Sex and the Single Sperm

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"Some people are very resistant to this research," Goetz says, anticipating criticism, as he pulls up a PowerPoint slide illustrating an evolutionary tree of life representing all of the species on Earth. He points to a small label that reads "You are here" to make the point that evolution has shaped people just as much as it has shaped every other living creature. "If you still have doubts, I suggest that you read the literature."

Shackelford later makes the same point, saying that critics of his ideas simply don't like to admit that humans are subject to the same kind of instinctual, biological determinism that shapes the lives of other animals. Evolutionary psychologists believe that millions of years of evolution not only gave us big brains and an upright walk but also behaviors that adapted us to life in the wild. Today, living in societies and no longer on an African savanna, we are still influenced by those instinctual behaviors. Or so goes the theory.

For example, the pressures of natural selection may have favored men who rape their potentially straying mates. This has become the centerpiece of their work together: Shackelford and Goetz believe that a man is hard-wired in his brain to fuck his wife harder or even force her to have sex against her will if there's a chance that another man's sperm is inside her, on its way to creating a child.

"It is what it is," Shackelford says. "The data are the data. We propose an hypothesis, we collect the data, and we make tentative conclusions. That's good science, that's good practice. We've got big-time publishers publishing our books now. It's not just me and Aaron, off in never-never world. We've got peer-reviewed publications, dozens of them, in first-class journals."

But there is at least one critic in the room today. A man wonders if they're misreading their data. Could women resist their partners simply because they've already been satisfied by a third party?

When Goetz answers with a string of jargon and something called "resistance/persistence theory," a female psychology professor, Erika Hoff, chimes in with a wry laugh.

A woman refusing to have sex with her mate? "It couldn't possibly have anything to do with him," she chuckles.

Both Shackelford and Goetz were aware that applying evolutionary theory to modern human psychology was bound to ruffle feathers. But they aren't the only ones doing so at FAU. The Boca Raton-based state university has become a hothouse for the field, and earlier this year, New Times profiled one of Shackelford's colleagues, David Bjorklund, who is pursuing his own experiments in an effort to prove that the concept of God is a figment of the imagination and a byproduct of evolution ("The God Fossil," March 9).

It was that openness to radical ideas, Shackelford and Goetz both say, that lured them to the school.

"I definitely appreciate pushing the envelope and making people, including myself, uncomfortable," Shackelford says. "I thrive on it. And I enjoy the controversy."

Shackelford found his controversial calling when he was a teenager in the Bible Belt. When he opened his textbook in biology class at his very Catholic high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he knew he was meant for Darwin.

"I swear to you, the stuff on evolution was blacked out," he remembers, sitting in his small, windowless office in the FAU psychology department. "And I was like: That's what I want to study. I loved the ideas, because they were sort of 'wrong. '"

As an undergraduate, he attended the University of New Mexico, the academic home of several evolutionary psychology luminaries. "I didn't know it," Shackelford says, "but I was at the center of evolutionary studies."

While reading The Origin of Species in an honors psychology class, Shackelford asked unwelcome questions about how natural selection applied to humans. The professor, an avowed creationist, referred Shackelford to the evolutionary psychologists. "He didn't seem happy about applying Darwinian thinking to humans," Shackelford says. "But I loved thinking about things that I wasn't supposed to be thinking about."

By the time he'd finished his doctorate at the University of Texas in 1997, Shackelford was bucking against the very edges of the discipline itself. After blanketing universities across the country with applications, he found himself interviewing at only three — an absurdly small number for a qualified young scientist. Two of the interviews were unpleasant. The third was at FAU.

"Perhaps we are a little more open-minded," Bjorklund says about Shackelford's almost universal rejection from prestigious American universities. "He was selling himself as a social psychologist from an evolutionary perspective. It reflects the state of the field ten years ago, when EP was still a novelty and there were very few people who would call themselves evolutionary psychologists getting a foothold in academia."

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Julia Reischel