Many of us are now familiar with the sad tale of Ted Hill’s encounter with censorship. The article has has caused a furore, and has been discussed at some length in a number of blogs, among them Terry Tao’s, (Sir) Tim Gowers’ in Mathematics, and also in some blogs by self-proclaimed experts in evolutionary biology, among them Reed Cartwright’s and Lior Pachter’s. Cartwright proclaimed the paper “hot garbage”, and Pachter could not wait to agree, and produced several pages of “debunking” of the paper, while also spewing pages of absurd accusations against Igor Rivin (the handling editor of the paper) [to his credit, Pachter stopped short of claiming that Rivin was actually Hitler].

While there is much to be said about the wisdom of trying to justify the unpublishing of a paper peer-reviewed in the accepted way and accepted, this is not the goal of this short post. Instead,  this writer was troubled by the question of whether the paper was, in fact, “hot garbage”. A short session with Dr Google revealed the Heterodox Academy post of a year or so ago (the post was occasioned by the famous Damore memo). While the Heterodox Academy article is very interesting in and of itself (it is mostly concerned with the data supporting the GMVH), what was most interesting was the comment by Rosalind Arden (a researcher at the London School of Economics), which I am taking the liberty of giving in its entirety here (I hope Dr Arden looks kindly upon this pilferage):


What is interesting about this post is that Dr Arden states that the explanation Hill proposes is, indeed, the front-runner in the evolutionary biology community. I then looked at the paper by Rowe and Houle, which, in the framework of the Life History Theory, develops the biological underpinnings in some depth. The paper, as Dr Arden mentions, is in under the rubric of the Lek Paradox. The Lek paradox is the following: in many species, males put on group “plays” (“lek” means play in Swedish) and the more spectacular males get to mate with the ladies, but mate is pretty much all they do, and do not participate in the raising of the offspring. The paradox is that the traits responsible for their good performance should, one might think, become more and more exaggerated (reducing variability), but they do not. Instead, variability increases. The short explanation (in this context) for the lek paradox is that these traits are actually a burden on the animal in other ways, so going too far would actually impede the survival prospects of the animal involved. Variability, however, is just the ticket. In any case, the paper is very interesting, once one gets past the jargon,  and seems to be the culmination of a long search by the authors and other researchers in the field.

In any case, the conclusion is that far from being “hot garbage”, Hill’s model is very sensible (indeed, more than just sensible) from the evolutionary biology perspective, and since the biologists did not actually state an explicit mathematical model, is clearly a contribution to the field, though, perhaps not quite as great a contribution as Hill thought, given that the mechanism is not new. I think that the hot garbage (or at least the egg) is covering the faces of Professors Cartwright and Pachter, who really should be ashamed of themselves.


5 thoughts on “A remark on Hill’s work on the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis

  1. Nice writeup. One question I have is whether the Hill paper adds anything new to the theoretical models already in the bio literature. That, of course, is quite apart from whether it was right to retract it, since nobody thinks he plagiarized, tho he may well have engaged in no effort to find previous work.

    1. My take (as I say at the end of the post) is that Hill actually formulated a mathematical model of the evolution, which the biologists did not – his model can, in principle, be used to make quantitative predictions about the effect of greater variability and the general dynamics of the process. So (and again, I am repeating myself, but what the heck): Hill is not quite the pioneer he thought he was (and I am sure he had no idea of the existence of this work), but the paper is is a useful contribution. Since NYJM is a mathematical journal, but, let’s be honest, it is neither the Annals nor Nature, it seems to be pretty much exactly the right level for his paper.

  2. Dr Arden generally looks kindly on such pilferage; when she doesn’t it rarely takes more persuasion than a bar of plain chocolate.

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