Friday 30 April 2010

For a healthy relationship, men should be ugly and rich, women pretty and mixed-race

Have you ever seen a happy couple walking down the street, holding hands, laughing and being generally smoochy, and thought to yourself, "How did that guy get her?"

I’m that guy.

As a fully paid-up member of the "batting out of my league club," it comes as no surprise to me that the happiest hetero relationships are those in which the female is objectively more attractive than the male.

McNulty, Neff and Karney in their report Beyond initial attraction: Physical attractiveness in newlywed marriage, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that the relative difference between partners’ levels of attractiveness is one of the most important factors when predicting marital behaviour. In relationships in which the wives were more attractive than their husbands, both the husband and wife were happier than in situations where the husband was more attractive than the wife. Indeed, a strong conclusion of this study was that relatively more attractive husbands were less satisfied. As opposed to new relationships, where being similarly attractive helps form a strong bond, similarity in attractiveness was unrelated to a married couple’s satisfaction and behaviour.

This got me thinking, what does it mean to be attractive? How can you measure this?

Michael B Lewis from the School of Psychology, Cardiff University has an interesting take on this. He recently published Why are mixed-race people perceived as more attractive? on perceptionweb, and also presented Who has the ‘X Factor’? at the 2010 British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference.

To test his theory that people from a mixed-race background appear proportionally over-represented in TV talent competitions such The X Factor, 1205 images from Facebook were shown to 20 white psychology students (is this a large and diverse enough group?), who rated each face on its attractiveness on a 9-point scale (5 being average). The racial background of those in the photos was inferred from the Facebook group from which the photos were taken. The result was that there was a small but highly significant difference in the attractiveness of mixed-race faces compared to white and black faces.

This is an interesting result and could point towards a perceptual demonstration of heterosis in humans. Heterosis is the idea that breeding with people genetically different to you leads to offspring genetically fitter than you. The theory is that the child would possess the genetic strengths of each parent and less of their weaknesses. Two genetically similar parents (that is, both black or both white) may have similar strengths and weaknesses, so the weaknesses may not be bred out.

But does facial attractiveness really correlate to genetic fitness?

There have been numerous studies on this topic, and the answer would seem to be yes. In terms of evolution, it makes sense that those you are attracted to are also those with whom you would have genetically strong children.

Or in the paraphrased words of Thornhill and Gangestad, “Humans discriminate between potential mates on the basis of attractiveness and it is reasonable to hypothesise that the psychological mechanisms underlying attractiveness judgments are adaptations that have evolved in the service of choosing a mate so as to increase gene propagation throughout evolutionary history.”

For a summary of how facial attractiveness can represent the health of a subject and their overall genetic well-being, see Thornhill and Gangestad’s Facial attractiveness in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, from where the above quote comes. There is also a nice discussion of how preferences change during menstrual cycles.

My conclusion therefore is that if you’re a hetero guy, you should find a girl better looking than you are, and to widen the attractiveness gap even further, it would help if she was mixed-race. Don't push it too far though, as there is bound to be some limit on how much more attractive a girl can be. Remember, similar looks at the start can help get the relationship going, it is after this point when an attractiveness gap can help.

This seems quite easy for men so far, as all the criteria have been placed upon the women. Not so.

In the seminal report Partner wealth predicts self-reported orgasm frequency in a sample of Chinese women, published in Evolution and Human Behaviour, Thomas V. Pollet and Daniel Nettle investigated the relationship between women’s self-reported orgasm frequency and the characteristics of their partners. They found that women report more frequent orgasms the higher their partner’s income. They controlled for age, health, happiness, educational attainment, relationship duration, wealth difference between the partners, difference between the partners in educational attainment, and regional location. They consider that wealth is seen as desirable in potential partners by women all over the world and studies in diverse populations have found that increasing wealth increases male marriage success. Thus, all other things being equal, richer men are preferred to poorer ones as mates.

The purpose of this study was to understand the evolution of the female orgasm – what is its adaptive significance? They come to a number of conclusions:
  • The results could be an artefact of reporting bias. Reporting bias can act in two ways, either by women with frequent orgasms overestimating their partner’s income or by women with high-quality mates over reporting their orgasm frequency.
  • There may be assortative mating of desirable men with women susceptible to being highly orgasmic. There is a heritable component to female orgasmic function (go on, ask your Mum…), but it is not known whether these particular genetic features are also involved in attraction and mate choice.
  • More desirable mates may cause women to experience more orgasms. This is the interpretation most consistent with the functional view of the female orgasm – that is, as the orgasm feels good and comes about more often with desirable males, then this helps females find good men.

I love the fact they cite Alcock (1987) and Thornhill, Gangestad & Comer (1995)...

In conclusion therefore, men should be rich and ugly, women should be attractive and mixed race. QED.

Two asides:
  • This conclusion is exceptionally shallow (I don't believe it myself). There are layers and layers of human psychology and culture that go on top of this. Plus the Lewis study used 20 white psychology students - surely we need a bigger base than this. Feel free to pick this apart, I was just having fun with it.
  • I suspect that humans are evolutionarily wired to find women better looking than men. It was seen in the Lewis study that the female photos had a higher average score than the male photos for each race studied. Could this make sense with regards to sexual selection? I’m sure there are studies out there looking into this idea. I’d like to hear you thoughts on this, and the above topics.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Ep 127: Conditioning quolls against cane toads

The cane toad in Australia is a text book example of a feral species. As an introduced species, it has no natural predators and out-competes native animals for food and habitat. Things are made worse by the fact that cane toads are highly poisonous - so poisonous that they can kill animals as large as crocodiles.

One species imperilled by the cane toad is the Northern Quoll. The northern quoll has been almost driven to extinction in many parts of northern Australia because they attack the toad and are subsequently poisoned. The poison kills the quolls too quickly for them to learn not to do it again.

In a recent study Conditioned taste aversion enhances the survival of an endangered predator imperilled by a toxic invader in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Stephanie O'Donnell, Jonathan Webb and Richard Shine from the University of Sydney tested whether quolls could be taught to avoid eating cane toads through "conditioned taste aversion" (CTA).

I spoke to Dr Webb about their study and how quolls can possibly be saved from extinction by CTA. To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

Working with the Territory Wildlife Park, the researchers took a group of quolls and taught half (the "toad-smart" group) to associate eating a cane toad with feeling sick by feeding them a small dead cane toad laced with thiabendazole. The cane toad was too small to kill the quolls with its poison, however the tiabendazole made them feel sick. The second half of the quoll group ("toad-naive") were not fed the cane toad.

The next part of the experiment was to feed the quolls a small, live cane toad in plastic container to see whether or not they attacked it. It was found that the toad-smart group was less likely to attack the toad in the plastic container. See the video below to catch this behaviour in action. It was also found that the toad-smart group survived up to five times longer in the wild than "toad-naive" quolls. The researchers also found that male quolls were far more likely than female quolls to attack cane toads. Dr Webb thinks that aerially deployed 'toad baits' ahead of the cane toad invasion front could educate quolls to avoid attacking cane toads before the toads invade.

Cane toads were introduced to Australia from Hawaii in June 1935 to control the native Cane Beetle. They bred immediately in captivity, and by August 1935 more than 102 young toads were released in northern Queensland. Toads now number over 200 million and have steadily expanded through Queensland, reaching the border with New South Wales in 1978 and the Northern Territory in 1984. It is estimated that cane toads migrate at an average of 40 kilometres per year.

More on science daily. To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

The video below (from YouTube) shows the toad-smart quoll leaving the cane toad alone - then knocking over the camera.

Monday 19 April 2010

Robyn Williams in conversation with Richard Dawkins, or is that Emma Watson?

Richard Dawkins, apart from being the popular face of atheism, is a highly regarded scientist. Recently Dawkins spoke to Robyn Williams about the ideas underpinning his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, in particular the intricacies, patterns and anomalies produced by the process of evolution. Dawkins then takes further questions from the audience about the theory of evolution, genetic determinism, the climate change denial movement and the place of religion in the world of science.

This video below comes courtesy of SlowTV, a free internet TV channel delivering interviews, debates, conversations and public lectures about Australia's key political, social and cultural issues. It is produced by The Monthly and there is an impressive amount of science content. You can subscribe via podcast. Before taking in the video however, have you ever seen Emma Watson and Richard Dawkins in the same place?

Image courtesy

The rest of the series can be seen at SlowTV. I reviewed Dawkins's book The God Delusion a few years back - I think my thoughts on the topic have probably evolved since then.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Life and the cosmos with Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees (via SlowTV)

Lord Martin Rees is UK Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society. He was also appointed to the House of Lords in 2005, is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and is the author of about 500 research papers and several books. I recently came across these videos of Lord Rees on SlowTV, a free internet TV channel delivering interviews, debates, conversations and public lectures about Australia's key political, social and cultural issues. It is produced by The Monthly and there is an impressive amount of science content. You can subscribe via podcast.

In the inaugural Derek Denton lecture in Science and the Arts at University of Melbourne, Lord Rees discussed current ideas on cosmology and how the universe evolved from a simple Big Bang to its present complexity. He also talked about the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos. I had quite an enjoyable afternoon listening to this talk in the background. It is clear why he is regarded as one of the world's foremost science communicators.

Part 1:

Part 2:

If you can't see the embedded videos, check out the talk at SlowTV. For more on the topics addressed in this talk, check out our Astronomy and Space and Science Communication tags, and particularly:
  • Astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life;
  • Astrobiology is a fascinating and complex field of science. It is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, and is a relatively new field of science incorporating astronomy, biology, geology, palaeontology, physics, mathematics and other disciplines. I spoke to Dr Carol Oliver, a science communication researcher working for the Australian Centre for Astrobioligy, whose key goals include contributing to the understanding of the orgin of life on Earth and to set an Australian life-seeking instrument on the surface of Mars. 

Monday 12 April 2010

Ep 126: Science of Superheroes - Doc Ock

Continuing with our recurring segment The Science of Superheroes, this week we're tackling the mechanically-blessed supervillain Doc Ock, from Marvel Comics. And joining me once again for a journey through superhero scholarship is Dr Boob. To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

Dr. Otto Gunther Octavius is a scientist who designed a set of advanced mechanical arms to assist him with his nuclear physics research. He controlled the arms via a brain-computer interface. In the movie Spiderman 2, Octavius created the mechanical arms to help him conduct nuclear fusion experiments. The arms had their own artificial intelligence, with an inhibitor chip used such that Octavius could maintain control over them.

The arms attached to a harness that was strapped around his body. In great comic book tradition, a freak experimental accident caused the limbs to fuse to his body, and the inhibitor chip was destroyed. The arms themselves took control as Octavius could no longer control them, and mad-scientist Octavius became evil Doc Ock. Interestingly, the limbs were able to defend themselves whilst Doc Ock was unconscious, implying not only self-awareness, but a capability to sense their surroundings.

In this episode, we come closer than we have come before in our series to figuring out a way to recreate a superhero (or supervillain in this case) in the laboratory. The topics discussed in this podcast include:
  • Robotics,
  • The history of artificial limbs,
  • The history of aritifical intelligence, and how to design limbs that could possibly have self-awareness and a desire (and capability) to defend themselves,
  • What is nuclear fusion? Is it possible to develop a controlled energy source using nuclear fusion, and if so, could this be the way forward for powering enormous artificial limbs?
  • What would the limbs be made from? Is it time to turn once again to Adamantium? See our show on Wolverine for more information.
  • Assuming the AI is difficult to accomplish, how could the limbs be controlled? Two methods include:
  1. Myoelectric prostheses - a myoelectric prosthesis uses EMG signals from muscles on the surface of the skin to control the movements of an attached prosthesis. These prostheses have been used where arms and legs have been amputated, with the prosthesis attaching to the residual limb. The concept of neuroplasticity is also very important here. Neuro- (or brain-) plasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout life, to reorganise itself and form new connections between neurons. Artificial limbs have recently been controlled by chest muscles - this is an example of the brain learning how to control muscles in a completely new way.
  2. Remote control - recent work has shown that objects can be remotely controlled by brain waves (EEG). Naturally, this does not mean one can levitate a chair on the opposite side of the room - the brain needs to be hooked up to a computer which reads the brain signals, interprets them and then controls the connected object in an appropriate way. We discussed this a few years ago in our article Space Invaders Mind Control, Small Testes and Facial Expressions

To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

And on the topic of superheroes, you may enjoy this poster from Russell Walks Illustration. It is a Periodic Table of 122 fictitious elements from sci-fi movies, comics, TV series etc. Adamantium is in there, as naturally is the most famous of them all, Kryptonite. Click on the image below for a closer look and to buy the image as a poster.

Thanks to @markfromhouston for the tip on the Periodic Table poster.