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Raising Darwin’s consciousness

Female sexuality and the prehominid origins of patriarchy

Abstract

Sociobiologists and feminists agree that men in patriarchal social systems seek to control females, but sociobiologists go further, using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and Trivers’s ideas on parental investment to explain why males should attempt to control female sexuality. From this perspective, the stage for the development under some conditions of patriarchal social systems was set over the course of primate evolution.

Sexual selection encompasses both competition between males and female choice. But in applying this theory to our “lower origins” (prehominid ancestors), Darwin assumed that choices were made by essentially “coy” females. I argue here that female solicitation of multiple males (either simultaneously or sequentially, depending on the breeding system) characterized prehominid females; this prehominid legacy of cyclical sexual assertiveness, itself possibly a female counter-strategy to male efforts to control the timing of female reproduction, generated further male counter-strategies. This dialectic had important implications for emerging hominid mating systems, human evolution, and the development of patriarchal arrangements in some human societies. For hominid males who will invest in offspring, there would be powerful selection for emotions, behaviors, and customs that ensure them certainty of paternity. The sexual modesty that so struck Darwin can be explained as a recent evolved or learned (perhaps both) adaptation in women to avoid penalties imposed by patrilines on daughters and mates who failed to conform to the patriline’s prevailing norms for their sex. Other supposedly innate universals, such as female preferences for wealthy husbands, are also likely to be facultative accommodations by women to constraints set up when patrilines monopolized resources needed by females to survive and reproduce, and passed on intergenerational control of these resources preferentially to sons.

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Correspondence to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

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Hrdy, S.B. Raising Darwin’s consciousness. Hum Nat 8, 1–49 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-997-1003-9

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Key words

  • Coyness
  • Female sexuality
  • Modesty
  • Patriarchy
  • Primate evolution
  • Sociobiology