Category Archives: sex

Show, don’t tell. The Brindley lecture on erectile dysfunction

So, if you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or workshop, you’ve undoubtedly been enjoined to “show,” rather than “tell.” It’s one of those writing rules that is commonplace to the point of being cliche. In fact, many instructors feel sufficiently self-conscious about offering that advice that they feel obliged to provide caveats. You know, sometimes telling is the right thing to do, and, of course, it depends on how you tell. Blah, blah, blah.

I’m hoping that this blog has at least one reader who has taken a writing course in Japan, because I’m curious as to what the analogous rule is there. Based on a non-comprehensive sampling of dating simulators, manga comics, and Murakami novels, I imagine generations of Japanese MFA students being told “Tell, don’t show!” You know, “Hi, my name is Haruki. I often come off as brash, but underneath it I am actually quite shy. Also, I had a good, healthy bowel movement this morning.”

Anyway, speaking of “show, don’t tell,” I just came across this brief memoir, published in 2005 by Laurence Klotz in the British Journal of Urology International. He fondly recalls a lecture by G. S. Brindley at the 1983 Urodynamics Society meeting in Las Vegas. Brindley had just made a breakthrough in the treatment of erectile dysfunction through self-injection with papaverine. [Note, I don’t know where the “self-injection” has to be.] After showing a series of photographs of erect penises, Brindley wanted to demonstrate that the effect was not the result of a confounding erotic environment:

The Professor wanted to make his case in the most convincing style possible. He indicated that, in his view, no normal person would find the experience of giving a lecture to a large audience to be erotically stimulating or erection-inducing. He had, he said, therefore injected himself with papaverine in his hotel room before coming to give the lecture, and deliberately wore loose clothes (hence the track-suit) to make it possible to exhibit the results. He stepped around the podium, and pulled his loose pants tight up around his genitalia in an attempt to demonstrate his erection.

At this point, I, and I believe everyone else in the room, was agog. I could scarcely believe what was occurring on stage. But Prof. Brindley was not satisfied. He looked down skeptically at his pants and shook his head with dismay. ‘Unfortunately, this doesn’t display the results clearly enough’. He then summarily dropped his trousers and shorts, revealing a long, thin, clearly erect penis. There was not a sound in the room. Everyone had stopped breathing.

But the mere public showing of his erection from the podium was not sufficient. He paused, and seemed to ponder his next move. The sense of drama in the room was palpable. He then said, with gravity, ‘I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence’. With his pants at his knees, he waddled down the stairs, approaching (to their horror) the urologists and their partners in the front row. As he approached them, erection waggling before him, four or five of the women in the front rows threw their arms up in the air, seemingly in unison, and screamed loudly. 

“I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence.” Scientific meetings used to be so awesome.

I believe that I found this a couple of days ago via a Twitter or Google+ link, but I’ve lost the origin now. Apologies to the original poster/tweeter. If you know who it is (e.g., if it’s you), please let me know in the comments, and I’ll update with credit.

Don’t try this at home: High School incest prank is hilarious, apparently

So, apparently in Minnesota, spin the bottle is a game for the whole family.

Here’s a prank from Rosemount High School. Some of the team captains were blindfolded and then kissed by a special someone. The twist? The special someone was one of their parents! Hilarious, right?

When I read the description of this, I assumed that the parents were also blindfolded, but no, they knew exactly what was going on. Although, in retrospect, if the parents were blindfolded and thought they were making out with someone else’s high-school kid, maybe it wouldn’t be that much better.

Hard to know what to say about this, except, hey, everybody seems to having a good time, so maybe the rest of us should, you know, sit down and quit judgin’.

The video is a little shaky, so it won’t be that satisfying for those of you with mommy and/or daddy issues who are watching in a darkened room with a box of kleenex.

The description in city pages is actually much racier than the actual video:

And these are not just innocent pecks on the lips. The parents are intimately lip-locking their children for several seconds. One even progresses to rolling around on the gym floor. In another instance, a mother moves her son’s hand south so he’s grasping her butt.

via Boing Boing, Gawker, where everyone seems to be completely scandalized.

Medical emoticons and the orgasm face

So, a few months ago, I posted the series of three Darwin Eats Cake comics in which Guillaume explains why we make funny faces when we orgasm. (You can find the original comics here, here, and here.)

Neuroskeptic pointed out the need for an orgasm-face emoticon.  I thought maybe something like this:


but John Wilkins (no recent relation) suggested this:


I came across this chart of medical emoticons, which includes the Viagra Emoticon and the Priapism Emoticon, so we’re getting close.  Anybody out there ever see or receive an orgasm emoticon?  Maybe one of Herman Cain’s former employees?

Post your submissions in the comments !O

via I Love Charts

Sunday Linkasaurolophus: October 16, 2011

So, a few items for the Linkasaurolophus this week.

Remember, it’s like Linkaroni, but 100% gluten free.

Let’s start with the good news. If you haven’t seen it, this is a beautiful articulation of what the whole Occupy Wall Street, 99% thing is all about. It was written as an open letter to “the 53% guy,” a critic of the protests, on Daily Kos. If you’ve got relatives who think that the protests are just a bunch of lazy whiners who want someone to blame for their lot in life, send them this. Here’s an excerpt:

So, if you think being a liberal means that I don’t value hard work or a strong work ethic, you’re wrong.  I think everyone appreciates the industry and dedication a person like you displays.  I’m sure you’re a great employee, and if you have entrepreneurial ambitions, I’m sure these qualities will serve you there too.  I’ll wish you the best of luck, even though a guy like you will probably need luck less than most.

I understand your pride in what you’ve accomplished, but I want to ask you something.

Do you really want the bar set this high?  Do you really want to live in a society where just getting by requires a person to hold down two jobs and work 60 to 70 hours a week?  Is that your idea of the American Dream?

Hat tip to Jon Woodward on that one.

Next up, New York is currently all out of the Plan B (“morning after”) contraceptive. This was covered by the Health Editor at an online magazine called XO Jane. You can read the column here, but I really don’t recommend it, as it is excruciatingly self absorbed, written in a style you might expect from someone so famous, or so rich, that they are accustomed to having to put no effort into their conversations, because everyone laughs at all of their jokes no matter what.

But, more importantly, it contains statements about birth control that are just factually wrong. It has been tackled by scicurous, who details some of the problems, and end with this piece of advice:

Far be it from me to tell XO Jane how to handle their hiring, but I do think it’s generally wise to have a heath editor who’s taken a health course. And who can read. But perhaps I’m too picky.

Finally, there’s an update on the faster-than-light neutron thing. A paper has appeared on the Physics ArXiv that claims that the Italian physicists who wrote the original paper failed to account for certain relativistic effects, and that when those effects are taken into account, the correction of 64 nanoseconds is just enough to bring the neutrino speeds back under the speed limit.

The paper, by Ronald van Elburg, can be found here.

The result has been covered by the Physics ArXiv blog, and at Bad Astronomy. Both writers caution that, while the results seem convincing, we need to wait for the response from the Italian team, and generally let the process play out before concluding that the result has definitively been debunked.

If van Elburg is right, though, it is worth noting that, rather than being a refutation of Einstein’s theory, the neutrino experiment looks more like a dramatic confirmation of it.

Recall that last week, the Wall Street Journal published a moronic editorial as part of their ongoing commitment to propagating lies about climate science. The pinnacle fo moronicity in the moronic editorial was the following moronic claim:

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Do you think that, in light of van Elburg’s calculation, the Journal will now publish a retraction, saying that, well, maybe we should be recognizing the broad consensus among climate scientists?

Yeah, me neither.

On the nocturnal penile tumescence

So, here’s the latest Darwin Eats Cake. Once again, Guillaume is gracing us with his adaptationist explanations. This time, he is answering a question from Bastian Greshake (@gedankenstuecke), champion of evolution, creative commons, and all sorts of other good stuff.

If you’re not familiar with Creative Commons, it is an alternative to traditional copyrights. It’s a great option if you’re committed to an open culture, where creations can be shared, but want to protect yourself against having your creations exploited.

For instance, all of the Darwin Eats Cake strips are published under a creative commons license explicitly stating that you are free to share them. You can e-mail them, copy them into your own blog, print them out, pretty much anything you want, just so long as you provide attribution. The only thing you can’t do is sell them.

Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:

Why do we make odd faces when we orgasm? A romance in three parts

So, Guillaume’s Mailbag has continued on its mission to provide an adaptive explanation for every existing trait. The most recent trait Guillaume has been tackling was submitted by John Wilkins, who asked, “Why do we make odd faces when we orgasm?”

In case you missed when I’ve plugged him before, JoHn Wilkins (no recent relation) is a philosopher of science in Australia. His most recent book is Species: A History of the Idea, and he runs an excellent blog called Evolving Thoughts. He recently concluded an excellent series of posts on “Atheism, agnosticism and theism” in which he discusses, among other things, what it means to have a belief. You can find the start of that series here.

But back to the face of orgasm. Guillaume took three full strips to answer this one, so I’ve waited until he was done to post them here. I think I’ve finally figured out how to make these full-page versions more readable on the blog, but it involved lowering the resolution of the JPEG, so, for higher-res versions of these three comics, head on over to Darwin Eats Cake. The first of the series of three can be found here.

Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:
Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:
Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:
For those who are interested, a couple of vole and oxytocin citations are provided below to get you started. The vole literature is actually quite extensive and all interesting. I’ve included a relatively recent paper, which will contain citations to a lot of the other work. No peer-reviewed publications are yet available on the eating and mating habits of Ursus philorgasmii.

Ross HE, Cole CD, Smith Y, Neumann ID, Landgraf R, Murphy AZ, & Young LJ (2009). Characterization of the oxytocin system regulating affiliative behavior in female prairie voles. Neuroscience, 162 (4), 892-903 PMID: 19482070

Carmichael MS, Warburton VL, Dixen J, & Davidson JM (1994). Relationships among cardiovascular, muscular, and oxytocin responses during human sexual activity. Archives of sexual behavior, 23 (1), 59-79 PMID: 8135652

Although at least one study suggests that, in men, prolactin is actually more strongly correlated with orgasm than oxytocin is:

Krüger TH, Haake P, Chereath D, Knapp W, Janssen OE, Exton MS, Schedlowski M, & Hartmann U (2003). Specificity of the neuroendocrine response to orgasm during sexual arousal in men. The Journal of endocrinology, 177 (1), 57-64 PMID: 12697037

Re: Homophobia and Evolutionary Psychology

So, a couple of days ago, Jesse Bering published an interesting post on his Scientific American blog, where he attempts to revive interest in a research topic that was hotly debated in the mid 1990s, but has since fallen dormant. He describes a debate between two evolutionary psychologists – Gordon Gallup and John Archer – over the evolutionary origins of negative attitudes towards homosexuality.

Bering does an excellent job describing the debate, so I will just provide the briefest synopsis here. Gallup argues that, all else being equal, natural selection would favor negative attitudes towards homosexuality. The argument is basically that people who encourage heterosexual behavior in their children will have more grandchildren. The counter-argument championed by Archer is basically, no, it’s all cultural: homosexuals are identified as “other” and are demonized in the media.

Silly girl is so unfamiliar with cultural norms, she does not even recognize that she should be vilifying anyone who looks different from her.

Bering’s stated purpose is to stir up some debate, and hopefully to prompt some new research. He takes the position – the correct one in my view – that we should not refrain from asking such questions out of fears driven by political correctness. However, the thing that caught my attention, and prompted my to write my own response, was his opening paragraph:

Consider this a warning: the theory I’m about to describe is likely to boil untold liters of blood and prompt mountains of angry fists to clench in revolt. It’s the best—the kindest—of you out there likely to get the most upset, too. I’d like to think of myself as being in that category, at least, and these are the types of visceral, illogical reactions I admittedly experienced in my initial reading of this theory. But that’s just the non-scientist in me flaring up, which, on occasion, it embarrassingly does. Otherwise, I must say upfront, the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me.

This, in a sense, encapsulates exactly what is wrong with so much evolutionary psychology. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Bering, who writes conscientiously and consistently well about a host of tricky topics. In fact, what I am doing here is a bit unfair to him, but I want to make a lot of hay out of that last statement: “the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me.”

Back in the late 1970s, evolutionary biology was rent by a conflict over sociobiology. The debate was perhaps at its hottest and most divisive at Harvard, where the author of the book Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, and two of its strongest critics, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, were all on the faculty. The debate focused particularly on the use of adaptationist reasoning to describe the origins of human behaviors, but it had methodological implications that reverberated throughout evolutionary biology.

Like sociobiology before it, evolutionary psychology has been accused of using the veneer of objective science to promote a socially conservative agenda, reinforcing social norms. Image via imageshack.

I won’t go more into the history here, but if you’re interested in a highly entertaining historical account, which delves particularly into many of the biggest personalities involved, I highly recommend this article, published originally in the sadly now defunct Lingua Franca.

As with many such schisms, the field eventually healed, primarily through retirement and replacement. Nowadays, most practicing evolutionary biologists take a more synthetic view, one that integrates the ambitions of the sociobiology program with the demands of a more rigorous scientific foundation demanded by the critics.

Basically, the lessons of the whole sociobiology episode boil down to this: plausibility is NOT scientific proof.

In fact, it is trivially easy to come up with a plausible-sounding evolutionary argument to describe the origin of almost any trait. More importantly, it is often just as easy to come up with an equally plausible-sounding argument to describe the origin of a hypothetical scenario involving the exact opposite trait.

If you have students, you can try this little experiment, which provides a nice learning exercise for the students as well:

Divide your class into two groups. Give one group a card that describes a pattern of behavior of the form: “In species X, the females do Y, and the males do Z.” Tell them that their job is to work together to come up with an evolutionary argument for why the females do Y and the males do Z. A group of a few modestly engaged undergraduates will have little trouble constructing such an argument. The argument will likely seem plausible on its face, and the students will probably emerge from the exercise convinced of its correctness.

Give the other group the same exercise, but with the modification that their card says that the females do Z and the males do Y. You will likely find that this group also has little trouble coming up with a plausible explanation, and that they will also be convinced of its correctness. For extra fun (for you, anyway), have the two groups come back together to debate the evolutionary question, but don’t tell them at first that they were given opposite patterns to explain.

If you can create a set of journals in which you can publish evolutionary claims with no requirement that any of those claims be scientifically tested, eventually, you can generate a whole parallel literature that is self-citing, a group of researchers that are self-refereeing, and review panels that are self-funding. Congratulations! You’ve just invented an academic perpetual motion machine!

The problem with much of the early work in sociobiology was that it was based on assertions of plausible-sounding mechanisms, where not enough thought was put into consideration of alternative scenarios. One of the dangers is that the plausible-sounding mechanisms that most readily come to mind are often those that resonate with the cultural norms in which we are all immersed. This is part of the reason why molecular evolution has focused so much over the past few decades on statistical tests to look for evidence of natural selection.

While most evolutionary biologists have taken on board the cautionary tales that emerged from the sociobiology debate, most evolutionary psychologists are not evolutionary biologists. When evolutionary psychology started to become a field in the early 1990s, it basically recapitulated many of the errors of early sociobiology. It deflected criticism by claiming that politically correct academics didn’t want them to ask these questions, painting itself as a field of martyrs who were bravely trying to do science, when the actual criticism was that the science was bad.

Evolutionary biology is one of those areas, like linguistics or sociology or film, where many people have some basic understanding or exposure, and so they tend to assume that they have an expertise on the topic, and that there is nothing more to understand beyond what they know.

Evolutionary psychology is to evolutionary biology as physics is to everything.

I would not want to criticize Gallup’s methods, nor his results, insomuch as they relate to psychology. However, the leap to the evolutionary argument is complete nonsense. That is not to say that he is not right. He might be. It simply means that the studies that are the focus of the debate do not contain the information required to construct and test an evolutionary argument as a scientific question.

Gallup’s premise is that an impulse to discourage homosexuality in one’s children would be evolutionarily favored. Fine. The argument is supported by surveys about parents’ levels of discomfort with homosexuality in different scenarios, specifically that they are less comfortable having their children exposed to homosexuality at age 8 than at age 21, and that they are more comfortable with a homosexual brain surgeon than with a homosexual pediatrician. Again, Bering does a nice job of describing the studies and the arguments against them, and I won’t reproduce those here.

I will just note (as Bering does) that this interpretation hinges on the assumption that exposure to homosexuals at an early age increases the likelihood of growing up to be homosexual. Gallup has some evidence to suggest that this might be the case, although we could easily put forward, for example, the “exotic becomes erotic” theory, which might be interpreted as suggesting that early exposure to homosexuality would decrease the erotic appeal of homosexuality in later life.

Basically, the structure of Gallup’s argument is that his studies show that A * B > 0. He wants to conclude that A > 0. Therefore, he asserts that B is probably greater than zero.

The problem is that the claim that A > 0 sounds plausible. Having straight kids gives you more grandkids. Makes sense, right? Therefore, we don’t demand a real test to figure out what B is.

Let me throw out a few alternative evolutionary stories:

          1) Parents should want their own children to be straight, but they should support a culture that is broadly supportive of homosexuality, thereby reducing the number of children that other people’s children have. That would reduce the competition faced by their own grandchildren, giving them more great-grandchildren.

          2) Parents should favor sex-specific homosexuality in the general culture, facultatively based on the sex ratio among their own children. Parents with lots of sons should favor male homosexuality in the broader community, but should disfavor female homosexuality, in order to maximize the number of mates available to each of their sons.

          3) Parents should favor having their older children be homosexual during the early part of their lives, so that they stick around and help to raise the younger children, but once the younger children are old enough to fend for themselves, they should want all of their children to be straight.

Do any or all of these sound plausible to you? Maybe they do, or maybe they don’t. However, my point is that it does not matter. Whether some or all or none of these sound plausible to us depends a lot on the cultural milieu we inhabit, and almost nothing to do with the actual evolutionary origins of human sexual orientation.

It would be straightforward to construct mathematical models to support any of these verbal arguments. The key to turning this into science is to construct those models and see what other implications they have, and to look for evidence that supports or contradicts those other implications. The key is to measure what B is. The key is to uncover the genetic and neural mechanisms that underlie sexual orientation, and to subject those mechanisms to a rigorous statistical and molecular analysis. The key is to consider as broad a set of hypotheses as possible, and to be creative in identifying tests and observations capable of differentiating among those hypotheses.

I’m with Jesse Bering in hoping that there will be more research on this topic in the future. But I would add the caveat that if the research is done by psychologists in isolation, it will ultimately go nowhere, even if they are evolutionary psychologists. What is needed is a broad, transdisciplinary collaboration involving psychologists, for certain, but also evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and who knows what else.

Gallup GG Jr, & Suarez SD (1983). Homosexuality as a by-product of selection for optimal heterosexual strategies. Perspectives in biology and medicine, 26 (2), 315-22 PMID: 6844119

On sex and singles

So, the post title is clearly designed to pump up pageviews, but those of you who have come here hoping to see photos of me with dollar bills hanging out of my G-string are going to be sadly disappointed. The good news is the money you’ll save having your corneas scraped.

This post is actually about the evolution of sex, or “recombination,” as the biologists like to call it. The question is, why does sex exist? Or, at a genetic level, why would an organism do something that passes on only half of its genes (by mating with something that donates another half), rather than simply making a genetic copy of itself. This is often referred to as the “two-fold cost of sex.” Presumably, there must be an evolutionary benefit to sex that is great enough to overcome this two-fold cost.

As with everything in evolutionary biology, there are an enormous number of theories that have been proposed to explain the evolution of sex, but there are two major arguments. One is that sex allows beneficial mutations that arise on different backgrounds to be recombined onto a single genetic background. This allows adaptive evolution to occur at a faster rate. The other (which is really sort of another side of the same coin) is that sex permits more efficient purging of deleterious mutations.

Let me use an analogy that requires us to take a walk down memory lane. You kids may not know this, but a long time ago, music came on albums, which contained a bunch of songs. The problem with the album system was that most bands would put out one good song, and then fill the rest of their album up with crap. So, to get a collection of good songs, you had to buy a whole bunch of other songs that you didn’t actually want. Sure, you could buy the 45, but who did that, seriously?

So, in this analogy, the first theory, the one about beneficial mutations, is like how you would take all of your albums and put the best songs together on a mix tape that you give to a girl you’re trying to impress. Yes, back then, this was done non-ironically by people who were not hipsters. She would then listen to the first few songs out of a sense of politeness, make some awkward comment about how knowledgeable you are, and then mysteriously change her phone number.

One of the great things about the advent of mp3s and digital music sales is that it is easier to hide your embarrassing musical taste. It used to be that your friends would always pull out your Night Ranger album and make fun of you. Now you can rock out to Ke$ha and just close your computer when someone knocks on your office door.

Also, and more relevantly, it is easier and more natural now to buy individual songs. So, you don’t ever wind up owning a whole pile of non-I’m-Gonna-Be-(500-Miles) Proclaimers songs. Music has undergone a transition to where it is more like our second theory, where recombination permits the elimination (through failure to purchase) of deleterious mu(sic)tations.

I’d write more, but there’s a pile of cash on the dresser that I need to count.