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Surprising Science

Department of It Ain’t Necessarily So

Did Men and Women Evolve to Have Different Approaches to Sex? Maybe Not . . .

A number of evolutionary psychologists have claimed men and women have innate, inescapable differences in their approach to sex. It’s supposed to be a logical consequence of the two genders’ different reproductive strategies.

The theory is, as the old rhyme goes, Higgamous, Hoggamous, woman’s monogamous — because she invests a lot in each successful act of reproduction. But Hoggamous, Higgamous, man is polygamous — because it costs much less to make a sperm cell than an egg, and men don’t have to carry a fetus to term. The psychologist David Buss uses this evolutionary argument to support his claim that in matters sexual, as he put it in a talk I heard years ago, “men are slime.”

Gillian R. Brown and her colleagues at the University of Saint Andrews recently looked at this evolutionary argument. In a paper published earlier this summer, they say the claim is unsupported by the evidence.

If promiscuity is the soundest evolutionary strategy for human males, they reason, then those who follow that approach should have the most offspring. But when they examined 18 different societies, Brown and her colleagues found that men with multiple partners were not always the most successful at passing their genes on to the next generation.

Rather than a sharp difference in sexual strategies, they found that men and women overlapped a great deal in their mating habits, and both sexes had similar rates of reproductive success (which means that there was not a clear “male strategy” or “female strategy.”)

Claims that human beings are subject to the Higgamous-Hoggamous rule were based on work that lumped those 18 societies together, the authors write.

Because there are a few societies where some men have many wives, that lumping messed up the curve. You don’t describe “the typical male golfer” by averaging 16 ordinary guys plus Arnold Palmer plus Tiger Woods. Similarly, the “human male reproductive strategy” isn’t Higgamous everywhere just because it is in a few cultures.

You can still say men are slime, of course. But maybe you shouldn’t blame evolution.


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