So MSNBC is currently running the following, terrifying headline:
The Pill makes women pick bad mates
Oh dear. What do they mean? Does The Pill cause women to seek out narcissistic jerks? Emotional wrecks? Abusers? Fans of Two and a Half Men?
While several factors can send a woman swooning, including big brains and brawn, body odor can be critical in the final decision, the researchers say. That’s because beneath a woman’s flowery fragrance or a guy’s musk the body sends out aromatic molecules that indicate genetic compatibility.
Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes are involved in immune response and other functions, and the best mates are those that have different MHC smells than you. The new study reveals, however, that when women are on the pill they prefer guys with matching MHC odors.
Um…okay. See, that’s not really that high on the potential disaster mate scenario. For one thing, the MHC/odor linkage thing is still speculative. For another, we live in a modern society, with ready access to health care1. But most important, the just-so story given for why a woman would magically find men unattractive off the pill that they found attractive on the pill doesn’t make any damn sense:
Based on the work by Claus Wedekind, a University of Lausanne researcher who preformed similar studies in the 1990s, Roberts suggests a likely reason for the pill’s effect on a woman’s odor preferences. The pill puts a woman’s body into a hormonally pregnant state (the reason she doesn’t ovulate), and during that time there would be no reason to seek out a mate.
“When women are pregnant there’s no selection pressure, evolutionarily speaking, for having a preference for genetically dissimilar odors,” Roberts said. “And if there is any pressure at all it would be towards relatives, who would be more genetically similar, because the relatives would help those individuals rear the baby.”
Well…no, except that humans have practiced pair-bonding for a long, long time. And while that pair-bonding has been far from the eternal, indestructible bond that conservatives like to claim, there’s no question that part of the reason that pair-bonding developed is that it brings both men and women into the process of caring for offspring, and — this is important — caring for their partners during times when they need care, like, say, during pregnancy.2 Yes, it may stun the zero of you who don’t realize it, but while men are in a support role during pregnancy, we are, well, in a support role during pregnancy. We’re around to help our partners through the nine months of suck that pregnancy can be.
In short, it doesn’t make any sense that a woman would conceive a child with a man, then reject him during pregnancy, only to want him back after birth. At least not if one takes into account the history of humanity. Of course, if the results had been different, no doubt we’d make up a just-so story that told us why women really sought out people with different scents during pregnancy because it deepens relationships with their partner. It would be just as specious and just as worthless.
No, the fact is that women and men are attracted to each other for reasons far deeper than scent. And there is far more to determining what a “good mate” is than knowing the scent of a man or woman. But that’s the problem with EvPsych these days; instead of illuminating human relationships, it seems far to involved with explaining why women and men are too different to ever understand each other, and locked in by evolution to gender-specific roles, roles that put a good smell ahead of a good mind, a good heart, or a good soul in making a good relationship.
- Except in America. [↩]
- Of course, pair-bonding is not all about raising children, but it’s part of the reason the behavior developed. [↩]