sex, power, and passion

The Evolution of Sex, Power, and Passion: Why Men and Women Are the Way They Are

I grew up in a home with an angry father and a fearful mother. To survive and thrive I had to figure out why they felt what they felt, did what they did, and how I could get the protection and love I needed. At age five I became an amateur psychologist and with a master’s degree in Social Work and a PhD in International Health people now call me a professional. In this article, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the field of Evolutionary Science.

The theory of evolution by natural selection was first formulated by Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The theory has two main points, says Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City:

  • All life on Earth is connected and related to each other.
  • The diversity of life on earth is a product of modifications of populations by natural selection, where some traits were favored in an environment over others.

The theory is sometimes described as “survival of the fittest,” but that can be misleading since “fitness” refers not to an organism’s strength or athletic ability, but rather the ability to survive and reproduce. Here’s where things get interesting. Understanding evolutionary science can help us improve our sex and love lives and who among us isn’t interested in that?

“We are a species devoted to sex,” says anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of The Sex Contract and the Anatomy of Love. “We talk about it, joke about it, read about it, dress for it, and perform it regularly. We have legends to explain it, punishments to curb it, and rules to organize it.” Yet, science tells us that males and females are different and face different evolutionary challenges.

The Basic Truth About Males and Females

Biologists have a very simple and useful definition of what is male and what is female, whether we are fish, ferns, or human beings. An individual can either make many small gametes (sex cells) or fewer but larger gametes. The individuals that produce smaller gametes are called “males” and the ones that produce larger gametes are called “females.” A single human female egg, for instance, though microscopic, is so large it could house 250,000 sperm. About 400 eggs are ovulated in a woman’s lifetime. A healthy man produces 100 to 300 million sperm per ejaculate.[1]

Dr. Stephen Emlen is Professor of Behavioral Ecology at Cornell University and a world authority on the social behavior of animals. He says, “Because of all the resources a female will put into each egg, it makes sense, in most cases, for her to be choosy about whose genes she allows to combine with it, and to continue to invest in its growth and survival after fertilization. For the male, it usually pays best to compete with other males for access to as many eggs as possible. This tends to give rise to the more traditional male/female sex roles.”[2]

The Evolution of Desire: Are There Two Human Natures?

None of your direct ancestors died childless. Think for a moment of the power contained in that statement. Over a period of 2 million years of our evolutionary history, not one of your ancestors dropped the ball. You are a product of their reproductive success and you can bet that what it takes to pass on your genes to the next generation is built into your intentions, behavior, emotions, heart, mind, and soul.

Though the process is not always conscious, we never choose mates at random. We are all descended from a long and unbroken line of ancestors who competed successfully for desirable mates, attracted mates who were reproductively valuable, retained mates long enough to reproduce, and fended off interested rivals.

The way we carry out these vital functions is what evolutionary psychologists call our “reproductive strategy.” It is our characteristic way of doing things, our standard operating procedure. It is what draws us to certain people, “the whisperings within,” as evolutionary psychologist, David Barash, calls them. “We don’t always follow what we hear, but we must always listen.”

For instance, “Men are more aggressive than women and women are more nurturant, at least toward infants and children, than men,” says anthropologist Melvin Konner. “I’m sorry if this is a cliché; that cannot make it less factual.”

In his book, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies in Human Mating, evolutionary psychologist David Buss says, “If mating desires and other features of human psychology are products of our evolutionary history, they should be found universally, not just in the United States.” To test his theories, he conducted a five-year study working with collaborators from thirty-seven cultures located on six continents and five islands. All major racial groups, religious groups, and ethnic groups were represented. In all, his research team surveyed 10,047 persons worldwide. His findings can help us better understand some of the similarities as well as the differences in male and female evolution.

What Do Women Really Want?

In Buss’ world-wide study, he found that the top three qualities that women look for in men are exactly the same as those things that men look for in women:  intelligence, kindness,        and love. Women then look at a man’s ability to protect her and her children, his capacity to provide, and his willingness to make a commitment to a relationship.

We see these four basic desires in what women find attractive in males.

  1. Worldwide, women seek men who are strong and tall

Even women who are quite capable of taking care of themselves are attracted to men of size and strength.  Women, as a group, judge short men to be less desirable than tall men. In personal ads in the U.S. where women mention height, 80% want a man 6 ft. or taller.  As a 5’5’’ guy, I’ve had to deal with that reality all my life and find ways to increase my attractiveness other than my height.

I’m not the only man facing this challenge. In the U.S. population, only about 15% of all men are six feet or over. So, 85% of males might feel they don’t measure up.

2. Women are also drawn to men with good earning capacit

This is true worldwide and doesn’t seem to depend on whether the women themselves are well-off. Women doctors, for instance, are drawn to even higher paid male doctors, rather than to male nurses. This can be a challenge when our economic system is highly automated and more and more men find it difficult to find good-paying jobs.

3. Worldwide, women are drawn to men who are older than they are

This is not surprising since in most cultures older men have higher status and earn more money. In the U.S. 30-year-old males make, on average, $14,000 more a year than 20-year-olds and $7,000 a year less than the average 40-year-old male.

4. Women want men who will commit their resources to the care and support of the woman and her children

Women are attracted to men who demonstrate their ability and commitment to support the woman and her children.

These patterns hold true even for women who insist that wealth, status, strength, and height don’t make a difference. The “whisperings within” which made for reproductive success through evolutionary history are often stronger than our logical mind.

What Do Men Really Want?

Like women, men seek love, intelligence, and kindness in a mate. But then a man is drawn to youth and beauty. This interest is not just a modern desire driven by advertising and a male desire to control women. According to Dr. Buss it is a universal desire based on evolutionary pressures for reproductive success.

Men who mated with women who were incapable of bearing children left no ancestors.  Every man alive today is descended from men who did not make that mistake. “Ancestral men,” says Buss, “solved the problem of finding reproductively valuable women in part by preferring those who are young and healthy.”

Buss found that men throughout the world were attracted to beautiful women.  “Full lips, clear and smooth skin, clear eyes, lustrous hair, and good muscle tone,” he says, “are universally sought after.”

Since women’s ability to conceive and bear children decreases with age, youth is a direct indicator of reproductive capacity. In most cultures throughout the world, men’s attraction to youth has been understood and honored. In recent times, men who feel this natural attraction are condemned and shamed. We are told we are being sexist or superficial if we express our interest in female beauty.

Attraction to beauty seems to be built into our biological makeup, according to psychologist Judith Langlois and her colleagues. In one study, adults evaluated color slides of white and black female faces for their attractiveness. Then infants of two or three months of age were shown pairs of these faces that differed in their degree of attractiveness.  The infants, both male, and female looked longer at the more attractive faces.

“This evidence,” says Buss, “challenges the common view that the idea of attractiveness is learned through gradual exposure to current cultural standards.”

These sex differences are not limited to the United States, or even to Western cultures.  “Regardless of the location, habitat, marriage system, or cultural living arrangement,” Buss concludes, “men in all thirty-seven cultures included in the international study value physical appearance in a potential mate more than women.”

I look forward to your questions and comments.

Soon, I’ll be offering a way to be more directly involved with me and to get your questions answered about specific ways to improve your love life including facing issues such as male anger.

It will be for men and women who want more, but can’t afford or don’t need weekly therapy sessions. To make it the best it can be and fit your specific needs, I’d like your feedback. I have a quick questionnaire I’d like you to take that lets me know what you might like from such a community. It won’t take you long to fill out. Please do so here.

[1] Joe Quirk. Sperm Are From Men. Eggs Are From Women: The Real Reason Men and Women Are Different. Running Press Book Publishers, 2006.

[2] PBS, Evolution Library.

This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.

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