did men evolve to be overconfident?

This coming week’s lecture is going to be about reproduction and mate selection. It’s a really good night, full of complicated ideas and the opportunity to cull a bunch of bullshit from students’ minds, and even to teach them how to be critical consumers of sexuality-related science in the media.

Like this Discovery News article about a speed-dating study that showed men thought women were more interested in them than they were.

The study was conducted by a psychology faculty member at Williams College who, on investigation, did her PhD at UTexas Austin. She now teaches Evolutionary Psychology among other things. Would I be surprised if she studied under David Buss? I would not. Because this is precisely the kind of just-so story conflation of history with evolution (TWO DIFFERENT TIMESCALES = TWO DIFFERENT CAUSAL MECHANISMS) that makes me need a drink and a night of reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy that Buss’s work causes in me.

(I’ve just checked and it turns out I’ve never actually written a post about eye-rollingness of David Buss, though I’ve mentioned him several times. Must get on that.)

Now, one of the problems with my point of view on the evolutionary forces that shaped human sexuality – and evolutionary forces DEFINITELY DID shape human sexuality, that’s just inevitably true – is that it’s just a lot more complicated than the straightforward “men are promiscuous, women are choosy” argument.

And complicated arguments take patience and thought to understand.

For example, mathematical modeling has shown that males actually have to be TWICE as reproductively successful with a promiscuous mating strategy than with a partnered mating strategy in order to make it worth its energy expenditure. So men are not “naturally promiscuous;” if anything, they’re promiscuous conditionally.

You really needn’t – and indeed I think oughtn’t – invoke an ultimate cause (evolution), when a proximate cause (social dynamics) meets the case perfectly well. In this case, there is truly no need to look to evolution to explain men’s behavior. Culture accounts for it perfectly well, with evolution playing only a peripheral and distant role.

The article quote Peter Todd of my alma mater, whose work I love, and whose quote brings an important but unmined insight:

“The research in this area is important because it provides insight into some of the sources of potentially harmful misunderstandings regarding sexual intent between men and women,” Todd said. “This paper in particular gives more support for the idea that men over-perceive the sexual interest of women, and it indicates which men paired with which women are most likely to show this over-perception.”

Notice he makes no mention of selection pressure or reproductive success.

Seeing evolutionary roots in modern human behavior is REALLY REALLY HARD; our origins are buried deep under 10,000 years of agriculture and written language.

But the media luuuuuuuuvs a good (that is to say, bad) evolutionary just-so story about why men and women are the way we are. There’s something so appealing, so comforting, in the idea that we evolved to be this way, that is is Who We Naturally Are.

As if nature had a plan for how we would behave at speed-dating events.

I want my students to finish the class with pretty good bullshit-o-meters; I want them to be able to tell the difference between interesting thinking about the evolution of humans as sexually dimorphic large apes and simplistic storytelling that conflates cultural selection with natural and sexual selection. Cultural selection is important, but it is not even a little bit the same.

As Douglas Adams says, “The thing about evolution is, if it hasn’t turned your brain inside out, you haven’t properly understood it.”

In other words, it’s all really much more complicated than that.