Sexual Selection Reversal: The Rise of Male Choosiness




A standard principle in evolutionary biology is that the sex that invests the most in reproduction is the most choosy when it comes to picking suitable mates. In most mammals, this means females because of the heavy cost of gestation. In humans, the huge reproductive investment difference between 9 months for females and 9 seconds for males makes the imbalance quite pronounced. Okay fine, let’s say 9 minutes for the male evolvify readers out there. It would hardly make a dent if that was 9 hours or days or weeks. The order(s) of magnitude cost disparity predicts that women should have evolved to exercise ultimate “mate choice” in terms of human sexual selection. That’s a pretty easy case to make from a biological standpoint, but how does that translate to our modern world?

First, we do need to add some qualifiers that would have existed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). The main non-biological cost that would have been generally persistent over time is the social component. In a world of hunter-gatherer bands with almost pervasive contact with kin and known individuals, men did have real potential social costs. In some instances, these costs would have been real to the point of physical inducement. From a pure social perspective, the variability of social norms and potential for geographic distance makes it hard to draw modern general parallels in this regard. So this cost is something to consider, but it’s not easily factored into the discussion in a reliable way. For now, let’s just say that men do have some non-biological calculations with respect to reproductive investment.

Excepting social costs, we would expect men in the EEA to be motivated to attempt to reproduce with any and all available females. While this motivation may still exist, we don’t see see this carried out by and large. Something has changed.

The main disconnect from the EEA to today is the legal reification of male parental investment. The introduction of authority enforced child support effectively negates the extreme imbalance pervasive throughout human evolution. Arguably, the roles of parental investment are reversed. Kanye West is quick to point this out in his song ‘Gold Digger’. Some legal structures are such that males are liable for 18 years of financial investment set against 9 months of biological investment by the woman. Granted, this is an oversimplification as time investment needs to be factored in as well. Again, the variability of circumstances and legal differences makes it difficult to generalize. And, all of this is amplified by the cultural and religious imperative toward lifetime monogamy.

This shift poses interesting questions for human wellbeing. Human brains evolved under the extreme imbalance in male-female investment. Remnants of this influences emotional motivations and cultural mores in-turn. Both of these conflict with the new parental investment paradigm. What are the impacts of this mismatch in terms of behavior and psychological health?

In terms of behavior, we should expect to see an increase in male choosiness commensurate to the increase in male investment. In practice, this may present as an adoption of stereotypically female behaviors by men. This could range from things like coquettishness to the traditionally female role of objectification of males based on physical attributes. In fact, we have seen a rise in male propensity to make mating judgments based on physical characteristics – much to the objection of women. How does this translate to things like the feminist movement? The nuances of this paradigm shift likely ripple throughout society in ways that aren’t obvious and aren’t always positive.

What implications should we expect to see with this collision of legal structures and biologically influenced motivations? Does another balance need to be struck? Do the legal pressures effectively accomplish their goals?