Monday, May 30, 2016

The Harm of Verbal Promiscuity

Eastern chimpanzees don't want to be judged. Image by Ikiwaner at
Whether they have one true love for life, multiple partners, or are free-loving, animals have many different mating systems. We have different scientific terms for these different mating systems, and most of these terms have very specific meanings. An animal is socially monogamous when it has one exclusive mating relationship, but maybe has sex with others outside of that relationship. It is sexually monogamous when it has one exclusive sexual relationship and is sexually faithful to that partner. Animals are polygamous when they have multiple sexual relationships. Polygamous animals can be polygynous (when one male has a mating relationship with multiple females), polyandrous (when one female has a mating relationship with multiple males) or polygynandrous (when multiple males and multiple females all have a mating relationship). However, one mating system term has been used much more loosely: promiscuous. In some scientific papers, promiscuous is used to describe animals that aren’t choosy about whom they mate with. Others use promiscuous to describe animals that don’t form mating relationships. But promiscuous is also misused by many people, including scientists, to refer to polygamous animals. This loose use of terminology can be damaging to both our scientific understanding and our society.

Scientific terms generally come from common language, but are then are given more specific definitions for their scientific use. When we confuse scientific terms for their common-use meanings, society can be harmed. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes a dozen different definitions of “theory” that all include strong elements of uncertainty (such as “an unproved assumption” and “an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true”). In contrast, the scientific term theory refers only to scientific explanations that have been substantiated through such a large amount of rigorous scientific testing and evidence that we are almost certain they are true (because scientists are supposed to never be completely certain). When the scientific term theory is confused with the common word “theory”, then concepts regarded essentially as fact among informed scientists are disregarded by politicians and many of the general public as “just a theory”.

Promiscuity is one of those scientific terms that was originally borrowed from common language and is now confused with its common-word counterpart. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “promiscuous” as “having or involving many sexual partners”, which is almost exactly the scientific definition of polygamous. Thus, “promiscuous” is often misused, even by scientific researchers, when polygamous, polygynous, polyandrous, or polygynandrous are more accurate. Misidentifying the mating system of a species can obscure meaningful connections between behavior and ecology and can negatively impact conservation, captive breeding efforts, and medical and psychological advances.

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Mark Elgar and TherĂ©sa Jones from the University of Melbourne and Kathryn McNamara from The University of Western Australia found that when “promiscuous” is misused in research, scientists are much more likely to use it to refer to polyandrous females than to polygynous males. This biased misuse of the word reflects our moral judgments and causes us additional harm as a society. The common word “promiscuous” has pejorative connotations and evokes negative emotions, especially when applied to women. Our human cultures generally have expectations that women will be faithful to one partner, while we are more understanding of the infidelities of men. When applied to animals, and especially primates, promiscuity has an anthropomorphic nature that places our human expectations and interpretations on other species. It’s bad enough when we judge each other – let’s try not to judge animals too.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Elgar, M., Jones, T., & McNamara, K. (2013). Promiscuous words Frontiers in Zoology, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1742-9994-10-66

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