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Neanderthal sex and lesbian albatrosses: the perils of populist science

Michael Brooks on the misinterpretation of eye-catching research.

Early human beings had sex with Neanderthals. Sex! It grabs the attention so easily, that story. So easily that even biologists believed it for a while. Now, though, they are trying to rein themselves in a bit.

This story, which first broke a couple of years ago, was based on an analysis of the Neanderthal genome. It produced some interesting facts. Some Neanderthals had ginger hair. Some were lactose-intolerant. And, most exciting of all, some of their genes live on in modern non-Europeans. The whole costly, time-consuming effort to sequence the genome had paid off. Our ancestors had sex with the Neanderthals. Sex! Sex with our evolutionary cousins! Hardly a newspaper across the world failed to carry the story.

Hardly any of them reported the small print, though. The disclaimer was that, being evolutionary cousins, our two species share a common ancestor, and so they could have common genes for that terribly dull reason. Now a paper published by the US National Academy of Sciences has poured further cold water on the sex-between-species hypothesis. Its analysis of the genetics says there is no evidence that the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe, were seduced by the early human beings who moved out of North Africa. The scandal is off.

Yet there is hope (and let’s face it, we want it to be true). New technology can tell us how recently a gene evolved. It turns out that the shared genes almost certainly emerged after the Neanderthals first came on to the scene. They cannot be from a common ancestor. The research hasn’t been published yet, so a little caution would be becoming, but it seems we can soon get back to being the result of humans and Neanderthals having sex. Sex!

We do like stories about sex. Ideally, they will be about illicit practices or deviations from whatever constitutes the norm. Hence the success of the Fifty Shades series. Hence the success of certain newspapers (“Five Times A Night!”). It gives us a context in which we can gauge our own contribution.

We could wring our hands about our unreconstructed nature but sex is at the centre of human thought, and always has been. Some of the earliest cave art has erotic themes. We didn’t get where we are without genetic programming that makes us value eating, drinking and having sex.

Add to that our inbuilt compulsion to tell stories and draw lessons from them, and you have a heady mix. When science investigates matters of sex, the discoveries don’t belong to science for long. From female fruit bats that perform fellatio on their partners to same-sex couplings in the Laysan albatross, science’s discoveries are powerful. That is because we can bend the scientific facts to our own ends.

Cheap tricks

The Sunday Times once heralded a study of sheep neurobiology as something that “could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans”. New Scientist has occasionally gone for reader entrapment, writing up a paper titled Female-Limited Polymorphism in the Copulatory Organ of a Traumatically Inseminating Insect as “Bat bugs turn transsexual to avoid stabbing penises”. It’s a cheap trick, but it gets a click.

Those two examples are not chosen at random – they come from a paper published in Nature this month. In it, two biologists offer cautionary advice to scientists researching sexual behaviour in the animal kingdom: if you talk to journalists in terms that might remotely be applied to human beings, be sure that that is how they will be applied. There’s no such thing as a lesbian albatross, but when you pit science against sex there can be only one winner. Sex!

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide