Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Evolution and social sexuality

Articles about what makes people attractive to potential sexual and/or life partners are good click-bait.

(Update 07/16/2014: post edited for grammar and clarity.)

Salon features one by Jesse Bering called The secret to successful flirting 07/12/2014. It appeared in his Scientific American blog as Voices Carry (Signals of Your Sexual Intent and Reproductive Value) 07/10/2014, which is a more descriptive title for the article's content.

The Scientific American logo always adds weight, and he writes for them. Although this following piece by the same author is clearly tagged as an opinion piece that is the writer's own: Jesse Bering, A Good Man is Hard to Find, So Here’s an (Evolutionary) Tip 07/15/2014. And seeing that he's written a book called Perv (?!) adds another cautionary note.

While I certainly think that questions of sex and sexual attraction play an huge role in society, Bering's approach strikes me as confusing biological, evolutionary and social factors. For instance, in the "Voices Carry" piece he's discussing research on how men's and women's voices modulate when talking to each other:

So how do Leongómez and his co-authors interpret this puzzling effect? Why, from an evolutionary perspective, of course. "Producing a low pitch at some point during an interaction [with an attractive female] might provide sufficient indication of physical masculinity while freeing men to 'play' with their pitch ... because low-pitched masculine voices might be associated with aggression, such modulation could potentially enable men to signal both their masculinity and lack of threat simultaneously." In other words, "Hey, sexy lady, hear this? Hear how I’m sounding right now? That's right: I'm a virile, testosterone-fuelled male specimen of our species but, cross my heart, I'll be sweet to you ... and our future offspring." And indeed, a group of naïve female listeners asked to judge the verbal recordings of male wooers found those with the most significant pitch variability the most attractive.
This has the virtue of sounding empirical and based on hard-nosed science.

But there are actually a lot of assumptions at work. For instance, in the "evolutionary perspective," did low pitches signal "physical masculinity" for, oh, the last 300,000 years in the ancestry of homo sapiens? Did homo sapiens and our ancestors for the last million years live in conditions where the females were in a position to meaningfully choose their preferred mate? If not, just how did these preferences evolve? And are we talking about biological evolution here or social evolution?

Part of me wonders if I should be griping about this. Because in these days of the Republican Party's anti-science poliical-religious jihad, I wonder if I shouldn't just be glad to see someone talking in a context that accepts evolution as a real process in history and biology.

But this kind of approach raises red flags for me in several ways. One is that whenever I see someone explaining romantic interactions between men and women in this way, I wonder if I'm not looking at some version of "evolutionary psychology", aka, "sociobiology", aka, Social Darwinism.

Also, one of the practical problems with understanding evolution, a key concept in science, is that there's a great temptation in describing evolution, especially in popular presentations, to resort to language suggesting teleology or the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Or to talk about evolution as a conscious agent. As in: this fish developed this characteristic to be able to evade predators. Which raises the obvious question, how did the fish's ancestors evade predators before that? It's important to recognize that successful evolution means that a given species or sub-species grouping was able to survive and reproduce. It doesn't mean that every aspect of the species is the best conceivable adaptation. It's that it was advantageous enough, without features that were so disadvantageous that it prevents survival and reproduction. It certainly doesn't mean that adaptations were in some way designed to maximize an individual's advantage in 2014 forms of family and sexual practices.

So when Bering describes the voice modulation patterns he's discussing as a way for the male of the species to say, "Hey, sexy lady, hear this? Hear how I'm sounding right now? That's right: I'm a virile, testosterone-fuelled male specimen of our species but, cross my heart, I'll be sweet to you ... and our future offspring," I have to wonder if there aren't a few too many corners being cut in the description! Among other things, he seems to be trying awfully hard to give the piece a how-to-pick-up-chicks sound. Which Salon's headline writer also seems to have picked up on.

He also be seems to be balancing a lot of speculation on top of a fairly limited finding. Like presumably most readers of the article, I haven't checked the research he's citing. But he seems to be taking an interesting data point, a finding that men's voice patters show certain modulations in the presence of a woman they find attractive, and speculating fairly freely about what it might imply about sexual evolution. And while the flirtation angle is click-bait fun, the explanation doesn't work without a lot of other findings beyond even confirmation by other similar studies.

For instance, without validating a similar pattern in various languages and numerous cultures and different courtship patterns, it couldn't be held to be a general features of homo sapien evolution. The study he referenced was in English and Czech, which are at least from two separate language groups. And can such a pattern be confirmed over time, through literature or decades of "talkie" movies? Or could it be some effect of dramatic patterns in movies or voice modulations in widely-shared popular music? The fact that a similar voice modulation pattern was found in some (apparently heterosexual) women when speaking to certain other women would seem to raise a bigger question about the mate-selection interpretation in male-female interactions than Bering's article acknowledges.

The "Good Man" post is also about mate selection, in this case reporting on a study on how women's preferences in men are shaped by other women's ideas of which men are desirable. This one is less interesting than the voice-modulation one. Gee, people are influenced by how their peers react to the opposite sex? Who could have guessed?

But I also have to wonder on this one if Bering isn't too quick to read social assumptions back into millennia of biological evolution:

A final caveat is that female mate copying didn't seem to play a role for women with high "self-perceived mate value" (or "SPMV"). Women who are convinced—wrongly or rightly—that they're especially hot aren't so easily swayed by other women's views of a man when rating that man’s desirability. "Women with high mate value may be less likely to copy the choices of other women," speculate the authors, "if those women have lower mate values than themselves, and thus lower standards."

Meow. That sounds a bit harsh, but natural selection can be that way, I suppose.
The value of this speculation is, of course, heavily dependent on how an "SPMV" woman is defined. Does this mean that a narcissistic woman will put more effort into developing a personal appearance and other attributes to develop a high SPMV and her narcissism makes her pay less attention to the opinions of her peers? Does it mean a woman who's too smug (the "self-perceived" part) is more prone to making sloppier choices in mates because she's not gathering the right social intelligence from other women? Or does it mean that a self-confident woman with a rich array of social experiences will come to perceive herself as high-SPMV and also make her more (justifiably) confident of her own perceptions of potential mates so that she doesn't need to rely so much on her friends' superficial assumptions?

So many evolutionary questions, so little time!

And as long as we're looking at sex-and-science click bait, Scientific American also provides, Is Spring Fever Real? – Instant Egghead #68 07/28/2014:


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