David M. Buss’ The Evolution Of Desire

A conspicuous and disturbing fact about the modern world is that full participation in it demands we accede to a growing number of lies. The mildest dissent is met with stigma and ostracism and character assassination, which is perhaps less barbaric than witch burning but no less effective at protecting the orthodoxy. A major plank of the new system, in power across governments, universities and major corporations, is that “gender is a social construct,” an invention of an oppressive and power-hungry cooperative of men responsible for everything from the paucity of women in positions of economic and political power to the beauty standards that “force” women to shave their legs or apply makeup. It’s a compelling story, no doubt, and undeniably effective at whipping up resentment and mobilizing voters, but adherence to its dictates demands an almost total ignorance of human and animal biology, particularly as concerns the last 50 years of developments in neuroscience. Darwin – dead for nearly 150 years and yet undiminished in his ability to upset the pious –has more to tell us about the dynamics of human relationships than all of the vogue social theorists of the academy combined, and David M. Buss, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Texas and the man who literally wrote the textbook (Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, now in its sixth edition) on evo psych, is the ideal guide to the intricacies of Darwinian insight into human mating.

The fundamental proposition of evolutionary psychology is that the brain is an evolved organ, the product of millions of years of intense evolutionary pressure. From that central tenet follows a cascading serious of lesser propositions: our minds are not abstracted from our bodies, but products of brain matter, and our thoughts, emotions and animating drives are therefore likewise shaped in accordance with evolutionary pressure. This has dire implications on the nature of gender, for male and female reproductive anatomy is different, and therefore the evolutionary calculus for men and women is different. The law of animal reproduction seems to be that the gender with the larger, more costly gametes is choosier in matters of sex, selecting only the choicest counterparts for reproduction before bearing the heavy cost of gestating the offspring, while the gender with the smaller, less costly gametes is more promiscuous. This simple fact leads to what, for every heterosexual human being, is one of the most salient facts of life: sexual conflict. “Men cannot fulfill their short-term wishes without simultaneously interfering with women’s long-term goals.” Even successful coupling, as all adults know, does not put an end to the difficulties:

Married women sometimes complain that their husbands are condescending, emotionally constricted, and unreliable. Married men sometimes complain that their wives are moody, overly dependent, and sexually withholding. Both sexes complain about infidelities, ranging from mild flirtations to serious affairs. All of these conflicts become understandable in the context of our evolved mating strategies.

What is a mating strategy, exactly? Buss is quick to point out that these are seldom consciously contrived approaches and more akin to automatic or instinctual responses, aimed at maximizing reproductive potential by becoming – or, in some instances, merely representing – the opposite gender’s ideal. This begs two important questions, addressed in the second and third chapters: “What Women Want” and “What Do Men Want.” It also raises an important point utterly lost on today’s social theorists: men and women have the power to shape the behaviors of the opposite gender.

Returning to my opening paragraph: why is it that women are underrepresented in positions of political and economic power, or spend billions of dollars more on hair, makeup and clothing than men do? Because, cross-culturally, in every human society yet studied, from the largest metropolises to the smallest and most remote villages of rural Australia or South America, men and women demonstrate consistent patterns in their sexual preferences. Men overwhelmingly select for youth and beauty (two reliable proxies for fertility) and women overwhelmingly select for wealth, social status and prestige, all excellent proxies for determining the suitability of men as long-term providers and protectors. Women, therefore, are not brainwashed into beautifying themselves, or feeling insecure about their appearance; these are rational responses to the problem posed by male sexuality, and the women who “win” this contest are rewarded by male attention and resources. Similarly, men who maximize their incomes, work 60+ hours a week for years on end, spend inordinate amounts of money on costly signifiers like suits, wristwatches and sports cars, are responding to the conditions of the mating market, where these attributes are highly desired by women.

The Evolution Of Desire is a deep dive into the latest findings of evolutionary psychologists and sociologists studying human mating, across as wide a variety of topics as are encompassed by the immensely rich subject of human sexuality. Why are some people gay, despite the obvious hindrance to reproduction? Why do women consent to casual sex, or men offer themselves up in a binding legal contract restricting themselves to just one woman for life? What causes marital infidelity, and how does it manifest differently in men and women? Why do some men rape or some women commit paternity fraud? What causes human beings to pair bond, and what are the common causes of separation?

What emerges from these studies is frequently disturbing or unflattering; only a very brave person can look directly at human nature, in all its beauty and ugliness, without flinching. But the totality of the image, however messy or complicated, is recognizably human, and there is infinite utility in excavating the complexities of humanity from the cramped impositions of whatever ideology happens to be in power. In today’s progressive climate, many of the conclusions of The Evolution Of Desire and the field of evolutionary psychology more broadly are not just unpalatable but fatal. It’s perhaps worth remembering, then, that it was originally a conservative orthodoxy – one that saw women as passive, ethereal beings, unsullied by sexuality until seduced by men – that Darwinism disrupted. We may be advancing closer to the truth, then, but we’re certainly taking a circuitous route.