Against Human Sexual Selection

The opening scene of ‘A Catch of Shadows’ 1998 production of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ 

(image source)


I would my father look’d
but with my eyes.


Rather your eyes must
with his judgment look.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream

William Buckner has published a small but superb essay over at Quillette under the title “A Girl’s Place in the World.” By my reading, Buckner is the best essayist Quillette has. In each piece he writes, Buckner draws on a few dozen ethnographies and comparative studies in evolutionary anthropology to survey a question of interest—in this case, male violence against and dominance of  women over the long course of human history.

The basic take-away from Buckner’s essay is that  male dominance is not a product of the agricultural revolution. It is near omnipresent in foraging societies, and is upheld in such societies mostly through violence. Concubinage, mass rape, and domestic violence were continuations and exaggerations of the sort of behavior seen in other primate and simple hunter-gatherer societies. Only in modernity has male violence receded. Only in modernity have the females of our species have been given the opportunity to achieve rough parity with the males.

Now all of this is interesting, but it is ancillary to the main thrust of this post. Because Buckner summarizes much of the relevant evidence in one essay, I am going to take the opportunity his essay provides to grouse about one of my bug-bears: the inapplicability of sexual selection theory to human evolution.

I need to be more specific. Not all sexual-selection theory is bunk. I have fewer objections to the theories as applied to male preferences. I have more trouble with theories that try to explain female mate preferences and male phenotypes (for the uninitiated: that means something close to “things that women are ‘naturally’ attracted to, and by extension, behaviors or traits that have been selected for in the present male population”) through the frame of sexual selection. This is the stock and trade of evo-psych. Sillier, more grotesque versions of these theories often trickle down into the arguments you read on pick-up artist and MRA boards. But be they scientific or far less so, all such theories run aground on the same shoals: the model they posit for female mate selection does not reflect how human mate selection actually worked for most of human history.


One of the problems I have with most accounts of human sexual selection starts here. The phrase ‘mate choice’ presupposes that mates are the ones doing the choosing. In most species this framework works out most of the time, but in humans it hits a snag. Humans are not frictionless, autonomous mate calculators on two legs. They live embedded in a social organization that has immense control over everything they do—including who they mate. We call these organizations families.

In American society the norm is for both daughter and son to leave the homes of their childhood and create a new household upon marriage. Both men and women choose their partner freely. This style of marriage and home-building has a long history. It stretches back to England and Netherlands in the Early Middle Ages.[1]  (As the world modernizes, more and more of it looks like America). But this is not how most of the world has worked for most of its history. For most of human history, marriage was an arrangement between families, not individuals. Married children were generally expected to live with one of the families from which they sprung. Parents and grandparents had a veto of matches they did not like, and usually had the authority force a match the principals did not like, especially if the principal in question was a woman.

It turns out this was not only true for agrarian societies, but hunter-gatherer societies as well. We return to Buckner:

In his work examining ethnographic evidence from 190 hunter-gatherer societies, evolutionary psychologist Menlaos Apostolou notes the prevalence of arranged marriages, writing that across these societies “the institution of marriage is regulated by parents and close kin. Parents are able to influence the mating decisions of both sons and daughters, but stronger control is exercised with regard to daughters; male parents have more say in selecting in-laws than their female counterparts.” As anthropologist Janice Stockard writes of !Kung hunter-gatherer populations in southern Africa, “Traditionally in the !Kung San, marriage is a relationship among a husband and wife and the wife’s father and is at the outset firmly based on compatibility between the two men.” 

Apostolou further reports that female age at first marriage tends to be at the onset of puberty or earlier across the vast majority of the societies in his sample, and notes that these “Arranged marriages usually take the form of parents or close kin “giving away” their female relatives after negotiations with the male or his relatives. As such, males are allowed much more autonomy to exercise mate choice than females.” Anthropologist Lewis Binford’s 2001 volume Constructing Frames of Reference includes data on age at marriage across nearly 200 hunter-gatherer societies, and across these societies the average age at first marriage is recorded as 14 for girls, and 21 for boys. [2]

This is a problem for sexual-selection theories of male behavior. If the girls were not choosing their matches, what selection pressures on male traits could there be? Perhaps instead of speaking of the psychology of sexual selection, we should be speaking of the psychology of parental selection instead.


The second issue I have with human sexual-selection theory is more straightforward. Rape, plunder, slavery, and coerced marriages fill the annals of human history. The victims of these crimes—women—did not choose to be so victimized.

Once again, this is a facet of human life that precedes written history:

Similarly, the common pattern of warfare across small-scale societies is that while opposing adult male warriors tend be killed, women and children are often captured and incorporated into the group. I have previously discussed the widespread evidence of wife capture found across hunter-gatherer societies all over the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Anthropologist John J. Honigmann discusses an example among the Kaska foragers of British Columbia, writing that, “Women and children formed the bulk of the prisoners. Mostly the children were killed during the homeward journey… Women captives became wives who initially had to be carefully watched or tied lest they seek to escape.” 

…These patterns are further reflected in genetic data. In his 2016 book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich discusses the phenomenon of sex-asymmetric population mixture during human history, noting that “the common thread is that males from populations with more power tend to pair with females from populations with less.” And, as Reich makes clear, these patterns were often the result of highly coercive pairings enforced by men, in contexts where women had limited ability to exercise choice. [3]

Whether a woman wanted to have sex with a man was often irrelevant. Whether she wanted to be paired with him for years of her life was irrelevant. In the world of flesh no Puck arrives in nick of time to grant history’s many Hermias the attentions of the men they most desired. A woman’s refusal only went so far. She could be stolen and forced into servitude; her family could be killed and she raped; or she could be married off and left defenseless against sexual assault by her partner. If things came to blows, it was the man who would be choosing the circumstances of reproduction, not the woman.

Any evolutionary narrative of sex-based traits must take these realities into account before I will take it seriously. Occasionally I see that sort of work out there, but it is few and far between. [4] In the lingo of the discipline, parent-offspring competition and violent intersexual competition are quite real. The psychologist who doesn’t work them into his or her theories is not trying hard enough.

I can forgive them for the omission. The majority of scientists who developed theories of sexual selection came from societies calmer and more equitable than the human norm. In their world women have the freedom to reject or accept who they will. Most have never had to worry about the possibility their daughter might be stolen from their homes. They live with the expectation that both their daughters and their sons will choose their mates with little regard of what their parents think of them.

But this story is not the human story. Had Darwin invented his grand theory in another world, one where the science of evolution developed in some land where humans married and mated as most humans have, I doubt theories of sexual preference would have the allure they now do. These theories match the intuitions of our age. Sometimes those intuitions are WIERDER than we realize.

If you enjoyed this post on psychology and evolutionary anthropology, you might also find the posts Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously,”Psychology Makes the Strategist,” and The Marvelous Machiavellian Mind Reader” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] The classic statement of this is Emmanuel Todd, Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems. trans. David Garroch. (New York: Blackwell Publishing). 1989. See also Craig Willy, Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary, “ (7 July 2013).

[2] William Buckner, “A Girl’s Place in the World,” Quillette (9 May 2019).

[3] ibid.

[4] An excellent example is David Puts, “Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans,” Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 31, Issue 3 (May 2010) pp. 157-175

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Yes, these two factors indeed inhibited or eliminated female choice in a sexual partner. However, these were – in evolutionary terms – very recent a not constant. Thus, they are a mere blimp on the long march of evolution/sexual selection: i.e. whatever traits a man had to acquire more status/power/success, made him more attractive. Amongst primates, females mostly choose/mate with the males with high rank/status. It is clear that this is also how human females choose, i.e. attraction to "powerful"/successful/ competent males. Low ranking males, in most species, have it hard and are sex starved. (someone once cynically said that females just wait at the finish line of the male race and then f*ck the winners. Harsh but true imo).

Does that not raise at least two further questions?

1. Does that mean that centuries of parent-driven mate selection are responsible for the generationally increasing predilection for tameness among European and North American males, or is that only a very sudden phenomenon, a product of the last couple of generations at most of near complete female autonomy in mate selection?

2. Does a preference for mildness accurately describe females' mate selection in those couple of generations? I gather that there is a widely held pet theory that women prefer milder men for marriage, less mild ones for early experimentation. Or variations of that. I can hardly say from personal observation.

If female mate choice didn't matter in the past, shouldn't this also predict that women would have no sexual attraction toward men? There should be no selective advantage for such a trait: no more so than being sexually-repulsed toward men, or otherwise agnostic on the issue, since regardless of their preference women were apparently coerced into sex either way.

But the vast majority of women _do_ seem to be sexually attracted to men. Sure seems to me like we live in a world a lot like one where female mate choice was actually pretty important in the deep past.

I don't think most sexual selection theory adherents are ignoring the historic lack of individual agency in mate choice. Even the more odious advocates are clearly integrating that insight when they complain about modern female mate choice. There are millions of years of sexual selection that predate the relatively recent(and now defunct) patriarchal marriage contracts. I'm doubtful that rape, in the traditional sense, was a greater factor compared to female driven sexual selection of mates.

I think it is clear that trying to explain the different ways in which human societies address sexuality in terms of natural selection is futile, given the diversity of cultures and the rapid changes we see in just a few generations. There is obviously something else at work here.

Anonymous 1 and 2 make interesting points I had failed to even think of.

I was all busy worrying that the female-selection model we now know was so recent that I neglected that, on the timescales we are discussing, complex social structures are also comparatively recent developments.

I know nothing about what is really known today about the social behaviours of neolithic humans at the pre-town tribal stages, or earlier, let alone the even longer time period of paleolithic band societies. Just how restrictive were they on female mate discretion, and how consistently across large regions and local cultures? We're talking smaller numbers of humans but scores of thousands of years.

Note: just because something isn't "adaptative" (in the 'Spandrels of San Marco' sense), doesn't means "evolution will get rid of it". Only if something is detrimental enough to the propagation of the species is that something will be selected against.

So, women being sexually attracted to men, women, both or something in between makes little difference in an arrangement were they have no voice in the matter. Evolution by itself wouldn't eliminate sexual attraction for men in women; after all, why such trait should be maladaptive?

The point is that female choice ended up as irrelevant for most part of the species history. And looking at the preferences of social primates, we can expect it to be true even in the distant past.

(NOTE: this comment is as a response to the anonymous post above, not the author's)

I am not sure that "westerners are WEIRD" argument is a good rebuttal to the MRA type. It still didn't deny female has agency at least in modern western society thanks to the emergence of WEIRD psychology. Of course, it seems what the MRA actually want is to make West non-WEIRD again.
To be honest, I personally think the WEIRD model's correlation to modern capitalistic society is not as well found as you think. If we are talking about East Asia, modern capitalistic societies tend to emerge from rice growing region such as Southern China, South Korea, Japan. But plenty of researches indicate that rice growing societies are more collective and intuitive, i.e the opposite of W.E.I.R.D. It is quite possible WEIRD psychology will only be beneficial so far as to weaken inter clan competition to enable building larger political organization. I can also point out that it is actually the Southern India states where cousin marriages are more prevalent than the north the more liberal(WEIRD) ones.

I'm a bit sus. about this really. Ultimately, this read is going to depend on trust in the primary data and its nuances. Will's growing status as effectively "The only reasonably trustworthy anthropologist in the twitter sphere" may lead to taking a bit too much on trust here, and there's a bit of an influence by the feminist girlfriend to do a takedown of evo psych ideas about female preferences*.

Proposing that female choice was sharply limited in effect unites the feminists (who badly want to insist that women bear no historical responsibility for anything bad ever due to patriarchy) and "hard men who make hard choices" type conservatives who want to puff their chests out about how they have a more realistic and seriously intellectual view of human history than those silly leftists.

But I suspect Kung! fathers are not really forcing their daughters to mate that groody, socially submissive guy, or forcing them to mate the bold hunter when they really want the shy sensitive type. Even if they are operating some sort of basic check on partner quality for their daughters.

Even if they did, it wouldn't matter that much if, as is likely, women mated against their will tended to have many fewer surviving children and to show lower reproductive fitness – female mate choice would still win out in selection, even it manifests as female "when mated against will, not looking after their children as well as they might otherwise do" choice. Female preference was probably not irrelevant.

(See – while admitting arrangement of marriages among !Kung, the author is explicit in describing failure of many of these marriages when against the girls' will…).

If parental choice were really that ubiquitous, we'd also probably feel it was deeply right as a pan-human psychological norm – it would still be the norm in post industrialized populations to 'crying to papa' for a partner. But of course that's not the case – women are particularly ubiquitously interested in courtship, tend to prefer courtship (certainly more than men do) and have definite ideas what they expect, cross culturally.

This might be true for human history, but the psychology of sexual selection didn't necessarily evolve while we were humans; innate human sexual preferences may have evolved before we started creating complex societies and stuck around past their usefulness.

I'd note two quick points.

1) Parents often care about their children's welfare and preferences. Yes, in the evo landscape a daughter might not have been able to choose to marry the tribe layabout but that doesn't mean that they didn't exercise influence in favor of the more sexually desirable of the range of mates their parents might see as appropriate (or that their mothers wouldn't see a hot guy as a better match).

2) Adultery accounts for a surprisingly large fraction of pregnancies.

"If the girls were not choosing their matches, what selection pressures on male traits could there be?"

I don't think this is relevant at all. The most important sexual preferences would have ingrained themselves on men and women long before societies were sophisticated enough to have institutions like marriage. I can't really back this up, but I would guess that things like "women prefer taller men" or similar statements became true long before our ancestors could be classified as humans, and held true ever since.

Also, I think "having a choice" is the wrong way to think about the process of sexual selection anyway. It doesn't really matter whether there was a decision between option A and B involved – it only matters whether an inherited preference for A over B yields evolutionary profit.

I've always wondered why human beings seem relatively unique in that it is females who use fancy colors and other displays to attract men whereas most other animals (in my lazy layman's observation) it's the males that have the manes and the fancy plumage. This would fit into your theory of male dominant sexual selection.

I'm not sure I buy a complete absence of female sexual selection. Females might not have a choice of official mate, but they have a choice in the number of matings (even under widespread marital rape). There's also adultery as mentioned. Further, clearly women find physical and behavioural traits of men attractive in cross-cultural ways. If there were no way for these preferences to affect genetic success, why would they persist?

I'd wager females found ways to bang the males they found attractive, especially around their most fertile times as the modern studies have shown.

A priori it seems plausible to me that in the chaos of a raid a woman can influence which of the raiders ends up capturing her. Choosing the least bad option is still a choice. Also in case such an influence happens the involved parties would want to downplay it for signaling reasons.

According to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Harmless People and The Old Way, while marriages among the !Kung were indeed initially arranged by the parents, women (and men) often walked away from those marriages if they were weren't happy with their parents' choices, and ended up with a partner more to their liking.

(Thomas lived among the !Kung for many years, and titled her second book "The Old Way" because she believes that of all human societies the Bushmen way of life is closest to the way our remote ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years as they were evolving from pre-humans to humans).