osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,
osewalrus
osewalrus

Why I Always Find Sex Research Unsatisfying

There's science, and then there's what people do with science. In particular, if the subject is evolution, sex, or both, I can be certain that what was not doubt a very carefully framed research paper will stimulate a frenzy of discussion climaxing in ridiculous claims -- particularly by people who are faking it.

Frank discussion below the cut.


Case in point, these two articles in the NYT: One is a documentary on women's sexuality and the other is about a study on the sounds chimps make having sex. Both take some interesting but fairly trivial research and try to make much of it.

Consider the human female documentary first. The documentary starts with a study that found that heterosexual women were -- on average -- more aroused by images of sexual play regardless of the gender (or even species) of participants than by images of naked men generally. I will confess that it has been my experience, born out by the multibillion dollar porn industry, that men are also more responsive generally to overt sex play than merely to naked display. Few guys feel the urge to whack off in a museum over a hot Ruebens as compared to the more explicit sexual content of certain 900 lines. And, judging from the number of "all girl" titles available on various websites, it would appear that men also find woman-on-woman sex stimulating. I will add that since arousal at male-on-male sex is often touted as being conclusive proof that one is "really" homosexual, I'm not sure there is a good body of research on arousal in heterosexual men to male-on-male sex play.

But never mind. The conclusion that heterosexual women display more plasticity in arousal imagery is both (a) assumed from this single study, and (b) conclusions about whether women generally are more flexible are likewise drawn.

But the folks in this piece are positively refrained in their flights of fancy as compared to the chimp article. Turns out certain female primates make loud noises during sex. So this kicked off a vast speculation on what "evolutionary advantage" this behavior conveys because of course, for every single behavior, there is an evolutionary advantage. (One can see my previous long ago piece on my problem with the "Just So Stories" approach to evolution.) But now a new study shows the old understanding of chimpanzees was wrong, prompting not only a new wave of speculation, but efforts to explain what this might or might not tell us about human sexual behavior -- particularly in the hunter/gatherer stage from which we cannot possible have any evidence.

The problem with billing this crap as science is that it gives evolutionary science a bad name. From my perspective, I see little difference in saying "from one study of chimpanzees I am qualified to say things about primitive human society and, by extension, human sexuality" and "critters are too complex for me to understand, so I can assume God made them." The constant rebuttal to intelligent design as a science is that it is entirely non-predictive. It starts from an assumption and then acts to explain all existing evidence in conformance with the assumption. Evolutionary science, by contrast, makes predictions that are confirmable by experiment. This is why studying genetic relationships between critters is interesting. We start with a hypothesis that critters that evolved from common ancestors will have very similar DNA, regardless of the fact that the expression of these modest DNA changes may create dramatic differences. And low and behold, we find that, genetically, dogs and bears are closer to seals and walruses than dogs are to cats -- despite both being land beasts and appearing to have more in common. Prediction, experiment, outcome validation of hypothesis.

But speculating about how chimpanzees shrieking during sexual intercourse must give them some advantage because chimpanzees shriek during sexual intercourse and wouldn't if it didn't convey and advantage isn't something you can confirm by experiment. It's just making things up to fit an underlying assumption that all behaviors have some evolutionary "purpose."

People often wonder how folks who believe in intelligent design can be so foolish. But when people purporting to be "scientists" and reporters for newspapers claim the mantle of science for such ridiculous speculations, is it any wonder? In debating evolution, we reject the foolish claim that people are "descended from apes" and talk about common primate ancestors yadda yadda yadda. Then we turn around and say that because chimpanzees shriek during sex human hunter gathers did too? And for the same imaginary reason that we cannot prove.

It's not just a question of what's the matter with Kansas. They are using the same "scientific methodology" as the New York Times. If we want to teach science properly, it would be good to set a better example.
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