cute if you don’t mind amniotic sacs and vaginas, which I don’t), here are Five Miraculous Animal Births (don’t know why they are miraculous, but they are certainly cool).
First, Sci has another great post, this time on research on exercise, hippocampus size and memory in the elderly that made me vow to play derby until I need a cane to skate.

You might have seen the recent buzz about PKMZeta, a protein that may aid in strengthening old memories. Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (check out the spiffy new banner!) has a three-part series on it. I also loved David Dobbs’s piece exploring problems in cognitive science: Is Cognitive Science Full of Crap? (Yes. Well, sometimes. Maybe. Except sometimes not and then it’s really very cool.) John Hawks also has an interesting piece called Numbers as Cognitive Technology: this post explores how we understand numbers, at a population variation (regarding language), developmental (regarding John’s twins, who I imagine to be very cute, with thought bubbles of fingers and toes above their heads) and even comparative (Alex the Parrot!) level.

Then, a more devastating piece that, to me, highlights some of the problems with the medical metaphor of humans as machines: Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology writes about a New York Times piece about how the field of psychiatry has changed with time.

Oh, and this one was absolutely nothing to do with brainz, but it’s written by Dr. Zen of NeuroDojo so I’ve shoehorned him in here :). Dr. Zen looks at the two peer-reviewed papers to come out after the #arseniclife fiasco and shows how one in particular intentionally miscategorizes the great post-peer review that happened on blogs as “anonymous electronic communications,” since in fact the majority of the commenters were using their own names (and even if they weren’t, again, there is a big difference between anonymous and pseudonymous). This sounds an awful lot like the response that came out after #aaafail, where, rather than addressing the many critical, thoughtful bloggers, it all got labeled as “outside commentary.”
Learning links
First, for graduate students: Mamacademic: How I hack parenthood, grad school, etc. A nice piece on the perils of parenthood, because it is constructive. Then, a related post both on pregnancy style and how to deal with questions around parenting in graduate school. And while this next post isn’t directly about grad students, GayProf discusses a disturbing panel he attended where faculty recommended having children in order to achieve work/life balance, a way that was clearly not situated in the context of whether one wants to have children, and who ends up doing most of the work of childrearing. Not to mention, you know, the rampant heterosexism.

But on to the links you actually expected under this heading. Dan Simons, fellow prof here at the University of Illinois and co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, wrote a great piece on study habits and what students think they know versus what they actually know. Read it, then study the way he tells you to! Hint: re-reading the text is not how you learn the material.

Then there is this perspective over at Observations, a Scientific American blog, that posits we should teach kids more about the process of science. How can this translate into better science ed in higher ed as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Most of what I do centers on having students do actual studies, or assist in research in my lab, or sometimes propose avenues of research as part of a project. But maybe there are more fun things we can be doing in a classroom setting that would lead to more students understanding the scientific method and the process of science.

I also want to share this great tutorial on how to choose a research project. This is useful for students at all levels… and post-docs and faculty, too.

Your dose of random

Steve Silberman interviews Seth Mnookin regarding his new book The Panic Virus. I’ve been avidly reading all of Mnookin’s press materials and look forward to reading the book, but as always Silberman does an exceptional job so I particularly recommend his post.

This article made the rounds in the twittersphere on how to improve comment sections. I just liked it a lot and found it a great tutorial on fostering online communities.

Then, for my anthropology peeps, an important article on problematizing the thrifty gene, particularly around race and racism. Something to share with your students.

People have been rocking out in the SciAm Guest Blog. Check out this book review of Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit by Valerie Jones.

If you haven’t had enough counter-evidence to the idea of science blogs as an echo chamber, check out Colin Schultz’s treatment of a recent paper on linking patterns in science blogs versus traditional journalism.

Finally, check out this interactive map on well-being in the US in the New York Times. I found a lot of the patterns really interesting, in terms of what portions of the US lit up when.

[11:26am CST: Edited to add two links for Scicurious, because the links were on my list but then I forgot.]

USA Today piece on evolutionary psychology

For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, just a quick note to let you know that I was interviewed for a piece on voice pitch and infidelity for USA Today by journalist Dan Vergano. It was a great experience, and a thoughtful piece.

Deep voices trigger infidelity jitters.

Mate magnet madness: When the range of possible explanations exceeds your own hypothesis

Figure 1. My apologies to Baby Jaguar
for not finding a picture that included

My daughter will be three in just a few weeks. She loves telling stories. These stories have the same, uncomplicated arc every time: she and her friends Dora, Diego, Boots and Baby Jaguar go on an adventure to rescue Mommy from the giant condor. Or sometimes Mommy and Dora and Diego and Boots and Baby Jaguar are rescuing her. Or sometimes Daddy does the rescuing.

There is almost always a net, then a pair of Rescue Scissors needed to cut the captive free. But the variation in these stories is very small, the framework borrowed heavily from one of the few mythologies known to my little girl: Dora the Explorer.

Evolutionary psychology is often a kind of story-telling, and instead of borrowing from a preschool cartoon they borrow from the concept of anisogamy. Anisogamy is sexual reproduction formed by unequal gametes, in our lineage a big egg made by females and little sperm made by males. This provides the foundation for differential reproductive investment, where females often put in the time and effort of gestation, lactation and care. From here, proponents of EP see essential differences between what men and women want in relationships, and the kinds of relationships that are optimal, and a model this broad makes it possible to shoehorn any behavior into its adaptive framework.

Figure 2. The actual image that
accompanied Tierney’s column.

Enter John Tierney, my (not) favorite journalist for the New York Times. This is the man who thinks that sexism is a radical act (I am referring to his charming articles on gender disparities in science). So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he outed himself as an EP fanboi in his most recent piece, “The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women.”

Tierney covered the work of Jon Maner and others who have studied relationship maintenance – the suite of behaviors that keeps a couple together. In particular, Tierney focuses on the problem of the wandering eye, or rather, the possible mechanisms that prevent it in a monogamous couple. The idea here is that relationship maintenance is evolutionarily adaptive, because when a couple stays together it is easier to raise offspring and increase reproductive success.

The range of explanations

The study that frames Tierney’s column is Miller and Maner (2010). Thirty eight undergraduate men rated the attractiveness of a woman with whom they interact, at several points over her menstrual cycle. The authors found NO relationship between where a woman is in her cycle and how attractive a single man finds her, but a negative relationship between the chance a woman is fertile and how attractive a partnered man finds her.

What do Miller and Maner (2010) discuss, and what is the idea Tierney is so enamored with?

“It’s possible that some of the men in Florida were just trying to look virtuous by downgrading the woman’s attractiveness, the way a husband will instantly dismiss any woman pointed out by his wife. (That Victoria’s Secret model? Ugh! A skeleton with silicone.) But Jon Maner, a co-author of the study, says that’s unlikely because the men filled out their answers in private and didn’t expect the ratings to be seen by anyone except the researchers.

“It seems the men were truly trying to ward off any temptation they felt toward the ovulating woman,” said Dr. Maner, who did the work with Saul Miller, a fellow psychologist at Florida State. “They were trying to convince themselves that she was undesirable. I suspect some men really came to believe what they said. Others might still have felt the undercurrent of their forbidden desire, but I bet just voicing their lack of attraction helped them suppress it.””

This conjecture is unconnected to the study’s methodology and results. Nowhere in that study did they assess the participants’ state of mind or ask them how they felt about this. How do we know they were trying to convince themselves of anything? This finding, while interesting, does not test their hypothesis for an evolutionary framework for relationship maintenance that includes adaptively suppressing attraction to others.

Maner et al (2009) studied the attention people pay to images of attractive people of the opposite sex when first exposed to sexual words like “lust” and “kiss.” They recruited 120 straight undergraduates, thirty six of whom were in committed relationships. Individuals in committed relationships paid far less attention to the attractive images than those not in relationships. Tierney titters,

“The subliminal priming with words related to sex apparently activated some unconscious protective mechanism: Tempt me not! I see nothing! I see nothing!

I’ve done my own share of human subjects research, and subjects will often tell you or do what they think you want, or they will just not be honest if they don’t want you to know the truth. What if, as originally posed by Tierney himself, the respondents weren’t warding off temptation but wanted to look virtuous? What if, now bear with me because this might seem crazy, the people in these studies were in love with their partners and genuinely uninterested in anyone else? Too often EP wants to provide a single explanation for a behavior, when the range of possible explanations far exceeds their hypothesis.

An anthropological perspective

Jamie Jones, Associate Professor at Stanford and blogger at Monkey’s Uncle describes anthropology like this,

“…[A]nthropology is the science charged with explaining the origin and maintenance of human diversity in all its forms. To achieve this end, anthropology must be unapologetically grand in its scope. How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent, through both time and space, and across cultures? … Where does the tapestry of human diversity come from and how is it that we continually manage to resist powerful homogenizing forces and hang on to our diversity? What commonalities transcend local difference to unite all humanity? How is it that civilizations rise and fall? And what is the fate of humanity?”

Jamie beautifully depicts the importance of documenting and understanding diversity even in the face of efforts to simplify human nature. Thus, to me, an anthropological perspective is often at odds with EP explanations for behavior.

An anthropological perspective asks, what happens if you take these basic observations and, instead of deciding on a favorite explanation and applying it to everyone, put them into a model in which you can vary context (age/sex specific mortality rates, distribution of resources, what have you) and see what range of strategies actually give fitness benefits? That is, when you actually throw some variation into the equation, is this still the best strategy for the partnered men with whom Tierney feels simpatico?

Right now we don’t know. Much psychological empiricism rests on undergraduates who participate in studies for course credit. When one wants to make connections to evolutionary adaptedness, they may be a place to start, but not end.

I have a real problem with continuing to use this population to make statements of universality for all humans. Undergraduates usually are trying to avoid pregnancy and build their financial and social capital, so relationship maintenance for the sake of reproductive success rarely exists. Until we can show that relationship maintenance, and the particular behaviors Miller, Maner and others study within that are shown across many populations, and particularly across reproductively-aged folks, their argument for adaptation fails.

Figure 3. Celebrations of marriage.

Another problem is that most work on relationships in EP tends to be heteronormative, meaning that they think nothing of assuming that either everyone is straight, or the universally best behavioral strategy is to be straight. They also tend to assume that the best strategy is to be monogamous, with occasional sneaky infidelity permitted if one can get better genes or more offspring that way (keep in mind that there is a difference between what might be biologically advantageous in a certain context, and what is culturally appropriate – the argument here is not against the culture of monogamy).

But heterosexual monogamy is only one reproductive strategy of many that humans employ. Depending on how you measure it, monogamy and polygyny (single male, multi female marriage) vie for the most frequent strategy – in fact, polygyny occurs in about 80% of modern human societies (Murdock and White 1969). There are even a few rare populations that practice polyandry, which is the marriage of a single female and multiple males. And, even in those populations where monogamy is practiced, serial monogamy is far more frequent than lifetime monogamy: this means that individuals have a series of monogamous relationships rather than find one mate for life (so no, divorce is not a modern human invention).

When taking an even broader, comparative perspective, monogamy isn’t practiced by our closest relatives at all. Chimpanzees and bonobos, both equally related to us, are promiscuous. This is a scientific term for a reproductive strategy that involves females and males making reproductive decisions to mate with many individuals at each fertile period. Bonobos are also promiscuous, but they also use heterosexual and homosexual sex to reduce stress and aggression, and form bonds among one another. Gorillas, our next closest relative, are polygynous. Orangutans are very solitary, but essentially promiscuous. It’s only once you delve into the lesser apes, the gibbons, that you see any monogamy, and they are far less monogamous than we first thought (Brockelman et al 1998).

Maintaining a heterosexual, monogamous relationship is certainly advantageous at certain times, in certain contexts. But it is not universally adaptive, even within humans. Without anyone studying these behaviors in populations that use different reproductive strategies, and in the absence of comparative data to support these assertions, we are at an impasse.


In the words of a friend, EP is plugged into evolutionary theory with little more than a ratty old extension cord. EP takes some very basic, ancestral conditions, like differential costs of reproduction, and uses it in a sufficiently vague way that any behavior can relate to females generally being the ones to put in all the time and effort into making babies. Yet EP often ignores the three conditions necessary for natural selection, the mechanism for evolution. For natural selection to act on a trait, the trait must be variable, heritable, and produce differential reproductive success. Rarely does EP understand variation in a trait, rarely does it examine whether said trait has a genetic component, and rarely does it test whether their trait confers a reproductive advantage.

Are fertile women a threat to partnered harmony, their scents providing a temptation that noble men must suppress? I can’t rule it out, but I also think it is one of the least likely of many possible explanations.

Unfortunately for readers of the New York Times, Tierney loved this idea more than he loved interrogating it.


I’d like to thank Charles Roseman, friend, faculty curmudgeon and Bastard Colleague from Hell, for taking a look at an early draft of this post and providing commentary crucial to its improvement. Any rhetorical or scientific errors are my own.


Brockelman, W., Reichard, U., Treesucon, U., & Raemaekers, J. (1998). Dispersal, pair formation and social structure in gibbons ( Hylobates lar ) Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 42 (5), 329-339 DOI: 10.1007/s002650050445

MANER, J., GAILLIOT, M., & MILLER, S. (2009). The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 174-179 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.002

Miller, S, & Maner, J (2010). Evolution and relationship maintenance: Fertility cues lead committed men to devalue relationship alternatives Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1081-1084

Murdock, G., & White, D. (1969). Standard Cross-Cultural Sample Ethnology, 8 (4) DOI: 10.2307/3772907

Image sources

Dora picture: http://www.doratheexplorertvshow.com/dora/dora-explora-pics.htm
Lady magnet: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/science/22tier.html?_r=2&ref=johntierney
Same-sex marriage: http://markusisthedrug.onsugar.com/date/2009/05/07

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