science commentary

Volkswagens and Sexual Selection

Outliers can provide powerful, high-octane insights into normal human behavior.

science commentary

E ngland's Daily Mail is one of the few papers that hasn't started blocking the ever-increasing flood of Americans hammering their websites in our desperate quest for news. To people starved for accurate news about their own country, even the Daily Mail and Pravda look good.

Granted, Pravda has always had better proofreading and, arguably, a better command of the English language, but until recently it was a toss-up which had more off-beat stuff. Until the Ukraine troubles started, Pravda was great for human-interest stories like the one about the lady in Moscow who, it was claimed, got raped by her cat. Nowadays Pravda has reverted to a more nationalistic style, and Telegraph and the Times of London have put up paywalls out of self-preservation. Only the Daily Mail remains, a lonely beacon of truth in the vast ocean of the Internet.

So when the Mail published a story about a man who fell in love with a white Volkswagen Beetle, it attracted big attention. Granted, some people will do anything to get their name in the paper. But from the photos, it seems clear that this fellow really is sexually attracted to it. Car jokes? Oh, you've got to see them coming by now.

This poor fellow admits having a certain amount of difficulty consummating the relationship, and the affection seems to be mostly a one-way thing. But it's significant because it raises doubts about the popular narrative here in the States about gays being programmed, or misprogrammed, depending on your point of view, from birth.

That theory there was that high levels of testosterone in utero affected the brain and caused an increased incidence of homosexuality later in life. The lesbian/gay folks took this to mean that being gay* is a natural, inborn characteristic and have accordingly regaled us with heartwarming stories about supposed homosexual behavior among ducks, penguins, and whatnot. We are now, for all practical purposes, the First Amendment notwithstanding, legally required to agree that this is a good and wonderful thing. Or else.

Ducks, it is true, are not noted for their soaring intelligence and often get confused by wooden replicas and other duck-shaped objects. Even unfortunate Anatids that have long been pining for the fjords have been recipients of romantic attention from other ducks. But how do we explain when a species with a functioning cerebral cortex tries to mate with an internal combustion vehicle? Are we to assume that excessive in utero exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons leads later in life to sexual feelings for diesel engines, fuel injectors, and big, sexy dual catalytic converters?

Perhaps what we have here is a Volkswagen trapped in a man's body.

It seems more likely that like so much of our programming, sexual selection is programmed only in general terms. Science tells us that males are pre-programmed to be most interested in a specific curvature—it was discovered, for example, that all Miss Americas, regardless of their views on current philosophical conundrums, and despite their amazing ability to smile under the most awkward situations, have exactly the same mathematical shape. So maybe it's just an unfortunate coincidence that aerodynamic considerations produce a similar shape in vehicles like the Jaguar XK-E that are considered beautiful. (At least, that's what I'm told—I've mostly had Toyotas myself, though ‘had’ might not be the best term to use here.)

Liebherr T 282 Mining Truck Fig. 1. Liebherr T 282 Mining Truck (Photo from manufacturer's website). It's painted yellow to make it easier to find in the parking lot.

There's no reason to suppose that nature is specific enough to discriminate with 100% efficiency between Volkswagens and, say, Toyotas or Ferraris, which, in case anyone doesn't know, were not present during our early evolution. So we must conclude that, despite what Freud said about infant and child sexuality, this poor guy really did get imprinted on his Volkswagen. This implies that imprinting must take place during adolescence, and not in utero, where few if any internal combustion vehicles are present.

It may be significant that he selected a Beetle instead of a Liebherr T-282C which, although it combines a high horsepower diesel engine with an efficient Litronic Plus three-phase AC drive system, is distinctively less feminine in appearance (see Fig. 1).

I must confess that the (perhaps unfortunately named in this context) Liebherr MTU 20V4000 C23 Tier II, which has a 4,023 horsepower, 20 cylinder, 95.4 liter engine, and is noted for having the highest payload to empty vehicle weight (EVW) in its class, sounds pretty impressive to me. According to the online brochure, the Litronic Plus IGBT drive system offers highly advanced slip-slide control. It utilizes a front wheel speed sensor that prevents lock up of rear wheels and allows for reliable dry disc brake blending. Despite these remarkable physical attributes, I know of no cases of somebody trying to mate with one. If they did, and survived, it surely would have been reported.

In fact, we don't know how widespread person-car sex is. It turns out that reliable statistics on this are surprisingly hard to find. Is it 1% of the population or 10%? All we know is that it blows the idea that homosexuality is genetically programmed out of the water.

Well, we also know one other thing: garages are good for keeping your car safe from anyone who would take advantage of her ... it ....

So, sure, let's not pathologize specific behaviors—the DSM-5 would explode if we did. But at the same time, we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing false science just because it promotes somebody's political agenda.

* This is the politically correct term as of 2014. By this time next year, it may be redefined as hate speech.

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