|The opening scene of ‘A Catch of Shadows’ 1998 production of ‘
A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
I would my father look’d
but with my eyes.THESEUS:
Rather your eyes must
with his judgment look.
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.
PROBLEM #1: WHO SELECTED MATES—CHILDREN OR PARENTS?
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. (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. 
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.
PROBLEM #2: CHOICE OR FORCE?
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. 
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.  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.
 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, “craigjwilly.info (7 July 2013).
 William Buckner, “A Girl’s Place in the World,” Quillette (9 May 2019).
 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