Friend of Shapely Prose Elysia (who writes the blog Born That Way) is an evolutionary biologist, and she had some choice words for the latest dude to use evolutionary psychology as an explanation for why he believes seriously douchey things about women. Please give Elysia a warm welcome. — Kate
My friend Sweet Machine brought a recent post by Amanda Hess to my attention. In her essay, Ms. Hess discusses a blog entry on the Scientific American Mind website, written by one Dr. Jesse Bering. Once you’ve read her post, come back here to see me talk about how good (and bad) science can be totally skewed by reporters. Even scientists. Just so we start on the same page: Dr. Bering discussed the concept of menstruation as shameful or dirty. He presented some good evidence for the social context of menstruation as having a huge impact on the way women experience/remember first menses (although he also seemed to be saying that Western feminism was wrong in concluding the same thing).
Dr. Bering is described as an evolutionary psychologist – a title which always makes me uneasy, because as “just” an evolutionary biologist (actually, I’m a population and evolutionary geneticist), I have seen very little thus far from the field of evo psych that actually gets the evolution part right. (I’m always willing to give it a try, though, in hopes that someone will prove me wrong about the field.) Let’s start out with the premise: a male researcher is curious about women’s first menses, and the psychological context and consquences thereof. Fair enough. What else does Dr. Bering have to say?
“Without a doubt, the best studies on the subject of menarche are those that have attempted to reconcile individual differences in age of female pubertal onset with various evolutionarily relevant variables in girls’ social environments.”
The best studies? Not my field, so I can’t judge, although “without a doubt” with respect to a set of studies on a very general topic being the “best” of anything is a standard not often met in science. However – evolutionarily relevant is my field. So the question becomes: has evolution, of either culture or biology, shaped human psychological response to first menstruation? There follows in Dr. Bering’s essay a series of anecdotes and studies grounded in 20th-century data. From a strictly biological viewpoint, this is hardly even the blink of an eye, and evolution simply cannot have occurred and been detected. Let me repeat: citing only data from the last 100 years, approximately five generations, is insufficient to demonstrate that biological evolution has occurred.
“[G]irls growing up in homes where the biological father is absent but the stepfather is present tend to mature faster than those living under the same roof as their biological fathers (their bodies are essentially competing with their mothers for the attention of this genetically unrelated male …)”
I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying and discussing mammalian reproduction during my graduate work and professional life. My response to the quoted passage: Wait, what? The last time I talked about this type of interaction was during a lab meeting, in the context of mouse mating behavior. Female mice experience an acceleration in sexual development because they are being influenced by an adult male’s presence, via hormones he produces – they’re not competing with their mothers for matings, but experiencing a side effect of cohabiting with non-parental males. (Read more here and here.) My evolutionary just-so story, err, hypothetical explanation for this observation is that some male mouse had a different body chemistry that could induce sexual maturation in any female nearby, which would mean he’d have more babies than other males because he’d be, you know, there when the females matured. His sons might have that same capability, and if this provided enough of an advantage relative to other males (and survives a number of other conditions, including pressure by female biology working against it), you could end up with males generally affecting female sexual development – regardless of any relationship between the male and nearby females. Please note that a juvenile female mouse’s mom does not appear in this model. The implication of your phrasing – “their bodies are essentially competing with their mothers” – does hint at the lack of volition in this situation (the idea that girls’ bodies are simply reacting to a biological stimulus) but sets up a mother-daughter rivalry where none exists. Mom has nothing to do with this, except having gotten remarried. Not to mention, there’s no accounting in your summary for siblings, stepsiblings, the role of stress…it’s a fascinating observation, but there’s a lot of careful dissection of the situation that has to be done before it’s appropriate to flag this as mother-daughter competition. (If such detail exists in the professional scientific literature, please, someone let me know!)
“reminds me of that shower scene in Steven King’s Carrie (you know the one).”
Excuse me, sir, your preconceptions are showing. (Really? A horror flick? Really? Let me guess – you also consider menstrual blood to be dirty. This and other word choice throughout the essay is consistent with that position – is that what you meant to convey?)
“[The Head Teacher] suggested that ‘nobody would want to talk about it’ and that there would be ‘hell to pay’ from his many ‘conservative parents’ if he put his name to the research.”
Sooo…because some parents might have been unhappy, this means that the girls themselves were necessarily ashamed? Because that’s sort of how that reads. The research study was challenging because of – oh wait! – a larger societal attitude that might or might not have accurately reflected the girls’ own feelings.
“Such anecdotes would appear to pose some serious problems for traditional feminist theories, which tend to argue that Western negative attitudes toward everything from menstruation to vaginas at large are simply the result of cultural constructions.”
When you follow this sentence by a paragraph of examples of how women in different cultures experience different responses to the onset of menstruation, it…doesn’t sit well with a lot of readers. Especially when you go on to say:
“According to most Western females, however, nothing could be more nightmarish than the prospect of “leaking” in public, and so perhaps it’s not too surprising that so many teenagers say that, in retrospect, their preparation for womanhood amounted to little more than a how-to guide for hiding their menstrual blood from all other eyes.”
As a layperson in psychology and sociology, I can only say that this doesn’t surprise me, given how much Western culture seems to prize cleanliness in…everything, to the point where it seems to be backfiring. (Hygiene hypothesis, anyone?) Seriously, it seems like a viable alternative hypothesis is just that cleanliness is so highly valued that any and all sexuality gets shoved into the shadows. How often do we talk about men remembering the first time they ejaculated? Popular humor about boys suddenly doing their own laundry seems on its face to be consistent with the same “cleanliness above all” hypothesis. I’d love to know if anyone has studied the influence of Puritans and other Protestant groups that largely shaped early American culture, the evidence of which we still see today, and how their feelings about cleanliness and purity have contributed to this. (Sweet Machine, editor/human extraordinaire, suggests the work of Mary Douglas for further information.)
In fact, Dr. Bering, you allude to something like this when you discuss Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s work.
Oh, and I’m not the local expert on this, but I hear there’s this thing out there – this idea that men have, for many years, tried to control female sexuality. Wouldn’t propagandizing menstruation be a convenient way to do that?
” When the researchers asked 157 white, middle-class ninth-grade girls what advice and information they would give to younger girls about menarche, […] one lone teenage girl of this entire group of 157 participants—ever linked menstruation to reproduction …”
Do you really think that this shows “clearly that, in the minds of these newly fertile adolescents, reproductive biology—that is to say, the actual purpose of periods—was a complete afterthought in their thinking”? Or could it be that those girls were trying to pass on practical information to their peers, since they were asked what advice they would give? Trust me, my public school sex ed made it abundantly clear that menstruation was part of reproductive biology. But that’s not much comfort when you’re not ready to reproduce, and it’s not helpful in understanding the logistics of being a pubescent girl.
“I’m sure many of my straight male friends are indeed praising Allah for the invention of Kotex.”
If you have a daughter or a wife or girlfriend or sister – please understand that she may hear you say things like this and not want to discuss menstruation with you.
” … here comes my British accent—bloody companies and their concern with the bottom dollar.”
Your (public) Facebook page tells me that you hail from Ohio. That doesn’t rule out a British accent, but I am rather curious. Also, in making puns of the word “bloody,” you are actually engaging in a joke based on slang, not accent. To perpetuate a quote I rather like, words mean things (link goes to an OT explanation). And distorting those meanings as you do here gives me pause; were I grading this, I would become suspicious that you were attempting to sound smart so I wouldn’t notice any problems with your work.
“In fact, I’ve often wondered if the tremendous reservation that most parents have in communicating with their children about sex has the ironic consequence of making their children more curious about it—a curiosity that translates into earlier and more frequent sexual activity.”
Trust me, you’re not the first. In fact, I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people at or past their teens in Western society have pursued various “illicit” exploits because their parents forbade them or refused to talk about them. (Also, have you ever studied Prohibition?)
“And that makes me wonder if there weren’t (and aren’t) perhaps some natural selection pressures at work here, forces favoring parental modesty over candor in the sex education of children.”
Seriously? Your hypothesis is that modest parents will have higher fitness (i.e., in the long run, will have a reproductive advantage) than immodest parents (and the word “modest” is so subjective that I feel this is already a difficult hypothesis to argue). That means that the children of modest parents must in turn be modest parents to their own children, or you simply have a fluctuation with a period of a generation, right? My very own parents decried their parents’ modesty and had fairly frank discussions with me, as appropriate. And while there’s such a thing as temporally-varying selection..this doesn’t seem to be such a case. (By way of explanation: temporally-varying selection. Put simply, sometimes the force that makes a particular feature favorable can itself change over time. Say you have dandelions in your yard – the features of a dandelion plant that grows well in rainy March that let the plant have more babies may not do a lick of good for that plant’s offspring when dry July comes around. Here, well, you can imagine that modesty might be bad if we were facing certain kinds of famine, as it would mean fewer babies and a higher chance that they’d survive, but it’s unlikely that every single generation – or every few generations – we’d alternate between stark feast and famine. Even if it were true, biological evolution in humans takes thousands of years, so it would be extremely hard for me to come up with a plausible mathematical model in which relatively recent social mores affect biological fitness.)
No offense, but this is a poor reflection of the basic components of evolutionary biology. No, strike that – I hope to offend you enough to get you to stop and think, because as an evolutionary biologist and instructor, I am left to deal with the aftermath of students who come in to my classroom with serious biases about a field they’ve only ever seen misrepresented. Partly because essays like yours get into the lay media. It’s especially infuriating to see sloppy or inaccurate science used to justify positions from the mildly offensive to the abhorrent. Please don’t let the entire field of evolutionary psychology devolve into a mere shadow of the science it could be – I’d rather it be “based on” rather than “inspired by” evolution.
Yes, it’s important to realize that cultural constructs influence the way biological events are experienced and recalled. It’s important to link biological and cultural evolution, and to remember that we humans are animals. And as a male ape, you are well within your rights to wonder how female apes differ from you; just please remember while you call elderly women apes that you are one, yourself. More importantly, it’s great for you as a human man to want to understand the human woman’s experience, and I encourage you to reframe your language to make it clear that you understand that distinction. Because your personal discomfort with my menstruation – or my feminism – does not a sound scientific discussion make, and dismissing my humanity when you examine my biology ill befits a doctor of psychology.
For the record: I make no claim to perfect impartiality here – this is just me, a professionally trained scientist and a self-identified feminist talking about why a particular piece of popular science writing raised my personal and professional hackles. Like any good scientist, when I’m working, I try to minimize the impact of my own bias on my research, but you know what? I’m human, and biased, and the best I can do is own those biases and be honest about them with friends, students, and colleagues.