Fighting For Mates Like Elk Or Gorillas Isn’t How Humans Evolved
Sperm competition, not butting heads, determined who passed on their genes
Imagine this scene, not unlike what still takes place in many current hunter-gather tribes. A group of Paleolithic men and women come in from hunting small game together and bring their kill to the group for preparation for dinner. Several individuals come in from their foraging too, mostly women, but a few men as well. They also bring what they’ve gathered to the group, and in many instances, this makes up the bulk of the meal, not the meat, depending on where they live.
Unlike what you may have been led to believe, this is how our Paleolithic ancestors survived — by all taking care of each other. Men did not “provide” for their mate in the way that we think of that term, because everyone contributed to the food for the tribe, which typically consisted of 20–50 individuals. The group made sure that everyone had something to eat, regardless of their own food acquisition success on any particular day. “Cooperation and especially food sharing are essential for survival in a hunting-and-gathering economy,” (anthropologist Mark) Dyble said. “The proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is certainly true for hunter-gatherers who, without food sharing to mitigate the day-to-day shortfalls in foraging, could simply not survive.” (1)
In modern times, unless the tribe hunts big game, both men and women often hunt and gather, paying little attention to whose role it is to do what, and depending on where they live, meat may be a comparatively small part of the diet. (2) In other words, for Paleolithic peoples, there was no reason to select a mate who is the best provider since all the adult members of the tribe contribute to the food supply.
Any ideas we have about women looking for a good provider come straight out of patriarchy, a social system that’s only been around for the past 6–9 thousand years and that doesn’t exist among modern hunter-gather groups, not even in ones that do not have full gender equality. Patriarchy is, in essence, a dominance hierarchy that extends far beyond power differentials between men and women to include gross wealth disparity and a stratified system of classes. Band hunter-gatherers who have not been corrupted by more patriarchal neighbors still embrace a largely egalitarian social structure.
Traditionally, especially among Juǀʼhoansi ǃKung, women generally collect plant foods and water, providing 60%–80% of the group’s sustenance, while men hunt. However, these gender roles are not strict and people do all jobs as needed with little or no shame.
Women generally take care of children and prepare food. However, this does restrict them to their homes, since these activities are generally done with, or close to, others, so women can socialise and help each other. Men are also engaged in these activities.
Bonvillain, Nancy (2001). Women and Men: Cultural Constructs of Gender
It is only when women are stripped of their autonomy under patriarchy and relegated to their homes with the advent of plowed agriculture that aligning themselves with the best provider becomes important. If you can no longer provide for yourself and your children or rely on your community to make sure that you have enough to eat, if only one man is entirely responsible for that, it is only under those circumstances that a good provider becomes imperative.
When many modern people assume that a woman with very young children would, of course, need a man to provide for her, they are failing to understand that in many such cases it is a network of women who help each other. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers played a key role in the survival and evolutionary success of our ancient ancestors, just as they do in current hunter-gatherer tribes.
The so-called “grandmother hypothesis”, based on studies of African hunter-gatherer groups, suggests that infertile women are vital for successful child-rearing despite being unable to produce children themselves.
“I’m not massively surprised,” Rob Kruszynskia, an expert in human evolution at the UK’s Natural History Museum, told New Scientist. “The suggestion is that a tribe will benefit because of the extra mothering that older women can give.” (3)
In agricultural societies, it is not uncommon for a woman to have a child every year. Obviously, a woman with 5 children under the age of 5 isn’t going to have much time to provide food for herself and her children, even with grandparental help, but our Paleolithic ancestors only had a child every 3-4 years, which creates a rather different dynamic. The mistake that modern people often make is to assume that ancient life was just like now, minus the modern conveniences.
“Human hunter-gatherers, for example the Gainj of highland Papua New Guinea, have an average of 43 months between births. Pennington (2001) calculated 39 months for hunter-gatherers, taking the mean of four non sedentary populations. Three and a half to four years between children seems normal for prehistoric people before the Neolithic, i.e. the adoption of agriculture, animal husbandry and a sedentary lifestyle.” (4)
Another false impression some may have is that ancient males competed for mates in much the same way that rams or elk do, by butting horns, and otherwise displaying their physical dominance. Again, this comes out of the assumptions of a society steeped in a patriarchal hierarchy where coercion and bullying are routinely used to establish pecking order but it has little bearing on how people in an egalitarian culture find mates.
Comparisons to other primates are especially persuasive. Like humans, our closest cousins, chimps and bonobos, have testes on the outside (though theirs are bigger), and male animals are typically 10 to 15 percent larger than females. Gorillas, though, like more distant cousins on steroids, have small penises (balls on the inside), and males that are twice as big as females. Because gorillas mate polygynously (multiple ladies for each dude), males must be imposing to win access to females (specifically, their vaginas). But for chimps and bonobos, “multimale-multifemale” maters, the battle is on the inside — large volumes of sperm fight to the egg, even leaving traps for competitors. Our genital similarities to chimps and bonobos thus reveal our promiscuous past.(5)
We have sex because it feels good, but there is an evolutionary incentive to do it in a way that best propagates the species. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, that isn’t through mate competition prior to the act, it’s through sperm competition from a variety of inseminators. The coronal ridge on the human penis is designed to scoop out semen left there from other genetic competitors. It wouldn’t be necessary if that competition had already taken place prior to coitus. And because you don’t want to accidentally scoop out your own semen, it’s typical for men to become flaccid after ejaculation and to need that refractory period before they can go again.
The human cervix works in much the same way that it does in some of our primate cousins, to sort and assess sperm quality. “For the human female cervix, like that of a promiscuous macaque who may breed with ten males or more in rapid succession, actually serves not so much to block sperm, as was previously believed, as to busily filter and assess it, ideally several different types of it from several different males, simultaneously. It evolved not as a simple barrier but to sort the weak and bad and incompatible sperm from the good, suggesting by its very presence that there was a need to do such a thing — i.e., that females were mating multiply.” (6)
Besides the ways that our biology reflects that we were multiple maters, early humans wouldn’t have routinely physically fought each other for mate access because there was no need to, and it would have been counter-productive to the success of the band as a whole. Life was precarious enough in the Paleolithic era, without members of your group who depend on each other for survival risking injury or death. It simply doesn’t add up.
In a study done on the evolutionary history of marriage practices among hunter-gatherers, the researchers determined that parents and close relatives typically had a large influence on the choice of a mate. They also noted that in some cultures, a parentally approved spouse was not necessarily the “actual genitor of descendants,” and that “worldwide extra-pair paternity rates have been estimated at around 9%, although there is much variation between as well as within populations. In other words, an official husband may or may not be the actual father of any children. (7)
This flies in the face of the Standard Narrative which says that men are disinclined to care and provide for offspring that are not carrying their genes. But prior to the agricultural revolution, and to the advent of patriarchy which included sexual control of women for the first time, there would have been no way to know for sure who the father of a child was, and so heritage was matrilineal. It is only with patriarchy and a desire to pass along land and other possessions to true heirs that paternity becomes important. None-the-less, partible paternity, where several men are considered to be the father of a child, still takes place in lowland South America and in parts of Africa in the present day and there are several other current cultures that challenge the universality of the Standard Narrative.
“The Warao of Brazil periodically suspend marriages and have ritual relations called mamuse. During this time, adults are free to have sex with whom they please. These relationships are considered to be honorable and thought to have a positive effect upon any children that might result.” (8)
Of our primate cousins, we are genetically closest to bonobos and chimps, both of whom undertake multi-male/multi-female mating. “The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble.” (9)
Unlike gorillas and elk, and other species who compete for a harem of females via size and strength, humans had no need for physical mate competition. This was particularly so since like chimps and bonobos, females were not sexually exclusive to one male. We have long believed that humans, like chimps, are naturally prone to (mostly male) conflict and violence, and that male dominance, including infanticide and sexual coercion of females, is an inherent part of our evolutionary legacy. But humans are just as genetically close to bonobos as they are to chimps and there’s a lot to indicate that we are naturally more like them, more cooperative and social.
In addition, human biology is designed for sperm competition, not overt displays of strength prior to copulation. Squabbles over women do take place even in modern hunter-gatherer cultures, but physical fights or prowess are still not the primary way that suitors prove their worth. It’s a mistake to equate the behavior of some animal species to all animals, just as it’s a mistake to overlay the rules and expectations of one social system over that of another type. The way that men vie for and attract mates in a patriarchy is by its very nature different than within an egalitarian, cooperative society where women have a lot of power, autonomy, and sexual freedom.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
(6) Martin, Wednesday. Untrue (p. 145). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
(9) Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 26). Harper. Kindle Edition.