scientists can be dumb too.

Dude, people keep sending me stuff and then I feel impelled to blog about it and pretty soon all I’ll do it sit at home the whole day, eating Honey Nut Cheerios and bitching about other people’s science.

Two things about this fMRI study of waist to hip ratio.

First , there’s important evidence that a .7 WHR indicates fertility and stuff in women. There’s also good evidence that men prefer that ratio when they’re shown images of women with that WHR.

What’s NOT clear is what relationship those images have to real women’s bodies.

Suppose there are two women with the same .7 WHR but different distribution – one of them has wide hips and a flat butt, and the other woman has narrow hips and a lot of junk of the trunk, if you know what I mean. Photos taken from the front will show them having different WHRs. Flat butt might easily be judged as more attractive. But we didn’t evolve looking at photos, we evolved looking at bodies in 3 dimensional space. If men’s preferences are about WHR, then shouldn’t they both be equally attractive? Or shouldn’t the one with the genuinely wider pelvis be more attractive? In which case it’s not WHR at all but pelvis width. Which is different.

I’ve been looking for a study of WHR that uses, say, videos or even, god forbid, real live women, and I can’t find one. (If you see one, let me know.) I recognize that greater complexity in the stimuli makes it more difficult to interpret the results but dude we can’t just say “Men evolved to prefer women with .7 WHR” just because men prefer images – and often the stimuli are line drawings – of a .7 WHR.

Second – and this is the part that really pisses me off because it’s BOTH adaptationist bias AND male bias wrapped up in two nauseating sentences:

Interestingly, our findings did not demonstrate that BMI had a large effect on brain activation except in areas associated with simple visual evaluations of shape and size. This does not downplay the importance of BMI in evaluations of female attractiveness, but may suggest that BMI’s role in these evaluations is less the product of evolved psychological mechanisms and more the part of culturally driven, or societal based norms and perceptions.

I had to read this 4 times before I could believe it meant what I think it does. What a treat these guys must be to date.

(a) Um yeah I kinda think it DOES downplay the importance of BMI in evaluations of female attractiveness, if men’s brains aren’t going “Yum!” in response to it (<– this is a technical description of what the anterior cingulate cortex does). We have already established that there’s a buncha evidence that BMI has nothing to do with judgments of attractiveness, except insofar as BMI is associated with social rank, which might be because there’s not much of a relationship between BMI and health/fertility until you get to real extremes. So these researchers should be going, “Woohoo! We found something that matches on to what we know or suspect about mate value! WHR matters and BMI doesn’t!

(b) How does brain activation indicate an evolved mechanism? Last time I checked, Tinbergen’s 4 questions did not include anything about brain activity. But apparently you’re allowed to say that if something exists and is related to something to do with reproduction, it’s an adaptation. Oh.

And I’m not even gonna start on the false dichotomy of biological/social or innate/learned or nature/nurture. Aren’t we done with that yet?

So thanks for that Andrew. I’m home with a sinus infection and ought to be sleeping but instead I’m doing this.