News flash: beetles are not the same as women

Amazing. Under this headline:

“Science still cannot explain why women sleep around”

“A study published today in Science details a series of careful experiments Swedish researchers conducted on mating seed beetles (pictured). They want to find out what the benefits were to females who mated with multiple males….”

Now, as a normal person, you are probably thinking: “WTF does a paper in Science about beetles have to do with promiscuity in women?”  The answer would be NOT A GODDAMN THING.
This is one of the most blatant, shameless examples of “sexing up science” I’ve seen in a long time.

Here is the actual paper they are referring to:

Bilde, T., Foged, A., Schilling, N., & Arnqvist, G. (2009). Postmating Sexual Selection Favors Males That Sire Offspring with Low Fitness Science, 324 (5935), 1705-1706 DOI: 10.1126/science.1171675

It is a paper about seed beetles, people. Seed. Beetles.

In the press release covering this paper, there is no mention that this research means anything for mammals, much less humans. So… where did this get connected up to explaining why women “sleep around?”

In the messed up little head of the writer, that is where. Because human women liking sex is clearly deviant, and in need of explanation.

And that is how you get crazy sentences like this one:

“Why would these insects have sex with so many different men, only to choose the crappiest sperm?

As I said initially, Amazing.  Aside from the Green Porno of Isabella Rossellini, I am not aware of any human-insect hookups. (And, frankly, do not want to be aware of any, so please don’t email me.)

There are a whole host of other errors in this i09 article, and I’ll just pick this one:  It does not use the term fitness correctly.

In evolution, the one who dies with the most babies wins. Even if the animal is small, unhealthy, and wimpy.  The males with the most offspring are, by definition, the most fit.

OY.

BTW, I was asked recently to recommend some things to read critiquing evolutionary psychology, and this seems like a good spot to stick some links.

Related posts on Bad Evolutionary Psychology:

19 thoughts on “News flash: beetles are not the same as women

  1. As a subscriber to multiple science news RSS feeds, I see this sort of nonsense all the time. In this case it looks like the reporter’s doing, but in some cases it’s the scientists or the university press offices. I don’t know why every study of some animal’s mating system needs to get tied back to humans somehow.

    By the way, I like the fact that you have ranting tags broken down by subject.

  2. There is an article like this every single day in the “science” section of various London newspapers, obviously written by a bored junior reporter who drew the short straw and got told to trawl the interwebs for potential stories. They always find the most flawed, random paper imaginable, sex it up in some inappropriate way, then present it as “science fact”.

    Mind you, I’ve heard some pretty damn peculiar ideas come straight from the evolutionary biologists mouth so to speak. Like the one my friend immediately dumped after he made some earnest declaration about her choice of underwear and how it validated all his scientific theories as well as everything he knew about women. Srsly.

  3. Unnnng.

    Would have been nice to see bad science reporting sometime other than first thing in the morning. :/ This stuff hurts my brain.

  4. Yes, you really have to wonder if science reporters are trained to misrepresent and distort or if they are just a remarkably vacuous class. With few exceptions (e.g. John Tierney, David Baron) science reporting is abysmal. On a personal level, neither my wife’s nor my research has ever not been garbled, even when we demanded an edit and corrected errors – most were ignored or overwritten.

    Actually, we should probably give this writer the benefit of the doubt, it may have been an editor inserting ‘men, women’. Editors are probably the real villains in many cases of bad reporting.

  5. Tierny inspires no awe in me. Of course, mispelling his name would tend to undercut any claim to familiarity (and I rarely read him), but the NYT is a completely political paper from the restaurant reviews to the front page. I find Tierny less politcal than the other Science/Health writers there and I can’t recall any misrepresentation of fact or obvious errors, but he doesn’t write that much on biology, so I could have been fooled. Still, I like his devil’s advocate style.

  6. Hi all

    A point that I will hope clarify things a little—I think of the kind of of reasoning used in the article is more like sociobiological reasoning, rather than evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology concerns the mind, including attitudes, thought processes, reasoning, and value judgments. The mate choice behavior described above seems to be more just about, well, behavior. No thought process or psychological reality needs to be invoked. Beetles presumably don’t have any psychology. Instead, the research described above seems more in line with the EO-Wilsonian project of explaining human behavior (including values and so on) as having evolved from natural selection.

    I don’t know how sharp this distinction is, and maybe EP is best looked at as a species of Sociobiology. I hope my explanation of it hasn’t been to cryptic. But maybe it will be interesting to some people.

    Whatever the case, and I think this is part of what makes Bug Girl so unhappy about this article, is that beetles do not “sleep around,” and being fertilized by multiple males is not “sleeping around.” This is a human behavior, requiring choice and a human context of romance, dating, etc., etc.

  7. You’re right Adam, I actually just tossed the links in there, since it was a convenient spot and someone had asked for them. This nuttery isn’t really related to actual EP or sociobio claims by the authors of the scientific paper.

    I wonder how much that EP research affects how willing popular writers are to connect unrelated dots like beetle and human behavior, though?

  8. After slugging my way through Bilde et al., all I can say is that whoever wrote the “Science still cannot explain why women sleep around” article missed a lot of potentially more titilating headlines than he (or his editor) dreamed up. I guess that could be one unintended benefit of stultifying sceintific writing.

    I must be missing something in this paper, though. Apparently they did not look at the reproductive success of sons and seem to weakly argue that ‘sex-specific genetic effects was not the aim of this study’. Sounds suss to me.

  9. I can explain this as somebody who isn’t a scientist. Evolutionary biologists, when writing to laymen, go in the other direction pretty constantly. Like, if they can’t explain something about human biology, they’ll tell you about a beetle.

    For example, they will say something along the lines of, “We do not know why women cheat but we do notice that beatles will do a, b and c for d, e, and f reasons. This is certainly something to consider.”

    It happens a lot. I think that is why science writers end up thinking that the two subjects directly inform each other. When, the actual explanation is that, like everybody else on the planet, evolutionary biologists have to grasp at straws sometimes.

  10. I think that says more about the biologists you are talking to and their messed up attitudes toward human sexuality than anything else. They *are* grasping at straws

    I don’t refer to insects when talking about human sexuality, because they aren’t analogous. Not even some of the social insects. I mean, unless human men also have barbed penises that break off to form a post-mating plug, and I somehow missed that information. :)

  11. I thought this would be the sentence that made me squirm the most in this entry – “Why would these insects have sex with so many different men”.

    However you just beat it with – “unless human men also have barbed penises that break off to form a post-mating plug”.

    “In the messed up little head of the [io9] writer [..] women liking sex is clearly deviant”. QFT.

  12. I’m not a regular reader of io9, but I am of their sister site Jezebel, and if the former is anything like the latter, the headline’s probably a joke. In the “science reporting always dumbs studies down to why women do what they do (as if we’re a whole other, incomprehensible species)” vein. The last line of the article, “Is it possible that they’re sleeping around just for fun?” supports the idea that they’re making fun of pop science reporting, not engaging in it. But, like I said, I’m not familiar with the tone of the site, and I could be wrong.

  13. I think Bug Girl is right. If you read just the press release linked to above, I suppose the io9 writer (or editor) may have responded with tongue-in-cheek. After all the press release is entitled “Good males are bad fathers”. ‘Father’ has a definite human spin.

    But as I understand the paper, it is about sperm competition between males with different ‘fitness’ ratings. In this species of beetle, the females can not choose which males to mate with – just try to deal with the sperm they are dealt (and it wasn’t clear to me that they have any choice there either, since male-male competition seems to be driving the system). So the io9 lead makes no sense at all.

    Press release science is bad – and finding it being spun for laughs isn’t a surprise. If you read only the press release, you wouldn’t even know about the two middle authors – probably the poor students who did most of the work.

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