[Paleopsych] Los Angeles Times: Men, women and Darwin

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Men, women and Darwin


Men, women and Darwin

Can evolutionary psychology take the mystery out of how we meet and mate?

    By Julia M. Klein
    Special to The Times
    August 29, 2005
    THREE years ago, Robert Kurzban spotted an advertisement for a service 
called HurryDate, offering an evening of
    three-minute meetings with 25 potential dates.
    Kurzban was intrigued -- but not because he was looking for romance. As an 
evolutionary psychologist at the University of
    Pennsylvania, he thought speed dating could afford him a rare chance to 
study how people behave in real dating situations.
    With the agreement of the company, Kurzban and a colleague surveyed the 
HurryDaters about a range of topics including
    religious background and their desire for children. Their fundamental 
questions: Did participants select the people most
    like themselves? Or did most of them prize similar traits -- such as 
appearance or high income -- and try to get the best
    deal they could in the mating market?
    What the researchers discovered was that men and women chose their dates on 
the basis of "generally agreed upon mate
    values," the mating market hypothesis. Another finding: Both sexes relied 
mainly on physical attractiveness, largely
    disregarding factors such as income and social status.
    "HurryDate participants are given three minutes in which to make their 
judgments," the psychologists wrote in a paper
    published in the May issue of the science journal Evolution and Human 
Behavior, "but they mostly could be made in three
    The HurryDate research is one example of the everyday applications of 
evolutionary psychology, an interdisciplinary field
    that is influential and controversial. Other recent studies of human mating 
have explored issues such as the male
    preference for dating subordinates, why women have extramarital affairs and 
what trade-offs both sexes are willing to make
    in choosing partners.
    Evolutionary psychology sees the mind as a set of evolved psychological 
mechanisms, or adaptations, that have promoted
    survival and reproduction. One branch of evolutionary psychology focuses on 
the distinct mating preferences and strategies
    of men and women. For example, because our male ancestors were easily able 
to sire numerous children at little cost to
    their fitness, the theory says, they were inclined to short-term mating with 
multiple partners. In choosing mates, they
    gravitated toward youth and physical attractiveness -- markers of fertility 
and health.
    By contrast, females, for whom conception meant pregnancy and the need to 
care for a child, were more selective, searching
    for long-term commitments from males with the resources and willingness to 
invest in them and their offspring.
    Theory's evolution
    Support for this theory came from a landmark study by psychologist David M. 
Buss and colleagues in the 1980s, involving 37
    cultures and 10,047 individuals. Buss, now professor of psychology at the 
University of Texas in Austin, found marked
    similarities across cultures, including a female preference for men with 
resources and status that persisted even when
    women had considerable resources of their own. Overall, women valued 
financial resources in a mate twice as much as men
    "Up until that time, everyone believed that these things were very tethered 
to individual cultures and that cultures were
    infinitely variable," said Buss, whose more recent books have described the 
utility of jealousy and the universality of
    homicidal impulses.
    Buss' survey continues to influence research on human mating. But some 
scientists and social scientists remain skeptical,
    saying evolutionary psychologists tend to neglect the role of learning and 
culture and to overemphasize genetics. Melvin
    Ember, an anthropologist and president of the Human Relations Area Files, a 
Yale-affiliated research organization, says
    that "focusing on universals" fails to explain either individual or cultural 
    Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at 
Northwestern University, has chided
    evolutionary psychologists for ignoring recent neurological findings about 
human and mammalian brains.
    Despite the objections, the field of evolutionary psychology is growing.
    In recent years, Darwinian feminists and others have developed a more 
nuanced view of the complexities of female behavior.
    Women, it seems, aren't quite as monogamous as their partners might wish. 
They too sometimes pursue short-term mating
    strategies, though not everyone agrees on why.
    Randy Thornhill, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, said 
he has discovered that women, in an
    unconscious bid for better genes, will choose "extra-pair copulation" -- 
that is, have affairs -- with men who are more
    attractive (though perhaps less likely to commit) than their long-term 
mates. Other research indicates that women make
    different choices at different points in their menstrual cycle, opting for 
better-looking, more symmetrical and more
    masculine-appearing men when they are at their most fertile.
    In short-term relationships, physical attractiveness is a priority for 
women, just as it is for men, according to a study
    by psychologists Norman P. Li and Douglas T. Kenrick that is slated to 
appear sometime next year in the journal of
    Personality and Social Psychology.
    Trying to draw a distinction between "luxuries" and "necessities," the 
researchers gave men and women varied "mating
    budgets" and, in a series of tests, asked them to construct their ideal 
mate, using such qualities as looks, social
    status, creativity, and kindness. For one-night stands and affair partners, 
both women and men sought physical
    attractiveness above all else.
    For long-term mates, the expected sex differences emerged: Men kept 
preferring attractiveness, and women opted for social
    status, as well as warmth and trustworthiness. But after their minimum 
requirements for these necessities were met, both
    sexes chose well-rounded partners over those with the very best looks or the 
highest status.
    In other words, "Men are not complete pigs, and women are not complete 
gold-diggers," said Li, assistant professor of
    psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
    This makes good evolutionary sense, considering that to father a child, Li 
said, "you don't need the most beautiful woman
    in the world." At the same time, women "don't need the richest man in the 
world to guarantee reproductive success. You
    just need somebody who's not a bum, basically."
    Trading up
    In practice, Li said, people's budgets in the mating market are determined 
by what they themselves have to offer. "So a
    guy who is extremely high status or very wealthy can trade up for a more 
physically attractive partner," he said. And
    "women trying to make themselves more physically attractive so they can get 
a higher quality mate are not completely
    It is also true, Li said, that very smart and successful women will have a 
harder time finding partners. "It seems that
    men want somebody intelligent enough so that they can recognize the man's 
brilliance," he said, "but not necessarily
    enough to challenge them -- or so smart that they find someone else more 
    John Marshall Townsend, professor of anthropology at the Maxwell School at 
Syracuse University, says that women's status
    requirements often complicate their search for a mate. Townsend showed a 
group of female medical students, law students
    and professionals pictures of men dressed in different ways -- wearing, for 
instance, a fast-food uniform or a designer
    suit and Rolex watch. He also gave participants descriptions of each man's 
social status.
    The results were decisive. "Here's Mr. Hottie, but if he's in the wrong 
costume, and given the wrong status description,
    then she won't go out with him, much less go to bed with him or marry him," 
said Townsend. "You could put Cary Grant in a
    Burger King outfit, and he looks dorky."
    If women do occasionally date "down" in terms of social status, Townsend 
said, "that would be out of desperation."
    By contrast, he says, men are likely to date any physically attractive 
woman. When it comes to marriage, "guys are not
    completely insensitive to social class," but, he said, they're "not looking 
for socioeconomic gain."
    Another recent study, by Stephanie L. Brown of the University of Michigan's 
Institute for Social Research and Brian P.
    Lewis of Syracuse University in New York, suggested that men prefer 
long-term relationships with subordinates rather than
    co-workers or supervisors. By contrast, women showed no significant 
preference for socially dominant men.
    The reason for this result, Lewis hypothesized, is that men think they would 
"have more control over the behavior" of
    female subordinates, including being able to ensure female monogamy, and 
thus the paternity of any children. "Female
    infidelity is a severe reproductive threat to males only when investment is 
high," as it is in long-term relationships,
    the authors write.
    Some evolutionary psychologists think gender differences can be overstated. 
In "The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped
    the Evolution of Human Nature," Geoffrey Miller suggests that the human mind 
evolved, much like the elaborate peacock's
    tail, primarily as a way of attracting partners of both sexes. His book 
argues that traits such as musical and artistic
    ability played no clear role in helping human beings survive, but instead 
enhanced their reproductive success.
    For Miller, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New 
Mexico, intellect and creativity are, well, sexy.
    "Guys are not picky about short-term mating, which is why we don't read 
about IQ scores in Penthouse magazine," he said.
    But when it comes to long-term relationships, he said, "There's good 
evidence that guys are as picky as women about the
    mental traits of partners."
    In the context of speed dating, where quick impressions count, HurryDate 
president Adele Testani says she was not
    surprised to learn that both sexes were most choosy about physical 
attractiveness. Although participants invariably ask
    each other about their careers, Testani said, "it really is all about that 
face-to-face chemistry and connection and
    attraction." She added: "You're certainly not going to find out if you're 
going to marry the person" in a few minutes.
    Kurzban said the "rich visual information" supplied by HurryDate encounters 
may help men and women get over the first
    hurdle of appearance, before other factors, such as social status, become 
    In the end, said Li, men and women tend to strive for the best partner their 
own attributes can buy. "Falling in love," he
    said, "is basically a process where both sides feel they're getting a good 

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