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Wednesday, February 23, 2011


The "Threatening Scent of Fertile Women?"

in ref to:
"The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women"

What about the threatening scent of biodeterminism? The lengths to which people unwittingly continue to keep biodeterminism alive, along with its notion that human behavior is mostly automatic and uncontrollable by the individual because of brain physiology, are truly staggering.

Here's a news article from the science section of the NY Times that tries to support the evolutionary perspective that there are BEHAVIORS hard-wired into the human DNA that are affected by factors such as: A)being in a heterosexual relationship or not, B) the fertile stage of a woman's menstrual cycle, and C) the extent to which someone views images of "attractive" members of the other sex. In each case, this article is assuming the research design effectively eliminates learning and cultural values as a variable and the only underlying mechanism to affect outcomes is physiological. This article is not simply reporting the outcome of research on human behavior; it is interpreting this research for the public in a perfect way to breed biodeterminism.

The first piece of scientific evidence mentioned is one in which there were two groups, single men and men in heterosexual relationships. They were asked to rate how attractive they found the 21-year-old female who was an accomplice in the study. Supposedly, she was "carefully trained not to flirt with anyone...and always wore jeans and a plain T-shirt." Such design elements do not necessarily make it impossible that she might have been attracted (and attractive) to certain single men--enough so that this group rated her more attractive in general. Do we really need to do a study that shows single men will find an anonymous woman to be more attractive compared to men already in relationships? Moreover, there's never a guarantee that the woman acted consistently while working on a task with certain men (in this case, Lego blocks) who were giving her subtle signs that they were single males interested in her. This study was designed to show that the woman's menstrual stage was the ONLY factor that unidirectionally caused single males to rate her higher in attractiveness compared to men already in relationships. Such evaluations ignore that human beings also mutually interact with each other on a conscious level and are not simply objects with brain chemistry.

The article continues regarding the main point, "...research had shown that a woman at the fertile stage of her menstrual cycle seems more attractive...only when this woman was rated by a man who wasn’t already involved with someone." The finding is based on an AVERAGE rating of all subjects who were single males and says nothing about males not in relationships who did NOT find the women attractive. The same is the case with men in relationships, i.e., because the rating is based on a group's average score, there may have been some males in relationships who rated the woman more attractive than men not in relationships despite her being in a specific term of her menstrual cycle. The scientific method being used here systematically eliminates individuality among subjects. Because statistically significant results are based on the average score of a group, you don't know to what extent the score of individual males may have varied. In the real world, who is this "average" male whose behavior is representative of the entire group's performance?

The science of evolutionary psychology is treating all human beings like we are each the same, mechanistic organism with little diversity among individuals who are supposedly bound by the same gene governing something like reproductive behavior. Hence, Dr. Martie Haselton, a psychologist at UCLA, might hastily conclude, "It makes it clear that we’re much more like other mammals than we thought,” but that's not really an honest scientific approach. The extent to which we focus on how much we are similar, in the absence of human individuality and diversity, the more we will all look the same. 

Another study is mentioned in which subjects who were again either single or in heterosexual relationships were shown images of attractive faces after being primed with words that would elicit sexual arousal ("The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives," by Manner et al., 2008).  The news article suggests how striking it is that "...people who were already in relationships...looked away more quickly from the attractive faces." Why is this so surprising? Said the other way, it simply means the single individuals (perhaps being more lonely) were more interested and perhaps more sexually aroused by the priming. But in support of biodeterminism the news article claims, "The subliminal priming with words related to sex apparently activated some unconscious protective mechanism: Tempt me not! I see nothing! I see nothing!" This is wild speculation designed to get you to believe without any real evidence that something in the human brain acts like a hard-wired alarm system. The subjects of the study who were in relationships have no doubt learned about ethics and a cultural value that says when you're in a relationship it's supposed to be exclusive. There isn't necessarily any "unconscious protective mechanism" safeguarding their relationships. Isn't it plausible that maybe they were simply less interested and sexually satisfied enough given they are likely to be actively engaged in sex with a partner? There's no real reason to conclude they were suddenly thrown into some "protective mechanism" mode. The abstract of the study by Manner et al. refers to, "cognitive processes that help protect their relationship when faced with desirable relationship alternatives," but whether such processes occur automatically to some degree can be a function of learning as much as any biological hard-wired mechanism.

These are studies NOT being done to directly observe some physiological component that supposedly governs behavior. Still, researchers and news reporters claim there is some explanation for the behavior rooted in brain chemistry, and especially when reported to the public through the news, they read more like a circular argument than a science. From our understanding of biodeterminism we know that all behaviors have an associated physiological state. However, a person's brain chemistry is only a biological correlate of his or her behavior and not necessarily the cause. Human beings are complex organisms influenced by education, experiences, existential issues, ethics, spirituality, and cultural values. As reported by the NY Times, researchers of evolutionary psychology are apparently trying to say the only reason single men judge a woman to be more attractive when she is in her most fertile state is because men can apparently detect this state, as if she must give off a "scent" of some kind. Conversely, men in relationships detect this state and then don't judge the woman to be more attractive, but it's a leap of biodeterministic faith to say the reason for this is some kind of hard-wired relationship-protection mechanism. These men could simply hold their partners in high esteem, assuming good quality relationships, and if their eyes are already filled with love for a woman it does not have to be the work of some automatic bio-alarm mechanism of the brain for men who want to be exclusive to not have another woman tempting them.

How do males even know that a woman's fertility rate is at a peak? Apparently, "studies have found LARGE CHANGES [my emphasis] in cues and behavior when a woman is at this stage of peak fertility." What kind of research constitutes such "large" changes:

1. Lap dancers get much higher tips unless they’re taking birth-control pills that suppress ovulation.

2. The pitch of a woman’s voice rises.

3. Men rate a woman's body odor as more attractive and respond with higher levels of testosterone.

These might be interesting findings, but such research has serious limitations in generalizing to the whole human population. All women are not lap dancers. There is no standard pitch by which a female voice is deemed sexy (i.e., some men prefer a deep voice in a woman). If for some reason a woman's body has a more pleasurable scent to men during ovulation, it does not necessarily mean 1) this scent is a reliable indicater a woman is ovulating, 2) men are going to be more likely to want sex from the woman when this scent is detected, 3) a man will stray from one woman when this scent is detected in another woman, 4) a man will become sexually excited because of higher levels of testosterone (A high level of serum testosterone is also associated with becoming aggressive and competitive).

Research in evolutionary psychology often overlooks the LARGE CHANGE that occurs when moving from the internal validity of a study (including inferential statistics) to the external validity of a study (i.e., the science was sound when it came to what you studied but it may not have anything to do with the real world). What some researchers might want you to conclude is that nature is working in all of us through physiology to make us want sex or stay under control, as if we are just like all other mammals. In the real world, human behavior is not usually guided simply by physiology, albeit you will find plenty of people referring to the "chemistry" between lovers. This talk is partly the result of biodeterminism.  

Moreover, who is to say that something like the extent to which a man looks at an image of an attractive face presents an actual threat to a relationship? Outside the lab, where human behavior really counts (in case you've been fooled), to what extent is looking at images of the other sex really going to matter when a relationship between two human beings is affected by countless other variables? The whole evolutionary approach is trying to get people to focus only on how do human beings seem to behave in general, which amounts to a half truth because with this approach the variation of the behavior of individuals in the real world goes right out the door. The only "scent" in this article is the one that smells like biodeterminism--the one some researchers have a vested interest in without fully understanding the consequences for misleading the public that almost all human behavior is uncontrollably the result of brain physiology.

Look at the way Haselton from UCLA is quoted regarding the way women supposedly behave when they are at the peak of fertility within the menstrual cycle:

“ 'Women who are in steady relationships with men who are not very sexually attractive — those who lack the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail — suddenly start to notice other men and flirt...They are also more critical of their steady partners and feel less ‘one’ with them on those few days before ovulation. These women don’t show any shifts in feelings of commitment...They don’t want to leave their steady partners. They just want to look around at other men and consider them as alternative sex partners.' ”

Unless he's being misquoted, that's a HUGE overgeneralization regarding the behavior of all females in heterosexual relationships. Add to this the notion that it's all supposedly the result of female physiological state (i.e., hormones) during the menstrual cycle and it becomes even more questionable. I'll explain:

"Women who are in steady relationships with men who are not very sexually attractive...suddenly start to notice other men and flirt..."
--Only at THIS specific time do they notice that they have lesser attractive mates? ALL women in this group actually begin to "flirt" with other men, and "suddenly," as if the flirting automatically stops when the menstrual cycle stage changes? You mean when the women are not at the peak of fertility they are more satisfied being with their lesser attractive mates? More importantly, if human evolution is what is truly supporting the behavior of these women, then why are they even having relationships with lesser attractive males in the first place? Why aren't women typically dumping their lesser attractive male partners in favor of these attractive males when they're at the peak of fertility? Plus, what about women in heterosexual relationships who make the conscious decision to not have children? Are these women also helplessly bound to act out these same flirting behaviors all because of the menstrual cycle?

"They [women when at the peak of fertility within the menstrual cycle] are also more critical of their steady partners and feel less ‘one’ with them on those few days before ovulation."
--Even when they are already in relationships with the most attractive males out there? That would contradict the first claim. And feeling "less one" with your partner could not possibly happen on a reliable basis in all relationships only the days before the woman is ovulating, even from a perspective of human evolution. In fact, there's a classic evolutionary theory that woman want a man who can provide resources that will support having a family. When a woman finds such a man, we're now supposed to believe that she predictably wants to stray anyway during the days before ovulation? And for Haselton to claim, "These women don’t show any shifts in feelings of commitment," is a contradiction because if they are more critical and feel less at one with their partners for a few days that would qualify as a temporary shift. If only at this time of the menstrual cycle women want to supposedly "look around at other men and consider them as alternative sex partners," it says little about the women who are truly satisfied enough with their relationships that they would never do this (they do exist!). Are these women then to be considered "abnormal" when it comes to human behavior?

Yet, out of left field the news reporter concludes that what Haselton is saying "fits the 'good genes' evolutionary explanation for adultery: a quick fling with a good-looking guy can produce a child with better genes, who will therefore have a better chance of passing along the mother’s genes." If only all those good-looking guys had "better" genes simply because they are so darn good-looking! The "better" side of being good-looking, if it means more likely to reproduce, does not necessarily support human societies or evolution. Having affairs can more likely lead to just as much evil, heartache, and mental illness. And where's the data that indicates when a woman has a "quick fling" with a good-looking guy the baby automatically grows into a "good-looking" adult? Plus, the reporter's statement is yet another one explaining away the unethical behavior of adultery as one that is the result of human evolutionary theory and the notion that human beings are automatically acting in ways that only improve the gene pool, which is unfounded. We know that there are plenty of couples who are procreating way beyond what they are capable of supporting, and no matter how attractive the people within that overpopulation are, it does the exact opposite of supporting human evolution.

The article reminds us, "Natural selection favored those who stayed together long enough to raise children: the men and women who could sustain a relationship by keeping their partners happy." But then in favor of the notion that it's also because of NATURE people don't always stay monogamous the article adds, "They would have benefited from the virtue to remain faithful, or at least the wiliness to appear faithful while cheating discreetly." A benefit to cheat discreetly?--and in connection with natural selection? It's been the hallmark of evolutionary psychology to keep demonstrating that men want to procreate as far and wide as possible. There are people who keep using this kind of research to demonstrate whether it's simply the nature of human beings to be monogamous or not. But when it comes to the behavior of such a complex organism, knowing what "nature" is doesn't give a person a handy excuse for adultery. That might sound like moralizing, but it's really a perspective that's against biodeterminism. Moreover, a person's behavior is not entirely under the control of these principles considered to be connected to "natural selection." The term itself has come to suggest that we are all helpless organisms who can't do much more than succumb to impulses, drives, and automatic mechanisms that have been programmed into us for eons. Presumably, logical and moral thinking then run against the grain of our "true" nature, which is unfounded. 

It's sad to think another article depicts women as creatures helpless to the effects of their menstrual cycle. It's not simply "science" to suggest that married women and "good-looking" single men are just responding to some element of human evolution when they produce illegitimate offspring. It's biodeterminism, which is a form of scientism--a radical perspective that suggests our scientific method tells us all we need to know about human behavior. The conclusion from a biodeterministic perspective is always the same, i.e., we have no real control over what we do because our behavior is automatically being controlled by genetic programming. Some of us can smell the scent of a reductionistic explanation of human behavior.

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