Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
How Numbers Strategies Drive Inequality
Equality Versus Hierarchy
While political discourse usually measures inequality in terms of economic wealth rather than access to women, reproductive resources are competed for just the same. Moreover, wealth for men has traditionally been a vehicle for attracting mates. Indeed, a highly robust research finding is that men with more resources have better mating prospects.28 Female selectivity and the need for resources, in turn, accelerate male competition—for women and for the resources required to attract them. But economic resources are also finite, meaning some men end up with more than others. And since men have more to gain from wealth in terms of reproductive fitness than women, men have a greater evolutionary incentive to prefer economic inequality. Thus the male-dominated, economically competitive orientation of political conservatism reflects a male reproductive strategy.
We have seen how male chimpanzees use violence to outcompete rival troops for access to mates. Is there evidence that mate competition could possibly drive human violence and inequality? The archaeological and historical records leave no doubt. For example, archaeologists excavated a seven-thousand-year-old massacre site in Austria from the Neolithic Age, and found that the remains of reproductive-aged women were notably absent amid the bashed-up skulls and bones, suggesting that young women were not killed but taken captive.29 Fast-forward to the Dark Ages, and the great historian William Durant has described how during the Crusades Christian men were lured to fight Muslims with the promise of great riches and “dark beauties” as their prize of war.30
A historical exemplar of wealth and reproductive inequality is Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, a warrior king who ruled Morocco from 1672 thru 1727 with such brutality that he was nicknamed “Ismail the Bloodthirsty.” History books assure us that he earned his moniker; Ismael is reputed to have ordered that the heads of ten thousand enemy (male) combatants adorn the walls of his city.31 Moreover, by attacking neighboring territories, killing or enslaving the men, and appropriating their riches, he managed to acquire five hundred concubines and sire 888 children.32 The wealth he wrenched from neighboring peoples not only supported his expansive harem, and mind-boggling number of children, but also fed his armies, fortified his cities, and built his empire, all of which served to ensure his reproductive dominance over other men.
One could fill an entire book with examples. Laura Betzig did just that in her book Despotism and Differential Reproduction.33 Betzig studied 104 societies, across every continent on the globe, and found that when men amass power and wealth, they have predictably created despotic laws that support continued success in the male numbers strategy—most directly by making rules to funnel women their way and to ensure the wealth required to support and contain their sexual prizes. Betzig identifies how strategies such as these have resulted in harems ranging from two to literally thousands of women. Like male chimpanzees attacking genitalia, history's despots have often made laws allowing them to castrate lower-ranking males—surgically eliminating them as sexual competitors.
In the modern day, another example is provided by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), by all accounts an extreme conservative political movement. Although making claims to religious ideology, ISIS competes for both economic and sexual resources. Here Newsweek provides a summary of their economic exploits:
The ISIS economy and its fighters predominantly rely on the production and sale of seized energy assets—Iraq has the fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves in the world. ISIS also depends on the steady income it extracts from private donors, the heavy taxation and extortion it levies on its captive population, the seizure of bank accounts and private assets in the lands it occupies, ransoms from kidnappings and the plundering of antiquities excavated from ancient palaces and archaeological sites.34
Clearly, pilfering in war is not a gesture of between-group egalitarianism. But when ISIS rampaged across northern Iraq, slaughtered all the men, and took Yazidi tribeswomen as sexual slaves, they revealed the desire for a far more ancient resource than money. These attacks, like so many others, were the epitome of male mate competition. One journalist reported how the men of ISIS systematically targeted not only grown men but also any young boys who showed secondary sex characteristics. In evolutionary terms, these boys had made the transition from children to male sexual competitors. Having achieved this developmental milestone was a death sentence:
Adolescent boys were told to lift up their shirts, and if they had armpit hair they were directed to join their older brothers and fathers. In village after village the men and older boys were driven and marched to nearby fields, where they were forced to lie down in the dirt and sprayed with automatic fire.35
Tellingly, ISIS also hired gynecologists to determine whether their Yazidi sex slaves were pregnant at the time of their capture and forced those who were to have abortions, thus eradicating the genes of rival males.36 Horrifying as they are, these are the exact patterns we would expect to see among a group of warring male primates.
Such patterns can be elicited among men living peaceful civilian lives. In one study, young men attending a Chinese university were shown full body images of women rated as attractive or unattractive.37 After this, they were given a series of questions about making war with other countries. Men who viewed the attractive female photos “showed more militant attitudes,” according to the researchers. This effect was not seen among women. In another experiment in the same study, the researchers showed men a photo of either a woman's legs or a Chinese flag. Subjects then were measured on how quickly they responded to either words related to war or words about innocuous stimuli such as “farms.” Seeing women's legs made men respond more quickly to war-related words than seeing a flag, suggesting that even civilian men during peacetime are primed for violent competition for mates.
With an understanding of the male mate competition, we can begin to illuminate the ultimate roots of political inequality and male-oriented conservatism. Unequal economic wealth and power continues to result in reproductive bonanzas for men. The same is not true for women—women could not achieve the same reproductive windfalls by tearing into rival villages, killing rival women, taking their goods, and having sex with as many men as possible. The evolutionary incentive for men, however, is abundantly clear.
Men will fight for greater resources, be they wealth or women, and striking research is beginning to bring the links between inequality, male mate competition, and political conservatism into even sharper focus. One study found that higher upper body muscularity in men was associated with a greater sense of entitlement, as measured by agreement on responses to statements such as, “I deserve more than the average person.”38 Greater muscularity in this study was also associated with less egalitarian attitudes, less likelihood to share resources in a laboratory game, higher competitiveness, and higher social dominance orientation, which, once again, is a preference for social inequality strongly associated with political conservatism. These relationships were not found in women, and women were less likely to endorse these attitudes than men across all of the measures. Other research has found that men with higher endogenous testosterone,39 as well as men who were administered testosterone,40 are less likely to share money in laboratory games. Notably, the same hormone associated with resource hoarding wealth also increases muscle mass and underlies both aggression and sex drives. Thus the staunch conservative opposition to policy that levels the playing field—such as social welfare programs, affirmative action, or taxing the rich—emits a distinctive male musk that links back to a time when our hirsute male ancestors were physically competing for scarce resources on the savage savannas in which we evolved.
It is not difficult to see male mate competition expressed more vocally among conservatives, and with our evolutionary insights, we can see how such mate competition underlays conservative xenophobia. Male KKK members, who have notoriously engaged in the most bestial means of mate competition—threatening to castrate black men,41 or actually perpetrating the crime42—strongly endorsed Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Part of Trump's appeal to xenophobic men was that he made promises that tap into the ancient primate male concern over reproductive rivalry, particularly with outside men, like when he vowed to build a wall to keep out Mexican “rapists.”
During the same period, Maine Republican governor Paul LePage (a white man) described the heroin trade in his home state: “The traffickers…these are guys by the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty [stereotyped names for black men]. These types of guys that come from Connecticut and New York. They come up here, they sell their heroin, and they go back home…incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”43 Here there is no question that LePage saw black men as part of the outside tribe, and that his impulse was to block them from sex with women from his in-group.
But the key insight is that our male ancestors have competed for food, territory, and ultimately females in zero-sum competitions since before we were even fully human. Today, conservatism's male and inegalitarian tenor embodies our male primate ancestry's competitive struggles. While those struggles reflect competition for rank within groups, they prominently reflect group-based dominance struggles. Interestingly, central constructs in political science research have unwittingly tapped into these ancient competitions. Here I explain social dominance orientation and its deep roots in male coalitionary violence.