Apparently the brain is not the only organ that’s somewhat larger in human beings than in other apes. I knew when I saw a press release from PNAS announcing a new study on penis size and female preference that this research would get some attention.
Speculation goes back at least to Jared Diamond’s early book, Why Sex is Fun, in which he ponders why the human member is bigger than necessary to do its job.
Biologist Brian Mautz decided it was finally time to investigate, suspecting that it had something to do with sexual selection driven by female preference. So he exposed Australian female subjects to computerized images of male figures, varying in height, body shape and penis size. They found bigger was more attractive, though there was a point of diminishing returns, and body shape was a more important factor.
The most interesting and well-executed story I saw was this one by Rachel Ehrenberg in Science News. She included all kinds of interesting information about genital evolution in ducks and other species. The story really needed this kind of context. I did laugh at the way she phrased this line:
The handful of studies that have examined whether penis length in Homo sapiens affects attractiveness have looked at penis size alone, rather than size as part of a package of traits.
National Geographic’s Christine Dell’Amore wrote this online story headlined: Women prefer bigger penises, may have shaped evolution.
It wasn’t entirely clear whether the women or the penises shaped evolution.
The story included an outside source broaching a subject some have dubbed, “growers vs. showers.”
But evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, Jr. said in an email that there are some limitations to the team's theory that female choice played a role in penis evolution.
For one, previous studies have shown that "the flaccid human penis is an imperfect indicator of the size of the erect penis," said Gallup, of the State University of New York at Albany, who was not involved in the study.
The researchers claimed their figures were supposed to represent men in the flaccid state, perhaps reflective of some imagined pre-historic time when women could evaluate potential mates as they gamboled about in the nude. But from the look of the featureless images it wasn’t clear whether some of them were well-endowed or just becoming happy to see us.
For visuals, many news outlets relied on images of a clothed Jon Hamm - the actor who plays Don Draper in Mad Men. I wasn’t up on popular culture enough to know he’s allegedly extraordinarily well endowed, and I’m still not sure how this became such common knowledge.
Most of the stories were pretty indistinguishable from one another. Few focused on why, of all the possible science questions to investigate, researcher Brian Mautz picked this. And how did he feel about the results? And what did his parents think of all this?
The human male possesses the Italian designer faucet of penises. They’re pretty big, the biggest of any primate’s relative to body size. And they’re showy, too, right out there, front and center on our upright bodies (i.e., they don’t retract), as if they were meant to be seen as part of the décor. Why?
Next time I see Jon Hamm in Mad Men I’m going to think of an Italian designer faucet.
The Times of India stood out for actually running the headline, “Men with Larger Tools Attract Women.”
Several writers expressed skepticism over whether size was a big factor in mate selection. But the study didn’t really claim that it was.
The women were seeing faceless figures. They could judge only height, body proportions and penis size. Even then the bigget factor was body shape (see image for reassurance. ) The subjects had no information about intelligence, personality, facial features, stock portfolio, cooking ability or sense of humor.
And the researchers seemed to be claiming that perhaps size was a bigger factor before clothes were invented, as explained in this quote by one of the co-authors: “Humans have slightly longer and notably thicker penises for their body size compared to other primates. It’s been suggested that before humans wore clothes, females used penis size as one of the deciding factors when choosing a mate….’’ he said.
In light of that, the best kicker was from Chris Gayomali at The Week:
Oh. Thank goodness for clothes, then. And having a face.