October 21st, 2006
Some of you may have noticed a little flurry in the press towards the back end of this week, with the revelations from an evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry from the London School of Economics (LSE) that in the future we’ll all be the same colour, there’ll be two races (a superior and inferior one), we’ll migrate more, men will have bigger penises and women larger breasts.
I can’t say I know enough about evolutionary theory to unpack all the problems with this research, but I can certainly spot the main drawback. Rather than this being a piece of research published in a prestigious peer reviewed science journal, it was a study funded by a TV company (who were celebrating their 21st anniversary and obviously wanted a few more viewers). What better way to attract attention than a few headlines that have ‘big willy’ in them?
Reading all the coverage of this ‘research’ I couldn’t help thinking it had just been lifted from that old song by Blue Mink (which was a favourite of my hippie parents and their friends):
“What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take
The world and all it’s got
Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score”
Groovy. But not exactly cutting edge science.
Let’s get back to those big willies. Actually it was a case of most headlines not delivering on this – much of the coverage promised we could expect an future trouser snake epidemic, but didn’t explain why or really return to this in evolutionary terms. Since there’s no link between levels of fertility and penis size, and most heterosexual women complain that long penises aren’t always that comfortable to accommodate, there seems to be little evolutionary advantage for a longer cock. Gay men are of course another matter, but unsurprisingly this research didn’t mention homosexuality – we’ll all be the same colour in the future it’s alleged, but we’ll apparently all be straight too.
This is a common approach within some evolutionary discussions – basically a twenty first century conservative heterosexual norm is used as a base to explain our past, present and future behaviour.
Regardless of this, a much bigger penis isn’t going to be an advantage to guys since larger willies do have a tendency to struggle getting and staying hard on occasion – which might put a blip on the evolutionary map. If you’re going to develop bigger body parts why just your penis? Why not bigger hands or feet? Greater brain power? And why does bigger mean better? How do we know that in the future that smaller, fatter or hairier people wouldn’t have a better chance of survival?
I’d be more inclined to take this research seriously if it had been reviewed by other scientists and hadn’t just been made for media. Press coverage has mostly accepted this coverage without any criticism whatsoever. The exception is Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science column today.
Even with this criticism the crucial questions about this research still haven’t been asked….
LSE is a very prestigious UK university – did they know that this ‘research’ was being completed, and did they give it their backing? In which case how seriously can we take other research published by staff from that institution?
What implications are there for academics using their institutions name as a means of promoting a product in the media?
What did the colleagues of the evolutionary theorist within his department think about the ‘research’ for the TV company? Did they even know it was going on – and did they agree with it?
What did the wider scientific community think about this research? Does it really represent cutting edge evolutionary theory? Why weren’t other evolutionary theorists invited to comment on this story in the press?
Are there any plans to publish this work? If so what are the ethical implications of going ‘straight to media’ first?
How was the scientist behind this ‘research’ chosen? Was he the first choice of the TV company or the only person who’d agree to do what they wanted?
Did the scientist truly make these predictions or, as is common practice with PR companies, were the main themes of the ‘research’ that the PR company wanted in the press provided for the scientist to put their name to?
How much was the scientist paid to complete this work for the TV company? And how much profit will the TV company expect to make on the basis of the press coverage generated?
Is this a good form of science communication? Presenting a supposedly controversial idea to the media does get a lot of discussion going, but if the evidence discussions are based on are flaky is this still a good plan?
There are ethical concerns around telling people there’ll be two future races (a superior and inferior one, which has been implied in some coverage) and also big boobs and dicks are desirable. This will already make people who’re smaller or who have body image issues feel more inadequate. What checks and balances are there for academics that apparently ignore concern their ‘research’ could generate?
What damage to evolutionary theory has been done by this work – and what damage to the scientist’s career? I can’t exactly see in an academic environment where there is enormous pressure to publish right now that work for a television company that’s not published anywhere but the popular press is going to count in their favour.
Finally my big concern with this research is it reinforces the idea that men should have – and should desire – a larger dick. Big Pharma, dodgy herbal sex drugs and commercial outlets will be gleefully using this dodgy research to now convince us if men want to make it into the master race of the future they’d better make efforts to start growing their penises now.Tweet