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Men aren’t the only ones maximizing their reproductive fitness…or are they?

September 10, 2009

…the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to “maximize his reproductive fitness,” to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible… -Natalie Angier, New York Times

So we all know, or have heard, of the stereotype about men finding multiple significant others to “spread their seed.”  But what about women spreading their seed? In Natalie Angier’s article in the New York Times, “Skipping Spouse to Spouse Isn’t Just a Man’s Game,” the author makes a correlation between the Western world and the underdeveloped world in a recent study examining multiple relationship patterns of Pimbwe men and women in Tanzania and the Western World. Angier states that “serial monogamy is by no means a man’s game, finessed by him and foisted on her…serial monogamy looks less like polygyny than like a strategic beast that some evolutionary psychologists dismiss as quasi-fantastical: polyandry, one woman making the most of multiple mates.” (My emphasis added in italics.)

skippingspousetospouseThe study, (published in Human Nature) by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California-Davis, followed the lives and relationships of Pimbwe communities in Tanzania for 15 years. While men were more likely to have more multiple relationships than their counterparts, women were not too far behind from the men (including surpassing the men in the upper Zsa Zsa Gabor with five consecutive spouses).

Women had more reproductive success than their male counterparts, and higher quality of mates, Borgerhoof Mulder found. The men were not as successful as the women, however: “Among the men, by contrast, the higher the nuptial count, the lower the customer ranking, and the likelier the men were to be layabout drunks” (Angier, NY Times article).

While these findings are interesting, I find Angier’s journalism to be a bit off. Angier does point out that one of the reasons why women seem to have better reproductive success is due to the lack of resources available for women in underdeveloped countries in order to take care of their children…hence more women finding another mate to support her family. But her correlations between this study and applying the findings to developed countries, i.e. the U.S. or Canada for example, is irresponsible reporting. Many readers seem to agree, as well. Among the comments:

Can I just mention how tired I, a woman living in a western civilization where western mores prevail, am of hearing about how in some remote primitive society things work differently?

Frankly, Dr. Angier, I don’t give a damn. What matters is the way things work where I live. (Elizabeth Renant from Sante Fe, NM)

The research on the Pimbwe is fascinating. And I suppose all it take is one example to debunk the evolutionary universality of androgyny. However, having only one example still does not make a strong case for Ms. Angier’s claims for polyandry. Are there other cultures where these or other characteristics are found? Or is this an anomaly? Are polygyny and polyandry genetic evolutionary traits or the result of social/environmental variables? There doesn’t seem to be much here to prove the case. (SC from Erie, PA)

Applying relationship patterns from a small community in Tanzania to relationship patterns in the U.S. does not work—why? Because they are different cultures. Not only are they in very different locations, but the resources, traditions, religions, communities, are very different…they are the many factors that shape human behavior. While Borgerhoff Mulder’s study is not to be wasted and does say something about people and relationships, perhaps a study administered to a culture similar to the U.S.  would be more telling about human behavior and multiple relationships.

  1. September 10, 2009 4:39 pm

    The utility of such studies lies in debunking the myths surrounding how men and women are “wired”. You can’t claim that men are biologically wired to be polygamous and women are biologically wired to be monogamous if you consider societies such as these. It doesn’t even matter whether they’re the single example of such a lifestyle; even one instance immediately disproves the idea that humans have any sort of “wiring”. It destroys the cop-out of “oh, well, I’m a man, I just HAVE to have multiple partners.”

    They are indeed different cultures–and that’s the whole point. For humans, culture has a far bigger influence on reproductive strategies than biology does.

  2. September 11, 2009 12:13 pm

    I completely agree with you in that “culture has a far bigger influence on reproductive strategies than biology does.”

    However, what’s the point to continue these studies if it is consistently being proven that humans are less “wired” and more influenced by culture? I find that the NY Times article is a reinforcement of “wiring” and while the study is interesting to think about, I don’t think the study was something to draw conclusions about relationships in the developed world.

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