Secrets of the Phallus: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?
Funniest scientific article I’ve ever read…. from Scientific American:
Bering in Mind – April 27, 2009
Evolutionary psychologists decipher the “Rosetta stone” of human sexuality
By Jesse Bering
If you’ve ever had a good, long look at the human phallus, whether yours or someone else’s, you’ve probably scratched your head over such a peculiarly shaped device. Let’s face it—it’s not the most intuitively shaped appendage in all of evolution. But according to evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany, the human penis is actually an impressive “tool” in the truest sense of the word, one manufactured by nature over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. You may be surprised to discover just how highly specialized a tool it is. Furthermore, you’d be amazed at what its appearance can tell us about the nature of our sexuality.
The curious thing about the evolution of the human penis is that, for something that differs so obviously in shape and size from that of our closest living relatives, only in the past few years have researchers begun to study it in any detail. The reason for this neglect isn’t clear, though the most probable reason is because of its intrinsic snicker factor or, related to this, the likelihood of its stirring up uncomfortable puritanical sentiments. It takes a special type of psychological scientist to tell the little old lady sitting next to him on a flight to Denver that he studies how people use their penises when she asks what he does for a living. But I think labeling it as a “crude” or “disgusting” area of study reveals more about the critic than it does the researcher. And if you think there’s only one way to use your penis, that it’s merely an instrument of internal fertilization that doesn’t require further thought, or that size doesn’t matter, well, that just goes to show how much you can learn from Gallup’s research findings.
Gallup’s approach to studying the design of the human penis is a perfect example of of “reverse-engineering” as it’s used in the field of evolutionary psychology. This is a logico-deductive investigative technique for uncovering the adaptive purpose or function of existing (or “extant”) physical traits, psychological processes, or cognitive biases. That is to say, if you start with what you see today—in this case, the oddly shaped penis, with its bulbous glans (the “head” in common parlance), its long, rigid shaft, and the coronal ridge that forms a sort of umbrella-lip between these two parts—and work your way backward regarding how it came to look like that, the reverse-engineer is able to posit a set of function-based hypotheses derived from evolutionary theory. In the present case, we’re talking about penises, but the logic of reverse-engineering can be applied to just about anything organic, from the shape of our incisors, to the opposability of our thumbs, to the arch of our eyebrows. For the evolutionary psychologist, the pressing questions are, essentially, “why is it like that?” and “what is that for?” The answer isn’t always that it’s a biological adaptation—that it solved some evolutionary problem and therefore gave our ancestors a competitive edge in terms of their reproductive success. Sometimes a trait is just a “by-product” of other adaptations. Blood isn’t red, for example, because red worked better than green or yellow or blue, but only because it contains the red hemoglobin protein, which happens to be an excellent transporter of oxygen and carbon dioxide. But in the case of the human penis, it appears there’s a genuine adaptive reason that it looks the way it does.
If one were to examine the penis objectively—please don’t do this in a public place or without the other person’s permission—and compare the shape of this organ to the same organ in other species, they’d notice the following uniquely human characteristics. First, despite variation in size between individuals, the erect human penis is especially large compared to that of other primates, measuring on average between five and six inches in length and averaging about five inches in circumference. (Often in this column I’ll relate the science at hand to my own experiences, but perhaps this particular piece is best written without my normally generous use of anecdotes.) Even the most well-endowed chimpanzee, the species that is our closest living relative, doesn’t come anywhere near this. Rather, even after correcting for overall mass and body size, their penises are about half the size of human penises in both length and circumference. I’m afraid that I’m a more reliable source on this than most. Having spent the first five years of my academic life studying great ape social cognition, I’ve seen more simian penises than I care to mention. I once spent a summer with a 450-pound silverback gorilla that was hung like a wasp (great guy, though) and baby-sat a lascivious young orangutan that liked to insert his penis in just about anything with a hole, which unfortunately one day included my ear.
In addition, only our species has such a distinctive mushroom-capped glans, which is connected to the shaft by a thin tissue of frenulum (the delicate tab of skin just beneath the urethra). Chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans have a much less extravagant phallic design, more or less all shaft. It turns out that one of the most significant features of the human penis isn’t so much the glans per se, but rather the coronal ridge it forms underneath. The diameter of the glans where it meets the shaft is wider than the shaft itself. This results in the coronal ridge that runs around the circumference of the shaft—something Gallup, by using the logic of reverse-engineering, believed might be an important evolutionary clue to the origins of the strange sight of the human penis.
Now, the irony doesn’t escape me. But in spite of the fact that this particular evolutionary psychologist (yours truly) is gay, for the purposes of research we must consider the evolution of the human penis in relation to the human vagina. Magnetic imaging studies of heterosexual couples having sex reveal that, during coitus, the typical penis completely expands and occupies the vaginal tract, and with full penetration can even reach the woman’s cervix and lift her uterus. This combined with the fact that human ejaculate is expelled with great force and considerable distance (up to two feet if not contained), suggests that men are designed to release sperm into the uppermost portion of the vagina possible. Thus, in a theoretical paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology in 2004, Gallup and coauthor, Rebecca Burch, conjecture that, “A longer penis would not only have been an advantage for leaving semen in a less accessible part of the vagina, but by filling and expanding the vagina it also would aid and abet the displacement of semen left by other males as a means of maximizing the likelihood of paternity.”
This “semen displacement theory” is the most intriguing part of Gallup’s story. We may prefer to regard our species as being blissfully monogamous, but the truth is that, historically, at least some degree of fooling around has been our modus operandi for at least as long we’ve been on two legs. Since sperm cells can survive in a woman’s cervical mucus for up to several days, this means that if she has more than one male sexual partner over this period of time, say within 48 hours, then the sperm of these two men are competing for reproductive access to her ovum. According to Gallup and Burch, “examples include, group sex, gang rape, promiscuity, prostitution, and resident male insistence on sex in response to suspected infidelity.” The authors also cite the well-documented cases of human heteroparity, where “fraternal twins” are in fact sired by two different fathers who had sex with the mother within close succession to each other, as evidence of such sexual inclinations.
So how did natural selection equip men to solve the adaptive problem of other men impregnating their sexual partners? The answer, according to Gallup, is their penises were sculpted in such a way that the organ would effectively displace the semen of competitors from their partner’s vagina, a well-synchronized effect facilitated by the “upsuck” of thrusting during intercourse. Specifically, the coronal ridge offers a special removal service by expunging foreign sperm. According to this analysis, the effect of thrusting would be to draw other men’s sperm away from the cervix and back around the glans, thus “scooping out” the semen deposited by a sexual rival.
You might think that’s fine and dandy, but one couldn’t possibly prove such a thing. But you’d be underestimating Gallup, who in addition to being a brilliant evolutionary theorist, happens also to be a very talented experimental researcher (among other things, he’s also well-known for developing the famous mirror self-recognition test for use with chimpanzees back in the early 1970s). In a series of studies published in a 2003 issue of the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, Gallup and a team of his students put the “semen displacement hypothesis” to the test using artificial genitalia of different shapes and sizes. They even concocted several batches of realistic seminal fluid. Findings from the study may not have “proved” the semen displacement hypothesis, but it certainly confirmed its principal points and made a believer out of most readers.
Here’s how the basic study design worked. (And perhaps I ought to preempt the usual refrain by pointing out firstly that, yes, Gallup and his co-authors did receive full ethical approval from their university to conduct this study.) The researchers selected several sets of prosthetic genitals from erotic novelty stores, including a realistic latex vagina sold as a masturbation pal for lonely straight men and tied off at one end to prevent leakage, and three artificial phalluses. The first latex phallus was 6.1 inches long and 1.3 inches in diameter with a coronal ridge extending approximately 0.20 inch from the shaft. The second phallus was the same length, but its coronal ridge extended only 0.12 inch from the shaft. Finally, the third phallus matched the other two in length, but lacked a coronal ridge entirely. In other words, whereas the first two phalluses closely resembled an actual human penis, varying only in the coronal ridge properties, the third (the control phallus) was the bland and headless horseman of the bunch.
Next, the authors borrowed a recipe for simulated semen from another evolutionary psychologist, Todd Shackleford from Florida Atlantic University, and created several batches of seminal fluid. The recipe “consisted of 0.08 cups of sifted, white, unbleached flour mixed with 1.06 cups of water. This mixture was brought to a boil, simmered for 15 minutes while being stirred, and allowed to cool.” In a controlled series of “displacement trials,” the vagina was then loaded with semen, the phalluses were inserted at varying depths (to simulate thrusting) and removed, whereupon the latex orifice was examined to determine how much semen had been displaced from it. As predicted, the two phalluses with the coronal ridges displaced significantly more semen from the vagina (each removed 91 percent) than the “headless” control (35.3 percent). Additionally, the further that the phalluses were inserted—that is to say, the deeper the thrust—the more semen was displaced. When the phallus with the more impressive coronal ridge was inserted three fourths of the way into the vagina, it removed only a third of the semen, whereas it removed nearly all of the semen when inserted completely. Shallow thrusting, simulated by the researchers inserting the artificial phallus halfway or less into the artificial vagina, failed to displace any semen at all. So if you want advice that’ll give you a leg up in the evolutionary arms race, don’t go West, young man—go deep.
In the second part of their study published in Evolution & Human Behavior, Gallup administered a series of survey questions to college-age students about their sexual history. These questions were meant to determine whether penile behavior (my term, not theirs) could be predicted based on the men’s suspicion of infidelity in their partners. In the first of these anonymous questionnaires, both men and women reported that, in the wake of allegations of female cheating, men thrust deeper and faster. Results from a second questionnaire revealed that, upon first being sexually reunited after time apart, couples engaged in more vigorous sex—namely, compared to baseline sexual activity where couples see other more regularly, vaginal intercourse following periods of separation involve deeper and quicker thrusting. Hopefully you’re thinking as an evolutionary psychologist at this point and can infer what these survey data mean: by using their penises proficiently as a semen displacement device, men are subconsciously (in some cases consciously) combating the possibility that their partners have had sex with another man in their absence. The really beautiful thing about evolutionary psychology is that you don’t have to believe it’s true for it to work precisely this way. Natural selection doesn’t much mind if you favor an alternative explanation for why you get so randy upon being reunited with your partner. Your penis will go about its business of displacing sperm regardless.
There are many other related hypotheses that can be derived from the semen displacement theory. In their 2004 Evolutionary Psychology piece, for example, Gallup and Burch expound on a number of fascinating spin-off ideas. For example, one obvious criticism of the semen displacement theory is that men would essentially disadvantage their own reproductive success by removing their own sperm cells from their sexual partner. However, in your own sex life, you’ve probably noticed the “refractory period” immediately following ejaculation, during which males almost instantly lose their tumescence (the erection deflates to half its full size within 1 min of ejaculating), their penises become rather hypersensitive and further thrusting even turns somewhat unpleasant. In fact, for anywhere between 30 minutes to 24 hours, men are rendered temporarily impotent following ejaculation. According to Gallup and Burch, these post-ejaculatory features, in addition to the common “sedation” effect of orgasm, may be adaptations to the problem of “self-semen displacement.”
Gallup and Burch also leave us with a very intriguing hypothetical question. “Is it possible (short of artificial insemination),” they ask, “for a woman to become pregnant by a man she never had sex with? We think the answer is ‘yes.’” It’s a tricky run to wrap your head around, but basically Gallup and Birch say that semen displacement theory predicts that this is possible in the following way. I’ve taken the liberty of editing this for clarity. Also note that the scenario is especially relevant to uncircumcised men.
If “Josh” were to have sex with “Kate” who recently had sex with “Mike,” in the process of thrusting his penis back and forth in her vagina, some of Mike’s semen would be forced under Josh’s frenulum, collect behind his coronal ridge, and displaced from the area proximate to the cervix. After Josh ejaculates and substitutes his semen for that of the other male, as he withdraws from the vagina some of Mike’s semen will still be present on the shaft of his penis and behind his coronal ridge. As his erection subsides the glans will withdraw under the foreskin, raising the possibility that some of Mike’s semen could be captured underneath the foreskin and behind the coronal ridge in the process. Were Josh to then have sex with “Amy” several hours later, it is possible that some of the displaced semen from Mike would still be present under his foreskin and thus may be unwittingly transmitted to Amy who, in turn, could then be impregnated by Mike’s sperm.
It’s not exactly an immaculate conception. But just imagine the look on Maury Povich’s face.