Tag Archives: mating

Sex and Evolutionary Theory: Ur Doin It Wrong


New communications technologies and media have blown the doors off of information propriety. On one hand, this is awesome because knowledge is power. On the other hand, this blows because factoids without understanding create false assumptions of the world.

The term “pop psychology” comes to mind. Example: I date those women/men because my mother/father was that way!

Here’s another term: “Pop Darwinism.”

Few things are more seductive than biological explanations of behavior. No moral assessment needed because it’s in your genes. Don’t bother with social analysis: we can’t help our human nature.

Let me disabuse you of any evolutionary misinterpretations.

When it comes to sexual behaviors, experts love to claim we get down how we do because of sexual selection favoring a hunter gatherer society, where females nurtured the babies and males hunted the food. Somehow, these behaviors are etched deep into our genes and any resulting behavior is an attempt to recreate this world.

An easy to digest concept package.

Problem is, organisms are complex. Reproductive strategies are diverse in the animal kingdom, from fishes to humans. Many like to assert that our ancestors favored only one type of male-female relation but this flies in the face of multiple adaptive reproductive strategies found among animals. Forget all this selection favoring only the dominant males and fecund, nurturing females nonsense. If species survival favors adaptive ability, then organisms adopting multiple strategies would fare better. Diversity and complexity beat out simplistic single-strategy approaches.

Organisms relying on social groups (like humans) are even more complex. Claiming that our sole purpose is sexual reproduction ignores life in social groups. If we want to pass on our genes, if we want our species to survive, cooperation (on some scale) increases our chances of survival. Cutthroat competition would only be beneficial in situations of absolute scarcity. United we stand, divided we devolve.

Our biology is one of many factors when we talk about behavior in humans . Genetics are not behaviorally deterministic, only influential among mammals. We learn most of our behavior from traditions and mores passed down through culture and adapt to contemporary contexts. Behavior and culture are not absolutely predicated on some genetic competition. Influence is possible but, again, we would be influenced by a multitude of genetic reproductive behaviors and strategies.

Joan Roughgarden from Stanford wrote a book called Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. (Go buy that book! Complex ideas, but she’s an excellent writer.) One of her chapters challenges concepts of sexual selection. Here’s a passage about how we actually misinterpret Darwin’s texts, even in the academic world:

“The universal claims of sexual selection theory are inaccurate. Males are not universally passionate, nor females universally coy. The social dynamic between males is not universally combat to control females. Diversity among males and females does not universally fit a hierarchy of genetic quality. Females do not universally select males for their genetic quality. Moreover, sexual selection theory is inadequate to address the diversity in bodies, behaviors, and life histories that actually exists. Darwin didn’t bother to explain the exceptions he recognized, and as data on diversity in gender and sex continue to accumulate, sexual selection theory, which addressed only a subset of facts to begin with, becomes increasingly inadequate.” -page 169.

So the next time you hear, read or encounter any Pop Evolution, think back on this article and realize that well-packaged, comforting explanations of human behavior are often false.