Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I've heard the following argument many times, many places:

"Men can impregnate many women at once, which means that they'll be naturally driven to increase their evolutionary fitness by fucking around!"

The problem with this argument is that fitness isn't measured in conceptions. It's measured in descendants. Spreading your genes as widely as possible doesn't institute them in your species unless the carriers of those genes live to adulthood and produce grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Maybe you can impregnate and dump five single mothers in the time it would take to get your wife pregnant once, but if a single mother is ten times more likely to miscarry or have a child die or have the kid grow up too unhealthy to reproduce prolifically--the real stud is the one who stands by his woman. (And the smart woman, having some choice of her own in the matter, doesn't make babies with a man who doesn't seem like he plans to stick around.)

Or not. Maybe the single mom is pretty damn self-sufficient and she's only a little more likely to screw up. That would make it worthwhile for men to spread their seed. How much benefit fathering provides varies by species, and in humans it varies tremendously by era and culture. I don't really know which side of the equation early humans were on. My point is only that it isn't a given that causing the most pregnancies necessarily implies the most fitness. Many times, as in seahorses or wolves or penguins, the dad who stays and works spreads his seed further than the dad who just throws sperm around.

Also, whether fathering matters or not, having the most children doesn't always lead to the most fitness; having twenty kids miserably fighting for scraps of food may get you fewer grandchildren than raising five fat and happy little critters. A pregnancy isn't the determiner of fitness and neither is a baby. A great-great-great-great grandchild is.

This is all really theoretical. I haven't done the research. Maybe in humans (and more importantly, historical humans) fatherhood value is low and optimum family size is high, in which case spreading the seed really is the right strategy. (I doubt it, though; enough human civilizations seem to have independently developed and stuck to systems of faithful pair bonds that I'm guessing that's what's natural for people.)

But you know what? We're not strategizers. We're not slaves to instinct. We're fucking people.

Maybe you could raise sixteen children well enough for them to reproduce, but very likely you'd rather raise two or three with the resources for them to be happy and educated as well as fit. And maybe you could ditch a pregnant woman and breed again, but likely you'd rather find a woman you can love and be happy with. It might be an accident of evolution, as misguided as a bee fucking an orchid, but our brains are too big and our emotions to complicated to run on instinct.

We're lowering our fitness and increasing our humanity.


  1. Well said! Also, I have heard it suggested, I think by figleaf, that a man's need to frequently share his seed may be more about keeping the supply fresh than about impregnating as many women as possible.

  2. Eve - I read that post but I dunno, I think masturbation and wet dreams cycle the supply more efficiently than fucking around.

  3. Oh, I didn't mean it as a reason for men to fuck around, I meant it as an alternative reason for frequent ejaculation. As in men need to ejaculate frequently to keep the supply fresh (quality control?), *not* to impregnate as many women as possible. Of course it's just a theory, but I mentioned it in agreement with what you've said here.

  4. We know very little about evolutionary biology, even in species that we can study much more carefully than humans. DNA analysis has completely upset the traditional conceptions of pair-bonded birds, for example, and even Rosemary and Peter Grant's study of Galapagos finches hasn't made it obvious what reproductive strategy "wins."

    Besides, I (try to) have sex for fun, not to reproduce.

  5. Bruno - True, but it's fun to speculate. (And to knock down people who act like they've figured it all out.)

    Sex is fun because you "think" you're reproducing, though. You're not a slave to biology, but you're not totally free of it either.

  6. Speaking as a professional, it's a royal PAIN to have to save samples for some person who has 10 different kids by 6 different women whilst majoring in Nintendo when I went to medical school.

    It is very, very dangerous to use biology as the sole explanation for human behaviour. But plenty of guys doink and run.

    The human sexual response is interesting because it is for procreation AND pair-bonding. Though, as people have pointed out, the more social and intelligent the animal the more likely they will be raging pervs.

  7. I have the vague sensation you may already know what I think on the subject. ;)

  8. Your argument here is pretty accurate, as far as I know. People like to argue that it's "natural" for guys to fuck around while women try to screen them for worthiness -- because that's what animals do, supposedly. But animal species differ widely from each other, & they're no guide to what humans would be doing under evolutionary conditions. (The hunter-gatherer lifestyle that prevailed during most of our evolution.) Human young are born very vulnerable & stay that way for *much* longer than offspring of most other animals. This is a result (I think) of our larger brains, & the fact that young humans have to spend time learning the rules of the culture they're in, rather than coming equipped with all the instincts they need. A woman trying to gather enough food to live each day, while travelling with one or more kids who can't even walk without her help, would be at a huge survival disadvantage. So a man who helps raise his kids is far more likely to have surviving, healthy kids.

    I am by no means a biology expert, but I read some of these arguments in The Well Dressed Ape by Hanna Holmes, an interesting pop science book I recommend checking out.

  9. Child birthing deaths, for the mother and child, used to be much higher. For this reason, "spreading seed" around might have been the favored method back yonder. If you pair-bond and your mate loses the child, you gotta go again and wait 9 months. If you lose both of them, you gotta find another mater and wait 9 months. The best strategy would seem to be spreading the "donations" around.

    Of course, there's the issue of the young being particularly vulnerable but that doesn't necessarily mean finding a life mate. You could organize a harem of a male(perhaps even several) with numerous females. Or pair-bond. Who knows?

    What people did before agriculture is only tangently related to modern Fathering Success Strategies. There are slightly more skills requires in being a human now than "eat, drink, sleep, fuck/make babies." Tying your shoelaces, plowing a field, or doing math, for example. Having ten babies leaves less time to teach them how to succeed in life, especially if there are five or ten different houses to visit. Getting your Mr. Green Genes out there isn't enough, you have to produce offspring who can thrive in a modern world and create more offspring who can thrive in whatever a modern world is tomorrow.