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The Celebrity Sex Lives of Rats

Men brought up with women are less sexy

Announced the headline in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, the UK's last daily broadsheet.  A headline which has, unsurprisingly, helped to make it the second most popular story on their website.  A headline which provokes a number of intriguing questions.  Questions such as: Men brought up with women are less sexy than... what?  Men brought up with wolves?  Or, men who attended Eton?
The Daily Telegraph’s Science Correspondent helpfully elaborates:

‘Having a large number of female siblings makes men no less heterosexual but their mannerisms and body language may be seen as less butch than those who have been brought up amid the rough and tumble of a male dominated household.’

‘Researchers discovered the ratio of male and females within a family growing up together can influence the sexual behaviour, rather than the sexuality, of a boy who is outnumbered.’

Now, I'll resist the temptation to say something about that image of a man being ‘outnumbered’ by women for the moment. Because the most important thing to note here is that it isn’t until the fourth paragraph in this news item about ‘how men brought up with women are less sexy’ that we discover the psychobiologists aren’t talking about men and women.
They’re talking about rats.  They did some experiments on rodents.  The ‘men and women’ and ‘boys and girls’ the Telegraph article has told us about so categorically are male and female vermin.  The ‘households’ are rat litters.  The ‘butchness’ and ‘rough and tumble’ discussed is ratty.  The ‘heterosexuality’ discussed is rat rutting.

‘Male rats were taken from their mothers and redistributed in litters in which there was either more female pups or more male pups, or equally mixed.’

‘When it came to mating, the male rats brought up in a litter of mainly sisters, spent less time mating than those brought up among male rats or in an equally divided litter.’

In other words, even if we re-wrote the Telegraph headline to, say ‘Male rats brought up with female rats are less sexy’ it would still be inaccurate.  The headline should probably read: ‘Male rats brought up with more females than males get less sex.’ Though this would give the sub-editor a heart-attack.  Worse, it would mean that the piece had no chance of getting into the Telegraph’s ‘Most Read’ chart.
Apparently the number of mountings were lower, in part because:

‘…they were not being invited to do so by the females who signal their availability by wiggling their ears or ‘dart hopping’ – an established rodent come on!’

Which is nice.  But it’s only right at the end of this news story about how men brought up with women are less sexy that you get this statement from one of the psychobiologists in question, actually talking about humans – rather than, you know, rats:

‘And what applies to rats may have implications for humans too, he added.’

Hang on. What’s this wussy, pussy-footing MAY have IMPLICATIONS?  Was he brought up in a litter where he was outnumbered by women or something?  We already know exactly what it means for humans because the Daily Telegraph told us in the headline and the first three paragraphs.  But the psychobiologist just can’t grow a pair.  Instead he offers us this woolly, hopelessly girly statement:

“It tells you that families are important – how many brothers and sisters you have, and the interaction among those individuals.”  Families are particularly important in shaping personalities, he says. The environment where you were raised “doesn’t determine personality, but it helps to shape it.”

Now this isn’t exactly earth-shattering.  But even this statement is based here on unsubstantiated and somewhat dubious extrapolation from rat behaviour to humans.  Rats, for example, have litters of about ten pups that take five weeks to reach sexual maturity, while humans tend to only drop one at a time which take fourteen years or more to develop.  And female humans are generally less likely to wiggle their ears when they feel flirty.
But the general conclusion here would probably be that environment, even in the case of rats, whose behaviour was thought to be decided by genes and pre-natal endocrinology, is more important than was thought. 
Mind you, The Daily Telegraph’s wildly anthropomorphizing reporting is a model of objectivity and accuracy compared to Time Magazine, which seems to lose its mind over the same story, giving it this bizarre title:

‘Why You’re Gay: A New Study Shows Why Boy Rats Like Other Boy Rats’

Er, no it doesn’t.  (And nor does it talk about ‘boy-rats’, whatever they are.)  But there’s no stopping Time:

‘Here’s the news: boy rats who have more sisters are less reliable heterosexuals than boy rats who have fewer sisters. That’s not to say having a sister makes you gay, but the boy rats with lots of sisters were significantly less interested than other boy rats in mounting girl rats.’

‘...less reliable heterosexuals’.  Whatever that phrase means, it isn’t in the abstract or the press release. Nor is there any discussion of male rats mounting one another.  It seems that the reasoning here is that if a male rat mounts female rats less often than other male rats then he must be, y’know, gay.  Which is an interesting insight into notions of compulsory heterosexuality at Time, but not so much into the sex lives of rats.
In fact, and this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the study – which neither the Daily Telegraph nor Time reported – the male rats raised in ‘female dominant’ litters turned out to have just as many insertions and ejaculations with females as the other males. As the abstract tells us:

…the number of intromissions and ejaculations did not differ across groups, which suggests that males from female-biased litters mate as efficiently as males raised in other sex ratios, but do not require as many mounts to do so.

In other words, if you really want to anthropomorphize, the headline should read:

‘Men brought up with women better at getting it in’

But these wacky scientific fairy tales in Time and The Daily Telegraph are not completely without merit.  Both are really excellent examples of why you should treat any 'sexy' report about the ‘discoveries’ of psychobiology in regard to human behaviour very, very sceptically indeed, always bearing in mind that:
a) They’re probably talking about rats 
b) You need to multiply the dubiousness of extrapolating rat research to human behaviour by the increasing need of scientific research to get publicity these days – and then again by the rampant projections of the media itself and its need to make an already souped-up story ‘interesting’ and ‘familiar’ to their readers.

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11 thoughts on “The Celebrity Sex Lives of Rats”

  1. A further clarification, which might add veracity to the claim that humans are not unlike their animal relatives is the stipulation that scientists fall prey occasionally to the fraud that men are in all cases similar to all animals in all ways. That’s more just silly the rat experiment had numerous problems in that rats don’t form families like people even remotely so it’s impossible to generalize. In the case of “Sex at Dawn” the main premise about monogamy is shown by virtue of demonstrating in fairly complex ways that we are more like other animal relatives who do not pair than those who do.

    The notion that this monogamy picture is flawed is drawn from the idea that the needs of society and not nature are satisfied by the pressure to mate: which is not always the case: it is a product of Judeo-Christian mores, but possibly not nature. Rats work with some things like simple experiments with cocaine addiction.
    Not so with e.g. with Turkeys. Whenever, in science, you extrapolate, that is what you are doing and the results only give you encouragement to a view. Different mammals have a varying degree of similarity to people.

    The behaviorist philosophy, back in the 30’s>without making reference to cognative aspects of recent work were able to produce very little useful data, because they wouldn’t give animals credit for feelings and cognition, which it s now generally thought useful.

    The thing is that bad science is bad science and one needs just to discriminate the generalizations which are adequate and those which have no veracity.

  2. Certainly, we hold all judgements in abeyance until they show them selves to be convincing. What (above) people are referring as anthropomorphizing is really extrapolatng from similar, relatied species of animals. Unless one feels that man skips the Darwinian process via magical creation, we are still animals.

    I’m unfamiliar wit Bailey or the lie detector information; sounds kind of strange. This book was written by two Doctors and from the review , seems to be substantial .

  3. Tempting as the thesis is, I will have to treat it with the scepticism I gift other scientific claims made in this area. I seem to recall that one of the authors was effusing on his blog a while back about one of Dr Bailey’s sex-lie detector test fetish parties/experiments.

  4. It’s by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’ I’ve only taked to people who have read it and have it on order. I think that the thesis is just magical in affectng the way one thinks about sex and monogamy.

  5. I didn’t think to mention the wonderfully inspiring though not elaborate book “Sex at Dawn” which gives us reason to wonder about the validity of monogamy as a part of our natures. It is an examination of man’s primordial connections with his predecessor Apes vis a vis sexual behavior.

  6. @Shane: one of the difficuties of the sort of Behaviorist studies which refue to see any correlation of emotion, cognition,& feeliings between humans and other animals is simply that they generate very little useful information.
    It s not without the bounds of scientific study to anthropomorphize. Strict behaviorism is passed fdor that reason.
    Clearly there is no problem whatsoever with the observation that rats cognate the difference between male and females and generate feelings relative to gross behavior like sexual attraction.

    As Headbang suggested, helpful results are all in the interpretation and setup in the experiment, not that we assume , probably correctly that we are like other animals. You might benefit from reading the section in Martha Nussbaum’s tome”Upheavals of Thought”; she assesses most of the current paradigms in scientific thinking with animals and the successful use of well designed studies. Skinner has been dead ad gone a long time.He dominated my colleges thought with his lame notions for a long time.

  7. Shane: Yes, in a sense, the comically absurd anthropomorphism of the ‘science correspondents’ is only an exaggerated version of what some of these scientists are up to.

  8. An important thing to remember about scientific studies, is that you should alwys do more than one of them.

    Not just because the first result could be bollocks. But because the same result might be interpreted differently with a different researcher’s eye.

    Maybe the besistered rats don’t cop so many ear-wiggles, because they don’t need such a heavy hint to understand what a woman has on her mind. Maybe, a peer revieweing the data would come up with the alternative interpretation, and save ol’ Simmo the trouble of pointing it out.

    When faced with data like these, always go for the Freakanomic explanation.

  9. This is also a behavioral thing, how is it possible to know that a male rat has any understanding of what “masculine” or “feminine” or even sexy (ofcourse, they do not) is. This research is coming from a primarily human point of view, we are applying human ego to rat behavior. How do we know that the rat brain co-insides with the human brain except only by assumption and quiet bad comparison. These researchers are obviously one: male, and two: not ethologists.

  10. So glad I read your assessment of these articles, Mark — so funny! I always feel gypped (and stupid) when I get drawn in by a saucy headline.

    These researchers should spend time on a real farm, but that would probably blow their little minds. Female cows humping each other??? Oh dear — deprived of adult males, cows turn lesbo! Of course on a farm, inferior males are castrated, which honestly is something I’m not entirely against, especially amongst researchers and editors.

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