Skepchick Quickies 3.23

  • I’m not the messiah, says food activist – After appearing on The Colbert Report, Raj Patel started being contacted by followers of, “an 87-year-old Scottish mystic called Benjamin Creme, the leader of a little-known religious group known as Share International.” From James.
  • We exist because our ancestors slept around – This generated a really interesting discussion amongst the Skepchicks, so I wanted to see what other people thought. From Peter.
  • Health care reform and abortion – “Once again, women bear the largest burden of getting everyone to the table and acting like adults.”
  • High court rejects appeal of ‘Ave Maria’ ban at graduation ceremony – “The Supreme Court declined to intervene Monday in a dispute over a public school’s refusal to allow an instrument-only version of “Ave Maria” at a graduation ceremony. Officials feared the piece would be an endorsement of religion in that limited public forum.” From Lauren.


Amanda works in healthcare, is a loudmouthed feminist, and proud supporter of the Oxford comma.

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  1. @FFFearlesss: Did you see at the end of the article: “My parents came to visit recently, and they brought clothes that said ‘he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’. To them, it’s just amusing.”

    Hahahaha, his parents are awesome.

  2. Re: First link.

    Yeah, I think I know what happened:

    Benjamin Creme + Movie “Lady in the Water” + mind altering substance (alt ingredient: underlying mental condition) = Maitraya

    I wonder if he was visited by a Narf!

  3. Nothing in the link really convinced me of the theory of “we exist because of promiscuity”. I’m cautious of any logic that begins: “It’s really simple to understand.” That the author goes onto say “different combinations naturally create a [sic] stronger humans,” irks me- because that’s only an argument for avoiding incest (and it’s not always true).

    I think there are good arguments for why promiscuity in humans is evolutionarily advantageous- I just don’t think this article touched upon them. I think that given the 9 month gestation period, it would be advantageous for the male to go spreading his seed throughout womankind to get his DNA out there- and since so many human pregnancies end in miscarriage, it makes sense to spread that dna around.

    It can also be advantageous to the female- if multiple male partners believe that she carries their offspring, they’ll be more likely to care for it.

    That said, I think there’s also a case to be made for human monogamy. Given how long it takes for a human to mature into a functioning individual, it would be useful to have a family unit to care for multiple children.

    I think this article is pretty good, and definitely sums it up much better than I can.

  4. @Skept-artist: Lucky for you, too… because that was a mouthful (screenful?). And I have to move out of your head now? Story of my life- just as I’m getting comfortable somewhere it’s time to move.

  5. @Displaced Northerner:
    That said, I think there’s also a case to be made for human monogamy. Given how long it takes for a human to mature into a functioning individual, it would be useful to have a family unit to care for multiple children.

    It’s not so much an argument for monogamy as it is an argument for families–however they are built. There’s nothing special about two exclusive partners have for children that two or more nonexclusive–or even nonsexual–adults can’t provide. Sex reinforces familial bonds, yes. But there’s no need for those bonds to be exclusive, just for them to have a certain level of permanence.

  6. @whatbluedot: That’s mostly a function of my inability to properly articulate what’s in my (and apparently Skept-artist’s) head. I’ll quote from the primate article I linked to: “Monogamy evolves when male parental care is indispensable to female reproduction. [This] seems to be the case in new world monkeys. Crucial point is body size. They’re really small but they have offspring that are large relative to the adult size to its really hard for a lone female to raise offspring. Males could abandon and mate more often, but they wouldn’t end up passing along more genes.”

    While body size isn’t an issue in humans, multiple children could be an issue. I agree that this could also be addressed by the social pack- and usually is. But there is an argument to be made that males would have a difficult time caring for multiple family units therefore it makes sense for him to be monogamous in order for his genes to survive through the next generation.

  7. I’m with Displaced Northerner; while there are some arguments for non-monogamous relationships, none of the ones mentioned are. Most of what they mention are arguments for out-breeding and communities.

  8. I’ve often wondered if evolutionary psychology was an outgrowth of the disco era. And anecdotally, my opportunity to successfully breed was clearly dependent on my being monogamous.

  9. Pretty much all the normal evolutionary indicators, like energy input to raise a child to self-sufficience, litter size, lifespan, etc. point to us evolving to be monogomous (though our behavioral adaptations by way of contraception, understanding of our own reproductive process, and awareness of these very evolutionary factors have allowed us to choose to be more polyamorous) and this article does little to dissuade me there. Again, this is from a purely genetic, evolutionary standpoint and I would never make the argument that promiscuity is “unnatural” as would be the conclusion of some.

  10. Also:

    The blog about the abortion/healthcare issue was fantastic, I’m sharing that on facebook when I get home.

    The ave maria thing is ridiculous. School administrators are pretty much universally unable to interpret the establishment clause in a meaningful way. I’m so glad I am not working in a public school any more; to have your life controlled by those morons is pretty close to hell for a thinking person.

  11. I can’t access the promiscuity article because it’s blocked at work, but I think there are plenty of benefits to being both monogamous and promiscuous. In addition to the reasons that @Displaced Northerner: gives, females could benefit from multiple partners by reducing the risk of picking a bad partner. For example, if picks a partner with “bad” genes, and her all her offspring get that, it might not work out so well for her. But if she has children with multiple partners, the odds that at least some of them got “good” genes from their father goes up drastically. It might also have been beneficial for either sex to have a back-up partner for when their current partner died.

    It was probably more beneficial from an evolutionary viewpoint for humans to be serially monogamous, but there are a lot of conflicting factors and evolutionary pressures are rarely ever simple to describe.

  12. @catgirl: the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t really seem to pan out in most of the scenarios you describe (though I admittedly only have an undergraduate level understanding of how that stuff is calculated), you don’t take into a lot of confounding factors, and you seem to suggest something akin to bi-amory(word?) more than promiscuity. Certainly a neat thought experiment, but those don’t sound like likely outcomes.

  13. That second link is a lousy attempt to advocate polyamory (I have nothing against it personally, but would not choose it as a lifestyle). Regardless of the fact that the arguments against monogamy are not very covincing, what bothers me is that advocating polyamory – or any sexual behaviour – should not be done along the lines of “that’s good for the species so it must be in our nature and therefore natural and good” because that could also be the reason to supress homosexuality, as there is nothing ‘natural’ in that sense about sex that cannot lead to procreation.

  14. Don’t forget that promiscuity includes picking one partner for genetic reasons and another unsuspecting partner for child care reasons. Humans aren’t the first species to “father” another’s offspring

  15. The Ave Maria thing…. I sort of like that the school was erring on the side of caution regarding the music choice. On the other hand, a lot of “religious” music is darn good and not really an endorsement per say of the religion. Especially in this case, it seems to me, if the song would have been played sans vocals. Hmmm.

    I guess it is better to take measures to make sure no one would be offended by the religious music… I dunno, something about it feels off to me. But good job for the high court to not get involved.

  16. Just when did humans make a connection between sex and children? Given that gestation takes so long, and that not every incidence of intercourse results in a pregnancy – and not every pregnancy goes to term, it would not be intuitively obvious. Fucking, however, was fun for the boys, so no wonder they wanted to do it all over the place. Modernly, the concept of diversifying the genetic pool is not a good reason for promiscuity, as avoiding a pregnancy is probably high on the list, Rielle Hunter notwithstanding.

    If you want to be polyamorous, be polyamorous – it’s a choice and a perfectly reasonable lifestyle if it works for all parties involved. But using excuses, however “scientifically” backed, for cheating on one’s unwitting partner, is just silly self-justification.

    As is banning the Ave Maria music – for pity’s sake, if we banned all “religious” music from public schools, we’d lose a lot of amazing music, from classical to folk to gospel to Tom Lehrer.

    Re: the no-federal-funds-for-abortion – hell, that policy’s been in place for years. If it took an executive order reiterating that policy – and remember, EOs can be rescinded – to placate the anti-abortion idiots and let them vote for the bill, so be it. That can be changed. If it helps those who voted for the bill stay in office, all the better, as John McCain has already declared that when the GOP is back in power, they’ll vote to nullify the act. The longer it stays in place, and the better the economy gets, the more the danger of that scenario lessens.

    How about we pro-choice folks figure out ways to fund abortion clinics so that they can provide low-cost/no-cost care to women who can’t afford it on their own? And offer rides and a place to stay to women who don’t have easy access to such health care? And website/800 phone information? Sometimes we need the underground, sometimes it needs us.

  17. @Kaylia_Marie: The problem is that it was a piece chosen by the students because it was their favorite piece to play and it was a piece that they had already been playing as part of the music curriculum.

  18. As a woman who has decided not to have children, I am all about my reproductive rights and I’ll have some not nice words for anyone who gets between me and my ability to choose. I think it’s very telling the abortion supporters are called “pro-choice”.
    In terms of relationships and families, it’s essential we remember it’s a choice, and our family unit operates as we wish it to, whether it’s a woman, a man and two kids or two men and their dogs, or a woman and two men and a kid and a goldfish, who cares? If all parties are healthy and happy people, have at it. No, you can’t use science as an excuse for lying, that’s pathetic, but monogamy isn’t the only answer. There isn’t one answer.
    Still, having children is and should be a CHOICE, and it should be represented as such.

  19. I admit I love evolutionary psychology. I’ve heard it all, I know how other people feel about it BUT you can look at psychology from an evolutionary perspective and it’s interesting and informative. Unfortunately there is a lot of bad stuff going around. I do think the reason is the lack of understanding of biology that some evolutionary psychologists have. I remember reading in a text book ‘critiques’ of the evolutionary psychology perspective and how they weren’t accurate critiques at all e.g. how come we haven’t all evolved the same behaviours?

    So the issue I have with that article is that is takes such a simple view on mating strategies. We have to remember that the most optimal strategy for reproduction will depend on multiple factors. The social climate, the physical climate and the individual.

    In order to cut things short and not go on for 15 pages, I will say that a) it is an advantage to form monogamous pairs in order to raise highly dependent young. Having an affair could risk that pair bond
    b) Males and females would both be advantaged to be promiscuous in certain circumstances, eg abundant resources.

    As a result, today we would expect to see a range of behaviours in human sexuality, where some people will desire to maintain their pair bond, some would cheat on their partners, some would be promiscuous, some people would be polyarmorus, some would form same sex pairings. All these reflecting the range of working strategies from our evolutionary past.

    I guess what I’m trying to say, is that there is no one optimal strategy. If everyone is doing one thing, then perhaps doing the opposite would give you an advantage.

  20. The ‘promiscuity’ argument is very poor, being fundamentally flawed on at least two counts. Putting all your genetic eggs in one basket does increase your chance of utter failure, but it also increases your chance of outstanding success. The two strategies give the same expected (mean) number of grandchildren, which is what matters for evolution. (The ‘eggs in one basket’ strategy does have higher variability in the number of grandchildren.)

    A second flaw is to equate “it is natural” or “it has been evolutionarily advantageous” to “we should do it.” Robbery, rape and murder can all be evolutionarily advantageous. At best, all such an argument tells us is “this behaviour is part of our heritage.” Whether we decide to encourage, accept or suppress the behaviour (as we do for robbery, rape and murder) is up to us.

  21. @Advocatus Diaboli: Yeah, the main problem with evolutionary psychology is that the people interested in it seem enamored with the maleability of psychology (a pillowy soft science) and they try to approach evolutionary theory with the same subjective squishiness leading to laughable theories. It’s in the same realm as quantum mysticism in that the underlying concepts of the science seem simple to someone outside of the field and are co-opted in a way wholely inconsistent with the actual science.

    Psychological phenomena certainly do have evolutionary roots, but they need to be studied by someone with a strong evolutionary perspective to derive anything meaningful.

  22. @Filias Cupio: I don’t know if you’re responding to specifically the article linked or to the argument for promiscuity in general. If it’s the article I agree with you but if it’s the argument I completely disagree. I think there’s a strong argument to be made for promiscuity being evolutionarily advantageous- for many of the reasons already pointed out. But I also think you can look at the statistics- about 20% of primates (including humans) are/were monogamous. It seems likely that there is/was some advantage to polygyny at least.

    As to your second point that natural is not always “good”- that I agree with. I do think it’s interesting to look at some of the innate reasons why people cheat, though. I still don’t think it’s a justification for cheating- but it’s interesting when looking at the situation globally (not with individuals). If my SO cheated on me and said “Darwin made me do it”- I’d shove his copy of Origin so far up his ass he’d be tasting it.

  23. @Advocatus Diaboli: Very strong points regarding no one “right” strategy. I’m not sure if you know anything about this, but I read about a group of primates that was monogamous because the females wouldn’t allow the males to cheat- I think they chased off the males if they approached other females? Anyway, it was interesting and I believe the monogamy was specific to a particular clan- one way monogamy could develop amid polygamy.

  24. @DominEditrix:
    Just when did humans make a connection between sex and children? Given that gestation takes so long, and that not every incidence of intercourse results in a pregnancy – and not every pregnancy goes to term, it would not be intuitively obvious.

    Actually, I would say it IS.
    Babies come out of the same spot that penises went in (and make a “deposit” while inside).
    All in all it’s a relatively easy logical connection to make.

    What I wonder is how individuals who’ve never had sexual education and never witnessed intercourse somehow still figure out that tab A goes into slot B.

    Fucking, however, was fun for the boys, so no wonder they wanted to do it all over the place.

    Are you suggesting it’s not fun for the girls?

  25. @Displaced Northerner:
    Yes, I was referring to this particular argument as being bunk. Promiscuity undoubtedly is evolutionarily advantageous under some circumstances, but I can’t think of any circumstances where the ‘all-eggs-in-one-basket’ argument would be valid.

    I’m with you on your reaction to “Darwin made me do it.”

  26. I think one of the problems with the argument is that it’s not just a case of either people being monogamous or polyamorous /promiscuous. There is an awful lot in between. Maybe early humans favored polygamous groupings with one man having several mates so he could have more children, but not so many he couldn’t assist in their raising. Maybe it was the norm to have multiple men for each woman. Maybe matriarchal families were the norm and children were raised by their mothers and mothers’ relatives with just an occasional man stopping by every so often to trade a mastodon leg for sex.

    And as mentioned above, it’s quite likely that the “norm” varied among different populations depending on their circumstances, and those populations might have changed their mating traditions and family structures depending on circumstances. Monogamy might have been the standard for a century, but then became polygyny when there was a drought, which then became promiscuity when they migrated somewhere with more food and possibly monkey butlers.

    I admit I tend to favor the theories that have the most people possible caring for children, simply because we humans make the most fragile, expensive, difficult young in the animal world. It’s so damn hard to keep them alive until breeding age even nowadays that back then people probably learned pretty quick that while sex was fun, to get your genes passed on you also had to deal with the consequences.

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