AirTalk for July 16, 2012

Science author answers primary question of 12-year-old boys the world over

Jesse Bering's new book takes on questions about the human condition.

There are many questions in the world: what is the meaning of life? What is my motivation? And for men — and anyone else who views their nether regions — why is the penis shaped like that?

"I'm actually not a penis expert," points out Jesse Bering, scientist and author of "Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human." But, he acknowledges, "I've always been attracted and interested in these sort of inappropriate topics."

"These are the kind of things people wonder about, and really cut to the heart of being human," he says. "These are also the things people are afraid of discussing openly."

But, the male phallus is "just another body part" and its design is "just so revealing," according to Bering. He describes the appendage as a "specialized tool," one designed with the Darwinian goal of maximum procreation impact in a (fairly) short period of time. Most evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that humans "almost certainly" evolved to have more than one sexual partner over a 48 hour period.

However, the reason behind other evolutionary processes remain in the dark — including the female orgasm.

"If you think about it, women don't actually need to have an orgasm to conceive," acknowledges Bering, but, he points out, sex is generally more desirable when it feels good to both parties.

Although the book's titular essay is focused on the "sober and high-minded" issue of genitalia, it also wanders down side streets and alleys of bizarre human behavior, including suicide, free will, sex and cannibalism. The essay "The Bitch Evolved" discusses girls and relational (or social) aggression.

"Boys seem to be much more physically aggressive," says Bering. "When they have fights, they engage in physical combat." Girls, on the other hand, focus their efforts on psychological warfare in a subconscious effort to undermine the image of others as potential mates.

At least, so says Bering.

"I'm an evolutionary psychologist," shrugs Bering. "It's not like these traits are completely irreversible, but it's a complex interaction between our experiences as individuals and the biological structure of a brain that's evolved over millions of years."

Guest:

Jesse Bering, Scientist and author of "Why is the Penis Shaped Like That?" (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Read an excerpt of "Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human"


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