Wednesday 4 May 2011

Modern women and evolutionary mis-match


There is a mis-match between human psychology - which mostly evolved in a context of hunter-gatherer societies - and life in modern society: but the mis-match seems to be much more extreme in women than men.


Essentially, the mis-match is evident in terms of human choice and especially in relation to 'reproductive success'.

(Happiness is irrelevant to this - natural selection operates on reproduction, and happiness is merely a means to that end.)


Reproductive success of a person is, roughly, the relative proportion of viable offspring it contributes to the population - this is, roughly, measured by the number of children born to a person (minus those children who die before completing their reproductive lifespan).

In the modern world where death rates are very low, reproductive success can pretty much be measured as the fertility rate: the number of children.


If you look at figures 1 and 2 in this paper -

you can see that the situation is very different for men and women.

Men are biologically reasonably well adapted to modern society - but not women: the graphs go in opposite directions in this particular sample.


Overall, as men become wealthier and higher in status it either increases the number of children (which is what would be expected, biologically - and is the reason why men strive for status) - or at least does not damage reproductive success too much.

(Of course, in a sample worldwide, this would not hold, since less wealthy men would have a lot more children. This argument only applies to modern, developed societies with control of reproduction.)

But as women become more wealthy, more educated (and even more so with respect to increasing IQ) the number of children declines sharply and the proportion of women who are childless increases.


Why should women be so much more adversely affected - from a biological perspective, purely in terms of reproductive success, by modernity?

Because, almost certainly, in the past (in the pre-contraceptive era) increasing wealth among women almost certainly strongly increased reproductive success.

It is contraception which is the main factor.

Women seem predisposed to avoid or minimize childbearing, in proportion that they are more intelligent, educated, wealthy and high status.


This is surprising, and remarkable, and - currently - pretty much unexplained.

Here are some ideas.


In biology in general, females are (almost always) the investing sex: they invest a lot more resources into offspring (before and sometimes after birth) than males.

In order to allocate investment most female mammals will temporarily suppress reproduction under conditions of stress - fear of violence, starvation, disease etc.

This can be conceptualized in terms of saving resources for better times which may be ahead.

Reproductive suppression may be achieved by not ovulating, by reabsorbing the fetus, by abandoning or even killing newborn offspring etc.


Maybe women in modern society are engaged in reproductive suppression (mostly by means of contraception and abortion): maybe there is (at some level) a perception of 'stress'; maybe (in some way) the modern situation is perceived as alien and hostile to such an extent that reproduction is deferred (in hope of better times ahead) - but since this situation does not change, better times never arrive and reproduction gets (in practice) deferred permanently - until the reproductive lifespan is over.


Or could it simply be distraction? Any focus on reproduction is overwhelmed by the multiple attractions and distractions of modern evolutionary novelties.


In historical societies reproduction just happened as a by product of instinct: people sought 'happiness' and the children just came along (and there was no way of stopping them).

Now, with the presence of so many evolutionary novelties, people in general are confused and distracted, such that if they 'do what comes naturally' it does not lead to having children - but merely to (mostly short lived) pleasure/ avoidance of suffering.

In modern societies this means that women behave much more bizarrely (from a biological perspective) than men - from a biological perspective, women (by choice) make themselves ugly and unattractive (with fashion, by their behaviour), and (biologically) waste their time and resources.


But why should women be more 'confused' by evolutionary novelties than men?

Perhaps because women are more peer oriented than men.

Each man is, in a biological sense, a loner who seeks status, seeks to become the dominant male and get the lion's share of reproduction. Each man is against other men - except that self-interest dictates that one way to pursue self interest is via alliances.

But in historic societies, alliances were very difficult to sustain unless underpinned by genetic relatedness: most gangs and tribes were of male relatives.

Otherwise male v male competition would tend to break them up.


But women seem more able and motivated to form alliances with unrelated women (perhaps because a women would usually move to the husband's tribe, and needed to establish herself among female strangers?). Therefore, whatever the reason for greater peer orientation, women are strongly influenced by the opinions of other women (or, more exactly, by what they perceive to be the opinions of other women.


So women will do almost anything which they perceive to be necessary to fit with what they perceive to be the peer group of other women - from the mild level of sending innumerable greetings cards, through adopting fashions which (nearly always) usually make them less attractive; up through drunkenness and promiscuity, to tattooing, foot-binding and other self-mutilations.

(By less attractive I mean objectively so, from a biological perspective such as the massive amount of data on male sexual preferences cross-culturally and the correlations between attractiveness and signals of reproductive potential and what makes a potentially good long term partner and parent.)

All of these originated and enforced by that biggest and most influential of evolutionary novelties: the mass media, which in this instance functions as a super-stimulus interpreted as representing the female peer group.


So, a couple of ideas ...

1. that the very high level of maternal investment in humans makes women relatively highly likely to engage in reproductive suppression under situations of stress: and modern society is perceived as extremely stressful - so reproduction is deferred, indefinitely...;


2. that because women are more peer orientated, they are more vulnerable to influence by the mass media - which is an evolutionary novelty functioning as a superstimulus that is perceived to represent the female peer group...

but the phenomenon seems undeniable and calls out for explanation.


To restate the question:

Why are women so much more adversely affected (in a biological sense: reproductive success) by modernity than are men?

Or, why do modern women choose - on average - to damage their reproductive success?

Or, why does the pursuit of happiness – under modern conditions – cause de facto reproductive suppression in women so much more strongly than in men?



Peter Frost said...

Yes, women are much more sensitive to peer pressure. With my wife, I find it hard to argue an issue on its own merits. The counter-argument is almost always: "But all of my friends are doing .... so why aren't we?"

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

The evo-psych crowd has a candidate explanation for this phenomenon. Their gross over-simplifications of human behavior are incomplete at best and often just flat out wrong, but they do provide some interesting insight on some topics.

Women are hypergamous, meaning as you know that they are attracted to mates with higher status. The higher a woman's status, the less likely she is to find a mate she is deeply attracted to.

("Deeply" is a key word here, because while modern women generally don't have many scruples about casual sex, choosing to carry a baby to term is a huge investment for them, as you note, and requires a much greater emotional impetus in these times when contraception and abortion are commonplace.)

Modern society values intelligence (as opposed to wisdom or integrity) and careerist achievemnt (as opposed to traditional community-oriented roles), as you have aptly demonstrated on this blog many times. What grants status to women and men alike is operational intelligence and an ability to "play the game," (make money, get fancy degrees, toe the PC line).

Intelligent, wealthy, high-status women find fewer and fewer higher status men the higher they climb up the ladder. Presumably in the past, an intelligent woman would not get nearly such a status boost from her smarts, and so there would still be plenty of high status men around for her to choose for a mate.

This doesn't seem to me to be the whole story, but I propose that it is a significant factor.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PF - Women's higher sensitivity to peer pressure shows-up on psychometric testing as lower Psychoticism (in Eysenck's Big Three) or higher Agreeableness (in the mainstream Big Five) or higher Empathizing (in Baron Cohen's Male-Female brain division).

Do you have any other ideas of evolutionary reasons for the peer pressure sensitivity?

Do you agree with the general idea that it is probably the usual mis-match story of a trait which was highly adaptive (indeed essential) in a tribal situation becoming wildly maladaptive in a technological mass society?

Bruce Charlton said...



But why do modern women strive for status?

Biologically, they get nothing from it - indeed high status harms women both biologically and psychologically (since status makes women less popular, such that major female celebrities are always forced to portray themselves as piteous victims if they want to avoid being hated).

In fact, the concept of status is problematic in relation to females - I recommend reading The Woman Racket by Steve Moxon

dearieme said...

Easy divorce leaves the woman "holding the baby".

B322 said...

Women may inherit a desire for high status from their fathers. Status-seeking may be party, maybe heavily determined by autosomal DNA rather than simply by hormones. That is speculation only; it is informed by recent speculation as to the physiological underpinnings of homosexuality (to wit: that hormones linked to gender can only make us heterosexual with certain mixes of genes; a highly masculine father and mother have a higher than average chance of a lesbian daughter and virtually no chance of a gay son).

Celebrity women do seem somewhat masculinized, just as pretty boys seem to have displaced big hairy men. What is the typical "unlikely pair love story" in mass culture? Rich girl and prole boy. The combo least likely to produce offspring.

Why? I don't know. Two (opposed) speculations:

Mass culture loves gender reversals. He's not just a prole male, he's a pretty boy prole male, combined with an ass-kicking rich female. All is okay for the audience, since they have Hollywood looks (i.e., the women are never so masculinized as to have facial hair; the men never breasts; both genders are thin and/or muscly).

MSM loves sex without reproduction and without contraception. No├Âne is ever shown using contraception and accidental pregnancies only happen if that is the movie's high concept. So pairing a low-aggregate-fertility female with a low-ag-fert male is a way of convincing us unconsciously that babies are simply not being made in this particular pairing.

B322 said...

I'd like to write more about status seeking.

Is status seeking really increasingly prominent among women in general? It certainly is increasingly prominent among visible, urban women. I.e., the daughters of the last generation of nouveau riches. Perhaps the reason rural/ religious women seem more feminine is that, in less anonymous environments, men don't have to body-slamming social climbers in order to stand out socioeconomically.

Bruce Charlton said...

OdE - "Women may inherit a desire for high status from their fathers. Status-seeking may be party, maybe heavily determined by autosomal DNA rather than simply by hormones."

I'm not sure about this - in a sense everybody alive is the descendent of high status males, since they leave behind more offspring. And the sex differences in psychology are maintained on the basis of sex differences between parents.

"Mass culture loves gender reversals." - Yes. Neophilia to avoid habituation, and moral inversion for the same reason and to advertise cultured status.

"MSM loves sex without reproduction and without contraception." - True, a hedonistic fantasy, so powerful as to obliterate all other concens (such as life being alienated, meaningless and without purpose).

"Is status seeking really increasingly prominent among women in general? " - Yes. In the sense that years of education/ training have gone up a lot for women and were continuing to rise, at least until recently. But I agree with your underlying point that women do not to the same extent *compete* for status and keep competing; in the way that some men do.

Women's status striving has a very different flavour - probably because it does not have the same underlying biological rationale. The archetypal man is high status in the public sphere, but the archetypical high status woman is not archetypal so is perceived as an outlier.

For instance, in literature there are some genius women writers, but these are all very odd people in one way or another. Odd in a way that male literary geniuses are not. This should not really be surprising.

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

Thank you for the book recommendation. I intend to check it out.

As for an answer to your question, why do modern women seek status, I submit that all humans in all societies seek status. Ancient women sought status as well. But status was achieved by other means, such as beauty (still operative today), becoming a wife and mother with an honorable man, demonstrating group loyalty, and maintaining relations with other women. Even being the mother of a high-status young man (town leader or captain of the dragoons, or what have you) was a way for a woman to get status.

The mistake is to assume that money and political power are the only possible ways for a human to get high status. Our society, of course, makes this mistake one of its founding assumptions. Therefore women seek it that way.

This is why evo-psych is ultimately so dissatisfying. It takes plausible, even scientific (and not always just pseudo-scientific) observations, but then attempts to ignore how deeply cultural human beings are. The desire for status is universal, like the sex-drive, but it manifests in radically different ways throughout cultures.

This answer seems somewhat dissatisfactory to me now as I type it out, but I leave it for your consideration anyway. Thanks for the great blog.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - you have all-but redefined status so that what men and women do is the same! But really it is different for men and women, and it is better to maintain a more precise concept of status in order to describe this.

Crudely - and in most societies, men get status for themselves; women get status by marrying status (or having a high status father).

Bruce Charlton said...

Also, Daniel, I hope I didn't give the impression that ev psych explanations are complete - biology leaves out a great deal. An explanation may be correct within biology, but trivial in the real world.

This is a problem of *all* forms of *specialist* knowledge, including philosophy (which is a major cause of the schism between Eastern and Western Catholic Churches).

What is the status of specialist knowledge, how should we regard it?

Difficult. Perhaps the only deeply satisfactory answer is to love knowledge and desire it FOR ITS OWN SAKE - because as soon as you try to *use* knowledge (to increase power) its inadequacies get imposed on the world.

Alex said...

It is a fact that intelligent and well educated women (in Western societies) are loath to have children until they have established themselves in a career, achieved a social status consistent with their abilities, and found a suitable mate - when perhaps it's very late on their 'biological clock'. At the same time, it also seems to be true that low status, uneducated and unintelligent women, not being affected by the same objective considerations, do not suppress their reproductive urges to the same extent.

Here's a question that's deplored in polite society. Don't these demographic trends suggest that the 'average IQ' is being lowered and this must have deleterious consequences for our civilization? At the very least one might suspect the social conditioning of hordes of children raised by unintelligent mothers will augment the troubles of our society.

I have not ventured into the technical matter of whether we can make such inferences without reliable information about the genetic inputs (inheritance factors) of IQ distributions. I do not know enough about this field of scientific inquiry to make reference to it.

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

Yes, I see what you mean. In a way I think perhaps we are saying the same thing.

I only meant to say that the desire to be seen in a good light by one's peers is shared by all humans, male and female. I was calling this the "desire for status," and stand by my assertion that it's more or less universal.

I can agree to your sharpening of the definition and to calling "status," strictly-speaking, the traditional male modes of status-seeking. And therefore recognize how peculiar is the modern phenomenon of women seeking this male kind of status (if you will).

So then I revise my earlier analysis. Women want to be seen in a good light by their peers (male or female). What used to give them the inner glow that comes with seeing people smile at you and welcome you has changed. Nowadays women are smiled upon and encouraged if they act like men. So despite the severe and often total penalty this inflicts on their reproductive prospects, they seek it anyway.

Both traditional wisdom and evolutionary psychology acknowledge this human drive: we want to be accepted by our peers, desperately so. It's not our only drive, of course, and many individuals manage to buck this desire when it conflicts with their sense of the Good or with some other natural human desire. But it's very, very strong.

If women are rewarded with these "warm fuzzies" for acting like men, they will act like men by and large. This is what I meant with my original definition of status. But I welcome the fine-tuning of the terms and the clarity that emerges from it.

And PS: I've read enough of your blog (practically the whole thing, and also your recent book/pamphlet on PC) to know you don't consider evo-psych some sort of gospel. And I agree that, regarding the perils of the specialization of knowledge, perhaps the only way out is to value knowledge only for itself and not for its uses. This seems like it could be a way to allow for some specialization, as long as the specialist doesn't fall into the trap of missing the forest for the trees. Easier said than done, of course.

Bruce Charlton said...


Many thanks for reading so much of my stuff - I just hope it is good for you! Sometimes the Saturnine aspects of my temperament get the better of me...

Bruce Charlton said...


"At the same time, it also seems to be true that low status, uneducated and unintelligent women, not being affected by the same objective considerations, do not suppress their reproductive urges to the same extent"

You are correct - but it is interesting that even low status, uneducated and unintelligent women in the West still have fewer than two children on average - unless they are orthodoxly and devoutly religious (e.g. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Islamist, US Mormon, Amish/ anabaptist and perhaps some Christian evangelicals - e.g. the 'Quiver-full' movement).

Of these groups - only the US Mormons are successful in modern society in terms of wealth education, social class status etc.

Mormons also use birth control - so it is clear that having many children is a choice. Furthermore wealthier and more educated Mormons have more children.

I have done a couple of small surveys - unpublished - on UK Mormons, and they seem to show the same pattern as US Mormons: so it is probably Mormonism that is the factor, and not US nationality nor the particular genetics of US Mormons.

So, only Mormons - in the whole world - have succeeded in adapting human reproduction to modernity!


wrt to the 'dysgenic' effects of modern reproduction on IQ - yes it has been happening for about 150 years, and yes it will have by now had a significant effect on national averages and extremes of intelligence.

Here is a link to a recent attempt to estimate the magnitude of IQ decline, and the paper is a good source of further references:

Brett Stevens said...

As a general observation, it seems to me at least that education and wealth kill reproductive success.

First, the education we attempt now is mostly abstract mental games, and so encourages people to be neurotic.

Second, they have no chance to form a lasting attachment, since they'll be in graduate school until 30.

Finally, they're alienated from the idea of family -- not only by anti-conservative theorists, by their own neuroses, and by a culture that encourages fixation on the self and fear of mortality, BUT ALSO by the sexual revolution which means that their wives and husbands are partner #37 and so there's not much mystery involved.

Secretly, I think many do not want to reproduce because they know they're the chumps -- their partners had their fun, then "settled" for someone, and that someone's only retaliatory ability is to say "Nope, no kids with you."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brett - the fact that so many people (and especially women) are willing to engage in prolonged education/ training/ career-building - and defer marriage and reproduction is a consequence (not cause) of the fact that they do not value marriage and children.

Devout US Mormons, who do value marriage and children (for theological reasons) continue to marry early and have large families - education is fitted-around this priority.

Mormon men are more highly educated than the average American, and earn more than average; Mormon women have a higher than average rate of bachelor's degrees - but seldom continue to graduate school and career building - choosing instead to marry and have (many) kids in their early 20s.

Modern women engage in endless education *mostly* because they can conceive of nothing better to do...

EvelynM said...

Intriguing post, as always, Dr. Charlton.

Perhaps high IQ women are merely responding to nudges from Mother Nature in refraining from reproducing, since over the long haul mankind is better off by having more "doers" than "thinkers." We humans think that we act following careful and rational decision-making, while most of our basic "choices" actually stem from instincts over which we don't have very much control. Purely from a physiological point of view I would imagine that females have a deeper ingrained response to biological pressures than males, and therefore what we might be witnessing is the large-scale sacrifice of their potential off-spring by intelligent women for the sake of the species as a whole. I do hope I am wrong.

Anonymous said...

A woman of high reproductive fitness under the conditions of evolutionary adaptiveness (i.e. young, healthy, intelligent, and very importantly, well-fed and not physically abused) had two choices: settle quickly and bear the children of a low-status male, or aim high and bear the children, and hopefully, command a large share of the resources (including physical protection) provided by the alpha male. Of course, the latter strategy is a better payoff since the alpha's children are more likely to be fit themselves. On the other hand, the low fitness woman (likely to be older and childless, poorly fed and frequently pushed around physically), could not reasonably hope to oligopolize the alpha - so she settled quickly.

Today, all women are well-fed, sheltered from abuse, intellectually stimulated and continually assured of their value. Their hindbrains read these signals as proof of high reproductive fitness. So, in unprecedented numbers they decide to hope for an alpha, and the highest status ones hold out the longest. But, the number of alphas has not increased, and so many more women than before chase the same small pool of men. No wonder most are unsuccessful.

This is a perverse situation, where an adaptation formerly increasing finess (chasing alpha when feeling fit) now backfires. Eventually, evolution will sove the problem. Either, women will stop chasing alphas, or else they will avail themselves of alpha seed by a sperm bank and leave betas on the genetic trash-heap.

Bruce Charlton said...

Good comment Anon - you may be onto something there.