Studies Put Genetic Twist on Theories about Sex and Love

By Sileo, Chi Chi | Insight on the News, July 3, 1995 | Go to article overview

Studies Put Genetic Twist on Theories about Sex and Love


Sileo, Chi Chi, Insight on the News


Awoman is far more likely to become pregnant by her extramarital lover than by her husband; sexual fidelity is more important to men than emotional fidelity. These declarations may sound like the sirens of moral decline, but actually they are findings emerging from the study of evolution.

"In the past five years, there has been a flurry of activity" when it comes to understanding human sexuality through the evolutionary perspective, according to Meredith Small, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and author of the forthcoming book What's Love Got to Do with It? The Evolution of Human Mating. "Yes, everybody likes to read and think and talk about sex. But there are two big factors that are really at play here. First, there is much more interest and focus on female behavior, spurred partly by the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. Second, there is a lot of new science coming out, especially in the areas of homosexuality and mate choice."

Patricia Adair Gowaty, an associate professor of biology at the University of Georgia who specializes in avian mating behavior, calls the renewed interest in human sexuality "a paradigm shiftlet." Says Gowaty: "There is certainly a more profound female perspective in evolutionary studies. In the last 10 years, I have seen a dramatic acceleration."

Much of this research centers on animal behavior. In his new and critically acclaimed book, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, writer Matt Ridley draws upon detailed observations of apes, topminnows and water fleas, among other familiar and obscure species. Gowaty studies the behavior of the socially monogamous Eastern bluebirds and has found evidence that the females are having what a layman might call extramarital sex. "Twenty percent of their young are being sired by an extrapair mate," she says, "and yet these are birds that have been assumed to be completely monogamous all along. Females are supposed to be sexually passive, but after watching animals, we have to wonder why it took male researchers so long to catch up? It appears that men just can't imagine that female birds or monkeys could be sexually proactive."

Of course, adds Gowaty, who calls herself a Darwinian feminist, "we can't import conclusions across species, but we can import hypotheses." She is careful to draw distinctions between feminist theory and the dictates of science, while noting that the two can be complementary. "The source of a hypothesis can be anything -- a gut feeling, a hunch, the logical next step in a formalized series. As a scientist, you develop a testable hypothesis and you set up an experiment, controlled against your own biases, to check it out."

David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and author of The Evolution of Desire, agrees that the female perspective has been neglected in science, but says that some feminist researchers fail to "acknowledge the profound, fundamental differences between males and females," differences that he says no amount of cultural or societal conditioning can change. Buss notes that although there are some women who have very strong desires for sexual variety -- a trait that exists to a high degree in most men -- even those women cannot comprehend "the degree to which sex is on a man's mind. A woman who likes a lot of sexual variety might think that she thinks and acts like men do, but in fact she's probably not anywhere close."

Such intellectual scuffling is demonstrated by the already famous "Attractive Stranger" experiment, in which good-looking men and women approach the opposite gender and suggest a dinner date, offer an invitation to the stranger's apartment or make a flat-out proposition. The study has been replicated many times, each with the same results: Men overwhelmingly (in the area of 70 percent or higher) agreed to the sexual invitations -- even more often than they agreed to the dinner date -- while women over-whelmingly said yes to dinner but no to sex. …

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