New Paleolithic Mating

Two women on modern mating.  Lori Gottlieb:

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay for the Atlantic titled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in which I said that having found myself still single at 40 … had I known when I was younger what would make me happy when it came to marriage and family, I would have made very different choices in my dating life. … The majority of single women who responded to a survey I sent out said that getting 80 percent of what they wanted in a mate would be “settling.” The majority of single men said finding a woman with 80 percent of what they wanted would be “a catch.” …

Many single women — mostly those in their 20s — went wild with rage and disdain for my confession: … I’d happily take the 80 percent, if only it was as available to me as it had been when I was 30. …  Suddenly I was “ageist,” “sexist” and “anti-feminist.” … I’ll admit, just a few years earlier, I might have been one of the women bashing this Lori Gottlieb chick for saying the unthinkable. I, too, felt that women should “have it all” (whatever unrealistic ideal I took that to be) and that anyone who suggested otherwise was out of touch, offensive or just plain off her rocker. Compromise? No way. That would mean not being true to myself.  A lot of women my age and younger grew up thinking this way. … We’re supposed to have high standards, and if a guy doesn’t meet them, we should be gloriously fulfilled on our own. … According to some readers, I was an affront to the entire women’s movement … I remember watching a group of young women on the “Today” show discussing my article and the fact that they’d rather be single than with Mr. Good Enough. …

It’s probably no accident that once women adopted this “I don’t need a man” attitude, many were left without men. According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of never-married women ages 25 to 44 more than doubled between 1970 and 2006. …  Another woman proudly said she could easily get her sexual needs taken care of without marriage. So what? … 4 percent of women said what they wanted most from marriage was sex, while 75 percent said it was companionship.

Charlotte Allen:

The very day, March 17, 2005, that Scott Peterson—sentenced to death in California for killing his wife and unborn son and throwing their remains into San Francisco Bay—took up residence on San Quentin’s death row, he received three-dozen phone calls from smitten women, including an 18-year-old who wanted to become his second wife. According to an April story in People, Peterson is still being flooded with letters from female admirers almost five years later, many of the mash notes containing checks to pay for his commissary charges. That’s par for the course on death row, where the rule is: The more notorious the killer, the more fan mail and marriage proposals. The most fan-mail-saturated killer in San Quentin is Richard Allen Davis, who in 1993 kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas at knifepoint from her home in Petaluma, Calif., killed her, and buried her in a shallow grave. …

Fewer than 60 percent of wives report that they are “very happy” in their marriages, in contrast to more than 66 percent in 1973. (Male marital happiness has declined, too: from 70 percent to 63 percent.) “Women initiate two-thirds of divorces.” … The percentage of married people ages 35 to 44 has declined precipitously over the last 40 years: … The percentage of children growing up in fatherless families … has risen … from 9 percent of all households with children in 1960 to 26 percent today. .. In 2004 … 24 percent of women ages 40 to 44 with bachelor’s degrees were childless, in contrast to 10 percent of women without a high school diploma. …

In The Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller wrote:

Our ancestors probably had their first sexual experiences soon after reaching sexual maturity. They would pass through a sequence of relationships of varying durations over the course of a lifetime. Some relationships might have lasted no more than a few days. … Many Pleistocene mothers probably had boyfriends. But each woman’s boyfriend may not have been the father of any of her offspring. .  .  . Males may have given some food to females and their offspring, and may have defended them from other men, but .  .  . anthropologists now view much of this behavior more as courtship effort than paternal investment.

That’s a pretty fair description of mating life today in the urban underclass and the meth-lab culture of rural America. Take away the offspring, blocked by the Pill and ready abortion, and it’s also a pretty fair description of today’s prolonged singles scene. In other words, we have met the Stone Age, and it is us.  Living in the New Paleolithic can be hard on women, many of whom party on merrily until they reach age 30 and then panic. … The guys their age are starting to make money, they look better, they’ve got self-assurance, and they’ve also got the pick of the 23-year-olds. Some argue, though, that it is actually beta men who are the greatest victims of the current mating chaos: the ones who work hard, act nice, and find themselves searching in vain for potential wives and girlfriends among the hordes of young women besotted by alphas. …

F. Roger Devlin. … deftly uses theories of evolutionary psychology to argue that the sexual revolution was essentially aimed at restoring primate-style hypergamy to human females and freeing women to try to capture the attention of and mate with the alpha males of their choosing instead of remaining chaste until their early marriage to a decent and hard-working beta (only the very best looking young women stood a chance of snagging an alpha in the old days). … Beta men become superfluous until the newly liberated women start double-clutching after years in the serial harems of alphas who won’t “commit,” lower their standards, and “settle.”

It is not clear to me why longer-term monogamy was more natural for farmers, versus shorter term relations for isolated forager bands.  Its not even clear to me that it was more natural.  If true, perhaps farming men could better coordinate to keep women from running away.  Perhaps communal foraging and child-care worked well in isolated tribes, and productivity wasn’t much hurt when woman switched men, while for intensive farming longer-term investments were more hurt by women switching men.

In any case, as we’ve grown richer, and our fear of poverty and death has receded, we’ve decided we can afford more luxuries – more entertainment, government, education, and medicine.  And women have decided they can afford access to better men, and the freedom to switch more.  This is plausibly the low-coordination equilibrium of a rich world.  I don’t see much support for coordinating to achieve any other equilibrium – such supporters would signal they don’t think they are the highly-demanded folks who most gain from the current equilibrium.

Would a more monogamous equilibrium be better?  Perhaps, but the fact that young women are over-confident and old women regretful just isn’t very strong evidence; such attitudes are functional well regardless of which equilibrium is more efficient.

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  • Doug S.
    • david

      I don’t think anyone has ever posted a dissenting opinion in the comments that has managed to persuade Robin that the phenomena he’s carefully constructed a theory around doesn’t actually exist. :p

      There’s that joke about the physicist whose graduate student brings him an inexplicable experimental result and begs for enlightenment. “Oh, well, it’s simple. This happens and that happens, and so you get this result.”

      “Uh, sir, you’re holding the graph upside down.” “Oh! Well, then it’s even simpler!”

      Robin, alas, tends to be much more certain about his phenomena.

      • eigenman

        the phenomena he’s carefully constructed a theory around

        the theory he’s carefully constructed phenomena around? 🙂

      • psych

        Way to demonstrate contempt without contributing anything to the conversation.

  • http://www.doctorideas.blogspot.com Ammon

    A good set of questions — this touches on a few of my biggest objections to the way that evolutionary psychology is used in popular culture (I’d say by evolutionary psychologists too, but that’s a claim that requires more defense):

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that in fact both the sexual practices and domestic/marriage anxiety that these authors ascribe to modern women describes a significant set of contemporary American women. Certainly this behavior will prove to be an expression of an underlying set of biological characteristics which haven’t changed (on a genotypic level at least) much from the Neolithic age.

    Ok, so what? To say anything important about that, we’d have to (minimally) also compare that to women (hopefully both contemporary and past) who don’t express these behaviors — how does this same biology express itself through very different behaviors? Why should we assume that sexual difference is the most appropriate difference to appeal to — that is, are these behaviors really rooted in the biological differences between men and women? And we’d also have to see when (and why) they stop — as you point out here, the supposed transition to agriculture — lots of things about human culture are changing. Assuming it’s true that women’s sexual behavior changes (hard to show) their attitudes towards domestic relations (even harder, probably impossible, to show) changes *along with that shift,* then there will probably be a lot of different reasons for a different set of behaviors to be selected for, some of which will reinforce one another and some of which will contradict one another. Why should I assume that a woman’s desire to balance her innate desire to have sex with a stud with her need for a nebbish stable provider for her offspring is the most explanitorily basic? And why should I assume that that same need for balance is behind changes in the way contemporary women express their sexual and domestic behaviors?

    In other words, why is our contemporary sexual age the new Neolithic rather than the new something else — 18th century perhaps? Presumably, it’s because the authors want to make some point about the import of contemporary women’s behavior. Their points are themselves situated in the culture they are describing, and to be perfectly candid I’m pretty sure the main import of both of their arguments is to reinforce patriarchal power relationships. Patriarchy, a set of social practices that enforce (or reinforce) male power, leaves much more of a trace in the archaeological record than does individual sexual choices and attitudes. And here, the evidence points to a shift that post-dates agriculture and that continues today despite major shifts and changes. Unsurprisingly, each of the authors (from very different perspectives) attacks the shifts in attitudes that threaten patriarchal culture.

    Maybe we can call the phenomenon of people writing about the naturalness of patriarchy “The New Iron Age”

  • http://feministx.blogspot.com feministx.blogspot.com

    After thousands of years of forced monogamy, why do women express this desire for mate swtiching and not settling? It’s interesting that thousands of years did not breed this instinct out of them. The desire not to settle must have been present and nurtured during the earlier phases of civilization. While history would have us believe that lifelong monogamous marriage defined sexual behavior in the past, it seems more likely that married people had so many affairs that it equated with the kind of partner switching that we observe today.

  • Dave

    Opposing desires about many things are rampant in everyone and always have been.What’s the big deal?
    What is ironic is the big production that is made in popular culture about this issue. Then after the spectacular wedding, the participants get to live real life which is most likely mundane but runs a real risk of some unanticipated,sobering trial or challenge such as the birth of a sickly child.
    I don’t know if other cultures highlight the goal of personal fulfillment though marital or sexual bliss like us. They are probably not as pampered as us.

  • http://www.sysko-creative.com Graham

    This research seeks to explain the natural fit between farming and monogamy: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527425.300-when-men-shouldnt-be-in-want-of-a-wife.html It has to do with the inheritance of land; I am not entirely persuaded.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      On a somewhat related note, Richard Wrangham attributes marriage to cooking in his new book.

  • eigenman

    lori gottlieb may be an unreliable source of data. or a source of unreliable data.

    http://jezebel.com/5463227/fat-like-him-self+help-writers-ex-speaks-out

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

    Nothing like being unable to cultivate an indifference towards some person’s dislikable behaviour to keep you single. Ah, the price of always wanting to be right.

    It is hard to see the world as it is when your head is in your colon.

  • http://www.ekzept.net ekzept

    There is some evidence that the human genome is more plastic than we conventionally assume, but it surely hasn’t changed that much since, say, the noughts of the 20th century, before women were emancipated in the political and, later, sexual realms. It’s ironic that to the degree women decide men are mere adornments or devices if they choose to procreate, the Pill and comparable innovations are not really needed. Perhaps that’s not fair: In extra-marital contexts, concerns about STDs make it superfluous as well.

    What’s interesting to contemplate is if men are capable of developing a comparable take ’em or leave ’em outlook and approach. Or is it that men are just wired for sexuality?

    The other things that’s interesting is whether this extreme kind of sexual selection is likely to introduce speciation events … Perhaps the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood is actually among us, replete with that fictional order’s distrust of love:

    The emotion of Love was intensely distrusted by the Order. The emotion was considered a source of disorder, confusion, chaos and was credited with some of the larger failures of individual Sisters. Thus as a preventative measure Sisters were conditioned from early childhood to be suspicious of Love, to understand that in its many manifestations the emotion is overpowering and that it breaks discipline and conditioning. Rather than have any sort of marriage or permanent pairings Sisters were encouraged to use the male “training masters” for physical enjoyment.

    fictional order’s distrust of love?

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      What’s interesting to contemplate is if men are capable of developing a comparable take ‘em or leave ‘em outlook and approach. Or is it that men are just wired for sexuality?

      Perhaps men will take a technological approach over the next few
      decades. If a handful of alpha males wind up with the

      got the pick of the 23-year-olds.

      then the vast market of the beta males may be well served by
      an artificial – but increasingly satisfactory – replacement
      http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/02/01/sex.robot/index.html?hpt=T2
      http://www.amazon.com/Love-Sex-Robots-Human-Robot-Relationships/dp/0061359750
      Over the very long term (centuries to millenia) this wouldn’t work.
      Frequencies for genes correlated with satisfaction with a
      non-reproductive sexual mate would drop. But over that timescale
      humans will probably be replaced by AIs or uploads anyway, so
      natural evolution is likely moot.

  • http://brazil84.wordpress.com brazil84

    “After thousands of years of forced monogamy, why do women express this desire for mate swtiching and not settling? ”

    I rather think your question contains its own answer. If women were forced into monogamy, then their natural desires would have been largely irrelevant to their reproductive success.

    Thus it’s not until the present day that the desire for mate switching is being bred out of women (and men too). At least among educated people.

  • Odessa

    Monogamy, or more accurately, the suppression of of polygyny, is an artifact of technology which allowed us to expand into other climates (i.e. harsh climates with low carrying capacity) where female dependence on male technology for reproduction was a fact of life.

    So if the individual male is no longer the primary provider, then it’s Africanization time.

    The pressure toward de jure polygyny is actually from the females although they would never admit it. Many women simply cannot maintain a fertile relationship with a man who they perceive as genetically a dead end—which, in the current vicious environment, is any so-called “nice guy”. But neither can they admit to themselves what, exactly, is bugging them. So many end up with no children at all. Moreover, many women who end up being kicked out of their positions as concubines to the managerial state—usually right around the age they are starting to run a risk of “difficult” pregancies—would be far better off if they were in a real harem with relationships with fellow concubines and their children that are not going to be terminated just because they are no longer fertile.

  • Unnamed

    The data don’t actually fit this story. Among college educated women, marriage rates remain high and divorce rates have been dropping (although marriages are happening later). It’s the women with less education who have higher divorce rates and are more likely to have never been married.

  • statistics

    Actually the stats about marriage are misleading. If you look at the oft cited Stevenson data and correct for the fact that college women are a much larger percentage of all women than in the past, then the probability of this group’s being married is actually about the same or slightly lower than it was in the 1950s.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I fail to understand what comfort folks are drawing from the decline of marriage mainly being among lower education classes. Is that like AIDS not being a problem because its mainly in Africa?

    • http://thesingularitarian.blogspot.com Sean Taylor

      Um, well, yes. To me these are early signs of a coming bifurcation of the human species. Wealthy first worlders with access to transhumanist technologies are going to split off from the main line, Morlock-Eloi style, while the poor masses of legacy homo sapiens fall further into chaos and primordial barbarism. As we approach a global population bottleneck from climate change, fossil fuel depletion, ecocide, etc. I expect this trend to accelerate dramatically, leading perhaps to some kind of Neanderthal-style genocide. It may be brutal, but this is what mother nature calls “progress”! 🙂

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        …that may be the most inappropriate smiley I have ever seen.

    • Unnamed

      It’s not about comfort, it’s about the evidence not fitting the hypothesis. Gottlieb suggests that the trend away from marriage is due to issues that arise among women like her – educated, high-achieving women – but the trend away from marriage is not happening among that type of woman. The explanation doesn’t fit the data.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Only well-educated women could have troubles settling for available men, relative to the ideal they hope for?

      • Unnamed

        Of course women with less education face the same tradeoff between settling and waiting, but they’ve always faced that tradeoff. What’s changed to create a trend away from marriage? Gottlieb connects the trend to growing ideals of empowerment and feminism leading sophisticated modern women to feel like they should be strong and independent and not need a marriage to be fulfilled. But if that’s what’s happening, we wouldn’t expect the trend to be concentrated among those with less education.

        And since the trend is concentrated among those with less education, we probably shouldn’t be looking for insight from the personal experiences of Gottlieb, her friends, a media producer, a successful architect, etc. Well-educated women also face the tradeoff between settling and waiting, and it’s fine to focus on their experiences (as Gottlieb does), but we shouldn’t confuse their difficulties with a trend that is happening among another group of people.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        You assume “growing ideals of empowerment and feminism” were only relevant for highly educated women? And since Gottlieb is highly educated, none of her experiences have any overlap with experiences of the less educated?

      • Unnamed

        Growth of feminism/empowerment sounds like something that has happened more among more-educated women than among less-educated women (as does your proposed mechanism involving wealth and attitudes towards luxuries), so it’s odd to see it as an explanation for a trend that has only happened among less-educated women. When a trend exists among less-educated women but not among more-educated women, I’m skeptical of explanations that seem to predict that more-educated women would show the same trend (or even a stronger version of that trend) and I’m wary of investigations that focus on more-educated women (especially when it’s not clear that they realize they’re taking the additional inferential step).

  • http://glpiggy.wordpress.com Chuck

    Dr. Hanson,

    I’ve briefly looked over Gary Becker’s work on marriage markets; do you know of any theories of the deadweight losses of monogamy?

    I came up with the term myself, but I’m assuming someone in the past has fully developed a theory.

    In a nutshell, I believe that socially and legally forcing people to marry one for one is a sort of quota that creates deadloss effects for society. Monogamy is sexual socialism. It is good for lower-status males, but not as good for high-status males.

    I’m trying to develop a good thought on this for myself at my own blog, but I wonder if you’d offer your thoughts on the idea (if you think it has any merit).

  • http://au.tv.yahoo.com/beauty-and-the-geek/geeks/a Paul from TV

    The Moral Animal says that the development of agriculture facilitated the degree of organisation necessary for decentralised government. As power was trickled down to lower-status (well, middle-status) males, they chose monogamy over polygamy as a social standard. The reason for this was that, without monogamy, all of the women would have accumulated to the high-status males (women would have been better off sharing a male with lots of resources to having one male with few resources).

    I predict that as our society becomes more affluent and our lives more comfortable, there is less benefit to being a high-intellect male. We will see a shift back towards alpha males.

  • Russell Johnston

    So what? Nobody’s mentioned the children yet, and yes, humans do still have them now and again. Mate switching isn’t ideal for them.

    More to the point, monogamy is an adaptation to mass culture – to the illusion of choice. We evolved for very small societies and had the choices we had back then – now we seem, but only seem, to have nearly infinite choices.

    Men are almost all betas in adolescence and for some time thereafter, so they learn far more quickly, that the appearance of choice is illusory.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    The very day, March 17, 2005, that Scott Peterson—sentenced to death in California for killing his wife and unborn son and throwing their remains into San Francisco Bay—took up residence on San Quentin’s death row, he received three-dozen phone calls from smitten women, including an 18-year-old who wanted to become his second wife. According to an April story in People, Peterson is still being flooded with letters from female admirers almost five years later, many of the mash notes containing checks to pay for his commissary charges. That’s par for the course on death row, where the rule is: The more notorious the killer, the more fan mail and marriage proposals. The most fan-mail-saturated killer in San Quentin is Richard Allen Davis, who in 1993 kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas at knifepoint from her home in Petaluma, Calif., killed her, and buried her in a shallow grave.

    For all the Randian and quasi-Randian libertarians out there who tend to be skeptical of these kinds of “game” based analyses, it is interesting to note that Ayn Rand was herself one of these murderer besotted women.

    See here.

  • Łukasz Stafiniak

    I have only skimmed through the post and comments, but I thought I’d share a work by a friend of mine: http://arxiv.org/abs/0801.0753 who shows that it is the “Paleolithic Mating” that led to degeneration of the Y chromosome.

  • http://t-aw.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    It’s not at all obvious to me that “80%” on both scales is even comparable. Without that, the entire line of reasoning fails.

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  • Roland

    Our ancestors probably had their first sexual experiences soon after reaching sexual maturity.

    No, no, no and no!!!
    They had their first sexual experiences at the age of 5,6. Read The Sexual Life of Savages by Bronislaw Malinowski. When they reached sexual maturity they had already a vast(1000’s of intercourses) amount of experience under their belt.

  • Joe T.

    The current debate on this trend as explored in the recent TWS article on the “New Paleolithic” is America-centric; if we examine other cultures from Ukraine to Uruguay to Uganda, we’ll certainly find very different mating dynamics, rooted in culture, tradition, and different variations on the male-female power dynamic. So let’s not pretend that the SATC, liberal female bed-hopping mindset is a universal phenomenon. We have to start with the realization that other society in the world has so seamlessly combined individualism, a rights-vindication culture (bolstered by the necessary legal system), with the tenets of feminism. We are hardly a traditional society.

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  • Otto Kerner

    I’m afraid I don’t understand most of Dr. Hanson’s comments. I’m not being snarky; I just don’t quite get it. In particular, could anyone rephrase “such attitudes are functional well regardless of which equilibrium is more efficient” or specify what the function is of being first over-confident and later regretful?

  • Gorbachev

    Dr. Hanson,
    I’ve briefly looked over Gary Becker’s work on marriage markets; do you know of any theories of the deadweight losses of monogamy?
    I came up with the term myself, but I’m assuming someone in the past has fully developed a theory.
    In a nutshell, I believe that socially and legally forcing people to marry one for one is a sort of quota that creates deadloss effects for society. Monogamy is sexual socialism. It is good for lower-status males, but not as good for high-status males.

    This is absolutely true.

    The biggest beneficiaries of the liberation of female sexuality (from the confining straightjacket of enforced monogamy) have been highly attractive males and those who learn to copy the behaviours of these males.

    A large number of people I know, myself among them, have benefited immensely by having an almost endless supply of 20-29 year-old women to acquire as sexual partners on nearly any terms that can be effectively negotiated, terms which become less and less onerous for us as time passes. Concomitantly, there has been a sharp diminishing of the need to permanently mate, foster children, acquire any real stake in society or form any type of family bond.

    It also means there is no compelling reason to consider mating with any women over the age of 29, an effect which can last for many men well into their early 40’s.

    While this is a massive and unexpected benefit for the 10-15% of males who are sexually cashing in on the changes in socially acceptable female sexual behaviour, and is perhaps very exciting for the 20-30% of minimally attractive women who are engaging in this lifestyle, it’s devastating for society as a whole.

    In essence, as a society, we are seeing a sharp drop in the number of high-status females and males actually breeding. There are fewer stable family units (for many reasons), and when they do form, they dissolve with almost heartbreaking regularity, and often on what would in the past have been considered spurious grounds.

    Males, such as myself, who would otherwise be investing in a real stake in society are, increasingly, missing out on opportunities to do so.

    The “players” are avoiding responsibilities but have access to as many attractive women as they desire. They therefore don’t need to involve themselves in any projects society may determine to be of value, in order to mate.

    As well, a growing segment of male society is essentially barred from mating with females and creating stable breeding units and working towards greater social goals that have real, immediate impact for them as well as long-term positively reinforcing effects on society as a whole.

    In effect, female hypergamy, while a positive personal sexual choice for females and the sexually hyperactive males who service them, to the exclusion of the majority of the male population, is stripping our society of its ability to reproduce and create effective and stable social units in which to breed.

    And, when it comes down to it, the central, most important and most essential activity of any human population, indeed any living population of any lifeform of any kind, is to breed in the most effective manner possible.

    We seem to have forgotten that breeding is the key to more or less everything. Demographics are everything, all the time. And optimal breeding is the very reason we exist.

    While I have personally benefited immensely from this sexual revolution, I worry for the fate of our society generally.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      My hypothesis as to the origin of monogamy is that what ever its “costs”, they were considerably less than the alternative which was men fighting to the death over women.

      That is how essentially all other species with polygamous mating systems control access to mates. I presume that is what humans would eventually get back to.