Skepchick Quickies 7.9

  • Parasite-busting bugs throw fruit fly evolution into overdrive – “…they’ve acquired a bacterial infection that protects against the sterilizing ravages of a common parasite. The infection’s spread is much like the spread of a genetic mutation, only much faster.” From cerberus40.
  • Slimming pills: Do the claims add up? – “A review of slimming aids, on behalf of the BBC, has concluded there is little or no published medical evidence to support weight-loss claims associated with four of the five products investigated.” From Zoltan and Dave.
  • Godblock – “Damn, her religious beliefs are totally godblocking me.” Not quite, it’s a webfilter that blocks religious content. From Alyssa.
  • Sex at dawn – One of the authors of Sex At Dawn, a book on the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality, answers some common questions about monogamy. The cynic in me is not excited by yet another evo-psych treatise on boinking. From Elianara.
  • Cute Animal Friday! Brace yourself for the extreme cuteness combo of men in uniform with kittens they’ve rescued (from Lisa). It’s well known that otters contain some of the most concentrated adorableness in the animal kingdom. Well, baby sea otters are even more concentrated.


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

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  1. I clicked through that Sex At Dawn thing in the hope that MAYBE, this ONE time, evo psych might actually have something interesting to say about something. But, no, same unsupported assertions as always.

    I mean, “As a species, we’ve evolved to be sexually responsive to novelty.” Right off the bat there. How do you know that? What’s the research that indicates that? I mean, just anecdotally most people I’ve been with tend to have pretty stable likes and dislikes. The amazing specificity and the number of sequels in the porn industry (how else do you explain the existence, ‘Skeptics With Brown Hair and Blue Eyes Eating Bananas While Masturbating to a Copy of The God Delusion 37’) indicates that people tend to have one thing that really rocks their boats and that they keep coming back for it.

    I mean, the fact that humans end up being serially monogamous couldn’t POSSIBLY have anything to do with the fact that people’s emotional needs and personalities both evolve over time, causing many partners to eventually become incompatible, resulting in the end of relationships. No, no, no, that has NOTHING to do with it, clearly it’s because blah blah savannahs and shit.

    FUCK, do I ever hate evo psychers.

  2. Hi there!

    Re: Sex at Dawn:

    I usually roll my eyes at any new controversial pop-psych books on the market.

    That is, unless those books reveal the antiquated human practice of monogamy to be an abomination against our natural evolutionary imperative. THOSE books are obviously the result of flawless scientific research. [nods sagely]

    — Craig

  3. About the “adorableness” of otters. When I was ten I was swimming across Lost Lake in Washington state and was attacked by a river otter. I was probably too close to the babies and momma wasn’t going to have any of that! 50+ scratches all over my body, including quite a few causing big scars I still have now 14 years later. I even passed out due to blood loss and I still think they are super cute. That is some mighty powerful cute they wield!

  4. Can anyone explain to me the weaknesses (or strengths?) of evolutionary psychology? I’m not asking this to be snarky or trollish– I’m really genuinely confused as to what to think about the subject. My boyfriend is a big proponent of evo psych and I’ve read up on it a little to try and determine my stance, but I’m still not sure.

  5. @thracian-filly: Largely, it’s because ev-psych claims often boil down to “just-so stories,” meaning that they do, in fact, give an explanation for certain behaviors, but offer no actual proof beyond sheer speculation. “Well, it would make sense if this were true….” It’s also often used to supposedly justify certain types of behavior: “Hey, it’s not my fault I cheated, I’m wired that way by evolution!”

    Basically, it makes an awful lot of assumptions without any hard proof.

  6. @Thracian: I’m not an expert, but I think the weakness is that many people these days tend to use it as a kind of “cheap excuse” to explain the behaviors of modern humans.

    i.e.: “No honey, you see, I didn’t sleep with that other woman because I’m a selfish unfaithful scumbucket, I slept with her because it has been hard-wired into my DNA to seek variety in sexual partners! So you see, sweetie, I really had no control whatsoever …”.

    It’s like those first year Freudian students who start to see everything and anything that’s longer than it is wide as an obvious phallic symbol, and everyone’s motivation to do anything as stemming from their relationship to their mother. (a generalization, I know, but that’s the point)

    I feel that there is a lot of intelligent discussion in evolutionary psych, but by the time many new discoveries get to the level of “news stories”, they somehow turn into overblown “Science says that all humans are robots with no control over their instincts and we’re all exactly alike!!” stories.

    Unless, of course, these stories say that monogamy is silly, in which case I credulously believe them because I want to. :P

    — Craig

  7. Well, at least in this short piece the thesis seems to be that people are not naturally monogamous, rather than that men are not, as in the normal versions.

    Thracian, it’s very easy to come up with a story about why a disposition to some behavior might have been selected for. Once you’ve got such a story in hand, it’s easy to believe things must have been like that, even though there are plenty of other stories which could explain the observed behavior equally well. There are ways to test some of the stories, but the tests are much more difficult and rarely conclusive. It is especially difficult for any testing to show that a story you’ve come up with is less likely than a story you haven’t thought of; normally, designing tests to distinguish which story is more likely requires that you know both of the stories you are comparing. It is thus very easy for evopsych to come up with stories that sound good, and very hard for it to come up with stories that are supported by good evidence. As in any field, many in evopsych are lazy. Results are predictable. It makes things worse that the stories people are most likely to think of are those which fit with their biases and stereotypes about how the world works; that’s why evopsych is so hated by many on the left, because a lot of the worse evopsych work defends conservative stereotypes.

    Also, learned behaviors are subject to selection (and it’s generally much more rapid, at that), and yet evopsych almost always assumes that if a behavior arose through a selection process, it did so via the selection process operating on genes. No good reason is ever given for this assumption; most likely it is made because selection on genes is much better understood than selection on learned behavior, but of course that doesn’t justify the assumption, it only explains why it continues to be made despite the lack of justification.

    All that being said, it’s obvious that selection is an enormously powerful factor which must have played a huge role in producing the human behavior we observe. Thus, in principle the research project of understanding the role of selection in human behavior has great merit. It’s only in the details that everything seems to go wrong.

  8. For example, you might happily choose to work the night shift, but the resulting disruption of your circadian clock will increase your risk of cancer, cardio-vascular disease, gastric disorders, and so on no matter how committed you are to your decision. Similarly, we can choose to wear tight corsets, or ill-fitting shoes, or to live on chili-dogs and ice cream, but because all these behaviors run counter to our evolved nature they will cost us over time. Like celibacy, lifelong sexual monogamy is something we can certainly choose, but it should be an informed decision.

    Bwah?! So wanting to have sex with just my husband is comparible to habits that can cause cancer, heart disease, constrict my ability to breath and cause me to have leg/back issues?

  9. @B166ER: Well, that’s a claim to fame, for sure.

    Headline: “I was attacked by a man-eating otter” ….Wait, what? ;-)

  10. I LOL’d at the Adios manufacturer’s response. “Marketing experience” is pretty much the same thing as clinical research. Y’know.

  11. I heard or read a great quote recently (can’t remember where… podcast?) basically stating that evo psych is to yuppie, dinner table conversation what Freudian psych was to it 50-years ago. These days, instead of blaming behaviors on our secret desire to sleep with our fathers/mothers, we speculate that they make sense “evolutionarily speaking”.

    Seems like armchair psychology. That said, I might use this evolutionary excuse to cheat on my husband with Zachary Quinto (dressed up as Spock of course) should the opportunity arise.

  12. I wonder what the evolutionary advantage is in the opposite, Stevie?

    Any long-term married man knows what I mean by asking that question…

  13. [gets out his polyamory soapbox]

    [looks out at the collective rueful glares]


    [quietly drags his polyamory soapbox offstage]


  14. @Draconius: Here’s my thing: I think polyamory is great and it works for some people but I don’t think it works for all people and that’s ok too. Same with monogamy. There is no “correct” way.

    I think that if all parties are happy nothing else should matter . . .

    Which is why it drives me crazy when people talk about monogamy as if it goes against nature or that it’s wrong. My husband and I choose to be monogamous. Will are relationship last forever? Who knows (but I don’t automatically assume it will) but why tell us that we are wrong or “going against nature?”

    We have “nature” telling us we should have sex and be attracted to others but our “nature” also makes us jealous and want eachother for ourselves. Both him and I don’t think we could get over it if we had to witness or knew otherwise so we have an agreement. But that’s us — thats not all people.

    If we drift apart, we will let eachother know and we will split up. It will be sad, but it happens.

    I don’t care what anybody wants to do but don’t try to convince me about what to do with my life situation (not that you, personally are ;-) )

    And don’t cheat on your SO who wants to remain monogamous and tell them it’s because it was your nature and you couldn’t help it. Just find someone who desires the same lifestyle.

    The end :-)

  15. @QuestionAuthority: I did? Wow. I must be very clever. [nods] ;)

    I actually wasn’t sure which opposite evolutionary advantage you were talking about. In monogamy? or in the opposite of monogamy? Both DO have their evolutionary advantages, even though I have my own preferences. ;)

    I am a long-term married man, though. [nods]

  16. @Stevie: Oh yes, that’s exactly what I believe, too! :D

    I’d be lying if I said I didn’t desperately wish the whole world was a big poly hippie love-fest, goo goo gajoob and all that. But if I genuinely thought that MY way of thinking was the only CORRECT way of thinking, I’d just start campaigning for Global Tyrannical Despot. If monogamy works for both you and your spouse, that’s awesome, and I’ll never tell you that you’re wrong for believing so.

    It does cut both ways, though. YOU seem to be very open-minded and accepting of people who aren’t as monogamous as you are, but there are plenty of others who believe that if you don’t stick with just one person, you are a selfish, sex-crazed, solipsist who wants their cake and to eat it, too. That’s why poly people like me get defensive and soapbox-y and boring as hell whenever the subject comes up. :D

  17. @thracian-filly: The reason you see so few contentful critiques of evo psych is that there’s no content to critique. Evo psychers don’t perform studies, as far as I can tell, they just publish pop-psych books and magazine articles, so there’s no way to criticise their study design or anything. I mean, as a bare minimum, you’d expect them to cite specific anthropological research to demonstrate that ancient societies had certain structures similar to our own, but they don’t do that.

    The closest thing I’ve ever read to a legitimate case for evo psych was Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, but as far as I recall there was nothing in it about how monogamy is unnatural or women like pink because of gathering berries or whatever else.

    Ultimately, though, the biggest flaw with evo psych is the unstated assumption that human brains have not evolved at all in 40,000 years. The second-biggest flaw is the assumption that all psychological traits, like mate preferences or whatever else, are hard-wired and not absorbed from or even influenced by the surrounding culture. There’s no good reason to believe either of those things are true, but if we don’t accept them as premises the rest of evo psych just plain falls down flat.

  18. @Joshua: I guess I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. It was my understanding that the basic idea behind evo. psych is pretty universally accepted by biologists and the like, but that the specifics are hotly debated? Is that the general consensus here, or are my fellow skepchicks dismissing the entire idea that behavior is ‘hard-wired’ (so to speak) and has been dictated by evolution? I keep searching for some sort of moderate middle ground to start conversations with my evo. psych touting friends, but I’m somewhat at a loss. Is there anyone reading this who thinks evo. psych is valid?

  19. It does cut both ways, though. YOU seem to be very open-minded and accepting of people who aren’t as monogamous as you are, but there are plenty of others who believe that if you don’t stick with just one person, you are a selfish, sex-crazed, solipsist who wants their cake and to eat it, too. That’s why poly people like me get defensive and soapbox-y and boring as hell whenever the subject comes up.

    Oh certainly. I completely get you. It is also those people that make me have to constantly stick up for my beliefs “No really!! I don’t mind what the hell you want to do! This is purely my decision. I’m happy for you!”

    I think because the religious tend to order monogamy with a side of dogma that people like me have to constantly explain the OTHER side of it :-P

  20. I’m as atheistic as the next person, but I find it a bit over-reactionary to completely block children from religion and information related to it. It’s out there and they’re going to hear about it anyway. If you want your children to see religion as a fairytale, raise them that way if you see fit, but to me it’s unconscionable to actually block information like that.

    It might even work against you when, after having virtually no firsthand experience with it, they find out what religion is and eventually believe because they never had the life experience of thinking on matters spiritual. I’m no parent, but I have friends who’ve done that. By all means, block the violent stuff, but knowing about religion isn’t something to be feared.

  21. Back on the veldt…

    I must disagree with the night shift = bad contention – some of us are owls, others are larks, and dammit, I was a happy and healthy person when I lived the night shift. My father was the same; he used to insist we had vampire blood.

    Re: Monogamy v. anything else. I’ve been poly, I’ve been mono, and I’ve found that what works it depends on the times and the persons involved. This OMG! if you’re monogamous, it’s not an “informed decision” implication strikes me as crap. Just because one’s ancestors may have done X doesn’t mean X has to be clutched to one’s bosom alongside a handgun.

    @deus_otiosus: TBH, I would rather my child not learn about religion from the intertubes. There are too many hellfire-and-brimstone sites out there, too many raving loons. It was bad enough when little Patty at preschool told everyone that God would send you to hell if you didn’t eat your vegetables.

    Godblock strikes me as useful for the younger set, the ages one uses other filtering software for. I mean, I knew my kid would hear about sex from a variety of sources – that didn’t mean I wanted him to stumble onto the explicit Leather Warthog Fuckers site.

  22. @deus_otiosus: Even the stuff that isn’t “violent” or “backward” can be insidious and persuasive. Hell, my niece went off to summer camp and came back a godbothering Southern Baptist.

    Again, I wouldn’t want my child “learning” about religion off the internet without some parental guidance. Except, of course, for the Pastafarian sort.

  23. When did I leave out supervision? The filter seems all or nothing. That’s my only issue with it. Don’t conflate this with me saying there shouldn’t be limits on what a child is exposed to.

  24. There are quacks in many fields, and some people who make it their goal in life to reach across fields in their quackery. Evolutionary psychology is certainly not an exception, and it’s more open to quackery than most because it is by necessity unscientific. It’s speculative and unfalsifiable. Clearly, we can’t test any of it in any meaningful way. We can’t observe cave people interacting and experimentally determine the source or nature of a behavior. We can’t isolate two populations of cave people for a few decades and see which behavior choice results in more and more viable offspring. We can’t get away from the fact that even pure speculation requires a scary number of assumptions.

    Having said that, I find it wildly interesting. I believe I will mangle a quote from the most quoted guy I know – “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in your science. Science is the best we have, and absolutely should be the basis on which we build reality. But that doesn’t mean nothing outside of science is worth pursuing. Speculation can be fun, fascinating and very insightful, as long as we keep in mind that speculation is all it is and all it can be.

    If I was going to speculate on evolutionary reasons for promiscuity I’d say that it’s biologically convenient for the species as a whole for most males to be willing to screw anything with boobs. It makes it possible for lots of females to have lots of babies even if only one male exists in the population. It makes males beautifully expendable. As a hypothesis, it’s not a horrible one. I can’t test it, the best I can say about it is that it makes sense to me. Maybe I should write a book about it?

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