Sergey Gavrilets, a professor and mathematician at the University of Tennessee, published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In his research, he uses mathematical modeling to predict the transition from promiscuity to pair-bonding in humans. Allow me to paraphrase:
A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR…
This man wants to approach an attractive woman, but notices strapping young men standing around her, and begins to feel insecure.
According to the article, herein lies the distinction between the alpha and the beta males that existed among our early human ancestors. The alphas dominated the mating scene. Promiscuous by nature, their evolutionary success was determined by the number of offspring they could produce. Alpha males had it all, mating with as many females as they wanted and, not having to provide for their young.
BETA MALE CAN’T COMPETE
Soon after walking into the bar, this man realizes he can’t put up a fair fight (imagine a room full of Brad Pitts).
He heads home in retreat. In these group societies the beta, weaker males were shut out of the mating game and their chances of procreation were marginal. So what’s a beta to do? The betas re-strategized. Rather than wasting their time competing against the brawny alpha males, they devised a plan to start investing in the females’ needs by providing food and other resources. The shift toward this “provisioning” was a pivotal transition for the betas.
BETA GETS CRAFTY
The man goes home that evening and devises a plan to woo this woman. When he returns to the bar, he is bearing flowers and chocolates. He has the gifts delivered to her table with a note. Meanwhile, the Brad Pitts are too busy moving on to the next woman. The woman reads the note, looks up and sees the man across the room. They lock eyes, and the woman is now intrigued.
Once the lower-ranked males started providing food to the females, the females responded with sexual favors. Sounds a little like a modern day “sugar-daddy”. This idea of provisioning was a 2 for 1 deal for the betas. First, they were able to readily mate with the female and second, both the fertility of the female and chances of the offspring’s survival were greater.
IS SHE EVEN INTO HIM?
You might be asking, what determines whether the man and woman went home from the bar and had a “one-night soirée” versus committing to a long-term relationship? The paper suggests that the “female’s faithfulness co-evolved with the male’s provisioning.” Wherein the males exclusively chose to invest in the most faithful females of the group and the females evolved to have a selective preference for the most provisionary males. This is referred to as “pair-bonding”. I interpret this as our modern day monogamous relationship. This shift in mating strategy is proposed to have set the stage for family structure and paternal investment.
MONOGAMY IN MODERN DAY?
If this theory holds true, what are the implications of evolving from the weaker, beta males? Has this set society up for being less evolutionarily “fit”? As the prevalence of chronic disease continues to rise, this hypothesis has to make you wonder: did we get the short end of the stick? Or better yet, maybe we’ve just become smarter?
Implications aside, to say that Gavrilets’ model is accurate in predicting the dating scene millions of years ago might be a stretch for some to consider. However, it does provide a new way of looking at how monogamy might have developed. If nothing else, Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and maybe we can learn a thing or two from the underdog in this story…flowers and chocolates will never fail.
Gavritlets S. (2012). Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences: Human Origins and the transition from promiscuity to pair-bonding.