Not Paleolithic Mating

In February I quoted Charlotte Allen quoting Geoffrey Miller on New Paleolithic Mating:

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 … 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.

Lately I’ve been filling a big hole in my social science education, by reading lots of anthropology of nomadic forager bands, our main fossil evidence on our distant ancestors’ lives.  I’ve learned modern mating is far from Paleolithic!  Consider:

It is unusual, but not exceptional, for a lone woman to spend the day gathering. In the times I observed at the Duda camps, the solitary foragers were either postmenopausal women or young, unmarried women who were still without children. Women with children or adolescent, unmarried girls usually gather bush food in the company of two or more other women. The !Kung themselves claim that lovers (as well as married couples) sometimes arrange to meet privately in the bush. !Kung sleeping arrangements may promote these tactics, for at night whole families sleep outdoors together gathered around individual campfires and within a few feet of other families sleeping at their own fires. …

In the bush [in contrast to villages,] concerned relatives will work to keep a young couple together up to a certain  point, but if the individuals themselves feel mis-matched, there are few, if any, arguments that will persuade them to stay together.  When (as often happens) the young couple divorces, no one loses a great deal – no property of any economic weight has changed hands, etc. … Such a marriage in the bush setting would have had a different history.  !Uku would have left her husband long before, in all likelihood to spend another year or two in casual flirtations before marrying again.

In one evening, a modern city woman can see and choose among more men her age than a forager woman would meet people in her lifetime.  If a modern woman prefers, all those men can be strangers, so that if she goes home with one there is little risk of word getting back to anyone she knows.  The next night she can choose among an entirely different group just as big.

In contrast, a typical forager woman only has frequent contact with the 30-50 people in her band, with a handful of men near her age.  Most of the men she might find attractive already have a woman.  Foragers bands meet periodically with a few known associate bands, and a young woman typically switches from her parent’s band, usually to be with a particular man.

The band lives in very close quarters, with everyone watching everyone’s faces closely.  Illicit flirtation must be very subtle.  People know who goes off alone, and quickly draw conclusions about who might meet whom out there; happily mated folks are expected not to go off alone.

Yes foragers switch mates during their lives, but men often react to betrayal with violence, and women aren’t above spreading malicious gossip about rivals.  Babies of single forager moms face a greater risk of harm.  For our distant ancestors, switching and cheating were far harder, and the options far more limited.  Modern dating is really quite unlike that of our ancestors.

Added: Thursday adds “three most important factors driving modern mating:  1. Urban anonymity  2. Reliable birth control 3. A woman’s ability to support herself.”

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  • Robin,
    Good post. I’ve been looking for reading on the same subject – would you (or anyone else who knows about this area) mind sharing what resources you’ve been reading?

  • Violet

    Good post.

    Have you changed your mind on on some mating related things recently?

    Many of the earlier posts seemed to apply a “natural because paleolithic …” thinking.

  • Modern high-school dating, on the other hand, is really quite like that of our ancestors.

  • “Modern high-school dating, on the other hand, is really quite like that of our ancestors.”

    And for college-aged people too. The “modern woman free to roam about town” without reputational consequences describes someone in her later 20s or beyond.

    • Violet

      At least here college-aged people can have anonymous sex without their peers finding out.

      And condoms + the pill influence the scenarios greatly.

  • Not to mention the lack of birth control in the paleolithic and modern women’s economic independence from their mates.

    I don’t often agree with blogger Whiskey, but he names the three most important factors driving modern mating:

    1. Urban anonymity
    2. Reliable birth control
    3. A woman’s ability to support herself.

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  • bock

    Id replace 1 with Options. Networking effects makes anonymity, even in a large city, relative. People tend to orbit in the same circles and a lone woman travelling far out of her familiar circles often is a freak.

  • novaseeker

    I agree with Thursday but we should note that it is not strictly an “urban” phenomenon. Rural US is in shambles in terms of relationships, despite the lack of anonymity. I think the other factors are bigger — reliable birth control and abortion, and economic changes (no reliance on either men or tribe, other than in the sense of taxes and benefits).

  • Linda Gottfredson’s Apprentice

    The competition to get offspring to reproductive age in enormous.

    Any woman who thinks she can screw around and it will have no impact on her reproductive success is fooling herself, and the sort of men who will put the effort into ensuring that their children are a success want nothing to do with such women.

  • Rural US is in shambles in terms of relationships, despite the lack of anonymity

    Is this really true? There seem to me large pockets of North America where relationships are basically healthy in spite of everything, and those are disproportionately located in rural areas.

    The stats seem to back this up. New York women average 20 lifetime partners (see here), while the median number of partners for the country as a whole is, at least according to the stats, 4 (see here). (Some of the women are lying, but the liars are disproportionately among those with the highest numbers.)

    • M

      It’s interesting that you, as a game/PUA proponent, would use the number of lifetime partners that women have as an indicator of whether or not relationships are healthy. It’s also worth noting that the New York survey uses the mean, while the national survey uses the median, which exaggerates the difference between the two.

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