There is an (incorrect) assumption that the behaviour and insecurities of women is received solely via “socialisation”, i.e. an interaction with their environment. For example a female preoccupation with looking young and attractive is “caused” by being exposed to other attractive women in the media. This incorrect assumption is based on flawed and discredited social “science” research that fails to correct for genetics.
Of course the self-image of women is a social problem and as a society we should seek to address it. However an understanding of the genetic basis of human behaviour may help us in this noble task and also help us to mange our expectations.
1. Evolution is not about survival of the species (e.g. humans) it is about survival of the genes. We are a disposable container that has evolved to ensure genes get moved forward in time. We die. They don’t. Any behaviour conferred by the genes on a species, which increases the likelihood of having more offspring, will ensure more of those genes are passed to the next generation.
2. Evolution takes a long time. One tick of the evolutionary clock takes about 250,000 years. i.e. we are virtually identical to our ancestors from 50,000 years ago.
Our male and female ancestors have had very different evolutionary pressure over the previous millions of years.
Human females have a pathetic ability to reproduce, rarely having more than a dozen pregnancies in their lifetime. Each pregnancy is life threatening and she will often only produce offspring one-at-a-time. Human children are unusually vulnerable in infancy and take many years to reach maturity. Women therefore engage in a long, energy sapping and life threatening investment in their children to ensure these (few) offspring reach childbearing age. She must choose her mate with great care to ensure her offspring receive beneficial genes from the father, which in turn maximises the chance of her own genes prospering in the next generation. It also means she must carefully and selflessly look after the few offspring she manages to produce. Women therefore evolved to be highly nurturing towards their young. She (i.e. her genes) has no other choice.
Human males produce 250,000 sperm every second and their number of offspring is limited only by their opportunity to impregnate willing (or unwilling) females. Two strategies would work to increase the number of their genes in the next generation. 1. Look after their offspring, nurture them and ensure they reach child bearing age (i.e. copy the only strategy available to women). 2. Spread their sperm as far and wide as possible, have thousands of offspring and hope that some reach childbearing age. A third alternative is the best. Do both. Men invest almost nothing in child rearing so it makes sense for them to take huge risks to have the opportunity to reproduce.
Women will choose high social status men (a proxy for good genes) to ensure their own genes have a good chance of survival in future generations. To prove high social status takes a bit longer so women tend to go for successful, older men (4 years older in the UK on average).
Men are programmed to advertise their success and achievements in order to attract a high social status mate. Men will choose young, healthy, fertile (“attractive”) women because their chosen mate primarily needs to be fit to survive 9 months of pregnancy and the years of childcare that follows. Men have evolved to visually select a mate on this basis. Women have evolved for millions of years with this pressure. Women are therefore programmed to try to look young and attractive in order to find a suitable mate. Much of this behaviour is hard wired, as is our sexuality and our urge to have sex with attractive members of the opposite sex. Women also need to recognise these traits in their competition (other women). Women easily know if another woman is attractive. In some cases this can lead to sexual competition between women, which leads to bitchy, unsisterly behaviour.
Of course what is considered “attractive” can depend on personal preference and culture. However “attractiveness” is always a proxy for youth, health and fertility. For example, the fashion industry will prefer zero size models because it is a female orientated market and dominated by women and gay men, both of whom will generally prefer the look of a more “boyish” figure. After carefully studying the evidence of 60 years of Playboy Centrefolds I am convinced that if the fashion industry was dominated by men, and targeted towards men, the models would be anything other than waifs.
So there are good evolutionary reasons to believe this desire of women to look young, fertile and healthy (attractive) is hardwired. But how much of this behaviour could be caused by social pressures? Could men be forced to care more about their appearance?
The cosmetics and fashion industry has spent billions trying to entice more men to buy more of their products. It is understandable that when market shares start to flatline and competition gets more intense that they would look wistfully and the other 50% of their perceived potential market – i.e. men – and believe they have a commercial opportunity. After over 100 years of trying, limited progress has been made. While men’s grooming is attracting more headlines than ever before, the category still made up only 8% of the overall beauty and personal care market in 2012, with sales of $34 billion. Most of this is shaving products, something men have to do anyway, even those with facial hair. And adverts for razors are more appropriate for space ships or sports cars than beauty products. Deodorants came second. If the fashion industry could persuade men they need a new suit for each prom, party or celebration and 25 different handbags and pairs of shoes for all occasions wouldn’t they have done it by now? Compare the sales to the female market and you get my point.
Marketing doesn’t necessarily change what people want. It tells us what is available and it works best when it reflects back to its target audience what they already inherently desire or believe. It is more of a mirror than a force for change. We can debate how much society and culture mould human behaviour and how much innate human nature moulds society. But we have now moved away from the discredited 1960s Blank Slate hypothesis, which assumes that it is all on the culture affecting human behaviour side of the argument.
I’m describing the is not the ought of human behaviour, and nothing here should make us believe we can predict the behaviour of individual men and women. But please remember evolution is about survival of our genes and does not care one jot about human happiness, fairness or equality.