Space Elephants (Part 1)

It seems ironic to be writing once more on the subject of misrepresentation and lie mongering by the media, especially so as it is Stephen Fry who is the latest high profile person to fall victim, and it was Stephen Fry who championed this blog for exposing media irresponsibility. Well, I’m sorry for Stephen Fry that the media has again behaved like a self-serving whore, and I’m pleased that things seem to have improved quickly for him.
As you will no doubt know, the scandal arose over a magazine interview that quoted Stephen Fry as thinking that women don’t enjoy sex as evidenced by their not going to parks looking for it. As soon as I saw this I thought the latter part correct, from a biological standpoint, and the former likely a construct by a misunderstanding hack.
The sensible strategy from the evolutionary biology of humans is for men to scatter their seed as far and wide as possible by inseminating the maximum number of mates, while women need to be more cautious as they are ultimately left with the baby, and so they are on the look out for reproductive partners. The thing to note is the difference between a mate and a partner. Once measures of sexual selection have been satisfied, facial symmetry, physique, etc., the women is also looking for someone with which to share childcare responsibilities. Bottom line is that men cottaging in public toilets or on the heath are not doing so in order to advertise their capacity for parental investment. That’s the female imperative, and I believe also the intellectual message that Stephen Fry was attempting to convey.
Furthermore, men who have park sex are arguably either there for the thrill, or they are unable to find sexual partners in other, more socially acceptable ways. Perhaps women would consider both the behavioural consequences of an unattractive genome, whereas men do not have to take that into account when all they want is to get their rocks off.
In summary, I do not know the details and cannot conclude whether or not Stephen Fry was misquoted as he claims. However, the point that it seems he was trying to make, about women prioritising parental investment and so not tending towards sexual promiscuity, is consistent with a general understanding of human reproductive biology and, as a concept, has been well documented in both the mainstream literature and in many popular science books.
That’s not to say that Stephen Fry or anyone else preaching this simplistic view is entirely correct. Of course as with much that is human related, our sexual behaviour is complex too, not least since the introduction of reliable birth control. However, on face value, and as far as consistency of professional behaviour goes, the media has a lot more ground to make up than Stephen Fry. So, even though things seem to have blown over somewhat, I do hope the hacks involved sleep less well at night, knowing that they have yet again, even temporarily, tarnished someone’s reputation through their falsehoods.
As they used to say, today’s news is tomorrow’s chip wrapper.
Before forgetting the incident, one noteworthy claim deserving closer inspection that Stephen Fry makes in his rebuttal suggests that it is the media themselves that perpetuate his place in the limelight, so that every comment he makes is taken as some sort of oracular opinion.
Indeed, you don’t have to look far to notice evidence for this. For example, from this very worrying, very anti-democratic, very day, within an hour of Stephen Fry tweeting his first on Paul Chamber’s #twitterjoketrial appeal, the Guardian runs with:

Well, yes, Stephen Fry did repeat his generous offer to cover Paul Chambers’ fine, and while no doubt a welcome show of support, it was in no way providing leadership, and it was a single tweet, late in the day, after the verdict had been passed, while all day long everyone else was getting #twitterjoketrial trending globally.
Why do the papers do this? It must simply be to sell copy, or the advertising with which it has become festooned. But that does beg the question, when did the news become not enough After all, it was an article about the Twitter Joke Trial, so why the mugshot of Stephen Fry in any case? Why not Paul Chambers, or a shot of the legal team outside the court?
It’s clearly a cheap trick for the media and one that they consider a better qualification of newsworthiness, if they can get a news item fixed onto even the most flimsy celebrity peg. Plus, a stock photo of a celebrity that they have already paid for is cheaper than sending out a photographer and reporter to actually cover the story. As Stephen Fry says, it’s the media that perpetuate his profile, and while that certainly seems true, it also reveals a worrying motivation in the media that stretches beyond daily news and into our area of interest as part of this blog, namely science journalism.
As with the “Stephen Fry says women don’t enjoy sex” folly, sex sells. And if you can’t lever sex into the story, then look for something equally ‘newsworthy’. Over the last decade, climate change has been the sexy subject in science. It’s meteorology with it’s tits out.
And that’s where we will go with Part 2 of this post
ADDENDUM: The Independent has an article arguing much the same scientific background to Stephen Fry’s comments.

 

About JFDerry

Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
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3 Responses to Space Elephants (Part 1)

  1. I understand the biological argument here but humans have been around for a long time now and in many aspects, especially sex maybe we overcome biology all the time.

    I think it is simplistic and fatalistic to say men enjoy sex in parks for ‘biological’ reasons.

    why are there more women whores? Is that because men biologically need more sex? But the whores are having sex with those men. that is a socio-economic issue.

    I think men do have more sex than women and do feel more driven by their perceived need for sex but i think social not a biological factors that are more interesting in understanding this.

  2. Pingback: Lies, Lies, Lies | OSQUALITUDE

  3. JFDerry says:

    I agree that humans do overcome biology all the time, disconnecting ourselves from evolutionary pressures via environmental buffers. With regards sex, I do give the obvious example of birth control. I do not however claim men enjoy sex in parks for biological reasons, but rather that there is a valid evolutionary reason that women do not go looking for sex in parks.

    Prostitution is complex and you are right to bring it up. I would suggest that it bears little relation to sex drive in women, but more to do with making a living, itself a Darwinian adaptation if it results in increased chances to mate. There is the irony: prostitutes are not selecting their “tricks” as reproductive partners. Again, they know that there is no chance of parental investment and that the other will not be around to care for the offspring.

    You are also right that there are complex interactions between social and biological factors. The difficulty is in identifying what is an evolutionary product and what is independent of evolution. Reductionism is often the tool of choice, especially amongst gene-oriented biologists and evolutionary psychologists. However, they have their candid critics, for example, Richard Lewontin.

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