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Penises, Primates and the study of Human Sexuality: A Q&A with Jesse Bering
Jesse Bering is the author of the new book, "Why is the Penis Shaped Like that?: And Other Reflections on Being Human." He is well known in my circles as someone willing to answer any question posed to him, no matter how private or unusual. Here, Bering tells me about how human sexuality is different from primate sexuality, whether he's ever been stumped by a question and how he would design a sex education program.
Q: How different is human sexuality from primate sexuality, really? Why does that matter?
Jesse Bering: Humans are a particular species of primate, of course, and every species has its own unique evolutionarily derived peccadilloes. When we look at what sets us apart from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees (or perhaps bonobos), we can easily spot both similarities and differences in our sexualities.
In my own writing I tend to focus on the differences, because I think that too often we gloss over these critically human aspects in favor of the 'naturalistic' argument, which, typically, tends to translate into "if other species do it, then that makes it natural and, hence, morally okay." But it's not quite so simple.
First, we haven't shared a common ancestor with other great apes for about 5 to 7 million years. At least twenty other species of humans have come and gone during that interval, and a lot has happened in our lineage in that span of time. Anatomically, there's an obvious contrast between the appearance of our genitals and those of other non-human apes--for example, men's penises are enormous compared to those of males of other primate species, and the female reproductive tract seems to have capitalized on our very frequent use of intense eye gaze during coitus. Related to this, I think the most significant difference between human sexuality and that of other primates is the fact that we alone have the cognitive capacity to take the rich psychological perspective of our sexual partners into account. or at least to empathize to the degree we do (Nicholas Humphrey refers to our species as "natural psychologists"). As a consequence of this social cognitive capacity, sex in our species has become about more than quick-and-dirty copulation or sex play, as found in other primate species.
For humans, it has evolved quite literally into "intercourse" and "lovemaking," in which our own immediate sexual desires must be carefully balanced with the mental needs, desires and wellbeing of others. Sometimes our old primate brains overpower these more recently evolved social cognitive factors; people may fail to inhibit themselves when intensely aroused and selfishly take advantage of others' bodies without consideration of their unseen minds. And therein lies a vital conflict, or tension, for our species.
Q: I’m often asked what the practical value of studying sexuality from a scientific perspective is – what would be your answer?
Jesse Bering: It's easier to answer that question when we're dealing with a particular issue--say, studying the effects of semen exposure on female biology and psychology (recent findings suggest that seminal fluid may have antidepressant properties, among other things), or how MSMs ("men who have sex with men") are more at risk of acquiring STIs because of their rejection of the label "gay" and, hence, their lack of exposure to health education tailored to gay men. But more generally speaking, studying sex from a scientific perspective can dramatically change our comfortableness with ourselves. The more I write about sex, the clearer it becomes that people are struggling, often in silence, with their own sexual issues. I've had many readers tell me that by simply approaching these topics openly and objectively (and really, I'll talk about absolutely anything) using the neutral, non-moralizing language of science has made them feel less lonely and less ashamed over things that are so often beyond their conscious control.
Q: You are very open to reader questions (and answer them on your blog). What question are you most commonly asked? Have any ever stumped you?
Jesse Bering: No matter where they fall on the sexuality scale, I enjoy communicating with my readers. I especially try to foster open communication with sexual minorities that are either ignored or ostracized by 'mainstream' sex researchers. I've certainly written about things that make me uncomfortable--often deeply so--but there's absolutely no aspect of human sexuality that does not deserve a proper scientific explanation, or at least some empirical consideration that goes beyond our immediate aversion or knee-jerk response. Sometimes you've got to be pushed to the edge of your comfort level to think most clearly as a scientist. I've fielded questions from zoophiles, pedophiles, 'furries,' asexuals, gerontophiles, sexual sadists, and many other demographics that--whether we like them or not or derogate them as comical--are very real. You probably walked by a few of these people on your way to the office this morning, in fact.
As far as getting stumped, sure, that definitely happens, but the answers are usually out there somewhere if I dig deep enough. The only 'unanswerable' questions are those that aren't really scientific ones, but rather those seeking advice or ethical guidance. "What's the *right* age for a gay person to come out of the closet?" for example, or "Should I tell my mom that I saw my dad out in public dressed as a woman?" By 'unanswerable' in this sense I mean only that there aren't any hard and fast amoral, laboratory-based facts to cling to when responding to such questions, and so ultimately one slips into the language of personal bias, social rhetoric and personal anecdotes. Having said that, I'm willing to give my warped advice from time to time, and in fact I'm diving into the deep end soon by serving as Dan Savage's fill-in for his "Savage Love" advice column during the week of August 6th to the 10th. Maybe you'll see my Savage Bering side then.
Q: How would you design a sexual education class for tweens? Would it be possible to keep that kind of class “abstinence-only”?
Jesse Bering: If focusing on 'tweens' I'm assuming we're referring to, say, ten- to twelve-year-olds? It's hard to envision the perfect blanket curriculum, to be honest. First, there are often enormous differences between individuals within this age range, both physically (some will be pubescent while others lag behind as late bloomers) and psychologically (some may be mature enough to discuss sex without giggling uncontrollably while others can't get past the words "penis" and "clitoris"). Personally, I fell toward the undesirable ends of both spectrums--I was a late bloomer in every sense of the word. So if the teacher is going on about, say, ejaculation, and you've not even experienced one yet yourself, the effect of the lesson may not be as meaningful as it would for another boy in class who has been masturbating every night without understanding what or why he's doing this. Likewise, a girl for whom the onset of menarche is not until age fifteen or so will probably process and attend to the information very differently from a female classmate who has been having periods since the age of eleven.
But these problems aside (and of course there's no easy solution to the above concerns), there's no evidence--at least that I'm aware of, and I'd be very curious to hear of any such data if someone out there knows of it--to suggest that sexual education leads to an increase in sexual behavior in tweens or teens. It's not like sex ed 'causes' a desire that wouldn't exist otherwise, after all. And if they're going to experiment sexually anyway, parents are better off arming their children with knowledge that protects them from STIs and unwanted pregnancies.
Credit: RAJ CREATIONZS/Shutterstock.com
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.