Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Incredible Racially Bigoted Gay-Finding Fertile "Smell" Machine

That would be a heterosexual woman before menopause, when she ovulates, my friends. Yes, I have been reading popularizations again.

The first example:
If a woman tells you she can spot a gay man just by looking at him, don’t dismiss her claim out of hand.
Scientists say women really do have ‘gaydar’, which helps them spot whether a man is straight or gay just by looking at his face.
And the instinct is at its strongest when she is at her most fertile and in the mood for romance.
Their findings suggest that a woman’s ability to determine whether a potential male partner is straight or gay is linked to the impulse to have children.
And another way of talking about the same study:
Scientists have concluded that a woman’s ability to tell apart gay men from straight men increases when they are ovulating, according to a study published this week in the journal Psychological Science.
Another popularization links this study to the whole field of ovulation research (which is all done by people who are looking for evolutionary explanations, by the way, and not by people who are skeptical of them):
Is this the only way ovulation affects a woman's senses?
No. Previous studies showed that ovulating women can identify a man's face quicker than they can a woman's. Lesbians, however, can identify women quicker than men. And ovulating women are only half as likely to telephone their dads. Researchers explain that since incestuous relationships can produce offspring with birth defects, women unconsciously shun their fathers when they're at their most fertile. "Around ovulation, the mind is reallocating its resources in ways that are relevant evolutionarily," says Nicholas Rule, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the study's lead author, as quoted bt TIME. "It shows us that the link between body and mind is greater than we often think."
I Googled Nicholas Rule. His work seems to be all about the recognition of gay and lesbian faces and the idea that this is linked to evolutionary pressures. But it's hard to see what fertility benefit lesbian women would have from identifying women's faces faster than men's faces.

What bothers me about this field of studies is not their findings but the fact that the field pretty much has nobody working in it who carries alternative theories. As far as I can tell, all the researchers studying ovulation have the same theoretical framework. They want to find support for that framework, not to criticize it.

And this is not quite the way science is supposed to proceed. The criticism is needed, too, but in the case of many evolutionary psychology (ep) topics it doesn't exist in the inside of the universities. Because you are EITHER an evolutionary psychologist with a particular set of prior theories OR you are not in the field at all.

I'd love someone from the outside of ep to take these ovulation studies and to try to reproduce their findings.

Then about that bigotry study. Here is one example of how it was popularized:
Then there's a study from Michigan State University researchers published in Psychological Science this month that says women are most biased against "men of a different racial or social group" when they are at their most fertile. Study author Carlos David Navarette says this is a conditioned psychological response to guard against the "male strangers" and "male invaders" who have posed the "greatest risk to their reproductive choice" throughout history. It's based on thousands of years of evolution, but still, nobody wants to believe they have a racist reproductive cycle.
And another example:
But the increase in bias occurs only when women perceive the men as physically threatening, says Carlos David Navarrete, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
Previous research has focused on men within the same racial and social groups. In those cases, women who were fertile had more positive impressions of men who were physically imposing.
The new results suggest that the same traits that fertile women find attractive in men of their same group may actually lead to more negativity against men when those traits are associated with men of a different racial or social group, says doctoral student Melissa McDonald, the study’s lead author.
“Our findings suggest that women’s prejudice, at least in part, may be a byproduct of their biology.”
Mmm. I'm trying to get my poor female head around this argument. Let's see.

First, women prefer physically intimidating men of their own type when they are ovulating, right? The types which might rape them, depriving them of that "reproductive choice." Second, they don't like physically intimidating men not of their own type when they are ovulating, because those men might rape them, depriving them of that "reproductive choice."

OK, I guess. But what evidence do we have that the raids prehistoric tribes suffered from were by men who looked different from the men in the tribe? How likely would it have been that there were such strong racial differences in those long-ago days? If this argument would work, it should differentiate between familiar men and strangers in general, but that is not what those photograph tests measure at all.

And why would the bias be less when a woman is not in the ovulation stage of her menstrual cycle? Don't raiders usually do stuff like kill the children, murder the men and so on, even if they left the women alive? It would seem that IF racial bias is linked to evolutionary pressures it should be humongous on all days of the month.

I'm not discussing the original studies here but how they are popularized. Still, I'm wondering about the lack of criticisms when it comes to the basic theories. Couldn't the popularizers find at least one critical commenter to make their summaries look at tiny bit less biased? And to report that "scientists have concluded that..."!!

I don't know. Writing about all this is like trying to carry water on a fork. But note that women's hormonal balance does change over the menstrual cycle and this could affect all sorts cognitive and emotional aspects without this implying that they are linked to fertility and its evolutionary imperatives. In other words, there are other possible theoretical bases for looking at data these kinds of studies discuss.

A final thought. I see an edifice being erected here where fertile women are responsible for a whole lot of stuff that goes on in the world, just by the way their stone age brainz decide things for them! This edifice is not because of actual facts about how power is divided and who actually determines mating outcomes, but because of the type of research evolutionary psychologists are eager to do.

Something to be aware of.