Cover image for Why sex matters : a Darwinian look at human behavior
Why sex matters : a Darwinian look at human behavior
Low, Bobbi S.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 412 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1430 Lexile.
Format :


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GN281.4 .L68 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Why are men, like other primate males, usually the aggressors and risk takers? Why do women typically have fewer sexual partners? Why is killing infants routine in some cultures, but forbidden in others? Why is incest everywhere taboo? Bobbi Low ranges from ancient Rome to modern America, from the Amazon to the Arctic, and from single-celled organisms to international politics to show that these and many other questions about human behavior largely come down to evolution and sex. More precisely, as she shows in this uniquely comprehensive and accessible survey of behavioral and evolutionary ecology, they come down to the basic principle that all organisms evolved to maximize their reproductive success and seek resources to do so.

Low begins by reviewing the fundamental arguments and assumptions of behavioral ecology: selfish genes, conflicts of interest, and the tendency for sexes to reproduce through different behaviors. She explains why in primate species--from chimpanzees and apes to humans--males seek to spread their genes by devoting extraordinary efforts to finding mates, while females find it profitable to expend more effort on parenting. Low illustrates these sexual differences among humans by showing that in places as diverse as the parishes of nineteenth-century Sweden, the villages of seventeenth-century China, and the forests of twentieth-century Brazil, men have tended to seek power and resources, from cattle to money, to attract mates, while women have sought a secure environment for raising children. She makes it clear, however, they have not done so simply through individual efforts or in a vacuum, but that men and women act in complex ways that involve cooperation and coalition building and that are shaped by culture, technology, tradition, and the availability of resources. Low also considers how the evolutionary drive to acquire resources leads to environmental degradation and warfare and asks whether our behavior could be channeled in more constructive ways.

Author Notes

At the University of Michigan, Bobbi S. Low is Professor of Resource Ecology at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, Associate Director of the Population Environment Dynamics Program, and Faculty Associate at several centers within the Institute for Social Research.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

University of Michigan professor Low uses an evolutionary approach to understand and explain many common human actions. The central question she poses is, "How do environmental conditions influence our behavior and our lifetimes?" While many might balk at reducing much of human interaction merely to a desire to reproduce and provide for our offspring, Low argues persuasively that similar analyses of other species work remarkably well, and she provides a wealth of supporting data from studies of cultures ranging from indigenous populations in Africa to 19th-century Sweden. She concludes that men and women, because of the difference in the numbers of sperm and eggs produced, are evolutionarily designed to have disparate ambitions: males seek many mating opportunities, and females concentrate on acquiring the resources to ensure the survival of their young. Low notes that many social problemsÄwarfare and environmental degradation among themÄare the results of the power, perhaps misdirected, of the reproductive drives of both men and women (she links war to male aggression and environmental problems to the female drive to acquire resources for the raising of children). Having deduced that "we have created these problems by doing what we have evolved to do," she admits that she has no advice about "what to do next." Her findings are not new. Indeed, her biological explanation of what many people now view as socially constructed gender roles is bound to earn her vociferous critics. But her cross-cultural data set makes her conclusions hard to ignore. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Low's book is a comprehensive survey of behavioral and evolutionary ecology. It is organized around three Darwinian-based themes: that resources are essential to human survival and much of human evolution has been in response to this; that males and females tend to differ in how they effectively use resources to survive and reproduce; and that the different strategies used by each sex are both genetically and environmentally determined. Low provides exemplars of sex differences in human and nonhuman primate behavior. The author's consideration of these intertwined propositions leads to discussions of many interesting and timely questions (e.g., why is homicide largely a male enterprise) and of broader issues of human population growth, resource consumption, and sustainability. Although the details of behavioral ecology may seem arcane, Why Sex Matters should interest a broad range of readers because it attempts to explain human nature. The essence of this book is best expressed by a question posed by the author: "Have we gotten ourselves into a bind in which the behaviors we have evolved to do ... are now the behaviors that threaten our very existence?" All levels. S. D. Stout; University of Missouri--Columbia

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xiii
Acknowledgmentsp. xvii
1. Introductionp. 3
Vampire Stories and Beyondp. 4
Explaining Behavior without Folklorep. 6
Kinds of "Why" Questionsp. 9
Simple Rules, Complex Outcomesp. 11
Humans as Crittersp. 12
2. Racing the Red Queen: Selfish Genes and Their Strategiesp. 19
Whose Genes Count, and Why? Kin Selectionp. 23
Summing Up the Basics: Assumptions and Objectionsp. 27
Novel Evolutionary Environments: Can the Principles Still Hold?p. 31
More than Ants or Peacocks: Lifetimes, Culture, Ecology and Variationp. 33
3. The Ecology of Sex Differencesp. 35
Sex and Strategiesp. 37
The Ecology of Being Male and Femalep. 44
Mating Effortp. 47
Parental Effortp. 52
Variance in Reproductive Success: Mating versus Parental Strategistsp. 53
4. Sex, Status, and Reproduction Among the Apesp. 57
The Ecology of Dominance and RS in Primatesp. 58
Ecological Aspects of Mating Systemsp. 60
Sex, Resources, and the Ecology of Human Reproductionp. 62
The Ecology of Human Mating Systemsp. 66
The Ecology of Monogamy and Polyandryp. 74
5. Sex, Resources, Appearance, and Mate Choicep. 77
What Men and Women Wantp. 78
Beauty, Resources, and Mate Choicep. 83
Signals of Desirability and Their Manipulationp. 84
Who Can Choose?p. 88
6. Sex, Resources, and Human Lifetimesp. 92
Starting Out: Resource Striving in the Wombp. 95
What's a Mother to Do? Optimizing Maternal Effort among Offspringp. 96
Conflicts of Interest: Abortion, Infanticide, Abandonment Neglectp. 98
Sex Differences in Reproductive Lifetimesp. 102
Sex Differences in Senescencep. 110
7. Sex and Resource Ecology in Traditional and Historical Culturesp. 113
Sexual Divisions of Laborp. 113
Sex and Control of Resourcesp. 115
Men, Women, and Resources in Traditional and Historical Culturesp. 116
8. Sex, Resources, and Fertility in Transitionp. 127
Nineteenth-Century Swedenp. 130
Sex, Resources, and Life Historiesp. 135
Female Life Pathsp. 139
Male Life Pathsp. 140
Sex, Resources, and Fertilityp. 142
Fertility Transitions: What, If Anything, Do They Mean?p. 144
9. Nice Guys Can Win -in Social Species, Anywayp. 146
Are We Lemmings? A Cautionary Talep. 147
When and Why Do We Cooperate?p. 147
Simple Strategies in Winning Gamesp. 150
From Family to Dyads to Groups to Culturesp. 154
The Group Selection Muddlep. 155
Altruists or Good Neighbors?p. 160
Cooperation and Free-Ridersp. 161
10. Conflicts, Culture, and Natural Selectionp. 163
Cooperation, Competition, and Groupsp. 164
Working Out Our Conflicts: Moral Systems and Group Lifep. 165
Intertwining Cultural and Natural Selectionp. 168
Logically Inept, Socially Adept: The Social Contexts of Intelligencep. 176
11. Sex and Complex Coalitionsp. 181
Coalitions, Resources, and Reproductionp. 183
Sex and Human Coalitionsp. 193
12. Politics and Reproductive Competitionp. 198
Men, Women, and Politics Cross-Culturallyp. 200
Women in Politics: When Did It Pay?p. 209
13. Sex, Resources, and Early Warfarep. 213
Resources and Conflictp. 214
Why Women Warriors Are Rarep. 216
War: Runaway Sexual Selection?p. 217
Other Biological Approaches to Understanding Warp. 218
Intergroup Conflict in Other Speciesp. 221
Conflict in Preindustrial Societiesp. 223
14. Societal Complexity and the Ecology of Warp. 230
Greek Hoplites: Early "Western" Warriors?p. 233
The Ecology of Renaissance Warp. 234
The Behavioral Ecology of Modern Warp. 236
Disadvantaged Men in Warp. 240
War and Reproductive Success Todayp. 241
Proximate and Ultimate Causes of War: Evolutionary Noveltyp. 241
15. Wealth, Fertility, and the Environment in Future Tensep. 245
Fertility, Consumption, and Sustainability: Weving the Strandsp. 247
Wealth, Fertility, and Consumption Today: Empirical Datap. 248
Wealth, Women's Age-Specific Fertility, and Women's Life Paths Todayp. 250
An Evolutionary Perspective: Reducing Both Fertility and Consumption Is Novelp. 252
What's Missing in Current Strategiesp. 253
Can New Strategies and Tactics Helpp. 257
An Evolutionary Bottom Linep. 258
Notesp. 259
Glossaryp. 323
Referencesp. 333
Author Indexp. 391
Subject Indexp. 401
Taxonomic Indexp. 409
Society/Social Group Indexp. 411