Sex and the Underworld
Last week my wife and I watched the movie “Woman of the
Year” with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. According to
a segment on the following day’s Sunday Morning TV show, it
was during the filming of that movie that Kate and Spence began
their celebrated love affair. In one scene in the movie, Tracy
walks out of Hepburn’s apartment even though it was apparent
that he could well have gone much further than the romantic
kissing that preceded his departure. He explains to her the next
day that she was the only woman in the world that he would walk
out on in that situation, that he was in love with her and wouldn’t
take advantage of her.
This modest behavior contrasts sharply with today’s films in
which couples hop in bed together at the drop of a hat. (By the
way, whatever happened to men’s hats?) This talk of sex
provides a segue into the work of Satoshi Kanazawa, who claims
a relationship between sex and the productivity of scientific
geniuses. Brian Trumbore called my attention to Satoshi’s work,
cited in an article “Secret of Genius is Sexual Chemistry” by
Mark Henderson on the Web site timesonline.co.uk.
Kanazawa is not the first to note that outstanding scientists tend
to make their seminal contributions when they’re young. For
example, Albert Einstein is quoted as writing “A person who has
not made his great contribution before the age of 30 will never
do so.” Kanazawa, a psychologist at New Zealand’s University
of Canterbury, examined the biographies of some 280 scientific
luminaries, a predominantly male group. He found that 65
percent of the scientists had made their biggest discoveries
before their mid-thirties.
Kanazawa also looked at the lives of criminals and, disturbingly,
draws a connection between their unlawful careers and the more
laudable careers of the scientists. He finds that both criminals
and scientific geniuses are most prolific in their youth, with the
criminals tending to become more savory characters as they age.
Testosterone is, in his opinion, the driving force in both cases.
Henderson quotes Kanazawa as putting it quite bluntly, “They do
whatever they do to get laid.” Of course, I was shocked to read
such a coarse view of scientific productivity linked to criminal
behavior, much less to sex. On the other hand, I have to admit
that in the last few years there has been a spate of books or
articles about the romantic liaisons of Einstein himself.
Kanazawa proposes that marriage is a cause of reduced scientific
productivity and of reduced criminal activity. In his view, after a
few years of marriage the male is more oriented to looking out
for his family, while his testosterone level is falling as well.
Male criminals tend to switch to more socially acceptable careers
after marriage. Kanazawa credits higher testosterone levels in
the young as spurring risk-taking and creativity.
I couldn’t help thinking about my own scientific career. I got
married at the tender age of 23, less than a year out of graduate
school. If Kanazawa is correct, doesn’t that mean that I had
already foreclosed any chance of doing work that would merit
the Nobel Prize? In fact, I don’t really recall ever reaching a
peak of scientific productivity. I just plodded along doing work
that, in my opinion, was reasonably good but certainly never
approached superstar status.
Frankly, I’m a bit dubious that the main motivation of young
scientific geniuses is “to get laid.” Criminals – perhaps.
However, the drive to experience close encounters with the
opposite sex is a powerful one in the animal kingdom. We’ve all
seen examples of the battles among dominant males and aspiring
young males for the right to mate with the compliant females.
Those multipronged elk or those huge gorillas are often seen
battling in nature programs on TV. But what about the dung
beetle and the sex life of the underachiever? In the July 2003
issue of the Smithsonian magazine, there’s an article by Richard
Conniff titled “Close Encounters of the Sneaky Kind”.
Conniff’s article deals with the fact that while all the attention is
focused on those dominant males fighting it out to get the gal(s),
there’s more going on than meets the eye. He discusses the case
of a dung beetle species in Panama that really goes ape over
monkey “flop”. For those unfamiliar with the term flop, it’s just
another word for scat, which we discussed at length not too long
ago. At any rate, when the howler monkey drops his flop, this
big male dung beetle is all over it in less than a minute. This big
guy, with a very prominent horn, of use for head butting and
overall sexual attractiveness, stands watch over the flop.
Under the flop, there’s the big guy’s intended, a female who is
supposed to be preparing meals for the big guy’s offspring that
result after the two get together. What the big guy doesn’t know
is that, while he’s guarding the flop, his spouse is having an
affair down there in the tunnel. And it’s not with another
impressive macho male beetle, but with a runty type who barely
even has a hint of a horn. A fellow named Douglas Emlen,
currently a biologist at the University of Montana, exposed the
doings of these runty “sneakers”. Some years ago, Emlen was
graduate student working at a Smithsonian facility in Panama
when he decided to look at what goes down in those dung beetle
By constructing an enclosure similar to an ant farm with its glass
window, he could observe the behavior of these sneaker beetles.
What he found was that Sneaky uses one of two approaches. If
he catches the big guy looking the other way, Sneaky just darts
into the tunnel unobserved. The alternative is simply to start
digging a tunnel far enough away from the big guy to escape any
suspicion that hanky panky is under way. Sneaky then makes an
underground turn towards the main tunnel and consummates the
affair with the big guy’s wife. Actually, the big guy seems to have a number of wives.
Emlen found that Sneaky is a truly sexy guy and, after bidding
adieu to the big guy’s wife, he tunnels into perhaps a half dozen
other nearby underground lairs harboring females willing to
cheat on the big guy. But the big guy isn’t totally oblivious to
what might be going on underneath him. Every so often he peers
in to make sure that all is well. If he catches a sneaker, he throws
him out and then quickly mates with the offending female to try
to displace the sneaker’s sperm.
It turns out that this type of behavior is not unusual and occurs in
species ranging from insects to those antler-bearing animals.
Some lesser males even mimic the acts of entertainers such as
Dame Edna or Harvey Firestein, currently appearing in the
Broadway hit “Hairspray”. We’re talking cross-dressing here.
Biologist Mart Gross of the University of Toronto studies such
behavior in fish such as the bluegill sunfish. Some of the
unconventional males actually adopt the striping and darker eyes
typical of the female sunfish. They even go so far as to
somehow achieve higher levels of a female hormone.
These female impersonators swim around the habitat of the
macho male sunfish and are often invited into the nesting area by
the macho. Once in the nest, the sneaky male dips down and
turns on his side, pretending to be releasing eggs for the macho
to fertilize. Actually, what the cross-dresser is doing is releasing
his own sperm on the eggs of the true female sunfish. Cross-
dressing of some sort is common in other species as well.
I’m wondering if all this sneaky behavior doesn’t account for the
fact that, after eons of evolution, most populations of various
animal species are not composed not only of big macho types but
also of meeker, smaller ones. One would think that if the big guy
always gets the female, after many generations there would be
few little guys around. It’s been my observation that, in our own
species, there are more relatively ordinary guys than there are big
handsome hulks. Who are the real winners in the game of
romance? As Conniff concludes, the best protection the little
guys have is the fact that the big guys tend to dismiss the them as
being harmless and not worth their attention. Hey, the meek
shall inherit the earth?
Allen F. Bortrum