*did* men evolve to be overconfident?

This coming week’s lecture is going to be about reproduction and mate selection. It’s a really good night, full of complicated ideas and the opportunity to cull a bunch of bullshit from students’ minds, and even to teach them how to be critical consumers of sexuality-related science in the media.

Like this Discovery News article about a speed-dating study that showed men thought women were more interested in them than they were.

The study was conducted by a psychology faculty member at Williams College who, on investigation, did her PhD at UTexas Austin. She now teaches Evolutionary Psychology among other things. Would I be surprised if she studied under David Buss? I would not. Because this is precisely the kind of just-so story conflation of history with evolution (TWO DIFFERENT TIMESCALES = TWO DIFFERENT CAUSAL MECHANISMS) that makes me need a drink and a night of reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy that Buss’s work causes in me.

(I’ve just checked and it turns out I’ve never actually written a post about eye-rollingness of David Buss, though I’ve mentioned him several times. Must get on that.)

Now, one of the problems with my point of view on the evolutionary forces that shaped human sexuality – and evolutionary forces DEFINITELY DID shape human sexuality, that’s just inevitably true – is that it’s just a lot more complicated than the straightforward “men are promiscuous, women are choosy” argument.

And complicated arguments take patience and thought to understand.

For example, mathematical modeling has shown that males actually have to be TWICE as reproductively successful with a promiscuous mating strategy than with a partnered mating strategy in order to make it worth its energy expenditure. So men are not “naturally promiscuous;” if anything, they’re promiscuous conditionally.

You really needn’t – and indeed I think oughtn’t – invoke an ultimate cause (evolution), when a proximate cause (social dynamics) meets the case perfectly well. In this case, there is truly no need to look to evolution to explain men’s behavior. Culture accounts for it perfectly well, with evolution playing only a peripheral and distant role.

The article quote Peter Todd of my alma mater, whose work I love, and whose quote brings an important but unmined insight:

“The research in this area is important because it provides insight into some of the sources of potentially harmful misunderstandings regarding sexual intent between men and women,” Todd said. “This paper in particular gives more support for the idea that men over-perceive the sexual interest of women, and it indicates which men paired with which women are most likely to show this over-perception.”

Notice he makes no mention of selection pressure or reproductive success.

Seeing evolutionary roots in modern human behavior is REALLY REALLY HARD; our origins are buried deep under 10,000 years of agriculture and written language.

But the media luuuuuuuuvs a good (that is to say, bad) evolutionary just-so story about why men and women are the way we are. There’s something so appealing, so comforting, in the idea that we evolved to be this way, that is is Who We Naturally Are.

As if nature had a plan for how we would behave at speed-dating events.

I want my students to finish the class with pretty good bullshit-o-meters; I want them to be able to tell the difference between interesting thinking about the evolution of humans as sexually dimorphic large apes and simplistic storytelling that conflates cultural selection with natural and sexual selection. Cultural selection is important, but it is not even a little bit the same.

As Douglas Adams says, “The thing about evolution is, if it hasn’t turned your brain inside out, you haven’t properly understood it.”

In other words, it’s all really much more complicated than that.

15 responses to “*did* men evolve to be overconfident?

  1. I find it incredibly difficult to understand why Dr. Nagoski has neglected to give a second look to this book “Sex At Dawn”. Some of us, who have read the book (and other books) find the idea extremely enlightening and good, valuable point of departure for a new debate. A good number of the ideas and hypotheses exposed in “Sex At Dawn” coincide with Dr. Nagoski’s exposed (so far) points of view.

    • Sex At Dawn strongly favored the evolutionary explanation, too though. I enjoyed the book, but I think that it leaned to hard on evolution over culture, and seemed to espouse polygamy as “better” because it’s what our ancestors practiced.

    • I haven’t found the parts I’ve read enlightening because it wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know already, it was missing a bunch of stuff I DO know, and it was framing all of it in a way that I felt lacked empirical backing.

      • They do mention the difficulty in finding empirical data. However, I think they do a good job in explaining why a rather promiscuous arrangement — which is more or less, no arrangement at all — would have been the expectable condition given that paternity certainty was a nonexistent concept prior to groups surviving thanks to agriculture.

        It is not so difficult to accept that, if our ancestors — prior to agriculture — didn’t know the exact process resulting in pregnancy and childbearing, they would probably believe that women would become progressively pregnant — with the help of several males — and then, the child itself — they would believe — would form itself better and stronger if more males participated with the pregnant female, by providing their “liquid”.

        Paternity certainty would not have any survival value in a situation in which any child would definitely have more probabilities of survival if more people — male and female — would take care of them.

        I don’t think it’s valid to confuse **biologically evolved** with **culturally possible**. Our biological equipment — our body: organs, tissues — appears better equipped to consume plant food, BUT with the biological capacity to **tolerate** for many years in the life of the individual, the consumption of animal protein. (Today we know about the health problems resulting in diets based upon animal protein and processed oils, grains, and stuff.)

        In “Sex At Dawn” they suggest that we were **biologically evolved** to live a life similar to our genetically closest “relatives”: the **bonobos**. However, it has been **culturally possible** to design myriads of systems, all of them in pursuit of survival advantages. One of those systems is the mom-dad-child family, serial monogamy, the most widely adopted system.

        It isn’t difficult to extract, from the situation at hand, that what we see is the result of a **specific response** of the human animal to the present **method of production** — and the resulting **relationships system** — during the years since agriculture forced to define **land ownership** in a way it had never been necessary in the original habitats where our species, with its 1.5-kg brain, first appeared.

        “Sex At Dawn” does deserve a deeper visit from Dr. Nagoski. BTW: I was unable to find any single part in the book where they suggest polygamy as a “better system”.

      • BTW, I would greatly appreciate your specific mention — and description, probably in an article — of those things you DO know that they aren’t mentioning in the book (“Sex At Dawn”.)

      • The language is perfect, but the idea is at fault. I’m a man who tries to abide by the laws of monogamy. I’ve managed to succeed, but at the cost of the quality of my life. The trade in of “family love and warmth” for sexual freedom and creativity is simply not a very decent or balanced one. Why not both? That’s where the artificial cultural elements enter the scene and spoil it all. Love should have no limits, for we should be in love for all, care for every single human, without any bias towards those we KNOW have our genes. That’s why we shouldn’t even know it! We’re screwed up and we only want to reason why we should continue to be like that. Science is supposed to uncover secrets that will provide us with a better life quality. What is behind such irrational rejection of what our sexual nature really is?

  2. Emily, just how does one distinguish between culturally-derived pressures towards promiscuity and hypergamy and evolutionarily-derived pressures?

    I take your point about Agriculture and writing, but I would also argue that cultural selection throughout history has been influenced and informed by those “evolutionary roots” at every point. Human beings just do not form cultural mate selection criteria that are contra-survival (at least, not for more than a few generations: see The Shakers) or counterproductive towards the betterment of their own genetic line as they understand it within the context of their culture. All of our constantly-changing cultural mate selection criteria, from fertility dances to Ferraris, seem to be in service, ultimately, to the evolutionary drive for progeny.

    So how do you tell the difference? Do I like big boobs because my culture demands that I like big boobs, or do I like big boobs because they indicate a potentially bountiful milk production for potential offspring? And then there’s the individual experience component to consider — what’s the evolutionary or cultural impetus for the fact that I like women with big noses?

    I understand that there are various forces at work informing our sexuality, cultural, psychological, social, evolutionary. But how can you definitively state that a particular expression of sexuality (male self-confidence, for instance) is actually culturally derived and not motivated by evolutionary forces? That one in particular seems to be pan-cultural and perhaps even a human universal — women in aggregate like self-confident men in just about every culture. So is that a product of cultural forces, or a product of evolutionary forces, or even individually learned behavior . . . and how do you slap a metric on it?

    • “Emily, just how does one distinguish between culturally-derived pressures towards promiscuity and hypergamy and evolutionarily-derived pressures?”

      With science.

      I don’t mean to be flip about it. Honestly, you tell the difference by MEASURING the difference, by studying how different rules apply at different timescales and different levels of analysis.

      How a scientist actually solves these problems and comes to understand the world is only one part of the problem, and science more or less has it in hand; the scientific method and peer review have moved us this far forward in our endeavors, and it will continue to do so. The other part of the problem is how science is represented in mainstream media. THAT is nuts and it was my main point in the post.

      • I don’t take you to be flip about it — I married a scientist. I understand that it is complicated.

        But I also understand that it’s murky. Having worked in a major research university, I know that egos and fabricated data and politics and funding all have an effect on the final product, and even peer review and reproducibility (almost impossible with social science) don’t keep bogus, misleading, or politically-inspired science from getting mixed up with the pristine kind. Indeed, the two are often indistinguishable after a generation.

        So you have a group of theories about sexuality — scientifically based — that say that culture, not evolution, is primarily responsible for the whys and wherefores of how we mate; then Dr. Buss, also a professor and a scientist, has another theory — also scientifically based — that suggests that evolution, not culture (or at least not culture primarily) is the largest influence on human mating. From a layman’s perspective, why should we give more credence to one theory over another? I can certainly agree that “pop science” is usually light on the science and heavy on the pop, but I also know that “it’s complicated” isn’t a sufficient enough scientific explanation for the curious layman.

        I’m well educated enough to do research on my own, and I’m mistrustful enough of Science as it’s practiced today (ever see an international award-winning scientist blatantly fabricate data to support a pet theory, rip off graduate students’ work as their own, and purposefully sabotage experiments and publications of their rivals to increase their own stature? I have . . . and the professor in question remains at the top of their field and is considered a giant in their specialty) to not automatically accept any PhD.s theory without some investigation. But I also know that even GOOD scientists in the same field can use different metrics for the same phenomenon and get widely varying results and conclusions. And even GOOD scientists can be wrong. I don’t like bad pop science any more than anyone else, but considering the murky nature of this subject and how it has been studied, taking the consensus of the “scientific community” on it where there isn’t a lot of consensus is difficult. So what should OUR metric be?

  3. I find it interesting that so many people have the men vs. women approach to sexuality. Men are such-and-such way, or women are such-and-such way, so we can excuse them for behaviors A, B, and C. It’s ridiculous, in my opinion. While my own biases do certainly have an effect on my thinking, I think this is the same nature vs. nuture argument in a different light.

    Dr. Nagoski is right in that the media likes a good (bad) story about why we came to be the way we are. This is how people in the media make their money: they make us feel good and reinforce our own feelings, and tell us we are wrong if their information does not reinforce our feelings. This, in many ways, is just normative culture presented in a mass-media fashion.

    My point, in a roundabout way, is simply that our sexuality likely develops much the same way our personalities do. Some of it is likely influenced by physical evolution, but much of it (again, in my opinion) is that it develops through cultural evolution. There are cross-cultural trends that likely belie the underlying evolutionary forces at work, but I refuse to believe the idea (to use the old metaphor) that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus.

  4. “For example, mathematical modeling has shown that males actually have to be twice as reproductively successful with a promiscuous mating strategy than with a partnered mating strategy in order to make it worth its energy expenditure. ”
    Could I get a reference to this work? I’m really interested in checking it out.

  5. “Did men evolve to be overconfident?”

    I look at it like this..
    If I ask a hundred women per day to have sex with me (assuming that I’m in an appropriate area), at least 8-12 women out of the 100 will either agree to do so (or, at the very least, allow me to state my case.)
    If I don’t ask *any* women to sleep with me, I will be celibate (as the majority of sober, horny women who are bold enough to proposition me, IME, tend to be either attached, my mother’s age and/or morbidly obese.) Seeing as how I’m not attracted to 300+ lb fiftysomethings (with or without wedding rings) and I have a moral objection to having sex with drunken women, this scenario ends badly for all people involved.
    If I try to be kind and loving/friendly, I run the risk of becoming/being seen as a “Nice Guy”(tm). As a bonus, due to the “Nice Guy”(tm) meme, its become increasingly common for *some* women to take my kindness for incipient lechery.
    All in all, fortune favors the bold.

  6. Every time I look for a new post from Emily and don’t see one, I think about her “romantic euphamism” and smile inside. You go, girl!

  7. What is the possibility that successive generations of mothers who do not set and maintain appropriate boundaries in relation to authority, personal respect and even sexuality have facilitated the young male’s presuppositions to err in this direction?

    • If it happens, it’s not natural selection, it’s culture. In fact, it’s patriarchy, if what I’m reading in your question is what you mean. So. Yeah, pretty strong possibility I think.

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