How We Do It: Everything Masters and Johnson Did Not Know

For most of our history, humans have been extraordinarily ignorant about sex. Today, there is still much about sex that we either don't know or don't agree on. 

For most of our history, humans have been extraordinarily ignorant about sex. Consider, for instance, that up until 1930 we did not know the most fertile period of a woman's reproductive cycle. In other words, we didn't really know the best way to make babies, or avoid making babies, for that matter.

Today, there is still much about sex that we either don't know or don't agree on. 

For instance, Robert Martin makes the argument in his book How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction that a woman's fertile period is much longer than we believe it is. Martin has gathered a set of evidence that shows that sperm can actually survive up to 10 days in a woman's womb. 

While this claim is controversial, Martin has a broader, and equally controversial claim to make about sex. 

Martin tells Jeff Schechtman in this week's Specific Gravity podcast that fundamental conflicts exist between the medical community on the one hand and the field of evolutionary biology on the other. The medical community, in Martin's view, does not reflect enough about our evolutionary history, which can help us to understand fundamental biological processes as well as give us new insights on how to cure diseases.

Take, for instance, the issue of breastfeeding. How long should a woman breastfeed a child? It is difficult to know what is biologically appropriate. 

The key to answering this question is evolutionary thinking.

"You can look at primates generally and predict what the breast feeding period should be," Martin says. And the answer, to be conservative, is that "we are biologically programmed for our babies to be breastfed for three years."

In the podcast below, Schechtman and Martin explore the concept of Darwinian medicine, which is the bringing of Darwinian ideas to practice in contemporary medicine. Have we stopped evolving? If not, what evolutionary changes have occurred relatively recently? We currently have an epidemic of reproductive cancers. How can evolutionary biology help us understand why?

Listen to the interview here:

Click here to listen on your iphone or ipad


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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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