Parents also choose

Sexual selection under parental choice: Evidence from sixteen historical societies

Evolutionary Psychology 10(3): 504-518 Menelaos Apostolou, Social Sciences, University of Nicosia, Nicosia, Cyprus,

Asymmetrical fitness benefits between parents and offspring result in the ideal spouse not being the ideal in-law. This enables parents to attempt to control the mating behavior of their children, and when they succeed, parental choice becomes a primary sexual selection force. A number of studies indicate that parental choice is dominant in contemporary pre-industrial societies. This paper presents evidence from the historical record which indicates that parental choice was also dominant during the later stages of human evolution. More specifically, 40 variables have been coded for a sample of 16 historical societies. Consistent with the model of parental choice, it is found that mating is controlled by parents, male parents exercise more control over marriage arrangements than females, and more control is exercised over female than male offspring. Finally, the specific qualities that parents desire in an in-law and offspring desire in a spouse have also been identified. The implications of these findings are discussed.

This study lends evidence against the contention by Kanazawa that women are always the gatekeepers to sex. Specifically, in many if not most societies, men, i.e. fathers, decide which man is allowed to mate with his daughter or other female relative. Since, as mentioned in the abstract, the ideal spouse is not the same as the ideal in-law, because of differing fitness benefits between parents and children, the qualities the parents – in most cases the father – selects in a mate will not be exactly the same when the woman is the sole chooser. For example, from the full paper (pdf):

There is also more at stake for parents if their offspring disobey them. For instance, if a daughter of high mating value runs away with a handsome but poor man, parents forfeit the opportunity to arrange a marriage with a not so handsome but wealthy individual, which, in an agropastoral context, translates into the loss of the opportunity to acquire substantial resources (e.g., land, animals, money) that can be diverted to them and their family. In addition, because parents are themselves likely to control substantial resources like cattle or farmland, they have more to lose, if for instance, their daughter falls for a good-looking man who is nevertheless lazy and poor and has an eye on their wealth. On this basis, it is predicted that in historical societies parents would have exercised strong control over the mating decisions of their offspring.

The above passage shows at least the possibility that when young women choose mates on their own, they may choose looks or charm over wealth and status, or they may choose wealth and status but be mistaken in those qualities in which older, more experienced people (parents) are knowledgeable, for instance honesty.

Nowadays it is of course considered the height of enlightenment for parents to refrain from weighing in on their daughters’ mate choices.


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