To judge a new theory of human evolution, it can be more important to forget one's preconceptions than to learn a set of new facts and ideas. Most of our images of human evolution come from popular culture. Film, television, cartoons, and advertising have filled our heads with a lot of colorful nonsense about prehistory. If the image in your mind is of cave-men clubbing cave-women unconscious and dragging them off, you may not grant sexual choice much significance in human evolution. This chapter aims to confront these preconceptions, inquiring how our ancestors did and did not form sexual relationships.
Popular culture images of prehistory are divided by market segmentation according to consumer age group, and by sexual content ratings. There is a children's G-rated version of prehistory that eliminates all sex and most violence, where neither sexual selection nor natural selection have much force. Playmobil toy sets include multi-ethnic cave-men happily living alongside dinosaurs, hunting lions, and living in jungles. The Flintstones cartoons depicted a prehistory of capitalist affluence, suburban family values, and chaste monogamy. In these Gardens of Eden there is no hint of reproductive competition, the engine of evolution.
Then there is a "Parental Guidance" prehistory, with a bit more violence and a few coy allusions to romance. Our PG version of prehistory is usually compiled from Planet of the Apes films, television cartoons about time-traveling teenagers, school trips to natural history museums, and summer camp experiences with the odd broken bone or stinging insect. Since this version emphasizes adventure, danger, and survival, it makes more plausible the idea that our minds evolved for toolmaking, hunting, and warfare. The resulting theory of human evolution resembles the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which proto-human apes conquer their rivals by inventing bone clubs, which put us straight on the technological path to moon-going spacecraft. The PG version never shows how the proto-humans produced any offspring, so sexual selection remains invisible.
Adult versions of prehistory include sexual content, but almost always in the form of a prurient male fantasy where female choice is irrelevant. Please, forget the sexual favors Raquel Welch bestowed on the dinosaur-slaying cave-man in the film One Million Years B.C. Do not take seriously the scene in Quest for Fire in which a rough stranger visiting a more sophisticated tribe is invited to copulate with all of the tribe's fertile women. Erase the memory of Daryl Hannah's rape by Neanderthals in Clan of the Cave Bear. The torrid paleolithic romances of Jean Auel are good entertainment, as are the erotic daydreams that may float through the minds of college students during springtime physical anthropology courses. However, they are not good touchstones for judging a theory of mental evolution through sexual choice.
Most media portrayals of prehistory follow one of three strategies: eliminate sexual content entirely, 'show cave-women falling for adventure heroes who rescue them from peril, or offer a narcissistic sexual fantasy in which only the protagonist (usually male) exercises sexual choice. There seems to be no market for portrayals of our early ancestors exerting mutual choice. If we are to see all the genuine tensions and difficulties between the sexes, media producers assume we must be rewarded with a proper costume drama set in- Imperial Rome or Regency England. After all, could Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver keep a straight face playing an intense romantic psychodrama set in Pleistocene Zaire, while wearing mangy furs, with ochre-smeared hair, and covered in ticks?
Maybe not, but a romantic psychodrama is just what we need to envision how sexual choice may have worked during human evolution. This is not a vain hope. In some ways we are better positioned to understand sexual selection than survival selection. The sexual challenges our ancestors faced were created by other members of their own species. Likewise today If our thoughts and feelings about sexual relationships are not too different from those of our ancestors, then our sexual challenges must not be too different. We get infatuated, we fall in love, we feel ecstatic, jealous, or heartbroken, we grow bored with some partners, and, if lucky, we develop a companionable attachment to the sexual partners with whom we raise children. We are attracted to beautiful faces and bodies, but also to a good sense of humor, a kind personality, a keen intelligence, and a high social status. If these sexual tastes are part of human nature that evolved gradually, our ancestors must have felt similarly to some degree. We should not automatically project modern social arrangements back into prehistory, but it is probably valid to project our individual emotions on to our ancestors.
By contrast, it can be difficult to appreciate the survival challenges that shaped our mental adaptations. In the developed world, we drive around in cars, live in the same house for years, use money to buy food, work hard at specialized jobs, and go to hospitals when ill. Our ancestors had to walk everywhere, lived in makeshift shelters in dozens of different places every year, did little work other than foraging for food, and when they fell ill, they either recovered spontaneously or died. The economics of surviving have changed dramatically, while the romantic challenges of mating have remained rather similar.
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