Archive for November, 2010

Which James Bond film is best? Part Three: The 1980s

Posted on November 29th, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Part two is here

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson; d. John Glen
The one with: Dr Zarkov out of Flash Gordon, Scaroth out of Doctor Who, crossbow assassinations, the 2CV, lots more skiing, lots more scuba.
Overview: Recognising that, as successful as Moonraker had been at the box office, further developments in that direction would lead to madness, Broccoli reigned the excesses back in and brought Bond back to earth. Taking up near-permanent residency in the director’s chair was stalwart editor and second-unit director John Glen, whose association with the series went back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Similarly moving into the typewriter next to Richard Maibaum was Michael G Wilson, Broccoli’s stepson, who had been hanging around Bond sets most of his life and who would go on to run the franchise with Broccoli’s daughter Barbara. The film begins with the revenge on Blofeld (in all but name) which Diamonds denied us. The scene at Tracy’s grave is the last time the series explicitly maintains the conceit that the chap on the screen is the same as the one who blew up Doctor No’s base in Jamaica in 1962. Following this is a cold war thriller, with occasional flashes of glamour and humour, not all of which work. The 2CV chase freshens up what could have been a lot of repetitive screeching and crashing, but the appearance of Janet Brown as Thatcher at the end is a step too far. Also adding to the sense of a movie drifting away from its origins, this is the first in the series not to feature Bernard Lee as M (he died during preproduction); James Villiers stands in as Bill Tanner. And John Barry’s still not back from his tax exile, so Bill Conti takes over on the music front. Some solid sequences, and never less than entertaining while it’s on, this doesn’t have the guts to give us a really hard-edged thriller, but nor does it sparkle the way that Spy did. Roger Moore’s advancing years now require him to take a paternalistic attitude to an apparently teenage girl who obediently jumps into his bed for a little après-ski, and he doesn’t even get to have it off with Carole Bouquet (thirty years his junior) until the credits are rolling. Insurance wouldn’t even allow him to go underwater, so all of his sub-aqua closeups are shot “dry-for-wet” on a soundstage. Really time to go now, surely? Takes its title (but nothing else) from a collection of short stories, the Fleming novels now having been exhausted, save for the first – Casino Royale – for which Broccoli and co did not control the rights.
Best for: suspense. The ascent up St Cyril’s is genuinely tense and brilliantly staged.

Octopussy (1983)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson, George MacDonald Fraser; d. John Glen
The one with: the trip to India, Q in a hot air balloon, Steven Berkoff, the circus, Fabergé eggs.
Overview: most of the Roger Moore films have a certain tension between wanting to take themselves seriously as spy thrillers (which runs the risk of making them indistinguishable from other spy thrillers) and wanting to give the audience a good time (which runs the risk of double-taking pigeons and the like). However, there is no Bond movie, possibly no movie, more disjointedly lacking in identity than this one. We open with a quite splendid stunt sequence in which Bond cheerfully blows up an airbase somewhere in Latin America. While it is commonly assumed that Bond films open with mini-movies, unconnected with the main feature, only this one and Goldfinger’s genuinely have no connection at all to the main plot. What follows initially is a slab of espionage intrigue surrounding a forged Fabergé egg which is more confusing than interesting. Once we move to India, courtesy of “Flashman” writer George MacDonald Fraser, things take a drastic turn for the worse, with Moore’s smug self-satisfaction now manifesting as patronising parochialism, idiotic jokes like requesting that a ravenous tiger should “si-it” in the manner of TV’s Barbara Woodhouse (she didn’t even train cats for fuck’s sake), or the flute player trilling Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. Then, miraculously, the main threat – driven by Berkoff’s pleasingly unhinged Soviet general – takes hold and we get a really good chase and suspense sequence in an East German circus tent. Although Roger Moore in clown make-up is pretty good shorthand for “Bond films don’t take themselves seriously anymore,” the bomb-at-the-circus scene is played with the kind of deadly earnest that might have benefited other parts of the picture. An attempt has been made to give Moore a leading lady who doesn’t make him look quite so much like a dirty old man – by which I mean she’s 18 years younger than him instead of thirty. Robert Brown takes over as M for this and the next three pictures, and while never doing anything wrong, only makes me miss comfortingly crusty Bernard Lee. That’s this film all over – not much that’s horribly wrong, does feel like a Bond film for the most part, but has been apparently assembled from unconnected bits and pieces left over from previous efforts. That some of these bits are actually quite good doesn’t make the less good ones any more satisfying, of course. More damaging is the general feeling that no-one’s heart is quite in this, and no-one really knows what direction to take the series in now. Time for some fresh blood?
Best for: plot convolutions. Wait, which fucking Fabergé egg is that now?

A View To A Kill (1985)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson; d. John Glen
The one with: The Golden Gate Bridge, Steed out of The Avengers, Christopher Walken, horses
Overview: the same weary team, in front of and behind the camera, staggers out for another miserable canter around a thoroughly well-worn course. From the instant that the moderately impressive snowboard sequence is underscored with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” you can tell that this is straining for effect rather than effortlessly soaring; thrashing around rather than closing in on its target. The Paris sequences are flat, the horse-doping plotline confusing and boring, Patrick MacNee is wasted, and the San Francisco chase indistinguishable from dozens of similar efforts in contemporary movies and TV shows. Bond himself is reduced to smirking close-ups, stunt men in chunky sweaters, and a cookery demonstration. The final fight on the Golden Gate Bridge is all right, I suppose, but honestly how am I meant to care by this stage? It’s not even the real Beach Boys. Should have been shot in the paddock.
Best for: genuinely nothing. Very much of it is thoroughly poor and while some bits can spastically clamber up to the level of “good” – Grace Jones’s jump off the Eiffel Tower, Christopher Walken’s performance as Zorin, Moore’s partnership with MacNee, each of these is bested earlier in the series (by the ski jump from Spy; Gert Frobe, Donald Pleasance or Michael Lonsdale at least; and Pedro Armendáriz as Kerim Bey, respectively). Many people like the theme song, but it can hardly be called the series’ best. Even the film’s big climax, blowing up the mine, would have been greeted by fans of what were by now being called “action movies” not with happy astonishment but by bored familiarity provided they’d seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which did the same scene far better twelve months earlier.

The Living Daylights (1987)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson; d. John Glen
The one with: the Ferris wheel, the cello case, the Mujahideen as good guys
Overview: Despite one major change in front of the camera, the same writer, producer, director and key supporting cast remain from the previous entries. Lois Maxwell, whose Miss Moneypenny had graced every previous film, is the only casualty other than Roger Moore; she was replaced by the instantly forgettable Caroline Bliss. In comes saturnine Welshman Timothy Dalton, who had reportedly turn the part down in 1969 on the grounds that he was too young (probably rightly, he was 23). This time around, the role had been offered to Pierce Brosnan, but a conflict with the TV series Remmington Steele meant that he was unable to accept it. Dalton signed on the dotted line almost immediately prior to shooting, so Maibaum and Wilson found themselves writing for a generic anybond and not trying to tailor the script to any particular actor’s strengths. Rather remarkably, this approach pays off. It doesn’t hurt that the glamour and globetrotting sophistication has been ramped up, so we are taken to Bratislava, Afghanistan and Tangier, rather than some of the more familiar locales we’ve seen lately. But this movie also balances the tension and wit perfectly. There’s a veneer of emotion in Bond’s attitude to his mission, the girl and his colleagues – enough to give it depth, not enough to be a distraction – the double-crossing plot feels complex enough to be more than an excuse to stitch together a bunch of action sequences, and there’s a comforting nostalgia triggered by things like the return of the Aston Martin, but combined with a freshness and energy that’s been sorely lacking since Moonraker. Good jokes too – as Bond and Kara slide by a snowy border control on a cello-case-cum-sled, waving their passports, Dalton cheerfully brays “we’ve nothing to declare” to the dumb-struck guard. A few niggles – the Pushkin role taken by John Rhys-Davies was intended for Walter Gotell’s General Gogol, part of the Bond “family” since Spy. Bringing in a new character makes it hard to identify with how conflicted Bond feels when told his friend is a traitor. More seriously, there is no properly hissable villain. Joe Don Baker’s Whitaker is introduced too late and has none of the grandiose ambitions of a real Bond villain, and Necros and Koskov are just doing his bidding. A shame, but hardly a major flaw in this, probably the most completely entertaining of all the eighties Bonds. To add to the fun, John Barry returns for a final turn holding the baton and contributes one of his best scores of the series.
Best for: fight scene (aerial). The cargo net fight – a combination of genuine aerial photography, faultlessly matched with a studio set shot with big fans over a painted desert floor – is absolutely fantastic.

Licence to Kill (1989)

w. Michael G Wilson, Richard Maibaum; d. John Glen
The one with: the same Felix Leiter as Live and Let Die, Bond goes rogue, cocaine dissolved in gasoline, Benicio del Toro looking amazingly thin and lithe and young.
Overview: So, the producers think they’ve found a new direction to head in – Timothy Dalton wants to do acting and has a nice line in glowering, and the fans still haven’t shut up about the double-taking pigeon, so we’ll strip back the humour, ramp up the violence and really go for broke. But aren’t Bond movies meant to be fun? Borrowing unfilmed pages from Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die (not for the first time), Bond’s motivation in this movie is having had his best friend Felix fed to a shark while Felix’s new young wife was being raped and killed. Operating outside the purview of MI6, his moral compass seems a little off. The jokey sadism of earlier films has been replaced by a disturbingly psychotic bloodlust, which given the chief villain’s overall scheme seems a little over-the-top to say the least. By this time, the stunt, chase and fight teams have complete mastery over their domains and can make any of these sequences work – so the fight in the bar, Sanchez’s escape and especially the final truck chase are brilliantly executed, and it’s true that the film lacks the disjointed, multiple-personality feel of some of its predecessors. On its own terms, as a one-off story about a slightly unhinged British agent who takes the law into his own hands, it does kind of work. Only the more than usually sustained presence of Desmond Llewellyn’s cuddly Q and the fact that Bond pays no price for his morally questionable actions mars this reading, On the other hand, as a continuation of the story begun in Doctor No, this is unpalatably brutal, lacking in wit and style, with muddy cinematography and it just feels wrong. Possibly the legal troubles, which stalled the franchise for six years following this outing, were a blessing. The first movie not to take its title from a Fleming work, although the phrase had been long associated with Bond.
Best for: chase (vehicular). As mentioned, the truck chase is totally brilliant all the way through.

Next time – the modern era!

Which James Bond film is best? Part Two: The 1970s

Posted on November 27th, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Part one is here.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

w. Richard Maibaum, Tom Mankiewicz; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: Wint and Kidd, Las Vegas, Charles Gray (no, the other one), theme song by Shirley Bassey (no, the other one), the moon buggy chase
Overview: Connery’s back! It’s only been four years since You Only Live Twice but they’ve taken their toll. Noticeably older, greyer and thoroughly uninterested in the whole affair, it’s easily his worst and laziest performance. The only glimpse we get of the old magic is when he steps on the roof of that elevator. On the villain’s side, after a remarkable and indelible portrayal from Donald Pleasance and pretty good effort from Telly Savalas, for the third part of the Blofeld trilogy, for Bond’s revenge for the death of Tracy, for the big showdown, we get a hopelessly miscast Charles Gray, who wanders effetely and ineffectually throughout proceedings and even gets to drag up at one point, as if his mere presence wasn’t already absurd enough. The supposed climax is an appallingly shoddy affair, lumpenly shot, with no wit or style at all. Our last glimpse of this greatest of all Bond villains is this near-incomprehensible slurry on an oil rig. Believe it or not, none of these is the worst crime of this movie. To see what’s really wrong with Diamonds are Forever, you have to look at Tiffany Case and the Las Vegas setting. Bond movies aren’t just chases and punching; they need a bit of glamour, a touch of the exotic. They need sophistication and class to offset the violence. Where Honey, Tatiana, Domino, even Pussy and especially Tracy had had class to spare, Tiffany is brash, crass and totally out of place. Likewise, the Las Vegas setting is overfamiliar, vulgar and no match for the globe-trotting of previous films. Wint and Kidd are fun, but they aren’t onscreen for long. Bambi and Thumper are just ludicrous and the pretitle sequence is cack-handedly shot and edited. I suppose we should be thankful that no major characters are revoiced, but it’s a high price to pay!
Best for: actually, it is best for something. It has the series’ best fight (hand-to-hand). The bonecrunching sequence in the lift is astonishing

Live and Let Die (1973)

w. Tom Mankiewicz; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: all the voodoo, her out of Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman, him off of The Saint, the rigged tarot deck, the fight on the train (no the other one)
Overview: Second time around, they figure out how to deal with Connery’s absence far better. They cast an (English!) actor with his own identity and his own brand of charisma. To avoid comparisons, they avoid or vary the most iconic Bond scenes – no Q, no vodka martinis, cigars instead of cigarettes, Bond is briefed by M in his flat instead of at MI6. And then they stick the new guy into the middle of a blacksploitation movie! Far, far better than the efforts either side of it, Live and Let Die does pretty much work. Some questionable choices – the continually-broadening humour, the awkwardly dated racial attitudes, the weird acceptance of the supernatural, another trip to America – are balanced by some splendid sequences – the back-of-the-crocodiles escape, the final fight with Tee-Hee (derivative but well-staged), the amusing and exciting bus chase and one of the series’ finest title songs (and that’s saying something). Even the Harlem location is made to seem exotic in the way that Istanbul, Japan or Switzerland were (and that Las Vegas wasn’t) largely because Roger Moore’s Bond breezes through it, thoroughly and resolutely English in every move and syllable.
Best for: suave urbanity. Roger Moore would never look or sound better.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

w. Tom Mankiewicz, Richard Maibaum; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: Dracula as the bad guy, mini-me, a flying car for fuck’s sake
Overview: worse even than the dreary Diamonds this is easily the most tedious, least well-constructed and most thoroughly ill-judged Bond of the seventies. Presumably figuring that since Bond-goes-blacksploitation had worked so well, the plan now apparently was to drop him into an Asian chop-socky movie. I guess that might have worked, but it would need to be much better-plotted, far more stylish, have far less Clifton James in it and a much, much shorter boat chase. Live and Let Die spent about twenty minutes zooming around the Louisiana Bayous and the presence there of a redneck sheriff at least made some sort of sense. Reprised here at twice the length and with half the wit, it brings the middle of the movie to a yawn-inducing halt. What bright spots there are are generally obscured by the errors of judgement either side. Even that spectacular corkscrew car-jump has a stupid swannee whistle sound effect over it. The final duel allows Christopher Lee a bit of room to play but the script does him no favours at all. Moore is fine, but when you add the stupidest Bond girl of the whole series (and that’s saying something) then the whole thing pretty much collapses. And did I mention the flying car?
Best for: gadget. That it (the golden gun of the title) belongs to the villain speaks to how poorly-judged all this is.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

w. Christopher Wood, Richard Maibaum; d. Lewis Gilbert.
The one with: agent XXX, Jaws (no the other one), the submarine-eating boat, the sub-aqua Lotus Esprit
Overview: All change! After three movies ranging from uneven to appalling, all with the same key creative personnel, but with producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no longer on speaking terms – something had to be done to stop the rot. Saltzman sold his share of the Bond franchise to United Artists, leaving Broccoli in sole charge. His response to the previous film’s disappointing box office was to secure double the budget and spend three years getting this one just right. It succeeds magnificently. From the jaw-dropping ski-off-a-cliff pre-titles stunt to the final destruction of the Liparus, this successfully balances the humour and the jeopardy, gives the girl something to do, ramps the gadgetry and spectacle way up and brings that glamour and exotic sheen back to the series. When Roger Moore, looking fantastic in his tuxedo, is fighting a man with metal teeth in the middle of the Egyptian desert, you know you’re watching a Bond movie and all is right with the world. I also think that this was Moore’s first time in a tux as Bond and that seems significant somehow. The villain is a bit ho-hum, the plot is basically an underwater rehash of You Only Live Twice (and it’s got the same director), and the Broadway version of the theme song “Nobody Does It Better” over Bond’s final double-entendre is hideous, but these are minor quibbles. Spy proved that Bond in the seventies made sense, and if that wasn’t enough, for about thirty seconds during the “In our business, Anya, people get killed” scene, you can catch Roger Moore acting! The car-turning-into-a-submarine is almost as stupid an idea as the car-turning-into-a-plane in the previous film, but everyone concerned is paying attention this time and they make you believe it. And then make you laugh at it. Masterly.
Best for: stunts. Rick Sylvester, doubling for Roger Moore, skis off that cliff for queen and country.

Moonraker (1979)

w. Christopher Wood, d. Lewis Gilbert
The one with: Bond in space! But also in France, Venice and the Amazon, not to mention falling from 20,000 feet.
Overview: Often-maligned and held up as a grim example of all that went wrong with James Bond, when you actually sit down and watch it, most of it is fine, and some of it is very good indeed. The problem is that the occasional lapses of judgement are genuinely ghastly. The astonishing aerial work in the pretitles sequence is capped off by the crass gag with Jaws feebly flapping his arms; the sumptuous Venice location is defiled by the absurd hover-gondola sequence complete with infamous double-taking pigeon; and then there’s that Star Wars space battle at the end. But if you can swallow the idea of a squadron of laser-toting British troops storming a space station then you’ve got to admit that it’s wonderfully well staged. What I remember as a kid is the feeling of disappointment I got when Sean Connery was prevented from taking off in You Only Live Twice and the unbelievable excitement I felt when Roger Moore made it into orbit! But even if everything from take-off onward is a wash as far as you’re concerned, the earlier sequences have any number of classic moments – the centrifuge scene gives us Moore’s Bond genuinely hurt and scared; the pheasant-shooting scene is taught, grim and witty; the boat chase is commendably brief (and we get to hear John Barry’s 007 theme again for the first time in ages) and the cable-car fight is hugely exciting. Sure, this is the same plot as the previous film yet again, but with many of the plot holes closed, a better leading lady and a far better chief villain. On the other hand, Roger Moore’s suave savoir-faire is starting to seem off-puttingly smug and his hair, closely cropped and neatly parted in 1973, is rapidly heading towards eighties swept-back absurdity. He’s also starting to look a little long-in-the-tooth for all this running-around and punching people. Time to go?
Best for: villainy. Drax is genuinely scary and beautifully played by Michael Lonsdale. Oh! And, best double-entendre, if only for the sheer lengths the script goes to to make it work – “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir!”

Next time – the John Glen years.

Which James Bond film is best? Part One: The 1960s

Posted on November 23rd, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

As regular readers of this blog (are there such things?) will know, I love a long-running franchise, and I love a list. With no Doctor Who until the Christmas special, I thought I’d turn my eye on that other audio-visual hero of the sixties, played by a succession of British actors, resurrected and suddenly made relevant again in the twenty-first century – James Bond. But which James Bond film is best? Well, all of them obviously. At least, each one is best for something. And before you ask, no the Casino Royale with David Niven and Woody Allen doesn’t count and nor does Never Say Never Again.

Dr No (1962)

w: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather; d. Terence Young
The one with: Ursula Andress coming out of the sea, “That’s a Smith & Wesson and you’ve had your six”, Jamaica, metal hands
Overview: Rarely has a film series started with such confidence, such dash and such style. Connery, while only bearing a passing resemblance to the Bond of the books, instantly inhabits the role, his body-builder’s bulk moving cat-like under director Terence Young’s sheen of sophistication – he’s magnetic. Other elements of the series are also in place right from the start – Monty Norman’s theme tune (arranged by John Barry), the bonkers villain with his mad plan, Ken Adam’s demented set-design, the girl – but others have yet to emerge – the titles sequence starts with the gun barrel but then goes all wonky, the action is a little underbudgeted, there’s no Q and it does take a while to get going. What survives after nearly fifty years is the vitality and opulence. If it looks this fresh today, just imagine how audiences in 1962 reacted. Ursula Andress as Honey Rider is dubbed throughout by Monica van der Zyl.
Best for: Entrance of a Bond girl. In casting, dialogue, camera work, everything, this is iconic.

From Russia With Love (1963)

w. Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood; d. Terence Young
The one with: the gypsy encampment, Kerim Bey, Red Grant, Rosa Klebb and her spiky shoes
Overview: Free of the excesses of the later efforts, but even more confident than its predecessor, this is probably the only Bond film which really functions as an espionage movie, easily the best of the 1960s, and possibly the best one ever. Scene after scene is both iconic and brilliantly-staged – the pretitles unveiling of not-Bond, Rosa Klebb’s knuckle-duster-assisted selection of Red Grant, Robert Shaw as Red Grant, the often-imitated but never equalled train fight, and the first love scene between Bond and Tatiana – still being used to audition new Bonds and new girls twenty-five years later. While it doesn’t have the wall-to-wall action of many later films, what makes this movie succeed is that the spy stuff is genuinely gripping, but when it goes for action it really delivers. Daniella Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova is dubbed throughout by Barbara Jefford.
Best for: Best friends. Kerim Bey is just perfect.

Goldfinger (1964)

w. Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: The golf game, the Aston Martin, Oddjob, Shirley Eaton covered in gold paint. “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”
Overview: Only three movies in, and the template is pretty much set. Gun barrel, pretitles sequence (this is the one where Bond unzips the wetsuit to reveal the white tuxedo), wobbly graphics over wailing song, villain, sacrificial lamb girl, chase, new girl, villain’s plan, villain’s plan foiled, tah-dah! Q and John Barry, introduced in the last film, are now permanent residents and the action sequences and gadgets reach a new deliriously over-the-top level with the introduction of the Aston Martin. Yet for all the iconic images which dominate it; for all that the villain, henchman and girl set the template for all the films that follow, actually as two hours of cinema it’s not perfect, thanks to a rather static middle third during which Bond is locked up and inactive. Gert Frobe as Goldfinger is dubbed throughout by Michael Collins.
Best for: Theme song, obviously.

Thunderball (1965)

w. Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: all the underwater stuff. No, not that one, the other one.
Overview: Oh dear. What went wrong? Goldfinger’s Aston Martin is replaced by a fairly risible rocket pack (although genuine – albeit fantastically limited in range), Honor Blackman’s stunningly self-assured Pussy Galore is replaced by the dull and whiny Claudine Auger – dubbed throughout by Monica van der Zyl again, Gert Frobe’s charismatic villain is replaced by the anonymous and bland Adolpho Celi – dubbed throughout by Robert Rietty – and the lush, witty and tense final showdown at Fort Knox is replaced by an awful lot of slow and murky underwater photography, and a hamfistedly back-projected and undercranked boat chase. It’s not all bad news – the opening scenes at Shrublands are fun (although it doesn’t feel like the movie’s started yet) and Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe is wonderful, but to modern eyes most of this looks ponderous and clumsy. Audiences at the time didn’t seem to mind – adjusted for inflation it’s the most successful Bond movie ever by quite some way.
Best for: death of the villain’s number two (you can’t really call Fiona a “henchman”) – “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead…”

You Only Live Twice (1967)

w. Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl); d. Lewis Gilbert.
The one with: the base in the volcano, Donald Pleasance as the scarred and cat-stroking Blofeld trying to start World War III (no, not that one, the other one).
Overview: With new occupants in the writer’s and director’s chairs, this movie also sees the first time that the Fleming novel of the same name is almost totally abandoned. Novellist and short-story writer Dahl, just embarking on his career as a children’s writer, contributes his only Bond screenplay and it represents the last piece of the Bond puzzle. All future movies will attempt to recapture fond memories of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, or will be attempting to reinvent the series in some way. To be fair, many of these attempts are wildly successful, but the period of heady discovery ends here, with Blofeld’s fantastic underground lair. When people spoof Bond, reference Bond or reuse the archetypes, more often than not it’s this film they’re thinking of, not least because the basic plot (in the sense of storyline and in the sense of evil plan) is recycled half-a-dozen more times after this. What’s sometimes forgotten is – as with Goldfinger – how sluggish much of the middle is. Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka is dubbed throughout by Robert Rietty again.
Best for: villain’s lairs. How do you top a volcano?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

w. Richard Maibaum; d. Peter Hunt.
The one with: all the skiing. No, the other one.
Overview: Connery quits! In response the series firstly attempts to test the theory that it doesn’t really matter who plays Bond, and secondly returns to adapting novels rather than inventing bonkers plots to stitch together stunt sequences. Neither proves to be a wholly satisfactory experiment. George Lazenby, supposedly cast because he moved so beautifully, looks stiff and awkward, sounds ghastly (and is himself unfathomably dubbed by George Baker when supposedly impersonating Sir Hilary) and never convinces. Opposite him, Telly Savalas is surprisingly good as Blofeld – but not as good as Pleasance and because it’s such a faithful adaptation of the book, they just ignore the fact that Blofeld knows perfectly well what Bond looks like because he met him Japan. Then, there’s Diana Rigg. The Bond people have gone Avengers shopping again and come up with a stunning performance from the erstwhile Emma Peel. With Rigg on the screen, it’s almost possible to forget about Lazenby. In widescreen, the film looks amazing, but many of the chases and fights go on too long (the bobsled run lasts about a week), that awful undercranking is back and there’s that ghastly line at the end of the pretitles sequence. On the other hand, the love story actually works, so does the espionage stuff, and the ending is absolutely stunning in every way. Much of it is the best the series ever managed, much else is dated and clumsy. It’s also almost the longest Bond movie, running well over two hours (only the 2006 Casino Royale is longer) and it’s in desperate need of a trim. As well as Lazenby, Gabriele Ferzetti as Draco was dubbed by David de Keyser.
Best for: genuine emotion. But is that what you want from a Bond film?

Next time… Roger Moore and the seventies!

The difference between science and magic

Posted on November 21st, 2010 in Culture, Science, Skepticism, storytelling | 1 Comment »

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Arthur C Clarke

Harry Potter bursts back on to our screens again this week, with the final book split into two no-doubt lumberingly ponderous full-length motion picture “events”. But, we must take solace in the fact that a) it will soon all be over and b) remember that magic has been a huge part of the fabric of narrative since stories began and try not to be too grumpy about the success of this “franchise”. If the appeal of stories is their ability to take us to places and show us things which ordinary life denies us, then it’s easy to see why magic should play such a strong part in especially early stories. Most fairy stories have a magical element – in fact the word “fairy” implies magic.

As we grow up, we leave such things behind, for the most part. The broad appeal of those Harry Potter books and films (and the amusing existence of editions of Harry Potter novels with “adult” covers and a £2.00 price premium) is a notable exception, but especially among male readers, although fairy stories are left behind, fantasy and especially science fiction stories remain popular.

I have observed before that the key feature of stories, the primary quality which distinguishes story from not-a-story is cause and effect. Without cause-and-effect, all you have is a succession of images. (Ironically, if you present such a succession of images to an audience, they are apt to invent the missing cause-and-effect, justifying the action they see in terms of A causing B, such is the storytelling hard-wiring in the human brain.)

Even in stories which don’t present themselves as fantastical, we can often see cause-and-effect being applied in a very limited way. Consider the phenomenon, often noted in pulp, pop or escapist fare, of “goodat”. If characters suddenly announce some convenient talent, skill, expertise, relationship or ability hitherto unmentioned and unsuspected, the audience is likely to feel cheated. “Oh, didn’t I mention I can speak Japanese / crack safes / recite pi to 150 decimal places / fly unaided / control birds with the power of my mind?” It doesn’t matter if these powers are magical, merely require talent and/or practice or are borderline. Conversely, however, if it is set-up that the character in question is “goodat” languages / escapology / mathematics / psychokinesis / animal sympathy, then the audience will probably accept almost any manifestation of this ability, no matter how fantastic. The archetypal version of this would be – as I think Eddie Izzard noted – the ability of someone who is goodat computers to hack into any system in a matter of minutes, just by waggling their fingers lightly over the keyboard and announcing “I’m in”.

So far, so fair enough. Storytellers take short cuts but even bad ones stop short of outright cheating. But there’s a difference between someone, for example, using their total mastery of Spanish to eventually make communication possible with a person who speaks only Catalan – and on the other hand, somebody uploading a Macintosh virus to an alien computer. I suggest that the latter is magic and that the distinction lies in the cause and effect.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider three ways in which a fictional person may be made to disappear before our eyes – Star Trek transporters, Star Trek phasers and Harry Potter vanishings. In Star Trek as you may know, a device known as a transporter is able to whisk people from one location to another. In effect, this device disintegrates the body at one end, transmits only the pattern (transmitting data is much quicker and easier than moving mass I suppose) to the other end, where it is reassembled. The practical difficulties of achieving this are not to be underestimated. A human being is composed of around 10^25 atoms, the exact location and type and state of which all have to be recorded. That’s a heckuva big file. This data is then transmitted to a precise location where no specialised machinery exists, and then the original body is reconstructed out of – what exactly? The TV shows, films and books are generally vague on this point.

But you could (and I’ve no doubt others have) construct vaguely plausible theories about what is going on here. The transporter pad creates a sort of cone or column around the person to be “transported” and everything within that column is processed. 23rd century computers have to “lock on” to remote locations. Maybe something like a tractor beam (not that that exists yet either) is used to process atmospheric atoms within a similar column at the destination in order to make the mass required to reconstruct the transportee. It’s a hugely big problem, but as presented in Star Trek, a hugely big solution is required to make it all work – and sometimes it doesn’t. It can go wrong, with horrible consequences. So this is borderline, but I would say, provided one makes allowances for three hundred-odd years of technological advancement, there is cause-and-effect here, and crucially, the cause (although we can’t examine it all in detail) seems sufficient for the effect.

Now compare those instances with death-by-phaser. Here’s a YouTube video. Watch the phaser deaths that occur around the 1’05” mark.

A phaser beam hits someone and they simply disappear. On a very basic level, there’s cause-and-effect here. Pull trigger on phaser, phaser beam hits redshirt, redshirt disappears. But what do we suppose the phaser beam is doing? It’s not just a narrow pencil-thin column of heat, it doesn’t drill a neat hole through its unfortunate victim. It’s not affecting the air between the barrel and the target, so it’s not radiating out a destructive cone – that would also affect surrounding matter, or if you were too close, not get the whole target. No, the phaser, or the beam itself, just “knows” what is target and what isn’t, what is to disappear in a flash and what is to be left unaffected. Not only is there no plausible mechanism by which this information could be imparted, the presentation doesn’t even begin to hint at a possible solution. Transporters are almost certainly impossible, but at least the series waves its metaphorical hands in the direction of a proper cause. Here the given cause is far to slight for the actual effect.

So, to me, death-by-phaser is far more like a wand being waved and a word being spoken and a Harry Potter character vanishing into thin air. No mechanism exists to define the scope of this action. No care must be taken to isolate only that which you wish to vanish. The waving of a wand and the saying of a word are in no way sufficient to account for the immensity and the complexity of the action which results – which is why Harry Potter is magic and not science-fiction. But magic gets smuggled in under our noses all the time. “I’m in” is a form of magic, as is the bus jump in Speed as is Radar’s ability to anticipate Colonel Blake and so on. The rule is – if the cause is sufficient for the effect, then what you have is science, but if the cause is insufficient for the effect, then what you have is magic.

But this applies to the real world of knowledge, science and medicine as much as it does to storytelling. Remember that humans look for cause-and-effect even where none is present. So, in earlier times, we ascribed the sudden and unpredictable shaking of the earth to the wrath of peevish gods. But since we have no idea where these gods are, what we have done to annoy them, or how they physically interact with the earth to cause such violence, this is magical thinking. Modern plate tectonics provides a much more thorough model (although not yet quite complete) with all the cause-and-effect you could wish for.

Another area where this test can be applied – one familiar to regular readers – is that of homeopathy. Both homeopathic and pharmaceutical treatments for a given condition, joint pain say, have the same superficial cause-and-effect appeal. You take pill. Pill makes pain better. But ask the chemist how their pill works and the answer will include fantastic quantities of detail, each element enhancing the cause-and-effect in the account. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories inhibit cyclooxygenases, leading to a decrease in prostaglandin production. Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors in the body’s tissues, and so on and so on. As with plate tectonics, the account may not yet be complete, but gaps are acknowledged, and effort continues to plug them. Pharmacology is science.

With your homeopathic pill on the other hand, the explanation is far sketchier. Like cures like, you may be told. How? It just does. Dilution increase potency. How? It just does. Does that mean half a pill will be twice as powerful as a whole pill? No, you have to dilute and the succuss (shake). What does that do? We don’t know. A cursory examination of the cause-and-effect supposedly driving homeopathy is enough to tell anyone that a woefully insufficient cause exists for the claimed results. Thus, we can confidently state that homeopathy is magic.

And, of course, the other thing we know about magic is that it isn’t real.

All human sexuality explained

Posted on November 2nd, 2010 in Culture, Science, Skepticism | No Comments »

As many readers will know, Stephen Fry got himself into trouble recently when an interview was published in which he is quoted as making various observations about the natures of male and female, gay and straight sexuality. The interview is not currently available online, but if you wish to read extracts from it, then try The Guardian’s coverage for less than total hysteria.

The outcry over this has driven Fry off Twitter (again) and everyone is now weighing in with their own opinion. As ever, this debate boils down to the following trite observation – men and women, taken as groups, differ in some respects but not in others. Thus, those looking for a fight can make lengthy lists of the differences and rubbish those who emphasise the similarities, or can play down the differences and give endless examples of similarities instead.

But I don’t believe Fry’s personal musings should be cause for alarm or criticism. They were offered in no way as the last word on the subject, despite his possibly rather conclusive tone, and notwithstanding his subsequent claims to have been misquoted. And they seem on their face to be perfectly fair enough. It is a readily observable fact that gay men find anonymous sexual encounters easy to come by with no need to for money to change hands. That, further, while the world is crawling with prostitutes and rent-boys, the number of straight male escorts is vanishingly small (although there’s no shortage of straight men who would volunteer to earn a living in this way). That Playgirl magazine, launched at the height of the women’s lib movement and marketed to straight women is in fact read largely by gay men. Why should not a gay man venture some speculations as to the nature and cause of these obvious differences? Especially one whose non-professional opinion is eagerly sought on a very wide range of other topics – literary, musical, technological, cultural, sartorial, zoological – almost no subject is out-of-bounds where Stephen Fry is concerned, except for female sexuality apparently.

But it doesn’t take the brain of Stephen Fry to detect the obvious difference between the sexes which emerges after even the most cursory examination of the evidence, and which no list of thoughtful similarities will do anything to dispel. Men and women certainly do tend to process the world of sex and sexuality differently. In this post, I will attempt to give an explanation of why this is so, drawn from several different pieces of research, documentaries, pop science books and lectures I have consumed over the years. Regrettably, I find myself unable to footnote any of this very extensively, but if anyone really wants to take me on, then let’s head to the comments and/or the library. Most of this is logic, observation and common sense anyway. Let’s start from first principles.

Preparatory notion 1. Men and women are different and similar and diverse

For much of the rest of this blog post, I am going to be talking about men and women as groups, types or Platonic Ideals. But it’s perhaps necessary to acknowledge that a human man and a human woman will no doubt have far more in common than a human (of either sex) and a chimp. Or indeed, a dolphin, a racoon, a banana or a bicycle. It’s not that these similarities between humans don’t exist, they simply aren’t my topic for today.

And both groups are also terribly diverse. It’s certainly possible to identify women whose behaviour sounds much more like the prototypical male I am describing, or vice-versa. I’m not suggesting that each group is entirely homogenous, and that any particular man or woman you happen to meet (or be) is guaranteed to perfectly exemplify whatever behaviour I am claiming for that group. I am claiming, however, that certain behaviours are much more typically found in men than women, or the other way round, and I don’t want the presence of outliers to distract us from the interesting conclusions we can draw about the great majority, somewhere in the middle of the bell-curve. Once again, it’s not that these outliers don’t exist or aren’t interesting – it’s just that they aren’t whom I wish to write about today.

Preparatory notion 2. The mind evolved

The field of evolutionary psychology is excitingly controversial, although those who oppose the very idea of it, often seem to be to be attacking a straw man (as in this debate between Stevens Pinker and Rose). No serious researcher is taking the field to the absurd excesses described by those who seek to denigrate this approach, and like any scientist, evolutionary psychologists are free to speculate, while being careful to separate such speculation from evidenced conclusions.

But the basic idea that the mind evolved can hardly be denied. Tiny kittens play-fight to discover how to defend themselves and catch prey, but this play-fighting is instinctive, not taught to them. Birds hatch with all the required muscle co-ordination for flight and don’t require the blank slate of their brains to be written on by an extensive programme of schooling. Human infants learn to talk even when exposed to primitive and incomplete versions of what will become their native language, as in the deaf children of hearing parents who effortlessly turn the clumsy signs of the adults closest to them into the full linguistic richness of British Sign Language (or whichever).

Although humans are blessed with an extra capacity for general reasoning and abstract thought, compared to other animals, nevertheless much of what we do remains instinctive, unconscious and shaped by billions of years of evolution, rather than a few thousand years of culture. Thus we crave foods rich in salt, fat and sugar because moderate quantities of these things are essential to our survival, and they were not always easy to come by in the African savannah. If we failed to prioritise acquiring them, or passed up opportunities to consume them, we tended to be outcompeted by those that did. These being instinctive actions, shaped and promoted (though not actually controlled moment-to-moment) by our genetic makeup, a proclivity for aggressive consumption of salt, fat and sugar became the norm in the population.

Today, when foods high in salt, fat and sugar are readily available (at least in some parts of the world), this adaptation is no longer such a benefit, but evolution shapes us only slowly. We’ve needed salt to survive for hundreds of millions of years, but McDonalds has been in business for only a few decades.

Humans evolved around a million years ago. Hominids around 15 million years ago. Primates around 75 million years ago. Mammals about 250 million years ago. Tetrapods around 400 million years ago. Vertebrates 500 million years ago.

Sex evolved about a billion years ago.

So we’ve been boy and girl for almost as long as we’ve been anything at all. It’s not inconceivable that evolution might have shaped male and female brains differently, given a billion years in which to work. But we’ll come back to men and women once we’ve considered another more general point. We are now ready to begin asking some serious questions about sex and sexuality.

Question 1. How do we choose our mates?

Evolution isn’t only about survival of the fittest (which itself doesn’t survival of the strongest, or healthiest – “fit” in this sense means suitable or most fitting to the environment). Not just natural selection, the weeding out of the least fit, but sexual selection plays an important part. The price for sex (no we’re not still talking about rent boys and hookers) is that by reproducing sexually, I only get to pass on half of my genes. So I need to be pretty careful that my super-duper genes aren’t being dragged down by your inferior ones. Thus we get careful choosing of mates, display behaviour and phenomena like peacock’s tails. A peacock doesn’t need an elaborate tail for its own survival – quite the reverse, they are cumbersome and cost energy to maintain. But a peacock who can sustain this preposterous plumage must be, in general, a superior specimen, blessed with a robust constitution, excellent health and fitness and bags of stamina, at least some of which may be genetic in origin. Thus a discerning peahen who prefers to mate with the larger-tailed gentleman will find more of her genes in the next generation, whereas those who seek out the tiny-tailed may discover that the next generation is bereft of her genetic bounty since her offspring suffered from the same lazy attitude, heart condition or inherited disease as their dad.

Note that none of this is mentally considered by the peahen. It is simply a fact that because peahens who prefer to mate with big-tailed males have a greater genetic influence on the next generation, so  necessarily, the next generation contains a higher percentage of peahens who get turned on by big tails.

Quite obviously, even as sophisticated adult humans, with all our language and culture and technology, we also have mate preferences that we didn’t decide for ourselves, but simply woke up with aged about 10. And while it (once again) isn’t true that there is a single monolithic standard of beauty or attractiveness, patterns do emerge and so Marilyn Monroe is generally feted for her beauty whereas Bella Emberg received such compliments less frequently.

But even if we ignore the problem of establishing a global standard for attractiveness, we can still accept that people tend to rate people they meet in terms of how attractive they are – and we need not limit ourselves to physical beauty. A potential mate may strike you as attractive because of their power, charm, vulnerability, sense of humour, kindness, personal wealth, liking for adventure, exotic accent or any one of a number of other reasons. But, if forced to, you could give any person of the appropriate sex whom you happened to meet a rating on an imagined desirability scale. So if you should want a global measure, you can think of this as the average across all potential mates.

Sexual selection tells us that in the game of mating, those whose combined desirability scores are the highest are going to be those who most influence the next generation’s gene pool, and so evolutionary theory tells us that behaviour which tends to lead to this outcome will be selected-for and so come to dominate. That leads us to…

Thought experiment 1. The ice rink

You are one of twenty players (sexes are not relevant for the purposes of this game) who will shortly be let loose on an ice rink. It doesn’t have to be an ice rink, but freedom of movement is key. Each of you wears a number on your back, allowing you to be ranked in order from 1 to 20. Numbers have been assigned randomly and secretly, so – although you can see clearly what number somebody else wearing, you cannot see and do not know your own designation.

The game is to find someone who will agree to leave the ice-rink with you, holding your hand, and the aim is for each pair to attempt to maximise their combined score. So a 9 who leaves the rink holding hands with a 5 will score 14, but will be beaten by an 8 who leaves the rink holding hands with a 11. You can change your mind as often as you wish and the time limit is fairly generous so no-one is making any snap decisions.

The game begins. What is your strategy? The obvious (and correct) strategy is to immediately start looking for number 20. Regardless of what number is on your own back, nothing will give you a higher score than leaving with number 20 in tow. Pretty soon number 20 is spotted and quickly has a great many potential partners. There’s a 1:20 chance in fact that this will be you. So let’s assume it is – you are busily looking out for number 20 when you gradually realise that everyone else has come looking for you. You are number 20! Who are you now looking for? Well, the best score you can possibly get will now be 39, provided you can find number 19. So number 19 now becomes the only person whose hand you are willing to hold. 19 eagerly agrees to hold your hand, and you both happily leave the ice rink having won the game. But the game isn’t over yet.

Once 19 and 20 are paired off, all attention naturally switches to number 18, who is now the best prize available. Number 18 will now only accept the advances of number 17, and so on. By starting with the rule “maximise your combined score” we end up with everybody pairing up with the closest number to them.

Answer to question 1. People choose as their mate the most attractive person who will accept them.

Again, “attractive” is assumed to have a multiplicity of meanings, but this complexity doesn’t change the fact that we find some people more “attractive” than others – even if we couldn’t give a very satisfactory definition of “attractive” even when asked. And because we both seek and select, we reject people if we think we can do better, but set our sights as high as we dare. In life, unlike in the ice rink game, we get a sense of our own level of attractiveness (even if, or especially if, this changes over our lifetime) and so don’t bother approaching those way out of our league because the risk of rejection is suicidally great. When we encounter pairs who appear to buck this trend, they tend to be figures who attract startled comment. “What does she see in him?” and so on. This is precisely because they are outliers and not the norm.

Preparatory notion 3. Game theory can help us understand human psychology

Evolution finds solutions that “work”, where “work” in this sense can be taken to mean “increases the representation of those genes in the gene pool of the next generation”. Evolution in this sense is circular. Natural selection means survival of the fittest. What does “fittest” mean? Those who tend to survive. But if a subtly different shape of fin, a different trade-off in heart construction, or a thicker, shaggier coat creates a survival advantage, then over generations, a population of organisms will shift in that direction. Evolution tests countless tiny variations on the currently best designs and – especially if the environment changes – discards the ones which don’t help and retains the ones that do. It isn’t guaranteed to find perfectly optimal solutions, and if the environment changes very rapidly then evolution may not be swift enough, but when it works, this is how it works.

In just the same way, when it comes to sexual selection, evolution can generate variations on brain construction which give rise to different psychologies which give rise to different strategies. Those strategies which tend to maximise inclusive fitness – in other words those which don’t only aid survival for this individual organism but which contribute to their ability to genetically dominate future generations – will be selected for. But note that even homo sapiens is not granted a psychological makeup which is explicitly and consciously focused on inclusive fitness maximising. If it were the case that, for example, men were consciously focused on maximising their genetic representation in the next generation, that most men would be ferociously keen to donate to as many sperm banks as possible as often as possible – but this is not a solution which evolution could plausibly find. We would expect men to enjoy orgasm however, and this they generally do.

Of course, sex and reproduction is only worthwhile if you live long enough and so other forces come in to play. Some male mammals (although no females as far as I know) will eat their own young if food is scarce. The calculation (not performed consciously of course) is that if I eat my kids today, I can father lots more offspring when there’s enough food to go around. But if I don’t, I’ll die now leaving only this litter, who will probably die themselves. Layered on top of all of these evolved, primal, psychological forces are more recent, subtler drivers such as the need for acceptance, social status and so on, not to mention a whole other wealth of cultural, societal and fashionable forces which also act upon us, and all of that is without even mentioning all of the personal preferences which make us unique.

But game theory – the mathematical study of what tactics are most likely to lead to success given certain rules to play by – can certainly be employed to allow us to discover how evolution might have shaped this part of our mind. We can then look at human societies and behavioural norms and come to some conclusions about how many of these primal needs are preserved, and how many are muffled or eradicated altogether.

And here we must – for the first time – start considering men and women differently, instead of considering evolution, psychology, mate-selection and sex-differences simply as phenomena.

Question 2. What is a man’s best mate-selection strategy for maximising inclusive fitness?

Since the mind evolved, and since the mind evolved under this kind of selection pressure, we can be fairly sure that most men will be seeking a mate who is the most attractive person who will accept him. But maximising inclusive fitness doesn’t only mean finding a life partner. The potential cost of sex to a man is very little. He will never have to bear the child through pregnancy and the time which elapses between conception and birth may very well mean that he is no longer conveniently at hand to raise the child, or possibly no longer identifiable as the genetic father. But like a gambler with an unlimited bankroll, there is no reason for him not to keep rolling the dice again and again and again. Given the choice between having sex with number 18 and having sex with number 11, regardless of what number is on his own back, he would prefer number 18. But he’ll cheerfully have sex with number 11 if no-one else is around.

For men, promiscuity makes sense. Why would you not have sex whenever possible, provided you are still eating enough and providing a decent enough shelter to ensure that you will still be fit and healthy enough to have more sex tomorrow? There is no cost and from an evolutionary point of view, it’s an easy (and fun!) way to out-compete less eager rivals.

Not only that, but it’s also easy to see why men would prefer to have lots of sex with lots of different partners, rather than settling down with just one straight away and raising a family. All that time spent looking after your first child is time you could be spending anonymously fathering dozens more.

Question 3. What is a woman’s best mate-selection strategy for maximising inclusive fitness?

For women, however, the picture is vastly different. There is a tremendous potential cost for a woman in having sex with a man. This cost is twofold. Firstly, if she becomes pregnant, she will have six-nine months of discomfort, followed by many years of expending energy in childcare (this is a potential cost for a man too, as mentioned, but an all-but guaranteed cost for a woman).  The second cost is more subtle. Gestating this baby is a missed opportunity to gestate the baby of another man. Thus, because she wants her genes to be given the best possible advantage in the next generation, she will strongly prefer to have babies only with the most attractive men available.

Now, this is all very well if you are number 20. You simply wait for number 19 to come along, refuse to have sex with him until you have some way of forcing him to stick around and share the burden of childcare with you and give birth to a series of prodigious wonder-children.

But what about the rest of the population? You might imagine that the ice-rink experiment teaches us that number 12s just have to settle for living with and raising children with number 11 or number 13, but a better strategy exists for the female of the species. The possible lack of certainty about paternity here works in the woman’s favour. The very best strategy for all but the most desirable female is to find the most attractive male who will accept her, and then get him to help bring up the child which she gives birth to after having had sex with a much more attractive man.

Question 4. What evidence do we see of this in the modern human world?

This trio of observations – men and women each seek the most attractive person who will accept them, men favour promiscuity over a stable relationship, women need both a helpmate and a genetic mate but they don’t have to be one-and-the-same – unlocks a tremendous amount of human sexual activity, even though almost nobody actually gives totally free reign to these desires. From these observations we should expect to see – and do see…

  • Men are more likely to have multiple sexual partners, and will resist being “tied down” when still young and studly.
  • Women will be much more choosy about with whom they have sex and will be looking for life partners from a much younger age
  • Men will be very concerned about paternity and feel extremely threatened if it is suggested that the baby they are cradling might have been fathered by another man, unbeknownst to them.
  • Both sexes will be concerned about the possible consequences of infidelity on the part of their partner, but each will be concerned about different outcomes. Men fear cuckoldry. Women fear abandonment. As Steven Pinker puts it, women who discover that their man is cheating think “he’s having sex with her – oh god, what if he’s in love with her!?” whereas men who discover that their woman is cheating think “she’s in love with him – oh god, what if she’s having sex with him!?
  • Men, who are briefly deciding where to deposit their sperm before moving on to the next conquest, will tend to make the decision about on whom to bestow their genetic gift on the basis of factors which can be assessed quickly – chiefly physical appearance. Women, who are deciding at their leisure with whom to attempt to form a pairbond, will tend to weigh up a wider variety of factors before they commit to a sexual liason, including (but not limited to) trustworthiness, resourcefulness, kindess and so on as well as physical beauty.
  • And – as Stephen Fry noted – we should expect to see, and do see that gay men, genetically predisposed towards promiscuity but not having to play the mating game with women, will tend to be very promiscuous (despite the fact that no offspring will ever result from this behaviour).

Objecting that these behaviours are cultural rather than genetic misses the point three times. Firstly, it is surely not a coincidence that the biases we would expect to see thanks to evolution exactly coincide with our current cultural biases. Secondly, it entirely skips over the question of where these cultural biases come from.

Maybe because of these two (and I’ll come to the third in a moment) some who took offense at what Fry had to say simply deny that the behaviours listed above are remotely commonplace. Now, I’m not offering any particular evidence that they are, but they resonate profoundly with how men and women are depicted, talked about and represented. Offering a handful of outliers – as discussed earlier – does nothing to provide evidence that these very, very familiar behaviours are, on the contrary, vanishingly rare. It only offers evidence that they are not the totality of human behaviour. Fine. Nobody ever said they were.

And nobody ever said they were desirable either, which is the third way in which taking offense at Stephen Fry’s remarks misses the point. Simply because these behaviours are commonplace doesn’t mean that we should be happy with them, blithely accept them and even if we don’t like them, shrug our shoulders and say “there’s nothing we can do – it’s genetic.” Genetic tendencies are not implacable predestinations. They are powerful forces, but other forces certainly exist, and as thinking creatures with the capacity for abstract thought, rationality and selflessness, we can ask ourselves what kind of society we would like to live in and do what we can to bring that about.

And so, in many Western societies, attitudes – especially straight male attitudes towards women – are profoundly shifting away from what might be expected given these primal, evolutionary forces; but the shift is not, and I doubt ever will be, so complete as to eradicate any meaningful difference between the sexes. If you doubt that these evolutionary forces still act on our unconscious desires and behaviours, then consider this elegant study (sorry, no citation).

Researchers interviewed, took photographs of and took blood tests from a number of young women in nightclubs. From the interviews, they determined whether the women were single or in a stable relationship. From the photographs, they measured how much bare skin they were exposing as a percentage. And from the blood tests, they determined where they were in their menstrual cycle. The results were a strong correlation between fertility and skin exposure. The more likely they were to conceive tonight, the more flesh was on display. Their relationship status was almost irrelevant.

In all likelihood, not one of these women is making a calculated, rational decision to expose more skin tonight for this reason, and women being choosy in the way they are and for the reasons they are – both discussed above – even those dressed most provocatively may have failed to find anyone worthy to go home with, but this study does show I think at least one way in which our evolutionary legacy continues to influence our behaviour, whether we know it or not.

In a later post, I’ll explain why science can prove that there’s no such thing as bisexuality and why women genuinely don’t know what they want. If that doesn’t get you cross, then nothing will.