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Ihsan Ahmad As Saker, the victim. Killed for leaving Islam

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The truth about the way ducks mate is terrifying

ON THE Venn diagram of strange animal mating behaviours — from lobster golden showers to garter-snake orgies — duck sex is on the border between cartoonish and sadistic.

That’s right, our beloved mallards engage in some seriously disturbing mating behaviour.

The “dark side” of duck mating has its own chapter in the new book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us by Yale ornithology professor Richard O. Prum.

It’s a controversial subject, earning notoriety in 2013 after news leaked that the American government contributed $US400,000 to study the mating habits of ducks — dubbed “duckpenisgate” by Mother Jones.

But Prof Prum, recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant”, believes that understanding duck sex might better help us understand evolution. And it all begins with the duck penis.

Ducks, for one, are outliers within the avian population. Unlike 97 per cent of birds, ducks have penises — super-long ones.

They are among the best endowed (in terms of ratio of body to member) of all vertebrates. For example, the one-pound, foot-long Argentinian lake duck has the longest of all with a member that is four inches longer than its body.

Duck penises regrow every mating season. Once the season ends, the penis begins to shrink and regress until it’s 10 per cent of its full-grown size. They are stored inside the duck’s body, waiting to emerge only during copulation.

“The process generally resembles a cross between using your arm to evert a sweater sleeve that is inside out and unfurling the soft, motorised roof of a convertible sports car with a hydraulic drive,” writes Prof Prum.

And it only gets weirder.

The duck penis is not straight, but spirals counterclockwise (!) from its base to its tip. The Muscovy duck penis completes six to 10 full twists over its 20cm length.

“Like a selection of sex toys from a vending machine in a strange alien bar,” writes Prof Prum, “duck penises come in ribbed, ridged and even toothy varieties” to hook into a female’s reproductive tract, which is as long and convoluted as the penis.

Female reproductive tracts are full of twists and turns or, as Prof Prum puts it, “dead-end side pockets or cul-de-sacs,” and some spiral clockwise in the “opposite direction of the counterclockwise spiralling duck penis.”

Here’s where evolutionary biology and mate selection comes in — and where the story gets dark.

Many duck species skew male, meaning females can be pickier in their choice of mate.

For a male duck to land a female, he must boast colourful plumage plus have an elaborate dance mating ritual and beautiful mating calls. In other words, he needs to be a beauty, plus a great singer and dancer.

Most males don’t measure up. So what’s a mediocre guy to do?

Forced copulations are “pervasively common in many species of ducks,” writes Prof Prum.

These are socially organised “gang rapes” that are “violent, ugly, dangerous and even deadly” and even sometimes end in the death of the female.

This represents a “selfish male evolutionary strategy that is at odds with the evolutionary interests of its female victims and possibly with the evolutionary interests of the entire species,” Prof Prum writes.

To spread their seed, these ducks are upsetting the natural order of selection.

But the females have mounted their own counter-defence with an increasingly elaborate anatomy — including, in some cases, sharp turns in her reproductive canal that act almost as teeth, making it harder for ducks to inseminate during forced copulations.

“Male ducks had evolved penises that would enable them to force their way into an unwilling female’s vagina, and the females in turn had evolved a new way — an anatomical mechanism — to counter the action of the explosive corkscrew erections of male ducks and prevent the males from fertilising their eggs by force,” writes Prof Plum.

This helps explain why duck vaginas are so elaborate and why duck penises have evolved to keep up — a kind of sexual evolution arms race called antagonistic coevolution.

It’s pretty depressing to know how those ducklings are made. But it’s not all bad, Prof Prum adds. Some ducks and most birds have called off the arms race and dispensed with a penis entirely — no more forced copulations, no more elaborate reproductive tracts.

Instead, female and penis-less male birds rub their cloaca (openings that house testes or ovaries) together in what’s called a “cloacal kiss” — an act that shows the power of natural selection. And how both beauty and brutality guide evolution.

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Why hasn't Japan banned child-porn comics?

It's a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo and Sunshine Creation is in full swing. Thousands of manga fans, mostly men, crowd into an exhibition centre, poring over manga comic magazines laid out for sale on trestle tables snaking around the rooms.

Posters of elfin-faced, doe-eyed cartoon heroines, many of them scantily clad and impossibly proportioned, turn the cavernous space into a riot of colour.

"This area is mainly dealing with sexual creations," explains Hide, one of the event organisers.

We stop at one table where the covers on display feature two topless girls. To my eyes they look to be in their early or pre-teens, and the stories show them engaged in explicit sexual acts.

Several other stands are selling similar material. It would certainly be considered controversial, and possibly illegal, in the UK, Australia or Canada, but here it's no big deal.

"Everyone knows that child abuse is not a good thing," Hide says. "But having that kind of emotion is free, enjoying imagining some sexual situation with a child is not prohibited."

His candour takes me by surprise. He then introduces me to the word "Lolicon", short for "Lolita complex" - the name for manga featuring young girls engaged in sexually explicit scenarios. It can involve incest, rape and other taboos, though Hide's tastes lie more with high-school romance.

"I like young-girl sexual creations, Lolicon is just one hobby of my many hobbies," he says.

I ask what his wife, standing nearby, thinks of his "hobby".

"She probably thinks no problem," he replies. "Because she loves young boys sexually interacting with each other."

Material like this is a tiny part of Japan's huge manga industry, which generates around US $3.6bn in sales annually. But it attracts a lot of attention and controversy.

In June 2014, Japan's parliament voted to ban the possession of real images of child sexual abuse. Production and distribution of these images had been illegal since 1999, but Japan was the last country in the OECD to outlaw possession.

At the time there were calls to also outlaw "virtual" sexual images - in manga, anime and games - of characters who appear to be under 18. But after much debate, Japan's parliament decided against this. The decision drew condemnation from child protection campaigners and NGOs, particularly outside Japan.

One clue to understanding it is in the fact that Hide was happily discussing his "hobby" with me only minutes after we first met. Although manga involving very young children does appear to have some social stigma attached to it, sexual material involving adolescents is a fairly mainstream interest.

Japan's legislators were apparently reluctant to put large numbers of manga fans - potentially millions - on the wrong side of the law.

Fans like Hide argue they are just enjoying harmless fantasy. No child models or actors are involved, he says, so "there is no child abuse for creating sexual topic mangas".

But is the boundary between fantasy and reality always clear?

Tokyo's Akihabara district is the spiritual home of the manga world, a place where neon signs and loud pop music overwhelm the eyes and ears. Multi-storey bookshops line the streets, selling manga on every topic under the sun.

In their adult sections, restricted to people over 18, it's not hard to find manga with titles like Junior Rape or Japanese Pre-teen Suite.

"People get sexually excited by something, then become used to it," says Tomo, who works behind the counter in one of the adult stores. "So they are always looking for something new, and get sexually excited by young, immature women."

This is what worries critics - the concern that even if no-one is harmed in the creation of sexually explicit manga, it might normalise, facilitate, or lead to an increased risk of sexual abuse.

No-one knows whether this is the case - research has been inconclusive. But many in Japan, particularly women, have a wider concern too. They see these images as part of a society that turns a blind eye to extreme pornography - often degrading to women - and the sexualisation of young people.

You don't have to look far in Japan to find a fascination with youth. Pop groups of young girls perform for crowds of adult men. And from billboards and advertisements to manga, schoolgirl imagery is everywhere.

LiLy, a popular writer of books for young women - Sex in the City, Tokyo-style, she says - told me about her school days when men would approach her and her friends and offer money for their socks or panties.

"I think that is disgusting, it's very kinky," she says. The fascination with adolescent sexuality is "all about the power that men want to achieve, men who are tired of strong independent women," she argues.

The family model of LiLy's parents' era still holds strong sway in Japan - a father who earns the money and a mother who stays at home as a housewife. But the weakness of Japan's economy has made this difficult for men to realise.

"There are people business-wise who are not successful, maybe they are running into fantasy with Lolicon manga.

"I hate it, I seriously hate it. I want Japan to kick out the kinky, just leave children out of that kinkiness, even your fantasy."

But others are sceptical about how far the government should step in to prescribe and enforce a particular vision of what's "good" or "proper", especially regarding people's fantasies.

"There's every reason to be critical, that's fine," says manga translator and free-speech advocate Dan Kanemitsu. "But when you give people the authority to police others based on what they might do or what they think, that's thought-policing."

So would he stand up for the right of creators to draw manga featuring young children and taboos like rape and incest?

"I'm not comfortable with it, but it is not my right to tell people how they think or what they want to share," he says. "As long as it doesn't infringe upon people's human rights, what's wrong with having a fantasy life?"

Among the manga shops of Akihabara, child protection campaigner Kazuna Kanajiri takes me to see something she thinks is a much bigger problem than cartoons and comics. We climb a flight of stairs off the main street and emerge into a room packed full of DVDs.

Kazuna picks one off the shelf - it features real images of a girl she says is five years old, wearing a skimpy swimsuit and posing in sexually suggestive positions that mimic adult pornography. All the other DVDs in the shop also feature real children.

"I feel sorry for the children," Kanajiri tells me.

These so-called "Junior Idol" DVDs became popular after the production of child pornography was outlawed in 1999. They dodged the law as long as the children's genitals were covered, but Kanajiri argues they're now illegal after the law was strengthened last June.

"People who exploit should be punished properly," she says. "It's completely illegal under the law, but the police haven't cracked down."

While some of the content in manga and anime featuring minors in sexual situations might be shocking and attention-grabbing, Kanajiri and other campaigners I spoke to told me that for now, they are focused on more important battles to protect real children.

But she tells me she hasn't given up hope of a ban on contentious manga and anime.

"I want to make it disappear," she says. "By 2020, when the Summer Olympics will take place in Japan, we have to turn Japan into a country which people don't call a perverted culture."

It's a description which supporters of manga strongly reject. But as the Olympics approach, outside eyes will turn to Japan, exerting a powerful pressure for manga and anime to be part of what people see as "cool Japan" rather than "weird Japan".

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It is the secret dream of every Swedish or German woman to marry a black men, or at least have sex with a black man. Every smart young African man should migrate to Europe. Free money, nice house, good sex!

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An ornithologist argues for the evolution of beauty for beauty’s sake

Imagine a world created by the quest for beauty, filled with colorful dancing and governed by the principle of autonomous sexual freedom. To access this world, according to Richard Prum, you need only take a stroll outside and watch the avian rites of spring. The Evolution of Beauty represents the culmination of decades of Prum’s careful research on birds—he is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University—including the evolution of feathers, courtship patterns, and social behavior.

Prum argues that evolutionary biologists, especially those who spend their time with mammals, have fundamentally underestimated the importance of female choice as a cause of beauty in the natural world. Throughout the book, he interweaves biological details with accounts of watching birds as a young man, field experiences, and even conversations with friends. The result reads like a memoir, argues like a manifesto, and shines with his passion for all things ornithological.

For decades, biologists have largely agreed that Darwin’s theory of mate choice works because females prefer to pair with colorful, athletic partners. Beauty, they maintained, acts as a proxy measure of evolutionary fitness; the more colorful the male’s plumage, the more resources are available on his territory, or perhaps he carries fewer parasites on his body. In other words, physiologically expensive courtship displays provide “honest” signals of a male’s quality. That they are also beautiful is beside the point.

Prum disagrees with this line of reasoning. He wants to return sexual selection theory to its roots. Prum follows Darwin’s explication in The Descent of Man (1), arguing that the spectacular courtship displays of birds such as manakins and bowerbirds cannot be explained by natural selection but rather evolved for the sake of their beauty alone—that is, beauty as perceived by the desires of females in the species.

Prum sees mate choice, and the beauty it has created, as an important—even central—mechanism of evolutionary change at almost every stage of bird evolution. For example, he suggests that the planar structure of bird feathers may have evolved to display patterned colors and was secondarily co-opted for flight. Early feathers in the evolutionary record were downy, like those of young chicks, he notes. Although they likely came in many shades, the patterned colors found in modern birds are made possible by the two-dimensional flatness of their feathers, a feature that later facilitated flight. Because the only dinosaurs to survive the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event were those that could fly, from Prum’s perspective, this aesthetic innovation ultimately enabled their survival.

He argues, too, that female mating preferences for increased sexual autonomy were likely behind the loss of penises early in bird diversification and contributed to the origins of lekking behavior, in which a group of males compete for the attention of prospective partners. (Ducks, notoriously brutish and baroquely endowed, serve to prove his point and provide surprisingly successful fodder for dinner party repartee.)

Prum devotes the final third of the book to the evolution of sexuality in humans. Although it would be tempting to attend to differences between men and women, Prum argues that to understand our own nature, we would be better served by comparing ourselves with our ancestors and simian relatives. From this angle, human males are far less sexually aggressive than we should expect.

In comparison with male chimpanzees, human men have relatively smaller testicles, longer sex, dramatically reduced canine teeth, decreased rates of infanticide, and higher rates of homosexual interactions. These physiological and behavioral changes, Prum contends, might result from selection for female sexual autonomy and pleasure similar to that seen in birds. He hopes that other biologists will incorporate sexual selection for beauty into their own research programs on the mating (or more accurately, remating) preferences of humans.

In broad prospect, Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty argues that the aesthetic agency of individual animals lies at the heart of evolution and, over time, has created strong selection for female pleasure and desire. This represents a substantial shift from the economic metaphors of evolutionary theory that have dominated decades of evolutionary thought, in which female choice represented a mechanism devoid of desire, cold rationality without aesthetics or, indeed, true choice.

Most of all, Prum aims to reinsert idiosyncratic desires into scientific understandings of the evolution of beauty. This is not just an intellectual reformulation of biological theories of mate choice; he believes it could allow evolutionary theory to break, finally, with eugenically derived conceptions of “fitness.”

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