and a wiggle in the walk, and a giggle in the talk …

by Daniel on November 8, 2007

From the Department of “Are you absolutely sure about that?”, evolutionary psychology once more is on the march:

Love songs may rhapsodise “something in the way she moves”, but a sexy walk is not a sign that a woman is ready to become pregnant. In fact, a new study suggests that the way a woman walks changes during her monthly cycle, and that the most seductive wiggle occurs when she is least fertile.[...]

For the latest study, Dr Provost and her team dressed female volunteers in suits adorned with light markers, as used in Hollywood special effects departments, along the joints and limbs.

This allowed them to film each woman as she walked and then analyse her gait. They also collected saliva samples to find out whether each woman was in the more or less fertile phase of her menstrual cycle.

The women who were ovulating walked with smaller hip movements and with their knees closer together, New Scientist magazine reported. When 40 men were shown the images of the women walking they rated those in the less fertile part of their cycle as having the sexiest walks. [...]

That makes evolutionary sense, because it would benefit a woman to advertise her fertility only to those men she believes would make a suitable mate. In contrast, men can pick up on the attractiveness of a woman’s walk from long distance, and it can therefore act as an unwitting signal to less appealing males whom she might not want to choose.

Hmmm. I think the best you can say about this is at least they did the right thing and went ahead and published these desperately unconvincing results rather than sweeping them under a rug.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Blog of the Moderate Left » The Ministry of Sexy Walks
11.11.07 at 6:00 am
Vivre La Différence » Evolutionary Psychology Stories
11.12.07 at 2:45 pm
Body Impolitic - Blog Archive - » Evolutionary Psychology: Viewed in Context - Laurie Toby Edison: Photographer
11.12.07 at 11:40 pm

{ 117 comments }

1

Michael Bérubé 11.08.07 at 10:55 pm

Love songs may rhapsodise “something in the way she moves”, but a sexy walk is not a sign that a woman is ready to become pregnant.

So much for George Harrison’s theory of natural selection, eh? But perhaps his theory of negative mimetic desire, elaborated in songs such as “Don’t Bother Me” and “If I Needed Someone,” will stand the test of time. . . .

Seriously, this is a little leg-pullin’ hoax. Right? Just a bit of fun on a slow news day? The “Dr. Provost” is actually Jane Provost from Pale Fire, right? And the bit about how “Western icons of ‘hourglass-figure’ beauty from Playboy centrefolds to the Venus de Milo typically take a ratio nearing 0.7 in their stride, irrespective of their body weight, experts suggest” is one of those “wide stance” Internet jokes, right?

2

dsquared 11.08.07 at 11:23 pm

actually I missed the weirdest bit:

Dr Provost said: “If women are trying to protect themselves from sexual assault at times of peak fertility, it would make sense for them to advertise attractiveness on a broad scale when they are not fertile.”

urk?

in related news, “Summer Lovin'” from “Grease” contains the line:

“Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”

which I’ve just realised is more and more distasteful the more you think about it.

3

LizardBreath 11.08.07 at 11:32 pm

Whatever you do, don’t listen to “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

4

Music of the Spherical Quotients 11.08.07 at 11:32 pm

Wait, we agree that there’s an interesting result here, right? I mean, it’s kind of unexpected that the walk would be correlated with ovulation at all.

I agree that the interpretation is bogus, that evolutionary psychology is stupid, and I’m in favor of jeering it at every possible opportunity. But of the five paragraphs quoted here, only the last one is risible.

5

John Quiggin 11.08.07 at 11:43 pm

Maybe “Walking Contradiction” is what we need here.

6

Neil Morrison 11.08.07 at 11:57 pm

Why “desperately unconvincing”? The explanation may turn out be not true but you have provided no argument or evidence either way Daniel.

7

Barry 11.08.07 at 11:58 pm

Does anybody know of an ev. psych. person who is *not* a total waste of oxygen?

8

Antti Nannimus 11.09.07 at 12:03 am

Hi,

Oh yeah, whatever…as if we wait for around for the right wiggle in their walk.

Have a nice day,
Antti

9

John Quiggin 11.09.07 at 12:19 am

“Desperately unconvincing” because it’s obvious that the opposite result was expected and would have been taken as clear support for EP.

I think it’s time to call Popper in on these guys.

10

Neil Morrison 11.09.07 at 12:31 am

“Desperately unconvincing” because it’s obvious that the opposite result was expected and would have been taken as clear support for EP.

But you haven’t given any reason for rejecting their explanation.

Are you saying there could not possibly be an explanation of these results in terms of evolutionary psychology?

11

LizardBreath 11.09.07 at 12:36 am

But you haven’t given any reason for rejecting their explanation.

Because it’s blindingly ridiculous? If the men attracted by a sexy walk are undesirable enough that the sexy walk occurs in the unfertile part of the cycle, why not stabilize the walk on ‘unsexy’ rather than cycling it? There’s no reason to be sending out signals to undesirable men at all.

They call it an ‘unwitting signal’, but what evolutionary sense does it make for it to be a signal at all? They’re just making stuff up at this point.

12

rilkefan 11.09.07 at 12:41 am

Anyone care to hazard an explanation based on the assumption this not a selectable behavior?

13

Neil Morrison 11.09.07 at 12:44 am

“Because it’s blindingly ridiculous?”

It sounds ridiculous, but then so are peacocks’ tails, and could be wrong but I don’t find it in any way unscientific.

14

DB 11.09.07 at 12:48 am

This explains why underweight models who are never fertile walks so provocatively!

15

LizardBreath 11.09.07 at 12:49 am

No, peacocks tails are straightforward sexual signalling. Female peacocks are attracted to flashy tails, males with flashier tails have more success mating and more offspring, the population generally evolves flashier tails in males due to that differential reproductive success.

How is this supposed to work — undesirable men but not desirable men are attracted to sexy walks (this is already sounding unlikely), so women responsively evolve sexy walks at times when they’re not fertile. How do the women get more or more successful offspring out of having the sexy walk? And if they don’t, how was it selected for?

16

Neil Morrison 11.09.07 at 12:56 am

Actually the last paragraph that Daniel quotes is not a quote from the researchers but is from the journalist. That may or may not be an accurate reflection of what Provost thinks.

17

Cala 11.09.07 at 12:58 am

This is the sort of thing theocratic loonies wank over as proof that evolutionary theory is just-so stories in smaller print with bigger words.

11: What about hormone fluctuations subtly changing joint flexibility? It at least makes as much sense as arguing that the women with the less sexy walks at the time they were the most fertile tended to be more reproductively successful than the ones advertising for sex. (Evolution doesn’t care if it’s consensual sex or not, just whether there’s a baby made.)

18

X. Trapnel 11.09.07 at 1:02 am

It’s also hilariously myopic in the typical ev-psych way: coming up with just-so stories–ones that would clearly be more convincing if reversed–rather than, I don’t know, looking to the effects of the various hormones in a woman’s bloodstream (or, I don’t know, that whole cramps and bleeding stuff) on how she feels and hence acts. It’s functionalism so bad Jon Elster wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

19

arthur 11.09.07 at 1:14 am

The research was funded by the Department of Silly Walks.

20

Neil Morrison 11.09.07 at 1:15 am

“What about hormone fluctuations subtly changing joint flexibility?”

That’s presumably the mechanism by which a woman’s walk changes but it doesn’t explain the mens’ reaction.

21

luci 11.09.07 at 2:03 am

How this: women were walking with their knees “closer together” during ovulation (the most fertile part of the cycle), which must mean they had their knees more “open” during menstruation (the least fertile, um, period)… I’m thinking there’s a few bulky sanitary napkins somewhere in the story here.

22

K. Williams 11.09.07 at 2:22 am

Neil, how about this? It’s chance. Hormone fluctuations, because of their effect on joint flexibility, happen to make ovulating women walk “with smaller hip movements and their knees closer together” and that walk happens, at least in this culture, to be seen as more unsexy than other kinds of walks. End of story.

23

derrida derider 11.09.07 at 2:27 am

Yeah, that last para is obvious crap. And it’s true Ev Psych is prone to just-so stories, especially in journalists’ and other popularisers’ hands.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though – most of the stuff that makes the journals is much more Popperian than that. It’s the sort of thing referees are conscious of these days.

24

jacob 11.09.07 at 2:42 am

What I’d like is proof for the implicit assertion that the “sexiness” of a walk (that is, what people find sexy) is anything but culturally inscribed. Why should anyone imagine that taste in walks is genetic?

It is blindingly obvious to anyone with even passing knowledge of the history of art, fashion, gender or sexuality that what has been imagined as sexually desirable has varied widely over time and space–and not very much time and space, either. Why should taste in walks be thought to be more natural (that is, biological) than taste in silhouette shape or body mass?

25

John Quiggin 11.09.07 at 2:57 am

DD, I was rather surprised the authors (or maybe the referees/editors) felt the need for a just-so story. You might expect by this stage that EP would have reached the point where a significant (I *assume* was significant) wrong-signed result would be publishable in its own right.

26

sara 11.09.07 at 3:14 am

I’m surprised that they don’t recommend stiletto heels, hobble skirts or bound feet. Shorter stride = more sexually available = women less able to run away from the hidebound, male chauvinist nerds who would have pocket protectors if people still wore them.

Are they shooting for a writeup in the Annals of Improbable Research?

27

jack strocchi 11.09.07 at 4:07 am

Certainly if you combine Occkams Razor with Poppers Eraser you would have to count this result as a mark against Evo Psych.

But I note that close-up indicators of female availability are pro-fertile in cycle. So perhaps walking is just one of those frivolous things women always do, just to show-off. You know, like fashion.

Look but dont touch.

28

SG 11.09.07 at 4:18 am

I hate ev-psych, and I have always been scornful of its research, but my faith in this hatred was shaken a little lately when I started a certain pattern of television watching. At 11pm: Cheaters on the reality TV show, then at 11:30pm: the last half of big cat diary on animal planet. Sometimes you switch from a fight between two guys over one woman (on Cheaters, obviously) to a fight between two lions over one lioness (on Animal Planet) and really, it is very difficult to see the difference. The jilted man and his ex-partner’s new lover really do behave like rutting animals; and the things they say are so telling (“I got your bitch now!” and “see, she wants me because I’m richer than you!”).

I like to hope that this confirmatory experiment suffers heavily from self-selection bias in the Cheaters sample population, but it can still be a little unnerving…

29

Dan S. 11.09.07 at 4:36 am

These boots are made for walking . . .

30

Jonathan 11.09.07 at 5:58 am

I think Jane Provost Dean was haunted too in Pale Fire.

31

dsquared 11.09.07 at 7:02 am

Are you saying there could not possibly be an explanation of these results in terms of evolutionary psychology?

quite the reverse; I’m saying that there couldn’t possibly not be an explanation of these results in terms of evolutionary psychology, which is kind of the problem.

I think the trouble for these guys is that it’s pretty well known from other studies that walking is a learned behaviour, not an innate one (left to themselves, human beings scamper like apes, apparently. Don’t ask me how I know this because I have misplaced the matchbox on the back of which I read it). Different cultures do actually walk in noticeably different ways. Thus, I would suspect that the link between fertility and walking is purely biomechanical rather than a sexual signalling device; it’s an epiphenomenon.

32

PJ 11.09.07 at 7:58 am

“I’m thinking there’s a few bulky sanitary napkins somewhere in the story here.”

Yea, that’s what I thought too. I also thought you could factor in some premenstrual symptoms such as abdominal/pelvic discomfort as well.

33

PJ 11.09.07 at 8:06 am

“walking is a learned behaviour, not an innate one (left to themselves, human beings scamper like apes, apparently”

So humans haven’t evolved to walk upright then? (you’re thinking of feral children who apparently have difficulty) That’s a rather bold statement. Do you know that great apes born in captivity need to be taught to breast feed, that not an evolved behaviour either?

34

dsquared 11.09.07 at 8:07 am

I said what I said, as far as I can tell it is in fact correct (and checking up on google confirms me in this impression) and I’m really not interested in whatever semantic “gotcha” you’re planning if you can trap me into making a mistake about whatever you’re calling “evolved behaviour”.

35

PJ 11.09.07 at 8:18 am

I’m simply saying that stuff can require a degree of learning (like breastfeeding, language etc) whilst still having needed to evolve and being subject to selection pressures.

36

novakant 11.09.07 at 8:29 am

I said what I said

Yeah, yeah semantics, always making trouble, annoying really – we should do away with semantics.

37

PJ 11.09.07 at 8:29 am

Heh, just looked at the study:

“Women who were not using hormonal contraception (n = 19) repeated the study during the late follicular stage and the luteal stage of their menstrual cycle…A female researcher met the participants, informed them that the study was investigating motion across the menstrual cycle, and obtained their informed consent. The women then answered a brief questionnaire, including questions regarding their use of birth control, the length of their menstrual cycle, the day of their last period, and the regularity of their cycle in order to estimate cycle stage…Late follicular walks had a similar attractiveness level (M = 3.66, SD = .5) as walks recorded in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (M = 3.56, SD = .5) when compared with a paired t-test, t(18)

38

abb1 11.09.07 at 8:34 am

I read somewhere that concealed ovulation was the mutation that created humans, separated them from apes by breaking the mechanism that only allowed the alpha-males to procreate. From the evolutionary pov this might be the single most important human characteristic, so this kinda thing is well worth studying.

39

Nabakov 11.09.07 at 10:16 am

As far as I can recall, it’s only humans, dolphins, and bonobo primates that don’t go into heat and so can have recreational sex.

I look forward to similar studies about the Dolphin Walk or the Bonobo Boogie.

Interestingly too, it appears that belief in evolutionary psychology may be hardwired into us.

40

Katherine 11.09.07 at 12:30 pm

I can’t be alone in thinking that the conclusions drawn by Evolutionary Psychologists says more about the psychology of Evolutionary Psychologists than eveolutionary psychology. Someone should study this.

41

stostosto 11.09.07 at 12:31 pm

nabakov: That link’s hilarious!

I was about to observe something along the lines that studies show that men who engage in evolutionary psychology do so in an attempt to compensate for lack of sexually desirable traits. Sort of like a disposition for clinical depression has been associated with appealing to women’s nursing instincts.

But that article is way brilliant!

42

Barry 11.09.07 at 1:25 pm

stostosto, the image which comes to my mind when reading about ev psych is something like a bad 70’s SF movie, where one of the crew has been abducted by humanoid aliens. The one woman on the crew of course – think Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest. Anyway, some guys with huge ‘egghead’ make-up jobs, dressed in white or silver jumpsuits are telling her that she will be given the privilege of mating with genetically superior supermen, who have 300-point IQ’s.

Before the beefcake captain kicks in the door and goes all silverback ape on them.

43

Zahran 11.09.07 at 2:17 pm

The results are interesting. The interpretation is weak. A more simple explanation: off-cycle women sex up their walks to offset fertility advantage of on-cycle women.

44

novakant 11.09.07 at 2:55 pm

The tactic of picking a particularly risible article from the vast amount of literature generated by a particular discipline in order to discredit the whole field without further argument and topping it all off by speculating about the purported sexual or psychological shortcomings of those doing research in said discipline strikes me as a bit juvenile and vulgar. It’s also the same tactic rightwingers use when they want to do discredit fields like gender studies, afro-american studies and everything else they don’t like or feel threatened by.

45

Barry 11.09.07 at 3:08 pm

“The tactic of picking a particularly risible article from the vast amount of literature generated by a particular discipline ….”

I’ve not encounterd a non-risible thing from ev. psych, except in the sense that g-d Bell Curve BS doesn’t inspire me to laugh.

46

bi 11.09.07 at 3:24 pm

Nabakov winneth.

47

lemuel pitkin 11.09.07 at 3:57 pm

I mean, it’s kind of unexpected that the walk would be correlated with ovulation at all.

Eh, one time in twenty you’ll get a “significant” correlation even if there’s no relationship at all. And there are a lot of these studies done. And that’s assuming there are no specification issues, which is a pretty heroic assumption here. Really, there’s no way of knowing what, if anything, this “finding” means.

More generally, a correlation between two things is meaningless unless you have a concrete understanding and specific evidence for the mechanism linking them. otherwise it’s just hand-waving.

And yeah, what Barry said: there’s nothing wrong with picking out a particular example of evolutionary psychology and mocking it because it’s all like this.

48

eudoxis 11.09.07 at 4:02 pm

dsquared “…it’s pretty well known from other studies that walking is a learned behaviour, not an innate one (left to themselves, human beings scamper like apes, apparently. … “

I think you’re just having fun with us, Daniel. Humans are obligate bipedalists and have adapted physical structures over many years of evolution for bipedal locomotion. There is no debate or controversy among scientists about this.

49

Gdr 11.09.07 at 5:18 pm

eudoxis@48: That’s not inconsistent with what Daniel wrote. Certainly humans have many anatomical adaptations for walking upright. But that doesn’t prove that walking upright is innate or instinctive behavior.

I don’t know if Daniel’s right in the case of walking, but spoken language is a clear example of this. We have a number of anatomical adaptations for spoken language, but speaking a language is not instinctive, it has to be learned.

50

PJ 11.09.07 at 5:40 pm

I think we should note that this wasn’t ‘a correlation’ – it was ‘discriminant analysis’.

Part of what I posted above was the most interesting bit of the paper:

“Late follicular walks had a similar attractiveness level (M = 3.66, SD = .5) as walks recorded in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (M = 3.56, SD = .5) when compared with a paired t-test, t(18)”

That is the relationship between menstrual phase and attractiveness is not there in the raw data. The positive result was actually obtained using some statistical jiggery pokery using the discriminant function to assign how ‘fertile’ the walk was. Highly dubious.

51

Tim Worstall 11.09.07 at 5:56 pm

“We have a number of anatomical adaptations for spoken language, but speaking a language is not instinctive, it has to be learned.”

I thought that was Chomsky’s point (and no, obviously I know nothing about this area of science at all), that humans learning a language was instinctive, which one being what was learned. Humans brought up not learning a pre-existing one will, in a group, invent one, won’t they?

52

Seth Edenbaum 11.09.07 at 6:02 pm

Sometimes I think that the problem here isn’t opposition to evolutionary psychology as much as to psychology itself. That’s no defense of EP, but assumptions of free will are not a defense of it.
Evolutionary or learned behavior, the debate with Badger was over determinism and the assumption that it could not apply to academia.

It does, as much as to any other social activity.
You can’t fight something by pretending it doesn’t exist.

53

eudoxis 11.09.07 at 6:18 pm

“Sometimes I think that the problem here isn’t opposition to evolutionary psychology as much as to psychology itself. “

Often I think that the problem here isn’t opposition to evolutionary psychology as much as to science itself. Whenever these types of posts are brought up, many commenters proudly display their scientific ignorance and gleefully put down those silly scientists and their methods.

54

Barry 11.09.07 at 6:23 pm

Eudoxis, did you actually read that g*d-d*mned post? Did you understand what John Quiggin meant in comment #9?

55

eudoxis 11.09.07 at 6:42 pm

JQ: “Desperately unconvincing” because it’s obvious that the opposite result was expected and would have been taken as clear support for EP.

It’s not at all obvious because being less “sexy” to males during the follicular phase supports the peculiar phenomenon of concealed ovulation in humans.

56

Steve LaBonne 11.09.07 at 6:51 pm

Actually, I would say that anyone who takes “evolutionary psychology” in its current state seriously is displaying scientific ignorance, not those who rightfully mock it for its ability to produce a just-so story to “explain” just about anything.

57

PJ 11.09.07 at 7:00 pm

“being less “sexy” to males during the follicular phase supports the peculiar phenomenon of concealed ovulation in humans.”

If women are signalling their ovulatory status (whether that be by sexy or unsexy gaits” then males should evolve to pick up on those cues and then they would become sexy gaits.

Concealed ovulation implies just that, you conceal ovulation, you don’t go running around telling everyone “I’m not ovulating me, oh no” once a month!

58

eudoxis 11.09.07 at 7:05 pm

Interesting hypothesis, pj, that the lack of sexual signal should be a sexual cue. I suppose, humans should be above all the scents, hormones, and visual cues that other primates succumb to. I don’t think that Meghan Provost went to that level in her article, but it would be interesting to explore that direction.

59

PJ 11.09.07 at 7:31 pm

I’m not sure you’d call it a lack of sexual signal – what is it about a ‘sexy’ gait that makes it a signal, whereas a non-sexy gait is not a signal? It seems to me that it has to be what it signals that makes it sexy.

60

The Modesto Kid 11.09.07 at 7:38 pm

it has to be what it signals that makes it sexy.

So the answer is obvious on the face of it — men find the walk signalling low fertility sexy because they want to have sex with women who won’t get pregnant from it! (And this obviously all evolved quite recently, like in the last couple of hundred years.) Ha! Let’s see you wriggle out of that one, you darned anti-evo-psychies!

61

duus 11.09.07 at 7:53 pm

dsquared wrote: in related news, “Summer Lovin’” from “Grease” contains the line:

“Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”

which I’ve just realised is more and more distasteful the more you think about it.

I agree; i always found that line disgusting.

62

Bill Gardner 11.09.07 at 7:57 pm

Barry @ #45:

“I’ve not encounterd a non-risible thing from ev. psych, except in the sense that g-d Bell Curve BS doesn’t inspire me to laugh.”

Richard Herrnstein was not and Charles Murray is not an evolutionary psychologist. Herrnstein was an animal learning researcher and Murray is a political scientist. The Bell Curve is not evolutionary psychology; it is (an attempt at) behavior genetics. Behavior genetics is an entirely different field.

I am not expert in evolutionary psychology, but you might find writings by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Margo Wilson, or David Buss non-risible.

63

abb1 11.09.07 at 7:59 pm

…it has to be what it signals that makes it sexy.

Signals could be deceptive. They could signal fertility when they aren’t fertile and conceal fertility when are. Like that fly imitating a bee, you know. Why women would act this way I don’t know, but hey, they certainly have many mysteries.

64

PJ 11.09.07 at 8:05 pm

“Signals could be deceptive. They could signal fertility when they aren’t fertile and conceal fertility when are. Like that fly imitating a bee…”

I had thought of that objection and rejected it because to be a deceptive signal human women would need to be piggybacking on an honest signal given by another organism – and as far as I’m aware, human female gaits are not mimicking the gaits of another species that human males want to have sex with. Could be wrong I guess.

The more likely explanation would be that human males find something about certain gaits sexy for another reason with reasonably strong selection pressure – so women are therefore able to mimic that signal. But currently no one has proposed any explanation as to why men find the gaits they do attractive other than reasoning to do with ovulation and fertility.

65

novakant 11.09.07 at 8:15 pm

anyone who takes “evolutionary psychology” in its current state seriously is displaying scientific ignorance

I’m sure E O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Dan Dennett have nothing on you when it comes to scientific understanding.

66

abb1 11.09.07 at 8:17 pm

Why, it doesn’t have to mimic a honest signal, it could be suggestive of an intercourse, for example.

67

eudoxis 11.09.07 at 8:22 pm

“But currently no one has proposed any explanation as to why men find the gaits they do attractive other than reasoning to do with ovulation and fertility.”

In fact there is a lot of research with many explanations about deceptive signaling and female power in mate selection wrt male investment in offspring.

68

PJ 11.09.07 at 8:34 pm

“it doesn’t have to mimic a honest signal, it could be suggestive of an intercourse”

I’m not sure how to interpret that sentence without concluding that ‘suggestive of intercourse’ would be an honest (or accurate) signal.

“In fact there is a lot of research with many explanations about deceptive signaling”

So how would these explanations work here then?

69

Doug Watts 11.09.07 at 8:46 pm

So these people were paid to watch womens’ asses ?

I hope grant funding was involved.

70

abb1 11.09.07 at 8:53 pm

Suggestion of an intercourse is a honest signal, but it’s not a signal of fertility.

Anyway, I guess the point is that while in a group of apes with the alpha male and clear physiological signs of ovulation in females everything is predetermined, in a group of humans it’s more like a poker game with all kinds of strategies, signals, bluffs, etc. We are not going to figure it out here and now.

71

bi 11.09.07 at 8:54 pm

I can feel the scientific rigour already.

72

abb1 11.09.07 at 8:56 pm

Ooops. Got stuck in “awaiting moderation” for using a wrong analogy. Oh, well…

73

joojooluv 11.09.07 at 8:57 pm

Do infertile women glide, bob or skate? What about drag queens? What about those suffering from knee injuries? What about women like me, who walk with a long, assertive unwiggly stride (but who still get laid anyway despite the lack of sexy walk).

74

deja pseu 11.09.07 at 9:10 pm

Men in China used to find a painful hobble resulting from deformed feet incredibly sexy. Wonder how the Ev Psych’s explain that one away…

75

Kuz 11.09.07 at 9:19 pm

While we’re talking about creepy, skeezy song lyrics, the terrible “Into the Night” by Benny Mardones:

She’s just sixteen years old leave her alone, they saySeparated by fools who don’t know what love is yet But I want you to know

If I could fly, I’d pick you upI’d take you into the night and show you a loveLike you’ve never seen, ever seen

76

david 11.09.07 at 9:20 pm

Stephen Pinker has nothing on me in scientific understanding.

77

Doodle Bean 11.09.07 at 9:37 pm

I’d love to see what Echidne will say to rip this one apart! The EP’ers are missing some very simple physiological factors, probably because none of them have ever gone through a menstrual cycle.

For example, in the latter half of my cycle, my joints hurt more than in the first half (Bio 101: ovulation is generally considered the middle of the cycle; optimal fertility takes place for the first several days after ovulation — the latter half of the cycle). See how I am already making more sense than those EP’ers?

Right before my period, I’m moody and showing it with body language. During my period, I’m usually in pain from cramps and bloating. I’m sure that pain shows in my gait when I am forced to leave my bed and walk somewhere. After my period, in the first half of my next cycle, I’m usually feeling better and likely showing that with body language and gait – swinging my hips more, swinging my arms more, throwing back my long, thick luxuriant hair…

If these researchers had examined any other possible causes of the gait changes, I’m sure they would have found more reasonable explanations for those changes. It sounds like the classic error in research called, “we have a theory, so let’s find a way to prove it”.

That is called bad science.

78

liberal 11.09.07 at 9:37 pm

Tim Worstall wrote,

I thought that was Chomsky’s point (and no, obviously I know nothing about this area of science at all), that humans learning a language was instinctive, which one being what was learned.

Right. Pinker implies that this goes back to Darwin, who said language is an instinct to acquire an art.

79

professor fate 11.09.07 at 9:40 pm

What I am wondering is why the song “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper started running through my head as I was reading this.

80

PJ 11.09.07 at 9:45 pm

I wouldn’t wonder very long!

81

Dan 11.09.07 at 9:48 pm

Pigs, they tend to wiggle when they walk…

82

The Frito Pundito 11.09.07 at 10:05 pm

The problem with evolutionary psychology is not that it is a waste of time to postulate evolution-based explanations for complex human behaviors, but it is the lack of falsifiability. These guys didn’t get the result everyone expected: well then, let’s make up a new and equally (im)plausible evolution-based explanation! I agree that there is an interesting finding here, namely that ovulation is related to gait. However, ovulation has been related to a whole host of effects, including (in my field of expertise, hearing) the otoacoustic emissions of the ears. So there may be an explanation that has nothing to do with social goals and everything to do with physiology (let’s hear from the women: is it harder to walk when you’re ovulating, or something like that?)

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abb1 11.09.07 at 10:07 pm

OK, pj, my comment is still in limbo, so I’ll try again: suggestion of an intercourse is indeed a honest signal, but when sent by the female who is not fertile it is in fact a false signal. Because the ultimate goal, of course, is procreation, not an intercourse.

84

lemuel pitkin 11.09.07 at 10:14 pm

Because the ultimate goal, of course, is procreation, not an intercourse.

Goal of whom?

85

The Frito Pundito 11.09.07 at 10:15 pm

I posted the above before seeing all the explanations posited by female readers. Thanks. As for the “statisical jiggery” used in finding the positive result, discriminant analysis is a valid way of finding variables that predict categorical membership; it’s the nature of the categorical membership itself that may be suspect. And the comment “Eh, one time in twenty you’ll get a “significant” correlation even if there’s no relationship at all.” betrays a smug non-understanding of correlations. A significant correlation means there IS a relationship, just by that is likely not just what is chance. How much of the variance the correlation explains is of interest. An r = 0.2 can be significant, but it only accounts for 4% of the variance, so as an explanation it is almost useless.

86

rea 11.09.07 at 10:20 pm

“Western icons of “hourglass-figure” beauty from Playboy centrefolds to the Venus de Milo typically take a ratio nearing 0.7 in their stride, irrespective of their body weight, experts suggest,” says the article.

I’m glad they say “irrespective of their body weight,” because the Venus de Milo is made of marble and probably weighs a couple of tons, but I’m surprised they got reliable measurements of her stride–she doesn’t walk very much, being a statue and all . . .

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Steve LaBonne 11.09.07 at 10:27 pm

Wilson hasn’t really talked much about this stuff in the years since “sociobiology” morphed into evo psych, and I wouldn’t be all that sure he’s so enthusiastic about the current rash of just-so stories. Pinker has no expertise in evolutionary biology- he’s a linguist by trade. Dawkins is a fine author of popular science books (though they exhibit a tendentious degree of extreme adaptationism which is outside the mainstream of evolutionary biology) who hasn’t practiced science in many years. Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist, who writes bad, ill-informed books about evolutionary biology (DDI is a particularly awful book).

Your point was?

88

abb1 11.09.07 at 10:33 pm

LP, both, of course, but in this case it’s males who are being misled. Again, exactly why it might be necessary I don’t know; the whole human procreation business is so convoluted…

89

liberal 11.09.07 at 11:01 pm

Steve LaBonne wrote,

Pinker has no expertise in evolutionary biology- he’s a linguist by trade.

Perhaps, but he really pushed the idea that language was shaped by evolution, which Chomsky is leery of.

90

Crystal 11.09.07 at 11:18 pm

This is hilarious in the way that “The evolutionary psychology of the Bounty mutiny” was hilarious. You cannot convince me that this doesn’t originate from The Onion.

91

jerry 11.09.07 at 11:19 pm

Has anyone here read the actual research, or are you commenting only on the journalists report of that research? If the latter, and you have access to the actual research, what stopped you from reading it?

If you have a Ph.D., how do you feel about how journalists commonly describe about research in your field? If you have a Ph.D., and haven’t read this study, and you are wont to categorically toss out evolutionary psychology, why would you argue that anyone should respect the Ph.D.s and research in your field and not just dismiss your field based on how journalists report it?

Me? I find EP interesting and often not convincing, to me. But I have almost never read any of their actual papers. I am willing to believe you that the field is bunk, but if so, I think there are a lot of fields that are equally as full of nonsense as EP. Perhaps yours.

Efficient markets? No speculation? Free Trade?

92

novakant 11.09.07 at 11:39 pm

Your point was?

My point is that calling these people scientifically ignorant is ridiculous, whether you agree with them or not.

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Dr. Drang 11.09.07 at 11:42 pm

There’s a far more important issue here than the scientific validity of evolutionary psychology: I’ve always thought it was “a wiggle in her walk and a giggle in her talk.” Have I been wrong all these years?

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Crystal 11.09.07 at 11:53 pm

Might I add, KD Lang’s Big Boned Gal had “a bounce in her step and a wiggle in her walk.” However, it seems from the context that the Big Boned Gal is a lesbian, and therefore looking for non-procreative sex. Wonder where that leaves the ev-psych crowd?

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CKT 11.09.07 at 11:55 pm

Good catch! More evidence that we ain’t evoluted from no dang monkeys! Keep up the good work!

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skeptonomist 11.09.07 at 11:57 pm

Jerry is right: this blog and most of the comments shed more light on how political biases and media entertainment objectives shape the reporting and popular understanding of science than on any actual scientific research. Almost everyone is willing to condemn the research without having read the actual paper, let alone having an understanding of what it says.

Evolutionary psychology is unpopular with many self-described “liberals” because so many results disagree with their preconceptions. The people who criticise it in this way are similar to those who reject global warming.

In my dictionary, the main definition of liberal is a person who is progressive and openminded.

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walt 11.10.07 at 12:03 am

Jerry: I read one of the famous ev. psych. papers, as an experiment. It did not impress me as a particularly impressive piece of research. The level of nonsense is higher than in economics, for example.

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Mrs Tilton 11.10.07 at 12:59 am

Crystal @91,

clearly I shall have to listen more carefully to “Big Boned Gal”. Here I was in my innocence, thinking she just liked to dance!

BTW, I think the capital K, D and L are from the same job-case as the apostrophe in Finnegans Wake.

99

John Quiggin 11.10.07 at 1:00 am

Jerry at #88. A quick Google of CT for “efficient markets” produces a couple of hundred hits, most of them fairly sceptical. As with EP, fans of the efficient market hypothesis are prone to Just So stories, and to making big claims on the basis of modest empirical support.

100

greensmile 11.10.07 at 1:11 am

I judge from the vast response to the silly premise that the subject is important, it is just the treatment that is lax. A sample of 40 when every factor in the psych and sociology books has some bearing on the measured “phenomenon” is ridiculous.

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PJ 11.10.07 at 1:46 am

“As for the “statisical jiggery” used in finding the positive result, discriminant analysis is a valid way of finding variables that predict categorical membership”

You should read the original paper or my summary. As I’ve tried to point out above the original paper actually doesn’t find that there is a difference in the perceived attractiveness of gaits by women in ‘fertile’ or ‘non-fertile’ phases of their cycle.

They modelled the relationship between the attractiveness scores and, rather than cycle stage, they used their discriminant function to generate a linear scale of gait (“menstrual cycle stage z-score”). These were compared with hierarchical linear modeling: “each SD of menstrual cycle score increase resulted in a 0.08 increase in the z-score of attractiveness rating, meaning lower perceived attractiveness.

That is there was no difference between the perceived attractiveness of women’s gaits in the ‘fertile’ and ‘non-fertile’ phases of their cycles, but, there was a relationship between attractiveness and the discriminant function score (which is a measure of gait, not of ‘fertility’).

102

Mon_petite 11.10.07 at 4:09 am

Have any of you ever thought that the reason we walk funny during ovulation is because it is the most uncomfortable and painful point right up until the menstrual period itself? It has nothing to do with advertising sexy-ANYTHING. Lets see if somebody kicks you men in the groin about once every month and see how funny you walk.

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Robert Waldmann 11.10.07 at 4:11 am

I don’t want to be rude but the authors’ desperate effort to reconcile the unexpected result with their theory reminds me of economists (I am an economist). A theory which can explain either sign equally well, is a theory which is not ready for prime time. As you tacitly note, the first best of two possibilities would be for men to find women sexier when they are fertile. This would give said men an evolutionary advantage.

“The best you can say” is a bit too good to be said really. If the authors’ had swept the result under a rug, they wouldn’t have gotten a publication. Similarly, if they had said their result contradicts the natural prediction based on evolutionary psych they would have pissed off an editor and 2 referees.

Finally, I have a less feeble (although still feeble) reconciliation of the observation and the theory (which I just read in a semi old economist article on lap dancers). The article found that fertile lap dancers get larger tips than non fertile lap dancers including those on the pill.

Women have no trouble getting pregnant, they have trouble keeping the fathers of their children loyal to them. Therefore it is in their interest to be sexy all the time (promotes monogamy you should see what Chimpanzees do) while males who can tell which women are fertile gain. The result you mention says that women won the walk round. The result in the economist said that men won the lap dance round. The problem is that any set of results is equally consistent with the theory of natural selection, therefore the whole excercise is a waste of time.

104

magistra 11.10.07 at 8:12 am

If EPers want evolutionary psychology to be taken seriously, then they need to be doing experiments which look at a number of different cultures and repeatedly find the same results, so that they have a good claim that their results aren’t simply a cultural artefact. Instead, what you get is studies of small groups in a single culture and vast generalisations. The EP result I was most impressed by was about how a logic problem (on how to check whether your hypothesis was valid) was consistently solved better across cultures when it used statements about people cheating than when it used neutral statements. (I’m afraid I can’t remember many more details than this).

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zdenek v 11.10.07 at 9:04 am

EP is taken seriously i.e the broad picture which says that radical behaviourism is false and that human minds are not blank slates and that instead they come pre-structured is accepted by both EPers and most informed critics of EP.

No, the issue is how far we should go down the innatist road ? That is, how much and what is innate in the human mind ? Are the constraints deep and many or are they shallow and few ?

Also notice that we do not have to see this as all or nothing matter ( either nothing is innate or everything is ) : better view is that the extent to which mind is pre-structured may vary across different dimensuions : compare prefferences for food with political preferences ( one may be strongly innate while the other not etc ).

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zdenek v 11.10.07 at 9:58 am

robert waldmann : “The problem is that any set of results is equally consistent with the theory of natural selection, therefore the whole excercise is a waste of time.”

I think this ( and others have made the same move ) type of criticism of EP is weak because it overlooks that EPers are offering explanations that are not deductive arguments but rather *inferences to the best explanation*.

Generally speaking to point out that such ‘stories ‘ are easy to produce or that both the story and its negation are compatible with the underlying hypothesis does not refute the hypothesis in question ( this follows from the fact that the explanation is *not entailed* by the hypothesis but stands in a looser relationship to it ).

What this means is that the appropriate way to put pressure on the proposed explanation is to offer a better one and say here is a better explanation of the same phenomenon and that shows that yours does not work.

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Mrs Tilton 11.10.07 at 1:50 pm

If EPers want evolutionary psychology to be taken seriously, then they need to be doing experiments which look at a number of different cultures and repeatedly find the same results, so that they have a good claim that their results aren’t simply a cultural artefact.

Haven’t there been at least a few such studies, though, e.g., certain body proportions (but not body weights) deemed attractive across a broad range of cultures? Yes, I am aware that one can criticise such studies by positing that, these days, even the denizens of Cimmeria and Shangri-La have seen pictures of Marilyn Monroe and so forth. But surely evpsych can produce some robust results. And just as surely, that’s not its greatest hurdle. Rather, the conclusions its practitioners draw from even robust data seem so often to be nothing more than, how shall I put this politely… intriguing speculation.

I would note that I don’t find the idea of evpsych offensive in principle, and don’t like the stance that evpsych is bad because it’s politically important to deny the existence of any sort of “hard-wired” human nature. (NB, I don’t think Daniel or the evpsych-critical commenters here are adopting that essentially Lysenkoist stance; but other fora in the contemporary world are alas not free of various sorts of neo-Lysenkoist.) If evpsych manages to produce fruitful, predictive results that tell us something about ourselves we couldn’t otherwise have known, well then hooray. I’ll keep an eye out.

That said, I liked it a lot better when it was still sociobiology. More emphasis on biology and less on psychology might not be a bad idea for current researchers in the field.

108

eudoxis 11.10.07 at 3:46 pm

Evolutionary origin or maintenance of traits is not limited to strictly adaptationist explanations. The fear that EP only looks for “innate” causes of traits is unfounded. Traits can be a complex mixture of canalization, exaptation, spandrel and adaptation. Yet, a rigorous search for evidence of adaptation of human psychological traits is a legitimate field of enquiry and, if the research is done right, can yield useful results.

109

Crystal 11.10.07 at 4:56 pm

The good folks at PunkassBlog bring you: Evolutionary Psychology Bingo!

My card is almost full!

110

Soullite 11.10.07 at 5:06 pm

I would really suggest that we don’t all become frothing right wingers willing to throw out any bit of science that doesn’t conform with our viewpoints. If this is invalid data, it will be shown to be invalid through further study. It will not be shown to be invaluid by random commenter X and his personal opinions or experiences. You may as well be using moon dust to disprove the theory of evolution as far as I’m concerned.

I would also suggest that some of you are not very bright, and do not realize that a press story by random reporter X is not actually the study itself.

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PJ 11.10.07 at 5:29 pm

This is the last time I’ll pimp my blog, honest, but I can’t let soullite’s comments go unchallenged.

a) I’ve read the paper, have you?

b) The paper doesn’t find that men rate the walks of women in the ‘fertile’ late follicular phase as more attractive than the ‘infertile’ luteal phase. Everyone really needs to get this point – the fundamental basis of all these news articles is flawed because the study doesn’t make this finding, it finds that there is no difference

c) The press articles (all culled from New Scientist) are fairly accurate summaries of what the authors claim in the paper (despite their own evidence to the contrary such as the above).

d) The results in the paper suggest that women’s gaits may differ between the follicular and luteal phases, and that men may vary in the attractiveness they assign to different gaits. The relationship between these two findings is rather complicated and you should read the paper to understand it (I summarise it in post #101), but it is misrepresented by the authors themselves.

e) The New Scientist story also misrepresents the findings regarding hip movements and knees since the study itself finds no difference for these factors in the follicular and luteal phases.

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PJ 11.10.07 at 5:34 pm

Oops, (b) should obviously be “The paper doesn’t find that men rate the walks of women in the ‘fertile’ late follicular phase as less attractive than the ‘infertile’ luteal phase.”

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Steve LaBonne 11.10.07 at 6:46 pm

I agree with eudoxis @ 108 in principle, the problem being that evo psych as currently practiced is rife with out-of-control adaptationism.

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Crystal 11.11.07 at 2:52 am

@110 – oh no, please doG, not the “right wingers” argument – it’s perilously close to the “if you don’t accept ev-psych it’s because you are a creationist!” argument that Jonathan Marks, Steven Rose, and other liberals (who are scientists) detest.

It’s not a square on the bingo card, but it should be. There also ought to be a racism square or three – I remember Satoshi Kanazawa’s charming hypothesis that Africa was so poor because black Africans lack “cognitive abilities.” Feh. And double feh.

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ESgradStudent 11.12.07 at 7:47 am

I’m a long time (and sympathetic) reader of Crooked Timber, and I can’t resist commenting on how disheartening this thread on EP is. EP is a multidisciplinary discipline that gets by not on strict factual deduction, but on a sort of hermeneutic that constantly swings back and forth from evidence to theory – sort of in the way that Elinor Ostrom writes about the relationship between theory and facts in Governing the Commons. The post above about inferences to the best explanation made a similar point. So to do EP one has to talk about and cross reference work on non-human primates, evolutionary theory, experimental studies, cross cultural case studies, historical anthropology and archeology, and cognitive science. And by no means is EP an alternative to “cultural” explanations of social phenomena — i.e. no more than the Chomskian linguistics program is intolerant of the fact that, despite the principles and parameters of our language acquisition “organ,” a seemingly infinite variety of actual languages emerge.

The charge that evolutionary psychologists are prone to just-so stories is a bit tired at this point. Such ‘stories’ produce hypotheses, and this is true of just about every science. They provide the theoretical entry way into their own exploration and potential refutation.

It’s important not to forget that all of us agree on the basic tenets of EP. Our minds are obviously the product of evolution; we know a good deal about the environments – and hence selective pressures – in which our minds evolved; and thus it is a good idea to think about this information when discussing how our minds execute the impressive array of cognitive tasks of which they are somehow – but obviously – capable. The issue of how we make reasoning tasks computationally tractable should be at the forefront of all studies of decision making (which includes the study of political psychology and political judgment). This is why scholars who take the evolution of the mind seriously (e.g. Richerson & Boyd, H. Simon, Douglas North) are inevitably drawn to cultural evolution and the crucial role that institutions play in reducing or shaping the cognitive tasks that actors choose to, and are capable of, taking on.

And don’t forget: most EP scholars are card carrying leftists.

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tinfoil hattie 11.13.07 at 11:40 am

Evolutionary Psychology: just one more lame cog in the wheel of patriarchy.

“sexy” WALK? Are you f-ing kidding me?

All women are the same? We all walk this way when fertile and that way when not, and it’s because the most important thing we have to do is to catch a may-un? And to fool him into thinking we’re not ovulating because…why, exactly?

And we only want sex for procreation? That’s why we fight tooth and nail for birth control and freedom of reproductive choice?

Seems the authors of the study, as well as the (overwhelmingly MALE) commenters here, are completely discounting the small point that women have MINDS and FREE WILL (except when it comes to walking safely in public, but I think that’s because men are naturally evolved to rape?)

Idiots.

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Nancy 11.14.07 at 3:38 am

And don’t forget: most EP scholars are card carrying leftists

Name them.

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