Ladybusiness Anthropologist Throws Up Hands, Concedes Men Are the Reason for Everything Interesting in Human Evolution
Like most modern anthropologists, I have challenged the idea that human evolution is entirely motivated by men’s desires, interests, behaviors and strategies. But feelings of doubt have nagged at me for years – impostor syndrome, internalized sexism, and just a general feeling of inferiority and small-brainedness. Then, PLoS Computational Biology published a piece by Morton et al (2013) suggesting that men’s preferences for younger women are what drove the evolution of menopause.
Despite citing the overwhelming literature on the topic, these authors situate human menopause as an “evolutionary puzzle.” They then point out that a model that recognizes male mating preferences for younger women, with a splash of infertility-causing mutations, produces the evolution of menopause. What this suggests is that if men choose to mate with younger women, female-specific, infertility-causing mutations that affect later reproduction could build up, since those women aren’t reproducing. Ergo, the uselessness and undesirability of older women – we all know how that is – leads to their becoming infertile and menopausal.
I can’t believe my feminism blinded me to such a raw, important truth. I now realize that, throughout the hominin lineage, the women were just sitting silently to the side, quivering, reproducing when commanded but otherwise riding the coattails of man’s evolution.
In order to understand this revelation, and the contribution Morton et al. are making to reinforce cultural bias the reality of the patriarchy, we need to walk through existing hypotheses of human longevity, menopause, and post-reproductive life. Even if, of course, we then discard them as frivolous lady ideas.
My understanding of menopause, before I realized my grave error
Morton et al. are basing their work, in part, on models that came before them. When trying to understand why humans have menopause, a related question is why we live so long and have these post-reproductive lives at all. Hamilton was the first (1966), and he created a model of human longevity that only used females, since they’re the ones who make the babies and thus set the pace of fertility (what a closet feminazi!). Tuljapurkar et al. (2007) took Hamilton’s old model, and added men to it. They found that the fact that men were able to continue to increase their reproductive success in later life was evidence that older male fertility was at least a partial driver of why we live so long. However, this is not the same thing as saying that men prefer younger women, nor that they drove the evolution of menopause, and the authors are careful to make those distinctions and be clear about social variables that affect mating preferences.
I used to think that part of the reason humans are menopausal may not be because menopause serves a particular purpose, but because we have extended lifespans. We may have extended lifespans not because longevity is selected for, but because longer periods of childhood and social learning were selected for. The thinking goes, if you stretch human lifespan out just at one end, you end up lengthening the whole thing, like silly putty. That said, there is at least one paper that shows practice doesn’t necessarily make people better at skills necessary for survival (Jones and Marlowe 2002).
Female reproduction is also functionally constrained. In order to select really nice eggs that make really nice babies in whom we will want to invest, we have to make all our eggs at once, at about five months gestation. This is a time that we’re protected from all sorts of environmental factors that could make our eggs wonky, and it gives us time to have a few massive culling events so we use our very best eggs for ovulation. The problem is, if you make all your eggs at once, then they are all going to expire at about the same time, putting a limit on how long women are fertile.
Before my revelation that the men are all who matter, I would have also favored the grandmother hypothesis. This hypothesis isn’t mutually exclusive with the others. Originally the grandmother hypothesis contended that post-reproductive life evolved because grandmothers are important to the reproductive success of their offspring (Hawkes 2003; Hawkes et al. 1998; Hawkes et al. 1997). Much of the first research into the grandmother hypothesis happened among the Hadza, where grandmothers do a lot of provisioning and helping. Subsequent work among other modern and historical populations have shown that grandmother presence can have a more variable influence on infant mortality and child health (Jamison et al. 2002; Ragsdale 2004; Sear et al. 2000). In a few studies, paternal grandmothers – so a mother’s mother-in-law – have a negative effect on their grandchildren (Strassmann et al. 2006; Voland and Beise 2002).
Even if human longevity and ovarian expiration dates are the reason for post-reproductive life, still, what you do with that post-reproductive life can have consequences for reproductive success and thus the gene frequencies of future generations. In some populations grandparents may influence the timing of birth: the presence of paternal grandparents increase the likelihood that the mother will give birth, and the presence of maternal grandparents can decrease it (Sear et al. 2003). This could be due to support in the form of provisioning or cooperative breeding… or it could be pressure from in-laws to make babies.
Finally, it might not be that one of these hypotheses is right, but that all of them make a contribution. You need to combine the major hypotheses in order for menopause models to work, and this has been done with theoretical modeling as well as using Sear and Mace’s empirical data from the Gambia (Shanley et al. 2007).
The proponents of these hypotheses would have you believe they are the most consistent with the physiological, primatological, and fossil evidence, but we can dispense with that. I’d rather go with my biases gut, and favor the Playboy Mansion Model.
Putting “men” back in “menopause:” the Playboy Mansion Model
There’s “men” in the name, and yet precious few menopause hypotheses put men front and center (well, except for (Marlowe 2000)). Thankfully, Morton et al. are helping to right this wrong.
Like I said before, Morton et al. created a model with strong male mating preferences for younger women, and added in some infertility-causing mutations. What this means is that, as they ran the model, the selection for younger women as mates caused the older women to be less and less important to natural selection. So the infertility-causing mutations could accumulate in older women, eventually leading to menopause. It seems like this would really only work if the model was fashioned after Hugh Hefner, since men would have to be continually trading in for a younger model for the older women to be selected for only rarely. And it would only work if the way something like menopause could evolve is through infertility-causing mutations, as opposed to issues of functional constraint and expiration dates.
Now, I know my silly little mind trails behind the dudely movers and shakers of human evolution, but I am having a bit of trouble with this. The model requires that fertility into old age is part of our ancestral history if menopause is to eventually evolve, yes? Then probably our closest living relatives, like say chimpanzees, don’t have menopause, unless it independently evolved more than once of course.
Wait, you mean there is controversy here, and some papers provide evidence to suggest chimpanzees have menopause, just not the long post-reproductive life spans (e.g., Hawkes et al. 2009)? Well, then surely chimpanzee males prefer young females, just like human males, which is why it evolved in them as well.
Wait, chimpanzee males prefer older females, the ones with established fertility (Muller et al. 2006)? (And this is not uncommon among many other species?) Well, crap.
So either menopause evolved a few times in our lineage, or it was already there near the start (because of the whole physiological inevitability thing). But if it evolved independently in chimps and humans, the reasoning must be totally different for each species, since male chimps don’t prefer young females and so don’t fit the model.
In evolutionary theory, we have this thing we tend to look for, called parsimony. What fits the data best? And it might be my feeble female mind, but I have a hard time reconciling the evidence suggesting chimpanzees have menopause with chimpanzee preferences for older females.
If men like Hugh Hefner did not drive the evolution of menopause, there are still many opportunities for men to insert themselves in human evolution. Here, I’ve thought of a few, to soothe the wounds of those who wanted an evolutionary Playboy Mansion to be a thing.
The complete irrelevance of women to human evolution
Maybe men provisioned women, which allowed them to stay at home – er, at the campsite – so they could care for offspring. That’s a way more important component of cooperative breeding than care among peers or by grandmothers, right? So men are why we were able to have altricial, big brained infants.
Maybe man the hunter is what got humans up on two legs, jogging around in their fancy barefoot sneakers, I mean, their bare feet. They’re the ones who sexily heft a spear to demonstrate our interesting shoulder girdle and capacity to throw. And of course, they must be the only ones who made stone tools.
Maybe the male gaze is the reason we ladies have breasts and butts that look the way we do. You know we wouldn’t carry all this around if we didn’t have to. And let’s not forget, female pleasure is really just a byproduct of the male drive to reproduce: the clitoris is just a woman’s adorably ineffective attempt at a penis.
So really, even if men had little to do with menopause, they get… well, they get pretty much everything else, so long as you whiz by several decades of egalitarian anthropology research. Which is fun, like roller skating!
And girls just want to have fun!
Thanks to Bastard Colleague from Hell – er, Charles Roseman – for reading an earlier draft of this post and providing comments.
Hamilton WD. 1966. The moulding of senescence by natural selection. J Theor Biol 12:12-45.
Hawkes K. 2003. Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity. American Journal of Human Biology 15(3):380-400.
Hawkes K, O’Connell JF, Blurton-Jones NG, Alvarez H, and Charnov EL. 1998. Grandmothering, menopause, and the evolution of human life histories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 95:1336-1339.
Hawkes K, O’Connell JF, and Blurton Jones NG. 1997. Hadza women’s time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans. Current Anthropology 38(4):551-577.
Hawkes K, Smith KR, and Robson SL. 2009. Mortality and fertility rates in humans and chimpanzees: How within-species variation complicates cross-species comparisons. American Journal of Human Biology 21(4):578-586.
Jamison CS, Cornell LL, Jamison PL, and Nakazato H. 2002. Are all grandmothers equal? A review and a preliminary test of the “grandmother hypothesis” in Tokugawa Japan. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 119(1):67-76.
Jones NB, and Marlowe FW. 2002. Selection for delayed maturity – Does it take 20 years to learn to hunt and gather? Human Nature-an Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 13(2):199-238.
Marlowe F. 2000. The patriarch hypothesis – An alternative explanation of menopause. Human Nature-an Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 11(1):27-42.
Morton RA, Stone JR, and Singh RS. 2013. Mate Choice and the Origin of Menopause. PLoS Comput Biol 9(6):e1003092.
Muller MN, Thompson ME, and Wrangham RW. 2006. Male chimpanzees prefer mating with old females. Current Biology 16(22):2234-2238.
Ragsdale G. 2004. Grandmothering in Cambridgeshire, 1770-1861. Human Nature-an Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 15(3):301-317.
Sear R, Mace R, and McGregor IA. 2000. Maternal grandmothers improve nutritional status and survival of children in rural Gambia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 267(1453):1641-1647.
Sear R, Mace R, and McGregor IA. 2003. The effects of kin on female fertility in rural Gambia. Evolution and Human Behavior 24(1):25-42.
Shanley DP, Sear R, Mace R, and Kirkwood TBL. 2007. Testing evolutionary theories of menopause. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274(1628):2943-2949.
Strassmann BI, Hug BF, and Welch K. 2006. A new twist on the grandmother hypothesis: adverse impact of paternal grandmothers on Dogon grandsons. American Journal of Human Biology 18(2):275-276.
Tuljapurkar SD, Puleston CO, and Gurven MD. 2007. Why Men Matter: Mating Patterns Drive Evolution of Human Lifespan. PLoS One 2(8):e785.
Voland E, and Beise J. 2002. Opposite effects of maternal and paternal grandmothers on infant survival in historical Krummhorn. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 52(6):435-443.
A quick update on the Nature Research Center “reassignment” of Dr. Meg Lowman, AKA Canopy Meg. Jonathan Pishney,
NRC Museum Communications Director, wrote me this morning:
After reading your Scientific American blog post Why Has Canopy Meg Been Ousted? I thought I should offer you some updated information that was not available when the News & Observer article came out. Dr. Meg Lowman’s Director, Nature Research Center title is becoming, effective July 1, Senior Scientist and Director, Academic Partnerships and Global Initiatives, which is a position of wider responsibility and prominence for the entire North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Meg has not been ousted. Rather, she has been elevated to a position of Museum-wide prominence to do what she does so well – thrive as a scientist, a communicator and a female leader.
A continuing member of the Museum’s management team, Meg’s new responsibility prominently recognizes her research and ambassadorial acumen, her oversight of our prestigious joint research and teaching appointments with three NC universities, as well as her appetite to continue to advance understanding of tree canopy environments with innovative citizen participation opportunities – regionally, nationally and internationally. Meg’s expanded responsibilities include her continuing to be a mentor to the Nature Research Center lab directors. And with a Museum-wide platform, Meg’s passion and skill to be a role model to girls and women in science will certainly also continue.
Meg sent me the following statement from a workshop she was conducting in Kansas in early June, after the N&O article came out:
The opportunity to be at the helm of the Museum’s Nature Research Center throughout its launch and inaugural year was an exceptionally rewarding personal and professional experience. Our board and new director, Dr. Emlyn Koster, have determined that other Museum components deserve equal prominence – through emphasis of a “one-Museum” strategy. We will therefore take the innovations of the NRC – the expertise, the engaging activities, university partnerships, and expansive reach – and leverage their benefit for the entire Museum. I have been asked to extend my NRC leadership into a Museum-wide position. I value Emlyn’s leadership and experience in the science museum field … I will be shifting gears, with optimism and enthusiasm as always, into this new professional challenge.
I hope that helps clarify Meg’s new role. But please let me know if I can be of any more assistance. As I understand it, Meg is on vacation until July 1, but I’m sure she would welcome a discussion with you upon her return.
There are a few things that upset me about this email. First, and I am so used to this form of sexism that I didn’t even register it until it was pointed out by a colleague, Mr. Pishney calls me “Kate” rather than “Dr. Clancy,” which is the much more common form of address in research circles when you don’t know someone. Especially when said female scientist just wrote a blog post about the treatment of another female scientist.
Second, this “reassignment” doesn’t appear to come with any new authority, no new people working under her, and certainly not a clear job description. Here is the most telltale sentence, to my mind:
“Meg’s expanded responsibilities include her continuing to be a mentor to the Nature Research Center lab directors.”
So her “expanded responsibilities” are that she is… doing what she did before? Except that mentorship is a pretty loose term. Are these lab directors reporting to her, or is she just taking them out for the occasional cup of coffee?
I responded to Mr. Pishney’s email requesting further clarification of how Canopy Meg will have any authority or people who report to her, and also asked what will happen to the several women who used to work for her. I’ll report back when I hear more.
Added 6/19/2013 3:20pm Central:
Mr. Pishney responded to my request for more detail on Dr. Lowman’s job description by saying he can get that to me after she returns from vacation. Which is July 1st. Which seems like an attempt to diffuse the situation by hoping it goes away in the intervening weeks. Here are both emails.
Dear Mr. Pishney,
Thanks for writing. I was aware of the new title, but your email still doesn’t provide me with any specifics. I would love to hear from any and all of you more precise wording of Dr. Lowman’s new job description, the authority she will hold there and who will report to her, and the fate of the several women who worked under her. When you can provide that, I can even post it to my blog.
Understood. Sounds like we should be able to get back to you upon Meg’s return from vacation.
As for the scientists under Meg at the NRC, I can tell you their roles and employment here haven’t changed.
This still doesn’t tell me who the scientists will be reporting to who once worked for Dr. Lowman.
Something smells fishy.
A few weeks ago, the Raleigh News Observer reported that Dr. Margaret Lowman, known to many in the science communication field as Canopy Meg, was going to be “shifted” out of her position as Director of the Nature Research Center. Her new position as “ambassador” appears to carry no significant responsibilities, and no one reporting to her.
This seems to be a massive waste of talent.
I have been following Canopy Meg on Twitter since I met her at Science Online a few years ago. The same day as the announcement, I happened to see this tweet:
Just launched a new NSFgrant on canopy ecology & water bears w/mobility limited students! Treetops or bust! http://t.co/nC1voKjE9D
— Meg Lowman (@canopymeg) June 5, 2013
I remember telling my husband about it as we walked to lunch. I couldn’t get over what a thoughtful, integrated research program this was – increase representation of mobility limited scientists, increase awareness of mobility issues, do cool science. It was a win-win-win. It wasn’t until later that same day that I saw a few more tweets of local Raleigh folk posting news of Canopy Meg’s “reassignment.”
There has been no news since the original story. No answers for those of us who are great admirers of Canopy Meg as a scientist, a communicator, and a female leader. I have heard that there are many outstanding female scientists who are devastated by the restructuring of the Nature Research Center’s leadership, and especially the loss of Meg.
The Nature Research Center’s core mission according to its website is to “bring research scientists and their work into the public eye, help demystify what can be an intimidating field of study, better prepare science educators and students, and inspire a new generation of young scientists.” This seems inconsistent with the restructuring going on there, especially removing a woman who has done so much for science and underrepresented people in science.
If you’re as angry as me, there are three things you can do.
- Letters of objection to the decisions and/or support for Meg could be e-mailed to one or more of the following major players:
- Emlyn Koster, Ph.D. – Director, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
- Brad Ives, J.D. – Assistant Secretary, NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
- John Skvarla, Ph.D. – Secretary, NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
- George House, J.D. – Chair, Advisory Council, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
- Mike Murphy – Board Chairman, Friends of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences
- Rob Christensen – News and Observer political reporter who broke the story
- Lisa Sorg – Editor, INDY Week
- To all of these I would recommend that you cc Mark D. Johnson – Director, External Affairs, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
- Comment directly on the Raleigh News and Observer article announcing Meg’s “reassignment” – this thread is read far and wide across the capital and surrounding area: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/06/05/2941409/star-scientist-out-as-head-of.html
- Share this blog post far and wide. Ask your friends to join you in asking what this restructuring will accomplish, and how the Nature Research Center could possibly fill the void without Canopy Meg.
I’m hoping the advisory board of the museum and/or the director of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will have something to say about all of this, and soon. Women in leadership positions in the sciences are rarities, and Canopy Meg embodies all of the things I wish to be as a scientist: kind, thoughtful, engaged, ridiculously smart, and encouraging. She has done so much for women and other underrepresented groups. Now it’s time for us to do something for her.
TRIGGER WARNING. Describes unwanted contact, may be triggering to survivors of harassment or assault.
* * *
No woman is immune.
* * *
“Don’t I know you from the gym?”
A trim, older man is smiling in line in front of me at the allergist’s office. He does look familiar.
I smile a little. I name my gym and he nods. “Yeah, you’re the one who’s always so serious. You work really hard. The rest of us are just there to socialize and be healthy.”
I explain that I play roller derby and need to keep up with my teammates.
“Oh yeah?” He’s standing a little closer to me now. It’s his turn in line and I motion him forward, away from me. He doesn’t move at first, though I saw he noticed my gesture. Then he reaches out to me. His hand clasps my bare upper arm from the inside – his right hand gripping my right arm – then he runs his thumb slowly over the muscle, feeling it. “Guess you need to get these strong to elbow the other guys, huh?”
I do nothing, just stare at his hand on my body, intimate, almost brushing my chest. He pulls his hand away slowly, his fingers remaining on my skin as long as possible. I make some sort of reply, smile frozen on my face. He touches me again, on my other arm this time, before smiling and moving to the next receptionist.
After I check in with a receptionist myself, I rush to the bathroom and stay there for a while so I don’t have to interact with the man in the waiting room. When I come out, he’s gone.
I spend the rest of the day thinking about this interaction and what I could have done differently. I feel like an idiot for doing nothing, then like an idiot for overthinking it. But it doesn’t feel harmless, and I feel the man’s unwelcome touch – the way he lingered on my skin – every time I think about it. I am sick with disappointment in myself and in this man.
* * *
The next day, I quit work a bit early. I’d been burning the candle at both ends for two months, working far too many hours, and I wanted to treat myself to a nice long workout. There’s a part of me that thinks about the man who goes to my gym, and how I probably won’t see him since I’m going on a different day and time than I usually go. I drive over, get changed, and warm up.
I love my gym. I have always felt respected by the men who work out there – they’re meatheads, but they’re my meatheads. I’ve received compliments from the men there several times about whatever workout I happen to be doing, but it’s always felt collegial, like they’re impressed with me rather than looking to sexualize me. They keep their physical distance and we have all sorts of conversations, about exercise, about the weather, about our jobs and of course about roller derby. To some extent, the men who work out at my gym are the reason I keep going back and keep pushing myself.
My heart sank when the man showed up, right as I was starting the first portion of my workout. I was trying to time only one minute of rest between exercises, and I had already gone long once because I wanted to congratulate one of the trainers, a non-traditional student who had just graduated from college.
So of course the man approached me between sets, standing far too close to me, smiling about my serious workout. “What are you doing today?”
“Just trying to fit in some plyo.”
“Plyometrics.” I was smiling in a forced way, trying not to be too friendly in the hope that he’d go away.
“Oh, I have a degree in exercise science from back in the day, I never heard of that.” I just nod. “Well, have a good workout.” His hand brushes my arm, then he turns and leaves. We interact a few more times as I head to various parts of the gym for interval training and stretching, and each time I’m careful to only meet his eyes for a second. My seriousness becomes a shield.
* * *
I tell my husband that night – I’m not sure why I kept it from him the day before, except maybe a fear I was overreacting. My husband is more upset than I had been expecting. He asks why I didn’t ask the man to not touch me when I saw him the second time (he asked not in an accusing way, but out of real curiosity).
“Here’s the thing,” I say. “I could be very careful and polite, and try to bring him in as an ally. I could explain why what he is doing is making me uncomfortable. And I could convert him. Or, he could become an enemy, and tell me I’m a bitch, and make my time at the gym hell.”
We talk about discussing the issue with the gym staff, but the worst offense didn’t happen at the gym. What can I really say to them? And would they support me or would they make me feel like I’m overreacting? There’s no code of conduct that I know of, no policy about how to treat others. I probably signed something when I joined a few years ago, but whatever it said is long gone from my memory.
It was only during this conversation with my husband last night, problem-solving, that the ridiculousness of the situation hit me:
I am the principal investigator on a research project on sexual harassment and assault. I am a physically strong, capable, smart woman. I play a full contact sport, and I don’t take crap from anybody. One might think I am one of the least likely targets for harassment or assault… except, of course, for the small matter of being gendered female.
The gendered role into which I’ve been acculturated rendered me completely helpless when that man ran his hand suggestively across my skin. My fear of making a scene in the waiting room, of upsetting who seemed to be an otherwise kind man, of somehow reacting excessively outweighed my physical and mental discomfort. Then, a lack of clear guidelines or reporting mechanism meant that I had nowhere to turn after the fact.
Though I have been harassed and worse before, until this week, there had been a small part of me that thought that working on this research project would render me invulnerable from further altercations. I don’t know if I thought I would just give off a vibe, or if I thought I would suddenly develop a witty repertoire of comebacks.
But none of these things happened. I was just as frozen as every other time.
I am not immune.