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Humans differ in paternal investment—the degree to which fathers help mothers care for their offspring. They differ in this way between individuals, between populations, and between stages of cultural evolution.
During the earliest stage, when all humans were hunter-gatherers, men invested more in their offspring with increasing distance from the equator. Longer, colder winters made it harder for women to gather food for themselves and their children. They had to rely on meat from their hunting spouses. Conversely, paternal investment was lower in the tropics, where women could gather food year-round and provide for themselves and their children with little male assistance.
This sexual division of labor influenced the transition to farming. In the tropics, women were the main providers for their families as gatherers of fruits, berries, roots, and other wild plant foods. They were the ones who developed farming, thereby biasing it toward domestication of wild plants.
This may be seen in sub-Saharan Africa, where farming arose near the Niger’s headwaters and gave rise to the Sudanic food complex—a wide range of native crops now found throughout the continent (sorghum, pearl millet, cow pea, etc.) and only one form of livestock, the guinea fowl (Murdock, 1959, pp. 44, 64-68). Many wild animal species could have been domesticated for meat production, but women were much less familiar with them. Men knew these species as hunters but had little motivation to domesticate them. Why should they? Women were the main providers.
And so women shouldered even more the burden of providing for themselves and their offspring. Men in turn found it easier to go back on the mate market and get second or third wives. Finally, men had to compete against each other much more for fewer unmated women.
There was thus a causal chain: female dominance of farming => female reproductive autonomy => male polygyny => male-male rivalry for access to women. Jack Goody (1973) in his review of the literature says: “The desire of men to attract wives is seen as correlated with the degree of women’s participation in the basic productive process.” The more women produce, the lower the cost of polygyny.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the cost was often negative. Goody quotes a 17th century traveler on the Gold Coast: the women till the ground “whilst the man only idly spends his time in impertinent tattling (the woman’s business in our country) and drinking of palm-wine, which the poor wives are frequently obliged to raise money to pay for, and by their hard labour maintain and satisfie these lazy wretches their greedy thirst after wines.”
Goody cites data from southern Africa showing that the polygyny rate fell when the cost of polygyny rose:
In Basutoland one in nine husbands had more than one wife in 1936; in 1912, it was one in 5.5 (Mair 1953: 10). Hunter calculates that in 1911 12 per cent of Pondo men were plurally married and the figure was slightly lower in 1921. In 1946, the Tswana rate was 11 per cent; according to a small sample collected by Livingstone in 1850 it was 43 per cent. The figures appear to have changed drastically over time and the reasons are interesting. ‘The large household is now not a source of wealth, but a burden which only the rich can bear’ (Mair 1953: 19). Not only is there a specific tax for each additional wife, but a man’s wives now no longer give the same help in agriculture that they did before. One reason for this is that the fields are ploughed rather than hoed. Among the Pondo, ‘the use of the plough means that the amount of grain cultivated no longer depends on women’s labour’ (Goody, 1973)
Although polygynous marriage has become less common in southern Africa, polygynous behavior seems as frequent as ever. To a large degree, polygynous marriage has given way to more transient forms of polygyny: prostitution and other informal arrangements. Goody also notes that polygyny rates have remained high in the Sahel, where pastoralism has nonetheless increased male participation in farming. He gives the example of Ghana. Polygyny rates are about the same in the north and the south, yet in the north men participate much more in farming.
So what is going on? Goody concludes that “female farming and polygyny are clearly associated in a general way” but ultimately the “reasons behind polygyny are sexual and reproductive rather than economic and productive.” It would be more parsimonious to say that the polygyny rate increases when the cost of providing for a woman and her children decreases for men. Over time, low-cost polygyny selects for men who are more motivated to exploit sexual opportunities. This new mindset influences the subsequent course of gene-culture coevolution.
Such gene-culture coevolution has gone through four stages in the evolutionary history of sub-Saharan Africans:
Tropical hunter-gatherers were already oriented toward low paternal investment. Men had a lesser role in child rearing because year-round food gathering provided women with a high degree of food autonomy. Women were thus selected for self-reliance and men for polygyny. Pair bonding was correspondingly weak in both sexes.
This mindset guided tropical hunter-gatherers in their transition to farming. In short, female-dominated food gathering gave way to female-dominated horticulture—hoe farming of various crops with almost no livestock raising. Women became even more autonomous, and men even more polygynous. There was thus further selection for a mindset of female self-reliance, male polygyny, and weak pair bonding.
A similar process occurred with the development of trade. Female-dominated horticulture tended to orient women, much more than men, toward the market economy. This has particularly been so in West Africa, where markets are overwhelmingly run by women. Trade has thus become another means by which African women provide for themselves and their children.
Female-dominated horticulture has given way to male-dominated pastoralism in some regions, such as the Sahel. Despite higher male participation in farming, the pre-existing mindset has tended to maintain high polygyny rates. We see a similar tendency in southern Africa, where polygyny rates have fallen over the past century, and yet polygynous behavior persists in the form of prostitution and less formal sexual arrangements.
The Hadza and the Datoga
Mode of subsistence, mating system, and mindset are thus interrelated. These interrelationships are discussed by Butovskaya et al. (2015) in their study of two peoples in Tanzania: the largely monogamous Hadza (hunter-gatherers) and the highly polygynous Datoga (pastoralists). In their review of previous studies, the authors note:
In hunter-gatherer societies, such as the monogamous Hadza of Tanzania (Africa), men invest more in offspring than in small-scale pastoralist societies, such as the polygynous Datoga of Tanzania [12-14]. Polygyny and between-group aggression redirect men’s efforts from childcare toward investment in male-male relationships and the pursuit of additional mates. When men participate in childcare, their testosterone (T) level decreases [15-18]. Muller et al. found that, among the monogamous, high paternally investing Hadza, T levels were lower for fathers than for non-fathers. This effect was not observed among the polygynous, low paternally investing Datoga. (Butovskaya et al., 2015).
Butovskaya et al. (2015) confirmed these previous findings in their own study:
Datoga males reported greater aggression than Hadza men—a finding in line with previous reports [29,30]. It is important to mention several striking differences between these two cultures. There is a negative attitude toward aggression among the Hadza but not among the Datoga. In situations of potential aggression, the Hadza prefer to leave. In contrast, aggression is an instrument of social control—both within the family and in outgroup relations in Datoga society. Datoga men are trained to compete with each other and to act aggressively in particular circumstances
The authors also confirmed differences in reproductive behavior between the two groups:
Our research indicates a difference in the number of children in Hadza and Datoga men achieved after the age of 50. This may be interpreted as differences attributable to different life trajectories and marriage patterns. Beginning in early childhood, boys in the two societies are subjected to different social and environmental pressures (e.g., it is typical for Datoga parents to punish children for misbehavior, while parental violence is much less typical for Hadza parents). Hadza men start reproducing in the early 20s, but their reproductive success later in life is associated with their hunting skills. In the Datoga, men marry later, typically in their 30s. Male status and, consequently, social and reproductive success in the Datoga are positively correlated with fighting abilities and risk-taking in raiding expeditions among younger men, and with wealth, dominance, and social skills among older men. In the Datoga, as in other patrilineal societies, fathers do not invest directly in child care, but children do benefit from their father’s investment in the form of wealth and social protection, as well as various services provided by father’s patrilineal male relatives. In polygynous societies, spending resources on attracting additional wives may be more beneficial [40,57,58]. It would be difficult for some men to invest directly in providing for all their children, given that men with multiple wives can father a considerable number of children, and that households with wives may be located at substantial distance from one another.
This behavioral difference seems to be mediated by differing levels of androgens, such as testosterone:
The effect of androgens, such as T, operates through stimulation of androgen receptors [21-23]. The androgen receptor (AR) gene contains a polymorphic and functional locus in exon 1, comprising two triplets (CAG and GGN). This locus supports a regulatory function that responds to T, with fewer CAG repeat clusters being more effective in transmitting the T signal. Moreover, the length of the GGN repeat predicts circulating and free T in men.
At the androgen receptor gene, the authors found fewer CAG repeats in the Datoga than in the Hadza. The number of repeats was also more variable in the Datoga. The Datoga’s higher and more variable polygyny rates thus seem to correlate with higher and more variable levels of testosterone.
The authors also wished to see whether these differing levels of testosterone correlate with differing levels of aggressiveness. To this end, they interviewed the Hadza and Datoga participants:
They were asked to provide information including their age, sex, marital status, number of children, ethnicity and aggression history (especially fights with other tribal members). All questions were read aloud in one-to-one dialogues and further explanations were provided, if necessary. Self-reported aggression was assessed with the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ;). The BPAQ includes 29 statements, grouped into four subscales—physical aggression (9 items), verbal aggression (5 items), anger (7 items), and hostility (8 items)—answered on aLikert scale anchored by 1 (extremely uncharacteristic of me) and 5 (extremely characteristic of me).
Total aggression was found to correlate negatively with CAG repeat number. Age group did not predict aggression.
More polygyny = stronger sexual selection of men
Finally, the authors suggest that Datoga men, with their higher polygyny rate and fiercer competition for access to women, have undergone greater sexual selection. They have thus become bigger and more masculine than Hadza men. Although this selection pressure also exists among the Hadza, the driving force of sexual selection has been weaker because Hadza men are more monogamous and less sexually competitive:
Our findings are in concordance with other research, demonstrating that even among the relatively egalitarian Hadza there is selection pressure in favor of more masculine men [59-62]. At the same time, preference for more masculine partners, with greater height and body size, is culturally variable and influenced by the degree of polygyny, local ecology, and other economic and social factors [59-62]. Many Datoga women commented that they would like to avoid taller and larger men as marriage partners, as they may be dangerously violent [44,62]. Only 2% of Hadza women listed large body size as an attractive mate characteristic. Hadza marriages in which the wife is taller than the husband are common, and as frequent as would be expected by chance. (Butovskaya et al., 2015)
This is consistent with what we see in nonhuman polygynous species. Successful males tend to be the ones that are better not only at attracting the opposite sex but also at fighting off rivals. They thus become bigger, tougher, and meaner.
This is also consistent with what we see generally in the highly polygynous farming peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. They and their African-American descendants exceed European-descended subjects in weight, chest size, arm girth, leg girth, muscle fiber properties, and bone density (Ama et al., 1986; Ettinger et al.,1997; Himes, 1988; Hui et al., 2003; Pollitzer and Anderson, 1989; Todd and Lindala, 1928; Wagner and Heyward, 2000; Wolff and Steggerda, 1943; Wright et al., 1995).
Ama, P.F.M., J.A. Simoneau, M.R. Boulay, O. Serresse, G. Thériault, and C. Bouchard. (1986). Skeletal muscle characteristics in sedentary Black and Caucasian males, Journal of Applied Physiology, 61, 1758-1761.
Butovskaya M.L., O.E. Lazebny, V.A. Vasilyev, D.A. Dronova, D.V. Karelin, A.Z.P. Mabulla, et al. (2015). Androgen receptor gene polymorphism, aggression, and reproduction in Tanzanian foragers and pastoralists. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0136208.
Ettinger, B., S. Sidney, S.R. Cummings, C. Libanati, D.D. Bikle, I.S. Tekawa, K. Tolan, and P. Steiger. (1997). Racial differences in bone density between young adult black and white subjects persist after adjustment for anthropometric, lifestyle, and biochemical differences, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 82, 429-434.
Goody, J. (1973). Polygyny, economy and the role of women, in J. Goody (ed.) The Character of Kinship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Himes, J. H. (1988). Racial variation in physique and body composition, Canadian Journal of Sport Sciences, 13, 117-126.
Hui, S.L., L.A. DiMeglio, C. Longcope, M. Peacock, R. McClintock, A.J. Perkins, and C.C. Johnston Jr. (2003). Difference in bone mass between Black and White American children: Attributable to body build, sex hormone levels, or bone turnover?Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 88, 642-649.
Murdock, G.P. (1959). Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pollitzer, W.S. and J.J. Anderson. (1989). Ethnic and genetic differences in bone mass: a review with a hereditary vs environmental perspective, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,50, 1244-1259
Todd, T.W., and A. Lindala. (1928). Dimensions of the body: Whites and American Negroes of both sexes, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 12, 35-101.
Wagner, D.R. and V.H. Heyward. (2000). Measures of body composition in blacks and whites: a comparative review, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71, 1392-1402.
Wolff, G. and M. Steggerda. (1943). Female-male index of body build in Negroes and Whites: An interpretation of anatomical sex differences, Human Biology, 15, 127-152.
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