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It’s a Man’s World: Mate Guarding and the Evolution of Patriarchy

Rachel A. Grant and V. Tamara Montrose


During human evolution the prevention of cuckoldry has been an adaptive problem for the human male, solved in many other species by intensely guarding females during fertile periods. Signs of estrus in human females are much subtler than in many other species meaning that there is less certainty of the exact timing of the fertile period. This necessitates extended mate guarding which potentially reduces male fitness due to the loss of extra-pair fertilization opportunities and other fitness-compromising costs, such as reduction in the time spent acquiring status and resources. Patriarchy is a system of implicit and explicit rules of conduct, of power structures, and of belief systems that support male control over women’s reproduction and has existed for thousands of years. We examine the manifestations of patriarchy as a unique form of mate guarding which is able to function even in the absence of males. We explore historical and contemporary patriarchal practices such as rape, foot-binding, honor-killing and female genital mutilation and argue that males use patriarchy to increase the costs associated with female extra-pair copulation to increase their certainty of paternity. At the same time patriarchy functions to enforce in-pair childbearing by discouraging contraception and abortion. We propose that this form of control of females evolved to avoid an evolutionary trade-off between the benefits of monogamy and those of promiscuity for human males and that there has been selection on females for those compliant with patriarchy, who tended to have more surviving offspring. We also discuss patriarchy in the context of niche construction and propose that patriarchy is a cultural niche which has functioned to maximize individual males’ fitness. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, the persistence of patriarchy into the 21st century is unsurprising.

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