June 8, 2005

Discovered: the basis of human civilization.

Here's more of the usual highly speculative sociobiology, but it's spicy and it's drawing the bloggy links, so let's take a look:
Women who fail to orgasm during sex may be genetically programmed to weed out unreliable men who are a flop between the sheets, according to new research.

Scientists who have studied the ability of thousands of women to climax say it is largely written in their genes - the most compelling evidence so far that the female orgasm has a biological role.

The findings suggest the failure of some women to orgasm regularly is not a dysfunction, but a sophisticated mate-selection strategy that evolved during prehistoric times.

Tim Spector of St Thomas's hospital in London, who led the research, said: "The theory is that the orgasm is an evolutionary way of seeing if men can prove themselves to be likely good providers or dependable, patient and caring enough to look after the kids."

Women who orgasm very easily may be more likely to be satisfied with poor quality men.
It looks as if all the achievements of human civilization ought to be attributed to how hard it is to satisfy us women. Men did plenty of the work over the millennia, but they wouldn't have bothered if we women hadn't needed something more than sex to impress us.

Keep trying, guys!


StrangerInTheseParts said...

I'm not sure I understand how this helps women avoid mating with inferior men. When the woman fails to have an orgasm with her 'inferior' mate, haven't they ALREADY MATED? Isn't it a little late to find out he's inferior and thereby avoid mating with him?

Freeman Hunt said...

I agree with stangerintheseparts.

The mating is done. Little late to put the cork back in the bottle.

Crank said...

In fact, if you follow the Darwinian logic here, the man who gets tossed out for not satisfying his mate winds up having to have sex with a bunch of different women looking for someone who will stay with him. That may make his love life, er, nasty, brutish and short, but it also potentially leaves him a bunch of offspring with multiple different women. Which, in strict Darwinian terms, is a good thing for the man.

Ann Althouse said...

Stranger: I suppose the answer would have to do with seduction and foreplay. Considering that monkeys masturbate all the time, I presume this pre-human woman would be already aware of what it takes to get to orgasm, and has the information upon which to decide to fend off some brute who appears bent on a one-minute encounter. A man who approaches in a more complex, seductive way, will interest her by comparison. So she has the basis to choose before pregnancy is risked.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

I agree with your desription of the evolutionary motive here - but that is NOT what the study itself concluded. The study seems to say that failure to achieve orgasm (post mating) is the indicator of fitness in the male.

Your explanation cuts to the real story. Women are less likely to have orgasm and therefore are less likely to seek sex for sex's sake. Without the pressure to find any orgasm they can get, women are more likely to value the true markers of fitness - physical health, prowess, social standing, etc etc.

Reminds me of a (not funny, but apt) joke my father tells about resarchers. A scientist puts a frog on the floor and claps loudly behind it. The frog jumps 2 meters. The scientist binds one of the frogs legs and claps loudly. The frog jumps 1 meter. He binds both legs and claps and the frog doesn't jump at all.

Then he publishes a paper explaining that binding a frogs legs makes it DEAF.


Nick said...

So what does that say about a woman who fails to give her man an erection? Oh wait... that's a male "disorder" and the guy's problem too. We just can't win can we? ;)

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not the least bit surprised to find that different women have different levels of ease in climaxing. But, Ann I think is right, it is silly to jump from that to the better mate theory.

I do suspect that this ease is at least to a very great extent genetic. Of course, this itself is problematic. My experience (as a guy) is that women who have an easy time blame other women's problems on their state of mind, etc., while those who have a harder time blame their bodies, and not how hard they tried, etc.

But one big problem with the article and its theory is that, at least to me, it proposed two very different theories. First, that this would prefer Alpha Males (and their "superior" genetics). The other that this would prefer the male that spends more time in forplay, etc.

I would suggest that these are, for the most part, mutually exclusive theories, and thus, point to the fact that the authors don't have a valid theory. After all, the Alpha Male is much more likely to partake in the Slam Bang, Thank You Mam type of sex (Any of you remember the Kobe Bryant case in Eagle, CO?).

leeontheroad said...

What I find immediately interesting isn't sociobiology, but how we talk about it. the language of the comments.

Freeman, your figure of speech is astounding: the um, "cork" isn't going to GET "back in the bottle" except (assuming consent) out of an abundance of hopefulness, sense duty or desire for other things (than orgasm) that might be appealing about sexual contact-- in the schema as presented.

Stranger, you seem to assume women who don't orgasm with mates benefit? Am I reading this properly:

"Without the pressure to find any orgasm they can get,"

how would a "sexually unsatisfactory" mate absent such pressure? Either the pressure exists or it doesn't, at given points in time.

I'm not harping on men; my own view of sexual interaction is precisely NOT that one person is to act on another to produce some results, necessarily.

As for this, though:
"women are more likely to value the true markers of fitness - physical health, prowess, social standing, etc etc."

That would explain what some women discuss when their husbands/boyfriends/sexual partners aren't around, yes. But in a few settings, what I hear is COMPLAINING-- even as, yes, the folks of whom I am speaking love their husbands, remain committed to (and monogamous with) them, and presumably choose at least by default to remain with their spouses for other reasons.

Ann Althouse said...

First, Stranger is right that my theory is somewhat different from -- and better than -- what the scientists came up with.

Second, Lee is right that we say more about ourselves than about what happened genetically a million years ago when we talk about sociobiology.

Meade said...

The Job of Sex
Parody of The Joy of Sex, Edited by Brian McConnachie, 1974 (paperback)

SteveR said...

There's a problem when you tie one very specific characteristic to a very general result (without considering the multitudes of other factors), especially when we don't have all that much certain knowledge of the rather long period over which this would have taken place.

Of course I am a bit skeptical since my personal situation contrast with "Women who orgasm very easily may be more likely to be satisfied with poor quality men."

Art said...

All I can say is this calls out for further research.


There is a connection between orgasm and survival of the fittest. Anyone who's struggled with infertility will tell you that the "experts" encourage a woman's orgasm [even during artificial insemination] in order to propel [via muscle release] the recently-released semen into the proper locale for fertilization; plus, an orgasm will often provide added lubrication. If a woman is simply an "unmoved mover", she is less likely to conceive.

LDM said...

Lo! That I could'st but make her come
verily Junior twould be so dumb


Oops...sorry....the article sort of hit my point near the end.

Goesh said...

I always thought cash went a long ways in a relationship..gasping and groaning for dollars is a two way street.

Freeman Hunt said...

"Freeman, your figure of speech is astounding: the um, "cork" isn't going to GET "back in the bottle" except (assuming consent) out of an abundance of hopefulness, sense duty or desire for other things (than orgasm) that might be appealing about sexual contact-- in the schema as presented."

Erm. . . the "cork" and "bottle" that I was alluding to would have no chance of reuniting whether or not there was "an abundance of hopefulness, sense duty or desire for other things (than orgasm) that might be appealing about sexual contact." Getting the "cork" and "bottle" back together would require some sort of ghastly procedure involving a syringe.

Also, I would agree with Crank. Wouldn't it be more likely that Mr. Unsatisfying would end up with more offspring who would be more genetically diverse as a group and thus have a better chance of passing on his genes through the ages?

I also question that idea that a man who practicing some kind of complex seduction is going to be superior when it comes to the actual act of mating.

Murky Thoughts said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Murky Thoughts said...

From the news story I read in the Guardian (which may do a disservice to the facts), the new "findings" sound poorly reasoned (variation implies selection??) and they directly contradict a splashy recent book that looks at the decades of experiments and theorizing about this (Amazon)
There's a good interview with the author that just went up online here

Sloanasaurus said...

I didn't know stoneage woman had so much choice in the matter. I thought stoneage woman basically got selected by stoneage man after stoneage man wrestled with other stoneage man for the right to have stoneage woman. The idea that stoneage woman could somehow reject the victor of the wrestling match (while perhaps just and fair for our time) seems ludicrious for the stoneage.

Ann Althouse said...

Sloanasaurs: Couldn't stoneage woman run away while the two men were wrestling?

Murky Thoughts said...

Oh, I forget to mention the one explanation of the female orgasm that the author (Elisabeth Lloyd) says withstands scrutiny is one that says it's like the male nipple: It's for nothing, but it's a consequence of men developing from the same body plan as women, for whom nipples are for nursing.

Ann Althouse said...

Murky: I saw the articles about the Lloyd book and decided not to post about that. It didn't impress me.

Sloanasaurus said...

Why would stoneage woman run away? It was probably generally better in the stoneage to be with the victor of the wrestling match - better proof that the stoneage man will be able to be victorious wrestling mountain lion.

chuck_b said...

This seems bloggy too.

Ann Althouse said...

Sloanasaurus: You changed your argument, which before was that she couldn't run away. If we're back to choice, then I've already commented on that subject.

bob said...

Crap. Another damn thing to worry about when I put the moves on my lover. Maybe I should forage the neighborhood and drag in some fresh roadkill to impress the little lady.

Anyway, I'd like to point out that the converse (males requiring orgasms for women to concieve) is incontravertble. It probably explains why we are aroused by anything that has a pulse.

leeontheroad said...

Sloanasaurus, of course we do assume but don't actually KNOW how "stoneage" or homo sapiens culture worked. This is one of the reasons I am so skeptical of sociobiology. For whatever we don't know, we make assumptiosn based on how we seem to ourselves now.

We do assume, for example, that might made right, as it were. It makes some sense from what we know today that the strongest males were able to copulate with (not necessarily mate or reproduce with) whatever female or females they may have wished. And we also tend to doubt females would have had much choice in the matter, given evidence of humanoid sexual dimorphism . We further assume that one or more of the following assured that females had to interact with what we might today consider the "brutish" sort of males: 1) females had biological drives for procreation (and, thus, also sex); females-- like all other creatures-- sought physical survival and could best survive in groups, maybe even groups of "brutes"; 3) females caring for young children had particular needs for group protection, for themselves and their young. That last is also a usual reason why males are said to have sought heterosocial groupings-- to protect their infant (nursing) progeny.

Still, in this imagined "neandrathal" culture, what would have prevented females from controlling procreation post-insemination? Knowledge? They seemed to know what plants to eat and not and eventually leanred "natural medicine." Do we know females and males knew nothing of barrier methods of contraception? In other words, might it have been just as usual as now for homo sapiens to develop sexual relationships based on a calculus, not merely a geometry, of species survival?

Sloanasaurus said...

Althouse: You are right - you sucked me into sloppy debate. To get back on point, I would argue that if stoneage woman ran away, she would eventually be chased down by the victor of the wrestling match (or eaten by a mountain lion). Therefore, if she had a choice, it would be death, which doesn't really count as much of a choice.

Sloanasaurus said...

Leeontheroad: Of course I make my analagy based on a common sense observation of nature.

I would not want to minimize the influence of women generally in these societies (especially older women who had great power), however, I think that the common woman had little or no input in choosing mates. This fact continues with us today in that it is still "tradition" for a man to ask a woman for marriage.

Bruce Hayden said...

Getting us back to reality, a little. First, note that Neanderthal =/= stone aged, etc. For quite awhile, they have been acknowledged as not being in our direct family linage, but an unsuccessful offshoot, that died out, possibly as late as 60,000 years ago. The big question is whether we (humans and proto humans) directly or indirectly killed them off. The later theory is that they were unable to effectively compete with us after we had developed language and cooperative society. We could live more densely, and field much larger forces against them. Or, we just plain hunted them down. Won't probably ever know. Also, there is a small possibility that there was some interbreeding - but not a lot. Not clear that it would be viable.

But what a lot of this ignores is that a lot of human sexuality appears be based on keeping a male around long enough that he could provide resources for raising his kids. Thus, for example, hidden estrous, year around sexual interest by women, etc.

In other words, I am suggesting that we (humans) have been primarily monogomous for quite a long time - long enough to have developed significant differences from our closest two relatives (chimps and pygmy chimps).

I say primarily monogomous, as apparently there was always a little cheating built in, on both sides. But still keep in mind that a lot of why we are the way we are is the need for women to have male help in providing resources for raising kids through our extrodinary long dependency phase - which is to some extent based on our physical need to be born less well developed than other animals, due to the ultimate size of our heads.

Kathleen B. said...

putting aside the fact that any speculation on "stoneage man and woman" is hypothetical at best, I find it extremely interesting that you (Sloanasaurus) posit stoneage woman's choices as rape or death by mountain lion.

I would submit her more likely outcome as death by childbirth or gangrene, but I guess those don't allow for a heroic stoneage man to swoop in and save her. Frankly, if stoneage woman is relying on stoneage man to defeat a mountain lion, then I don't think she is going to make it.

purple_kangaroo said...

I actually think it far more likely that many women's attitudes and expectations toward sex are influenced by their mothers.

For instance, consider those whose mothers didn't enjoy the experience much and taught their daughters not to expect to enjoy it. Those girls may be more likely to have a hard time reaching orgasm more because of mental attitude than because of anything physical.

However, it does seem proven that some physical attributes such as complications of DES are genetically passed down and can affect these things also.

Ann Althouse said...

Purple: Years ago, everything was characterized as an emotional problem originating in the family. Nowadays, everything is at the genetic level.

Kathleen: Thanks for writing that. I was getting a bit tired of the whole caveman rape scenario. If the fittest survived, why would human beings have evolved into the brainy, long-childhood creatures that we are if all our ancesstors were about was a contemptible physical fight?

Sloanasaurus said...

Kathleen B: you are probably right on the cause of death. I used the stoneage wrestling analogy as way to point to the different basket of available choices between modern and "caveman" society.

Althouse: I think it is clear throughout history that deceit and strategy will defeat brute force almost everytime. Jusk ask the Romans at Cannae or the French at Agincourt. Thus, it makes sense that the intelligent human will outlive the brute.

Bruce Hayden said...

I agree that cave man idea is silly. I think by all indications, back then we lived in extended family units, gradually combining into ever larger units as we invented agriculture and it permitted such. Not sure if the family units were matrilinear or patrilinear (or maybe that depended on where you were). Our nearest relatives, the chimps tend towards matrilinear, while patrilinear seems more prevalent in a majority of the different aboriginity groups in more modern times. For genetic reasons, obviously, you need to push out one sex or the other.

But what has to be remembered is that we are primates, and more specifically, apes. And pretty much all primates band together in large enough groups for protection. This is esp. true for most of the apes, which can, through community action, take on and defend against much larger preditors. The one exception to this being, of course, gorillas, where full grown males are big enough.

So, if faced with two theories, that we did this before we became human and did it later, but not in between, and that we did it all the way through, the later is by far the more viable theory.

In other words, the theory that we ever lived in small enough bands where stealing mates was every day business makes no evolutionary sense.

Rather it is far, far, more plausible that we have always banded together in large enough groups so that we could protect each other against preditors, both human and not. The chimps do it. We do it now. Highly likely we have done it continuously since we were the same species.

Bruce Hayden said...


The answer (probably) to how we became big brained and survived is, as you are probably suggesting, that collective action typically can overcome pure brawn. One guy is bigger than the rest and wants my wife. Fine. I will bring my brothers, cousins, etc. along and teach him a lesson on community action.

The other counterveiling pressure is that the bigger our brains, the longer it takes before we are no longer dependant on our parents. And this dependency is key I think to understanding human nature and survival. In the long run, the parents who best took care of their kids through this dependancy had the smartest and most successful offspring. Obviously, not one on one, but statistically over tens of thousands of years.

The basic problem with the Alpha male concept is that in the long run, it is going to fail in comparison to what evolved. The problem is that the more resources a woman had, the more children she could bring to maturity. And, it turns out, through most of our history, first wife of a beta male did better than the second, third, or fourth wife of an alpha male as to resources. This was in particular true back in the cave man days, when the alpha males couldn't leverage the work of that many betas. You basically ate what you killed (or gathered), or in the case of women, a lot of what your man brought home.

So, looking at it mathematically, without the leverage of domination, the alpha may be able provide 1.5 times as much as a beta for his mate(s). But that means that if he had two wives, they each would receive 3/4 of what a woman who picked a beta would receive. Of course, his alpha wife would receive more, which only makes the lot of his 2nd, 3rd, etc. wives all that much worse. Much better to mate with and keep a beta male happy.

leeontheroad said...

What I'm continuing to find fascianting is the number of men who are essentially copping to the radical feminist theory that the organizing principle of human civilization is male violence or the threat of it.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not, really. But rather positing that rape and abduction were actually not that common, but partially because we were organized such as to make it unlikely.

Yes, we have been talking sexuality here, so the emphasis has been on that side of things. But, there have always been other reasons to fight, and this rape and abduction of females has always been just a part of it. Hunting territory was probably as, if not more, important.

And remember that for a long time, we probably faced even larger threats from natural preditors. By living in groups, we could provide community defense. Note, BTW, that most of our ape relatives do precisely the same. In short, we do very little differently from what they do, and what is, therefore, probably well imprinted in our genetics: We live together for mutual protection.

The one wild card here, of course, is the effect that our long dependency (due to our large brain size) has - it probably increased the pressure for cooperative society, as well as for monogamy.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that the women in many cases were probably just as interested in male violence, if it could result in an increased food supply, either directly (through plunder), or larger fields, or larger hunting areas. After all, this would mean that they would have more resources available, thus resulting in the ability to bring more children to maturity.

Sloanasaurus said...

leeontheroad: I find it fascinating that you managed to conclude that the above arguments are implying that the "organizing principle of human civilization is male violence or the threat of it."

I don't get it.

Murky Thoughts said...

Here unfortunately long post in which the author of the recent ballyhooed orgasm book utterly and completely demolishes the conclusions of the recent orgasm study. The researchers seem not to know even the ABC's of genetics.

Ron said...

Ann: Keep trying, guys

Trying? Ann, I lack opportunity, not motive...

Move to strike! While the Iron is Hot!

Crank said...

Ann - While I am afraid to even try, I think one could have some game-theoretic fun attempting to draw connections between the orgasm study and this.

Bruce Hayden said...

Murky refers to a superb, though as he/she suggests, long winded article directly on point here.

The short of it is that the data don't support the conclusion, and, indeed, as we say in patent law, teach away from it.

Apparently, the very flatness of the inheritability curve is strong, if not overwhelming, indication of non-adaption. True adaption characteristics, like big brains for humans, tend to have very sharp peaks, with some outliers. This is just the opposite.

Thanks to Ann for the discussion and Murky for the article. I really did learn something, and for that, I am always thankful.

Bruce Hayden said...


Researchers would have done well (and we would probably have more to talk about) if they had tied this study to others, such as ones that show increased sperm count after spousal absense. It has been known for quite a while now (as I understand it) that males can indeed control sperm count and ejaculant quantity.

I am reminded of that Woody Allen schene where the sperm discover at the last minute that masterbation was involved. Well, in real life, such results in significantly lower sperm count and ejacuant than with a partner.