Memes, Natural Selection, and Competing Societies

Do women like manly hunks, or compassionate types?

Natural selection drives human population.  Back in the hunter-gatherer period, the strongest, most skillful hunters were able to feed more babies than weaker men and enjoyed greater reproductive success.  Women tried to attract strong men so that they, too, could raise as many children as possible.

As many a high-school geek has noticed, down to this day, women preferred athletes who could hunt, farm, and would live long enough to help her raise her children to maturity.  The meme of the football captain getting the cheerleader and the meme of the 95-pound weakling losing his girl at the beach more or less described the mating scene.

Given contemporary evolutionary theory, any changes in women's preferences for strong men would take many generations to become visible.  To our surprise, the Economist reports that a mere four generations after the coming of effective health care, women's preferences in men are changing:

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine, themselves a married couple, examined what might be called the Deianira paradox. Hercules, demigod and paragon of masculinity in the ancient world, was indirectly done for by his own sexual prowess - his jealous wife, Deianira, accidentally poisoned him with a potion she thought would render him eternally faithful. Deianira's predicament is a woman's ultimate dilemma. In a man, the craggy physical characteristics associated with masculinity often indicate a strong immune system and thus a likelihood of his producing healthier offspring than his softer-featured confrères will. But such men are also more promiscuous and do not care as much about long-term relationships, leaving women to raise their kids alone.  [emphasis added]

A woman risks her life as much giving birth to the child of a weak father as to the child of a strong father.  The child of the strong father is more likely to survive, so women wanted to mate with strong men.  The coming of better medical care has changed this equation:

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine therefore looked to see if there is an inverse relationship between women's preference for masculine features and national health. Sure enough, they found one. In environments where disease is rampant and the child-mortality rate is high, women prefer masculine men. In places like America and Britain, where knowing how to analyse health-care plans is more important than fighting off infection, effeminate men are just as competitive.

Neither wealth nor mating pattern had much impact on women's preferences for manly men. Disease rates, by contrast, seemed to be directly related to how they went about choosing a mate-the healthier the society, the less women valued masculinity. Hygiene and wimps, it seems, go hand in hand.

My grandfather fought in World War I and married as the war ended.  None of his children died in infancy.  None of my siblings died, none of my own children, and none of my grandchildren have died.

100 years ago, we would have expected at least two or three children of each generation to have died of illness or accident.  This level of child mortality validated womens' preference for strong men whose babies were more likely to survive.  Is a mere four generations of health care long enough for women's preferences to have changed through natural selection?

Evolution in Four Generations?

Maybe not.  It seems that women have always preferred compassionate, tender, caring men.  The difficulty with compassionate men was that they weren't often hard workers.

A driven, hard-working man would be a better provider, but his competitive drive meant that he'd also be more controlling of his wife.  Marrying a driven man meant that she'd have more financial security but a lot less personal freedom as long as he was part of her life.  Marrying a compassionate man meant she'd have more independence but less money and her children were more likely to die of disease.

Now that national health care has made it unlikely that either she or her babies will die, a woman is freer to choose a more compassionate man.  Welfare ensures that she won't starve even if he doesn't turn out to be a good provider.  Thus, modern civilization frees women to choose the gentler, more compassionate men they've preferred all along.

If this is so, a major stereotype bites the dust: contrary to the popular view, women have been using their intelligence to override their emotions when choosing men for many generations.  A woman might not like a strong, driven, ruling type of husband, but she knew he'd be better able to support her which would give her better reproductive success.

Are women really that calculating?  Are modern women more willing to have sex without commitment than in the past because the welfare system will support her and her children should worst come to worst?

Who wants to mate with this loser?

The thought that men and women are responding to whatever ideas float around gave rise to the idea of a "meme" - a cultural idea, practice, or fad that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.  The idea that women preferred athletes spread so widely a generation ago that women who didn't think things through very well might respond to it.  To whatever extent memes affected reproduction, ideas help drive the ways in which men and women change over the centuries.

Consider the meme of wearing one's trousers so low that the top half of the buttocks is exposed.  This idea spread in certain circles despite official attempts to stamp it out.  Famously cool President Obama may have put a final stake through its heart when he declared that wearing pants at half-mast was not cool, but it may come back.  Whether this meme affects reproduction either way is far from certain, but other memes have profound effects.

An Ancient Meme

Many cultures have memes concerning washing.  Muslims are supposed to wash before praying, for example.  Up to a point, the more often people wash, the healthier they will be, so memes of washing and purification have a net benefit on reproduction.

Consider one of the oldest we have, as expressed in ancient Jewish law:

If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.  [emphasis added]

- Leviticus 12:2-5

Feminists have regarded this part of ancient Jewish law as a major insult to women - why should a woman be unclean after giving birth?  They forget just how much work it was to manage a household before the industrial revolution.  Women had to grind grain by hand, heat water for washing, draw water from the well, and carry out a host of other back-breaking tasks.  During her time of impurity, however, she couldn't do any of these things.

Anything she touched would be unclean, and anyone who touched anything she touched would be unclean.  She couldn't keep house.  She had to rest.  She got a week of rest for a boy and two weeks of rest for a girl.  Even after that, there remained things she couldn't do for a month or more; she returned to the normal tempo of her life only over a period of time.

Today, modern medicine agrees that a new mother ought to rest.  Instead of spending a week in a hospital as in former generations, however, they're pushed out after a day or two and immediately fall back into their normal routine plus the additional stress of a squalling infant.  Many new mothers I know become ill.  We ignore ancient wisdom at our peril.

This time of "impurity" was not only good for the mother, it was good for the baby.  Mothers like watching their babies move, and gesture, and sleep.  Anything a new baby does interests the mother.

Spending a week or two getting to know her child made her more sensitive to how the child was doing.  In pre-antibiotic times, a child could go from perfectly healthy to dead in a few hours.  The better a mother knew her child, the more likely that she would notice something going wrong in time to do something about it.

Memes come and go - we don't treat new mothers as unclean anymore, and the wearing of pants at half-mast may have become passe.  It's becoming clear, however, that our memes affect our mating patterns, and thus influence natural selection.  What will happen if masculinity goes out of style?

Memes and Society

Memes not only affect individual behavior, they shape entire societies.  Evolutionary scientists have wondered about the origins of altruism, where people pt themselves at a disadvantage to benefit others, or of fairness, where people don't always press their own advantage as hard as they could.

Students of business have found that there is a moral dimension to economics.  If most people behave honestly, the economy can grow faster than if businesses have to spend a lot of resources preventing theft.  Many conservatives argue that American morals are declining.

It's easy to argue that theft is becoming more common in America when we find that profit-oriented businesses such as Wal Mart find it profitable to put small, expensive items such as flash memory chips in awkward, clunky plastic packages.  The packaging deters theft, but costs more and makes the goods harder to open for legitimate purchasers; for those exercised by such things, it's also bad for the environment.

The Economist often points out that societies compete against each other just as individuals compete within a society.  A society that operates by universal memes of fairness and honesty operates more efficiently than societies whose members are dishonest and unfair.  In a blow to the anti-religious arguments of prominent atheists, the Economist reports on research that shows that people who're closely associated with organized religion tend to operate more fairly than people who are not:

World religions such as Christianity, with their moral codes, their omniscient, judgmental gods and their beliefs in heaven and hell, might indeed be expected to enforce notions of fairness on their participants, so this observation makes sense. From an economic point of view, therefore, such judgmental religions are actually a progressive force. That might explain why many societies that have embraced them have been so successful, and thus why such beliefs become world religions in the first place. [emphasis added]

Research suggests that traditional Christian virtues help a society operate more efficiently and thus help a nation compete with other societies and nations.  As with memes that made it possible for new mothers to rest and get to know their babies, discarding other Christian mating memes may turn out not to be such a good idea.

Lee Tydings is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Lee Tydings or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Very profound article. I think you just blew my mind.
June 8, 2010 8:33 AM
This reminds me of some philosophical arguments I've heard, that advanced medical care is not good for humanity overall. E.g. the bubble-boy who's allergic to everything would normally have died as an infant, but modern medical technology allowed him to survive and pass on his severely defective genes. Modern technology by its very nature turns off natural selection, or at the very least utterly changes what's selected for in the near term.
June 8, 2010 8:41 AM
Let us hope the meme of "half mast" pants dies quickly.
June 8, 2010 9:35 AM

The NYT Magazine reports that TV is improving women's lives in Afghanistan

Studio Kabul
Cultural change for Afghan women may come from an unlikely source: Afghanistan's first TV soap opera.

This makes sense - the second Frekanomics book claims that women's lives improved markedly in India as TV came to each village. TV showed that there were viable alternatives to the traditions they had been taught.

October 24, 2010 2:32 PM
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