Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category

Breasts

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

For some reason, breasts have been in the news lately. Not one but two scholarly works are out, one of which is nicely skeptical about all the received wisdom about their form, function etc.

Apart from my Y-chromosome issues, I find this subject interesting because of the discussions about precisely why men are attracted to women with large breasts. It’s simply amazing to read all the debates in evolutionary psychology which pass themselves off as science but are often little more than speculation (check out this baby for an example). I’ve heard all the “theories”, few of which are actually falsifiable. And all of them sound like rubbish to me.

  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they want their young to be well-fed. This is likely to be garbage as there is little, if any, correlation between breast size and the ability to nurse.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because it indicates higher body fat and better nursing of children. See my response to the first explanation. I’d also note that breast size and body fat are not perfectly correlated. The most common body types are the “banana” and “pear” shapes.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they resemble women’s buttocks. This is a popular explanation but it also sounds like rubbish. First of all, it only deflects the question: “OK, wise guy: why are men attracted to women’s butts?” Second, this was clearly derived by people who have no idea what breasts looks like in the wild. Corsets and bras have only existed for the last half a millenium.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they swell during ovulation, signaling fertility. This swelling is subtle to anyone who is not experiencing it; far more subtle than the breast fetish tends to be. Moreover, many women do not experience breast swell during ovulation. And breast swell is far greater during pregnancy, when a woman, by definition, is not fertile. For our primate ancestors, it’s likely the very presence of breasts indicated a female was pregnant or nursing.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because of socialization. Now this one really annoys me. Socialization doesn’t just happen on its own. Breast fetishism had to come from somewhere. It’s not like someone woke up one day and decided to tell all the men to eroticize boobs for some sort of oppressive reason. Breast attraction must have a long and deep history in our species to have affected our very evolution (humans females are the only mammals to have large breasts when they aren’t lactating).
  • To be honest, this debate tends to fill me with anger. All of these theories are presented with an incredible certainty, as though something had been proven. But none are supported by scientific evidence. They are mere conjecture and bad conjecture at that. Among other things, none allow for the fact that some men are not attracted to busty women. In fact, some men have a particular preference for women with small chests. Many cultures have a far less intense breast fetish than our own. And some men — like me — are attracted to a variety of physical types. So these explanation that big boobs appeal to something deep in our psyches or our genes leave me a little cold.

    These theories also ignore something very important: there may not be a reason. One of the things we’ve learned from evolutionary science is that we are not perfect creatures. We have many flaws which have been genetically selected over the generations. The reason we have these flaws is that they came along with something so useful that, on balance, we were better off. So intelligence may have come with bad eyesight. We are, and always have been, patchwork creatures. And the idea that evolution is a uniform process producing predictable results and that every aspect of our existence has some survival benefit is inconsistent with the known facts.

    In sum, men may be attracted to big boobs because of some random bit of programming that came along for the ride with something else. Or it may be an unusual manifestation of something that is useful. Looking for a definitive explanation is, in my view, dangerous because it implies that all our traits, all our behavior, have to have an explanation. They don’t.

    That having been said, I recently encountered a theory that makes some sense to me.

    I recently heard an interview with one of the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which applied the first objective analysis not to what people claim to consume on the internet, but to what they actually do. For example, far more men are attracted to women who are overweight than women who are anorexic. While the authors go too far in some of their conclusions, the interview did have one idea that resonated. The author was talking about why men fetishize things like dainty feet. He said, quite simply, that these are signs of femininity. They are things male brains — because of evolution, socialization or hormones — recognize as “this is a female; I can mate with her.” It is sexual signaling, no different from the bright feathers on a bird or the pheromones of an insect.

    This is probably the most sensible explanation for the breast fetish I’ve heard. It’s straight-forward and explains much of what the other theories don’t. Under this paradigm, men are attracted to anything their brains have decided is feminine. And breasts are just one of the easiest things to fetishize because they are such an obvious secondary sex characteristic; something women have that men don’t. A man can see a busty women from far away and recognize that it’s a woman. There doesn’t have to be a rationality behind it. He doesn’t have to be thinking about her ability to lactate or anything. It’s just something that his brain has latched on to.

    The real beauty of this theory, however, is that it does not have to be true of all men. If a man associates femininity with being small and petite, or having long hair and soft skin, or having a high-pitched voice — that’s what he finds attractive. He can be completely indifferent to mammary glands simply because his brain does not process that as a particularly feminine trait. Breast fetishism would simply be part of the larger paradigm that encloses all fetishes. Call it the General Theory of Ogling.

    (I should note that women are not immune from this sexual signaling, hence the preferences for broad shoulders, deep voices, etc. However, women tend to be less visual and their sexuality is more oriented around mate selection than mate identification. So if wealth or self-confidence or humor or whatever is what they regard as a signal of masculinity, that’s what they find attractive. This may also explain why women are often attracted to men who are obnoxious or even violent, since these can be masculine characteristics.

    I’ve often felt that natural selection, at least in humans, is something that women play a much larger role in than men. Men try to have sex with everything, superior or inferior. Women are the ones who are selective.)

    Of course, I would be remiss if not noting that this conjecture makes me feel better about myself. While I have always been very physically attracted to women, I don’t really have a “type”. My wife is blonde and curvy. My previous girlfriend is tall, brunette and slender. Before that was short and petite. Before that was short and absurdly busty (and possible artificial). And so on. I’ve been attracted to blondes, brunette and redheads; to tall and short; to slender and curvy. But I would define all of them as physically attractive in some way. In fact, I would say that I find most women attractive in some way. But if you narrowed it down just to the women to whom I have felt a strong physical attraction, you would still find a wide physical variety.

    That I am physically attracted to women of a wide variety of appearances used to bother me. But now it just means that my brain, for some reason, defines a broad spectrum of physical characteristics as female. Maybe it’s some subconscious “with your luck, you can’t be too picky” thought stream. But I suspect it’s just the way my brain works. I have broad interests in everything, hence the blog, hence the career in a massively interdisciplinary profession, hence the liberal arts education, hence the huge library. My interests tend to wander. And so does my eye.

    We are animals. And we are fools when we forget this. We are double fools when we have degrees in scientific disciplines and deliberately forget this. Our rational thinking selves are just the placid surface of a broiling animalistic mix of desires, passions and fears. We can’t pretend that every aspect of our lives — and especially the most basic aspect of our lives: our need to reproduce — are the product of reason and rationality. Nietzsche said that the degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit. Our spirits are animals. And our attractions are no different than an animal’s attraction to a set of big antlers or a particularly shimmery coating of scales.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
  • Starry Night … in dominoes.
  • A great interview with the Skeptical Environmentalist.
  • The DEA can’t justify it’s own War on Drugs.
  • This post, on whether kids should hate their parents, deserves a feature-length post from me. Suffice it to say that I, uh, split he baby on this one. I’m my daughter’s friend when I can be but if she doesn’t hate me once a week, I’m not doing my job.
  • 50 Years of Starfish

    Monday, July 9th, 2012

    This post, from Phil Plait, is a must-read on the history of one of the most dangerous nuclear tests in history. I do have on quibble however, with the opening paragraph:

    In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US acquiesced. However, in late 1961 political pressures internal to the USSR forced Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again. So, again under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.

    That’s a generous reading of the history. It could be argued, as Robert Heinlein said at the time, that the history was more like this: In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric test of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Of course, they had a massive country with closed borders where they could test weapons on the sly. The US eventually caved into to Soviet bullying and internal Communist sympathizers to join the ban. However, as Heinlein predicted, Khruschev later resumed testing when it suited him.

    Lost Luggage Linkorama

    Sunday, June 24th, 2012
  • Sigh. Five centuries before interstellar travel?
  • Mathematical Malpractice Watch: the War on Cops.
  • Why I will never approve of George W. Bush.
  • The more we find out about ancient cultures, the more clever and well-travelled they turn out to be.
  • How Not to Do Science

    Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

    Amy Alkon breaks down the study that claims the TSA nudie scanners are safe. In short: they basically took TSA’s nominal figure for the radiation put out by these things and assumed that this was the output of all the devices at all times.

    What? Quit giving me those looks. We all know that theory and practice are the same.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, June 12th, 2012
  • All right, here’s the thing about the “study” that Congressional speaking patterns have gotten simpler. Notice that from ’96 to ’06, the speaking grade level was higher and especially high among Republicans. How come we didn’t read all these articles about what intelligent speakers the Republicas were? It did’t fit the narrative, that’s why.
  • I love me new web browsers, but calling it Axis? Is it being tested in Poland and China?
  • Looks like the mainstream media has discovered Chaga’s Disease. I remember my first visit to Campanas, when they tried to scare the new guy with stories about Venchukas.
  • How a story goes viral. Personally, I find the story amusing and cute.
  • A fascinating breakdown of where your airfare goes.
  • Overpopulation Update

    Monday, June 4th, 2012

    Hans Rosling is made of awesome:

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
  • So my daughter has taken to watching My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic lately. I’m fine with it, since the show is a lot more sophisticated than the stuff she’s liked before. It’s also far less abrasive and ugly than most of the animation that dominates morning TV. Still, I do not understand the brony phenomenon. Really?
  • The best magazine articles ever?
  • The amazing thing about environmental fear-mongers it that they are never discredited by being totally and completely wrong. Thankfully, a handful will own up to it.
  • This story, about potentially innocent men not being informed about flaws in the evidence against them, is appalling and should be bigger. Where the anti-big-government types when it comes to getting innocent people out of jail?
  • The thing that strikes me about this photo essay about the poorest place in America is how relative poverty is. I’m not saying they are not poor or are facing few prospects. I am saying that if you saw the same thing in much of the world, you’d think you were looking at the richest part of the country.
  • Monday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 15th, 2012
  • Did Fata Morgana sink the Titanic?
  • Nowadays, it takes ten years to build a sidewalk. Didn’t used to be that way.
  • You know how women were supposed to never get married if they were still on the shelf at 30? Yeah, that was bullshit.
  • Moore’s real law.
  • Mathematical malpractice watch: Mitt Romney.
  • Quickie Linkorama

    Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

    This week’s linkorama is brought to you by my insanity over the last two weeks.

  • Will even a little red meat kill you? Maybe not. But even if it did, what’s the point in living a couple of extra years if you’re hungry and miserable for the previous 70?
  • A pretty cool story about a cab ride around the world.
  • Why I love the internet: it creates heart-warming stories like this one.
  • Thursday Linkorama

    Thursday, March 8th, 2012
  • I agree that most of these words need to die. Mancave, especially.
  • God rest the real heroes of WW2.
  • Fricking Australia, man.
  • Fascinating, if somewhat tedious evolution of the Eroica symphony.
  • Why Putin won the election.
  • Amazing before and after photos from the collapse of communism. You will rarely see the failure of that economic “system” so well demonstrated.
  • A nice story about the newest woman to join Forbes list of billionaires.
  • 34 Years of BS

    Sunday, March 4th, 2012

    Several blogs have recently posted an image that purports to show 34 years of deforestation of North America.

    It’s bogus. And whoever put it together — I can’t find the composite on the NASA site — has been deliberately deceptive.

    The first image dates from 2001, not 1978. You can find it here in wikipedia. It was taken on July 29 — summer for the Northern hemisphere. Check the cloud patterns and you’ll see it’s the same image. The second image you can find here from January of this year from the new Suomi satellite. And for those of you keeping up, that means it’s a winter image.

    So this is not an image of deforestation at all. It doesn’t cover 34 years. And it’s not even from the same satellite. And I didn’t have to use any of my NASA insider skills to figure out how the deception was done.

    If you want to know the facts about deforestation, try wikipedia. In the US, forests declined about 25% from 1600 to 1900. Since then, they’ve been stable due to protection, better management and sustainable logging practices in which new trees are planted as old ones are cut down.

    This is bullshit. This is Paul Ehrlich level bullshit. I’m angry about it, not only because of the pollution of the debate but because of the political abuse of some beautiful images NASA has produced.

    Update: Just to clarify why I was immediately suspicious of this image. One, I keep up with environmental issues so I knew the facts on deforestation already. Two, as a professional, I immediately noticed the difference in angle of the Earth in the two images, indicating the first was taken in summer and the second in winter. NASA can orient these images any way they want, since they are composites. But they angle them as they are shown to reflect the difference in seasons.

    Sunday Linkorama

    Sunday, February 26th, 2012
  • Now this is cool. A plant is brought back to life after 30,000 years. I once wrote a very cliched short story about a human having the same thing happen; being woken up millennia after our extinction by intelligent insects.
  • Continuing in that vein: let’s go back 298 million years.
  • I knew that kids understood words at much younger ages than we thought. They’re sorta like cats: they just can’t be bothered to talk back until they need something.
  • Mathematical Malpractic Watch: the financial crisis. They have one outlier data point. And it seems much more likely that men move back in with their families because they economy is in the shitter, not the other way around.
  • A wonderful note about overcoming racism and Sidney Pottier.
  • An amazing story about a man surviving two months in the snow.
  • This graph-laden article is probably one of the more intelligent analyses I’ve read of the trends in marriage in our society. Long story short? People are still getting married; they’re just waiting longer. That’s not entirely a bad thing.
  • No Sleep

    Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

    I suspect that the century long concern that children aren’t getting enough sleep is at least partially bogus. There are many problems with the scientific studies backing the supposed recommendation up, not the least of which is the assumption that all children need a similar amount of sleep. But why would we assume this when it’s so obviously not true for adults? There are may adults who function fine on a few hours of sleep, others are zombies with less than ten. And there is some evidence that sleeping a lot is correlated with a shorter life span.

    I personally love a good night’s sleep, but I’m averaging about 5-7 hours. A good night is 7-8 hours. And while I wake up groggy and confused, I find that I really can’t go much beyond that. Is is shortening my life? I don’t know. No one knows. What matters more to me is quality of sleep, rather than quantity. A hard four hours is better than a broken eight.

    I do think there may be a genetic component to it. Although Sue needs 8-9 hours, Abby only needs about 9, about 1-2 less than recommended for her age group. And like me, if we try to force her to get more, she just lies in bed wide awake.