Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
Why Women Are More Liberal
Women, Sex, and Politics
The human brain is comprised of about one hundred billion neurons, with an estimated one thousand trillion intercommunicating synapses, leading scientists to posit that this stunning biological marvel may be the most complex entity in the universe. Human brains are unique in the animal world. Ours is the largest brain relative to body weight, and the most densely packed with neurons. Our outsized cortex is considered the seat of complex thought, and the cortex's comparatively mammoth frontal lobe is what allows higher-level functions such as logic, planning, judgment, self-control, and abstract thought—basically all the faculties that make homo sapiens (which means “wise man”) uniquely human. Coming into existence with this organ was no small task.
One of the many challenges of growing an enormous brain was that our heads needed to safely pass through the birth canal. When humans began walking upright, the birth canal began narrowing, but at the same time the brain size began expanding. Various adaptations emerged, such as openings in the skull that allowed the head to compress at birth, and folds in brain tissue, which allowed greater surface area to fit within the confines of our skulls.
Another challenge was the time required to build this masterpiece organ. One solution was to start with the brain very early. Babies’ head-to-body size ratios are enormous compared to adults, which shows that the size and complexity of the human brain requires developmental priority. But the brain is not nearly done cooking at birth, and this fact has exerted major pressure on the evolved political psychology of women.
Consider the difference between squirming, mute, immobile, utterly helpless human infants and a wildebeest calf that can outrun lions only hours after birth. Our protracted development has inspired researchers to describe human infants as exterogestate fetuses1—that is, in humans, the unfinished brain continues a stunning rate of development not in the womb but in the real world. In the first year alone, the human brain doubles in size, and it continues to grow and interconnect until we reach our midtwenties. Notably, the “external womb” is a precarious world filled with predators, disease, the threat of starvation, and enemy males prone to infanticide.
In short, human infants and their brains take an epic amount of time to develop, and this period is incredibly costly in terms of attention, nurturance, protection, and cultural input. Women's political psychology reflects strategies for securing these crucial investments. In turn, greater liberalism among women reflects the high demands of bringing the wise man into being as a walking, talking, thinking primate.
Liberalism and Long-Term Mating
In the classic 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe popularized the song “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend.” In the scene where she sings it, a cadre of admiring, well-dressed men surrounds her. At first the men swarm the lovely icon with heart-shaped cutouts. She rebukes them with smacks to the head, singing that she'd rather have a man who gives lavish jewelry. The men regroup and then follow her around the stage, competing to present her with collars bespeckled with massive, sparkling diamonds. This scene, among so many others, captures an intuitive, ageless dynamic between men and women, based on our reproductive biology.
A highly robust research finding is that women prefer men with resources. David Buss's international research, for example, has found that “women across all continents, all political systems (including socialism and communism), all racial groups, all religious groups, and all systems of mating (from intense polygyny to presumptive monogamy) place more value than men on good financial prospects. Overall women value financial resources about 100 percent more than men do.”2
But men with resources are only as good as their willingness to share them. Research shows that women prefer generous (and altruistic) men,3 and that this preference is ancient—for example, among hunter-gatherers, men who provide more meat to their clan have more sexual partners and younger (more fertile) wives.4 In one telling study, researchers in the United Kingdom presented women with hypothetical scenarios.5 In scenario 1, two people sitting by a river see a child being swept downstream and hear a mother screaming, “Help! Save my child.” One man jumps into the river to save the child, the other does not. In scenario 2, two people walking through a town find a homeless person sitting near a café. One man goes into the café and then purchases the homeless person a sandwich and a cup of tea. The other man pretends to use his mobile phone and quickly skirts past the homeless person. As you might have guessed, women in this study expressed a preference for the men behaving altruistically—those who showed willingness to share food and to protect children. The preference for these men as long-term partners was particularly strong, and it is not difficult to see how the resource demands of our extended development would shape women's desire for kind and giving men.
What may not be as obvious are the underlying traits that potentiate empathy and sharing among men. Strikingly, research implicates male femininity and suggests that women may subconsciously “know” this. In one type of study, researchers digitally overlay photographs of men to create a composite image. From there the images are manipulated to appear either more masculine (e.g., wider jaws, more pronounced brow ridge, smaller lips) or more feminine (largely the opposite features). In one such study, women were asked which of the two faces they would prefer for a long-term versus short-term relationship. In the context of long-term relationships, women chose the “feminine” face more often.6 Other studies using similar techniques have found that women were more likely to rate men with more feminine facial features as having higher “quality as a parent”7 and as a “good father.”8
Women's judgments appear to be right on. Testosterone shapes masculine facial features. The same hormone is responsible for aggression and sex drives, which have helped male primates violently compete for sex across our ancestral history. But fighting and womanizing are not particularly conducive to family life. Accordingly, research finds that testosterone levels are relatively high when men are single, but drop significantly when they get married and have children.9 Another study used various questionnaires to gauge men's interest in babies. The researchers then measured participants’ testosterone levels before and after watching a pornographic video. Men who expressed low interest in babies showed a higher testosterone increase after watching porn, whereas men who expressed higher interest in babies showed only slight increases, remained stable, or their testosterone actually dropped after watching porn.10 These results suggest that high-testosterone men may be geared toward mating effort, and lower-testosterone men toward parenting effort.
Indeed, research has found that men with larger testicles and higher baseline levels of testosterone score lower on a questionnaire specifically designed to measure parental investment.11 Having larger testes was also associated with less neural response to pictures of the men's own children while instructed to empathize with them, i.e., “try to share the emotions of the person in the picture.” By contrast, fathers with lower testosterone experience greater sympathy to sounds of crying babies.12
To review, higher-testosterone men are less empathic, make poorer nurturers, share less,13 and are better at enacting mating strategies that are short term, less invested, and ideally involve numerous sexual partners. Lower-testosterone men are more empathic, make better nurturers, and invest more in children.
The government, which has traditionally been run by men, has always played a role in determining how resources are dispersed. Given this role, it is perhaps not surprising to find that women's preferences for compassionate, sharing men are often mirrored by women's preference for provisioning policies, which are overwhelmingly championed by liberal politics. Research finds that women show greater support for social welfare and organized labor,14 student loan programs, wage control, and minimum wage laws.15 In the United States, women consistently prefer greater government spending than men on things like public schools, childcare, social security, welfare, aid to the poor, and food stamps.16 While some of these preferences may be accounted for by women generally being more empathic than men—which generates greater support for what have been termed domestic compassion policies—many of these government programs tie directly into provisioning offspring. All of which underscore our hypothesis that liberal policies are rooted in female reproductive strategies, aimed at ensuring a nurturing environment for vulnerable offspring.
This hypothesis comes into greater focus when we consider research on politics among fathers. One study found that American fathers were more likely to support liberal policies such as pay equity, affirmative action, and subsidized day care if they had only daughters.17 This relationship was not seen among fathers with only sons, which led the researchers to conclude that “when fathers have sons only, their commitment to patriarchy may strengthen to ensure their sons a piece of the patriarchal dividend.” A similar pattern was found in the United Kingdom, where having daughters was associated with voting for left-wing parties, whereas having sons was associated with right-wing parties.18
The relationship between having daughters and supporting more liberal policies even holds true among lawmakers. One study examining voting records of US congressmen found that the more daughters congressmen had, the more likely they were to vote in support of liberal legislation, and this pattern held among Republicans as well as Democrats.19 Tellingly, legislation in this study was grouped into seven topic areas: equal rights, safety, economic security, education, lesbian rights and health, and reproductive rights, including access to abortion and contraception. Among other fitness benefits, birth control allows women to choose when and with whom to reproduce. We learned in the preceding chapters how conservative opposition to birth control may benefit male genes. But for men with daughters, support of birth control can also benefit male genes—those residing in their daughters. Moreover, legislation supporting things like education and economic security benefits daughters in the long-term enterprise of raising human offspring. In other words, because we have a fitness incentive to favor strategies that benefit the fitness of our offspring, men with daughters tend to vote a lot more like women.
To summarize the key message here: (1) women prefer long-term mates and liberal political policies, both of which tend to contribute to the long-term enterprise of raising offspring; (2) liberalism in men is linked to feminine traits such as interest in babies, greater empathy, and lower testosterone, in keeping with our gendered brains hypothesis; and (3) men may shift to supporting more liberal policies when they have female offspring.
Indeed, as I explain below, both sexes may choose from a menu of reproductive strategies, depending on environmental conditions, which allows greater adaptability—an approach that evolutionary scholars have labeled strategic pluralism.20 This adaptability explains why partisanship is not perfectly correlated with biological sex.
Liberalism, Resources, and Short-Term Mating
Access to resources not only helps women raise children but also to engage in short-term mating. Recall that a bountiful natural environment allows our bonobo cousins to be more egalitarian, female-oriented, and to eat and mate relatively freely with one another. Humans are also responsive to local ecology. In more politically liberal societies—where women have greater access to resources via paid maternity leave, paid childcare, and greater participation in the workforce—women also have greater sexual freedom to engage in short-term mating. As David Buss explains, “Where women control their economic fate, do not require so much of men's investment, and hence need to compete less, women are freer to disregard men's preferences…. Men everywhere might value chastity if they could get it, but in some cultures they simply cannot demand it from their brides.”21
The scientific literature confirms this observation. In one US study, researchers analyzed economic factors across all fifty states and found that women's median income levels, and the amount of welfare benefits available to women, were negatively associated with both men and women viewing promiscuity as wrong.22 In other words, where women have greater direct access to resources, both men and women were less likely to view women's sexual freedom as immoral. Conversely, the researchers concluded that when economic dependence on men is high, both sexes have an incentive to reinforce monogamy—for men, to avoid cuckoldry, and for women, to assure males of paternal certainty in order to avoid desertion.
In a much larger study, David Schmitt administered a questionnaire called the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI) to fourteen thousand men and women across forty-eight (developed and developing) nations.23 The SOI measures restricted versus unrestricted sexuality, by asking questions like, “How many different partners do you see yourself having sex with in the next five years?” and “I would have to be closely attached to someone (both emotionally and psychologically) before I could feel comfortable and fully enjoy having sex with him or her.” The inventory also includes a question on “extra-pair” mating (mating outside a committed relationship): “How often do (did) you fantasize about having sex with someone other than your current (most recent) dating partner?”
Tellingly, the study found that women across these many nations were more sexually open where there was a higher percentage of women in parliament, higher percentage of women-headed households, higher divorce rates, higher gender equality (as measured by the United Nations Gender Empowerment Measure, which assesses economic and political equality between men and women), and more progressive sex role ideologies. Across the board, greater political, economic, and social freedom was associated with less restrictive sexuality among women. These correlations were less strong or were absent among men, who tended to be sexually open regardless of political circumstance. These data suggest that when women enjoy more economic and political equality—which translates to, among other things, greater access to resources—they are less bound to male sexual control, and may then be more likely to engage in short-term mating.
Conversely, Schmitt's study also found that environmental strain leads women to adopt more sexually restrictive strategies. Across nations, lower gross domestic product, higher child malnutrition, higher infant mortality rate, lower birth weight, and lower life expectancy—all of which suggest harsh environments with fewer resources to invest in child-rearing—were associated with restricted sexuality among women. Overall, the study showed that women shift toward a monogamous strategy as environments become more demanding, and toward a less restrictive strategy when environments are favorable. Here we can see again how liberal policies like maternity leave, paid childcare, and equality in the workplace can provide more favorable environments for women, and also how women tend to trade short-term mating for a greater guarantee of male support when environmental circumstances are grim.
But why would women want sexual freedom in the first place? While most women tend to prefer long-term mating strategies, mating with multiple males in the short term can increase a woman's fitness, sometimes in the context of an extramarital relationship. Among other benefits, short-term mating can secure immediate resources in direct exchange for sex; produce children when a woman's mate is infertile; obscure paternity, which may secure investment from multiple males; and help women gain access to better quality genes than those of their current partners,24 and provide women with genetic diversity.
But a key point in understanding women's evolved political psychology is that women tend to prefer different traits when selecting short-term versus long-term mating partners. For example, in one study, women were presented with photos of an attractive man, with a description portraying qualities of a poor parent and poor cooperator:
5 inches taller than you…. Rainy weekends are great for reading up on pieces in his weapon collection. Sunny ones are best for playing rugby or rock climbing. Any time's great for jamming on guitars with the guys.25
Women were also shown an image of a less-attractive man described as a potentially good parent and good cooperator:
2 inches taller than you…. Likes carpentry, usually to build things for the house. Listening to live music in a pub with a close group of friends is also a favorite. Summer weekends are great for romantic walks on nearby trails and winter ones for downhill skiing.
Consistent with other studies, women were more likely to choose the taller, more attractive, less cooperative man over the shorter, less attractive, more cooperative man as an extra-pair mate, and the opposite for a long-term mate.
Another kind of short-term mating occurs in the context of extra-pair copulations. Research finds that when it comes to adultery, women tend to prefer masculine men, especially when they are ovulating.26 This strategy has been observed in other social primates, such as female macaques and chimpanzees, who may mate with lesser males when less fertile, in order to confuse paternity, which would secure protection or favors such as grooming. These same females show a strong preference for dominant males when ovulating.27
Aside from the fitness benefits of resources and reproductive choices, liberal policies can also counterbalance the reproductive strategies of men when, by their own success, they begin to impinge on the strategies of women. Certainly both men and women have a reproductive interest in provisioning children, and in general, men and women work well together toward that enterprise—if they hadn't, we wouldn't have made it as a species. However, when given the opportunity, men will leverage sharing to impose sexual control.
For one, conservative men tend to prefer “traditional” households, where men are the primary breadwinners and women stay home to raise children. Accordingly, conservative men show less support of equal pay for women, paid maternity leave, and other resources that would promote financial independence from men. In ultraconservative societies, women are forbidden to work, and under Sharia law, the testimony of women counts half that of men in property cases, and women get half the inheritance as men.28 All such policies ensure women's financial dependence on men, which men can use to secure women's submission to male reproductive goals—high birth rates and monogamy, the antithesis of short-term mating. As we have discussed before, these arrangements come at a far greater cost to women than to men.
Moreover, male financial control also creates economic disincentives for women who wish to leave them. In many social animals, including chimpanzees, the inability to leave a community—due to factors such as high risk of predation, violence from rival communities, or difficulty acquiring food—often forces physically weaker individuals to endure despotic relationships.29 Rejecting liberal policies like equal pay, or social welfare, artificially creates environmental difficulties, whereas supporting such policies allows women economic independence from men, and a potential route of egress. Accordingly, we see the greatest opposition to divorce (a legal route of egress) in the most politically conservative societies. Recall too that in the prior chapter we explored the cruelties that are possible, including femicide, in societies where women are not allowed to leave their male “guardians.” Divorce and social welfare, on the other hand, safeguard against the brutalities of male overcontrol by giving women alternate means to feed themselves.
In summary, women may adapt their reproductive strategy to environmental circumstances, as shaped by their access to resources, their current partnership status, and their own fertility. When women are economically dependent on men, they are more likely to engage in strict monogamy. When they have greater economic freedom, they may be more likely to mate with more males to increase genetic diversity. Thus the ideologies of conservatism and liberalism are aligned with specific mating strategies and also create the conditions for them. Conservative ideology places higher moral value on monogamy, while also encouraging policies that create greater economic dependence for women. Liberal ideology is less sexually restrictive, while also supporting policies that encourage greater social and economic equality, allowing women more freedom in their choice of partner(s).
Seen through the lens of evolutionary science, the utility of liberalism to the female reproductive mission is clear and parsimonious. Nurturing human infants through the construction of their wondrous brains requires a marathon of provisioning, which is served by liberal policies. Liberal policies also inhibit the tendencies of men to use violence, oppression, or financial control to privilege male-typical fitness goals (more mates, less provisioning) at the cost of female-typical ones (greater stability, more provisioning). They also allow women to acquire good genes and genetic variation. On the surface, conservatism might seem anathema to the female endeavor. In some instances it is, and in some cultures women are forced to either adopt or feign conservative values. However, other women are drawn to conservatism freely and with some enthusiasm. The coming section will explore some of the reasons why.