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Monday, November 8, 2010

The Evolution of Love, Sex and Desire

The Evolution of Love, Sex and Desire

Earlier, we touched on the allure of the illicit. Here, we will explore the desire for sexual variety a little further.

The Rooster, the Hen and the Coolidge Effect
Let's explore the evolutionary roots of desire, especially within the context of the illicit affair. The ancestral man would have most likely been motivated to have casual sex to increase his offspring, for him a huge benefit of casual sex. This ancestral drive instilled a powerful desire for sexual access to a variety of women: When Jimmy Carter said that he had "lust in his heart", he openly expressed a universal male desire for sexual variety. Women are traditionally less interested in a variety of partners. This is sometimes referred to as the Coolidge Effect. The story goes that President Calvin Coolidge and his wife were given separate tours of new government farms. When Mrs Coolidge passed the chicken coups where a rooster was vigorously copulating with a hen, she asked the tour guide how often the rooster performed this duty. The guide answered: "Dozens of times a day". "Make sure you mention this to the President", replied Mrs. Coolidge. When the President passed by the coops and was told about the rooster's performance, he asked the guide: "Always with the same hen?" "Oh, no", the guide replied. "Always a different hen". "Make sure you mention that to Mrs. Coolidge" said the President.
Our Promiscuous Ancestors
In the second article on sexuality and desire in this series, we also discussed the double standards in the rules applied to women and men. Robert Smith notes in Sperm Competition and the Evolution of Mating Systems: "The biological irony of the double standard is that males could not have been selected for promiscuity if historically females had always denied them opportunity for expression of the trait."
Promiscuous Ancestral Sisters
And he's right of course. There must have been some at least some promiscuous ancestral sisters. If all our ancestral sisters had mated for life with one single man, with no premarital sex, the opportunities for casual sex would have simply vanished! What would have been her motivation? It is unlikely that the need for more offspring was what motivated her. Having multiple partners would not have increased her reproductive capacities, and a minimum amount of sex is all she would have needed, and there is rarely a shortage of men willing to oblige. Perhaps sex would have given her a back-up protector. Or it may have gained her access to more food or other resources. David Buss notes that in many traditional communities, such as the native people of the Trobriand Islands, men bring food or jewelry to their mistresses. No gifts spell no good. First off, there will be no sex, but furthermore, failure to bring gifts will ruin his reputation among the women in the community, and he'll have a tough time attracting mistresses in the future. Studies on contemporary mating shows that modern women are much like their ancestral sisters- the one quality they particularly value in lovers is generosity. Interestingly, women's desires in a short-term sex partner are very similar to her desires in a husband. In both cases, Buss notes, women look for someone who is kind, romantic, exciting, stable, healthy, humorous and generous. In both contexts, women prefer men who are tall, athletic and attractive. Men on the other hand, tend to be easy going as far as standards go-, which of course makes their pool for potential sex partners bigger.
An Ancestral Past Filled With Affairs
Our ancestral past is filled with affairs. Alarming? Perhaps. Women might find the ease with which men hit the sack with other women disturbing, and men might be shocked to see their wives encourage other men or be unfaithful. But social traditions concerning sexuality and desire are being revised, redefined and negotiated both in Western as well as in non-Western countries. Modern technology and urban living conditions allow many of us to escape the potential risks, costs and consequences of casual affairs. Reducing these negative consequences and acknowledging the complexity and paradox of desire and sexuality may offend our socially constructed idea of matrimonial bliss, but it also empowers us to more fully express our desire and sexuality.

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