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The evolution of the family: ancient women wanted a provider, not an alpha male

Non-alpha men focusing on providing for and caring for a female may have been what started the structure for our modern family units. Photo via brunopp at SXC Photo

Scientists at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are claiming that based on their research, there was a sexual revolution long before the 20th century and that it was the woman’s ability to exercise choice over her mate that eventually lead to monogamous couples rearing children together as a family.

While it has been assumed in the past that women generally went for the alpha male types (think Hulk Hogan, two decades before Hogan Knows Best) because they were macho, oozed maniless and could kick someone’s behind, it seems, based on the new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that maybe those alpha males weren’t always the most appealing mates afterall.

The study suggests that women are actually hardwired to go for men that are meeker, but good providers.

Our ancestors would have inherited the social structure of apes, which would have been like an orgy where the biggest and strongest fought each other for the rights to breed with the women.

And so, the study suggests, evolved the “nice guy.”  The male that, instead of focusing on pounding on the other big guy to be the manliest manly man of all, put his energy into providing a female with food and care.  The John Hughes movie plot practically writes itself.

Researchers believe that the effort of these early men paid off, as these “nice guys” got the immediate benefit of mating.  Their study suggests that, after a while, females decided they enjoyed and preferred having men look after them and thus started forming long-term relationships.

Evolutionary biologist and author of the study, Sergey Gavrilets, said this was “a foundation for the later emergence of the institution of modern family,” reports the Daily Mail.

The study has suggested that the less time that males spent on fighting each other, the more productive they became.  As an added bonus, having two parents around increased the likihood that their babies and children would survive.

According to Gavrilets, the associate director for scientific activities at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and a professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville,  experts have been struggling to explain how the modern family arose, because they thought if low-ranking males started providing food, the bigger ones would just fight them off, reports the Daily Mail.

Until this study, he did not realize that female choice was the critical factor.

“Once females began to show preference for being provisioned, the low-ranked males’ investment in female provisioning over male-to-male competition pays off,” he added.

The study demonstrates mathematically that the most commonly proposed theories for the transition to human pair-bonding are not biologically feasible. However, the research advances a new model showing that the transition to pair-bonding can occur when female choice and faithfulness, among other factors, are included, according to the researchers, reports Live Science.

The effect is most pronounced in low-ranked males who have a low chance of winning a mate in competition with a high-ranked male. Thus, the low-ranked male attempts to buy mating by providing for the female, which in turn is then reinforced by females who show preference for the low-ranked, “provisioning” male, according to Gavrilets, reports Live Science.

Gavrilets said that the results from his study describe a “sexual revolution” initiated by low-ranking males who began providing in order to get matings. “Once the process was underway, it led to a kind of self-domestication, resulting in a group-living species of provisioning males and faithful females,” he said, reports Live Science.

The study reveals that female choice played a crucial role in human evolution and that future studies should include between-individual variation to help explain social dilemmas and behaviors, Gavrilets explained, reports Live Science.

The social contract went two ways, of course. Males would only provide for a mate who remained faithful, Dr. Gavrilets said, reports The Globe and Mail. “That creates a co-evolutionary process where both provisioning and faithfulness increase in parallel.”

According to Gavrilets model, this would all predate human language and culture, reports The Globe and Mail.

“This model deals with what animal biologists call social instincts and shows that some of these behaviours can be coded in our genes,” Gavrilets said, reports The Globe and Mail. “Culture came much later and only augmented things that were already in place.”

Not everyone in the scientific community agrees with the findings of the study.  Bernard Chapais, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Montreal, said the study’s thesis was “extremely unlikely,” and said that it’s an assumption based on the present-day structure of human families, reports The Globe and Mail.

Chapais suggests that the transition toward pair-bonding was gradual and, much like the systems used by gorillas, probably involved a harem-like phase in which a male bonded with several females.

Is it true that nice guys finish last, or do they really win out in the long run?

Sources:  the Daily Mail, Live Science, The Globe and Mail