Posts Tagged ‘Science’

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.

    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.

    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.
  • 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.
  • Saturday Linkorama

    Saturday, September 24th, 2011
  • Holy crap. Freakonomics backs me up on how spineless and useless NFL pre-season picks are. I really should be an economist.
  • Cracked takes on Doctor Who. It’s so weird to see this show become so popular. When I was a kid, Whovians were looked down on by Trekkies.
  • What 40 years of war has done to Kabul.
  • I’m not sure about this story. The Drug Warriors have a noted tendency to overstate their case, as does the CDC.
  • I can’t tell is this vampire kit is a real thing from the 19th century or somebody’s art project.
  • Another missing link has been found. But remember, finding a transitional fossil just means you need to find two more.
  • If it weren’t for his Fair Tax position, I’d really like Gary Johnson.
  • Hershey Linkorama

    Thursday, September 1st, 2011
  • I love science. A new record for oldest fossils.
  • What our pronouns say about us.
  • Yet more good news you will never hear in the media: war is on the decline.
  • Nate Silver on the obvious: popularly matters in the BCS.
  • Cracked is becoming a one-stop-shop for debunking bullshit.
  • The Waffle House Factor.
  • TNC on “The Help”
  • Friday Linkorama

    Friday, July 15th, 2011
  • Fun with data. The thing is, some social scientist would probably publish this seriously.
  • Your inspiration for the week. Most people are so good.
  • Cool medieval art. I’m so glad I get to enjoy cool medieval stuff (art, literature, professors with armor) and none of the bad stuff (famine, disease, war and death).
  • Because it’s Friday: cute cats.
  • Some questions don’t need to be answered.
  • Monday Linkorama

    Monday, June 20th, 2011
  • An archive of the internet? Nice idea but good luck. The whole point of the internet is to generate more information than paper could ever keep up with.
  • Dreadful story about a vintage airplane being destroyed. Although a least everyone was OK.
  • This is how science works (H/T: Astropixie.
  • More matching old photos to current locations.
  • More pictures of volcanoes.
  • This is one of the more interesting articles I’ve read on parenting. It suggests that coddling kids is a good way to land them in therapy.
  • I can’t wait until my vacation in the Outer Banks.
  • Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • What does your brain do when you orgasm? A scientist finds out.
  • This imitation of video game voices cracked me up.
  • Wonderful color photos of the Great Depression.
  • Political links:

  • This sort of thing happens every day in our ridiculous War on Drugs.
  • I don’t know what depresses me more about this story: that New Jersey passed an ill-considered law mandating decals on cars drive by teenagers; or that people succumbed to a baseline Predator Panic as a result.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, May 15th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • A truly fascinating demonstration of the shift in population.
  • And, slowly, we lose the last of the WW1 vets.
  • More of my love of time lapse video.
  • A lovely story about an e-mail scam.
  • Political links:

  • Yer government at work: literally crying overspilt milk.
  • I wonder how the people who hate the Oath Keepers will reconcile this.
  • Remember when the President said he would make decisions based on science? That’s OK, neither does he.
  • The Curse of the Libertarian: you’re always right but no one listens. We said homebuyer tax credits would hurt more than they would help. We were right.
  • For the six thousandth time — we did not profit on the bailout of the automotive industry. Quit claiming we did, media.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, May 8th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • And now … low salt diets are bad for you.
  • I found this article, from Vanity Fair about the Playboy Clubs of the 60’s oddly fascinating, and not just because of my generalized interest in the opposite gender. Doubtless the clubs were bad bad things. They certainly wouldn’t function today — they’d get justifiably eaten by sexual harassment laws. But the 60’s and 70’s were interesting times in terms of sex. Mad Men, to my understanding, mines that particular retro-chic vein very well. The article also reminds me of the near-innocence in the early days of commercialized sex that has been lost as it has become ubiquitous. Hef, at least in the early days, was great at up-marketing porn. The magazine had legitimately great articles (for which they paid a fortune to writers). Early pictorials were far more tasteful and coy than today and the clubs, from the description, played to that aesthetic. Plus, how cool would it have been to see Aretha Franklin give only her second public performance?
  • On the flip side of that, Cracked dissects one of the most disturbing romance/sex writers out there. Egad.
  • And just to round out a gender-conscious linkorama: this comes from the Fanatics Come in All Faiths file. Hillary Clinton has been photoshopped out of a White House picture.
  • Political Links:

  • Egad. Sugar interests vs. corn interests. Who to cheer for?
  • Of the many things our government could be worrying about, why is raw milk even on the list?
  • A touching note on forgiving bin Laden from a 9/11 survivor.
  • Half of Detroit can’t read. The city is spending $13,000 per pupil on their schooling system. Can we maybe admit that money isn’t the limiting factor here?