The Darwin Plan for Marital Bliss - Sex, Romance, And Love

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

The Darwin Plan for Marital Bliss
Sex, Romance, And Love

She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I had rather have been unsaid... . She has been my wise adviser and cheerful comforter throughout life, which without her would have been during a very long period a miserable one from ill-health. She has earned the love and admiration of every soul near her.

Autobiography (1876)1

In his pursuit of a lasting and fulfilling marriage, Charles Darwin possessed several distinct advantages.

To begin with, there was his chronic ill health. Nine years into marriage, while visiting his ailing father, and while ailing himself, he wrote to Emma of how he "yearned" for her, as "without you, when sick I feel most desolate." He closed the letter: "I do long to be with you & under your protection for then I feel safe."2 After three decades of marriage, Emma would observe that "nothing marries one so completely as sickness."3 This reflection may have been more bitter than sweet; Darwin's illness was a lifelong burden for her, and she couldn't have grasped its full weight until well after the wedding. But, whether or not it gave her second thoughts about the marriage, it meant that, for much of Darwin's married life, he wasn't a very marketable commodity. And in marriage, an unmarketable commodity — male or female — is often a contented one, with little if any sexual restlessness. {128}

A complementary asset that Darwin brought to his marriage was hearty subscription to the Victorian ideal of woman as spiritual salvation. In his premarital deliberative soliloquies, he had imagined an "angel" who would keep him industrious yet not let him suffocate in his work. He got that, and a nurse too. And, for good measure, the chasteness of the courtship may have helped keep Emma filed under "Madonna" in Darwin's mind. Something did. "I marvel at my good fortune," he wrote toward the end of his life, "that she, so infinitely my superior in every single moral quality, consented to be my wife."4

A third advantage was residential geography. The Darwins lived, gibbon-like, on an eighteen-acre parcel, two hours by coach from London and its young female distractions. Male sexual fantasies tend to be essentially visual in nature, whereas female fantasies more often include tender touching, soft murmurs, and other hints of future investment. Not surprisingly, male fantasies, and male sexual arousal, are also more easily activated by sheerly visual cues, by the mere sight of anonymous flesh.5 So visual isolation is an especially good way to keep a man from thinking the thoughts that could lead to marital discontent, infidelity, or both.

Isolation is hard to come by these days, and not just because attractive young women no longer stay in their homes, barefoot and pregnant. Images of beautiful women are everywhere we look. The fact that they're two-dimensional doesn't mean they're inconsequential. Natural selection had no way of "anticipating" the invention of photography. In the ancestral environment, distinct images of many beautiful young women would have signified a (genetically) profitable alternative to monogamy, and it would have been adaptive for feelings to shift accordingly. One evolutionary psychologist has found that men shown pictures of Playboy models later describe themselves as less in love with their wives than do men shown other images. (Women shown pictures from Playgirl felt no such attitude adjustment toward spouses.)6

The Darwins also had the blessing of fecundity. A marriage that produces a steady stream of children, and has the resources to care for them, may dampen the wanderlust of both women and men. Wandering takes time and energy, both of which can be well invested {129} in those endearing little vehicles of genetic transmission. That divorce does grow less likely as more children are born is sometimes taken to mean that couples choose to endure the pain of matrimony "for the sake of children." No doubt this happens. But it's at least possible that evolution has inclined us to love a mate more deeply when marriage proves fruitful.7 In either event, couples who say they'll stay married but won't have children may well prove wrong on one count or the other.8

We can now roughly sketch a Charles Darwin plan for marital bliss: have a chaste courtship, marry an angel, move to the country not long after the wedding, have tons of kids, and sink into a deeply debilitating illness. A heartfelt commitment to your work probably helps too, especially when the work doesn't entail business trips.


From the point of view of the average, late-twentieth-century man, the Darwin plan doesn't get high marks for feasibility. Perhaps some more practicable keys to lifelong monogamy can be gleaned from Darwin's life. Let's start with his three-step approach to marriage: (1) decide, rationally and systematically, to get married; (2) find someone who in most practical ways meets your needs; (3) marry her.

One biographer has chastised Darwin for this formulaic approach, complaining that "there is an emotional emptiness about his ponderings on marriage."9 Maybe so. But it's worth noting that Darwin was a loving husband and father for around half a century. Any men who would like to fill this role might profit from looking closely at the "emotional emptiness" of Darwin's ruminations on marriage. They may hold a lesson transplantable to modern times.

Namely: lasting love is something a person has to decide to experience. Lifelong monogamous devotion is just not natural — not for women even, and emphatically not for men. It requires what, for lack of a better term, we can call an act of will. Hence the aptness of Darwin's apparent separation of the marriage question from the marriage-partner question. That he made up his mind — firmly, in the end — to get married and to make the most of his marriage was as important as his choice of mate.

This isn't to say that a young man can't hope to be seized by {130} love. Darwin himself got fairly worked up by his wedding day. But whether the sheer fury of a man's feelings accurately gauges their likely endurance is another question. The ardor will surely fade, sooner or later, and the marriage will then live or die on respect, practical compatibility, simple affection, and (these days, especially) determination. With the help of these things, something worthy of the label "love" can last until death. But it will be a different kind of love from the kind that began the marriage. Will it be a richer love, a deeper love, a more spiritual love? Opinions vary. But it's certainly a more impressive love.

A corollary of the above is that marriages aren't made in heaven. One great spur to divorce is the belief of many men (and no few women) that somehow they just married the "wrong" person and next time they'll get it "right." Not likely. Divorce statistics support Samuel Johnson's characterization of a man's decision to remarry as "the triumph of hope over experience."10

John Stuart Mill held a similarly sober view. Mill insisted on tolerance of moral diversity, and stressed the long-term value of experimentation by society's nonconformists, but he didn't recommend moral adventurism as a lifestyle. Beneath the radicalism of On Liberty lay Mill's belief in keeping our impulses under firm cerebral control. "Most persons have but a very moderate capacity of happiness," he wrote in a letter. "Expecting ... in marriage a far greater degree of happiness than they commonly find: and knowing not that the fault is in their own scanty capabilities of happiness — they fancy they should have been happier with some one else." His advice to the unhappy: sit still until the feeling passes. "[I]f they remain united, the feeling of disappointment after a time goes off, and they pass their lives together with fully as much happiness as they could find either singly or in any other union, without having undergone the wearing of repeated and unsuccessful experiments."11

Many men — and some, but fewer, women — would enjoy the opening stages of those experiments. But in the end they might find that the glimpse of lasting joy the second time around was just another delusion sponsored by their genes, whose primary goal, remember, is to make us prolific, not lastingly happy (and which, anyway, aren't operating in the environment of our design; in a modern society, {131} where polygamy is illegal, a polygamous impulse can do more emotional damage to all concerned — notably offspring — than natural selection "intended"). The question then becomes whether the fleeting fun of greener pastures outweighs the pain caused by leaving the golden-brown ones. This isn't a simple question, much less a question whose answer is easy to impose on one's yearnings. But more often than many people (men in particular) care to admit, the answer is no.

And, anyway, there is debate over whether a minute-by-minute summation of pleasure and pain should settle the issue. Maybe the cumulative coherence of a life counts for something. Men from many generations have testified that over the long haul, a life shared with another person and several little people, for all its diverse frustrations, brings rewards of a sort unattainable through other means. Of course, we shouldn't give infinite weight to the testimony of old married men. For every one of them who claims to have had a fulfilling life, there is at least one bachelor claiming to be enjoying his series of conquests. But it's noteworthy that a number of these old men went through early phases of sexual liberty and concede that they enjoyed them. None of those making the other side of the argument can say they know what it's like to create a family and stay with it until the end.

John Stuart Mill made this point in a larger context. Even Mill, who, as the foremost publicist of utilitarianism, insisted that "pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends," didn't mean that the way it sounds. He believed that the pleasure and pain of all people affected by your actions (emphatically including any people your marriage created) belong in your moral calculus. Further, Mill stressed not just quantity of pleasure but quality, attaching special value to pleasures involving the "higher faculties." He wrote: "Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures. ... It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."12 {132}


Since Darwin's day, the incentive structure surrounding marriage has been transformed — indeed, inverted. Back then men had several good reasons to get married (sex, love, and societal pressure) and a good reason to stay married (they had no choice). Today an unmarried man can get sex, with or without love, regularly and respectably. And if for some reason he does stumble into matrimony, there's no cause for alarm; when the thrill is gone, he can just move out of the house and resume an active sex life without raising local eyebrows. The ensuing divorce is fairly simple. Whereas Victorian marriage was enticing and ultimately entrapping, modern marriage is unnecessary and eminently escapable.

This change had begun by the turn of the century, and it reached dramatic proportions after midcentury. The American divorce rate, which was level during the 1950s and early 1960s, doubled between 1966 and 1978, reaching its present level. Meanwhile, as escape from marriage became simple and commonplace, the incentive for men (and, in a probably less dramatic way, for women) to enter one was being dulled. Between 1970 and 1988, though the average age of a woman upon (first) marriage was rising, the number of eighteen-year-old girls who reported having had intercourse grew from 39 to 70 percent. For fifteen-year-olds it went from one in twenty to one in four.13 The number of unmarried couples living together in the United States grew from half a million in 1970 to nearly three million in 1990.

Hence the double whammy: as easy divorce creates a growing population of formerly married women, easy sex creates a growing population of never-married women. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of American women aged thirty-five to thirty-nine who had never been married rose from one in twenty to one in ten.14 And of women in that age group who have gotten married, about a third have also gotten divorced.15

For men, the figures are even more severe. One in seven men aged thirty-five to thirty-nine has never married; as we've seen, serial monogamy tends to leave more men than women in that condition.16 Still, women may be the bigger losers here. They are {133} more likely than men to want children, and a forty-year-old unmarried childless woman, unlike her male counterpart, is watching her chances of parenthood head briskly toward zero. And as for the relative fortunes of formerly married men and women: in the United States, divorce brings the average man a marked increase in standard of living, while his wife, along with her children, suffers the opposite.17

The Divorce Actof 1857, which helped legitimize marital breakup in England, was welcomed by many feminists. Among them was John Stuart Mill's wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, who, until the death of her first husband, had been trapped in a marriage she detested. Mrs. Mill, who seems never to have been a great enthusiast for sexual intercourse, had painfully come to believe "that all men, with the exception of a few lofty minded, are sensualists more or less" and that "women on the contrary are quite exempt from this trait." To any wife who shared her distaste for sex, Victorian marriage could seem like a series of rapes punctuated by dread. She favored divorce on demand for the sake of women.

Mill too favored divorce on demand (assuming the couple had no children). But his view of the matter differed from hers. He saw wedding vows as a constraint less on the wife than on the husband. The strict marriage laws of the day, Mill observed, with great insight into the likely origins of institutionalized monogamy, had been written "by sensualists, for sensualists, and to bind sensualists."18 He was not alone in this view. Behind opposition to the Divorce Act of 1857 was a fear that it would turn men into serial monogamists. Gladstone opposed the bill because, he said, it "would lead to the degradation of woman."19 (Or, as an Irish woman would put it more than a century later: "A woman voting for divorce is like a turkey voting for Christmas.")20 The effects of easy divorce have been complex, but in many ways the evidence supports Gladstone. Divorce is very often a raw deal for women.

There's no point in trying to turn back the clock, no point in trying to sustain marriages by making the alternative virtually illegal. Studies show that the one thing harder on children than divorce is for parents to stay together even though locked in mortal combat. {134}

But surely there shouldn't be a financial incentive for a man to get divorced; divorce shouldn't raise his personal standard of living, as it now usually does. In fact, it seems only fair to lower his standard of living — not necessarily to punish him, but because that's often the only way to keep the living standards of his wife and children from plunging, given the inefficiencies of two households compared to one. If financially secure, women can often be happy rearing children without a man — happier than they were with him, sometimes, and happier even than he'll be after he's gotten used to the grass on the other side of the fence.


There is a difference of opinion over how much "respect" women get in the modern moral climate. Men think they get lots. The portion of American men saying women are better respected than in the past went from 40 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 1990. Women disagree. In a 1970 survey, they were most likely to call men "basically kind, gentle, and thoughtful," but a 1990 survey conducted by the same pollster found women most likely to describe men as valuing only their own opinions, trying to keep women down, preoccupied with getting women into bed, and not paying attention to household affairs.21

Respect is an ambiguous word. Maybe those men who consider women well "respected" mean that women have been accepted at work as worthy colleagues. And maybe women are indeed getting more of this kind of respect. But if by respect you mean what the Victorians meant when they urged respect for women — not treating them as objects of sexual conquest — then respect has probably dropped since 1970 (and it certainly has since 1960). One interpretation of the above numbers is that women would like to have more of this second kind of respect.

There's no clear reason for a sharp trade-off between the two; no reason that feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in insisting on the first kind of respect, had to undermine the second (which, actually, they said they also wanted). But, as things happened, they did. They preached the innate symmetry of the sexes in all major {135} arenas, including sex. Many young women took the doctrine of symmetry to mean they could follow their sexual attractions and disregard any vague visceral wariness: sleep with any man they liked, without fear that his sexual interest didn't signify comparable affection, without fear that sex might be more emotionally entangling for her than for him. (Some feminists practiced casual sex almost out of a sense of ideological commitment.) Men, for their part, used the doctrine of symmetry to ease themselves off the moral hook. Now they could sleep around without worrying about the emotional fallout; women were just like them, so no special consideration was necessary. In this they were, and are, aided by women who actively resist special moral consideration as patronizing (which it sometimes is, and certainly was in Victorian England).

Lawmakers, meanwhile, took sexual symmetry to mean that women needed no special legal protection.22 In many states, the 1970s brought "no-fault" divorce and the automatically equal division of a couple's assets — even if one spouse, usually the wife, hasn't been on a career track and thus faces bleaker prospects. The lifelong alimony that a divorced woman could once expect may now be replaced by a few years of "rehabilitative maintenance" payments, which are supposed to give her time to launch her career recovery — a recovery that, in fact, will extend beyond a few years if she has a few children to tend. In trying to get a more equitable deal, it won't help to point out that the cause of the breakup was her husband's rampant philandering, or his sudden, brutal intolerance. These things, after all, are nobody's fault. The no-fault philosophy is one reason divorce is literally a profitable enterprise for men. (The other reason is lax enforcement of the man's financial obligations.) The height of the no-fault vogue has now passed, and state legislatures have undone some of the damage, but not all.

The feminist doctrine of innate sexual symmetry wasn't the only culprit, or even, initially, the main one. Sexual and marital norms had been changing for a long time, for many reasons, ranging from contraceptive technology to communications technology, from residential patterns to recreational trends. So why dwell on feminism? {136}

Partly because of the sheer irony that (perfectly laudable) attempts to stop one kind of exploitation of women aided another kind. Partly, too, because, though feminists didn't single-handedly create the problem, some of them have helped sustain it. Until very recently, fear of feminist backlash was far and away the main obstacle to an honest discussion of differences between the sexes. Feminists have written articles and books denouncing "biological determinism" without bothering to understand biology or determinism. And the increasing, if belated, feminist discussion of sex differences is sometimes vague and disingenuous; there is a tendency to describe differences that are plausibly explicable in Darwinian terms while dodging the question of whether they are innate.23


The "Darwin plan" for staying married — and, indeed, the general thrust of this chapter so far — may seem to presuppose a simple picture: women love marriage, men don't. Obviously, life is more complicated than that. Some women don't want to get married, and many more, once married, are far from bliss. If this chapter has stressed the male mind's incongruence with monogamous marriage (and it has), it's not because I think the female mind is a perpetual font of adulation and fidelity. It's because I think the male mind is the largest single obstacle to lifelong monogamy — and certainly the largest such obstacle that emerges distinctly from the new Darwinian paradigm.

The incongruence between the female mind and modern marriage is less simple and clear-cut (and, in the end, less disruptive). The clash isn't so much with monogamy itself as with the social and economic setting of modern monogamy. In the typical hunter-gatherer society, women have both a working life and a home life, and reconciling the two isn't hard. When they go out to gather food, child care is barely an issue; their children may go with them or, instead, stay with aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. And when mothers, back from work, do care for children, the context is social, even communal. The anthropologist Marjorie Shostak, after living in an African hunter-gatherer village, wrote: "The isolated mother burdened {137} with bored small children is not a scene that has parallels in !Kung daily life."24

Most modern mothers seem to find themselves well to one side or the other of the (reasonably) happy medium that a hunter-gatherer woman naturally strikes. They may work forty or fifty hours a week, worry about the quality of day care, and feel vaguely guilty. Or they may be full-time housewives who rear their children alone and are driven nearly mad by monotony. Some housewives, of course, manage to build a solid social infrastructure even amid the transience and anonymity of the typical modern neighborhood. But the unhappiness of the many women who don't is virtually inevitable. It's no surprise that modern feminism gathered such momentum during the 1960s, after post-World War II suburbanization (and so much else) had diluted the sense of neighborhood community and pulled the extended family apart; women weren't designed to be suburban housewives.

The generic suburban habitat of the fifties was more "natural" for men. Like many hunter-gatherer fathers, vintage suburban husbands spent a little time with their children and a lot of time out bonding with males, in work, play, or ritual.25 For that matter, many Victorian men (though not Darwin) had the same setup. Although lifelong monogamy per se is less natural for men than for women, one form that monogamous marriage has often taken, and still often takes, may be harder on women than on men.

But that's not the same as saying that the female mind threatens modern monogamy more than, or as much as, the male mind. A mother's discontent seems not to translate into breakup as naturally as a father's. The ultimate reason is that, in the ancestral environment, seeking a new husband once there were children was seldom a genetically winning proposition.

To make modern monogamy "work" — in the sense both of enduring and of leaving husband and wife fairly happy — is a challenge of overwhelming complexity. A successful overhaul might well entail tampering with the very structure of modern residential and vocational life. Any aspiring tamperers would do well to ponder the social environment in which human beings evolved. {138}

People weren't, of course, designed to be relentlessly happy in the ancestral environment; there, as here, anxiety was a chronic motivator, and happiness was the always pursued, often receding, goal. Still, people were designed not to go crazy in the ancestral environment.


Notwithstanding the discontents of modern marriage, many women aspire to find a lifelong mate and have children. Given that the current climate doesn't favor this goal, what are they to do? We've talked about how men might behave if they want marriage to be a sturdier institution. But giving men marriage tips is a little like offering Vikings a free booklet titled "How Not to Pillage." If women are closer than men to being naturally monogamous, and often suffer from divorce, maybe they are a more logical locus for reform. As George Williams and Robert Trivers discovered, much of human sexual psychology flows from the scarceness of eggs relative to sperm. This scarcity gives women more power — in individual relationships, and in shaping the moral fabric — than they sometimes realize.

Sometimes they do realize it. Women who would like a husband and children have been known to try the Emma Wedgwood plan for landing a man. In its most extreme form, the plan runs as follows: if you want to hear vows of eternal devotion right up to your wedding day — and if you want to make sure there is a wedding day — don't sleep with your man until the honeymoon.

The idea here isn't just that, as the saying goes, a man won't buy the cow if he can get the milk for free. If the Madonna-whore dichotomy is indeed rooted firmly in the male mind, then early sex with a woman may tend to stifle any budding feelings of love for her. And, if there are such things as "mate-ejection modules" in the human mind, sustained sex without issue may bring — in the man or the woman — a cooling toward the other.

Many women find the Emma strategy abhorrent. To "trap" a man, some say, is beneath their dignity; if he has to be coerced into marriage, they'd rather do without him. Others say the Emma {139} approach is reactionary and sexist, a revival of the hoary demand that women carry the moral burden of self-control for the sake of the social order. Still others say this approach seems to presume that sexual restraint for a woman is easy, which it often is not. These are all valid reactions.

There is one other common complaint about the Emma strategy: it doesn't work. These days much sex is available to men for little commitment. Not as much as a few years ago, maybe, but enough so that, if any one woman cuts off the supply, alternatives abound. Prim women sit at home alone and bask in their purity. Around Valentine's Day of 1992, the New York Times quoted a twenty-eight-year-old single woman who "lamented the lack of romance and courtship." She said, "Guys still figure if you don't come across, someone else will. It's like there's no incentive to wait until you get to know each other better."26

This, too, is a valid point, and a good reason why a one-woman austerity crusade isn't likely to bring great rewards. Still, some women have found that a move of some distance toward austerity may make sense.27 If a man isn't interested enough in a woman, as a human being, to endure, say, two months of merely affectionate contact before graduating to lust, he's unlikely to stick around for long in any event. Some women have decided not to waste the time — which, needless to say, is more precious for them than for men.

This mild version of the Emma approach can be self-reinforcing. As more women discover the value of a short cooling-off period, it becomes easier for each of them to impose a longer one. If an eight-week wait is common, then a ten-week wait won't put a woman at much of a competitive disadvantage. Don't expect this trend to reach Victorian extremes. Women, after all, do like sex. But expect the trend, which seems already to be under way, to continue. Much of today's incipiently conservative sexual climate may come from a fear of sexually transmitted diseases; but, to judge by the increasingly clear opinion of many women that men are basically pigs, a part of the new climate may come from women rationally pursuing self-interest in recognition of harsh truths about human nature. And one generally safe bet is that people will continue to pursue their {140} self-interest as they see it. In this case, evolutionary psychology helps them see it.


There is another reason trends in sexual morality — whether toward or away from sexual reserve — may be self-sustaining. If men and women are indeed designed to tailor their sexual strategies to local market conditions, the norm among each sex depends on the norm among the other. We've already seen evidence, from David Buss and others, that when men deem a woman promiscuous, they treat her accordingly — as a short-term conquest, not a long-term prize. We've also seen evidence, from Elizabeth Cashdan, that women who perceive males to be generally pursuing short-term strategies are themselves more likely to look and act promiscuous: to wear sexy clothes and have sex often.28 One can imagine these two tendencies getting locked in a spiral of positive feedback, leading to what the Victorians would have called ongoing moral decline. A proliferation of low-cut dresses and come-hither looks might send the visual cues that discourage male commitment; and as men, thus discouraged, grow less deferential toward women, and more overtly sexual, low-cut dresses might further proliferate. (Even come-hither looks that show up on billboards, or in the pages of Playboy, might have some effect.)29

If things should for some reason begin moving in the other direction, toward male parental investment, the trend could be sustained by the same dynamic of mutual reinforcement. The more Madonnaish the women, the more daddish and less caddish the men, and thus the more Madonnaish the women, and so on.

To call this theory speculative would almost be an understatement. It has the added disadvantage of being (like many theories of cultural change) hard to test directly. But it does rest on theories of individual psychology that are themselves testable. The Buss and Cashdan studies amount to a preliminary test, and so far the two pillars of the theory hold up. The theory also has the virtue of helping to explain why trends in sexual morality persist for so long. Just as Victorian prudishness, at its high-water mark, was the culmination {141} of a century-long trend, it seems to have then receded for a long, long time.

Why does the long, slow swing of the pendulum ever reverse? The possible reasons range from changes in technology (contraceptive, for example) to changes in demographics.30 It's possible too that the pendulum may tend to reverse when a large fraction of one sex or the other (or both) finds its deepest interests not being served and begins to consciously reevaluate its lifestyle. In 1977 Lawrence Stone observed, "The historical record suggests that the likelihood of this period of extreme sexual permissiveness continuing for very long without generating a strong backlash is not very great. It is an ironic thought that just at the moment when some thinkers are heralding the advent of the perfect marriage based on full satisfaction of the sexual, emotional and creative needs of both husband and wife, the proportion of marital breakdowns, as measured by the divorce rate, is rising rapidly."31 Since he wrote, women, who have much leverage over sexual morality, have, in apparently growing numbers, asked basic questions about the wisdom of highly casual sex. Whether we are entering a period of long growth in moral conservatism is impossible to say. But modern society doesn't exude an overwhelming sense of satisfaction with the status quo.


Many judgments have been rendered about Victorian sexual morality. One is that it was horribly and painfully repressive. Another is that it was well suited to the task of preserving marriage. Darwinism affirms these two judgments and unites them. Once you have seen the odds against lifelong monogamous marriage, especially in an economically stratified society — in other words, once you have seen human nature — it is hard to imagine anything short of harsh repression preserving the institution.

But Victorianism went well beyond simple, general repression. Its particular inhibitions were strikingly well-tailored to the task at hand.

Perhaps the greatest threat to lasting marriage — the temptation of aging, affluent, or high-status men to desert their wives for a younger {142} model — was met with great social firepower. Though Charles D ens did manage, amid great controversy and at real social cost leave his wife, he forever confined contact with his mistress to secret meetings. To admit that his desertion was, in fact, a desertion would have been to draw a censure he wasn't willing to face.

It's true that some husbands spent time in one or another of London's many brothels (and housemaids sometimes served as sexual outlets for men of the upper classes). But it's also true that male infidelity may not threaten marriage so long as it doesn't lead to desertion; women, more easily than men, can reconcile themselves to living with a mate who has cheated. And one way to ensure that male infidelity doesn't lead to desertion is to confine it to, well, whores. We can safely bet that few Victorian men sat at the breakfast table daydreaming about leaving their wives for the prostitute they had enjoyed the night before; and we can speculate with some confidence that part of the reason is a Madonna-whore dichotomy planted deeply in the male psyche.

If a Victorian man did more directly threaten the institution of monogamy, if he committed adultery with "respectable" women, the risk was great. Darwin's physician, Edward Lane, was accused in court by a patient's husband of committing adultery with the patient. In those days, this sort of case was so scandalous that the Times of London carried daily coverage. Darwin followed it closely. Perhaps conveniently, he doubted Lane's guilt ("I never heard a sensual expression from him"), and he worried about Lane's future: "I fear it will ruin him."32 It probably would have, if the judge hadn't exonerated him.

Of course, in keeping with the double standard, female adulterers drew even stronger censure than their male counterparts. Both Lane and his patient were married, yet her diary recounted a post-tryst conversation between them that allocated blame in the following proportions. "I entreated him to believe that since my marriage I had never before in the smallest degree transgressed. He consoled me for what I had done, and conjured me to forgive myself."33 (Lane's lawyer convinced the court that her diary was a mad fantasy, but even if so, it reflects prevailing morality.) {143}

The double standard may not be fair, but it does have a kind of rationale. Adultery per se is a greater threat to monogamy when the wife commits it. (Again: the average man will have much more trouble than the average woman continuing a marriage with a mate known to have been unfaithful.) And if the husband of an adulterer does for some reason stay in the marriage, he may start treating the children less warmly, now that doubts about their paternity have arisen.

Conducting this sort of brisk, clinical appraisal of Victorian morality is risky. People are inclined to misunderstand. So let's be clear: clinical isn't the same as prescriptive; this is not an argument on behalf of the double standard, or any other particular aspect of Victorian morality.

Indeed, whatever contribution the double standard may have once made to marital stability by offering a vent for male lust, times have changed. These days a high-powered businessman doesn't confine his extramarital affairs to prostitutes, or to maids and secretaries whose cultural backgrounds make them unlikely wives. With women more widely in the workplace, he will meet young single women at the office, or on a business trip, who are exactly the sort he might marry if he had it to do all over again; and he can do it all over again. Whereas extramarital activity in the nineteenth century, and often in the 1950s, was a sheerly sexual outlet for an otherwise committed husband, today it is often a slippery slope toward desertion. The double standard may have once bolstered monogamy, but these days it brings divorce.

Even aside from the question of whether Victorian morality would "work" today, there is the question of whether any benefits would justify its many peculiar costs. Some Victorian men and women felt desperately trapped by marriage. (Although when marriages seem inescapable, almost literally unthinkable, people may dwell less on shortcomings.) And prevailing morality made it hard for some women to guiltlessly enjoy even marital sex — not to mention the fact that Victorian men weren't known for their sexual sensitivity. Life was also hard for women who wanted to be more than ornaments, more than an "Angel in the House." The Darwin sisters reported to Charles with some concern about brother Erasmus's budding, if ambiguous, friendship with the author Harriet Martineau, who didn't fit meekly {144} into the feminine mold. Darwin, upon meeting her, had this impression: "She was very agreeable and managed to talk* on a most wonderful number of subjects, considering the limited time. I was astonished to find how little ugly she is, but as it appears to me, she is overwhelmed with her own projects, her own thoughts and own abilities. Erasmus palliated all this, by maintaining one ought not to look at her as a woman."34 This sort of remark is one of many reasons we shouldn't try to recreate Victorian sexual morality wholesale.

There no doubt are other moral systems that could succeed in sustaining monogamous marriage. But it seems likely that any such system will, like Victorianism, entail real costs. And although we can certainly strive for a morality that distributes costs evenly between men and women (and evenly among men and among women), distributing the costs identically is less likely. Men and women are different, and the threats that their evolved minds pose to marriage are different. The sanctions with which an efficient morality combats these threats will thus be different for the two sexes.

If we are really serious about restoring the institution of monogamy, combat, it seems, will indeed be the operative word. In 1966, one American scholar, looking back at the sense of shame surrounding the sexual impulse among Victorian men, discerned "a pitiable alienation on the part of a whole class of men from their own sexuality."35 He's certainly right about the alienation. But the "pitiable" part is another question. At the other end of the spectrum from "alienation" is "indulgence" — obedience to our sexual impulses as if they were the voice of the Noble Savage, a voice that could restore us to some state of primitive bliss which, in fact, never was. A quarter-century of indulging these impulses has helped bring a world featuring, among other things: lots of fatherless children; lots of embittered women; lots of complaints about date rape and sexual harassment; and the frequent sight of lonely men renting X-rated videotapes while lonely women abound. It seems harder these days to declare the Victorian war against male lust "pitiable." Pitiable compared to what? Samuel Smiles may seem to have been asking a lot when he talked about spending one's life "armed against the temptation of low indulgences," but the alternative isn't obviously preferable. {145}


The intermittently moralistic tone of this chapter is in a sense ironic. Yes, on the one hand, the new Darwinian paradigm does suggest that any institution as "unnatural" as monogamous marriage may be hard to sustain without a strong (that is, repressive) moral code. But the new paradigm also has a countervailing effect: nourishing a certain moral relativism — if not, indeed, an outright cynicism about moral codes in general.

The closest thing to a generic Darwinian view of how moral codes arise is this: people tend to pass the sorts of moral judgments that help move their genes into the next generation (or, at least, the kinds of judgments that would have furthered that cause in the environment of our evolution). Thus a moral code is an informal compromise among competing spheres of genetic self-interest, each acting to mold the code to its own ends, using any levers at its disposal.36

Consider the sexual double standard. The most obvious Darwinian explanation is that men were designed, on the one hand, to be sexually loose themselves yet, on the other, to relegate sexually loose women ("whores") to low moral status — even, remarkably, as those same men encourage those same women to be sexually loose. Thus, to the extent that men shape the moral code, it may include a double standard. Yet on closer inspection, this quintessentially male judgment is seen to draw natural support from other circles: the parents of young, pretty girls, who encourage their daughters to save their favors for Mr. Right (that is, to remain attractive targets for male parental investment), and who tell their daughters it's "wrong" to do otherwise; the daughters themselves, who, while saving their virtue for a high bidder, self-servingly and moralistically disparage the competing, low-rent alternatives; happily married women who consider an atmosphere of promiscuity a clear and present danger to their marriage (that is, to continued high investment in their offspring). There is a virtual genetic conspiracy to depict sexually loose women as evil. Meanwhile, there is relative tolerance for male philandering, and not only because some males (especially attractive or rich ones) may themselves like the idea. Wives, too, by finding a husband's {146} desertion more shattering than his mere infidelity, reinforce the double standard.

If you buy this way of looking at moral codes, you won't expect them to serve the interests of society at large. They emerge from an informal political process that presumably gives extra weight to powerful people; they are quite unlikely to represent everyone's interests equally (though more likely to do so, perhaps, in a society with free speech and economic equality). And there's definitely no reason to assume that existing moral codes reflect some higher truth apprehended via divine inspiration or detached philosophical inquiry.

Indeed, Darwinism can help highlight the contrast between the moral codes we have and the sort that a detached philosopher might arrive at. For example: though the double standard's harsh treatment of female promiscuity may be a natural by-product of human nature, an ethical philosopher might well argue that sexual license is more often morally dubious in the case of the man. Consider an unmarried man and an unmarried woman on their first date. The man is more likely than the woman to exaggerate emotional commitment (consciously or unconsciously) and obtain sex under these false pretenses. And, if he does so, his warmth is then more likely than hers to fade. This is far, far from a hard and fast rule; human behavior is very complex, situations and individuals vary greatly, and members of both sexes get emotionally chewed up in all kinds of ways. Still, as a gross generalization, it is probably fair to say that single men cause more pain to partners of short duration through dishonesty than single women do. So long as women don't sleep with already mated men, their sexual looseness typically harms others obliquely and diffusely, if at all. Thus, if you believe, as most people seem to, that it is immoral to cause others pain by implicitly or explicitly misleading them, you might be more inclined to condemn the sexual looseness of men than of women.

That, at any rate, would be my inclination. If in this chapter I seemed to suggest that women practice sexual restraint, the advice wasn't meant to carry any overtone of obligation. It was self-help, not moral philosophy.

This may sound paradoxical: one can, from a Darwinian vantage {147} point, advise sexual restraint for women, roughly echoing traditional moral exhortation, while at the same time decrying the moral censure of women who don't take the advice. But you might as well get used to the paradox, for it's part of a more general Darwinian slant on morality.

On the one hand, a Darwinian may treat existing morality with suspicion. On the other hand, traditional morality often embodies a certain utilitarian wisdom. After all, the pursuit of genetic interest sometimes, though not always, coincides with the pursuit of happiness. Those mothers who urge their daughters to "save themselves" may at one level be counseling ruthless genetic self-interest, but they are, on another level, concerned for the long-term happiness of their daughters. So too for the daughters who follow mother's advice, believing it will help them become lastingly married and have children: yes, the reason they want childen is because their genes "want" them to want children; nonetheless, the fact remains that they do want children, and may well, in fact, have more fulfilling lives if they get them. Though there's nothing inherently good about genetic self-interest, there's nothing inherently wrong with it either. When it does conduce to happiness (which it won't always), and doesn't gravely hurt anyone else, why fight it?

For the Darwinian inclined toward moral philosophy, then, the object of the game is to examine traditional morality under the assumption that it is laden with practical, life-enhancing wisdom, yet is also laced with self-serving and philosophically indefensible pronouncements about the absolute "immorality" of this or that. Mothers may be wise to counsel restraint in their daughters — and, for that matter, wise to condemn competing girls who aren't so restrained. But the claim that these condemnations have moral force may be just a bit of genetically orchestrated sophistry.

Extricating the wisdom from the sophistry will be the great and hard task of moral philosophers in the decades to come, assuming that more than a few of them ever get around to appreciating the new paradigm. It is a task, in any event, to which we'll return toward the end of this book, after the origins of the most fundamental moral impulses have become apparent. {148}


One common reaction to discussions of morality in light of the new Darwinism is: Aren't we getting a little ahead of the game here? Evolutionary psychology is just getting started. It has produced some theories with powerful support (an innate difference in male and female jealousy); some with fair-to-middling support (the Madonna-whore dichotomy); and many more that are sheer, if plausible, speculation (the "mate ejection" module). Is this body of theories really capable of supporting sweeping pronouncements about Victorian, or any other, morality?

Philip Kitcher, a philosopher who in the 1980s established himself as sociobiology's preeminent critic, has carried this doubt a step further. He believes Darwinians should tread carefully not just in making moral or political extensions from their inchoate science (extensions most of them avoid anyway, thanks to the scorching a few received in the 1970s), but in making the science in the first place. After all, even if they don't cross the line between science and values, someone else will; theories about human nature will inevitably be used to support this or that doctrine of morality or social policy. And if the theories turn out to be wrong, they may have done a lot of damage in the meanwhile. Social science, Kitcher notes, is different from physics or chemistry. If we embrace "an incorrect view of the origins of a distant galaxy," then "the mistake will not prove tragic. By contrast, if we are wrong about the bases of human social behavior, if we abandon the goal of a fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of society because we accept faulty hypotheses about ourselves and our evolutionary history, then the consequences of a scientific mistake may be grave indeed." Thus, "When scientific claims bear on matters of social policy, the standards of evidence and of self-criticism must be extremely high."37

There are two problems here. First, "self-criticism" per se is not an essential part of science. Criticism from colleagues — a kind of collective self-criticism — is. It is what keeps the "standards of evidence" high. And this collective self-criticism can't even begin until a hypothesis is put forward. Presumably Kitcher isn't suggesting that we short-circuit this algorithm of scientific progress by refraining {149} from the proposal of weak hypotheses; the way weak hypotheses get strong is by being proposed and then mercilessly scrutinized. And if Kitcher is suggesting only that we label speculative hypotheses as such, no one has any objection to that. Indeed, thanks to people like Kitcher (and this isn't meant sarcastically), many Darwinians are now masters of careful qualification.

Which brings us to the second problem with Kitcher's argument: the suggestion that Darwinian social scientists, but not social scientists generally, should proceed with great caution. The unspoken assumption is that incorrect Darwinian theories about behavior will tend to be more pernicious than incorrect non-Darwinian theories about behavior. But why should that be so? One long-standard and utterly non-Darwinian doctrine of psychology — that there are no important innate mental differences between men and women bearing on courtship and sex — seems to have caused a fair amount of suffering over the past few decades. And it depended on the lowest imaginable "standards of evidence" — no real evidence whatsoever, not to mention the blatant and arrogant disregard of folk wisdom in every culture on the planet. For some reason, though, Kitcher isn't upset about this; he seems to think that theories involving genes can have bad effects but theories not involving genes can't.

A more reliable generalization would seem to be that incorrect theories are more likely than correct theories to have bad effects. And if, as is often the case, we don't know for sure which theories are right and which are wrong, our best bet is to go with the ones that seem most likely to be right. The premise of this book is that evolutionary psychology, in spite of its youth, is now far and away the most likely source of theories about the human mind that will turn out to be right — and that, indeed, many of its specific theories already have fairly firm grounding.

Not all threats to the honest exploration of human nature come from the enemies of Darwinism. Within the new paradigm, truth sometimes gets sugarcoated. It is often tempting, for example, to downplay differences between men and women. Regarding the more polygamous nature of men, politically sensitive Darwinian social scientists may say things like: "Remember, these are only statistical generalizations, and any one person may diverge greatly from the {150} norm for his or her sex." Well, yes, but few of those divergences are very close to the other sex's norm (and half of the divergences, remember, are farther than average from the other sex's norm). Or: "Remember, behavior is influenced by the local environment and conscious choice. Men don't have to philander." True — and crucially important. But many of our impulses are, by design, very strong, so any force that is to stifle them may have to be pretty harsh. It is grossly misleading to talk as if self-restraint is as easy as punching a channel on the remote control.

It's dangerous too. George Williams, perhaps the closest thing there is to a single founding father of the new paradigm, may be going too far when he says that natural selection is "evil." After all, it created everything benign in human nature as well as everything destructive. But surely it's true that the roots of all evil can be seen in natural selection, and are expressed (along with much that is good) in human nature. The enemy of justice and decency does indeed lie in our genes. If in this book I seem to depart from the public-relations strategy practiced by some Darwinians, and stress the bad in human nature more than the good, it is because I think we are more in danger of underestimating the enemy than overestimating it. {151}