EvoS Seminar Has “The Talk”

Evolution has impacted humans in more ways than most people may think or even want to believe, including sexual behavior.

SUNY New Paltz’s 10th annual Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Seminar Series is shedding light on some of those impacts with theme of “evolution applied to issues of health and medicine,” according to Glenn Geher, founding director of the EvoS Seminar Series and chair of the psychology department.

“People don’t see evolution as relevant beyond biology,” he said. “The speaker series was designed to address that and get students to see evolution applied in many different ways.”

Penn State University’s David Puts visited on April 3 to deliver a lecture entitled “Sex, Hormones, and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” Puts is an associate professor of anthropology and director of Puts Lab at Penn State, and has given a TED Talk on his research. His presentation delved into evolution’s impacts on mating strategies, sexual attractions and sex differences.

Geher, who conducts similar research on sex traits from an evolutionary lens, said his studies have been met with backlash for being politically incorrect. He cited Puts’ visit as a great opportunity for students to hear firsthand the reason behind the research.

“There are definitely some people who have resistance to it,” he said. “So when someone has an established program at a place like Penn State doing that kind of research, I just think that’s great.”

Puts said he has not confronted any controversy surrounding his work, which mainly focuses on human sexual selection, or the natural selection that favors mating opportunities. He noted that while recognizing the differences in males and females can be difficult for some, that they are important to understand in order to address certain problems.

Richard Holler, graduate student at SUNY New Paltz and EvoS program assistant, introduced Puts to the audience in Coykendall Science Building for the fifth EvoS Seminar of the semester. As a Penn State undergraduate, Holler formerly worked with Puts in his research lab.

Puts then took the mic and explained how differentiated hormones in males and females result in different mating strategies. Much of his studies include voice differences in males and females.

“I think that [voice studies] offer a really helpful window into understanding our evolution, especially sexual selection,” he said. “There’s such big sex differences in the voice, there’s almost no overlap between males and females and there’s different frequency.”

These voice differences, he argued, affect mating opportunities, reproductive success and number of offspring for males. Oftentimes, he said, males’ deeper voices relate to contest-competition for mating, but do not attract females. 

Much of the research Puts presented was produced in his own lab. He even revealed parts of a preliminary study the lab is currently working on. The study is based on Cheryl Sisk’s study on hamsters, which concluded that there is more sensitivity to hormones during puberty than later on in life. 

Puts is conducting similar research on humans who have a disorder that prevents them from reaching puberty and requires them to undergo hormone replacement treatment (HRT). He is studying 100 people with this condition to see if they are affected by the age they start HRT. The experiment will also test for differences in cognition, sexuality, sensation seeking, anxiety, depression and substance abuse between men and women.

Puts also mentioned that evolution has favored traits costly to health in males, such as aggression, which leads to more male-on-male homicides, as well as acts of violence against women. He asserted that sexual selection “is producing traits that don’t necessarily work for the species but rather benefit individual reproduction.”

He concluded: “If we understand the evolution of human sex differences then that’s going to allow us to make much more accurate and precise predictions about the effects of sex and health related research.”