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Back to the Future:
The Evolution of Sex, Love, Men, and Women

Copyright © 1995 by Jed Diamond

This story appeared in the May, 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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"You've got to read this book," he said with a restless, excited, passion that was more demand than suggestion. I had just finished leading a workshop in Seattle, Washington on material from my new book The Warrior's Journey Home: Healing Men, Healing the Planet.

I was on a nation-wide tour that would last most of the year and the last thing I wanted was another book to read. "Really," he continued blocking my way as I moved out of the hall, "this book supports your view that civilization is killing us and your belief that male/female differences are biologically based and need to be honored, not denied."

That got my attention. Thus far my book had drawn more controversy and conflict than agreement and support, particularly from some women. When my well-intentioned colleague offered to copy the first six chapters of "his" book and deliver them to me on the way to the airport, I could hardly refuse. Waiting for my flight to San Francisco I began to browse the pages of Exiles From Eden: Psychotherapy from an Evolutionary Perspective by Kalman Glatz, Ph.D. and John Pearce, M.D.

I was introduced to the new science of evolutionary psychology, a science which I believe will revolutionize the way we understand ourselves, each other, and the world. This new discipline draws from and influences such diverse fields as anthropology, psychology, biology, sociology, genetics, politics, sexology, linguistics, philosophy, ethology, and deep ecology.

I was amazed and delighted to see a whole body of information that supported my contention that many of the problems we face today--war, rape, domestic violence, addictions, teen pregnancy, child abuse, family dissolution, and even the battle of the sexes--can only be understood if we see that humans were designed to survive and prosper in a hunter-gatherer environment that had persisted for more than 99 1/2 percent of our ancestral history. In this 1/2 of one percent of history, the time we call "civilization," we have totally changed the way we relate to the world, yet the "hard wiring" of our bodies and minds remain the same.

These new researchers seemed to be searching for the answers to many of the same questions I had been wrestling with during my 30 years as a psychotherapist: If our present way of life is in conflict with how we evolved in the past, is it better to try and adapt ourselves to the present or change our present way of life to be more compatible with our evolutionary past? Is there a basic human nature that can guide us in determining what is healthy or unhealthy for the human race? If men and women are different in important ways, how did it serve us over our 2 million year history? What implications do the answers to these questions have for men, women, and the survival of the planet today?

Is There a Basic Human Nature We All Share?

As a bright, young medical student in 1965 I learned about human anatomy by cutting into a human body (long since deceased). From readings and lectures I knew pretty much what I would find. Yet still I was amazed to find the stomach and other organs just where the books told me they would be. All people have stomachs, all human stomachs are roughly the same shape, and all are found in pretty much the same place. There are variations, of course. Some stomachs are smaller, some are diseased, some placed a little differently, but none look like the multichambered cow stomach or the tiny stomach of a vole. Human anatomy is the same world-wide and it is safe to say there is a typical human body, in spite of the many variations.

Evolutionary psychology holds that there is also a typical human nature, a belief that is consistent with my experience as a psychotherapist over the last 30 years. Before I ever see a client I know that they will have the following human needs: First, a need for sufficient air, shelter, water, food for survival; second, a need to feel safe and secure; third, a need to love and be loved; fourth, a need for self esteem; and fifth, a need to actualize their full human potential, to fulfill their life purpose on the planet.

If the idea of a basic human nature seems obvious, it may come as a surprise that social science over the past 50 years has virtually denied this fact. For the most part, with notable exceptions of a few radicals such as psychologist Abraham Maslow, modern science has held that we are products of our culture and cultures throughout the world vary so greatly we cannot speak of a single human nature. As a result such disciplines as history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and politics have emphasized the differences beween people and have ignored what we have in common.

Part of the reason, I believe, there is so much conflict in the world is that we have been basing our assumptions of human nature on a science that fragments and separates rather than one that gathers and unifies. Evolutionary psychology offers hope for a science of unification.

Sex, Gender and Reproductive Strategies

None of your direct ancestors died childless. Think for a moment of the power contained in that statement. Over a period of 2 million years, not one of your ancestors dropped the ball. You are a product of their reproductive success and you can bet that what it takes to pass on your genes to the next generation is built into your intentions, behavior, emotions, heart, mind, and soul.

Like it or not sex is vital to who we are. Though not all living things reproduce sexually, sexual reproduction--the joining of male and female--has been the dominant mode of passing on genes for a hundred millions years. But what is the essence of maleness or femaleness? Put simply, an individual can either make many small gametes (sex cells) or fewer but larger gametes. The individuals that produce smaller gametes are called "males" and the ones that produce larger gametes are called females.

An individual must either invest in a few large eggs or in millions of sperm. Thus, there will always be many times more sperm than there are eggs. Consequently, sperm must compete for access to those rare eggs.

Though the process is not always conscious, we never choose mates at random. We are all descended from a long and unbroken line of ancestors who competed successfully for desirable mates, attracted mates who were reproductively valuable, retained mates long enough to reproduce, and fended off interested rivals.

The way we carry out these vital functions is what evolutionary psychologists call our reproductive strategy. It is our characteristic way of doing things, our standard operating procedure. It is what draws us to certain people, "the whisperings within," as David Barash calls them. We don't always follow what we hear, but we must always listen.

Men and Women are Mostly Alike, But The Differences Are Significant

In Africa male weaverbirds build nests and hang from them while singing their courting song. Female weaverbirds inspect the nests of various males and stay to mate with the ones who have the most desirable nests. Women, like weaverbirds prefer men with desirable nests.

I know what some of you are thinking. "Humans are not birds and women, like men, want all kinds of things. You can't make sweeping generalizations." We are not birds, but we are all animals and forgetting that fact cuts us off from the web of life and blinds us to who we really are. I know there are individual variations and generalizations can be misleading, but they can also be helpful. Few would disagree with the statement that men are taller than women, though God knows that at five feet five inches (when I tilt my head up just right), there are many women taller than I am.

"Not everything is different; most things, in fact are identical between the sexes," says Matt Ridley one of the leading writers in the field. "Much of the folklore about differences is merely convenient sexism." Yet he goes on to say that those who have studies the differences between men and women, even those who were determined to find none, have concluded that significant differences do exist. As anthropologist Melvin Konner put it: "Men are more aggressive than women and women are more nurturant, at least toward infants and children, than men. I am sorry if this is a cliche; that cannot make it less factual." "Difference," Ridley points out, "is not inequality." The skills necessary to kill large animals and provide meat for the tribe are every bit as valuable as those necesssary to nurture babies.

So what does evolutionary psychology tell us about gender differences?

There Basic Differences Between the Sexes

"Consider this question," says evolutionary psychologist, David Buss. "What would upset or distress you more: imagining your mate having sexual intercourse with someone else, or imagining your mate forming a deep emotional attachment to someone else?" If you are a man, says Buss, it is likely that you find the idea of your mate having intercourse with someone else far more distressing--indeed, the majority of men in a study conducted by Buss did so, too. Conversely, 85 percent of the women who were posed this question in Buss's study said they found the idea of their mate forming a deep emotional attachment to someone else far more upsetting.

Based on his research findings, Buss found a host of other differences between men and women and concluded that there are actually two human natures, one male the other female. He believed that both the similarities and the differences could be explained by understanding evolutionary pressures that our ancestors faced over the last two million years.

For instance, men's greater jealousy over his mates sexual infidelity can be traced, Buss believes, to the uncertainty men have over the paternity of their children. Every woman who gives birth is 100% certain that the child carries her genes. For men, on the other hand, there is always a degree of doubt. In evolutionary terms the consequence of raising a child that may not carry his genes, but those of another man, is the death of his line. Those men who took an easy-going approach to the possibility of his mate being sexual with other men left fewer genes than those men who were sexually jealous.

What makes Buss' findings so compelling is the breadth of his research. "If mating desires and other features of human psychology are products of our evolutionary history," says Buss, "they should be found universally, not just in the United States." To test his theories he conducted a five year study working with fifty collaborators from thirty-seven cultures located on six continents and five islands from Australia to Zambia. All major racial groups, religious groups, and ethnic groups were represented. In all, his group surveyed 10,047 persons worldwide.

What Do Women Really Want in a Mate?

In Buss' world-wide study, he found that the top three qualities that women look for in men are exactly the same as those things that men look for in women: Intelligence, kindness, and love. But then, what women want diverges from what men want.

World-wide, women seek men who are strong and tall. Even women who are quite capable of taking care of themselves, such as my karate-black-belted-police-officer friend, are drawn to men of size. Women judge short men to be less desirable than tall men. In personal ads in the U.S. where women mention height, 80% want a man 6 ft. or taller.

Women are also drawn to men with good earning capacity. This is true world-wide and doesn't seem to depend on whether the women themselves are well off. Women doctors, for instance, are drawn to even higher paid male doctors, rather than to male nurses.

World-wide, women are drawn to men who are older than they are, which is not surprising since in most cultures older men have higher status and earn more money. In the U.S. 30 year old males make, on average, $14,000 more a year than 20 year olds and $7,000 a year less than the average 40 year old male.

This pattern holds even for women who insist that wealth, status, strength, and height don't make a difference. The "whisperings within" which made for reproductive success through evolutionary history are often stronger than our logical mind.

Finally, women want men who will commit their resources to the care and support of the woman and her children. In Buss's world-wide study, he concluded that the reason women were less concerned about a man's sexual fidelity and more concerned about their mates emotional fidelity was the fear that an emotional attachment was more likely to lead to abandonment and the loss of the man's resources.

What women want doesn't vary a great deal whether they are seeking a long-term relationship or a short-term fling. What constitutes "attractiveness" is much more constant for women than for men.

But What a Man Wants Is Somewhat Different

Like women, men seek love, intelligence, and kindness in a mate. But then a man is drawn to youth and beauty. This interest is not just a modern desire driven by advertising and a male desire to control women, according to Buss it is a universal desire based on evolutionary pressures.

Men who mated with women who were incapable of bearing children left no ancestors. Every man alive today is descended from men who did not make that mistake. "Ancestral men," says Buss, "solved the problem of finding reproductively valuable women in part by preferring those who are young and healthy." Buss' studies show that world-wide, men are drawn to younger women. When the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon asked which females are the most sexually attractive to Yanomamo Indian men of the Amazon, his male informant replied without hesitation, "females who are moko dude." In refering to the life-giving fruits of the jungle, Chagnon was told, moko dude means that the fruit is perfectly ripe. When referring to a woman, it means that she is postpubescent but has not yet borne her first child, or about fifteen to eighteen years of age.

Since women's ability to conceive and bear children decreases with age, youth is a direct indicator of reproductive capacity. In most cultures throughout the world, men's attraction to youth has been understood and honored. In our modern dominator societies, men who feel this natural attraction are condemned and shamed.

Buss found that men throughout the world were attracted to beautiful women. "Full lips, clear and smooth skin, clear eyes, lustrous hair, and good muscle tone," he says, " are universally sought after."

I was surprised to find research that demonstrated that the constituents of beauty are neither arbitrary nor culture bound. When psychologist Michael Cunningham asked people of different races to judge the facial attractiveness of photographs of women of various races, he found great consensus about who is and is not good looking. Asian and American men, for example, agree with each other on which Asian and American women are most and least attractive. Buss' findings show that consensus has also been found among the Chinese, Indian, and English; between South Africans and Americans; and between black and white Americans.

Attraction to beauty seems to be built into our biological makeup, according to psychologist Judith Langlois and her colleagues. In one study, adults evaluated color slides of white and black female faces for their attractiveness. Then infants of two or three months of age were shown pairs of these faces that differed in their degree of attractiveness. The infants looked longer at the more attractive faces.

These sex differences are not limited to the United States, or even to Western cultures. "Regardless of the location, habitat, marriage system, or cultural living arrangement," Buss concludes, "men in all thirty-seven cultures included in the international study value physical appearance in a potential mate more than women.

Not only does having a young, beautiful woman increase a man's chances of producing more offspring, but a having an attractive woman raises his stature in the world at large. "Men across cultures today," says Buss, "value attractive women not only because attractiveness signals a woman's reproductive capacity but also because it signals status."

Men Are Men, Whether They Are Gay or Straight

The premium that men place on a mate's appearance is not limited to heterosexuals. Homosexual relationships, Buss believes, provide an acid test for the evolutionary basis of sex differences in desires for a mate. Many studies document the great importance that homosexual men place on the youth and physical appearance of their partners. Neither lesbian nor heterosexual women, on the contrary, place any importance on youth in their ranking of attractiveness.

"These results," says Buss, "suggests that lesbian women are very much like heterosexual women in their mate preferences, except with respect to the sex of the person they desire. And homosexual men are similar to heterosexual men in their mate preferences."

This commonality between heterosexual and homosexual men seems to apply to youth and casual sex as well. Like heterosexual men, homosexual men are attracted to youth. "Age is the monster figure of the gay world," says one of its members.

Like homosexual men, heterosexual men have a great interest in casual sex. A Kinsey study conducted in San Francisco in the 1980s found that almost one-half of the male homosexuals had over five hundred different sex partners, mostly strangers met in baths or bars. Quite often we have judged gay sex as aberrant because of the numbers of casual sexual partners they have. Yet it has always seemed clear to me as a heterosexual man, that if the object of my desire was as interested in sexual variety as I was, I might well have had half a thousand sex partners in my life.

According to evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons, "heterosexual men would be as likely as homosexual men to have sex most often with strangers, to participate in anonymous orgies in public baths, and to stop off in public rest rooms for five minutes of fellatio on the way home from work if women were interested in these activities. But women are not interested."

Confusion and Controversy, Then and Now

When Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859, he made almost no mention of humans. Near the end of the final chapter he simply suggested that, through the study of evolution, "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

A modest idea that revolutionized the way we see ourselves and the world. No longer could humans maintain our position as masters of the universe, a species apart. Like all other living things we had evolved through a process of natural selection.

Darwin once summed up natural selection in ten words: "Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die." Here strongest, as he well knew, means not brawniest, but best adapted to the environment, whether through camoflage, cleverness, ability to cooperate, or anything else that aids survival and reproduction.

With the publication of Origins Darwin returned humans to the web of life from which we had separated ourselves. Not everyone welcomed our homecoming. Lady Ashley, his contemporary, remarked upon hearing about his theory of our descent from nonhuman primates: "Let's hope that it's not true; and if it is true, let's hope that it does not become widely known."

Today there are still those who cling to world of Lady Ashley. To those who hold to religious beliefs that abhor the notion that humans are animals and have evolved like the rest of nature, there is little I can say. To those who fear that evolutionary psychology will draw us back to the days when "it was a man's world and women's place was in the home," I hope to offer another interpretation.

Harvard biology professor Ruth Hubbard voices the concern of many women when she suggests that Darwinian thought is not unlike a religion. "It tells us how to live," she says, "suggesting that women should stay home and take care of babies. For most Americans, this is more valid than having it written in the Bible." But many other women, including feminists, Carol Gilligan, Deborah Tannen, Catherine MacKinnon, Helen Fisher, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Patricia Adair Gowaty, believe that Darwin's findings can be liberating. Gowaty, a field biologist at the University of Georgia, is at the forefront of a group who consider themselves Darwinian feminists, who see the findings of evolutioinary biology to be liberating rather than imprisoning.

Gowaty's approach is rooted in the belief that feminism and evolutionary biology have a great deal in common. "Both begin with a focus on variation in traits," she expalins. "I think Darwin was a genius. But I also think he was a Victorian...I don't think Darwin was wrong as much as incomplete."

Homecoming: Returning to the Web of Life

All people who care about equality and justice are right to be concerned about how these ideas will be used. In a dominator society such as ours, "different" has often meant "inferior."

Biology had previously been used to justify racism, oppression, and exploitation long before Darwin came along, of course. But to a world steeped in colonialism at the turn of the nineteenth century, Darwin's ideas were attractive to those who were looking for a "scientific" justification for exploiting others. In fact, it was the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," and used it to justify the ascension of the wealthy elite and the exploitation of the poor, minorities, and women.

In today's world where Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich have united in support of old-fashioned family values, I'm sure that the insights of evolutionary psychology will be used by those who want to keep women (and men) in their place. Yet there is a much more radical and hopeful alternative.

Evolutionary psychology tells me that humans are adapted to a way of life that has worked well for over 99% of human history. It tells me that men, women, birds, bees, bears, and blades of grass, are both alike and different. It tells me that differences can be honored and celebrated. It tells me that men and women need not live in a world where the battle of the sexes rules our lives, but one where differences can be danced and enjoyed. It tells me that the way home is not to deny our differences, but to create a world where there is room on the dance floor for all our relations.

Finally, evolutionary psychology answers the crucial question whether it is better to adapt ourselves to the present or to change our present situation to better fit our evolutionary past. It seems clear that the latter choice is our only hope if we wish to survive and prosper. "We never knew enough," says Thomas Berry. "Nor were we sufficiently intimate with all our cousins in the great family of the earth. Nor could we listen to the various creatures of earth, each telling its own story. The time has now come however, when we will listen or we will die."

In evolutionary psychology I hear a voice for the wilderness, a voice for men and women who want to be fully gendered and fully alive, a voice for the past and for the future, and a voice of hope for our troubled world.

What does this mean for Men's Work, for women doing spirit and soul work, and for finding new ways for men and women to come together? Jed will address this in a future issue. We invite you to sit with this material for a while, and give us your thoughts as well.

Jed Diamond is a student of gender reconciliation, addiction recovery, and planetary healing. He values your response. 34133 Shimmins Ridge Road, Willits, California, 95490 707 459-5505


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