An interview with a scientist: how not to do it


“For over 40 years, biological anthropologist Robert Martin has studied sex,” is how this article in The Atlantic on fertility and reproduction starts. It continues, “He began by studying mating patterns in primates, completing his PhD on the mating behavior on tree shrews …”. Right. So we know immediately that we’re reading about a biological anthropologist. So when we read “Dr Martin” again and again, we’re reading the words of a guy with a PhD. Not a medical doctor. Not a paediatrician. Not an obstetrician.

The “doctor” is given free rein in this article to explain his controversial ideas about the evolution of sex and reproduction in humans. I tried to keep in mind that his staggering claims about modern medicine’s interventions in reproduction and birth should be taken from whence they come – the position of a scientist who has studied a lot of primates, but understands very little about the fear and desires and compulsions that dictate so much of our behaviour.

But it was very hard to keep this in perspective while scrolling through his startling opinions. For instance: he believes that the rhythm method leads to a higher risk of fetal deformity because sperm can live in a woman’s body for more than 10 days, double the amount of time I’ve seen quoted on any medical forum.

And don’t get me started on his thoughts on when and how we should conceive. Preferably, we should get pregnant before the age of 25 (“Now many women delay that because of careers”, he says, and even without hearing his voice, we can tell what he thinks about that), and without assisted reproduction – IVF removes the filter that the neck of the womb provides when things happen naturally, meaning that any “random” sperm ends up fertilising the egg. From an evolutionary perspective, I suppose, this is undesirable. But this kind of sweeping disregard for people’s desires and needs in the here and now in favour of “the bigger picture” of our evolution and how we fit in with other primates really riles me.

And the worst, the worst, moment in his whole Atlantic interview – which even gave me, a secular believer in natural selection, the chills – is when he says, “One effect of C-sections is removing the selective effect. If we get into a situation where 50 percent of women are having C-sections, are we going to remove the selection on overly large heads?”.

 In other words, the author of a book called How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction believes that babies with heads that are too big for them to be born naturally (and, by extension, one assumes, babies that are in the breach position, or have umbilical cords wrapped around their necks, or weigh more than 5kgs at birth) should be victims of natural selection. In other words, they should die, and injure their mothers while they’re doing it.

But maybe that’s OK. Maybe, as a biological anthropologist, it’s not within this guy’s remit to think about morality or human suffering. If this is true, then the Atlantic is squarely to blame for giving a non-medical doctor a platform to share his beliefs and dubious findings on the sensitive, controversial and undoubtedly medical issues of sex, reproduction and birth without challenge.

3 thoughts on “An interview with a scientist: how not to do it

  1. Amanda Northrop Mackie

    Being a scientist he’s supposed to relay the facts about human evolution and how it’s changing with modern medicine, which is what he’s doing. You’re right though, it’s up to the journalist to talk to a psychologist/sociologist/anthropologist/philosopher to get more depth in the article. Controversial, but I can’t help but agree with the IVF issue. There was a woman in her 70s who had IVF done, can’t be good. He’s right about c-sections from a factual point of view too, lucky for me (who had a c-section, and would have died without) that no-one really considers what modern medicine is doing to mankind 10,000 years in the future.

    1. miche17 Post author

      All of his posturing on human evolution and how modern medicine might be changing it is conjecture, really. Evolution is not linear and it’s not building up to a specific point, either – species evolve themselves into extinction all the time. If it weren’t for modern medicine, it’s anyone’s guess as to where we’d be – well, you for one, and probably your child, and a whole lot of us, for that matter, wouldn’t be around. Which all leads me to wonder how much merit this line of research actually has.


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