Thursday, 15 December 2016

A Load of Old Dick

2016 has proven awful for all kinds of reasons, but where things have actually gone well is in science. Among the many discoveries to have made the headlines this year, this little tiddler copped some media attention in recent days. A problem that has long befuddled students of primate biology is why all our cousins possess a baculum - a penis bone - and we, or at least half of us homo sapiens, haven't. And now there is a solution. Apparently.

According to the original paper, 'Postcopulatory sexual selection influences baculum evolution in primates and carnivores' (here), the absence of said bone apparently has something to do with mating habits. The authors suggest there is a relationship between the baculum and the duration of sexual activity. Basically, the shorter the bonk, the less need there is for a bone. They suggest that long sex allows the penetrating male to fend off other suitors while making conception more likely. They surmise that it disappeared in humans because our ancestors started practicing monogamous relationships some 1.9m years ago, therefore our forefathers didn't have to fend off amorous others.

This is a perfect example of ideology masking itself as scientifically informed speculation. It probably wasn't intentional on the part of the authors, but it is worth noting how the rules of evidence and rigor governing scientific study are entirely suspended when one moves into speculation about matters social.

The first point is you can't stick fossilised social relationships from prehistory under the microscope. There is no surviving evidence about the courtship, mating, and familial habits of our ancient ancestors. We can have a guess by having a look at the behaviour of our primate cousins, but as their mating and clan practices show some variation within as well as between species, it doesn't matter how informed the guesswork is.

Second, our scientist friends have come up with an explanation that neglects another defining characteristic of the male member in humans. What we lack in bone we more than make up in length and girth. Yes, it's seldom known but among the primates we are less King Kong, and more King Dong. Gorillas are packing an average 3cm (fully erect), chimps at 8cm, and humans measure up with around 13cm. Why? There are a couple of explanations that sound pretty tendentious. Allow me to indulge some speculation: as the female orgasm is linked to ovulation, and was likely the case in our ancestor species, it is possible evolution selected for bigger penises because sex was more satisfying for our foremothers, who then tended to couple with more endowed males. Therefore men have women to thank for their meat and two veg ... possibly. I haven't a clue, but it sounds at least as plausible as any evolutionary psychologist nonsense. Either way, a convincing explanation of the baculum's disappearance has to address the Big Willy Problem too.

Third, coming back to the monogamy question, our authors suggest we moved to monogamous behaviour to combat the transmission of STIs. This is also unconvincing, seeing as hyper-brainy homo sapiens are still prone to this problem, despite the risks and dangers of disease being well understood. And, again, this is ventured in the complete absence of evidence.

Lastly, when monogamy, or at least the control of women's fertility by male partners did become the dominant reproductive strategy for our species, we're talking 10-11,000 years ago. All the available archaeological evidence points to a coincidence between the development of agriculture, the foundation of permanent households, the production of surpluses over and above the needs of the settled population, the foundation of class societies, and the subordination of women within a sexual division of labour. All of which indicates monogamy became the norm relatively recently in the story of modern humans, and within a blink of an eye if you count our ancestor species. And also, by this time, our baculums had disappeared. In fact, they had vanished completely some 100-200,000 years previously.

This isn't a diatribe against scientific investigation, or a suggestion that oh so wise sociology is king (which, of course, it is). But, again, it's another egregious example of someone in the name of science sallying forth from their discipline and making themselves and those who swallow their speculation look ridiculous. Simultaneously, they're lending scientific credence to and naturalising a set of social relationships that have underpinned the oppression of women as a sex class, and that means their conclusions must be challenged.


Speedy said...

"What we lack in bone we more than make up in length and girth." Bet you say that to all the ladies.

Matt said...

I agree that there is often too much speculative work around scientific evidence probably to render it more interesting or palatable for the non scientists. However you kind of fall in the same trap, implying the development of agriculture and sedebtarism is at the origin of monogamy. There are plenty of non sedentary non agricultural societies that practise monogamy and polygamy can be found in sedentary cultures. In fact polygamy is still largely practised in monogamous societies even though it's seen as immoral or illegal.. Depending on how powerful you are...

MikeB said...

So what exactly are you suggesting, Phil?

That scientific enquiry into the evolution of H sapiens should be forbidden in case it turns out that in proto-humans a million years or more ago, males who maintained a harem of females left more offspring than those who did not?

That where there might be several competing theories, we should declare them all equally likely to be true - so we can chose the one that is most politically congenial? (Apparently so, as you state that, "It doesn't matter how informed the guesswork is..." Really?!)

Or maybe that every scientific paper that you think risks "naturalising...oppression" "must be challenged". Presumably this is an extra level of scrutiny beyond that of normal peer review and regardless of whether it might be factually correct. (I expect we will need a special Party subcommittee to do this job.)

Alternatively, if you want to see how it is possible for a proper primatologist to reconcile sometimes uncomfortable observations with a progressive outlook, and without panicking about, "naturalising oppression", I'd recommend reading some Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

MikeB said...

EDIT - reading my comment over, I come across rather aggressively. As a member of a naturally cooperative primate species, this was not my intention. Of course the scientific enterprise is as ideologically charged as any other, and needs to be read as such. My dismay was rather at what I perceived as the implication in your piece that somehow scientists don't understand this, and need sociologists approval before advancing their ideas...

The ghost of Stephen Jay Gould's ghastly theory of "Non Overlapping Magisteria" seemed to be hovering nearby, and that made me jumpy.

Lidl_Janus said...

"swallow their speculation"

AKA the surest way to get STIs.

So this post isn't about Vulcan's Hammer and Solar Lottery, then?

jim mclean said...

My main sociological theory is that the historical oppressed status of women is due to an irrational fear within the male populace of the female orgasm and the sheer terror of a multiple orgasm.

Phil said...

That's alright, Mike.

What my beef is the passage from good science to bad science. All too often practitioners of the hard stuff venture into speculating about matters social without employing the kinds of rigour they bring to bear in their own subject areas. They are, of course, free to do so but what I object to is these idle whimsies accruing the status of scientific observations when they are nothing of the sort. The blessed Saint Goldacre recently did something similar. Having made a lucrative media career out of exposing bad science and bullshit, he recently suggested without any evidence whatsoever that the left are primarily responsible for the 'post-truth' phenomena currently exercising establishment opinion.

The passage to truth is always multi-disciplinary, but that at base means accepting common standards of critical thinking and rules of evidence. I don't think that is too much to ask for, especially when scientific arguments have a history of being co-opted for ideological ends.

MikeB said...

Thanks, Phil. I have no argument with your concern about the misappropriation of good science by those who wish to make a political point.

In fact, my worry about your piece is the appearance that you have done precisely that yourself, as the scientists who wrote the paper that you are critiquing seem to have made hardly any of the claims that you represent them as making.

Certainly, they do suggest that the absence of a baculum in humans may have arisen some 1.9m years ago, and that this may have coincided with a switch to monogamous mating. But that's about it.

However, you claim that, "our scientist friends have come up with an explanation that neglects [human penis length]". In fact, the paper does touch on this (ooer missus), as well as other competing and complicating features in other mammals (such as testes size). But this is done precisely in order to point out the limitations of their study and that there are many other factors that need to be considered.

You go on to claim that, "our authors suggest we moved to monogamous behaviour to combat the transmission of STIs". But STIs are nowhere mentioned in either the paper or the Guardian report.

Thirdly, you attack the suggestion that this move coincided with the switch to settled agriculture - but again, neither the paper nor the report mentions the switch to agriculture.

Indeed, the paper is a model of caution in the way it avoids speculation beyond its basic research question, so I'd be genuinely interested in reading anything which you might not have referenced where the authors of this paper make these wider claims.

Otherwise, I'm left with the uncomfortable conclusion that you've manipulated and misrepresented a piece of good science to make a polemical point.