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.

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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