Last weekend, I took myself to see Frost/Nixon, the dramatisation of David Frost’s 1977 interviewing of Richard Nixon, who, three years previous, had resigned the US presidency in disgrace following the exposure of his illegal proactivity in the authorisation and cover up of the ‘Watergate’ crimes. In anticipation, I had bought the previous Saturday’s The Independent, in order to bag the DVD of the actual event. A news piece in the same issue also caught my eye: Mathematician’s guide to first-date etiquette, with the strap, ‘Scientists say they have proof that women are better off with men willing to wait before they have sex’. How to spice up an otherwise likely unread science news item? Include sex; cinematic reference; and a picture of a film celebrity (Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones guise). I smelt rat shite and read on.
Well, it turns out, ladies, that ‘Received wisdom’ and woman-to-woman counselling are apparently not enough. Mathematicians have now proved that a ‘good’ man is procured by not sleeping with one straight away. And, if you read the piece, you are given the impression of a systematic study of human sexual behaviour, arriving firmly at the repeatedly stated conclusive ‘proof’: by delaying mating, a woman increases the likelihood that she will bag a good specimen, as a male worth his salt will stick around, and not blackmailingly whine, ‘You would if you loved me.’
So, I decided to eke out the paper in question, published earlier this month in The Journal of Theoretical Biology (‘Theoretical’? Hmmm.) It’s quite a read: thirteen pages, copiously strewn with mathematical formulae that I’m not going to attempt to understand (Hey, I’m busy, okay?), and describing courtship modelled as a game over time, and which ends when either male or female quits, or mating occurs. It all seems plausible, although I’ve certainly insufficient expertise to doubt their conclusions. Interestingly, the argument draws on the mating behaviour of various animal examples, including dung beetles, crickets, hermit crabs, the blue bird of paradise. However, it only discusses applicability to humans speculatively. Nothing wrong with that; yet the authors acknowledge that to make scientific pronouncement on the complexity of human interaction as objective generalisation is surely premature:
‘The model is a highly idealized representation of a single courtship encounter. It is not intended to represent the detailed courtship behaviour of any particular species… For humans in particular, cognitive capacity and behavioural flexibility is vastly greater than is assumed in this simple model.’
Quite so. Human reasons for sleeping together (or not) on a first date are manifold, and seldom to do with procreation (not intentionally anyway). ‘A male is assumed to always want to mate with a female’, one of the authors is quoted in the news piece. Speak for yourself, I thought. But he’s talking about their mathematical model, not specifically humans, as the news piece would have us believe. And what of turning it around? Aren’t males likewise better off with females prepared to wait for sex? To convince him she is less likely to bed around and so it is more likely him who fertilizes her eggs? This is certainly also a significant problem in nature. But (male) scientists (reported as) applying this ‘proof’ as justification for human sexual behaviour might well be derided as arrogant and sexist.
Isn’t it paradoxical how journalism can perform such an important public service in exposing the lies of politicians, yet it often takes scientific news and, in the necessity for the human angle, misappropriates it? And what is a ‘good man’ anyway? One who makes president perhaps? Nixon was beaten to the presidency in the 1960 election by J.F. Kennedy, who is historically considered a ‘good man’, having advanced civil rights, and who pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Yet he is also reputed to have been a philanderer who, it is said, claimed he needed sex in order to alleviate the headaches he would suffer if he didn’t get any. (Oh the irony! So my ex-girlfriend was lying to me then?) Not so the outgoing President Bush, whose approval rating is apparently lower than that of Nixon! Now that is a bad statistic. I know who I’d have voted for (but I don’t have to worry about sleeping with any of them.)
Goes to show: when people are receptive to evidence (or sceptical of the lack of it), they can get fed up with being lied to. Yet we tell ourselves more lies than we tell anybody else. Sometimes, in order to convince others, we can make ourselves believe anything. Though I don’t think Nixon managed either.
Seymour RM, & Sozou PD (2009). Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal. Journal of theoretical biology, 256 (1), 1-13 PMID: 18955065
I wonder if the habitual distortion of results like these doesn’t ultimately contribute to the skepticism with which some in the (U.S.) public regard scientific findings. “Global warming?” they might say — last week they were trying to tell me why dung beetles prove X about human frailty Y!
Or maybe that’s a stretch.