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The Ape That Thought It Was a Peacock: Does Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex Differences?



This article looks at the evolution of sex differences in sexuality in human beings, and asks whether evolutionary psychology sometimes exaggerates these differences. According to a common understanding of sexual selection theory, females in most species invest more than males in their offspring and, as a result, males compete for as many mates as possible, whereas females choose from among the competing males. The males-compete/females-choose (MCFC) model applies to many species, but is misleading when applied to human beings. This is because males in our species commonly contribute to the rearing of the young, which reduces the sex difference in parental investment. Consequently, sex differences in our species are relatively modest. Rather than males competing and female choosing, humans have a system of mutual courtship: Both sexes are choosy about long-term mates and both sexes compete for desirable mates. We call this the mutual mate choice (MMC) model. Although much of the evolutionary psychology literature is consistent with the MMC model, the traditional MCFC model exerts a strong influence on the field, distorting the emerging picture of the evolved sexual psychology of Homo sapiens. Specifically, it has led to the exaggeration of the magnitude of human sex differences, an overemphasis on men’s short-term mating inclinations, and a relative neglect of male mate choice and female mate competition. We advocate a stronger focus on the MMC model.
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The Ape That Thought It Was a Peacock: Does
Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex
Steve Stewart-Williams a & Andrew G. Thomas a
a Department of Psychology , Swansea University , Swansea , United Kingdom
To cite this article: Steve Stewart-Williams & Andrew G. Thomas (2013) The Ape That Thought It Was a Peacock: Does
Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex Differences?, Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the
Advancement of Psychological Theory, 24:3, 137-168
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Psychological Inquiry, 24: 137–168, 2013
Copyright C
Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1047-840X print / 1532-7965 online
DOI: 10.1080/1047840X.2013.804899
The Ape That Thought It Was a Peacock:
Does Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex Differences?
Steve Stewart-Williams and Andrew G. Thomas
Department of Psychology, Swansea University, Swansea, United Kingdom
This article looks at the evolution of sex differences in sexuality in human beings
and asks whether evolutionary psychology sometimes exaggerates these differences.
According to a common understanding of sexual selection theory, females in most
species invest more than males in their offspring, and as a result, males compete
for as many mates as possible, whereas females choose from among the competing
males. The males-compete/females-choose (MCFC) model applies to many species
but is misleading when applied to human beings. This is because males in our
species commonly contribute to the rearing of the young, which reduces the sex
difference in parental investment. Consequently, sex differences in our species are
relatively modest. Rather than males competing and females choosing, humans have
a system of mutual courtship: Both sexes are choosy about long-term mates, and
both sexes compete for desirable mates. We call this the mutual mate choice (MMC)
model. Although much of the evolutionary psychology literature is consistent with
the MMC model, the traditional MCFC model exerts a strong influence on the field,
distorting the emerging picture of the evolved sexual psychology of Homo sapiens.
Specifically, it has led to the exaggeration of the magnitude of human sex differences,
an overemphasis on men’s short-term mating inclinations, and a relative neglect of
male mate choice and female mate competition. We advocate a stronger focus on the
MMC model.
Key words: evolutionary psychology, human mating, mutual mate choice, sex differ-
ences, sexual selection, sexual dimorphism.
With respect to human sexuality, there is a female
human nature and a male human nature and these na-
tures are extraordinarily different.—Donald Symons
(1979), The Evolution of Human Sexuality,p.11
Over the last few decades, evolutionary psychology
(EP) has become increasingly influential within psy-
chological science. As its profile has grown, criticisms
of the field have mounted. A common criticism is that
EP exaggerates the magnitude of sex differences in
sexuality, including differences related to the pursuit of
casual sex and to mate choice criteria (Conley, Moors,
Matsick, Ziegler, & Valentine, 2011; Eagly & Wood,
1999; Miller, Putcha-Bhagavatula, & Pedersen, 2002;
Zentner & Mitura, 2012). Evolutionary psychologists
have resisted the criticism, charging their detractors
with an ideologically motivated denial of evolved sex
differences and a lack of familiarity with the claims of
modern EP (e.g., Buss, 2010; Schmitt, 2012a, 2012b;
Schmitt et al., 2012). In this article, we attempt to ne-
gotiate a middle path through this thorny debate. We
argue that, although some critics take an overly simplis-
tic view of the field, there is some merit to the charge
that EP exaggerates the sex differences in sexuality in
our species. We trace this to a widespread schema of
sexual selection that emphasizes male competition for
mates and female mate choice. It is our contention that
researchers in EP often have this schema lurking in the
back of their minds and that it exerts a subtle—and
sometimes not-so-subtle—influence on the EP image
of human nature.
To be clear, we are not denying the existence of
evolved psychological sex differences in our species.
As our discussion will make clear, we accept both that
there are differences and that they have their ultimate
origin in our evolutionary history. Nonetheless, there
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is still a question of exactly how large the differences
are, and how best to construe them.
Two Views of Human Nature
To this end, we begin by presenting two views of sex
differences in human sexuality. We call these the males-
compete/females-choose (MCFC) model and the mu-
tual mate choice (MMC) model. The MCFC model
originates in Darwin’s (1871) writings on sexual selec-
tion in nonhuman animals. It places a strong emphasis
on sexual dimorphism, female mate choice, and male
competition for mates. The MMC model, in contrast,
emphasizes the idea that, as a result of high levels
of male parental investment, humans evolved into a
somewhat “androgynous” species—a species in which
human females exhibit traits generally found only in
males (e.g., competition for mates) and human males
exhibit traits generally found only in females (e.g., the
provision of parental care; choosiness about mates). If
we imagine that all species can be located on a con-
tinuum spanning from extreme sexual dimorphism at
one end to extreme sexual monomorphism at the other,
the MCFC and MMC models represent attempts to lo-
cate humans on this continuum. Both sit somewhere
in the middle, away from either extreme. However, the
MMC model places us closer to the monomorphic end
of the spectrum than does the MCFC model. The MMC
model is the view we favor and will argue for in this
article. Note that we are not arguing that the MCFC in-
terpretation represents the singular or consensus view
in EP. Elements of both models can be found in the EP
literature. However, the MCFC model is important for
reasons that will soon become clear.
The MCFC Model
Human beings are a sexually dimorphic species. We
exhibit profound sex differences in sexuality. These
trace back to sex differences in parental investment.
Historically, women invested more into their offspring
than men. For a start, eggs are biologically much more
“expensive” than sperm. More important, mammalian
reproductive physiology obliges women to bear the
biological costs of a 9-month pregnancy and, until
recently, several years of breastfeeding. Men’s min-
imum contribution to the production of offspring is
much smaller. Because of the sex difference in min-
imum parental investment, the maximum number of
offspring a man can have in his lifetime is much higher
than that of a woman. If a man mated with 100 women
in a year, he could potentially have 100 offspring; if
awoman mated with 100 men in a year, on the other
hand, she would have no more offspring than if she
had only mated with one. As such, males in our evo-
lutionary past who pursued quantity of mates rather
than quality had more offspring than other males, and
the tendency to favor quantity became more and more
common among males over the generations (i.e., it was
selected). In contrast, ancestral females who sought
quality of mates rather than quantity had more sur-
viving offspring than other females, and that tendency
was selected among females. The net result is that men
evolved to pursue short-term sexual relationships with
as many women as possible, only opting for long-term
pair bonding if they failed in this strategy, whereas
women evolved to be choosier than men about their
sexual partners, and to favor long-term pair bonds with
men who helped provide for their offspring. Men court
women and compete with one another to gain sexual
access to as many women as possible. Women, in con-
trast, choose from among the available men. Women’s
choices then exert a strong selection pressure on men,
shaping male courtship “ornaments” such as facial
symmetry, status seeking, creative intelligence, and
humor—all of which are human equivalents of the
peacock’s tail.
This is not, in our view, an entirely unreasonable
position. That said, we suggest that every sentence is
either false or, if true, potentially misleading without
appropriate qualifications. To see why, consider our
preferred model:
The MMC Model
Human beings are a relatively monomorphic species.
Certainly, there are some average differences between
the sexes, and certainly these trace back to the fact
that women invest more in offspring than men. How-
ever, sex differences in sexuality are fairly modest
in our species, precisely because sex differences in
parental investment are fairly modest—much more
modest than we would assume if we focused on ga-
mete size, pregnancy, and lactation alone. As brain
size increased in the hominin lineage,1our young be-
came progressively more dependent and the childhood
period became progressively longer. As a result, pair
bonding and male parental care became central ele-
ments in our reproductive repertoire. This dramati-
cally reduced the discrepancy in the maximum num-
ber of offspring that men versus women could pro-
duce. Although in principle a man could impregnate
hundreds of women every year, in practice the repro-
ductive ceiling for even the most attractive men was
almost always much lower. Consequently, we exhibit
reduced psychological dimorphism. Moreover, we are
not the kind of species in which females alone exert
mate choice or males alone compete for mates; we are
a species with mutual courtship. Because men often
invested in offspring, they evolved to be choosy about
their mates—in other words, to pursue mate quality
rather than just quantity, at least in long-term relation-
ships. Similarly, because men differed in their capacity
1Hominins are the group of species that evolved after the split
from our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and bonobos, and
which includes the australopithecines, Homo erectus, Neanderthals,
and us.
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to invest, women evolved to compete for the most de-
sirable partners. Mutual mate choice has an important
implication, namely, that sexual selection does not act
wholly on human males. We are a species in which
both sexes have their equivalents of the peacock’s tail.
Indeed, when it comes to physical beauty, the usual
sex difference has arguably been reversed: Females
are the “showier” sex.
To repeat, we are not suggesting that the MCFC
model represents the unanimous view among evolu-
tionary psychologists. Most would accept elements of
the MMC model, including such ideas as that men
exert mate choice and that both sexes pursue long-
term relationships and invest in offspring. Why, then,
are we emphasizing the MCFC model? The reason is
that, although elements of the MMC model can be
found in EP, the influence of the MCFC model is also
clearly evident. This raises two issues. The first is sim-
ply that there is a contradiction in the literature. When it
comes to the nature of sexuality in our species, there is
some vacillating and lack of clarity. Humans are some-
times presented as an MCFC species and sometimes
presented as an MMC species, but the inconsistency
is rarely made explicit or resolved. The MCFC and
MMC models sit together uneasily in the EP literature,
and even in the work of particular researchers. The
second issue is that the MCFC model distorts our un-
derstanding of our evolved nature. There is, as we will
document, a tendency in EP to exaggerate the magni-
tude and importance of certain sex differences in our
species, and much of this can be traced to the quiet in-
fluence of the MCFC model. Thus, it is our contention
that the central tendency of the distribution of opinion
in EP falls too close to the MCFC end of the spectrum,
and a major goal of this article is to try to persuade
evolutionary psychologists to migrate toward the other
pole: toward the MMC model.
Overview of the Article
The article is divided into three main sections.
The first discusses the historical origins of the MCFC
model and makes the case that, although humans ex-
hibit some genuine sex differences, we do not fit the
standard MCFC mold. The second section discusses
the evolution of pair bonding, paternal care, and mu-
tual courtship in our species. Among other things, we
discuss how the MMC model can be reconciled with
individual differences and cross-cultural variability in
mating patterns and childcare arrangements. Finally,
the third section looks at the influence of the MCFC
model within EP and argues that this model has en-
couraged the exaggeration of the size of the sex dif-
ferences in at least three domains: short-term mating,
mate choice, and competition over mates.
Origins of the MCFC Model
In this section, we look at the theoretical under-
pinnings of the MCFC model—sexual selection the-
ory and parental investment theory—and ask whether
these theories apply to human beings. We argue that
they do indeed apply, and that they provide a better
account of certain psychological sex differences than
do rival sociocultural theories. However, we also ar-
gue that human beings do not fit the MCFC mold that
applies so well to so many other animals. Although
our species clearly exhibits some degree of dimor-
phism, we are closer to the monomorphic end of the
monomorphism–dimorphism spectrum. This view is
not inconsistent with sexual selection theory. On the
contrary, it is exactly what sexual selection theory pre-
dicts for our species. This is because, although the sex
difference in minimum parental investment is large in
humans, the sex difference in typical parental invest-
ment is markedly smaller.
Sexual Selection and Parental Investment
The discussion of the evolution of sex differences
started with Charles Darwin (1859, 1871). The great
naturalist was puzzled by a widespread trend in the an-
imal kingdom. In many species, males and females dif-
fer from one another, both morphologically and behav-
iorally (Andersson, 1994; Clutton-Brock, 1991; Daly
& Wilson, 1983). Not only that, but the same kinds
of differences occur again and again. In many verte-
brate species—elephants and elephant seals, giraffes
and gorillas, polar bears and pteranodons, whales and
wolves—the males are larger than the females. Fur-
thermore, in many species, males have more ornamen-
tation or armamentation. The classic example of orna-
mentation is found in peacocks. Male peacocks have
extravagant, colorful, and elaborate tail feathers; pea-
hens, in contrast, are relatively drab. The classic ex-
ample of armamentation is found in deer. Male deer
have large and threatening antlers, which they use to
intimidate and fight one another; females have none, or
they have smaller ones that they rarely use. In addition
to the recurring morphological differences, there are
recurring behavioral differences. In species in which
the males are larger than the females, the males also
tend to have a stronger sex drive and greater interest
in obtaining multiple mates, and tend to be more ag-
gressive and competitive. In contrast, females in these
species tend to be choosier about their sexual part-
ners and to provide most of the parental care for their
offspring. Furthermore, females generally have greater
longevity. There are exceptions to all these rules, of
course, but the trend is strong enough as to demand an
The explanation Darwin (1871) put forward was
his theory of sexual selection. According to Darwin,
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traits such as the peacock’s tail and the deer’s antlers
are products of one of two processes: intersexual se-
lection or intrasexual selection. Intersexual selection
involves the sexual preferences of members of one sex
(usually the females) for certain traits in the other.
So, for example, peahens have a preference for males
with larger-than-average tails; these males therefore
have more offspring, and their offspring inherit the
large tails. Over the generations, the males’ tails be-
come progressively larger. Intrasexual selection, on the
other hand, involves competition between members of
the same sex (usually the males) for sexual access to
the other, or for access to the territories or status that are
prerequisites for sexual access. The winners of these
competitive interactions have more offspring than the
losers, and thus any traits that gave the winners a com-
petitive advantage are passed on at a greater frequency
than competing variants. This can lead to the evolution
of greater size and strength, more ferocious weaponry,
and greater aggressiveness in the male of the species.
These traits can be selected even if they increase their
bearers’ mortality risk, as long as they give a suffi-
ciently large reproductive boost. As a result, males in
these dimorphic species typically have a shorter lifes-
pan than females.
Parental Investment and Potential
Reproductive Rates
With the concepts of intersexual selection and intra-
sexual selection, Darwin was able to explain many of
the sex differences observed in nature. However, there
were various other puzzles that he did not solve. Why,
for instance, is it usually the males that compete for
mates and the females that exert mate choice? Why
is it not just as often the other way around? In 1972,
Robert Trivers set forth his answer to these questions
when he linked the trend to sex differences in parental
investment. According to modern parental investment
theory, in species in which one sex invests more in
offspring than the other, whether in terms of gamete
size, pregnancy, or provisioning of the young, the po-
tential reproductive rate of the higher investing sex is
slower than that of the lesser investing sex, and thus
the maximum number of offspring that any member of
the higher investing sex can produce is lower (Clutton-
Brock & Vincent, 1991). Usually, females invest more
than males, and thus the maximum number of offspring
any particular female can have is lower than the max-
imum of any particular male. The implications of this
discrepancy are great.
First, because the greater-investing sex can produce
fewer offspring over its lifetime, it often evolves to
be choosier about its sexual partners. This is based on
the principle that the more you invest, the wiser your
investment needs to be. Because in many species, fe-
males invest more, females are generally choosier than
males, and males are more likely to be ornamented
(the ornaments being shaped by the female mate pref-
erences). Second, because the lesser-investing sex can
potentially sire many more offspring, it evolves a
stronger tendency to pursue multiple matings. Because
in many species, males invest less, males often have a
stronger sex drive than females and a greater interest in
sexual novelty. Parental investment also helps account
for male–male competitiveness. In species with little
male parental investment, any male can in principle im-
pregnate not just one but many females. However, be-
cause the number of offspring a given female can have
is finite, if one male has more than his “fair share” of
offspring, other males must have less. Males possess-
ing traits that increase their chances of being in the for-
mer group (the more-than-their-fair-share group) will
pass those traits on to their offspring at a greater rate
than those in the latter group, and thus the traits will
be selected. In sum, the reason that females usually
exert mate choice, and that males usually compete for
females, is that females usually invest more than males
in offspring.
This is not always the case, though, and some of
the most persuasive evidence for parental investment
theory comes from a group of species that buck the
usual MCFC trend: the sex-role reversed species (Eens
& Pinxten, 2000). The best examples are North Amer-
ican shorebirds such as jacanas, phalaropes, and spot-
ted sandpipers (Oring, 1986). In these species, it is
not the males but the females that are larger, more ag-
gressive, and more ornamented, and the females that
fight among themselves for access to the best mates.
Furthermore, it is not the females but the males that
are choosier about their sexual partners. These ap-
parent counterexamples actually support Trivers’s the-
ory because, in all these species, the males are the
higher-investing sex: The males single-handedly care
for the eggs and feed the hatchlings. Other sex-role
reversed species include the tidewater goby, various
species of pipefish, and the midwife toad. Note that
the most commonly cited example of a sex-role re-
versed animal—the seahorse—might not be role re-
versed after all. Although male seahorses incubate the
eggs, females still tend to be somewhat choosier and
males more competitive. This is because, despite the
high male investment, there is little sex difference in
male versus female reproductive rates (Eens & Pinxten,
The sex-role reversed species are a clear and sur-
prising exception to the MCFC rule. However, there is
another exception, and it is far more common: the sexu-
ally monomorphic species. These are often (though not
always) species in which females and males form pair
bonds, and both sexes invest heavily in offspring. Be-
cause both sexes invest, the discrepancy in the number
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of offspring each sex can produce is reduced and, con-
sistent with parental investment theory, the normal pat-
tern of sex differences is sharply diminished. This is
most commonly found in birds; more than 90% of
birds form pair bonds and tend toward monomorphism
(Lack, 1968). But the same pattern is found in a hand-
ful of mammals as well. Among primates, for instance,
pair bonding and monomorphism are found in some
lemurs (e.g., indris), some tarsiers (e.g., pygmy tar-
siers), some New World monkeys (e.g., owl monkeys,
marmosets, and tamarins), and even some nonhuman
apes (i.e., gibbons). But although sexually monomor-
phic species are fairly common, and although the pat-
tern makes good sense in terms of parental investment
theory, these species appear less frequently in discus-
sions of sexual selection and parental investment than
do unambiguously MCFC species such as peacocks
and deer. The MCFC pattern is viewed as the primary
outcome of sexual selection, as can be seen in the fact
that the terms male competition and female choice are
often treated as synonymous with intrasexual selection
and intersexual selection, respectively. This emphasis
on sexual dimorphism, female choice, and male com-
petition was to have important effects when scientists
started using sexual selection and parental investment
to try to explain sex differences in human beings.
Injecting Some Evolutionary Biology
Into Psychology
By the time evolutionary biologists brought their
theories to maturity, a very different perspective on sex
differences had developed elsewhere in the academy.
This had its origins in the “blank slate” view of hu-
man nature, a view found to varying degrees in the
work of many early luminaries of the social sciences,
including the anthropologists Franz Boas and Mar-
garet Mead, the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Karl
Marx, and the psychologists John Watson and B. F.
Skinner. The blank slate position implied that psycho-
logical sex differences, if they existed at all, were al-
most entirely the products of experience and socializa-
tion rather than biology. Social scientists could draw
on a well-stocked arsenal of psychological theories to
explain how this socialization might be achieved. A
behaviorist approach would hold that parents and oth-
ers reinforce sex-role-consistent behavior and punish
sex-role-inconsistent behavior. Social learning theory
would hold that people imitate relevant models, es-
pecially successful same-sex models with high status
in their peer groups. Cognitive-developmental theories
would hold that, during early childhood, people come
to categorize themselves as either male or female and
that they then strive to bring their behavior into line
with their schemas of how members of their sex be-
have; in this way, sex-role consistent behavior becomes
self-reinforcing, rather than having to be reinforced by
outside agencies. Regardless of the specifics, though,
the underlying assumption was that most psychological
sex differences are not part of human nature or biology.
As Fausto-Sterling (1992) put it, “The key biological
fact is that boys and girls have different genitalia” (pp.
152–153). Any other differences come from learning
or culture.
For much of the 20th century, the blank slate view
was the dominant view in the social sciences (Pinker,
2002; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). With the popular-
ization of sociobiology in the 1970s (Dawkins, 1976;
Wilson, 1975), however, evolutionary approaches to
human behavior became the locus of an academic
culture war between biologically minded thinkers
and advocates of the traditional social science model
ale, 2000). Scientists in both the biological
and social sciences began to challenge “Nurture-Only”
accounts of human sex differences and started applying
sexual selection and parental investment theory to our
species (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Symons, 1979). They
pointed out that, as with other placental mammals, the
obligatory biological investment of human females is
considerably higher than that of males. A woman must
invest a minimum of 9 months into the production of
any offspring and, for most of our evolutionary his-
tory, she would then have to breastfeed the infant for
several years. In contrast, the minimum investment of
the human male is the time and energy needed to court
and impregnate the female. Given this sex difference
in minimum parental investment, a number of human
sex differences suddenly seemed to make good sense.
Recall that in dimorphic vertebrate species, certain
morphological and behavioral traits cluster together.
Males tend to be larger, to have a higher sex drive,
and to be more competitive and aggressive. Females
tend to be more selective about their sexual partners,
to be more involved in childcare, and to have greater
longevity. This all seems to apply to human beings.
First, as we would expect in a species in which fe-
males invest more in offspring, there is an average
sex difference in size: Across human populations,
men are around 10% taller than women (Gaulin &
Boster, 1985). There is also a large sex difference
in lean muscle mass: Men have around 41% more
fat-free muscle mass than women (Lassek & Gaulin,
2009). Second, there is good evidence that, on aver-
age, men have a greater interest in casual sex and
sexual variety than women. This has been demon-
strated in numerous questionnaire studies, in both
Western and non-Western nations (Lippa, 2009; Pe-
terson & Hyde, 2010; Schmitt, 2005b; Schmitt & 118
Members of the International Sexuality Description
Project, 2003), and in studies looking at men and
women’s receptiveness to apparently genuine sexual
solicitations from strangers (Clark & Hatfield, 1989;
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eguen, 2011; Hald & Hogh-Olesen, 2010). The
difference can also be seen in real-world behavior: Men
are the main consumers of pornography and prostitutes,
whereas women are the main consumers of romance
novels (Salmon, 2012; Symons, 1979). Third, on aver-
age, men are more competitive and physically aggres-
sive than women. Across cultures, men engage in more
direct aggression than women, especially between the
ages of 20 and 30 (i.e., the time of peak mating effort),
and especially when it comes to more extreme forms
of violence (Archer, 2004; Daly & Wilson, 1988). Fur-
thermore, across cultures, boys are more physically
aggressive than girls (Eagly & Steffen, 1986), a pat-
tern found also in many nonhuman anthropoid species
(Symons, 1979). Fourth, women in all known soci-
eties are generally more involved in childcare than men
(Wood & Eagly, 2002). This difference persists even in
modern Western nations, despite the widespread ideal
of gender equity and despite the availability of tech-
nologies such as baby bottles and baby formula, which
enable men to care for infants just as ably as women
(Buss, 2012). Fifth and finally, in virtually every na-
tion, women have greater longevity than men (United
Nations, 2009).
The fact that these sex differences are found across
cultures, that the same sex differences cluster together
throughout the animal kingdom, and that this cluster of
differences relates not only to behavioral traits but also
to “biological” traits such as body size and lifespan add
up to a strong prima facie case that the behavioral dif-
ferences have an evolutionary origin. As the evidence
and arguments came to light, EP won more and more
adherents. Of course, not everyone was convinced, and
there were various efforts to find alternative explana-
tions for the pattern—explanations that did not invoke
innate psychological differences. We suggest, though,
that none of them adequately accounts for the evidence.
Consider, for instance, Eagly and Wood’s Social
Role Theory (SRT; Eagly & Wood, 1999; Wood &
Eagly, 2012). SRT explains psychological sex differ-
ences in terms of the different social roles that cul-
tures make available to their male and female members
(Eagly & Wood, 1999; Wood & Eagly, 2012). Whereas
most animals have relatively fixed social roles, humans
have much greater behavioral flexibility. According to
SRT, we evolved this flexibility to cope with the vari-
ability of our ancestral environments. Like our tools
and technologies, our social roles are products of learn-
ing, innovation, and cumulative cultural evolution. In
all societies to date, these processes have created a
division of labor by sex, and this, according to SRT,
is the main source of psychological sex differences
in our species. Advocates of SRT do not rule out a
role for biological sex differences in shaping men and
women’s roles. However, the differences they empha-
size are primarily physical rather than psychological
ones. They include the fact that men are larger and
stronger than women, and the fact that women alone
can get pregnant and nurse offspring. These differences
mean, for instance, that men are more likely to take
on roles involving heavy physical labor or aggression,
whereas women are more likely to take on a parental
role. Importantly, according to SRT, because the same
physical sex differences are found in all cultures, the
same psychological sex differences are found in all
cultures as well—not because they are direct products
of evolution, but because the physical differences tend
to channel our social roles in certain directions.
Thus, SRT attempts to explain the cross-cultural
universality of certain psychological sex differences
in our species without having to posit a direct
evolutionary contribution. But does the approach
stand up to scrutiny? We suggest not. First, some of
the central predictions of SRT are not borne out by
the data. SRT implies that, in societies with higher
gender equity—that is, in societies where the division
of labor is less sex-linked—men and women will have
more similar roles and will therefore be more similar
psychologically (Wood & Eagly, 2012). Consistent
with this expectation, some sex differences are indeed
smaller in societies with greater gender equity. This
includes differences in the importance of status and
resources in a long-term mate (Eagly & Wood, 1999;
Zentner & Mitura, 2012) and differences in stereotyp-
ically masculine or “agentic” behavior (see Wood &
Eagly, 2012, for a review). However, many other sex
differences are actually larger in more equitable soci-
eties. This is the case, for instance, for sex differences
in attachment styles, the Big Five personality traits,
certain cognitive abilities, crying patterns, depression,
interpersonal violence, self-esteem, and values (sum-
marized in Schmitt, 2012b). This mixed pattern is hard
to reconcile with the idea that most sex differences
stem from the division of labor by sex. It may fit better
with the idea that, in modern Western societies, people
are generally freer to act on their preferences and
nurture their own individuality, and, as a result, sex dif-
ferences often return to more natural, preagricultural
levels: smaller in some cases but larger in others.
There is, however, a more serious problem with
SRT. Although this approach might be able to explain
the cross-cultural universality of the sex differences in
question, it fails to explain the cross-species trend. As
we have seen, the pattern of sex differences found in
our species mirrors that found in most mammals and in
many other animals. As such, considerations of parsi-
mony suggest that the best explanation for the human
differences will invoke evolutionary forces common
to many species, rather than social forces unique to
our own. When we find the standard pattern of dif-
ferences in other, less culture-bound creatures, we in-
evitably explain this in evolutionary terms. It seems
highly dubious, when we find exactly the same pattern
in human beings, to say that, in the case of this one
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primate species, we must explain it in terms of an en-
tirely different set of causes—learning or cumulative
culture—which coincidentally replicates the pattern
found throughout the rest of the animal kingdom. Any-
one who wishes to adopt this position has a formidable
task in front of them. They must explain why, in the ho-
minin lineage uniquely, the standard evolved psycho-
logical differences suddenly became maladaptive, and
thus why natural selection “wiped the slate clean” of
any biological contribution to these differences. They
must explain why natural selection eliminated the psy-
chological differences but left the correlated physical
differences intact. And they must explain why natu-
ral selection would eliminate the psychological differ-
ences and leave it all to learning, when learning simply
replicated the same sex differences anyway. How could
natural selection favor extreme flexibility with respect
to sex differences if that flexibility was never exercised
and was therefore invisible to selection? No doubt so-
cial roles can help to shape sex-typical behavior, and
social factors may magnify or minimize some sex dif-
ferences. However, the cross-species trend provides a
powerful reason to think that evolutionary forces are
the primary cause of the psychological sex differences
under discussion.
Even accepting this, though, questions remain about
the magnitude of these evolved differences and the best
way to construe them. The first question is, Does the
fact that we possess these sex differences imply that
we are an MCFC species?
Making Sense of the Differences
This is certainly what some sociobiologists and evo-
lutionary psychologists have concluded. For instance,
one of the founding fathers and popularizers of socio-
biology, E. O. Wilson (1978), wrote,
It pays males to be aggressive, hasty, fickle, and undis-
criminating. In theory it is more profitable for females
to be coy, to hold back until they can identify males
with the best genes. In species that rear young, it is
also important for the females to select males who are
more likely to stay with them after insemination. ...
Human beings obey this biological principle faithfully.
(p. 29)
In other words, like peacocks, human males com-
pete with one another for access to females and are in-
discriminate in their sexual proclivities; like peahens,
human females choose those males whose good genes
shine through in their competitive prowess; and all of
this stems ultimately from the fact that women are the
primary care givers for their offspring. Of course, men
often help care for their offspring as well. However,
an extreme MCFC view would have to hold that this
is a social invention rather than an evolved tendency,
or else that it is an evolved “second-best strategy” for
men who do not have the social status or good genes
necessary to obtain multiple mates instead (see, e.g.,
Gangestad & Simpson, 2000).
Thus, the MCFC model provides one lens through
which we might interpret the sex differences in our
species. On closer inspection, though, this model starts
to jar with a lot of what we know about human courtship
and reproductive behavior. Rather than females alone
caring for offspring, human males commonly provide
substantial postcoital investment (albeit less than fe-
males; Geary, 2000; Gray & Anderson, 2010; Marlowe,
2000). Rather than females exercising mate choice and
males competing for females, both sexes have species-
typical mate preferences (Buss, 1989), and both sexes
compete for desirable members of the other sex (Buss,
1988; Campbell, 2002). These are not trivial qualifi-
cations. They make human beings an exception to the
MCFC rule, and make us extremely unusual within the
wider animal kingdom.
But this leaves us with a puzzle. On the one hand,
we have a rich collection of sex differences that make
good sense in terms of parental investment theory; on
the other, we do not seem to fit the MCFC mold. How
can we reconcile these apparently contradictory facts?
There are two elements to our answer. First, we sug-
gest that, although humans are somewhat dimorphic,
we are closer to the monomorphic end of the spectrum
than most mammals—close enough, at any rate, that
we have a system of mutual mate choice rather than
the more asymmetrical MCFC system. Second, sex dif-
ferences in human beings are not like those found in
typical MCFC species. In other animals, we often find
sexually dichotomous differences in behavior. In many
mammalian species, for instance, females are parental
and males are simply not (Clutton-Brock, 1991). In
human beings, on the other hand, sex differences usu-
ally involve modest differences in the central tendency
for each group, with strongly overlapping distributions
and smaller differences between groups than within
them (Carothers & Reis, 2013). These are two very
different types of sex differences, and it is important
to avoid mistaking one for the other. Certainly, hu-
mans exhibit large sex differences in some physical
traits, such as muscle mass and strength (Lassek &
Gaulin, 2009). However, behavioral and psychologi-
cal sex differences are almost always less pronounced
(Hyde, 2005).2From a comparative perspective, we
are a relatively monomorphic mammal, with relatively
monomorphic minds.
At first glance, this assertion might appear to be in-
consistent with parental investment theory. As we have
seen, a common reading of the implications of Trivers’s
2The main exception to this rule concerns preferred sexual part-
ners: The vast majority of men are primarily attracted to women,
whereas the vast majority of women are primarily attracted to men.
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theory for our species is that, like other mammals, the
obligatory biological investment for men is much lower
than that for women, and as a result, humans are highly
dimorphic. The trouble with this formulation (and per-
haps one of the reasons that people are inclined to
exaggerate the sex differences in our species) is that
it focuses on the sex difference in minimum parental
investment, rather than in typical parental investment.
Although the minimum investment by human males is
indeed small (“a few minutes of sex and a teaspoon
of semen,” as Pinker, 1997, put it, p. 468), the typical
level of male investment is a lot higher. When both
sexes invest heavily in offspring, the sex difference in
reproductive variability is reduced, and this leads to
a proportionate reduction in sexual dimorphism. Fur-
thermore, both sexes may evolve to exert mate choice
and to compete for desirable mates. This is not a radical
reinterpretation of parental investment theory; Trivers
(1972) himself devoted most of the second half of his
seminal chapter on the theory to this point, noting that,
“Where male parental investment per offspring is com-
parable to female investment one would expect male
and female reproductive success to vary in similar ways
and for female choice to be no more discriminating than
male choice” (p. 141). In the next section, we argue that
this is exactly what is found in our species, and that it
finds its ultimate origin in the evolution of human-level
The Evolution of Mutual Mate Choice
Human beings are an exception to many general
rules in biology. In many species, female mate choice
alone is important; in our species, male mate choice
is important as well. In many species, males alone
are showy and ornamented; in our species, females
are as well. In many species, males alone compete
for mates; in our species, females compete as well. In
many species, males invest nothing other than sperm
in their offspring; in our species, men typically invest
a great deal. Not only are human beings exceptional
in these ways, but they all tie together into a cohesive
story. The story, in brief, is as follows. Human offspring
are extremely costly. Because of our large brains, our
young are helpless at birth and have an extended juve-
nile period. Consequently, they require more care than
the mother alone could provide. The high levels of
investment required by human offspring led to the evo-
lution of various forms of allomaternal care (care from
individuals other than the mother). This includes the
evolution of male parental care, often in the context
of reasonably durable pair bonds. Although humans
naturally engage in a wide range of mating behav-
iors, from monogamy to polygyny to promiscuity, the
need for heavy investment in offspring meant that pair
bonding and male parental care assumed a particularly
important place in our reproductive repertoire. This in
turn precipitated the evolution of mutual courtship in
our species: Males evolved to be choosy, and females
evolved to compete for mates. In the following sec-
tions, we elaborate on each element of this story. We
then consider some possible criticisms of our position.
Human Offspring Are Extremely Costly
The starting point for our argument is the fact that
human offspring require an enormous amount of in-
vestment. According to one estimate, it takes 10 to 13
million calories to rear human offspring from birth
to nutritional independence in a foraging or forag-
ing/horticultural society, over and above any calo-
ries they acquire themselves during that time (Ka-
plan, 1994). This makes our young much costlier than
the young of even our closest primate cousins (Hrdy,
2009). The high cost of rearing human offspring is
largely a consequence of our high intelligence and large
brains. Our brains make our offspring costly for two
main reasons.
The first is that human young are altricial (i.e., they
are helpless and utterly dependent at birth). This is
widely believed to be the result of the confluence of
two unique attributes of our species: our big brains and
bipedalism. Bipedalism evolved first, and necessitated
the reengineering of the pelvis. One of the side effects
of this reengineering was that the pelvic canal became
rather narrow. This created a major problem when se-
lection later started favoring larger brains. How could
females with narrow pelvic canals give birth to such
large-brained babies? This is sometimes known as the
obstetric dilemma. The (partial) solution that selection
hit on was for hominin babies to be born earlier than
is ideal, when their heads are still small enough to
squeeze through the birth canal. By primate standards,
human infants are born around 12 months prematurely
(Martin, 1990). As Taylor (2010) put it, for the 1st year
of their lives, they are “extra-uterine fetuses,” unable to
move about or feed themselves. This significantly in-
creased the amount of attention and care required dur-
ing this early stage of development. (See Dunsworth,
Warrener, Deacon, Ellison, & Pontzer, 2012, for an
alternative explanation for the timing of human birth.)
The second reason that our offspring are so costly
is that humans have an extended childhood. As Hrdy
(2009) pointed out, with other Great Apes, as soon as
an infant is weaned, it begins provisioning itself. For
humans, the situation is very different. Although chil-
dren in forager societies often gather much of their own
food from early childhood, they do not start acquiring
more calories than they consume until around 18 years
of age (Kaplan, 1994). Once again, our brains are re-
sponsible: It takes a long time to grow a large brain and
to equip it with the various skills needed for adult life
in a technologically sophisticated and socially complex
community. The fossil record supports the view that the
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increase in brain size in the hominin lineage went hand
in hand with an increase in the length of childhood. It
has been estimated that australopithecines (which had
brains around the size of chimpanzee brains) attained
reproductive maturity at around 12 years, that Homo
erectus (which had considerably larger brains) attained
reproductive maturity at 14 to 15 years, and that Homo
sapiens (which had larger brains again) attained repro-
ductive maturity in their late teens (Bogin, 1999).
Not only are individual offspring costly, but human
females have a comparatively short interbirth interval.
Among foragers (i.e., hunter-gatherers), the typical in-
terbirth interval is 3 to 4 years (Pennington, 2001). For
other Great Apes, it is 4.5 to 8 years—a surprisingly
big difference given that human infants are larger than
the young of other Great Apes and take longer to reach
maturity (Hrdy, 2009). The net result is that, unlike,
say, female chimpanzees, women often have more than
one dependent offspring at the same time: a nursing in-
fant and a weaned but still-dependent child. None of
this would be possible without significant allomaternal
Costly Offspring Led to the Evolution of Pair
Bonding and Paternal Care
As large brains evolved in our lineage, the need
for allomaternal care increased dramatically, especially
during pregnancy and infancy (Marlowe, 2003a). Se-
lection appears to have taken several paths to satisfying
this need: Mothers commonly receive aid from a vari-
ety of interested parties, including grandparents (espe-
cially maternal grandmothers) and siblings (especially
older sisters; Hawkes, 2005; Hrdy, 2009; Sear & Mace,
2008). For present purposes, though, the most impor-
tant development was the evolution of male parental
investment, often within the context of a pair bond. The
idea that humans form pair bonds, and that males often
invest in their young, has a long history in biological
anthropology (Lovejoy, 1981; Washburn & Lancaster,
1968). Early incarnations of the idea were criticized
for painting an overly simplistic picture, according to
which “Man the Hunter” provisioned his dependent
wife and children with meat in a stable nuclear fam-
ily, suspiciously reminiscent of a 1950s-style Western
family (Hawkes, 1991; Hrdy, 1981). However, with
appropriate amendments and qualifications, the idea
that pair bonding and biparental care are a central part
of our evolutionary endowment appears to be viable
(Geary, 2000; Geary & Flinn, 2001; Gray & Ander-
son, 2010; Kaplan, Hill, Lancaster, & Hurtado, 2000;
Lancaster & Lancaster, 1985; Miller & Fishkin, 1997).
In the following, we consider first the evolution of pair
bonding, then the evolution of paternal care, and fi-
nally evidence for the universality of these phenomena
in human beings.
Pair Bonding
Pair bonding (or monogamy) is an extremely rare
mating system among mammals, found in less than 5%
of species (Kleiman, 1977). Nonetheless, it appears to
be a central element in humans’ reproductive reper-
toire. It is therefore a curious fact that our dominant
mating system is more like the typical mating system of
birds than that of most mammals, including our near-
est relatives, the Great Apes. In making this claim, it
is important to be clear about three things.
First, the claim is not that pair bonds necessarily
last for life. In the absence of socially enforced lifelong
monogamy, most pair bonds last for months or years
but ultimately dissolve (Fisher, 1992). Note, though,
that a significant minority of pair bonds do last until the
end of the lifespan, even in traditional forager societies
that lack rigid strictures on divorce (see, e.g., Marlowe,
Second, the claim is not that human pair bonds are
always sexually exclusive. Most surveys suggest that
considerably fewer than 50% of men or women in
long-term committed relationships are ever unfaithful
(Blow & Hartnett, 2005). Nonetheless, some are, and
as a result, a certain fraction of offspring are sired
by someone other than the social father (the best es-
timates place this at around 1–3%; Anderson, 2006;
Wolf, Musch, Enczmann, & Fischer, 2012).
Third, the claim is not that pair bonding is our one
“true” or natural mating system. Humans exhibit all
the mating systems found in other species, including
monogamy, polygyny (one man, two or more women),
and even polyandry (one women, two or more men;
Murdock, 1967).3It is also not uncommon for people
to engage in extrapair mating, or to engage in casual
sex before marriage or between long-term relation-
ships. Different frequencies of each of these mating
behaviors are found in different cultures and different
historical periods. However, with the exception of long-
term polyandry, all are relatively common, and thus all
are plausibly part of the evolved repertoire of the hu-
man animal. Thus, our claim is not that pair bonding is
humanity’s singular mating pattern. Our claim instead
is simply that the pair bond is the most common setting
for sex and reproduction in our species, that it has been
for a long time, and that this has left a deep imprint on
our evolved nature.
Human pair bonds are held together by various fac-
tors, both social and psychological. It is the psycho-
logical factors that are most relevant here, however,
as they are plausibly products of selection. They in-
clude sexual desire, romantic love, and long-term at-
tachment (Fisher, 1992). They also include romantic
jealousy (Buss, 2000). The pair bonds inspired by these
3This should not be too surprising; the mating system labels we
apply to other species were originally coined by anthropologists to
describe human mating patterns.
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psychological states serve at least three evolutionary
functions (see, e.g., Marlowe, 2000). The first is the
impregnation of the female; this is, of course, closely
linked to sexual desire. The second applies only to the
male; it is to increase his probability of fathering the
woman’s offspring (this is known as the mate guarding
hypothesis; Chapais, 2008). And the third is to facilitate
male provisioning and protection of the female while
she is pregnant and breastfeeding, and biparental care
of the child for a time thereafter (Fisher, 1992; Mar-
lowe, 2003a). The extent to which a pair bond serves
each function depends on its duration. Some pair bonds
are short-lived and thus can only serve the first two
functions. But others last for many months, years, or
even for life, and may therefore serve all three. It is
important to remember that the proposed functions do
not describe people’s motivations for establishing pair
bonds. Instead, they describe the selection pressures
shaping the disposition to form these bonds—in other
words, the selection pressures shaping emotions such
as romantic love, long-term attachment, and jealousy.
These emotions can lead people to form pair bonds
without them having any awareness of the evolved
function of the bond.
Paternal Care
Although pair bonds serve several functions, we
maintain that the central one is paternal care. Paternal
care plausibly enhanced the fitness of the men engag-
ing in it. For one thing, given the dependency of hu-
man offspring, it may have increased the fraction of
offspring reaching breeding age. In many forager soci-
eties, children without an investing father have lower
survival rates than those with one (e.g., Dwyer & Min-
negal, 1993; Hill & Hurtado, 1996). Admittedly, one
study detected this “father effect” in only one third of
small-scale societies (Sear & Mace, 2008). However,
virtually all the societies in this study were agricultural
societies, and thus it is unclear that the finding is rep-
resentative of most of human evolution. Furthermore,
survival is only one, rather exacting measure of male in-
vestment. Paternal care could boost the father’s fitness
even without boosting offspring survival. It could, for
example, help shorten the woman’s interbirth interval,
through reducing the workload and calorific toll associ-
ated with raising a young child (Marlowe, 2001). This
would increase the woman’s fertility, which would en-
hance the man’s fitness as well, as long as he had a
reasonable probability of paternity. Finally, although
the optimal situation for a pair-bonded man is to in-
vest exclusively in his own offspring, if this option was
not available, paternal investment in another man’s off-
spring (e.g., a woman’s children from a previous mate)
may have increased his fitness, as long as it increased
the probability that he would father the woman’s next
child (Daly & Wilson, 1998).
It might be observed that some men do not invest
in their offspring, and that in some cultures, most men
invest relatively little. This variability does not, how-
ever, undermine the claim that men have an evolved
paternal psychology, unless that claim is taken to im-
ply that men will invest equally in their offspring un-
der all circumstances. A more realistic claim is that
paternal investment is facultative—that is, that men
evolved to invest more readily in some circumstances
than others (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). Consistent
with this idea, there is evidence that male paternal psy-
chology is sensitive to various evolutionarily relevant
cues. For example, men invest less in offspring when
their own mate value is high (Waynforth, 1999) and
when females outnumber males in the local population
(Marlowe, 1999a). This is presumably because men in
these circumstances have more mating opportunities,
and thus pursuing additional mates may boost fitness
more than parenting. On the other hand, men tend to
invest more in offspring when the offspring in question
are likely to be theirs—in other words, when pater-
nity probability is high (Apicella & Marlowe, 2004;
Daly & Wilson, 1987). Variables like these may help
account not only for individual differences in paternal
investment within a given culture but also for aver-
age differences in paternal investment between cul-
tures. In South American partible paternity societies,
for instance, several men may invest in the offspring
of a woman with whom they have had sexual rela-
tions (Beckerman & Valentine, 2002), but each may
invest less than the average man in a society with more
exclusive sexual bonds. Furthermore, in many tradi-
tional “matrilineal” societies (societies that often have
low paternity probability), men typically invest more
in the offspring of their sisters than the offspring of
their wives (Hartung, 1985). Thus, in some situations,
men may invest in children outside the context of a pair
(We need not assume, incidentally, that selection has
equipped men with an explicit concern about paternity.
There are other possibilities. For instance, if men are
more paternally inclined when involved in a close re-
lationship, and if they are also more likely to remain
in a close relationship when it appears to be sexually
exclusive, then paternal investment will be correlated
with paternity probability even without men necessar-
ily fretting over the paternity of their wards—or even
necessarily possessing a belief in unique paternity.)
In addition to stressing the variability of male
parental investment, it is important to note that male
investment is not the only source of allomaternal care
in our species. Allomaternal care also often comes
from grandmothers, older sisters, and other kin (espe-
cially female kin), and from unrelated female friends,
perhaps in a context of reciprocal exchange (Hames,
1988; Hawkes, 2005; Hrdy, 2009). The quantity of
care coming from each of these sources varies from
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family to family and culture to culture (Muller, Mar-
lowe, Bugumba, & Ellison, 2008; Sear & Mace, 2008;
Waynforth, 1999). Again, this cross-cultural variabil-
ity might seem to challenge the idea that humans pos-
sess an evolved, species-wide tendency to form pair
bonds and engage in biparental care. We would ar-
gue, however, that despite the variability in childcare
arrangements, men everywhere have the capacity to
fall in love, to form pair bonds, to form bonds with
their offspring, and to invest in offspring. Even when
a culture is set up so that these potentialities are only
sometimes actualized, the potentialities still seem to be
there. This suggests that, throughout the course of our
evolution, the selection pressure for investing fathers
was strong enough to shape a male psychology capa-
ble of pair bonding and paternal care. In the following
sections, we summarize two major lines of evidence
for this assertion.
Cross-Cultural Evidence
Some of the strongest evidence comes from the
cross-cultural record. Starting with pair bonding, in
one influential study, Jankowiak and Fisher (1992) sur-
veyed the ethnographies of 166 historically indepen-
dent cultures drawn from the Standard Cross-Cultural
Sample. Of these, explicit discussion of romantic love
was present in 147 (88.6%); in the remainder, it was
not clear either way. It is important that, although the
researchers did not find unambiguous evidence of ro-
mantic love in every culture, romantic love was evi-
dent in at least some cultures—indeed in the majority
of cultures—from every world region surveyed, in-
cluding Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Poly-
nesia. This is difficult to reconcile with the idea that
love is a recent European invention. It suggests instead
that, for all the variability we see in marriage pat-
terns across cultures, romantic love is a cross-cultural
universal. Other research leads to the same conclu-
sion. Gottschall and Nordlund (2006) conducted a con-
tent analysis of traditional (precontact) literature from
around the globe and concluded that romantic love was
clearly detectable in 78 of 79 cultural groupings. This
included a diverse and geographically disparate array
of populations, including sub-Saharan Africans, Aus-
tralian Aborigines, and Native Americans. Again, the
fact that romantic love is so ubiquitous challenges the
idea that it is a Western social construction or cultural
export. It seems much more plausible that human be-
ings are, by nature, the kind of animal that falls in
The cross-cultural record also suggests that humans
are the kind of animal that commonly provides bi-
parental care for its young. In 95% to 97% of mam-
malian species, only the females care for the young
(Kleiman, 1977). We would no more expect males in
these species to invest in their offspring than we would
expect them to get pregnant or lactate. Humans are not
like that. Although men almost always invest less than
women (Wood & Eagly, 2002), there are clear signs that
they have been “set up” by selection to provide paternal
care. Some of the best evidence comes from foragers,
as their living conditions most closely approximate
those of our ancestors throughout the majority of hu-
man evolutionary history. Based on a narrative review
of the literature on forager societies, Hewlett and Mac-
Farlan (2010) concluded that men in these societies ex-
hibit a high level of father involvement. Fathers provide
calories and shelter; transport young children; keep an
eye on toddlers; transmit knowledge, skills, and status
(especially to sons); and help defend the family from
threats. Other, more systematic studies have reached
similar conclusions. Marlowe (2000) surveyed the 186
cultures in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, assess-
ing rates of paternal care among foragers, pastoralists,
and agriculturalists. He looked at both direct care (e.g.,
holding, grooming, and babysitting) and indirect care
(i.e., the provision of calories). Forager fathers again
emerged as high investors. They provided the high-
est level of direct paternal care of all the groups, and
they provided a moderate-to-high level of indirect care.
Among pastoralists and agriculturalists, levels of di-
rect paternal care were notably lower, especially for
infants. However, there are two points to make about
this. First, although there was less direct care in these
societies, direct care was not absent, and this in itself
makes human males very different from most male
mammals. Second, men in pastoralist and agricultural
societies exhibited high levels of indirect care—that is,
they made large contributions to subsistence in these
societies. So, although paternal care is absent in most
mammals, it is found in humans across widely varying
Another line of cross-cultural evidence comes from
a phenomenon discovered by Martin Daly and Margo
Wilson, dubbed the Cinderella effect. In every culture
that has been examined, men (and women) are more
inclined to invest in their own offspring than in stepoff-
spring. This is the case not only in a wide range of
modern industrialized nations (Daly & Wilson, 2001a)
but also in small-scale foraging societies (Flinn, 1988b;
Marlowe, 1999a). The pattern does not appear to be a
simple product of limited coresidence of stepfathers
and stepchildren: It has been found even in samples
where the father has lived with the stepchild for an
extended period, sometimes even from birth (Flinn,
1988b). The Cinderella effect makes good sense on the
assumption that paternal investment is a product of se-
lection: A man’s biological offspring are more likely
than stepchildren to possess copies of any given gene in
his genome, and thus a tendency to care selectively for
one’s own offspring could increase the replication rate
of any genes contributing to the development of that
tendency. If, on the other hand, paternal care were an
arbitrary cultural product, there would be no reason to
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expect that this own-child bias would be found in every
culture. Thus, cross-cultural comparisons suggest that,
as with pair bonding, high male parental investment in
our species plausibly has an evolutionary origin.
Hormonal Evidence
A further line of evidence comes from research on
the hormonal correlates of pair bonding and paternal
care. According to the Challenge Hypothesis (Wing-
field, Hegner, Dufty, & Ball, 1990), polygynous species
and pair bonding species differ from one another in
patterns of testosterone activity in the males. In highly
polygynous species (which usually exhibit little or no
paternal investment), males maintain consistently high
testosterone levels throughout the breeding season. In
pair bonding, biparental species, on the other hand,
testosterone levels are upregulated or downregulated
depending on circumstances. In many birds, for in-
stance, when males compete with other males for mates
or territory, their testosterone levels run high. When, in
contrast, they establish a pair bond and start investing
in offspring, their testosterone levels fall (Wingfield
et al., 1990). If this kind of hormonal modulation were
found in human beings, it would be strong evidence
that pair bonding and male parental care are products
of selection in our species.
Such evidence is available. Various studies have
found that men in long-term relationships or with chil-
dren have lower average testosterone levels than do
single men. This has been confirmed by various re-
search groups using various methods, and studying
men in both industrialized and nonindustrialized so-
cieties (Archer, 2006; Gray & Anderson, 2010; Muller
et al., 2008). (The same pattern also seems to be found
in women; van Anders & Goldey, 2010.) Of course,
it might be argued that, rather than testosterone lev-
els falling when men form pair bonds or start car-
ing for children, perhaps men who have lower testos-
terone levels in the first place are simply more likely
to form long-term relationships and take on a parental
role. However, a recent longitudinal study of 624 Fil-
ipino men undermines this idea. The researchers found
that men who got married and had children during
the course of the 5-year study experienced a larger
decline in testosterone than single, childless men (Get-
tler, McDade, Feranil, & Kuzawa, 2011). Furthermore,
the paternal testosterone drop has been demonstrated
in experimental conditions: Among men, the sound of
a baby crying, when coupled with nurturant behavior,
leads to a slump in testosterone levels (van Anders,
Tolman, & Volling, 2012). Aside from testosterone,
human pair bonding and paternal behavior have been
linked to oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin (Gettler,
McDade, Feranil, & Kuzawa, 2012; Gordon, Zagoory-
Sharon, Leckman, & Feldman, 2010; Gray, Parkin, &
Samms-Vaughan, 2007) in ways comparable to those
observed in the males of other pair-bonding primates
(Schradin, Reeder, Mendoza, & Anzenberger, 2003)
and in more distantly related pair-bonding species such
as prairie voles (Young & Wang, 2004). It is hard to
argue that these hormonal responses are products of so-
cialization, as opposed to being part of the basic design
of male human beings. Socialization may certainly in-
fluence levels of male parental behavior. However, the
basic biological machinery of pair bonding and male
parental motivation appears to be a fundamental com-
ponent of the male phenotype in human beings.
Pair Bonding and Paternal Care Led
to the Evolution of Mutual Courtship
It is plausible to suppose, then, that as a result of the
dependency of our big-brained young, humans evolved
to form pair bonds and to engage in biparental care—or
more precisely, that big brains, pair bonding, and bi-
parental care coevolved. This had important implica-
tions for our species. For one thing, it led to a reduction
in the sex difference in reproductive variability (vari-
ance in the number of offspring produced by males
vs. females), which in turn led to a reduction in sex-
ual dimorphism. In addition, it kindled the evolution
of mutual courtship. The fact that our young require
such high levels of investment, and thus that males
commonly invest in their offspring, provides a good
explanation for mutual courtship in humans. Indeed, it
implies that we should have been very surprised if we
found anything else. Because our male ancestors were
investing more and more into offspring, men evolved
to be choosy about their sexual partners, at least in a
long-term mating context. Men’s mate preferences in
turn put women under intersexual selection, which led
to the evolution of “showy” females: females with sec-
ondary sexual features such as breasts, facial neoteny,
and the “hourglass” figure. Finally, as a result of the
availability of paternal investment of variable quality,
women evolved to compete for the best mates and in-
vestors. We now consider in greater detail the evolution
first of male mate choice and then of female mate com-
Male Mate Choice
In MCFC species, males have little in the way of
mate preferences, other than those that lead them to
mate with females of the same species and to favor
novel females over familiar ones (the Coolidge ef-
fect). In contrast, in species in which males invest in
offspring, males typically evolve greater choosiness
about their mates. The discussion of male mate choice
traces back as far as Darwin (1871; see also Edward
& Chapman, 2011; Johnstone, 1997). Although rare,
it has now been documented in many animal groups,
including various birds, lizards, fish, and insects (sum-
marized in Hooper & Miller, 2008). Male mate choice
is also found in humans. Human males have a number
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of well-documented, species-typical mate preferences.
These include preferences for physical traits such as
a low waist-to-hip ratio, facial and bodily symmetry,
neoteny, and youthfulness (Barber, 1995; Singh, 1993;
Thornhill & Gangestad, 1993). They also include pref-
erences for psychological traits such as intelligence,
emotional stability, and sexual fidelity (Buss, 1989;
Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Of course, no one is surprised
that men have mate preferences; it is such a familiar
fact of life that we take it for granted. From a com-
parative perspective, though, we should be surprised.
The existence of these preferences makes our species
atypical among mammals and is inconsistent with the
idea that we are an MCFC species.
Some of the best evidence that humans have a long
history of male mate choice is found not in males but
in females. We tend to view mate preferences as prod-
ucts of evolution, but they are more than this; they
are also causes of evolution. The mate preferences of
one sex create a selection pressure on the other, which
over many generations can shape morphological and
behavioral traits in the other sex. The best-known non-
human examples concern female preferences and male
traits (e.g., the female widowbird’s preference for long
male tails; Andersson, 1994). However, the process is
not always so sexually asymmetric. In species with
male mate choice, male preferences exert a selection
pressure on females and can shape female morphol-
ogy. This can be seen in many pair bonding birds.
For instance, the crown of the crested auklet (Jones &
Hunter, 1993) and the feather coloration of the king
penguin (Nolan et al., 2010) are found not only in
males but also in females, and are thought to be prod-
ucts of mutual mate choice. Similarly, the ornamen-
tal coloration of female bluethroats (a passerine bird;
Amundsen, Forsgren, & Hansen, 1997), and the orange
spot patches of female striped plateau lizards (Weiss,
2006), appear to have been shaped by male mate
In humans as well, male mate preferences have left
their mark on female morphology (Barber, 1995; Ihara
& Aoki, 1999). In fact, in some domains, women are
more sexually selected than men; one could say in
these cases that women have the larger “peacock’s
tail.” An example can be found in the domain of phys-
ical attractiveness. Women are typically rated as bet-
ter looking than men, by both men and women (Dar-
win, 1871; Feingold & Mazzella, 1998; Ford & Beach,
1951). The difference is plausibly a consequence of
the fact that, although both sexes care about good
looks in a mate, on average, men care somewhat more
(Buss, 1989; Lippa, 2007). This means that, since this
sex difference first evolved, there has been a some-
what stronger selection pressure on women than men
for physical attractiveness—the opposite of what we
find in peacocks. To take a more specific example,
the fact that adult human females have permanently
enlarged breasts is plausibly a consequence of male
choice. Contrary to popular opinion, enlarged mam-
mary glands appear not to be necessary for milk deliv-
ery. The vast majority of mammals deliver milk without
them, and there is little correlation between the size of
a woman’s breasts and her capacity to produce milk
(Miller, 2000). What, then, are breasts for? A rather
obvious clue can be found in the fact that most men
find youthful-looking breasts sexually attractive. This
has led to the suggestion that the primary evolution-
ary function of breasts relates to mate choice (Dix-
son, Grimshaw, Linklater, & Dixson, 2011). The most
widely accepted suggestion is that they are honest sig-
nals of good genes, youthfulness, and nutritional status
(Jasienska, Ziomkiewicz, Ellison, Lipson, & Thune,
2004; Marlowe, 1998; Singh, 1995; for an alternative
hypothesis, see Low, Alexander, & Noonan, 1987). If
so, women’s breasts tell us something important about
ourselves, namely, that we are not the kind of species in
which males only ever pursue sex indiscriminately and
females alone exert mate choice. Breasts are evidence
of male mate choice operating over many thousands
of generations (Cant, 1981). The same is true of other
secondary sexual features found in human females, in-
cluding facial neoteny (e.g., large eyes, small noses
and chins); gluteofemoral fat deposits and the hour-
glass figure; and lighter, smoother, less hairy skin.
The lesson that all these features teach us is this: If
men in our evolutionary past did not invest in offspring,
they would not have evolved strict mate preferences
and thus women would be as drab as peahens. The fact
that women are not as drab as peahens suggests a long
history of male mate choice, which in turn suggests a
long history of pair bonding and high male parental
Female Mate Competition
A further consequence of the evolution of pair bond-
ing and male parental motivation in our species is
female competition for mates. In his classic exposi-
tion of parental investment theory, Trivers (1972) ob-
served that “Competition for mates usually character-
izes males because males usually invest almost nothing
in their offspring” (p. 142). However, as he then pointed
out, in some species males do invest in their offspring,
and where this is the case, the sexual asymmetry in mat-
ing competition is reduced. As with male mate choice,
female competition is rare in the animal kingdom, but
there are examples. Among Mormon crickets, for ex-
ample, females compete for the male’s packet of edible
sperm (Gwynne, 1981). Similarly, among tamarins and
marmosets (New World monkeys), males invest a great
deal in offspring, and females exhibit high rates of in-
trasexual competition (Hrdy, 2009).
In humans as well, intrasexual competition is not
limited to males. Not only do men compete with
other men for the most desirable women, but women
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compete with other women for the most desirable
men (Buss, 1988; Simpson, Gangestad, Christensen,
& Leck, 1999). As mentioned, the sex difference in
muscle mass is large, suggesting that violent competi-
tion was much more common among men than women
(Puts, 2010; although see Campbell, 1995). However,
muscle mass dimorphism cannot be treated as the sole
index of the sex difference in intrasexual competition,
because violent competition is not the only type of
intrasexual competition found in our species. Com-
petition among women takes many forms. In some
traditional cultures, women advertise their suitabil-
ity as a spouse by displaying their cooking abilities
and other domestic skills (Marshall, 1971); in others,
they compete to display chastity (Dickemann, 1981).
In Regency and Victorian Britain, well-to-do women
competed for men in various ways, such as writing
amusing letters, playing the piano, or learning for-
eign languages—activities that advertised their intel-
ligence, conscientiousness, and creativity (Miller, per-
sonal communication, April 2012). In our own cul-
ture as well, female competition for mates takes varied
forms. For instance, women (and men) display humor
and try to convey a desirable personality (Buss, 1988),
and they derogate rivals within earshot of mates or po-
tential mates (Buss & Shackelford, 1997; Schmitt &
Buss, 1996). Similarly, women compete through dis-
plays of physical attractiveness (as do men, though to
a lesser extent; Buss, 1988). Despite the differences
in the details across cultures, female competition is
ubiquitous and makes our species an exception to the
MCFC rule. As with male choosiness, female compe-
tition teaches us an important lesson about our species.
If men had not evolved to form long-term bonds and
invest in offspring, women would not have evolved to
compete for mates. The fact that women do compete
for mates suggests again that we have a long history of
pair bonding and paternal investment.
Potential Criticisms
That, then, is our basic position on the evolution of
mutual mate choice and reduced dimorphism in our
species. There are various criticisms that might be lev-
eled at this position; in this section, we deal with some
of the most common.
1. You claim that humans are primarily a pair-
bonding species. However, it is more accurate to
say that we are primarily a polygynous species, like
our cousins the gorillas.
At first glance, the ethnographic record appears to sup-
port this view. According to anthropologists, there are
many more polygnous human societies than monog-
amous ones; Murdock’s (1967) authoritative Ethno-
graphic Atlas reports that the majority of societies
(83%) are polygynous. But what exactly does this
mean? It means two things: (1) that monogamy is not
enforced in these societies, and (2) that the number
of polygynous marriages is greater than zero. In the
majority of so-called polygynous societies, the ma-
jority of relationships are not polygynous; they are
monogamous (i.e., they involve pair bonds). Again,
the most pertinent evidence comes from foragers. Mar-
lowe (2003b) looked at rates of polygyny in 36 forager
groups from the Standard Cross-Cultural Survey. On
average, 12.4% of married men and 20.1% of married
women were married polygynously, leaving 11.1% of
men single. Of course, these averages conceal a great
deal of variability. One way to take account of the
variability is to look at the proportion of societies that
are nonpolygynous or only mildly polygynous (which
Murdock defined as <20% married polygynously)
versus those that are generally polygynous (>20%
married polygynously). In Marlowe’s sample, a clear
majority of societies fell into the former category. In
74.2% of societies, less than 20% of married men were
married polygynously; in 73.3%, less than 20% of mar-
ried women were. Furthermore, in around 10% of these
societies, there was no polygyny at all. Admittedly, two
societies had particularly high levels of polygyny. The
most extreme were the Tiwi Islanders of Northern Aus-
tralia (Hart, Pilling, & Goodale, 1988), among whom
70% of married men and 90% of married women were
married polygynously at the time of European con-
tact. However, there are several reasons to interpret
the Tiwi data cautiously. First, there is some question
about how closely official marriage patterns among the
Tiwi correspond to actual mating patterns, as a result
of high rates of infidelity and illicit pair bond forma-
tion (Goodale, 1971). Second, even if we ignore this
concern, levels of polygyny as high as the Tiwi’s are
highly atypical of human societies and thus should not
exert a disproportionate influence on our picture of the
evolved nature of our species.
A reasonable conclusion is that, although we are
more polygynous than gibbons, we are nowhere near as
polygynous as gorillas. Most male gorillas either have
a harem or do not have a mate; in contrast, most men
who have more than zero mates have only one. This
means that, whereas only harem-holding male gorillas
contribute to the gene pool of the next generation, most
human males who contribute to the gene pool do so in
the context of a pair bond. Consequently, our evolved
sexual nature has been shaped more by pair bonding
than by harem polygyny.
2. We are neither a polygynous nor a pair-bonding
species. We are instead a promiscuous species, like
our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos.
According to proponents of this view, promiscuous
mating is humanity’s solitary evolved mating system,
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and long-term pair bonding is a social invention—or
even a social pathology (Hrdy, 1981; Ryan & Jeth´
2010; Sherfey, 1972). There are, however, strong rea-
sons to doubt this thesis. First, promiscuous species
tend to have large testes relative to their body weight,
which is an adaptation to sperm competition in the fe-
male’s reproductive tract. For humans, testis weight (in
grams) divided by body weight (in kilograms) is .79.4It
is often stated that relative human testis size is interme-
diate between that of polygynous/monandrous gorillas
(.09–.18) and promiscuous chimpanzees (2.68–2.83),
giving the impression that we are somewhere along the
path to chimpanzee promiscuity (see, e.g., Buss, 2003,
pp. 74–75; Shackelford, Pound, Goetz, & LaMunyon,
2005, pp. 374–375; Workman & Reader, 2008, p. 101).
However, relative to body size, human testes are similar
in magnitude to those of socially monogamous gibbons
(.83–1) and nowhere near the size of chimp testes. This
suggests a comparatively low historical level of sperm
competition (Dixson, 1998; Gomendio, Harcourt, &
an, 1998; Short, 1979).
Other evidence points to the same conclusion. Rel-
ative to promiscuous species, humans have low sperm
counts, small sperm reserves, and little optimization
of sperm (summarized in Gray & Anderson, 2010).
Promiscuous species also tend to evolve high white
blood cell counts in order to deal with increased ex-
posure to sexually transmitted pathogens; humans,
however, have a comparatively low white blood cell
count (Nunn, Gittleman, & Antonovics, 2000). Finally,
promiscuous species tend to advertise fertility (or es-
trus) with blatant swellings, whereas in humans (as
well as gibbons, gorillas, and orangutans), fertility is
not advertised in this way (Dixson, 1998). Certainly,
fertility is not perfectly concealed (Miller, Tybur, &
Jordan, 2007; Thornhill & Gangestad, 2008). How-
ever, the absence of perfect concealment does not im-
ply the presence of active advertisement, and if fertility
were advertised in humans, we would presumably not
need to employ sophisticated experimental methods to
demonstrate its detectability. Thus, various lines of ev-
idence suggest that, although promiscuous mating is
part of our reproductive repertoire, we do not have the
kind of obligate nonmonogamy found in chimpanzees
and bonobos.
3. We are not a polygynous species, a pair-bonding
species, or a promiscuous species. We have no single
mating system—not because we are blank slates but
because human mating behavior is designed to vary
adaptively in response to circumstances.
Various evolutionary psychologists have taken this
view (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Gangestad & Simpson,
4This and subsequent estimates of relative testis size come from
Miller et al. (2002). They were calculated from data in Dixson (1998).
2000; Hrdy, 2009). According to Buss and Schmitt’s
(1993) Sexual Strategies Theory, for instance, humans
have a complex menu of evolved mating strategies,
rather than a single obligate strategy, with different
contextual variables (including mate value, resource
availability, parasite prevalence, and the adult sex ra-
tio) drawing out different facets of our evolved mating
psychology in historically adaptive ways. This pluralis-
tic approach to mating behavior might initially seem to
clash with our argument. As mentioned earlier, though,
our argument does not hinge on the claim that pair
bonding is the one natural human mating system. All
it requires is that pair bonding has been significantly
more common in the past than any other pattern, and
thus that it is central to our evolved nature. The anthro-
pological data just summarized support this view, as do
various other lines of evidence (e.g., Labuda, Lefebvre,
Nadeau, & Roy-Gagnon, 2010).
Certainly, there are evolutionary theories of human
mating which claim that long-term pair bonding is our
solitary evolved mating pattern. This includes Attach-
ment Fertility Theory (AFT). AFT argues that natural
selection has equipped us with sex-similar long-term
attachment mechanisms but that short-term mating is
merely a nonadaptive or maladaptive by-product of
these mechanisms operating in evolutionarily-novel
conditions (Miller & Fishkin, 1997; Miller, Peder-
sen, & Putcha-Bhagavatula, 2005). There are, how-
ever, good reasons to reject this view. The main one
is that AFT has trouble explaining the sex difference
in short-term mating predilections: the fact that, on
average, men are more interested than women in ca-
sual sex (Schmitt, 2005b; Schmitt & 118 Members of
the International Sexuality Description Project, 2003).
As we discuss later, this difference is real and per-
sistent (albeit much more modest than EP sometimes
claims). However, if short-term mating were simply
a by-product of sex-similar attachment mechanisms,
why would the difference exist at all? How could
sex-differentiated short-term inclinations emerge as
a side effect of mechanisms that are not themselves
sex differentiated? AFT struggles to explain the ev-
idence. Parental investment theory, in contrast, ex-
plains it easily and in terms of principles that apply
right across the animal kingdom. Given that there is a
larger sex difference in short-term than long-term mat-
ing (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Kenrick, Sadalla, Groth,
& Irost, 1990), it seems likely that natural selection
has acted on our long-term versus short-term incli-
nations separately. If so, this implies that we have at
least some adaptive flexibility in our mating behav-
ior: We are adapted for both long-term and short-term
mating. Again, though, this does not undermine our
position, as our position requires only that, among
our varied mating options, pair bonding has tended to
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4. You emphasize the importance of personal mate
choice and emotions like love in solidifying pair
bonds. However, for most of human history, these
things were largely irrelevant because marriages
were arranged by families.
It is certainly true that, in many traditional societies,
parents and other interested parties exert a strong in-
fluence on marriage patterns (Apostolou, 2007, 2010;
Flinn, 1988a). This is especially the case for daughters.
However, we should not underestimate the importance
of personal choice. To begin with, among foragers, it
is typically only first marriages that are arranged. Only
a minority of first marriages last for life, and subse-
quent unions are generally determined by the princi-
pals (Irons, 1989). Furthermore, even in arranged mar-
riages, mate preferences and romantic love may exert
some influence. They may, for instance, help deter-
mine how long the marriage lasts and how fecund it
is. More than that, they may help determine whether
an arranged marriage goes ahead in the first place. It
is rare for parents to disregard entirely the preferences
of their daughters and sons and to force them into a
marriage they strongly object to (Davis & Daly, 1997;
Schlegel & Barry, 1991). Finally, even when parents
have total control over marriage decisions, and even
when marriages are permanent unions, people can still
potentially exercise mate choice through premarital sex
and affairs or through eloping with a lover (Pillsworth
& Barrett, 2008). Thus, although parents sometimes
exert a strong influence on marital decisions, their in-
fluence is not so all-encompassing that it undermines
our position.
5. Men’s contribution to subsistence is not about
increasing the survivability of genetic offspring. It
is about gaining access to mates—in other words, it
is mating effort rather than parenting effort.
This criticism is based largely on research on big-game
hunting. It rests on three observations: (1) that the
spoils of big-game hunting are often shared widely
within the group and are not channeled selectively to
the hunters’ wives and children; (2) that hunting large,
impressive prey animals yields fewer calories overall
than hunting smaller but less impressive ones; and (3)
that successful hunters often have the youngest wives,
more wives, and more affairs (Hawkes, 1991; Hawkes,
Rogers, & Charnov, 1995). These findings provide a
good reason to think that big-game hunting is at least
partly about showing off to attract mates. However,
the conclusion that hunting—or male investment in
general—is solely about attracting mates is too strong.
First, hunters do sometimes channel the spoils of big-
game hunting selectively to their wives and offspring
(Gurven & Hill, 2009). Second, big-game hunting is
not the only way that men obtain food. Among the
Hadza, for instance, around one third of the calories
produced by men come from honey, and this is often
preferentially shared with wives and children (Mar-
lowe, 2003a). Third, as we mentioned earlier, food
provisioning is not the only form of paternal invest-
ment, and men often provide direct care for offspring as
well, especially in forager societies (Hewlett & Mac-
Farlan, 2010; Marlowe, 2000). Finally, if male pro-
visioning evolved solely as a way to gain access to
mates, rather than to increase the survivability of one’s
genetic offspring, there would be no reason to expect
the Cinderella effect. As such, all the evidence for the
Cinderella effect argues against the claim that male
provisioning is purely a matter of mating effort. More
plausibly, it evolved partly as mating effort and partly
as parenting effort (Bribiescas, Ellison, & Gray, 2012;
Marlowe, 1999b).
An Unexpected Species
In sum, as brain size increased in the hominin lin-
eage, our offspring became more and more biologi-
cally expensive, and pair bonding and male parental
care came to occupy a larger and larger fraction of our
mating behavior. This idea makes sense of various facts
about human beings that we take for granted but that
would otherwise be inexplicable. This includes such
commonplaces as that men and women both pursue
long-term relationships and fall in love, that men have
species-typical mate preferences, that women compete
for mates, that both sexes are prone to jealousy and
engage in mate guarding, and that both sexes have sec-
ondary sexual characteristics. EP has led the field in
documenting these aspects of human sexual psychol-
ogy. Nonetheless, there is also a tendency within EP
to exaggerate the sex differences in human beings and
to push our species into the framework of the MCFC
model. This is the topic of the final section of the article.
The MCFC Model in Evolutionary Psychology
At the start of the article, we suggested that there
is an unresolved conflict in EP. On one hand, much of
the EP literature is consistent with the idea that mutual
mate choice is an important dynamic in our species. On
the other, mutual choice is inconsistently present, and
the MCFC model exerts an important influence as well.
This can be seen in some of the field’s “big picture”
claims about human nature, in the research questions
that are posed, and in the way the data are interpreted.
In the remainder of the article, we look at the influence
of the MCFC model in three main areas. First, we look
at the issue of sex differences in sexual strategies, and
argue that EP commonly overemphasizes men’s short-
term mating orientation relative to women’s. Second,
we look at intersexual selection, and argue that EP
Downloaded by [Steve Stewart-Williams] at 17:46 02 September 2013
commonly overemphasizes female mate choice rela-
tive to male mate choice. Finally, we look at intrasex-
ual selection, and argue that EP sometimes overem-
phasizes male competition for mates relative to female
competition. All these tendencies inadvertently sup-
port a view of human beings as more dimorphic than
we actually are. To the extent that we accept this view,
we effectively mistake ourselves for highly dimorphic
animals such as peacocks or deer.
Overemphasizing Men’s Short-Term Mating
One of the most famous claims in EP is that, be-
cause of sex differences in parental investment, men
have evolved to be more interested than women in ca-
sual sex, sexual novelty, and the acquisition of multiple
mates within a short time frame (Buss & Schmitt, 1993;
Schmitt, 2005b). People had, of course, noticed this dif-
ference before EP came along. However, EP has made
two major contributions. First, it has provided a cogent
and compelling explanation for the sex difference. Sec-
ond, it has documented its cross-cultural universality,
thus strongly challenging the view that the difference
is simply a product of local cultural mores. These must
be counted as among the most significant contributions
of EP to the understanding of our species, and we do
not deny that the explanation is fundamentally correct
or that the difference is genuine. Nonetheless, it is pos-
sible to exaggerate even a genuine difference, and we
suggest that there is a tendency in EP to do exactly
that. Modern evolutionary psychologists do not claim
that “men are promiscuous, women are monogamous,
as some critics charge (e.g., Brym & Lie, 2007, p. 68).
However, they still sometimes give an inflated impres-
sion of the difference in short-term mating inclinations.
How Large Is the Sex Difference
in Sociosexuality?
To make this case, we must first establish how big
the difference actually is. In doing this, we will focus
on Cohen’s das our measure of effect size, as other
measures (e.g., percentage of variance explained) can
underestimate the real-world impact of any difference
(Rosenthal & Rubin, 1979). According to a convention
in psychology, a dvalue of .2 is considered a small
effect, .5 a medium effect, and .8 a large effect (Cohen,
1988). Using this (essentially arbitrary) standard,
most sex differences in psychology are rather small;
as Hyde (2005) noted, 78% have an effect size less
than .35.5The sex difference in interest in casual sex
5Sex differences are not unique in this respect. Most ef-
fects in psychology—including some of the field’s most famous
findings—are in the same range (Eagly, 1995). In other words, most
effects are small, and thus most of the phenomena psychologists seek
to explain are products of many different factors.
is conspicuously larger than the norm, with typical
estimates ranging from .5 to .8 (Peterson & Hyde,
2010; Schmitt, 2005b). Evolutionary psychologists
often point out that this is one of the largest sex
differences that psychologists have ever uncovered,
and indeed it is. But the fact that the difference is
larger than most does not necessarily mean that it is
large in any absolute sense. So how large is it?
To address this question, we turn to an influen-
tial cross-cultural study by Richard Lippa (2009).
The study focused on sociosexual orientation (SO), a
widely used measure of people’s willingness to engage
in sex outside the context of a committed relationship
(Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). There are three main
reasons to focus on this study. First, the sample was
large and diverse: It included more than 200,000 par-
ticipants from 53 nations. Second, the SO measures
were limited to items asking about people’s attitudes
to casual sex, and thus there were no behavioral mea-
sures of SO (i.e., number of past sexual partners). This
is important because behavioral measures can under-
estimate the sex difference in SO, as heterosexual men
and women cannot always act on their inclinations but
must compromise with the desires of the other sex. Fi-
nally, the study included measures of an objective sex
difference—the sex difference in height—which can
serve as a useful reference point to assess the magni-
tude of the SO difference.
Collapsing across nations, Lippa (2009) found an
average effect size of d=.74 for the sex difference in
SO (or an estimated d=.85 after statistically correct-
ing for attenuation caused by using a small number of
items to measure the construct). If we accept Cohen’s
(1988) convention, this would be deemed a large ef-
fect. However, there are several reasons to be wary of
the convention. The first relates to the sex difference
in height. This is a difference of which we all have an
intuitive grasp: We know it exists, but we also know
that there is a fair amount of overlap between the sexes,
and that the difference is small compared to the differ-
ences found in animals such as gorillas and elephant
seals. Crucially, though, the sex difference in height
in Lippa’s sample was d=1.63. Thus, the modest
difference in height was around twice the magnitude
of the sex difference in SO.6Even if we restrict our-
selves to the handful of nations with the largest SO
differences—which tend to be nations with low gen-
der equity and low economic development—we find
they fall well short of the height difference. The largest
6Note that we are not arguing that, because human size dimor-
phism is low compared to gorillas or peacocks, humans must there-
fore be a monogamous species or have low dimorphism in general.
For several reasons, size dimorphism is not a useful indicator of an-
cestral mating patterns in our species (e.g., Lassek & Gaulin, 2009).
Our point is that size dimorphism—regardless of what it says about
ancestral mating patterns or overall dimorphism—is comparatively
low, but the difference in SO is half as large as that.
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effect sizes were around d=1.2: only around 74%
the height difference. And effect sizes that large were
rare; the vast majority fell below d=1. This pattern is
not unique to this study; Schmitt (2005b) reported very
similar results. Thus, the comparison with the human
height difference provides one reason to be cautious of
the claim that the SO difference is an especially large
A second reason relates to sexual size dimorphism
in monomorphic species. In lar gibbons, for instance,
the dvalue for the sex difference in body size is around
.8 (calculated from data in Schultz, 1941, as reported by
Geissmann, 1993). In other words, the sex difference
in SO in humans is about the same magnitude as the
sex difference in body size in gibbons. The reason this
is significant is that gibbons are the archetypal example
of a monomorphic primate. This means that, if we want
to say that the human SO difference is large, we must
also say that we were wrong to think that gibbons are
monomorphic for body size; they are in fact highly di-
morphic. Nor are gibbons an exceptional case. Indeed,
some prototypically monomorphic species have lev-
els of size dimorphism notably larger than the human
SO difference. This includes prairie voles (d=1.54;
Dewsbury, Baumgardner, Evans, & Webster, 1980) and
black swans (d=2.29; Kraaijeveld, Gregurke, Hall,
Komdeur, & Mulder, 2004). Of course, there are also
some monomorphic species, such as beavers and com-
mon marmosets, for which the sex difference in size
is close to zero (Ara´
ujo et al., 2000; McKinstry & An-
derson, 1998). But this does not undermine our point.
What the gibbons, prairie voles, and swans show us
is that the human SO difference falls within the range
considered monomorphic. Unless we want to say that
these species are not monomorphic after all, but are
actually highly dimorphic for body size, we cannot say
that humans are highly dimorphic for SO.
A final point is that, in comparing the means for
men versus women, it is important not to lose sight
of the variation within each sex, or of the overlap be-
tween the male and female distributions. For normally
distributed data, an effect size of .74 indicates around
55% overlap between the two distributions. Thus, al-
though the average SO score is higher for men than
for women, one study found that around one third
of men—a large minority—had lower SO scores than
the median woman (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). As
such, it is misleading to conclude from the difference
in the means that “Men are substantially more inter-
ested than women in casual sex” (Mikach & Bailey,
1999, p. 141). Such a statement focuses myopically
on the central tendency for each sex, and comes per-
ilously close to attributing the average for each group
to all the group’s members. Some men have higher SO
scores than some women, but some women have higher
SO scores than many men. Certainly, natural selection
has pushed the bell curve for men further to the right
than the bell curve for women, such that, if you picked
one man and one woman at random, it would be a
better bet that the man would be more interested than
the woman in casual sex. It would not, however, be a
particularly good bet. Based on unpublished SO data
from more than 1,200 men and women, we calculated
that you would win this bet only around two thirds of
the time. Thus, there is clearly a sex difference, but
it is nothing like the kind of dichotomous sex differ-
ence that the MCFC model (or the previous quotation)
might lead us to expect.
It is certainly true that effects in the .74-to-.85 range
are larger than most psychological sex differences.
However, this may, paradoxically, support our case:
The relatively modest sex difference in SO is one of
the largest found in our species precisely because we
are a relatively monomorphic animal. (For discussion
of Del Guidice’s recent suggestion that psychologists
underestimate sex differences by focusing on unidi-
mensional rather than multidimensional constructs, see
the appendix.)
Exaggerating the Differences?
It is reasonable to conclude, then, that the sex dif-
ference in SO, though larger than most human sex
differences, involves a modest discrepancy in the cen-
tral tendencies of two strongly overlapping distribu-
tions. Although this conclusion is directly based on
data collected by evolutionary psychologists, it is not
the impression one is likely to get from the EP lit-
erature. In various ways, EP conveys the impression
that the gender gap is much larger. Arguably, the most
notable way concerns some of the nonquestionnaire
data used in EP to demonstrate the gap. This includes
people’s responses to real-world sexual solicitations,
the utilization of pornography and prostitutes, and the
mating decisions of attractive or powerful men and
women—people who can get what they want on the
mating market without having to compromise (see,
e.g., Betzig, 1986; Buss, 2012; Symons, 1979). At
first glance, this evidence appears to demonstrate very
large sex differences. We argue, however, that the ap-
pearance is deceptive. For various reasons, each line of
evidence paints an exaggerated picture of the magni-
tude of the sex differences.
“Would You Go To Bed With Me?”
Consider first a famous study by Clark and Hat-
field (1989). Attractive men and women approached
members of the other sex on a college campus and
said, “I have been noticing you around campus and I
find you to be very attractive.” They then said one of
three things: (1) “Would you go out with me tonight?”
(2) “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?”
(3) “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” Call these
the date invitation, apartment invitation, and bed invi-
tation, respectively. For the date invitation, there was
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essentially no sex difference in responses: Around half
the men and half the women said yes. For the apart-
ment invitation, a large sex difference appeared: 69%
of men said yes, but only 6% of women did. Finally,
for the bed invitation, there was a very large sex dif-
ference: 75% of men said yes, but not a single woman
did. Not only that, but of the remaining 25%, several
reluctantly reported prior commitments and requested
a “rain check.” The argument is not that this shows that
men are less choosy than women; all the actors in the
study were attractive. The argument is that the study
shows that men—young men, at any rate—are more
willing than women to consent to casual sex.
As mentioned, most sex differences in psychology
are quite modest (Hyde, 2005). This one, however, is
extremely large (Voracek, Hofhansl, & Fisher, 2005).
Baumeister and Vohs (2004) suggested that the re-
sult makes perfect sense if we employ an economic
metaphor, according to which men are the buyers of
sex and women the sellers: If someone asked whether
cars should be given away for free, most car buyers
would say yes but most car dealers would say no. But
does this analysis overdraw the sex difference in inter-
est in casual sex? It probably does.
The first point to make is that the study was not about
casual sex per se; it was about casual sex withato-
tal stranger. As Clark and Hatfield (1989) themselves
pointed out, a woman consenting to be alone with a
male stranger is taking a greater physical risk than a
man consenting to be alone with a female stranger.
This may account for some of the sex difference in re-
sponses to the apartment and bed invitations. If so, the
study may exaggerate the sex difference in interest in
casual sex because it underestimates women’s interest.
In fact, this is almost certainly the case; after all, not a
single woman in the study accepted the bed invitation,
but presumably no one would want to argue that not a
single woman has any interest in casual sex.
Second, the explicit nature of the third invitation
(“Would you go to bed with me?”) might have been
more off-putting to women than men. To begin with,
women may be more likely than men to attribute neg-
ative personality traits to anyone who makes such an
offer (Conley, 2011). In addition, women might be
more concerned than men that accepting the invita-
tion would earn them a reputation for promiscuity.
Both factors may account for some of the sex dif-
ference in responses to the bed invitation. Of course,
attributional patterns and reputational concern would
both constitute sex differences in their own right.
However, they would not constitute sex differences
in interest in casual sex. The Clark–Hatfield findings
are usually treated as a direct, real-world measure of
that sex difference alone. But treating them this way
leads to an inflated estimate of the difference. Other
factors help shape men and women’s responses as
Finally, we should not put too much weight on the
particular set of results found in this one study. Re-
cent replications have found smaller sex differences
eguen, 2011; Voracek et al., 2005). For instance, in
a large replication in Denmark, Hald and Høgh-Olesen
(2010) found that 2% of women agreed to have sex
with a stranger, whereas only 38% of men did—in
other words, a majority of men turned down the offer.
The effect size for the sex difference was d=1.11.
This is large for a human sex difference; however, it
is still only two thirds the magnitude of the human
height difference. The results for the apartment invi-
tation were perhaps even more telling: 8% of women
consented, as compared to 22% of men, yielding an
effect size of only d=.41. This is particularly striking
given that most respondents presumably interpreted the
apartment invitation as a veiled invitation to have sex.
In sum, there is almost certainly an average differ-
ence between the sexes in interest in casual sex, but the
Clark–Hatfield study almost certainly overestimates its
size. A pleasing implication of this conclusion is that it
helps reconcile the results of this study with the results
of the numerous surveys that find a sex difference in the
same direction but of a smaller magnitude (e.g., Lippa,
2009; Schmitt, 2005b). Without such a reconciliation,
we would need to reject either the Clark–Hatfield find-
ings or all the questionnaire data, because the two lines
of inquiry give very different estimates of the magni-
tude of the difference.
The Customer Is Always Right
Another common argument for a large sex differ-
ence in short-term orientation concerns real-world dif-
ferences in men and women’s utilization of prostitution
and pornography (Salmon, 2012; Symons, 1979). The
question these data raise is, If the differences in SO are
only modest, why do we see such immodestly large
differences in these domains? Starting with prostitu-
tion, we agree that the sex difference in consumption
is large, but argue that it provides an imperfect mea-
sure of the typical sex difference in SO. Only a minor-
ity of men use prostitutes regularly. Kinsey, Pomeroy,
Martin, and Gebhard (1948) famously estimated that
15% to 20% of U.S. men were regular users; how-
ever, this is widely viewed as an inflated figure derived
from an unrepresentative sample. Most estimates in
sexually liberal Western nations put the figure at 2%
to 4% (Brooks-Gordon, 2006; Mansson, 2005). Al-
though many more people who pay for sex are men
than women, those few who do may come dispropor-
tionately from the extreme of the distribution for SO.
For normally distributed data, even a small difference
in means corresponds to a large difference at the tail of
the distribution. Thus, although the sex difference in
SO may be large at the tail (as indicated by the utiliza-
tion of prostitutes), the difference is likely to be much
more modest nearer the mean, that is, for the majority
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of the population. In addition, it is generally easier for
women than men to obtain casual sex without paying
for it, and thus the utilization of prostitutes is not a pure
measure of SO, even for those at the tail of the distribu-
tion. This is not to deny that the difference is large. The
point is that this large difference is a product of several
causal factors and thus that, if treated as a measure of
just one of those factors—in this case, the sex differ-
ence in interest in casual sex—it will overestimate the
size of that difference.
Pornography is a different issue, because pornog-
raphy is not consumed by only a small percentage of
men. It is well known that, since becoming readily ac-
cessible on the Internet, a large segment of the male
population now uses pornography on a regular basis.
Less well known, however, is the fact that, during the
same period, the percentage of female users has in-
creased substantially as well (see, e.g., Hald, 2006).
There is certainly still a sex difference, but how large
is it? Opinions differ. According to one major meta-
analysis (Peterson & Hyde, 2010), the effect size for
self-reported pornography use is d=.63. This is larger
than most sex differences in psychology, but again that
may simply reflect the fact that we are a relatively
monomorphic animal; it is, after all, only around 40%
the size of the sex difference in height. On the other
hand, it is possible that this value is an underestimate.
A lot depends on the specific variable under investi-
gation. If the variable is whether one has ever viewed
pornography, the sex difference is considerably smaller
than if the variable is how frequently one views pornog-
raphy. Hald (2006), for instance, reported a dvalue of
.59 for the first variable but 1.12 for the second. Now,
this was a one-off study, rather than a meta-analysis,
and thus we can be less assured of the finding. But
even if the larger estimate does turn out to be accurate,
there are two things to bear in mind. First, the effect
size is still only around two thirds that of the height
difference. Second, like the earlier examples, the sex
difference in pornography utilization is unlikely to be
solely a product of sex differences in SO. Presumably,
men’s greater interest in visual sexual stimuli also plays
a large role (Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, & Gladue, 1994).
Many women enjoy depictions of sex outside a com-
mitted relationship, but more women than men pre-
fer them in written rather than visual form (Ogas &
Gaddam, 2011). Again, this is still a sex difference,
but not a sex difference in interest in casual sex. No
doubt sex differences in the consumption of pornogra-
phy and prostitutes are shaped in part by evolved sex
differences in SO. However, for the reasons given, the
differences in consumption are likely to be larger than
the differences in SO.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
A final EP argument for large SO differences starts
from the premise that people’s sexual behavior does not
always reveal their true desires, because most people
have to compromise with the desires of the other party.
One way to get around this is to look at the behavior of
people who are attractive or powerful enough that they
do not have to compromise but are able to get what
they really want on the mating market (Buss, 2012;
Symons, 1979). So, for instance, researchers have ex-
amined men’s preferred mating strategies by looking
at the behavior of powerful, wealthy men. The gen-
eral finding is that, across cultures and throughout his-
tory, men who have more power, status, and wealth
have generally had more wives, more sexual partners,
and—in noncontracepting societies—more offspring
than other men (Hawkes, 1991; P´
erusse, 1993). This is
seen in an especially vivid form among despotic lead-
ers. The most famous example in EP is probably Ismail
the Bloodthirsty, the emperor of Morocco from 1672 to
1727, who had hundreds of wives and concubines and
reputedly sired 888 children (for a discussion of the
accuracy of this figure, see Einon, 1998; Gould, 2000).
But Ismail is not an isolated case. As Betzig (1986)
documented, in all the world’s traditional civilizations,
kings, emperors, and other powerful men have accu-
mulated large harems of nubile young women. Equiv-
alently powerful women have not accumulated harems
of nubile young men. The argument is that this pro-
vides an unbiased window on men’s evolved desires. It
shows what happens when these desires are “let off the
leash” and given full expression. In short, when men
have enough power to do anything they want, they
choose to have hundreds or even thousands of mates.
However, there are two reasons to think that the evi-
dence exaggerates the sex difference. First, we need to
ask, Does the behavior of these despots reveal the un-
trammeled desires of men in general, or does it just re-
veal the untrammeled desires of the kinds of men who
become despots? It is plausible to suppose that men
who obtain and hold on to positions of great power
tend to occupy the right-hand tail of the distribution
of testosterone-related traits such as aggression, dom-
inance, and polygynous inclination. As such, it is un-
wise to generalize from what are likely to be a highly
atypical subset of men. Although there is clearly an
average sex difference in desired partner number, the
historical evidence may exaggerate the magnitude of
this difference, because it is drawn from an unrepre-
sentative sample.
A second point is that the “unbiased window” ar-
gument can be turned on its head. Think about some
of the highest status men in modern societies: sports
stars, rock stars, politicians. At first glance, it might
seem that these individuals provide further proof of
men’s polygynous nature: They are often notorious for
their sexual antics and infidelities (the famous scan-
dal with Tiger Woods is a case in point). This ini-
tially seems to support the view that, “when they are
able to do so because of high mate value, men opt for
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short-term mating strategies” (Schmitt, 2005a, p. 273).
However, the picture is not so simple. Many of these
men are in the position where they have essentially an
unlimited supply of potential sexual partners. Do all of
them or even most of them eschew long-term relation-
ships and opt instead for as many one-night stands and
brief love affairs as possible? Sometimes, perhaps, but
often they do not. These men—the most eligible bach-
elors, the highest status males in our species—often
do what male chimpanzees never do: They fall in love
and form long-term pair bonds. Certainly, they may fall
out of love again more rapidly than lower status men,
they may be choosier about their long-term partners,
and they may engage in more extramarital dalliances
over the course of their lifetimes (see, e.g., Lammers,
Stoker, Jordan, Pollmann, & Stapel, 2011; P´
1993). However, most of them still fall in love at least
once in a while, and many forgo the option of mating
with multiple females for a long-term relationship and
investment in offspring.
This makes good sense in light of the fact that our
species spent most of its evolutionary history living in
small, egalitarian groups in which high levels of allo-
maternal care were necessary for offspring survival. It
is only in modern cities that people potentially have
access to an unquenchable supply of sexual partners,
and only in modern welfare states that children have a
good chance of survival even in the absence of alloma-
ternal support. It might make evolutionary sense that
high-status men living in such conditions would pursue
a short-term mating strategy exclusively. However, we
seem not to be that kind of animal. This is exactly what
we would expect given that, for most of our evolution,
we inhabited an environment in which such a strat-
egy was not possible, and in which the dependency of
our young meant that male parental investment often
paid large fitness dividends. Thus, if high-status men
provide a window on our evolved nature, they show
us to be a species that evolved primarily in the con-
text of small groups with high levels of pair bonding
and biparental care and relatively low levels of promis-
cuous and extrapair mating. This is not to deny that
short-term mating is part of men’s repertoire (or of
women’s); clearly, it is. The point is simply that it is
easy to overstate its importance and to overstate the
magnitude of the sex difference.
Overemphasizing Female Choice
A natural corollary of the strong emphasis on men’s
short-term, low-investment mating strategies is the rel-
ative neglect of the kind of mutual mate choice as-
sociated with long-term, high-investment mating. Al-
though no evolutionary psychologist would deny that
men have mate preferences, male choice often takes
a backseat in EP to female choice. In this section, we
examine how the MCFC model has biased the study
both of mate preferences and of mating displays in the
human species.
Overlooking Male Mate Choice
It is commonly claimed in EP that women are
choosier about their sexual partners than men. To take
two examples more or less at random, Becker, Ken-
rick, Guerin, and Maner (2005) suggested that “women
generally tend to be choosier, whereas men are more
intrasexually competitive” (p. 1649), and Gaulin and
McBurney (2004) argued that “Women are expected
to be choosier than men because of their slower repro-
ductive rates” (p. 269). The idea that women are the
choosier sex is one of the best-known claims associated
with EP. Ironically, another of the best-known claims
associated with EP is an exception to this rule: On av-
erage, men are choosier than women when it comes
to the physical attractiveness of a prospective mate
(Buss, 1989; Lippa, 2007). Even if we put this coun-
terexample aside, though, the statement “females are
choosier than males,” although true of many species,
does not apply easily to our own. It is true that men may
sometimes be more willing than women to lower their
standards for a casual sexual partner (Buss & Schmitt,
1993; although see Pedersen, Putcha-Bhagavatula, &
Miller, 2011). However, when it comes to the most im-
portant mating decisions of a man’s life—who he will
marry, who he will have children with—the difference
in choosiness is much smaller and maybe nonexistent
(see, e.g., Kenrick et al., 1990). This fact of human
life is even implicit in everyday folk psychology; the
stereotype is that men will “sleep with anything that
moves,” not that they will marry or have children with
anything that moves. In long-term, committed rela-
tionships, men are about as choosy as women (Buss
& Schmitt, 1993). Importantly, based on parental in-
vestment theory, we would not expect men to be indif-
ferent to mate quality. Long-term relationships often
involve high investment for both parties and reduce
males’ opportunities for other matings. As a result, we
would predict that human males would not be indis-
criminate about their long-term partners. Men could
not have evolved to fall in love or care for offspring if
they did not also evolve some reasonably strict mate
Nonetheless, the MCFC model may encourage such
a strong focus on female choice that male choice is
sometimes downplayed or even overlooked entirely.
In various studies, researchers have tested hypothe-
ses concerning mate preferences only in women, or
have tested them in women first and men only later,
as if as an afterthought. The tacit assumption seems
to be that only one sex (the female) exercises mate
choice—an assumption that, in effect, ignores the fact
that we are a species with pair bonding and paternal
care. In one study, for example, Roberts and colleagues
(2005) looked at whether people with a high level of
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genetic heterozygosity were more facially attractive. In
the article describing the research, the authors stated
that “Sexual selection theory asserts that males max-
imise reproductive success through seeking multiple
matings, while females achieve this goal through dis-
crimination of mate quality, or choosiness” (p. 214).
There was no suggestion that humans might be an ex-
ception to this MCFC pattern, and indeed the study
proceeded on the tacit assumption that we are not:
It examined women’s preferences for men’s faces but
not men’s for women’s. This is, in effect, to ignore
the fact that we are a species with mutual mate choice
and to ignore the fact that our male ancestors com-
monly achieved reproductive success, not only through
seeking multiple matings but through choosiness about
mates, pair bonding, and paternal care. The fact that
male mate choice could be so easily sidelined, despite
its ubiquity in everyday life, is testament to the power
of the MCFC model.
This is not an isolated example. Another concerns
the well-known research on MHC dissimilarity and
sexual attraction. MHC genes are a highly variable set
of genes involved in immune system functioning. Sev-
eral theoretical considerations suggest that individuals
will exhibit a preference for mates whose MHC genes
are as different as possible from their own. To explore
this issue in humans, Wedekind, Seebeck, Bettens, and
Paepke (1995) asked women to rate the scent of men
varying in MHC similarity. They found that the aver-
age pleasantness rating for MHC-dissimilar men was
somewhat higher than that for MHC-similar men. In
a species with pair bonding and biparental care, one
might expect that the researchers would look for the
preference in both sexes. Initially, though, they looked
only at females. Eventually, they did look at males as
well and, sure enough, they found the same prefer-
ence (Wedekind & Furi, 1997). This is exactly what
one would expect given that males in our species typi-
cally invest in offspring and thus have well-developed
mate preferences. The fact that the researchers initially
looked only at the female preference—and that people
discussing the MHC research often only mention the
female preference—is plausibly explained in terms of
the influence of the MCFC model.
The same pattern can be seen in the literature
on mate-choice copying. Mate-choice copying occurs
when one individual (A) finds another individual (B)
more attractive simply because other members of As
sex find B attractive too. This has been demonstrated
in various nonhuman species. In one of the first stud-
ies looking at the phenomenon in humans, Waynforth
(2007) predicted and demonstrated mate-choice copy-
ing in females but ignored the question of whether it
also occurs in males (see also Jones, DeBruine, Lit-
tle, Burriss, & Feinberg, 2007). Subsequent research
confirmed that males do indeed engage in mate-choice
copying (Little, Burriss, Jones, DeBruine, & Caldwell,
2008; Place, Todd, Penke, & Asendorpf, 2010). If not
for the MCFC model, this might have been the default
assumption from the start (for other recent examples of
the female-choice bias, see, e.g., Fink, Seydel, Man-
ning, & Kappeler, 2007; Prokosch, Coss, Scheib, &
Blozis, 2009; Wilbur & Campbell, 2011; Wiszewska,
Pawlowski, & Boothroyd, 2007).
Human Courtship Displays
The focus on female choice in EP can also be seen
in the research on courtship displays in our species. As
mentioned, mate preferences in one sex can give rise
to courtship ornaments and displays in the other. It is
often assumed that these are found only in polygynous
species and only in one sex: the males. However, if
both sexes exert mate choice, both sexes can evolve
ornaments and displays, even in monogamous species.
This can happen when there is assortative mating based
on indicators of heritable fitness (Hooper & Miller,
2008). We saw earlier that, in many socially monog-
amous birds, both sexes possess courtship ornaments.
Humans meet the description of a species that might
too: We commonly exhibit mutual mate choice and
biparental care. Various courtship displays have been
suggested for our species, chief among them language,
intelligence, and humor (Miller, 2000). These sugges-
tions are still controversial. However, whether they turn
out to be accurate or not, the research in this area again
shows the influence of the MCFC model. Evolution-
ary psychologists commonly talk about these putative
ornaments as if they were designed only for males to
attract females and never the other way around. Im-
plicit in this tendency is the asymmetrical mate choice
of the MCFC model.
Language. Our first example concerns the evolu-
tionary origins of the capacity for language. A number
of theorists have suggested that one of the main evolu-
tionary functions of language is courtship (e.g., Miller,
2000). One study investigating this issue (Dunbar, Mar-
riott, & Duncan, 1997) examined the subject matter
of men and women’s conversations, both in single-sex
and mixed-sex groups. It was found that, when women
were present, men were somewhat more likely to talk
about intellectual topics, such as academic issues or
politics. The researchers concluded that, compared to
women, men’s “conversations are more concerned with
self-promotion in what has all the characteristics of a
mating lek” (p. 243). But is this an accurate interpreta-
tion? In lekking species such as peacocks, ornamented
males gather together and engage in extravagant mat-
ing displays; drab females inspect them and choose
the most impressive male. Does this match what we
observe in human societies? It is true that, like lekking
species, humans often gather in multimale/multifemale
groups. However, unlike lekking species, both females
and males choose, and both males and females
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display. Females might be slightly less inclined to
display by increasing the time they spend discussing
academic matters, but they clearly display in other
ways (and one might question the merits of academic
discourse as a courtship display for either sex).
Furthermore, in lekking species, males provide no
parental care, whereas in our species they often do.
The suggestion that we are a lekking species involves
using average differences between the sexes (e.g., the
fact that males display more vigorously than females
in early courtship and that females are choosier early
on) to support a dichotomous view of the sexes (i.e.,
that males but not females display and that females
but not males exert mate choice). In other words, there
is a mismatch between the claim and the evidence for
that claim.
Intelligence. A second example concerns a peren-
nial question in biological anthropology: Why did hu-
mans evolve large brains and high intelligence? A re-
cent suggestion is that human intelligence is partly a
product of sexual selection. According to the main ex-
ponent of this view, Geoffrey Miller (2000), the human
brain is a sexually selected “entertainment centre,” and
creative intelligence is a sexual ornament comparable
to the peacock’s tail. The idea is not that any given
display of creative intelligence is necessarily a delib-
erate effort to attract mates (although in some cases it
may be). The idea is that the basic capacity for creative
intelligence evolved in part because people with this
trait were preferred as mates. This preference in turn
evolved because creative intelligence is an indicator of
good brain function, which in turn is an indicator of
good genes.
A common criticism of Miller’s thesis focuses on
the fact that sexual selection commonly produces sex-
ual dimorphism, but humans are not dimorphic for
intelligence (e.g., Betzig, 2002). This leads critics to
ask, If intelligence in humans were a product of sex-
ual selection, why does the research consistently show
that there is little or no difference in average levels of
intelligence? The main thing to notice about this ques-
tion is that it is premised on an MCFC interpretation
of Miller’s theory: Men compete through displays of
intelligent behavior, and women choose those men that
display the greatest intellectual prowess. Thus, to the
extent that the question seems reasonable, this suggests
that the MCFC model is running in the background
of our thinking. If we instead had the MMC model in
mind, the question would not arise and would not seem
like a persuasive challenge to the theory.
Miller’s theory is not that women select men for
intelligence; it is that each sex selects the other for
intelligence (among other things) and that human in-
telligence evolved in a context of mutual mate choice
(see, e.g., Miller, 2000, pp. 375–377). This, accord-
ing to Miller, is why men and women’s average level
of intelligence is so similar. Certainly, the average re-
productive payoff for above-average intelligence may
have been greater for men than women, which might
help explain why variance in IQ is greater among males
than females (Deary, Thorpe, Wilson, Starr, & Whalley,
2003). However, this does not imply that intelligence
only paid reproductive dividends for men, and Miller
explicitly argued that it did so for both sexes. Leav-
ing aside the issue of whether the theory is correct,
it is illuminating that so many commentators assume
that his argument is that intelligence (as well as art,
generosity, and music) evolved to advertise men’s fit-
ness to women only. No one makes the opposite mis-
take and assumes that intelligence evolved only for
women to attract men. Nor is it only those outside the
field who fall into the trap. An example from within
the ranks of EP comes from Thornhill and Gangestad
(2008), who, in their book, The Evolutionary Biol-
ogy of Human Female Sexuality, devote virtually all
of their discussion of Miller’s thesis to talking about
the effects of intelligence on men’s mating success
only. Indeed, the section dealing with the issue is titled
“Male Intelligence and Related Attributes: Signals of
Quality?” (p. 180). The authors suggest that, accord-
ing to Miller, “Humor and creative displays [both of
which showcase intelligence] may function as mating
effort, which women find attractive in sex partners”
(p. 181).7Similarly, Puts (2010) described Miller as
“the leading proponent of a theory that men’s brains
and creativity are designed to attract females” (p. 166).
It is especially telling that so many people assume an
MCFC interpretation of the theory when some of the
best-known research in EP suggests that both sexes, not
just women, put a great deal of weight on intelligence
in a long-term partner (Buss, 1989). This illustrates
the power of the MCFC model and shows that there
remains an unresolved—and often unnoticed—tension
in EP between the MCFC and MMC models.
Humor. A final example concerns the evolution
of the capacity for humor. One prominent theory, al-
ready alluded to, is that humor evolved through sexual
selection (Miller, 2000). As noted, if peahens select
mates with larger-than-average tails, peacocks’ tails
will evolve to be larger over the generations. By the
same logic, if people select mates with better-than-
average senses of humor, people will evolve to be more
humorous over the generations. (To be precise, this will
happen if variance among individuals in their ability
to produce humor is attributable in part to variance
among individuals in their genes, i.e., if the trait is
7The authors do, however, raise a number of good criticisms of
the idea that intelligence is a good-genes indicator. One is that, if it
were, we would expect intelligence to be particularly attractive to
females seeking short-term mates. However, there is little evidence
that this is the case (Thornhill & Gangestad, 2008).
Downloaded by [Steve Stewart-Williams] at 17:46 02 September 2013
partially heritable. As with virtually all traits, how-
ever, this appears to be the case; Loehlin & Nichols,
1976.) Men and women both say they want a partner
who has a good sense of humor. It has been suggested,
though, that each sex means something different by
this: Women want a man who makes them laugh (a
peacock whose tail they like), whereas men want a
woman who laughs at their jokes (a peahen who likes
their tail; see, e.g., Bressler, Martin, & Balshine, 2006;
Kaufman, Kozbelt, Bromley, & Miller, 2008). Thus,
men have a sense of humor in order to woo women,
but women have a sense of humor in order to evaluate
the humor-producing efforts of men. Men court and
women choose. Is this accurate?
The first point to make is that, although there
does appear to be a sex difference in this domain, the
evidence does not support the dichotomous men-want-
view. For a start, one study found that women find
it just as important that a mate finds them funny as
that they find a mate funny (Bressler et al., 2006),
and another found that humor production ability is
associated with number of past sexual partners for men
and women (Greengross & Miller, 2011). Moreover,
there is often a discrepancy between the findings
of these studies and the verbal description of those
findings. Bressler et al. (2006) asked participants to
say which of two prospective mates they would prefer
for each of five kinds of sexual/romantic relationship
(e.g., one-night stand, long-term relationship). The
choice was either a humor producer or a humor
appreciator. The authors summarized their findings
as follows: “Women preferred those who produced
humor ... whereas men preferred those who were
receptive to their own humor” (p. 121). We would
challenge this description. Men in particular were
evenly split between the two options: For four of the
five relationship types, men were no more likely to
choose humor appreciators than they were to choose
humor producers. This hardly suggests that “men
preferred [women] who were receptive to their own
humor”; around half did and half did not. The sex
difference lay in the fact that a higher proportion
of men than women chose the humor appreciator.
However, the differences in these proportions were
often small. For instance, for one-night stands (which
is where we might expect the biggest sex difference),
around 45% of men chose the humor producer as
opposed to around 55% of women—and the difference
was not statistically significant. Based on these results,
it would be closer to the truth to say that men and
women were both evenly split between the options
than to say that men prefer appreciators whereas
women prefer producers. Overall, the study did
produce evidence of a small sex difference. However,
that difference is not accurately captured by saying
that men want a humor appreciator whereas women
want a humor generator. Such a statement inflates the
difference by squeezing nondichotomous, overlapping
data into a dichotomous, MCFC mold: Males compete
by producing humor, whereas females choose from
among the humor-producing males. The reality is a
small sex difference in the proportion of men and
women who choose appreciators versus generators
for some relationship types, when they are forced to
choose one or the other.
In sum, language, intelligence, and humor, along
with art, generosity, and musical ability, are often de-
scribed as human equivalents of the peacock’s tail.
However, peacocks afford a poor analogy for the
role of courtship displays in humans. Other ani-
mal models offer a better fit. In a number of non-
human species—species as diverse as sea dragons
and grebes—males and females engage in a mutual
courtship “dance,” in which the two partners mirror one
another’s movements. In Clark’s grebes and Western
grebes, for instance, the pair bond ritual culminates in
the famous courtship rush: The male and female swim
side by side along the top of the water, with their wings
back and their heads and necks in a stereotyped posture
(Storer & Nuechterlein, 1992). If we want a nonhuman
analogue for the role of creative intelligence or humor
in human courtship, we should think not of ornamented
peacocks displaying while drab females evaluate them.
We should think instead of grebes engaged in their mat-
ing rush or sea dragons engaged in their synchronized
mirror dance. Once we have one of these alternative
images fixed in our minds, we can then add the proviso
that there is a slight skew such that, in the early stages
of courtship, men tend to display more vigorously and
women tend to be choosier. However, this should be
seen as a qualification to the primary message that in-
telligence, humor, and other forms of sexual display
are part of the mutual courtship process in our species.
Overemphasizing Male Competition
We have seen several examples of how female
choice is sometimes overemphasized in EP. Our fi-
nal question is whether female competition is some-
times underemphasized. Various commentators have
suggested that it is, both in the human research and in
research on other primates (e.g., Campbell, 2002; Hrdy,
1981). Such claims may be overstated; some prominent
research in EP has looked at intrasexual competition in
both sexes (Buss, 1988; Schmitt & Buss, 1996; Simp-
son et al., 1999). We still need to ask, though, whether
there is a sex difference in the relative strength of in-
trasexual competition, and if so, how large it might be.
Given that there is a sex difference in reproductive vari-
ability, the answer to the first question is probably yes.
The answer to the second question, however, is less
clear. On the one hand, Brown, Laland, and Borger-
hoff Mulder (2009) have shown that, averaging across
Downloaded by [Steve Stewart-Williams] at 17:46 02 September 2013
groups, the sex difference in reproductive variability is
relatively small, with some societies showing no differ-
ence at all (see also Betzig, 2012). This suggests a small
average difference in the strength of competition over
our evolutionary history. On the other hand, Puts (2010)
made a strong case that various morphological traits in
males—in particular, male muscularity—indicate that
violent intrasexual competition was substantially more
common among ancestral men than women. What evi-
dence might resolve this issue? In other primates, body
size dimorphism and canine dimorphism are useful
barometers of the sex difference in intrasexual com-
petition. In the hominin lineage, however, neither is
useful (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Plavcan & Van Schaik,
1997), and researchers in EP have turned to other ev-
idence instead. This includes data on sex differences
in homicide rates, mortality rates, and the production
of cultural displays. Unfortunately, each of these data
sources may inadvertently inflate the estimates of the
sex difference in intrasexual competition.
Homicide and Mortality as Assays
of the Strength of Intrasexual Competition
One source of evidence bearing on the issue is
archival data on violent crime. Martin Daly and Margo
Wilson (1988) are the pioneers of research in this area.
In an influential series of studies, they used homicide
rates as a gauge of sex differences in the strength of
intrasexual competition. Their key finding was that, in
every culture for which there is evidence, men are more
likely to kill other men than women are to kill other
women (Daly & Wilson, 1988, 2001b). The vastmajor-
ity of homicides involve male killers (more than 90%)
and male victims (around 70%). Furthermore, these
homicides are disproportionately committed by males
in early adulthood (between the ages of 16 and 24),
which is the time of maximum mating effort and intra-
sexual competition for males in many species (Wilson
& Daly, 1985). Daly and Wilson’s claim is not that
homicide is an adaptation but rather that homicide rates
are an indirect indicator of levels of intrasexual com-
petition in a population. The impression the data give
is that intrasexual competition is considerably stronger
among men than women. In other words, when it comes
to mate competition, we are closer to being an MCFC
species than an MMC species.
Homicide records have the great advantage that the
data are less prone than questionnaire studies to self-
report biases and less prone than other violent crime
statistics to reporting bias (virtually all homicides are
reported). At the same time, though, the accuracy of
the data is confounded with the extreme nature of the
act in question. Focusing on an extreme and rare be-
havior is likely to give an exaggerated impression of
the typical sex difference in intrasexual competition.
This is because, as discussed earlier, even a small dif-
ference in means is associated with a large difference
at the tail of the distribution. Homicide sits at the ex-
treme tail of the distribution for aggressive behavior.
At that end of the distribution, the sex difference is
extremely large. Closer to the mean, though, the dif-
ference is likely to be considerably smaller. Consistent
with this suggestion, questionnaire and interview stud-
ies of aggression (which focus on less extreme, more
common forms of violence than homicide) find much
more modest sex differences. This is the case both in
modern, Western nations (Archer, 2004) and in small-
scale, non-Western societies (Hess, Helfrecht, Hagen,
Sell, & Hewlett, 2010). Thus, although the homicide
data suggest that intrasexual competition is more in-
tense among males than females in our species, the
difference is not as large as we might think if the homi-
cide data were representative of the sex difference at
all levels of intensity of competition.
Evolutionary psychologists have also used risky
behavior as a barometer of sex differences in intrasex-
ual selection. On average, men take more risks than
women, especially in early adulthood. This can be seen,
for instance, in their driving habits. Men drive faster
and more recklessly, especially between the ages of
15 and 25. As a result, men are much more likely than
women to die in car accidents, even taking into account
differences in how much driving each sex does (Daly
& Wilson, 1983). More generally, Kruger and Nesse
(2004) observed that, in nations where death during
childbirth has been largely eliminated, young men have
2.5 to 5 times higher mortality than young women.
“Being male,” they observed, “is now the single largest
demographic risk factor for early mortality in devel-
oped countries” (Kruger & Nesse, 2006, p. 92). At first
glance, this again suggests a large sex difference in
the intensity of intrasexual competition. However, this
evidence faces the same caveat as the homicide data.
Although many more men than women die young, the
vast majority of men do not. For instance, of U.S. men
and women aged 15 to 24 in 2009, only .1% of men and
.04% of women died (Kochanek, Xu, Murphy, Mini˜
& Kung, 2011). Of those people who do die young,
many presumably occupy the extreme right-hand
tail of the distribution for risk taking. Once again, a
large difference at the extremes equates to a much
smaller difference at the means. Thus, although there
is a large difference in the number of men vs. women
who die young, the sex difference in risk proneness
for the vast majority of men and women is nowhere
near as large.
Culture as Intrasexual Competition
The same argument applies to another famous find-
ing in EP. In humans, a pivotal form of intrasexual
competition is competition in producing mate attrac-
tion displays (Buss, 1988). With this in mind, Miller
(1998) observed that men produce an order of mag-
nitude more cultural products than do women. In one
Downloaded by [Steve Stewart-Williams] at 17:46 02 September 2013
study, for instance, he showed that men make many
more jazz records than women, and that they make
most of them as young adults (Miller, 1999). Men also
write more books, paint more pictures, and engage in
more life-threatening stunts to earn themselves a place
in the Guinness World Records book. Miller (1998)
argued that these activities function as male mating
displays: “As every teenager knows and most psychol-
ogists forget,” he wrote, “cultural displays by males
increase their sexual success” (p. 119). No doubt part
of the reason that men have produced more cultural dis-
plays than women, at least prior to the second wave of
the feminist revolution, is that women have been forced
into social roles that preclude the pursuit of such activi-
ties. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to suppose that much
of the remaining difference is a result of an evolved
tendency for men to devote more effort than women
to competitive activities and sexual displaying. There
is still the question, though, of how large the average
difference is. The evidence Miller presented (e.g., the
number of jazz records) seems to suggest that it is
very large. Again, though, without disputing Miller’s
findings, we suggest that, taken in isolation, they may
create an inflated impression of the magnitude of the
sex difference.
As with the homicide and mortality research, Miller
was looking at behavior at the extreme of the distribu-
tion, that is, cultural products created by individuals
who devote enough time and effort to mastering their
craft and promoting themselves that their work attracts
great attention via the mass media. At more normal lev-
els of creative accomplishment, the sex difference may
be nowhere near as large. Because males in our species
are somewhat more sexually selected than females,
more men than women may be involved in activities
such as music, art, and writing in the context of sexual
display. Because a small difference at the mean implies
a large difference at the tail of the distribution, when
we look at especially high achievement in these areas,
we may see many more men than women. Once again,
though, we may exaggerate the sex difference because
of the kind of data we use to test our predictions: data
from an atypical subset of human beings drawn from
the tail of the distribution. To be fair, Miller’s goal in
assembling these data was not to estimate the precise
degree of sexual dimorphism in the general population;
it was simply to demonstrate the relevance of sexual
selection theory to the explanation of cultural displays.
Nonetheless, the focus on extreme cases may inadver-
tently skew our understanding of the sex difference
in intrasexual competition in our species, pushing our
picture of ourselves toward the MCFC model and away
from the MMC.
Various lines of evidence suggest that the MCFC
model exerts a significant influence on the evolution-
ary psychological view of human sexuality and human
nature. However, the MCFC schema applies only when
males’ reproductive variability is much greater than fe-
males’. Humans are not this kind of species, and thus
we should not be surprised that the MCFC schema does
not apply well to us. In our species, men and women
commonly form pair bonds, and men typically con-
tribute to the rearing of young. Pair bonding and high
male parental investment in our ancestral past reduced
the sex difference in reproductive variability, which led
to a reduction in sexual dimorphism and the evolution
of mutual mate choice. Men’s reproductive variability
is still generally higher than women’s, which is why
men are, on average, larger and more aggressive than
women, as well as being more interested in casual sex.
However, this should be viewed as a qualification to
the claim that we are primarily a pair bonding, bi-
parental species rather than as the foundation stone of
our emerging picture of humankind. The MMC model
of human sexuality places pair bonding and biparental
care at the heart of this picture. In doing so, it provides
a better framework for understanding the (relatively
modest) evolved sex differences found in our species.
Address correspondence to Steve Stewart-Williams,
Department of Psychology, Swansea University, Sin-
gleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP, Wales, United King-
dom. E-mail:
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Del Guidice and Unidimensional versus Multidi-
mensional Variables in Psychology
In the target article, we argue that the sex differ-
ence in sociosexuality (SO: roughly, willingness to
engage in casual sex) is larger than most sex differ-
ences in psychology but is nonetheless relatively mod-
est. One potential criticism of this suggestion comes
from Marco Del Guidice (2009; Del Guidice, Booth,
Downloaded by [Steve Stewart-Williams] at 17:46 02 September 2013
& Irwing, 2012). Del Guidice argued that psychol-
ogists often underestimate the true magnitude of sex
differences by focusing on single traits rather than mul-
tidimensional variables. The potential problem with
the standard single-trait approach can be seen if we
consider differences in men and women’s body shapes
(Lippa, 2012). Using the standard approach, we would
look at a series of traits separately—waist-to-hip ra-
tio, torso-to-leg ratio, and so on—and find a relatively
small difference for each. We would then take the av-
erage of these small differences and conclude that the
overall difference in body shape is small. However,
noted Del Guidice, this would be a misleading con-
clusion. The body shapes of men and women are very
different—different enough that people can almost al-
ways correctly classify silhouettes as male or female.
The correct approach would be to treat the individual
traits as a single multidimensional variable, and esti-
mate the effect size of that variable. There are effect
size estimates that do exactly this; Del Guidice favors
the Mahalonobis distance D(the multivariate general-
ization of Cohen’s d).
When applied in the psychological realm, the tech-
nique yields surprising results. For instance, assessing
the Big Five personality traits one by one, the sex dif-
ferences are relatively modest (generally less than d=
.3; Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001). When bun-
dled together, however, the difference turns out to be
much larger. In one study, Del Guidice and colleagues
(2012) found an effect size of 2.71 for the sex differ-
ence in “global personality.” This led one of the coau-
thors on the article, Paul Irwing, to make the rather
extreme claim that, psychologically, men and women
are “virtually different species” (as cited in C. Gordon,
What are we to make of this argument? First, even
if we accept the validity of the method, we need to
be cautious about what the results imply. It is impor-
tant to note that claims about effect sizes for multidi-
mensional constructs do not undermine claims made
about effect sizes for unidimensional variables. So, for
example, the fact that sex differences in global per-
sonality are large does not undermine the claim that
sex differences in lower-level personality traits (such
as openness or extraversion) are small. This is directly
relevant to SO. Our claim is that the sex difference in
SO is comparatively small. No doubt, if we were to
consider SO in tandem with other variables, the effect
size for the resulting multidimensional variable would
be larger. But this does not undermine our claim that
the sex difference in SO is comparatively small. Of
course, one could then ask whether it is more appro-
priate to use single variables or multidimensional vari-
ables. The answer to that question is that it depends on
one’s research question. As Del Guidice (2009) him-
self noted, however, “Most evolutionary hypotheses
are highly domain-specific, and may be best answered
by comparisons on single variables” (p. 274). This,
we suggest, is the case for SO. The evolutionary hy-
potheses under consideration relate specifically to men
and women’s willingness to engage in casual sex, not
to more general variables such as, say, global sexual
personality (whatever that might be).
Thus, even if we accept the validity of the method,
our conclusions about SO remain intact. However,
there are several reasons to question the validity of
the method. First, it is a basic fact about the Mahalono-
bis Dthat the more unidimensional variables you in-
clude in your analysis, the larger the effect size will
be. This has an awkward implication. No two groups
will be identical on every measure. Even for very
similar populations—New Zealanders and Australians,
for example—there will inevitably be many variables
for which there are small average differences. If you
were to take enough of these variables and treat them
as a single multidimensional variable, you could use
Del Guidice’s method to “prove” that, psychologically,
New Zealanders and Australians are virtually different
species. And you could prove the same thing for any
two groups: right-handers and left-handers, blue-eyed
girls and brown-eyed girls, and so forth. As long as you
included enough unidimensional variables in the final
multidimensional variable, the different-species con-
clusion would be inevitable. The inevitability suggests
that it is the method that is driving the conclusion,
rather than the true nature of the populations under
But the most damning criticism of the method, in
our view, is that adding new unidimensional variables
increases the overall effect size regardless of the direc-
tion of the effect for each variable. Aggression provides
a good example. If we look at physical aggression and
verbal aggression in isolation, the average score for
each is higher for men than for women (Archer, 2004).
If we combine these variables and treat them as a sin-
gle multidimensional variable, the effect size of the sex
difference is noticeably larger than for either alone.
If we then add indirect aggression, the effect size is
larger again (Del Guidice, 2009). The natural inter-
pretation is that men are much more aggressive than
women, and that the difference is much larger than we
would think if we looked at each unidimensional vari-
able on its own, or if we only considered physical and
verbal aggression. The problem is, however, that for
indirect aggression, the sex difference actually goes
in the other direction: The average score for women
is slightly higher than that for men (Archer, 2004).
Nonetheless, when you include it in the multidimen-
sional variable, the overall effect size simply grows.
This raises serious questions about how to interpret
any results gleaned from this method.
For all these reasons, Del Guidice’s method does
not undermine our claim that the sex difference in SO
is modest.
Downloaded by [Steve Stewart-Williams] at 17:46 02 September 2013
... Since Darwin's time, work focusing on human sexual selection has emphasized the importance of both the males-compete / females-choose (MCFC) model and the mutual mate choice (MMC) model for understanding human sexual selection (Miller, 2013;Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013). While the MCFC model provides a powerful framework for explaining sex differences in sexual desires, mating tactics, mate preferences, status-seeking, risk-taking, aggression, and jealousy, MMC recognizes the importance of phenomena such as paternal investment, male mate preferences, female competition, assortative mating, sexual conflict, and long-term commitment in human sexual selection (Archer, 2019; Luoto & Varella, 2021;Miller, 2013;Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013). ...
... Since Darwin's time, work focusing on human sexual selection has emphasized the importance of both the males-compete / females-choose (MCFC) model and the mutual mate choice (MMC) model for understanding human sexual selection (Miller, 2013;Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013). While the MCFC model provides a powerful framework for explaining sex differences in sexual desires, mating tactics, mate preferences, status-seeking, risk-taking, aggression, and jealousy, MMC recognizes the importance of phenomena such as paternal investment, male mate preferences, female competition, assortative mating, sexual conflict, and long-term commitment in human sexual selection (Archer, 2019; Luoto & Varella, 2021;Miller, 2013;Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013). ...
Darwin’s theory of sexual selection refers to a form of natural selection that operates on reproductive success. Sexual selection comprises any variation in direct fitness among different phenotypes caused by their ability to gain sexual partners, produce fertilized eggs, and generate offspring. Sexual selection is a subcategory of natural selection – the differential heritable survival and reproduction of individuals carrying alleles on which different selection pressures operate. As reproduction is the sine qua non engine of evolution, it is essential for behavioral scientists and psychologists to understand the fundamental premises and far-reaching implications of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection – including how our evolved, sexually selected physiology, psychological mechanisms, and behavioral predispositions play out in contemporary humans. Any view of sex or gender in humans can be considered incomplete if it overlooks the evolutionary underpinnings that have formed our bodies, minds, and behavioral predispositions.
... Although both sexes have uncommitted sex, men typically show greater desire for short-term relationships than women do, likely because of historical asymmetries in the costs and benefits of short-term mating. As women carry most of the weight of gestation, partum, and post-partum, uncommitted brief sexual encounters bared relatively higher costs (low parental investment, infectious diseases, violence, etc.) for ancestral women than men (for a broad overview see, Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013). In contrast, lower obligatory parental investment for men means that a brief sexual encounter brings few costs yet potentially high fitness pay-offs (Buss & Schmitt, 1993;Gangestad & Simpson, 2000;Trivers, 1972). ...
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Individual differences in men’s short-term mating interest are well studied, both at state and trait levels. Yet, the role of sexual arousal as a source of intra-individual variation has been neglected. This research represents the first attempt to integrate sexual arousal into the human mate plasticity literature. We argue that sexual arousal directly impacts the short-term mating motivation among men regardless of their personality, relationship status, and sociosexuality. Across four experiments, we found that heightened sexual arousal consistently increased men’s short-term mating motivation relative to participants in neutral and arousing control groups. Experiments 1 and 2 revealed that sexual arousal increased participants’ general short-term mating motivation and their preference for a short-term relationship over a long-term one. Experiment 3 replicated the findings of the first two experiments whilst also demonstrating that this effect was not moderated by personality (i.e., Dark Triad, Big Five) or relationship status. Heightened sexual arousal also led to decreased “state” long-term mating motivation. Finally, Experiment 4 showed that sexual arousal increased the participants’ preference for a short-term relationship over a long-term one, an effect that was not moderated by sociosexuality. Together, the results suggest that sexual arousal has a powerful effect on men’s short-term mating motivation, and that this effect is independent of intrasexual differences in personality, relationship status, and sociosexuality.
... And the males-compete/ females-choose model that females invest more in their offspring than their male counterparts became, in essence, a scarce resource, driving male-male competition to attract and retain mates. As mentioned above, females usually play the role of choosers in the mating process and have stronger internal motivation for intersexual selection (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979;Stewart-Williams and Thomas, 2013). ...
Full-text available
Androgynous tendencies and persistently low fertility rates have been observed in many countries, causing major social concerns. The theory of sexual selection suggests a possible mechanism between androgyny and decreased sexual activeness, as masculinity and femininity constitute an important aspect of reproductive strategies. This theory has also been proven by evolutionary and societal evidence. Therefore, we investigate the association between masculinity and femininity with sexual activeness, as well as the influence of gender-role conformity on the frequency of sexual intercourse through sexually selected traits among 42,492 Chinese youths. Sexual activeness was measured using sexual attitudes, experience, behaviors, and pleasure. Mediation analysis was employed to investigate the effects of sexually selected traits on the association between masculinity and femininity with sexual activeness, and gender-role conformity with the frequency of sexual intercourse. Low sexual activeness was found to be associated with low gender-role conformity. Our findings also suggest that physical attractiveness, sexual motivation, and interpersonal relationships may mediate the association between sexual activeness and gender-role conformity, supporting the males-compete/females-choose model.
... The field of evolutionary psychology has established that human partner preferences are influenced by the capacity of the partner to reproduce and raise offspring (Bech-Sørensen & Pollet, 2016;Buss, 1989;Fisman et al., 2006;Geary et al., 2004;Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013;Webster et al., 2009). Because the contribution to the reproduction and raising of offspring differs by gender, partner preferences also vary between males and females (Bech-Sørensen & Pollet, 2016;Fisman et al., 2006;Geary et al., 2004). ...
Full-text available
Research using data on offline couple formation has confirmed predictions from evolutionary psychology that women (not men) attach value to the earnings potential of a potential partner. In this study, we examine whether the partner preferences with respect to earnings potential survive in an online context with fewer search and social frictions. We did this by means of a field experiment on the popular mobile dating app Tinder. Thirty-two fictitious Tinder profiles that randomly differed in job status and job prestige were evaluated by 4800 other, real Tinder users. We find that both men and women do not use job status or job prestige as a determinant of whom to show initial interest in on Tinder. However, we do find evidence that, after this initial phase, men less frequently start a conversation with women when those women are unemployed. Still, also then men do not care about the particular job prestige of employed women.
... measures of partner choice (Jonason et al., 2012;Walter et al., 2020). More generally, our results can be interpreted within the context of the mutual mate choice (MMC) model, which accommodates both the fact that sexual dimorphism is relatively low among humans and that there are still some evolved sex differences (Miller, 2013;Stewart-Williams and Thomas, 2013). Both sexes have artistic motivations, capacities for appreciation and production of music, but there are still some differences in the degree and circumstances under which these tendencies are expressed . ...
Full-text available
A number of theories about the origins of musicality have incorporated biological and social perspectives. Darwin argued that musicality evolved by sexual selection, functioning as a courtship display in reproductive partner choice. Darwin did not regard musicality as a sexually dimorphic trait, paralleling evidence that both sexes produce and enjoy music. A novel research strand examines the effect of musicality on sexual attraction by acknowledging the importance of facial attractiveness. We previously demonstrated that music varying in emotional content increases the perceived attractiveness and dating desirability of opposite-sex faces only in females, compared to a silent control condition. Here, we built upon this approach by presenting the person depicted (target) as the performer of the music (prime), thus establishing a direct link. We hypothesized that musical priming would increase sexual attraction, with high-arousing music inducing the largest effect. Musical primes (25 s, piano solo music) varied in arousal and pleasantness, and targets were photos of other-sex faces of average attractiveness and with neutral expressions (2 s). Participants were 35 females and 23 males (heterosexual psychology students, single, and no hormonal contraception use) matched for musical background, mood, and liking for the music used in the experiment. After musical priming, females' ratings of attractiveness and dating desirability increased significantly. In males, only dating desirability was significantly increased by musical priming. No specific effects of music-induced pleasantness and arousal were observed. Our results, together with other recent empirical evidence, corroborate the sexual selection hypothesis for the evolution of human musicality.
... In men, literary arts and sports were related to both elevated interand intrasexual selections proxies; musical arts were related to a single elevated intrasexual proxy, and circus arts were related to a single elevated intersexual proxy. Thus, in accordance to the Mutual Mate Choice model (Stewart-Williams and Thomas, 2013), as for other physical and vocal traits (Puts, 2010;Puts et al., 2016;Saxton et al., 2016;Kordsmeyer et al., 2018), both components of sexual selection might have been among the influential selective pressures acting upon the ancestral evolution of human artisticality (De Block and Dewitte, 2007;Varella et al., 2017) and athleticism (Lombardo, 2012;Apostolou, 2015;Deaner et al., 2016). ...
Full-text available
Since Darwin proposed that human musicality evolved through sexual selection, empirical evidence has supported intersexual selection as one of the adaptive functions of artistic propensities. However, intrasexual competition has been overlooked. We tested their relative importance by investigating the relationship between the self-perceived talent/expertise in 16 artistic and 2 sports modalities and proxies of intersexual selection (i.e., mate value, mating and parenting efforts, sociosexuality, and number of sexual partners) and intrasexual competition (i.e., aggressiveness, intrasexual competitiveness) in heterosexuals. Participants were 82 Brazilian men, 166 Brazilian women, 146 Czech men, and 458 Czech women (Mage = 26.48, SD = 7.12). Factor analysis revealed five factors: Literary-arts (creative writing, humor, acting/theater/film, poetry, storytelling), Visual-arts (painting/drawing, sculpting, handcrafting, culinary arts, architecture design), Musical-arts (playing/instruments, singing, dance, whistling), Circus-arts (juggling, acrobatics), and Sports (individual, collective). Multivariate General Linear Model (GLM) showed more associations of the arts to intersexual selection in women and to intrasexual selection in men, and overall more relationships in women than in men. In women, literary and musical-arts were related to elevated inter- and intrasexual selections proxies, visual and circus-arts were related to elevated intersexual selection proxies, and sports were related to intrasexual selection proxies. In men, literary-arts and sports were related to elevated inter- and intrasexual selection proxies, musical-arts were related to intrasexual proxies, and circus-arts were related to intersexual proxies; visual-arts did not have predictors. Although present in both sexes, each sexual selection component has different relative importance in each sex. Artisticality functions to attract and maintain long/short-term partners, and to compete with mating rivals.
This article presents a model to explain why individuals experiencing romantic love have greater depression symptoms scores. We start by defining romantic love and providing a narrative review of studies investigating depression symptoms in people experiencing romantic love. We then present data from Finnish adolescents which shows higher depression symptoms scores in groups experiencing romantic love. Some tests indicate a small effect of romantic love on depression symptoms scores. We outline biological mechanisms that may play a role in generating depression symptoms in people experiencing romantic love before proposing a hypothetical model to explain the association. This article concludes with a discussion that provides further information about the causes and functions of depression symptoms in people experiencing romantic love.