It seems like every sitcom and romantic comedy that’s ever been produced communicates two things: men prefer young and beautiful women, while women prefer successful, industrious, and resourceful men. In the world of evolutionary psychology, perhaps no one has researched this phenomenon more than David Buss. In his landmark work, The Evolution of Desire, Buss studied over 10,000 people across 37 cultures in order to learn about the mate selection process.
Mating Evolutionary Psychology and Desire
Studying mating patterns and preferences of people might seem like it would reflect all the sentimentality of a love story. However, from an evolutionary psychology perspective, finding mates is just as competitive, contentious, and even cruel as the corporate world. Romantic stories may woo and wonder, but repopulating the species is literally a matter of life and death. Thus, according to Buss, even conveyances of love and affection may have selfish underlying motivators.
With that in mind, we can read The Evolution of Desire as a sort of narrative. It’s the story of the human race seeking to propagate itself. And the story is simple. Men and women want offspring. Whether to get heirs, status, a sense of accomplishment, affection, attention, or any number of reasons, the desire for offspring functions as the bottom line. Consequently, women seek men who can provide…
- Economic and/or relational resources
- Physical health, etc.
Men utilize either a) the resources they possess, or b) their ability to feign possessing these resources, in order to woo women with qualities of fertility (youth, beauty, resources of their own).
You may wonder, “What about the moral or character qualities in a partner, such as kindness, compassion, compatibility, courage, etc.?” In the world of evolutionary psychology, these also function as commodities just like wealth, ambition, fertility, or prowess. Material success may unconsciously indicate to some the existence of such character qualities.
Men and women develop mating strategies in order to gain the mates they prefer. For example, men recognize that women look for mates with the aforementioned qualities. Accordingly, they advertise themselves as possessors of these qualities. Therefore, they’ll show off these qualities through dress, gifts, acts of service, and even altruism. You might think they’re trying to attract the woman. They’re really communicating their ability to provide for offspring.
Women also acknowledge on some level the evolutionary and genealogical motivators of romance. Women will do what they can to market their youthfulness, physical health, and/or intelligence. Across even modern cultures, they may also try to advertise their abilities as a homemaker. Again, this is to demonstrate their fertility.
The Perspective of Evolutionary Psychology
It would be natural to think, “Isn’t this narrative dated by now? This may be how our ancient forebears thought, but things work differently in a modern, post-industrial society.” Yet, we cannot shed the skin of even our ape-like ancestors so easily. The reason why The Evolution of Desire is so valuable and important in evolutionary psychology is because of its depth and cross-cultural sampling. Consider the strengths of Buss’ study:
- Over 10,000 people sampled.
- Participants represented over 37 cultures, both traditional and modern.
- Participants came from all major racial, religious, and ethnic groups.
- The book continues to be published and revised since its first edition in 1994.
Modern readers may not like the conclusions the book draws, but we cannot let that detract us from the insights it can provide. Until empirical research demonstrates a different narrative, this is the world we live in.
On that account, since Buss is an evolutionary psychology founder, his perspective presupposes the evolutionary and genealogical root of human behavior. But what about flings, short-term relationships, or homosexuality? What do these have to do with propagating the species? Buss explains we have a more primitive desire for casual sex as well. More present in some than others, this primitive desire expresses itself in fantasies, pornography use, homosexuality, and even incest. Casual sex, multiple partners, envy, separation, divorce, polyamorousness – all of these function as mechanisms to maximize our reproductive potential.
Some modern readers may react with irritated indignation, but even mundane human activities bear this out. We see these primitive instincts manifest in gym culture, the youth cult of the beauty industry, the constant innovations between dating and technology, and even the marvels of human ingenuity. To illustrate, Jerry Seinfeld observes, a man may claim to travel to the moon to advance science and discovery, but when he comes back he’s guaranteed to go up to a woman and say, “So did you see me up there?” Even our most ambitious triumphs as the human race have some connection to our desire to advance our species. If we can appreciate the insights Buss’ work provides, we can better understand our own quest for companionship, as well as the root of conflict in some of our most cherished relationships.
Outside The Evolution of Desire
What contributions to evolutionary psychology has David Buss made outside of The Evolution of Desire? The majority of his work consists in human sexuality, particularly researching human sex differences in mate selection. Nonetheless, consider his other publications, such as:
- Sex, Power, Conflict: Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives
- The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is Necessary in Love and Sex
- The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology
- Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge
In one work, he discusses what evolutionary psychologists call “mate poaching.” Commonly called stealing, cheating, luring, etc. This occurs when one person attempts to draw another already in a romantic relationship out of it, whether for a short-term or long-term relationship. Buss has demonstrated that a higher propensity for this exists in men more than women.
In another work, Buss discusses the “act frequency approach” to personality. This approach attempts to address the personality-trait questions like, “What makes someone creative, energetic, strong-willed, etc.? And how can this be measured?” Buss introduces prototype theory into this issue. To begin, one group of people lists behaviors they would expect someone with a given personality trait to do. Then, a different group observes the list and names those acts which are most typical for the personality trait. Last, a subject with the proposed trait is observed and, within a given period of time, someone counts the number of times the subject performs the typical acts.
If you’re interested in evolutionary psychology, human mate selection, or human sexuality generally, you need to know David Buss’ work. His thought challenges us to see how evolution and the desire to multiply the species influences even our everyday decisions. He encourages us to wonder, “What does it mean to love? What does it mean to be human? What is the value of companionship?” These questions also vexed our ancestors from whom our evolutionary traits come. Perhaps we’re not too far removed from them after all.
Master of Divinity (M.Div.) | Westminster Theological Seminary (2020 Graduation)
Bachelor’s of Social Work, Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bible | Cairn University
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