How We Pick a Mate

As in real estate, the name of the game in our choice of spouse is "location, location, location."
  • Transcript


Question: How much of human behavior do we actually have choice over?

Lionel Tiger: We have endless choice, but we also are hardwired in certain ways to make certain choices, so for example, as we learned from language through Noam Chomsky’s work kids are programmed to learn language.  A two year-old kid can learn Chinese.  I could never learn Chinese and I’m a reasonably smart applicable character who could apply myself to it.  I couldn’t do it.  It is not in my wiring any longer.  As Chomsky showed there is a program for learning language which is associated with being a kid.  There are programs for a whole series of things in us.  The kid may learn Chinese.  The kid may learn Arabic, but he is going to learn something and so the issue is what is in the system and what is easy for us to learn and it appears that some of things that we find easy to learn are tricky like my group is better than your group or I want to have access to as many females or males as I can independent of what the consequences are of that or a series of other things, but basically this is a massive question and the history of recent biological science shows that we have really not well handled the problem.  For example, most universities and colleges in North America, England, the rest of Europe are divided in two, two science faculties if you will.  There is the natural sciences and then there are the social sciences with the heavy implication that social behavior is not natural.  It’s inescapable that that would be the conclusion, but in fact, social behavior is natural and we have very, very little synthetic analysis of behavior from both the evolutionary and the contemporary point of view in many ways and that has become, I’m afraid, highly politicized and consequently generates a lot more heat than light.

Question: How much conscious choice do we have in who we pick as a mate?

Lionel Tiger: Well first of all, location, location, location is very important as we know.  Secondly, people will have…  Well there is something called in sociology assortative mating.  It happens to be a cruel fact of high school that the quarterback gets the girl who is regarded as the prettiest.  It’s regarded as a cruel fact of nature that Katherine Zeta Jones ends up with Mike Douglas.  People make choices depending on what they think they can get if you will, out of the reproductive system and so a lot of people fail.  They don’t have any partner and there is a huge issue for example in the African-American community in America where so many of the males are imprisoned.  If you have 20 females and 20 males and one, just one male is in prison then the 19 other females have to really chop and change to make a proper connection and it puts pressure on everybody and so in that particular community we see the cost and so one remembers Terry McMillan’s book Waiting to Exhale.  So here we have an indication of the fact that yes, we have a lot of free choice, but it is usually within a kind of marketplace of humans if you will, to be crass about it, and that continues to exist and so you have women who will decide never to date some guy who doesn’t have X or Y characteristics, who doesn’t have a professional, quotes, job.  You have a lot of … For example, there was a study done of medical students a Syracuse by a man named John Thompson and he said that there were…

Yeah, there was a study done of medical students, male and female in a university in New York and the males were quite ruthless in how they evaluated the females.  They said for example about one of them, “Why is she studying to be a doctor?”  She is good looking.”  “She should just marry one.”  And they had very, very rigorous statements that they made about they would only go out with two of the ten women who were in their class because of physical attraction of whatever their metric, but it was real.  It was harsh and that goes on all the time.  It’s the story of high school and it’s real and it’s painful and it happens and the consequences are that individuals have to sort of figure out how to present themselves.  If you look at female reading habits any magazine “612 Ways to Make Yourself Look Better for 5 Cents” on the cover or “200 Things That Will Please Him” or various ways of trying to attract a male in a very competitive environment and not just a male, a good one.  That is the problem.  Males have a different metric and the problem is many males realize that they can’t really hack it.  They’re just not going to end up doing this very well in terms of their fantasies or their dreams or even their ambitions.

Question: Has your work as an evolutionary biologist affected your own outlook on the world?

Lionel Tiger: I guess I would say that I will always look for what is the most basic motive in a situation that people are in and so I will assume that if a man and a woman for example are deeply interested in each other sexually I would assume that it is not because one is a Buddhist and the other is a Catholic.  It’s because they’re interested in each other sexually given their reproductive state, their biology and the like, so here is where in my trade we talk about the law of parsimony.  Parsimony means you try to find the least complicated explanation for any behavior and so if I’ve had… if I have a hangover it would be parsimonious of me to say well I shouldn’t go and apply for a job as a nuclear physicists because I’m not going to be at my best and that is just the law of parsimony and that shades quickly off into biology.