Study Finds Female Choice Key to Evolutionary Shift to Modern Family

It is a question that has puzzled evolutionary biologists for years: Why did we stop being promiscuous and decide to settle down to start families?

Happy Couple

Sergey Gavrilets, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, may have found the answer, and it lies in the power of female choice. The study reveals how females chose their mates played a critical role in human evolution by leading to monogamous relationships, which laid the foundation for the institution of the modern family.

Using mathematical modeling, the associate director for scientific activities at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at UT has discovered that the transformation may have occurred when early-hominid females started choosing males who were good providers.

Gavrilets’ findings are published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

The “sexual revolution” entailed males first competing with other males for dominance, as a way to get matings. However, low-ranked males—and eventually all males except those with the highest societal stature—began supplying females with provisions in what is called “food-for-mating” to get a leg up on the competition. Females showed preference for the “provisioning” males, leading males’ energy to be spent on providing for females and females becoming increasingly faithful. This spurred self-domestication and the modern family as we know it today.

“This change has confounded scientists for a long time because many species would be much better off evolutionarily if the effort spent on males competing for mates was redirected towards increasing female fertility or survivorship of their offspring,” said Gavrilets.

The study demonstrates mathematically that the most commonly proposed theories for the transition to human pair bonding—or coupling—are not biologically feasible.

However, the study advances a new model showing that the transition to pair-bonding can occur when female choice and faithfulness, among other factors, are included. The result is an increased emphasis on males provisioning females over male competition for mating.

“The study reveals that female choice played a crucial role in human evolution,” said Gavrilets.

According to Gavrilets, the transition to coupling has opened the path to intensified male parental investment, which was a breakthrough adaptation with multiple anatomical, behavioral, and physiological consequences for early hominids and for all of their descendants. It shifted the dynamic away from males competing with each other for sex to males competing with each other to see who is a better provider to get better mates.

“Pair bonding laid the foundation for a later emergence of the institution of the modern family,” said Gavrilets.

NIMBioS brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. It is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the US Department of Agriculture with additional support from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. For more information, visit www.nimbios.org.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460, wheins@utk.edu)

Catherine Crawley (865-974-9350, ccrawley@utk.edu)

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