Evolution produced monogamous women, but men…

The view that men are “designed by evolution” to impregnate when they can has been used to explain, if not justify, rape.  But surely its too simplistic to be true.  We are a social species and rape is destructive in too many ways.

As far as I know, we now have argument # 3 on this blog  against the hypothesis that rape is an evolutionary imperative, as opposed to simply morally adhorrent. (For the others, see here and here.)   And it’s in today’s NY Times.  The argument is qualified, but more importantly it shows the potential complexity in the situation. 

What’s the argument?  Well, if the research is correct it turns out that the scent of  a women in a fertile period actually turns off men already in relationships.  It is all done below consciousness.  Successful reproduction is helped by partners also invested in providing for their children.  Evolution has selected for men who react in ways that enhance their fidelity.**

There are more details.  It is worth a read, but I don’t have time to check out the research.  If you do, and see a problem, please let us know.  We love articles on how the press distorts science and/or on how science can get confused on gender issues.

**Pace all those who are irritated by the idea of evolution as some active quasi-deliberate force, of whom I am one.

10 thoughts on “Evolution produced monogamous women, but men…

  1. Thanks, Rob. I think that might be one discussed in the second link in my references to arguments discussed on this blog.

  2. Oh dear. A friend posted this article earlier, and I think we generally agreed that the fact that scientists continue giving “relationship advice” in interviews is embarrassing at best (note, for example, the end of the article).

    It’s hard to articulate just what is wrong with this, but maybe a start is to say that the sorts of relationships that are assumed in this study (stable, heterosexual, monogamous ones) are probably exerting a force on the people in the study, and it’s hardly established that these are the *natural* types of relationships we involve ourselves in, let alone the sorts of relationships we *should* involve ourselves in.

  3. FYI – I was referring to the NYT article and its claims about the ways people show up as attractive to men and women, not the broader points about rape and evolutionary explanation.

  4. Matt, I am afraid I didn’t pay attention to the end at all. My reaction is certainly “yuck”, but I’m not sure that it is really giving advice, as opposed to employing a facon de parler. It is easy and so tempting to discuss unconscious influences on choices in terms of strategies; among other things, it fits into a picture of evolution as setting it all up. Not that I like that either, but I did at least see that.

    I did worry that the discussion was heteronormative, as opposed to just about heterosexual sex. I should have said something about that, and I might well be wrong in thinking it was the latter.

  5. I don’t get it. This study doesn’t disconfirm the idea that men are more disposed than women to have non-monogamous sex.

    The effect in this study looks like cognitive dissonance. But whatever it is, the finding that men are motivated to maintain relationships (whether it has an evolutionary explanation or not) does not upset the old story about men being more promiscuous than women because it enhanced fitness.

    Also, what’s the problem with describing unconscious influences in terms of strategies? And where is the suggestion that evolution acts by some quasi-deliberate force?

  6. Anon, I said the “argument is qualified” for reasons at least close to what you bring up. The idea underlying the view that men are made to be promiscuous is that their investment in reproductive success is limited to impregnating. That’s challenged just by common sense; men have a role in promoting the infants welfare that contributes to the men’s reproductive success. The finding being reported supports common sense by indicating that selecting for reproductive success has produced hormones that promote the further response of sticking around to contribute to the infants’ welfare.

    I’m not sure what your point about cognitive dissonance is. Typically psychologists talk about cognitive dissonance in terms of the resolution of a tension or conflict among beliefs in a way that promotes one’s own view of one’s self as right or good, etc. The causal mechanism in this situation appears to be different; the potentially conflicting beliefs are prevented from occurring.

    Evolution as a quasi-deliberative force? Note the reference in the article to evolutionary logic that seems to involving setting things up in a way that makes sense.

  7. –“The idea underlying the view that men are made to be promiscuous is that their investment in reproductive success is limited to impregnating.”–

    That’s a strawman. More charitably, the idea is, rather, that unfaithfulness confers a greater reproductive advantage upon men than it does upon women.

    There is no question of this being the only strategy for men. It’s the sort of behavioral trait that within a population will exhibit variation around a norm. So, the idea (worth attacking, perhaps) is that while both sexes engage in monogamy, men on average will be more promiscuous than women–for which there are evolutionary reasons.

    This isn’t a matter of “qualifying” the challenge. The research does not present even a prima facie challenge to this idea, so far as I can tell.

    (There’s no mention in this article of hormones regulating behavior, although it’s not implausible.)

    About it seeming like cognitive dissonance… It’s a bit like sour grapes. You realize that you can’t have something or someone that you want and so you devalue that thing or person in order to reduce tension (between your wants and your expectations about what you can have).

    The reference to evolutionary logic is a reference to natural selection–about “what makes sense” in light of selective forces and background conditions. I’m still not getting what the problem is there.

  8. Anon, i think the thesis about promiscuity is closer to being a swam than a strawman. ‘Swan’ refers here to those very widely held cliches, such as “A swan can break a person’s leg with its wing.”

    It is true that I wasn’t being careful & I had no intention of articulating a scholarly thesis. However, the practice of severing reproductive success from childrearing underlies some such theses. For example, Thornhill and Palmer in A NATURAL HISTORY OF RAPE argue rape is an evolutionary adaptation; that is the sort of approach I had in mind. The severing thesis also shows up as a hypothesis to be defeated in some discussion, among them one referred to in one of two discussions linked to in the post. Finally, I don’t think it should be a strawman; the males of our close evolutionary relatives don’t have male parent nuturing – at least as far as I know.

    Looking back at the article, I don’t think it is consistent, but let me remark that your interpretation of the remark about evolutionary strategy is optional, not mandated. Given a significant number of the learned think semantic normativity can be based on evolutionary design, one should be very careful about comments that describe evolution in intentionalist terms.

  9. As you know, rape is a product of traits of all kinds working together in an environmental context, fundamentally traits of maleness and femaless, but many other personal traits. Selection operates to choose behavior, and personally I would be surprised if the dominant behavior in rape is based purely on gender. My view of gender in evolution is that it is the basis for altruism, as the bodies of parent are the home for the child (mother in particular) and we return to that nuturing as parents. While the drive to make a home is strong, as seen in forceful bahaviour in nature generally, I would be surpised if human sensibillities naturally tolerate rape as the basis for a home..

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