Monthly Archives: June 2015

Promiscuous females travel for sex

In a recent hat-trick of papers, Nicholas Newton-Fisher has challenged the way we see the mating strategies of our nearest primate relatives.

Mating strategies can be defined as sets of decisions that animals make to maximize their reproductive success. For males, the main issue is adapting these strategies to gain access to females in a way that optimizes their chances of becoming a father, preferably many times over. For chimps, Nick makes the point that, although many people have looked at mating strategies, few have looked at the most fundamental problem that mating strategies need to solve, that is finding mates in the first place. One exception to this is “Dunbar’s general model” of male mating strategies, which suggests that males in most populations of chimpanzees pursue a ‘roving’ strategy: that is, looking for and isolating fertile females who are responsive to their advances. Nick argues that the way chimpanzee behaviour is considered uses this model as a starting assumption suggesting that it both functions to monitor the female reproductive state and to deter these females from other groups of males.

This may be erroneous, however, as it seems to contradict current observations of chimpanzee behaviour and Nick has proposed a radical alternative: namely that the females do the roving in order to indulge in promiscuous mating. It seems that the poor males can’t prevent the females from mating with other males, and Nick proposes that they instead maximize the number of mating opportunities by focusing their behaviour on trying to counter threats to health, fertility and reproduction. They spend a lot of their time grooming one another, probably to reduce their stress levels. Indeed, it seems that it only makes sense for males of the lowest social status to adopt a roving strategy, and then only as a ‘best of a bad job’ alternative when faced with high levels of competition.

In other words, by and large male chimpanzees should not search for mates; rather they search for one another, for food, and occasionally for rivals in other communities.

Trade or “persuade”?

In a second paper, Nick and his colleague Stefano Kaburu from Parma, Italy develop these ideas further introducing the concept of biological market theory. This imagines Darwinian natural selection as a marketplace in which animals are viewed as traders with commodities to offer and exchange. Earlier studies of Old World monkeys suggested that grooming might be such a commodity to be traded for alternative services. The extent to which this applies to chimpanzees was unknown. Stefano and Nick looked at two communities of chimps from different populations (in Uganda and Tanzania) and considered differences in various factors including the dominance hierarchy, which can vary considerably within and across communities. They found evidence that males trade grooming for agonistic support where communities are more ‘despotic’ but not where they are more ‘egalitarian’. Regardless of the nature of the hierarchy however, they found that grooming was reciprocated among males of different social status.

In third and final paper, Stefano and Nick observed the same East African chimpanzees and found evidence in the more despotic Ugandan population that male aggression towards females increased the male mating success: males were coercing females. In the more egalitarian Tanzanian population, male aggression towards females did not improve their mating success. Instead, they appeared to supplement a failing strategy of coercion with one of trading: providing females with grooming in exchange for mating. By contrast, females traded sex for neither meat nor protection from male aggression. The study raises interesting questions pertaining to the willingness of female chimpanzees to trade sex for grooming. If they do that, does it compromise their fundamentally promiscuous mating strategy described above?

It seems that we have a lot still to learn about the behaviour of our “cousins” and what this tells us about our own societies.

Newton-Fisher, N.E. (2014). Roving females and patient males: a new perspective on the mating strategies of chimpanzees. Biological Reviews, 89, 256–374.

Kaburu, S. & Newton-Fisher, N.E. (2015). Egalitarian despots: hierarchy steepness, reciprocity and the grooming-trade model in wild chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Animal Behaviour, 99, 61–71.

Kaburu, S.S.K. & Newton-Fisher, N.E. (2015). Trading or coercion? Variation in male mating strategies between two communities of East African chimpanzees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 69(6), 1039–1052.

From worms to chimps: CISoR’s 3rd event – animal reproduction

On 16th and 17th June scientists from the Schools of Biosciences, Anthropology & Conservation as well as colleagues from Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) and the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) London got together to discuss their work. The mini-symposium kicked off the third area of focus of CISoR, non-human reproduction. Taken together the talks revealed the broad and fascinating scope of animal reproduction work going on at the University.CISOR-Animals

Animals from the simplest to the most complex were covered, beginning with the humble roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Jenny Tullet (Biosciences) asked the audience to consider C. elegans as a model for organismal ageing and development. She talked about different genetic pathways and processes that affect lifespan in several organisms and related these effects to effects on reproductive capability. Simon Harvey (CCCU) stayed with C. elegans in which he described his research identifying multiple regions of the genome that lower the ability of hybrids of different strains of C. elegans to reproduce. These are the types of effects that are important in the early stages of speciation.

Aside from worms, other invertebrates received less attention although Jim Groombridge (SAC) and Jenny Tullet did give insects a mention at some point. We quickly moved into vertebrate territory, bypassing fish and amphibians completely and looking at reptiles. Not any old reptiles however, Becky O’Connor described how she had used bioinformatic technology to look at chromosome evolution in dinosaurs. Darren Griffin (Biosciences) and Denis Larkin (RVC) also considered chromosome evolution but in birds and mammals, tracing chromosomal phylogenies and isolating regions of the genome prone to breakage during evolution.

Jim Groombridge and Simon Tollington stayed on an avian theme giving an account of their efforts to conserve Mauritius parakeets. Once one of the most endangered birds on the planet and threatened with an emerging infectious disease, Jim and Simon’s efforts have demonstrated that the negative effects of the disease outbreak on measures of reproductive fitness were surprisingly short-lived and associated with individuals that took supplemental food. Jim’s group is also investigating viral evolution in this system.

The laboratory mouse received quite some attention as Jenny showed how some of her worm work was applied to mice; this species was one of the many whose genomes had been aligned in Denis Larkin’s research. Peter Ellis (Biosciences) gave an overview of several ongoing projects, including the potential use of genetic methods in achieving efficient sex selection in agriculturally important species; and the epigenetic signals that tell cells with damaged DNA whether to repair the damage or to commit cellular suicide.

In a rare display of cross city University unity Katie Fowler joined forces with the Griffin lab (Claudia Rathje and Becki Gould) describing their collaborative work in the embryos of pigs and cattle. Using techniques first developed for humans they are adapting the technology to make food consumption and distribution a far more efficient and environmentally friendly process.

Finally we moved to primates – recently a new “living primates research group” was formed at the School of Anthropology and conservation (SAC) and Brandon Wheeler and Nick Newton-Fisher represented it. Brandon Wheeler’s “Female behavioural proceptivity functions as a probabilistic signal of fertility in a New World primate” was far more accessible than the title would suggest. He described his research using non-invasive monitoring of female reproductive hormones to study the mating strategies of wild capuchin monkeys. These studies have shown that female sexual signals convey information about the probability of ovulation, influencing male behaviour in a way that potentially allows females to both concentrate paternity in preferred males and confuse paternity among multiple males.

Nick gave an account of three recent publications studying two chimpanzee communities, a very “despotic” one in Uganda and a more egalitarian one in Tanzania. Nick has proposed a radical alternative to current thinking namely it is the females, not the males, who undergo significant roving in order to indulge in promiscuous mating. The poor males can’t keep up with all this activity so, instead maximize the number of mating opportunities by focusing their behaviour on trying to counter threats to health, fertility and reproduction, most frequently by grooming one another to reduce their stress levels.

The curry that the group enjoyed between the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions allowed for an opportunity to share common ground and explore future collaborations. It is clear that non-human research into reproduction is vibrant in the Kent area. The implications as models for humans, for conservation, food production and well as basic research into e.g. reproductive isolation are enormous.


The regulatory cliff edge between contraception and abortion

Professor Sally Sheldon discusses the legal and moral significance of implantation.

We tend to talk about contraception and abortion as if they were two separate and readily distinguishable practices, the former preventing pregnancy and the latter ending it. This understanding has a very important effect in current British law, where a relatively permissive approach to the availability of contraception stands in stark contrast to the morally grounded, onerous criminal sanctions against abortion. Yet is the distinction between abortion and contraception really so clear cut? How and why do we make it? And is the line that we have drawn between the two morally defensible?

As a matter of biological fact, the development of human life is not characterised by bright lines. As the eminent lawyer Glanville Williams once put it ‘abstract human life does not “begin”; it just keeps going.’ A seamless biological continuum exists through the production of sperm and egg, their joining together in a process of fertilisation, the gradual development of the new entity thus created throughout pregnancy, birth, subsequent growth, eventual death and ensuing decay of the body. Defining what happens along the way as an ‘embryo’, ‘fetus’, ‘person’, ‘adult’, or ‘corpse’ requires an attempt to draw lines on the basis of criteria selected as holding significance for legal or other purposes.  How and where we draw such lines is a tricky business, involving careful moral reflection informed by medical fact.

The ‘regulatory cliff edge’ between the relatively permissive regulation of contraception and the criminal prohibition of abortion relies on a line drawn on the basis of the biological event of implantation, where the fertilised egg physically attaches itself to the wall of the womb some six to twelve days after ovulation. Yet while enormous legal weight has been placed upon it, little consideration seems to have been given as to why implantation matters morally.  The voluminous philosophical literature on the ethical status of the human embryo and fetus offers little support for the view that implantation is an important marker.

Further, while it might once have been suggested that implantation offers a conveniently timed moment for a necessary gear change between the appropriate regulation of contraception and abortion, this argument is difficult to sustain in the light of modern medical science. Notably, the development of new ‘contragestive’ techniques that operate around or shortly after the moment of implantation serves to muddy any clear water that might have once have been believed to lie between contraceptives and abortifacients. For example, researchers have raised the possibility of developing treatments that a woman might potentially use on a planned schedule only once in each menstrual cycle, no matter how many prior coital acts she had had over that period. Such drugs might potentially act either before or after implantation. A further possibility might be to limit the use of drugs to a few times a year, when a woman’s menstrual period is late.

While significant work remains to be done in establishing the clinical safety, efficacy and acceptability of such treatments, there are good clinical reasons to pursue this work. However, such research would be blocked by current UK law. Where drugs potentially operate after implantation, offering or using them would be likely to constitute a serious criminal offence and, if such drugs could be offered at all, they would fall within the strict requirements of our abortion law. The potential convenience and simplicity of a regimen where women could have drugs in their bathroom cabinet, ready to be used when necessary would be lost.

It might be suggested, of course, that this is all for the good: that terminating even a very early pregnancy should be treated as a morally serious matter and one that is rightly subject to strict control. However, an issue of this significance to women’s reproductive health should be decided on the basis of democratic debate, informed by current medical understandings of reproductive biology and careful reflection on the moral significance of implantation in the process of embryonic and fetal development. The current legal basis for distinguishing between contraception and abortion falls woefully short of meeting this test. Rather it is a consequence of a statutory phrase, prohibiting the ‘unlawful procurement of miscarriage’, contained in the Offences Against the Person Act (1861).

An archaic law, passed by a mid-Victorian Parliament within which women had no voice, is an indefensible basis for the regulation of health services that matter so intimately to modern women. That it should potentially operate, some one hundred and fifty years after its passage, to block the development and use of safe, effective, modern forms of fertility control provides a compelling argument for a fundamental review of this aspect of its operation. There are strong reproductive health arguments in favour of facilitating access to safe, effective technologies that operate at early gestational ages. As such, within any such review, the onus should be on those who support the use of criminal sanction to justify its deployment in this context and, specifically, to explain why it offers an appropriate response at such an early stage of pregnancy.

Access Professor Sheldon’s full paper, in in the Journal of Medical Ethicshere.

Decriminalising abortion

Professor Sally Sheldon, Deputy Director of CISoR gave a talk on 10th June entitled ‘Decriminalising abortion: what would it mean?’
The conference was organised  by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Sexuality and Sexual Health section of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM).  It was held at RSM headquarters and entitled Decriminalisation and Demedicalisation: Rethinking family planning for the 21st century.

Surrogate speak

Dr Kirsty Horsey was an invited speaker at the at the “Families Thru Surrogacy” international conference Held at the Strand Palace Hotel in March 2015. Kirsty spoke on Ethical responsibilities in surrogacy and addressed questions such as What are the ethical issues surrounding surrogacy and how they can be minimized. She also laid out a series of communication, strategies to control risk.

The conference included parents, surrogates, and children through surrogacy as well as experts from the UK, US, Greece, Russia and Ukraine e.g. Leading researchers and counselors, surrogacy providers, specialist lawyers and psychologists

Katia Neofytou was also a moderator on the session devoted to ‘How Altruistic Surrogacy Works in Greece for Foreigners.’ A few leading Greek clinics are now offering surrogacy to foreigners. The discussion covered what laws exist to protect surrogates and children, what is the infrastructure is like, and whether these children are considered citizens of Greece.

Katia is the named research assistant on the study by J. McCandless, et al entitled A Comparative Study on the Regime of Surrogacy in EU Member States (European Parliament , 2013) where she recently produced the reports for the legal regimes for surrogacy in Greece, UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and USA. The study provides a preliminary overview of the wide range of policy concerns relating to surrogacy as a practice at national, European and global level.


Katia KH





Living Primates!

Drs Nicholas Newton Fisher and Brandon Wheeler have recently formed an exciting new research effort under the banner the “Living Primates Research Group (LPRG)”


Chimpanzee grooming Photo: Nicholas Newton Fisher

LPRG was created to integrate and foster research into the behaviour and ecology of living species of primates. Also featuring Drs Tatyana Humble, Tracy Kivell, Geraldine Fahy, Matt Skinner and Diana Samuel, the group will address fundamental questions about evolutionary adaptation using living primates as model species. The purpose of this is to provide a comparative framework for the understanding of human biology, behaviour and reproduction and to investigate the biological dimensions of anthropogenic impacts on non-human primates. Research ranges from functional morphology to behavioural ecology and physiology, to cultural primatology, mating strategies and the interplay of primate biology, ecology and conservation.



Sexual decision-making: a change in the law is needed

Robin Mackenzie and John Watts (of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust) have recently published an intriguing manuscript in the International Journal of Law & Psychiatry. Entitled ‘Capacity to consent to sex reframed: the need for an evidence-based model of sexual decision-making and socio-sexual competence,’ the authors argue that recent English legal cases have set a very low threshold for the capacity to consent to sexual activity. Indeed, the Court of Appeal stated recently that: “the ability to use and weigh information is unlikely to loom large in the evaluation of consent to sexual relations.” Mackenzie and Watts make the point that such cases significantly affect the legal status of such activities involving people who are diagnosed with either a learning disability, an autistic spectrum disorder or another neurodiverse condition.

This study has a principal focus on two recent legal cases that support the argument that the current test needs reframing from a relationship-centred perspective in favour of an evidence-based model of sexual decision-making.

The authors go on to argue that relevant training is essential for persons with a learning disability, autistic spectrum disorder or neurodiverse condition in order to promote socio-sexual competence. This is critical for resolving existing tensions between sexual rights guaranteed in international agreements, in criminal law provisions and in local authorities’ obligations to protect the vulnerable and sexual health concerns.

Mackenzie R and Watts J. Capacity to consent to sex reframed: IM, TZ (no 2), the need for an evidence based model of sexual decision-making and socio-sexual competence. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry 40(2015): 50-59.



Professor Robin Mackenzie presented a paper at the 8th Skepsi international conference based around the one word title “Disgust.”

Disgust 1The meeting was held here at the University of Kent on the 29th and 30th June and explored the complex nature of the feeling of disgust in a variety of disciplines. Disgust is universally experienced feeling, even if the object of disgust as well as its linguistic expression, can vary greatly according to different cultures. The conference also explored the fact that abstract issues can elicit disgust, and whether disgust can (or should) be related to ethical outrage as a way to protect human dignity and social order.

Robins’ paper was entitled “Cultural reframing of sexual disgust: now that sex and reproduction are not necessarily connected, how long should humans having sex with sentient sexbots, nonhuman animals and children provoke disgust?” clearly this was a very challenging topic that challenged some of our basest emotions. Disgust as an emotion is thought to have evolved to avoid infectious microorganisms; sexually costly behaviours; and avoiding anti-social behaviour. Some authors argue that sexual disgust stems not from a need to motivate avoiding mates who could potentially jeopardize our reproductive success. Similarly parts of the body such as the mouth and genitals are potential sources of both pathogens and sexual pleasure, creating what Robin refers to as ‘an attraction/repulsion dynamic.’

Given that what people view as immoral, disgusting or socially harmful is often shaped by cultural norms, Robin challenged long-held views of disgust in the context that the rise of reproductive technologies and contraception are severing necessary connections between sex and reproduction. Sex is considered acceptable among consenting adults and thus the concept of consent operates as a gateway to differentiate between lawful and prohibited sex. Sex with entities regarded as unable to provide legal consent or genetically related kin is legally outlawed, customarily provoking sexual and moral disgust. Robin made the point that sentient sexbots will soon become purchasable customised sexual partners. She then raised the following questions: How might sexual disgust become reframed as reproductive, virtual and robotic technologies progress? What should be the relationship between the reframing of sexual disgust and the law?

The conference also included intriguing titles such as: ‘Why is God Disgusted by Sex?’ ‘Changing Feelings of Disgust as Witnesses of Human Plasticity.’ Why are Injuries Disgusting?’ and ‘The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Revolting Women in Contemporary Literature.’ Rumour has it that Monty’s Python’s “every sperm is sacred” even got an airing once or twice.

Disgust 2

From Russia with love

Developing further the Kent – Russian connections, Drs Michael Romanov and Denis Larkin, of the Royal Veterinary College, visited in April the All-Russian Research Institute for Farm Animal Genetics and Breeding in Pushkin and the St Petersburg State University. They were invited speakers at a seminar and delivered talks about livestock and avian genetics and genomics. Highlights of the seminar were genomic selection in cattle, genome-wide diversity in sheep, and evolutionary genomics in birds. The Russian colleagues reported studies on high throughput genome-wide genotyping of a dairy breeding stock and examination of gene variation at candidate loci for poultry productive and reproductive traits. The parties set up plans for continuing partnership and collaborative research.

Photos: Reproduction “motifs” in the Animal Genetics Institute interior design:

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Drs Larkin and Romanov in the Institute’s Hall of Fame:

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