Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Hogamus, Higamus, Men Are Polygamous

Higamus, Hogamus, Women Monogamous.

That's the old ditty which is supposed to crystallize our evolutionary burden, my friends. That it also lets men do fun stuff and women not do fun stuff is a mere accident, naturally.

Most researchers now have a much more complicated view of prehistory than this, but not Mr. Kanazawa. In his newest piece of research he argues that guys cannot help wanting to fuck anything that moves, gals not so much:

Ten thousand years ago, when humans were hunter-gatherers, we mated, tended to our kin and fled when danger was in the air – activities that did not require much intelligence.

Kanazawa says humans were thus biologically designed to be conservative and put a high value on family.

"What is conservative in the U.S. – caring about your family and your friends and your kin – is sort of evolutionarily familiar," Kanazawa says.

"We are designed to care only about people we associate with."

Among our ancestors, men – though not women – were polygynous, having more than one sexual partner.

My emphasis.

Now, remember that we don't actually have any evidence on those distant ancestors and their possible polygamous vs. monogamous habits. What evolutionary psychologists and other people use instead is evidence from a) either other primate species or b) such human populations who today live a lifestyle which might resemble that of our ancestors or c) just today's general population. None of these groups is without problems when used as proxies for our ancestors, of course.

But let's see what those kinds of studies tell us. Here are chimpanzees:

Townsend says that female chimps need to alert desirable males that they're available for breeding. A female chimp needs as many partners as possible in order to protect her future children. As Townsend points out, "If lots of high-ranking males mate with her then ultimately a lot of them will be confused as to whether they're the father or not."

And here they are again with bonobos:

Chimpanzees and bonobos (who share around 99% of our DNA) have what's referred to as a multimale-multifemale mating system. Females have sex with multiple individuals in their troop and make positive choices about which males they're most interested in.

Gorillas might be polygamous. Gibbons are monogamous.

What about those contemporary human groups which might look like our nomadic ancestors? Here is one study:

Yet in a report published in the summer issue of the journal Human Nature, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, presents compelling evidence that at least in some non-Western cultures where conditions are harsh and mothers must fight to keep their children alive, serial monogamy is by no means a man's game, finessed by him and foisted on her. To the contrary, Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder said, among the Pimbwe people of Tanzania, whose lives and loves she has been following for about 15 years, serial monogamy looks less like polygyny than like a strategic beast that some evolutionary psychologists dismiss as quasi-fantastical: polyandry, one woman making the most of multiple mates.

And finally, what about today's human populations in general?

According to The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior 35 percent of men (1 in 3) reported at least one case of infidelity with their spouse, but 26 percent of women (1 in 4) also did. However, these figures need to be viewed with some skepticism since men are more likely to exaggerate their number of sexual partners while women are more likely to understate them. It could very well be that, for every Fred Astaire swinging away on the dance floor, there's a Ginger Rogers following him step for step.

Just as multiple partners may be a part of male sexual strategy, so too could it be for females. As David Geary writes in Platek and Shackleford's Female Infidelity and Paternal Uncertainty, an average of 10% of children around the world are produced through "extra-pair copulations."

Yet Kanazawa simply tells us that "among our ancestors, men – though not women – were polygynous, having more than one sexual partner". How does he know?

He doesn't, of course. But his arguments get popularized just like that.

Now to the actual study from which I took Kanazawa's statement. It's the study which makes me worry that his careless pronouncements might get wider support, because it seems to show that liberals and progressives have higher IQs, on average, than conservatives, and that liberal/progressive men are more likely to be monogamous than conservative men. Liberals might lap up all this and then also lap up the sexist bullshit Kanazawa specializes in.

It's important to remember that empirical results are only as good as the work that went into producing them. It's also important to remember that findings about IQs by political affiliation or findings about sexual values by political affiliations are one thing. The explanations for them are quite another thing.

In short, you can take out Kanazawa's quasi-evolutionary musings and look at the study without them. Or you can go and read the study and see whether you agree with the findings. Or you could discuss what an IQ really measures and so on. The point is that Kanazawa's evolutionary theories are simplistic and misogynistic, too. In case you haven't met him before, here is an example of what he writes.
Thanks to Moe Szyslak for the link to Kanazawa.