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Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love
Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love
Glenn Geher
Oxford University Press, 2013
320 pp., $31.95

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Anna Broadway


Whither Monogamy?

Online dating, biology, and "long-term mating strategies."

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What's more, parental investment explains why, "in most sexually reproducing species, females invest more in parenting than do males." For Geher and Kaufman, this explains why women are generally more apt to pursue long-term mating strategies—a tendency amply born out in the studies cited throughout the book. They are quick to note that both men and women generally pursue long-term mating strategies, but of the two sexes, men still tend to desire more partners than women. Even in the section on "hook-up behaviors," the epitome of a short-term mating strategy, they find that men "overestimated women's comfort levels" with both hook-ups in general and certain riskier acts. On the strength of Geher and Kaufman's evidence, then, no amount of technological innovation will likely override the biological imperative to mate in a relatively long-term, monogamous fashion.

As strong as their case seems to be, however, their thesis depends on some-what-dubious premises. First and most obvious is the Darwinian reduction of sex to reproduction. Though this should raise immediate problems for the Christian, Geher and Kaufman must also reckon with the remarkably and often deliberately unproductive nature of much modern sex. Yet though they acknowledge the changes contraception has brought, they never explain how evolutionary biology accounts for our peculiar modern war on procreative sex. Homosexuality, too, merits only scant attention.

Possibly these silences owe to their definition of success. "As scientists studying human psychology from an evolutionary perspective, the best we can do … is to approximate reproductive success," they write; " … we essentially need to think about tapping outcomes that would have been associated with ultimate reproductive fitness under ancestral conditions" (emphasis theirs). Perhaps such a methodology may not require explanation within their field, but I very much wanted to know why "ancestral conditions" entailed the best time and framework for assessing modern sexual behavior.

Another problem with much of the data—which the authors themselves acknowledge—is the reliance on college undergraduates in so many of the studies. As they note, this could undoubtedly distort some of the findings. What of the motives, interactions, and strategies that characterize the elderly and infertile? Do such couples only make love as a kind of irrepressible biological habit? Or does the phrase "make love" in fact provide a clue to the larger meaning and purpose of intercourse?

I doubt that Geher and Kaufman would deny the larger emotional and relational significance of sex, in most cases, yet even the long-term mating explanation seems incomplete in its emphasis on the reproductive motive to bond with another person. Nor, for that matter, can they fully account for the preponderance of mostly sterile hook-ups that increasingly characterize the college relationship scene. What's the evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon?

They primarily explain short-term mating strategies as a response to less-stable, more chaotic childhood conditions, particularly those characterized by paternal absence or neglect. Not only does this seem to prompt a more short-term, risk-associated "fast life strategy," it also triggers earlier sexual maturation, particularly for girls. By contrast, those who grow up amid more stability, less stress, and greater parental involvement tend to be better primed for the long-term planning and self-control associated with a "slower reproductive strategy" (emphasis theirs).

Yet if the very qualities associated with a long-term mating strategy are also associated with securing a college education, why do so many college students engage in hook-ups? Though Geher and Kaufman don't explain what ancestral condition this trend relates to, one study they cite found "pluralistic ignorance" partly to blame. Essentially, when people think certain actions are normal or widely enjoyed, they participate despite whatever misgivings they themselves have.

At this point it's worth noting another difference Geher and Kaufman describe between short- and long-term mating strategies. Not only does one's childhood environment tend to affect one's mating strategy, but also that strategy influences the sort of qualities one seeks in a partner, however subconscious the process may be. The primary quality valued in short-term mating? Physical attractiveness, which Geher and Kaufman report often corresponds with greater genetic fitness (for example, most of the qualities deemed attractive in women also indicate fertility; in some ways, women also become more attractive during ovulation, the window when they are most fertile!). For long-term mating, however, people tend to place more emphasis on qualities like kindness and agreeability—indications of a likelihood to help care for offspring and stick around to see them to maturity.

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