In a post one week ago, “The ideological opposition to biological truth,” I argued that sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection, and that it also reflects behavioral differences between males and females: males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage. That competition results from females—in many species, not just ours—being a “scarce” resource for males, since the number of males capable of breeding far exceeds the number of females who cannot breed because they’re tending offspring or in gestation. This disparity can be categorized in two ways:
- The behavioral operational sex ratio: the ratio of sexually active males to fertilizable females at a given time. This is about 11.7 in humans!
- The physiological operational sex ratio, the same ratio but for all individuals capable of reproducing (rather than those actually engaged in mate-hunting). This is about 8.6 in humans.
The ratios are greater in some primates (gorillas have values of about 84!), but if they’re greater than 1, there’s room for sexual selection, since there are more males seeking females than there are females available as mates. This itself is one bit of evidence for the operation of sexual selection in humans.
Now how the sexual selection actually operated in our ancestors is not perfectly clear. Some of it, as the data suggest, involves male-male competition: fights between males to control females, as we witness in gorillas, deer, and elephant seals. Females are more or less constrained to mate with the winning males. Or females may prefer to mate with the biggest and strongest males, for those males may protect their offspring—and hence the female’s genes—better than do smaller, weaker males. (This gives an evolutionary advantage to those females who can discern and choose the best males.)
Both of these factors can, of course, work at the same time, and there are other more arcane forms of sexual selection I won’t mention, including other signs in males of “good genes”. But any sexual-selection scenario goes along with a difference in sexual behavior, explaining why, even today, males are more promiscuous and willing to mate than are the choosier females.
A further possibility is that there could be an ecological distinction between males and females, with males hunting, and thus needing size and strength, while females do gathering (presumably females don’t have time to hunt because they’re rearing children). That doesn’t involve sexual selection, but it also fails to explain all the data, like the correlation between sexual dimorphism and polygyny within humans, and the fact that in our primate relatives there’s not only the same correlation among species, but no palpable division of labor among males and females. It also doesn’t explain the existence of traits like beards, lower voices, or same-sex aggression among human males but not females. Nevertheless, there’s no reason why several forces couldn’t work together to cause men to have evolved larger body size and increased musculature (as well as other features) in our ancestors. But surely sexual selection is one, for the evidence below fits no other hypothesis.
As I noted, these relatively uncontroversial ideas about sexual selection (not mine, actually; they’re the conventional wisdom among evolutionists beginning with Darwin), was challenged by Holly Dunsworth, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rhode Island, on her website. Dunsworth, who called my theory (supported by lots of data cited in my original post) a “story”, offers her own speculations, which really are a story because they lack empirical support and don’t explain a lot of observations. Here’s what she said:
It’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares in this post has been the same old story for a long long time.
What about the other side of the body size sexual dimorphism story?
What about the women?
Selection could well be the reason they stop growing before men and why they end up having smaller bodies than men, on average.
Perhaps men can make babies while growing, but perhaps women can’t. Energetically, metabolically. So reproduction wins over growth. We reach sexual maturity and stop growing. Is that just a coincidence?
Why doesn’t this (and other tales) fit alongside the big-aggressive-males-take-all explanation for sexual dimorphism? #evolution
But as I noted in the piece she criticized, selection on females—through either evolution of female preference or on differential ecological roles between the sexes—could affect sexual dimorphism. But Dunsworth conveniently ignored that bit. Her criticisms were echoed by an article by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine, which claimed, as did Dunsworth, that I was offering mere “stories”—unevidenced speculation. Singal said this:
In Dunsworth’s view, all she is asking for is some nuance and, well, skepticism. “People love to boil complex processes down to their preferred (intentional or not) story,” she wrote, “with some in leading roles and others completely absent, and we don’t have to take that anymore.” Her tweeted example about growth nicely captures this: It could be that Coyne’s aggressiveness story leaves out important details about why men are bigger than women, or fails to explain certain aspects about that differences. Overall, it certainly seems like people are quicker to latch onto evo-psych stories that reinforce certain views of men and women.
That last sentence is a veiled accusation that my piece was sexist. I reject that completely.
As I noted in part I of this response, neither Singal nor Dunsworth appreciated that I have a long published history of criticizing “just-so” stories in evolutionary psychology. I don’t like unevidenced speculation when it’s promoted as truth. But the sexual selection theory for human sexual dimorphism is supported by a lot of evidence. It is manifestly not a mere “just-so” story. In my original piece I adduced this evidence (revised slightly):
- In human societies studied by Richard Alexander, those societies that are more polygynous (in which males compete more intensively for females) show greater sexual size dimorphism than societies that are more monogamous. This was a prediction made before the data were acquired—a prediction derived from sexual selection theory. And it was fulfilled. UPDATE: I see now that Alexander’s finding wasn’t reproduced in another experiment, so consider this conclusion questionable.
- Among species of primates, there’s a good correlation between the polygyny of a species and sexual dimorphism: those species in which males have a higher variance in offspring number, and in which males thus compete more intensely for females, also show a greater ratio of male/female body size, even when corrected for phylogeny. (Too, in primate species in which males fight each other over females, the relative size of the canine teeth, used in battle, is larger than in species showing less direct male-male competition.)
- In humans, as in many other species in which males compete for females, the sex ratio at birth favors males. They then die off at a higher rate due to higher risk-taking and exploratory behavior, and also senesce faster, which is why among older humans there are so many more females than males. (Check out any Gray Line tourbus.) This is predicted by sexual selction theory.
- In line with the above, in humans and other primates, males show from the outset great exploratory and risk-taking behaviors, and as adults show many other behaviors that differ from those of females, such as greater dispersal. Is this due to the Primate Patriarchy? Probably not, given that these differences in behavior are shown in many species besides ours and make evolutionary sense.
There’s more evidence, too, which I’ll mention shortly.
But what’s the evidence for Dunsworth’s theory? As far as I can see, there isn’t any. Her theory claims that 1) females can’t reproduce while growing, while males can. 2) There’s a tradeoff between growth and reproduction, so if you stop growing as a female, you can start reproducing earlier. Conclusion: females stop growing before males because reproduction is all-important, and therefore they’re smaller than males as adults.
But the data don’t even support her theory. Puberty begins in females at about ages 10 and 11, and in males between 11 and 12. (The age of both appears to be decreasing in recent years.) Yet males keep growing this whole period and well beyond, as do females. There’s no indication that females stop growing when they become reproductively competent. Here are growth curves (stature and weight) for both males and females. Stature begins tapering off at about ages 14-15 in both sexes (a slower taper in males), but both sexes continue to grow until age 20.
Now we don’t know about body sizes and ages of puberty in our ancestors, which is the really important information, and I doubt we’ll have that given that it’s virtually impossible to ascertain the age of puberty in fossils. But clearly there’s no support in any data for Dunsworth’s hypothesis that “perhaps men can make babies while growing, but perhaps women can’t. Energetically, metabolically.” Both men and women can make babies while they’re still growing. But men continue to grow not only faster but also bit longer than do women (see above), something which explains sexual dimorphism. But since men are reproductively competent when they hit puberty, why do they keep getting bigger? Dunsworth doesn’t tell us, but sexual selection theory does. Men achieve greater stature and muscle mass by both growing faster than females, and tapering off a bit later.
So Dunsworth’s hypothesis is not only unsupported by data, but fails to explain the growth data that do exist.
More important, her theory doesn’t explain the four points given above—points that are well explained by sexual selection theory. She and New York Magazine fail to realize that the sexual-selection explanation for human sexual dimorphism is not a “story”, but makes supported predictions and clarifies previously obscure observations. How irritating to see these people distort what we know about evolutionary theory and human biology!
As I mentioned in earlier posts, I think Dunsworth is blinkered by her ideology, because she thinks that sexual selection theory ignores females. Well, straight male-male competition without female choice does involve evolution mainly in males, but there are forms of sexual selection that involve female choice, too, and that has surely happened in species like birds and fish. In those groups, and others, males show ornaments and colors not useful in male-male competition, but are the object of female choice. And some of that process may have happened in our own lineage. The competing theories are not zero-sum, so that only one can be right. All these processes can work together. But surely one is sexual selection.
Regardless, sexual selection as an explanation implies that there are also sexual differences in behavior: differences we see in modern experiments and are probably not purely cultural because a. they’re predicted by the differences in body size and b. we see the same difference in mate choosiness in many other species—and not just primates. It’s an ineluctable consequence of the difference in reproductive investment between males and females.
I’ll now list some other observations about human mating and morphology that are explained by sexual selection theory but not explained at all by Dunsworth’s theory. Some of these come from the references given at the bottom of the post.
- In other sexually dimorphic primates, including chimpanzees and gorillas, direct contests between males can be observed, and probably existed in our ancestors since paleoanthropological data show that many more males were killed by violence than females, possibly reflecting inter-group battles, which in modern hunter-gatherer societies are often over females. Many societies also show “bride theft”, capture of females by bands of males—common in Amazonian hunter-gatherer societies.
- Male humans have more robust skulls than do females, including mandibles and brow ridges. This may reflect evolution to withstand blows to the head. (Males also have a higher tolerance for pain.)
- Men are not only taller and heavier than women, but are stronger, particularly in the upper body. While size differences are about 8%, and body mass about 15-20%, women’s bodies have a higher percentage of fat, so that when you look at fat-free body mass, men are 40% heavier, have 60% more lean muscle mass, 80% greater arm muscle mass, 75% more upper-body muscle mass, and 50% more lower body mass. This difference in relative amount of muscle mass cannot be explained by Dunsworth’s theory, which is purely about growth, but is explained by male-male competition under sexual selection—and perhaps by female preference as well. This is reflected in differential athletic performance, and is why men and women usually compete separately in athletics. Even for men and women of equal sizes, men are far stronger; as Hill et al. note, “the average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (some of this, of course, may be because men work out; I haven’t checked the references.)
- In every society studied, men are physically more aggressive than women, both in play as kids and as adults. The vast majority of murderers are men, and this aggressive activity peaks during men’s peak reproductive years, when they would be competing for mates most strongly. These data do not include killings in war.
- Traits like beards and lower voices in men (men’s vocal folds are 60% longer than women’s, giving them lower voices) have been shown to act as indicators of dominance; both are evolved morphological traits. (The evidence supporting all these claims can be found in the papers cited below.) Women also prefer larger men and deeper voices, so there may have been an element of female choice in sexual selection, though of course the observations we make are on modern rather than ancient hominins.
- Sexual dimorphism is also seen in our ancestors like Australopithecus and H. erectus, implying that it’s been acting on our lineage a long time. But there’s also some evidence, cited by Plavcan, that the degree of sexual dimorphism has waxed and waned as females got either bigger or smaller over time, implying that there may have been some separate natural selection in females that could increase or decrease sexual dimorphism (but never effaced it).
- Finally, Buss’s article and others not cited outline the psychological and behavioral differences between males and females that make sense under sexual selection. These not only include the greater promiscuity of males than females, but also the greater sexual jealousy of males toward women than vice versa (our male ancestors weren’t always sure who the father of their mate’s children was, while women were far more certain). There is also a big difference between males and females in their attitudes towards casual sexual experiences (guess in which direction), and in how exacting their standards are for a short-term mate (guess again). Men have lower psychological thresholds for risk-taking. And so on. As Buss wrote, “Large sex differences appear reliably for precisely the aspects of sexuality and mating predicted by evolutionary theories of sexual strategies.”
I’ve adduced about a dozen pieces of evidence supporting the sexual selection explanation for human morphological and behavioral dimorphism—none of which can be explained by Dunsworth’s hypothesis. (And that hypothesis was dead in the water anyway, contradicted by the known data.) Since all hypotheses must, at bottom, be supported by the weight of accumulated scientific evidence, it is clear that sexual selection, and male-male contest competition in particular, is a compelling explanation for human sexual dimorphism. In contrast, Dunsworth’s hypothesis isn’t in the least compelling. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep evaluating the evidence or suggesting new hypotheses, but simply that these should be supported by data rather than ideological preference.
I urge readers to look at the papers below, and use the data (and that from other papers) to evaluate theories about human behavioral and sexual dimorphism. I don’t propose to engage in a dialogue with Dr. Dunsworth about this, but I would like to know how her theory can explain the dozen-odd observations given above.
Dunsworth must have emitted something like twenty tweets about her piece, impugning me; and she even issued this over-the-top pronouncement:
Well, there’s fighting material above, but I’ve had my say. Still, I can’t believe that simply my writing a post on human sexual dimorphism and its implications would drive anybody away from studying human evolution. After all, the give-and-take of hypotheses, critical thinking, and data are the very meat of science, and if you disagree with somebody, you don’t simply walk away from a field. I sure as hell am not leaving evolutionary biology because Dunsworth and New York Magazine took out after me!
UPDATE: Things are getting worse: Peter Boghossian is arguing with Dunsworth on Twitter (I’m not involved, as I avoid Twitter Wars), but now we’re getting lumped with some rather unsavory types (except for the “evolutionists”):
h/t: Steve, David
Buss, D. M. 1995. Psychological sex differences. Amer. Psychologist 50:164-168.
Hill, A. K., D. H. Bailey, and D. A. Puts. 2017. Gorillas in our midst? Human sexual dimorphism and contest competition in men. pp. 235-249 in: On Human Nature: Biology, Psychology, Ethics, Politics, and Religion. in M. Tibayrencand F. J. Ayala (eds.) .On Human Nature, M. Tibayrenc and F. J. Ayala, eds. Academic Press.
Puts, D. A. 2010. Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior 31:157-175.
Plavcan, J. M. 2012. Sexual size dimorphism, canine dimorphism, and male-male competition in primates. Where do humans fit in? Human Nature 23:45-67.