A certain type of ‘intellectual’ article about sex seems to pop up with more regularity than your average girl’s menstrual cycle. Here’s the almost-universal rhetorical posture:
First, a flirty, suggestive opening paragraph, just to get the blood flowing.
Look! There’s a new study sheds light on crazy human sexuality!
Let me prove how smart I am by giving an overview of evolutionary psychology and its model of human sexuality. See? I’m a scientist!
Put this together, and you can see why all women are whores, and all men are pigs!
Now I’ll briefly discuss alternatives to my explanation, but not really.
Ultimately, we have to just throw up our hands and give up! Sex is crazy!
I can usually see these articles coming, but I click on them anyway. Why? Because they’re so click-able, I suppose. So I wasn’t surprised when I found myself reading another such article this week, published by aeon.com, a website I generally think of as having a fair amount of street cred when it comes to publishing thoughtful, intellectual articles. Also, the article’s title, ‘Stone age sex’, gave me some hope that it was going to talk about actual hunter-gatherer sexuality, rather than what evolutionary psychologists have theorized.
The article follows the beat-sheet to a T. First, a paragraph about how we can’t control what we desire, name-dropping (of course) Romeo and Juliet as an example of ‘our desires [knowing] no reason.’ Then, the new scientific study (in reality, not really new - it’s a 2013 Australian study of how people view beards). Here’s how Neil McArthur, the author of the Aeon article, describes the study: “The women said they like beards, but not, according to the authors [of the academic beard study], because beards are in fashion. Rather, the weak preferences of the study’s participants were taken to show that women have been programmed by evolution to pursue men with facial hair. Beards apparently signal age, maturity, industriousness, aggression, dominance, and ambition - all traits that women are innately attracted to. “In reaching its conclusions, the study applied what has become the standard paradigm in evolutionary psychology. This paradigm says that our real-world sexual choices tend to reflect biological imperatives that have, over the course of millions of years, programmed men and women to approach sex very differently.”
(In case you’re not familiar, this ‘standard paradigm’ basically says that boys will try to nail down a young fertile wife and then sleep around to spread their genes, while women will try to rope in a good provider and then cheat with a men who show evidence of good genes, especially when fertile, in order to get the best genes for their baby. McArthur calls this the ‘ESS’ (evolutionary study of sex) model, as if it’s the only possible explanation for how our sexuality could have evolved. I refer to it as the ‘Rational Model’ elsewhere on this site, and will continue that nomenclature here.)
A Bad Description of Bad Science
The description of this study set off several alarm bells for me. For one thing, it indicates that the study’s results were ‘taken’ as proof of the Rational Model. I wondered why? Was there a good basis for that jump? Maybe evidence that the same preferences applied across time periods and for different populations of people? Ultimately, I went a little deeper, and went back to the scholarly article itself.
Scholarly articles are often available on the internet, but they’re harder to get to than the fluffier think pieces such as this one. It can be hard to find the full text without an expensive journal subscription, and if you do find it, the writing is dry and difficult to make sense of for non-experts. This is supposed to be one reason for the existence of journalists: to explain stuff like this to the masses.
The actual beard study did not, as McNeil suggests, actually prove that women like beards because beards indicate good mate potential. Of the four ‘beardedness’ options (clean-shaven, 5-day stubble, 10-day stubble, 6-week beard), women thought that the 10-day stubble was most attractive, closely followed by a tie between 6-week beards and clean-shavens. 6-week beards were rated higher, however, when it came to parenting skills, health, and masculinity, if by fairly narrow margins.
Now, this data can be used to bolster the Rational Model: as McNail claims, it could be used as evidence that women prefer older, more masculine and dominant men. But dig a little deeper, and the results stop making sense. According to the Rational Model, women are supposed to be attracted to good providers with parenting skills as long term mates, then to try to cheat with healthy, masculine men in order to try to get the best genes, right? So how then do we make sense of the fact that women thought that a 10-day stubble was the most attractive, but viewed 6-week beards as having the best parenting skills and the most masculinity? Women not at a high-fertility point in their cycle should have been most attracted to the best parents (6-week beard). Women who are at a high-fertility point should be attracted to healthy, masculine men (also the 6-week beard). Yet neither group preferred the fully-bearded.
In addition to being somewhat contradictory, the study’s results don’t prove, in any way, that the preferences are because of evolutionary design. What they do is offer a just-so story explaining their results from within the Rational Model. In the discussion of their findings, Dixson and Brooks say that “[w]omen’s discrimination against full beards in attractiveness ratings may be due to costs of mating with a too-masculine man. Highly masculine men tend to have lower romantic attachment, less interest in long-term relationships and report engaging in more short-term relationships.” Here’s they’re clearly applying Rational Model. But how then to make sense of the fact that the most masculine beards were viewed as the best parents? If women are attracted to good provider daddies, and beards indicate good parenting, then beards should also be thought of as attractive.
Women are ‘known’ to be more attracted to masculine men when they’re fertile, the authors further state. But while their results do show that ‘high-fertility’ women view beards as more masculine, they didn’t find a big difference in fertile and non-fertile women’s view of a beard’s attractiveness. If the fertile women viewed beards as more masculine, they should have also viewed them as more attractive, according to the logic of the Rational Model. Additionally, other similar studies have had different conclusions - some ‘proved’ that women prefer clean-shaven men.
Moreover, instead of using their scientific study to refute the possibility of beard-preference being cultural, as McArthur says they do in his Aeon article, Dixson and Brooks admit the opposite: “It is possible that prevailing cultural perceptions of facial hair also contribute to how beardedness was judged in our study,” they write.
So, the study wasn’t nearly as cut-and-dry as McArthur said it was. He makes no mention of potential issues with the study’s design, either. To name just a few: the subject men who grew beards for the pictures used in the study were all young - the average age was 23 (which shouldn’t be surprising, since they were probably all grad students - who else has the freedom to grow a six-week beard on a whim?). At that age, a beard might make the subject look older in a good way, whereas for older men, the effect might be different. They excluded men who were ‘incapable’ of growing a full beard, as well. This might be thought to just weed out less-sexually mature college students, but there are plenty of older, mature men who can’t grow a ‘full’ beard. Add their patchy stubbles into the mix, and women might have thought clean-shaven men were the most attractive on average. And consider the fact that the respondents to the survey were looking at pictures of bearded men, not bearded men in person. Pictures, obviously, are two-dimensional, and so people look differently in pictures than they do in real life. The flatness of a photo makes some people’s chins look less defined than they do in real life, and having some stubble on the chin helps to provide that definition that the image’s flatness takes away. If women find strong chins attractive, then that itself could explain why they like pictures of men with stubble. I could go on about other issues with the experiment, but that’s not the point.
The Limits of Science
All of this is not to say that the results found in the experiment are worthless. They’re certainly interesting. But they don’t prove anything about how women think about beards, and they certainly don’t offer any proof as to why women might feel a certain way about beards. Even if the study had proven that women love 10-day beards the most, across all cultures and time frames, experiments like this offer no justification for an explanatory leap - women might prefer beards, but it doesn’t tell us why they prefer beards. We could come up with many ‘just-so’ stories for why that might be. One might fall in line with the Rational Model - women like beards because they indicate health and maturity. Or, they might like beards because of the trends of modern culture. Or they might like beards because having a bearded partner makes them feel more feminine in comparison. If women like beards more when they’re fertile (which the results don’t really prove), it might be because they want to shack-up with some masculine genes. Or it might be because beards are (or at least look) fluffy and remind girls of other fluffy things, like chicks and kittens, which hormones are making her like because they make her want to have babies. Or it might be that the hormonal changes that occur with fertility cross-react with the everyday toxins we all ingest and make her abnormally attracted to facial hair. If there were cut-and-dry results from the study, which there aren’t, they would not prove why those results occurred. The why requires interpretation, and since many articles like this interpret their results in terms of the Rational Model, they give the false impression that the Rational Model is more ‘proven’ by science. In reality, it’s based on layer after layer of lukewarm results interpreted in accordance with a dominant paradigm.
Peeking Outside the Rational Model
To his credit, McArthur goes on to address more criticisms of the Rational Model than most such articles do, and he superficially sounds like he’s willing to question it. His ultimate point, if he has one, seems to be that while there are valid criticisms of the Rational Model, it’s still the best game in town, at least for now. He brings up the fact that most sexual studies are actually done on undergraduate students, and refers to research suggesting that polyandry and polyamory are more prevalent in human behavior than the Rational Model would predict. He even name checks ‘Sex at Dawn,’ a fantastic book devoted to debunking the Rational Model and theorizing that our natural sexuality is communal and polyamorous. But then he casually dismisses it. In mentioning it, he refers to the books’ authors, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, as “self described ‘shame exorcists’,” making the book sound like a fluffy feel-good self-help book for aging hippies. Never mind the fact that Ryan has a Ph.D in psychology, or the fact that Jetha is an MD and a practicing psychiatrist. McArthur might not even have done this consciously, but by ignoring their professional distinctions he casually belittles their work.
“Sex at Dawn,” McArthur continues, “is longer on polemic than it is on data and argument, and the reviews in the specialist journals have generally been negative.” The first claim is subjective - there’s plenty of data and argument in Sex at Dawn, though maybe not compared to the dry academic literature that McArthur (a professor who teaches on the philosophy of sex who runs a blog called MoralLust) is used to. And the second claim, that reviews in specialist journals have been negative, should not be surprising. These ‘specialist journals’ are the journals of Evolutionary Psychology that Sex at Dawn is attacking. The negative reviews that I’ve read have basically said that the evidence isn’t scientific enough, meaning that it doesn’t correspond to the common paradigm’s interpretations of the lukewarm results provided by surveys of horny undergraduates. Sex at Dawn, and likewise The Atavist Daily, is about changing the paradigm, widening the range of possible explanations for those lukewarm results.
McArthur concludes, as the template directs, by throwing up his hands. “All this shows that we are a weird, wonderful and sometimes downright kinky species. But sexual strategies theorists have never pretended that their model can explain all of our sexual behavior. Their claim is rather that they can give us a way to distinguish signal from noise.” I would argue, instead, that sexual strategies theorists have made careers out of increasing the volume of noise in order to make themselves sound important. (I would also argue that the phrase ‘the signal and the noise’ has become comically overused since Nate Silver popularized it.) Tomorrow, I'll take a closer look at the logic of his claims, and see if there's anything we can really learn from them. Spoiler alert: we don’t need more sexual strategies scientists telling us what they find, because their theories and their research subjects are all bound up in the modern paradigm. We need to consider the paradigm itself.
On Beards and Bad Science
by Jackson Lay
August 12, 2014
According to the Rational Model, this girl has very strong opinions about beards. But she doesn't know it. And they're self-contradictory. But that's what science says, so it must be true!
Despite his 5-day stubble, this women believes that this man will be a good father.