The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature

Here’s a link.

I’ve read roughly half the book. It’s interesting, but quite speculative. As with all popular science books it sort of assumes the reader doesn’t know very much about anything, and this of course means that there’s quite a bit of known stuff covered here along the way. The notes/references do quite a bit of the work. So far I’ve enjoyed reading the book, but I’m not that impressed; I’m probably currently at a three-star evaluation, but a little closer to four than two. Compared to a textbook it’s very easy to read.

Some quotes from the first half of the book:

“most experimental psychology views the human mind exclusively as a computer that learns to solve problems, not as an entertainment system that evolved to attract sexual partners.”

“Natural selection [refer] to competition within or between species that affect relative survival ability. Sexual selection [refer] to sexual competition within a species that affects relative rates of reproduction. […] Under natural selection, species adopt to their environments. […] Under sexual selection, species adapt too, but they adapt to themselves. Females adapt to males, males adapt to females. Sexual preferences adapt to the sexual ornaments available, and sexual ornaments adapt to sexual preferences.
This can make things quite confusing. In sexual selection, genes do not code just for the adaptions used in courtship, such as sexual ornaments. They also code for the adaptions used in mate choice, the sexual preferences themselves.”

“brain size within each sex is correlated about 40 percent with general intelligence” (I did not know that!)

“Short-term mating is exciting and sexy, but it is not necessarily where sexual selection has the greatest effect. Human females, much more than other great apes, conceal when they are ovulating. This means that a single act of short-term copulation rarely results in pregnancy. Almost all human pregnancies arise in sexual relationships that have lasted at least several months, if not years. Modern contraception has merely reinforced this effect. […] when it comes to choosing sexual partners for long-term relationships, men and women increase their choosiness to almost identical levels. They also converge in the features they prefer.”

“By suggesting that sexual selection plays a major but neglected role in evolutionary innovation in general and the human mind’s evolution in particular, I am proposing a sort of marketing revolution in biology. Survival is like production, and courtship is like marketing. Organisms are like products, and the sexual preferences of the opposite sex are like consumer preferences. Courtship displays are not a mysterious luxury soaking up excess energy after the business of survival is accomplished. Rather, they are the only way to get one’s genes into the next generation, by fullfilling the sexual preferences of the opposite sex. Survival only matters insofar as it contributes to courtship. If nobody wants to mate with an animal, there’s no evolutionary point in the animal surviving.”

“Our ancestors did not spend all their time worrying about survival problems. They were among the longest-lived species on the planet, which implies that their daily risk of death was miniscule. Like most great apes, they probably spent their time worrying about social and sexual problems.”

“In most primate species, the distribution of food in the environment determines the distribution of females, and the distribution of females determines the distribution of males. When food is so dispersed that females do best by foraging on their own, males disperse to pair up with the lone females. This gives rise to monogamous couples. It is a fairly rare pattern among primates […] When food comes in patches large enough for several females to share, they tend to band together in small groups to find the food, and to protect each other against predators, unwanted males, and competing female groups. As long as the female band is not too large, a single male can exclude other males from sexual access to the band […] This ‘harem’ system of single-male polygyny is fairly common in primates. […] When food comes in still larger patches, female groups can grow too large for any single male to defend them. the males must then form coalitions, resulting in a complex multi-male, multi-female group […] Our hominid ancestors probably lived in such groups, in which sexual selection gets more complicated. […] Most children were probably born to couples who stayed together only a few years. Exclusive lifelong monogamy was practically unknown. The more standard pattern would have been ‘serial monogamy’: a sequence of nearly exclusive sexual partnerships that were socially recognized and jealously defended.” (This last part I consider to be highly speculative, and the notes/references are basically doing all the work here. Given the paucity of the available archaeological evidence – which I’m familar with – and the uncertainties involved when drawing conclusions and inferences based on the behaviours of other great apes, I think there’s a fair amount of uncertainty related to to which extent this account is true. There’s a lot we don’t know and can’t ever know about what was going on back then.)

“David Buss has amassed a lot of evidence that human females across many cultures tend to prefer males who have high social status, good income, ambition, intelligence, and energy – contrary to the views of some cultural anthropologists, who assume that people vary capriciously in their sexual preferences across different cultures. […] [It is a] universal, cross-cultural pattern that men care more about a partner’s age than women do, men generally preferring partners younger than themselves, and women generally preferring partners older than themselves. […] There is strong evidence from evolutionary psychology that men in modern societies generally prefer the physical appearance of women around 20 years old to those who are older (or younger). […] there has been much less research on the age at which women’s minds are most attractive.”

“our ancestors were highly social primates living in groups with children, relatives, and friends. Sexual relationships began and ended within family and tribal contexts.
If mate choice favours good genes, it can be useful to meet a potential mate’s blood relatives, because they share some of the same genes. An individual’s kin give additional information about their heritable fitness. If an intelligent man has foolish brothers or a beautiful woman has ugly sisters, this may lower their attractiveness as potential partners […] Given two sexual prospects who appear to display equal fitness, the one whose relatives appear healthier, brighter, more attractive, more fertile, and more successful probably has higher actual fitness. Since our ancestors tended to live in kin groups, there were plentiful opportunities for mate choice to take into account this sort of kin equality.”

August 21, 2013 Posted by | Anthropology, Books, Evolutionary biology | 3 Comments