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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?

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.