Genetic Explanations

Men and Women Evolved With Conflicting Interests – Why We don’t Always Get Along


For millennia human kind has believed in a “natural order”, or a “utopia” to creation.  A way things were meant to be.  Since Aristotle we have envisaged a scientific and moral order to the world.  If we acted against this order then nature would be disrupted and chaos would ensue.  This pre-supposition was incorporated into the major religions where it is assumed that God had a plan for creation and that plan was designed to be harmonious.  Consequently men and women are “designed” to live together in perfect harmony – if only we could work out how!

Darwinism, whilst accepting that men and women have many areas of common interest, also accepts that they will have areas of conflicting interest.

First let’s review the fundamentals of Darwinism:

  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.
  2. Any behaviour conferred by the genes, which increases the likelihood of having more offspring in any species, will ensure more of those genes are passed to the next generation.  Consequently that “successful” behaviour is propagated and amplified.   This is a natural selection of “beneficial” genes.
  3. Evolution moves along at a glacial pace.  One tick of the evolutionary clock is approximately 250,000 years.  We are therefore very similar to our ancestors of 50,000 years ago.  Recent technical and social advances are largely irrelevant to our genetic makeup.
  4. Evolutionary genetics can go a very long way to explaining human behaviour.  Each species is hard wired to behave in a very specific way and this has been shaped by the mechanism of evolution by natural selection.  We don’t behave like cats or horses.
  5. For evolution to work there needs to be variation in behaviour so that natural selection can do its work.  Each generation has random variation and mutation (some beneficial, most harmful) from which to choose the best characteristics using natural selection.

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, having no more than a dozen pregnancies in their lifetime. Each pregnancy is life threatening and she will generally 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. She (i.e. her genes) has no other choice.  Women evolved to be more nurturing.

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 (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 her 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 (read 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.

So whilst men and women have a mutual interest in looking after their mutual children, there are areas of conflicting interest.  As women can have few offspring it is in her genes’ interests to ensure the father spends all his time and energy looking after her children.  She will also feel an overwhelming urge to nurture her children.  Her genes have no other choice.  The father’s genes’ interests are better served by spending much of his time seeking different partners – particularly young, healthy and fertile (attractive) partners.  Women are more likely to seek commitment from a mate.  Men are more likely to be reluctant to give it.  Men will prefer younger sexual partners which over time act against the interests of his initial, older partners.

But some women are very attracted to totally inappropriate men who clearly act against her own interest.  The handsome, philandering, unreliable, lovable rogue.  Why?  Consider the scenario where a high social status male has a child with a particular woman and then leaves her and philanders his way around the world irresponsibly having hundreds of children with other women.  This is not good for the woman or her child.  But if this woman has a son which survives and inherits his father’s behaviour she will get many more of her own genes into future generations.  About 8% of the men in a large region of Asia have Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome.  He clearly had many willing and unwilling sexual partners.  However any woman’s genes attached to his will have prospered (particularly down the male line), even if the woman herself didn’t.  This is a good example of  a woman having different interests to men (she wants commitment and the man doesn’t).  It is also an example of a woman having different interests to her own genes – it is in her genes’ interest for her to be attracted to unreliable, philandering men, perhaps by convincing her that she will be the only one who will tame him and make him exclusively her’s!  The old adage seems to ring true – women marry men expecting them to change, and they don’t.  Men marry women expecting them not to change, and they do.

We have good evidence that men will generally find a woman less attractive if they find out she is in a sexual relationship with another man.  Women generally find men more attractive if they are attached (and therefore presumably attractive) to another woman.  Her genes will recognise that he may be a good bet in propagating themselves into the next generation because if one women finds him attractive then others might too. These characteristics are in the mother’s genes’ interests if they have a son together and the son inherits his father’s characteristics.  Again this behaviour is very much in the genes’ interests but may be against the interests of their host (the woman) .

This also may explain why many cultures favour sons over daughters.  No cultures favour daughters.  Sons are a much better way of getting lots of your genes into future generations than daughters – whether you are a man or a woman.

An interesting question:  would a mother object to a highly promiscuous son?  He would be a route to having more of her genes propagated into future generations.

Nothing here should make us believe we can predict the behaviour of individual men and women.  Also, I’m describing the is not the ought of human behaviour.  The ought of human behaviour cannot and should not be decided (or justified) by evolution.  Morals, ethics, civilised evidence based debate and the rule of law are the only mechanisms for reaching a consensus of how we as individuals ought to behave.  Evolution is about survival of our genes and does not care one jot about human happiness, fairness or equality.


4 thoughts on “Men and Women Evolved With Conflicting Interests – Why We don’t Always Get Along

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  3. Pingback: Women are either bisexual or lesbian, but rarely straight. | RGAmbler

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