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    The Olfactory Effect of Bad Science
    By Gerhard Adam | December 30th 2012 07:44 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    More questionable science abounds in a recent article ["Female Mammals Follow Their Noses to the Right Mates"] regarding mammal mating habits.  Although the original paper was published in 2009, it hasn't improved with age.

    One of the more telling problems occurs with the following quote:
    Since the dominant males often chase away other males, it's hard to tell if females are choosing to mate with certain males, or are merely mating with them by default.

    "The most convincing evidence for female mate choice in mammals comes from studies of captive mammals …carried out under controlled conditions where the effects of male competition can be excluded …," Clutton-Brock and McAuliffe write.
    http://www.science20.com/news_releases/female_mammals_follow_their_noses_right_mates-48085
    So apparently if studying an animal is difficult, it's OK to use a completely artificial, contrived environment from which to draw conclusions.  Would we consider such conditions as providing any insight in how human females choose males, if we eliminated all male competition [and the various forms such competition can take] and only focused on the choices that females might make while imprisoned?

    It's no different with humans by suggesting that females choose males based on visual cues.  I expect that many women find Brad Pitt attractive, and undoubtedly, given the chance many females might even choose to mate with him.  However, that tells us nothing about how females choose mates in the real world.

    Personally, I have a mare that would just as readily mate with her own son, if left to her own devices, just as other mares readily display for geldings.  Similarly, introducing a strange bull among a herd of cows will guarantee pregnant cows.  Is this a matter of their choice, or opportunity, or do they not particularly care?  Regardless of what olfactory information may be available, it isn't some biological equivalence to "match.com" in making these choices.  This is especially true, when most mammal matings may be strictly opportunistic and temporary.

    Additionally, an most obvious problem is that mammal behaviors are diverse depending on whether these are social animals, or animals living in isolation;  predatory or prey animals.  Yet, we find a singular view being presented as if any findings would be broadly applicable to mammals, in general.


    Even though we recognize that olfactory senses are extremely important in many mammal species, it should certainly come as no surprise if it plays a role in female mate selection, yet because of its importance, it is also virtually impossible to isolate such a finding sufficiently to exclude all the other factors [including male competition] from this role.

    Overall, these studies that simply restate the obvious are a waste of time.  Newton explained the obvious [i.e. objects falling to the ground] by providing an explanation as to WHY this occurs.  There weren't dozens of papers and studies that supported the idea of objects falling to the ground.  Similarly in biology, if there is no explanation as to WHY something occurs, then simply stating that it does contributes little or nothing to our understanding of the biological realm (1).

    This is further exacerbated when it is clear that the researchers can't even be bothered to examine the myths that they continue to perpetrate despite evidence to the contrary [i.e. the peacock's tail] (2).
    ------------------------------------------------------------------

    (1) The notable exception being when the behavior or phenomenon is being assessed as to how widespread it actually is. 

    (2) 
    The classic case is the peacock's tail. The ornate tails do nothing to help peacocks survive. Rather, they emerged because peahens prefer to mate with males that have showy plumage.

    [I]t is possible that in some mammals, males produce olfactory signals that match the elaboration and complexity of the peacock's tail … or the sedge warbler's song …," Clutton-Brock and McAuliffe write.
    Apparently the authors haven't actually kept up with the research on this topic.
    A seven-year study of feral Indian peahens and peacocks in Japan [by Mariko Takahashi et al.] titled “Peahens Do Not Prefer Peacocks with More Elaborate Tails” notes that these peahens disregard plumage in making their mating choices.
    http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-peacock-problem-by-long/

    We found no evidence that peahens expressed any preference for peacocks with more elaborate trains ...

    ...we conclude that peahens in this population are likely to exercise active choice based on cues other than the peacock's train.
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347207005301

    Comments

    vongehr
    use a completely artificial, contrived environment from which to draw conclusions.
    To study systems in controlled environments to find clues about how they function in complex reality is called science.  Brain science is not invalidated by that it mostly draws from injured brains and highly controlled experiments.  It is not thereby only applicable to injured brains in controlled environments.
    Gerhard Adam
    I would agree, if this were actually a controlled environment.  However, creating an artificial environment simply because it provides control is not science.  

    If control is desired, then it would make sense [especially in the case of rodent experiments] to view mating behaviors and any attendant changes if olfactory sense are dampened or eliminated versus normal behaviors within that same context.  However, to eliminate something as fundamental as male competition is simply contrived and can tell us nothing about mating choices. 

    Imagine if we did the same thing with humans.  Let a female only choose based on a photograph, so that she has no knowledge as to the individual's intelligence, personality, financial status, etc. [all elements that could be construed as male competition].  What useful bit of information would emerge from such a contrived study, besides the obvious result, that in the absence of other information we are attracted to good-looking individuals?

    I have no problem with controls, but that would be like trying to determine the behavior of wolves while studying dogs, because they're more readily controlled, or by studying domesticated horses because they're easier to deal with than wild mustangs.  I understand the need to control variables, but it must be done in as realistic an environment as possible if one is to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.  Since the objective here is behavioral and not merely chemical or physical, then careless use of controls will simply invalidate the results.

    Even if the results were 100% substantiated, it would be meaningless, since male competition is part of the normal environment.  What's the point is arguing about female selection under contrived circumstances if those circumstances don't actually exist in the natural world?
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    Let a female only choose based on a photograph, so that she has no knowledge as to the individual's intelligence, personality, financial status, etc. [all elements that could be construed as male competition].  What useful bit of information would emerge from such a contrived study, besides the obvious result, that in the absence of other information we are attracted to good-looking individuals?
    Has been done and tells us about what "good looking" means, i.e. how the visual appearance is functional to communicate status etc.
    must be done in as realistic an environment as possible if one is to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.  Since the objective here is behavioral and not merely chemical or physical, then careless use of controls will simply invalidate the results.
    You have a romantic view on reality, and behavior being something fundamentally different from physics.  I consciously made my first remark include that brain sciences for example got kick started by looking at brain injuries.  Hardly a good example for 'well controlled and as close to natural as possible in order to draw any conclusions at all'.
    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps I do, but I don't believe that behavior is fundamentally different from physics, if one actually has a hypothesis to test.  I didn't see anything like that in this study.  It's not a problem if someone has a hypothesis about any particular molecule being a trigger for some behavior.  It's not a problem if someone wants to relate brain chemicals being related to a particular olfactory input and how it might relate to a female becoming more sexually receptive.  However, merely suggesting that females smell some scent from males and that appears to have some sort of selection result, assuming that we don't actually have any confounding variables .... sorry, but I'm less than excited.

    Similarly, looking at brain injuries, is quite informative, since we can observe specific changes in the individual and what various differences in the brain produce in terms of behaviors.  It is hardly conclusive, but it does provide a basis for beginning to recognize some of the issues.  Most specifically, it is one of the key elements in demonstrating that there is no mind/body duality.  However, even such studies have their limits, until we can put them within the context of specific hypothesis; again, something that was missing in this study.

    In short, what is the new piece of information?  Is it a surprise that mammals depend on smell for much of their information?  Is it a surprise that female "selection" or receptivity is dependent on the available males, including those that may be competing?  In other words, what is the tantalizing piece of information that this study provided that would motivate further research and interest?

    More importantly, how relevant are rodent mating studies to mammals in general as implied by the study?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    Great article, Gerhard!

    So many of these kind of studies are just bullschlacke, excuse my fake-German! :-)

    It isn't science. Period.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth