Male Generosity in Courtship

Traditional evolutionary theories of morality have trouble explaining unreciprocated generosity toward non-relatives. They worry about trivial cases like tipping, while ignoring the case where male generosity is most apparent—during sexual courtship. During courtship, males incur very high costs in terms of time, energy, risk, and resources. Some of these costs, like those of bird song, evaporate into thin air, yielding no benefit to the female other than information about male fitness. Other male courtship efforts bring wider social benefits to a whole community, like the legendary knights who slew dragons to win the hand of a princess, or Pleistocene hunters killing mammoths. A few cases even bring benefits to the female, like the prey offered by male scorpionflies.

Some researchers such as Helen Fisher and Camilla Power have viewed human courtship as a social contract where a male offers resources like meat in exchange for sex. One might caricature human courtship as men using gifts to buy the reproductive potential of women, using the same reciprocity instincts that sustain human trade. In this view, prostitution was the oldest profession, and marriage is a form of prostitution. Economist Gary Becker won his 1992 Nobel Prize for Economics in part for analyzing human marriage in similar contractual terms. In the modern world where every thing becomes corn-modified and every relationship becomes contractual, the reciprocity theory of courtship seems plausible. However, the reciprocity theory collapses on closer inspection.

Gentlemen and feminists understand the difference between contractual prostitution and male courtship gifts. When a man buys a woman dinner, she is emphatically not obliged to have sex with him. He would be a sexist cad for suggesting that she was. He cannot take her to a small claims court if she says, "Thank you for a lovely meal, but I do not believe we are suited to one another." Of course, an amorous male may be frustrated and resentful if his courtship fails, but that is not to say that the female has cheated him according to the terms of some implicit contract. It means that she has rejected him. It is her power of sexual choice that determines whether the relationship will escalate to intercourse, not his imposition of a gift. (However, in some cultures, if a couple continues to date and a woman accepts an escalating series of gifts over a long time period, this may create an implicit sexual contract.),

What's more, most males could not possibly afford to buy a woman's reproductive potential if courtship were a simple economic exchange. What would be an appropriate market price for a nine-month pregnancy, the pain of childbirth, the exhaustion of breast-feeding, and twenty years of maternal care? At least half a million dollars at a basic salary of $25,000, one would think. How much do men spend on courtship in the first few months? Perhaps a tenth of 1 percent of the proper market price. Their generosity might continue after a baby arrives, but it might not. One could do the same sort of analysis for hunter-

gatherers, in terms of the calorie cost of pregnancy and maternal care versus the calorie value of the meat that males offer. Are women just undervaluing themselves by a factor of a thousand? It seems unlikely that evolution could have produced such low female self-esteem, if the reciprocity theory is correct. Mutant women who demanded more should have replaced those who demanded so little, since their offspring would materially benefit.

Finally, male generosity during courtship is relatively inefficient as a way of transferring resources to females. It is like charity: we don't seem to care about the efficiency, only the cost of donation and the good intention. Efficient benefit-transfer is extremely unromantic. If human courtship evolved under the reciprocity model, it would be very, very simple. Today, women would auction their reproductive potential on the Internet, accepting wire transfers of bank funds from all male suitors, awarding their favors to the highest donor, and keeping all the money. Women would have emotions well adapted to falling in love with the most generous bidder—even though there were no interbank electronic transfers during the Pleistocene. The fact that we find this scenario so unappealing is psychological evidence against the reciprocity model.

Romantic gifts are those that are most useless to the women and most expensive to the man. Flowers that fade, candles that burn, overpriced dinners, and walks on exotic beaches are the stuff of modern romance. They do not increase a woman's survival prospects as much as they reduce a man's bank account. One might say that these things bring pleasure, but, as we have seen, pleasure is what evolution must explain. How could evolution possibly have favored humans who fall in love with individuals who provide them with useless luxuries that bring no survival benefit? The fact that a diamond engagement ring happens to be made out of durable matter does not make it a biologically relevant material benefit to a woman. If she wanted the diamond as a purely material benefit, she should not mind if her suitor bought it on sale from a mail-order catalog. But in reality, she wants him to pay the full retail price at Tiffany's, because that is more "romantic," which is to say, costly. Moral philosophers might not consider male courtship generosity very "moral" behavior. But to a woman receiving a romantic gift, it is a capital virtue.

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