“reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed; everything else is a means to that end.” (Red Queen, L62)
In the last few chapters we have explored how social status is one of the most important currencies in the game of human evolution. We explored how, historically, high status men have had tremendous reproductive success. But what’s in it for the women? In this chapter we will look at attraction and reproduction from an evolutionary perspective.
You may already have the intuition that what men look for in women is quite different from what women look for in men. And as usual, evolutionary psychology has some remarkable insights to help explain these differences.
The root cause of these differences is biological in nature. A human female has a physical constraint in how many offsprings she can produce. Also, there is huge biological effort for her in producing and raising an offspring. For the human male, there is no physical constraint as such in the number of offsprings he can produce and no biological effort either. This may seem like a small difference, but it dramatically changes the strategy for the genes.
If you can only make a few investments in your lifetime, you would be very very careful in making those investments. Women are thus incredibly choosy about getting sexually involved with a man. In contrast, if you have no limit to how many investments you can make, you would not stop to think before you make one. Men are thus very eager to have sex with a range of partners.
“On average, young men profess to desire about eight different sex partners in two years, whereas young women profess to desire only about one in the same time period” (Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, p68)
You may not have needed a survey to confirm this very obvious fact that women are much more choosy than men when it comes to getting sexually involved with someone. But what really governs their choices? What are they looking for? We already established that they have a limit on the quantity of offsprings they can produce. So when you can’t really go for quantity, you go for quality – your genes are better off if you try to ensure that whatever offsprings you do produce are well protected and taken care of.
So what women are really (subconsciously) looking for in their partner is someone who will provide for her offsprings. There are two factors that tell her how well this will go. One of them we have already discussed at great length – the man’s social status. But you may be wondering – why social status? Shouldn’t she be looking at his wealth or resources? Of course, women do consider wealth and resources to be important factors and they also serve as a good proxy for social status. But very few of them fall in love with someone purely for the resources. There’s usually something else that impresses them – some other qualities, talents, etc. And we already explored in the last few chapters how these qualities and talents are nothing more than your USPs in the social status market. So it keeps coming back to social status, but why?
To fully understand this, we need a bit of a history lesson. Modern humans, as a species, have been around for around 100,000 to 300,000 years. But we mostly existed in small hunter-gatherer tribes of around 150 people for 95% of our history, before we started congregating in much bigger ‘civilisations’ in the last 5000-7000 years. So the time before this recent period is called our ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ or EEA. Evolution is a very slow process – so our genes and psychology do not change much in the span of a few thousand years. So some aspects of our psychology start making much more sense when we look at it with the lens of our EEA.
And when you consider tribes of 150 people, without any laws, any rights or any police, you start realising why social status is much more important than wealth and resources. In such an environment, what’s most important is the support, the respect and the love of the other members of your tribe. Without that, your resources don’t mean anything because they could so easily just be taken away by someone else who has the support of the tribe! In such a context, your power and influence over others is what really counts. We are all still stuck with this same hunter gatherer brain.
So this is the reason why social status and power is so incredibly important in general and also why women really value social status in men. But there is another factor that is as important for women, if not more. Again, what a woman really wants, subconsciously of course, is a partner who will be able to protect and provide for her offspring. And social status tells her his ability to do so. But what about his willingness? A woman could partner with a high status male – but how does she know he will be committed to providing for her offspring and not just drift away? The second factor that women look for in men is emotional commitment.
Women are continously looking for signs that their potential partners are emotionally committed to them. Think of any movie or novel that women consider ‘romantic’ and you’ll clearly see this theme of emotional commitment. In romance novels that are aimed at the female market “sexual acts play a small part in these novels; the bulk of each book is about love, commitment, domesticity, nurturing, and the formation of relationships. There is little promiscuity or sexual variety… His character is often discussed in detail but not his body.” (Red Queen, L4718)
Evolutionary psychology proposes that at the subconscious level, each woman is doing this complex evaluation of potential mates primarily based on the two criteria of social status and emotional commitment towards her. She is not aware of most of these processes, instead she is guided by the feelings she experiences toward a potential mate. So the ‘love’ or attraction she experiences for someone isn’t as random as we tend to think it is. Rather, it is based on a plethora of cues her subconscious mind has already picked up regarding the social status and emotional commitment of her partner.
And what are men attracted to? You don’t need to go digging too far in the subconscious mind for this one – it’s physical attractiveness. I’d like to reinforce here that we are discussing attraction, not necessarily marriage. We are interested in how evolution shapes this specific feeling of being attracted to someone. Marriage becomes a much bigger consideration and commitment, and turns out that men and women are equally choosy when it comes to marriage.
Men are very easily attracted to any woman who seems physically attractive to them. Why? Let’s think about it in terms of their evolutionary strategy. We already discussed how men have the physical ability to spread their seed far and wide. But the genetic payoff would only come if their sexual partners were fertile and capable of bearing his offspring. Turns out, all the factors that men consider to be ‘attractive’ in women, are purely indicators of fertility. Beauty has pretty much been broken down scientifically.
“Beauty is a trinity of youth, figure, and face.” (Red Queen, L4545)
Youthfulness is a direct measure of fertility as a woman’s ability to bear a child is tightly related to her age. We evolved in a time when there were no birth certificates to tell a woman’s age. So the early men evolved an ability to gauge a woman’s fertility by her physical appearance. Turns out — “the most noticed features of female beauty decay rapidly with age: unblemished skin, full lips, clear eyes, upright breasts, narrow waists, slender legs, even blond hair, which, without chemical intervention, rarely lasts beyond the twenties” (Red Queen, L4513). Men are attracted to women with fuller lips, upright breasts, etc because in our EEA that was the best indicator of a woman’s fertility.
Today, women use make-up and other products to enhance exactly this set of features. And it works. It’s yet another ‘hack’ that tricks our hunter-gatherer minds.
When it comes to the figure, a low waist to hip ratio (WHR) is considered the most attractive. Turns out that a woman’s WHR is lowest when her fertility is the highest — around age 25. Before and after peak fertility, a woman’s WHR is much higher. This is a feature that “fashion has always emphasized above all else. Bodices, corsets, hoops, bustles, and crinolines existed to make waists look smaller relative to bosom and bottom. Bras, breast implants, shoulder pads (which make the waist look smaller), and tight belts do the same today” (Red Queen, L4477).
It’s no surprise then that Bollywood (the Indian film industry) is obsessed with thinner waists (“kamar”) and rappers in the USA wax lyrical about bigger hips. These physical aspects of women have always been attractive to men.
When it comes to the face, we know empirically that there is an attraction to the average face: “This attraction to the average — to a nose that is neither too long nor too short, to eyes that are not too close together nor too far apart, to a chin that is neither prominent nor receding, to lips that are full but not too full, to cheekbones that are prominent but not absurdly so, to a face that is the average, oval shape, neither too long nor too broad — crops up throughout literature as a theme of female beauty” (Red Queen, L4560). It is not exactly clear how this impacts in terms of genetic proliferation, but the averageness of a face may be some indicator of the quality of the genes itself.
Things like beauty have been considered very subjective — “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Evolutionists like to say instead that “beauty is in the genes of the beholder”. Our genes very precisely shape what we are attracted to.
“It is impossible to name a time when women of ten or forty were considered “sexier” than women of twenty. It is inconceivable that male paunches were ever actually attractive to women or that tall men were thought uglier than short ones. It is hard to imagine that weak chins were ever thought beautiful on either sex. If beauty is a matter of fashion, how is it that wrinkled skin, gray hair, hairy backs, and very long noses have never been “in fashion”? (Red Queen, L4308)
Now, just like women are very particular about emotional commitment, men are incredibly particular about sexual commitment – because before DNA tests became available, it was impossible for a man to be sure that the offspring his partner produced was his. And there are many social practices that help men solve this problem.
“In most societies women travel to live with their husbands, whereas men tend to remain close to their relatives” (Red Queen, L2882). And it’s not just humans, turns out all apes share the practice of females leaving their original family to join the male’s family. This may be perhaps because “If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother or his neighbor whether his wife was up to anything during the day.” (Red Queen, L3506). The fear that some other man may impregnate one’s wife is incredibly deep-seated in men. “The use of veils, chaperones, purdah, female circumcision, and chastity belts all bear witness to a widespread male fear of being cuckolded and a widespread suspicion that wives, as well as their potential lovers, are the ones to distrust.” (Red Queen, L3606)
And what about male handsomeness? It exists, but doesn’t matter as much.
“Male handsomeness is affected by the same trinity as female beauty — face, youth, and figure. But in study after study, women consistently agree that these factors matter less than personality and status. ” (Red Queen, L4576).
From an evolutionary perspective, the pattern is much too clear.
“Deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple hunter-gatherer rule: strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs… Wealth and power are means to women, women are the means to genetic eternity. Likewise, deep in the mind of a modern woman is the same basic hunter-gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest afoot and care in your children. Men are to be exploited as providers of parental care, wealth, and genes.” (Red Queen L3767)
And there is tons of experimental evidence that supports these claims.
“Bobbi Low has surveyed hundreds of societies and come to the conclusion that male ornaments almost always relate to rank and status — maturity, seniority, physical prowess, ferocity, or ability to indulge in conspicuous consumption — whereas female ornaments tend to signal marital or pubertal status and sometimes husband’s wealth.” (Red Queen, L4619)
“When David Buss of the University of Michigan asked a large sample of American students to rank the qualities they most preferred in a mate, he found that men preferred kindness, intelligence, beauty, and youth, while women preferred kindness, intelligence, wealth, and status”. (Red Queen, L4110)
“while women pay attention to cues of wealth and power, men pay attention to cues of health and youth.” (Red Queen, L4110)
So far, we’ve only discussed evolution as it applies to us humans. A brief look at how it works for other species may help put things in context.
Species differ a lot in terms of how they attract reproductive partners. In humans, its high status that leads to high payoff for the genes, because we are social animals. But if we think about lions as a species, the dynamics are driven much more by raw physical power. Male lions have to fight other male lions to gain reproductive access to the ‘pride’ — a group of females who will exclusively mate only with the leader of their pride. The lion’s mane is actually a representation of the lion’s physical power — if a lion wins a fight with another lion, his mane grows thicker, longer and darker, and it dwindles if he loses.
In many bird species, it’s the males that have to be physically attractive to seduce the females. Take peacocks for example — the bigger and brighter the peacock’s tail, the more attractive he is to the females. The criteria that the females are genetically designed to look out for differ from species to species, and is determined by the ecological environment in which the species evolved.
In fact, there are many species in which the entire game is flipped — it’s actually the males who are more invested in the offspring and thereby the more choosy gender. Mormon cricket, pipefish seahorse and Panamanian poison arrow frog are some examples. Parental investment theory sheds light on the balance of parental investment between the male and the female of each species. What’s incredible is that once we figure out where a particular species lies on the spectrum of female to male parental investment, we can make some highly accurate predictions — the gender with higher parental investment is always the more choosy one, is smaller in size compared to the other gender, is limited in how many offsprings it can have, etc.
Humans are actually only slightly tilted in favor of more female investment than male. There are species where males have zero parental investment and such cases seem much harsher — in elephant seals just one male will fight all other males, at times to death, to get exclusive reproductive access to all the females. The species where the investment is equal, interestingly, tend to be peaceful and many bond with a single partner for life with no attempts of adultery — for example bonobos and many bird species.