Did men evolve to be overconfident?

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

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.

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.

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 that if it hasn't turned your brain inside out, you haven't understood it."1

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

  1. Douglas Adams, "Turncoat" (October 2000); reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (2002).

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