Humans behavior comes in many flavors. While some preach love and forgiveness, others wage war. On the surface people want respect, cooperation and compassion, but live ruthless competition and deception. Some say we have lost our connection to nature and our behavior today is a sick outgrowth of capitalism. Others say God has a plan and it has to be that way. To me, these are unsatisfactory explanations to why these opposites exist. So, which force shapes our thoughts, our feelings, our actions, our morals, our societies? What is the smallest, common denominator? “
- What is life about?
- What motivates people?
- What unites all people?
Answer – in a nutshell:
Whether plants or animals, everything revolves around reproduction. This is not different for humans. To reproduce we need to have sex, which makes sex the “purpose of life”. To ensure survival and reproduction, an individual has to influence other people, for which there are endless strategies. This can also be called “power”. So life is really just about two things: sex and power.
Fictional American president Frank Underwood puts it this way:
“[…] everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”
People only want one thing, really
Everybody wants to take advantage of the group
If you want to win in the long run, you have to survive and to adapt to changing environmental conditions. (also read the article Winners write history, losers pay the bill). In animate nature this feat is accomplished by sexual reproduction. The urge to survive and thrive also formed the entire human behavior.
Human kind has organized itself in groups for millions of years. This offers us security and efficiency through division of labor. Because mankind spends its entire lifetime in the context of groups, its behavior is optimized for survival within groups. The group is the stage on which the drama of our lives takes place.
In every man’s chest two hearts are beating. The egoist, who cares only about one’s own well-being and the selfless one who cares about the well-being of the group. The group can only survive when group members bring enough selfishness to fight for their survival and reproduction. On the other hand, group members have to subdue their individual interests to the group’s interest, because a destruction of the group would mean the downfall of each individual. So the group needs a balance of egoism and selflessness.
Creating offspring requires resources. The more resources you have, the more likely your kids will survive to have kids on their own. Therefore, we all play a fun game, which is called “black peter” or “who pays the bill?”. Each group member tries to prevent other players from collecting resources and to encourage them to share resources. Each human being is simultaneously programmed to reward other people for selfless behavior and to punish overly selfish behavior. Corresponding social norms can be found worldwide and are reflected in our language and social norms. Selfishness is openly condemned and simultaneously concealed by the individual, while selflessness is loudly advertised. Those who skillfully channel resources to themselves and their offspring, without being punished, win the game.
Within the group, humans form subgroups, i.e. dyadic relations. These include friendships, sexual relationships and enemies. Today, in the majority of human societies, the nuclear family – parents and direct offspring – is the center of life, flanked by uncles / aunts, grandparents, in-laws. In the wider environment we find friends, work colleagues and other groups. Much of the interaction remains hidden from others because it takes place in the private environment of the dyadic relationship. The “who pays the bill” game thus takes place publicly, in the many groups we live, and within the “private” subgroups.
Men compete for status
In most human societies, men compete to form a relatively stable hierarchy. Hierarchies have been around as an organizational form in the animal kingdom for billions of years. At the top is the so-called Alpha man, followed by the Beta men. A hierarchy enables smooth cooperation. Decisions can be made quickly. Commands are executed quickly. There is no friction through voting or discussing. The Alpha man benefits from being able to divert more resources for himself. The Beta men benefits from the protection of the Alpha man and at the same time can participate in the jointly secured resources. The higher a man stands within the hierarchy; the more influence he has on resource distribution.
Social psychologists distinguish two different, but complementary, strategies with which men can climb the hierarchy. In everyday life, both strategies are combined.
Dominance and aggression
Social rank is fought out in duels. First, men use threatening gestures and showing one’s own strengths (boasting) but if necessary also real violence. But also oral disputes, arguments and rhetoric battles serve that purpose. Once established, these ranks are stable for some time. The man with the most “punishing power” takes the highest rank. There are also visual cues that convey strength and automatically lead to a higher rank. After all, a fight can have serious health consequences, which is why we attribute high status to big, muscular men. A man will be rewarded for his strength, as long as he does not become too aggressive.
Prestige and skills
We are opportunists: we like to stay where the table is richly set, or where we feel safe. Men can move up within the group through public contribution and sharing of resources (knowledge, skills, food, building materials, etc.). These men become more valuable for other group members because there is something to collect from them. After all, it makes sense to be friends with a patron. Therefore, men will reward other generous men with submission and loyalty.
In nature, strength is indicated by abundance. A group can increase its overall “wealth” without violence, when rewarding the introduction of resources into the group with status, while individuals profit from increased influence. win / win. This strategy is also what most companies pursue with their clients and what most people do in their families and friendships. They create value for others to gain social recognition. Therefore, in a peaceful environment, the prestige strategy is of particular importance to the group.
In summary, men are trying to increase their status within the group so they have access to more resources.
Women minimize risk
Women take all the risk in reproduction, because they contribute the majority of resources to the development of the offspring; They nurture the child inside, they might be hurt at birth or die. They have to (breast)feed the offspring. To a woman any reduction of physical fitness is a risk to her reproductive success. Therefore, women seek to reduce the risks associated with reproduction.
For a woman, her own body is the only vehicle for reproduction. Men, on the other hand, could continue to father children without their legs and arms as long as they have access to women. Therefore, it is worthwhile for men to take risks, i.e. to accept injuries, in order to rise in status. In contrary, every woman has to birth all her own offspring herself. In consequence they tend to be more self-protective, e.g. visit the doctor more often. They have to protect their bodies vehemently.
No food, no offspring. Women need more food during pregnancy and lactation to provide for their offspring. In short, they have to eat more. However, many women are less mobile and agile during pregnancy and lactation. Thus, they are more vulnerable to attacks and more susceptible to shortage of food. The more help a woman can foster during this time, the lower her risk of losing the child or being injured. Ensuring sufficient resources is a top priority for women.
A woman secures resources through different ways:
- collecting resources herself
- securing resources in competition with other women and men – “Who gets more of the spoils?”
- “Sex for safety” deal: A man gets exclusive sex in return for resources and assistance in raising the offspring.
Competition is the foundation of evolution, and women are not excluded. Women compete with other women for resources and men. On the other hand, women need other women as allies to defend themselves against unpleasant males, to gather resources, to support each other during pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and raising the offspring. (Also in other primates “midwives” were described). Therefore, women form hierarchies that are, however, flatter and more unstable.
In a group of women, there is always a leader, the Alpha woman. Research shows, that alpha men and women share some characteristics, e.g. high dominance, but women still maintain a subtler leadership style. A group of women is usually governed by the principle of equality and the avoidance of open conflicts. Anyone who tries to excel at the expense of others will be punished immediately. These penalties consist primarily of attacks on reputation (such as “slut shaming”) and exclusion. At the same time, women use care, empathy and help as a positive instrument of power to make themselves useful to their friends. In women, too, physical violence occurs when rich and rare spoils are fought over. These battles are rare, but also more bitter than in the male world. The female hierarchy is not so much about results, rather more about participation and cooperation. Who is in? Who is out? So even women fight for dominance, only by other means.
The best genes win
Every living being aims to collect the best available genes to give its offspring a head start. Women instinctively try to get the man with the highest status available to them. He can provide her resources and protect her with his strength and alliances. This increases her chances of survival, and that of their offspring. In addition, a man’s richness is also an indicator of good genes. Only a physically and / or mentally fit man can occupy a high position within the group. A high status male is a good gene donor. Men court for women by showing off their “goods”.
Which women are attractive to men? As described above, the woman’s body is crucial to her reproductive success. That is why men choose women who look healthy and fit: pure, good skin, long, shiny hair, not too thin or too fat. In addition, a woman should be physically made for a smooth birth and rearing of the offspring. A “hip to waist ratio” of 7:10 and a full, big bosom indicate high fecundity (on average). Women are therefore trying to highlight their physical appearance to court men.
Arms race of the sexes – “play the hand you’re dealt”
Men and women have different parameters to maximize their reproductive success. Moreover, from an evolutionary point of view, it does not matter how the partner is doing, as long as he or she is still able to increase the reproductive success. It makes economic sense for each gender to “exploit” the partner. Therefore, different, sometimes conflicting, strategies emerged, how man or woman gets more children for less resources. There is an ongoing arms race of the sexes.
Men – the more, the better
With a man’s low investment in pregnancy, it makes sense for him to impregnate as many women as possible, as long as he does not jeopardize his standing within the group or an important, stable relationship. Men can increase the number of viable offspring through different strategies:
- Multiple wives and many children – Only possible with many resources and illegal in many societies.
- Maintain a nuclear family, and impregnate other women
- Maintain a nuclear family
- Many children with many women without becoming active as a father – no influence on the chance of survival and education
Men usually try to have other women in addition to their main wife, while they want to suppress the promiscuity of their own wife, demanding sexual exclusivity. “I’m allowed to have an affair, but nobody else.
Women – sex as commodity
Because women took great risks by having casual sex, before the anti-baby pill was available, they are more likely to pursue a mix of short and long term mating strategies. The main goal is to have enough resources and assistance for raising the offspring. Basically, women control access to sex and thus the value sex has to men. They are the gatekeepers of the reproduction.
The woman’s dilemma:
- A high-ranking man offers good genes and many resources. But other women also compete for him. It’s harder to get him to commit. A woman therefore runs the risk of being left alone or having to share the man with other women.
- low-ranking man offers inferior genetic material, but is potentially willing to invest in raising the offspring because he has less chance of having sex with other women. He appreciates the chance for exclusive sex. Maybe he will work his way up and can offer more resources in the future. (Then problem 1 kicks in)
- The “laws” of the women’s group complicate the competition for men. Approaching a man without the consensus of the other women in the group can have serious consequences – loss of status or exclusion.
- Being a single mother gives a woman independence from men, but carries great economical risk, because she cannot offset illness or financial setbacks.
How do women solve this situation? They differentiate between short-term relationships (sex) and long-term relationships (potential for resources).
- She forms a nuclear family with a man and tries to control or inhibit his sexuality. He should become a provider and channel all resources to her offspring.
- Within certain groups a peer pressure is maintained that punishes women for sexually promiscuous behavior (slut shaming). This, economically speaking, preserves the value sex has to men. The “sex for safety” deal remains attractive for men. When sex is hard to access for man, women can trade it for resources. This is especially useful for the high-ranking women or women in a committed relationship. Prostitutes undermine this dynamic, but have to live with the corresponding social sanctions (low reputation). Women inhibit the sexuality of other women in order to keep the price of sex high and to eliminate rivals.
- Being married and becoming pregnant from another man, preferably high status. This strategy has the upside, that a woman can harness the good genes from a high ranking man, while having another man contributing resources. However, these maneuvers are also risky. If the infidelity comes to light, she must fear an act of revenge on the part of the husband, which can even lead to death (30% of homicides in America are women killed by their jealous men). In addition, she could lose her social rank within her group by being outlawed as a “slut”. That could lead to the new man stepping back to uphold his reputation. Prior to the pill, sexual promiscuity bore great risk for women.
The ying and yang, eternally
All the maneuvers described are just part of the continuous arms race of the sexes. While fluctuating around an equilibrium this arms race will temporarily result in the superiority of one sex. The basic pattern is as follows: women defend, men persist.
- Men persist more successfully than women resist – even weaker men can mate- the male population is “watered down”, i.e. becomes weaker, and women can defend themselves more effectively.
- Women defend themselves more successfully than men persist – only the strongest men mate – the male population becomes “stronger” and more men persist.
- Repeat …
Any external event can upset this balance. World war II e.g. had a huge effect on the balance of the sexes within the participating parties.
What else do men and women do, to gain an advantage in the game?
- Men try to seduce women into sexual adventures, e.g. with gifts, faking feelings, promising longterm relationships
- Women subject men to a long “test phase”
- Women intentionally become pregnant to bind the man.
- Men rape women
- Women allege men of rape
- Women use their man’s resources to rise in social rank. That in turn increases access to better mates.
- Men deny women resources to inhibit social advancement and access to better mates.
- Men sanction affairs by force (or murder).
- Society sanctions force
- Women inhibit male sexuality by “baiting and blocking” – (offering sex, then blocking, offering, blocking, etc.)
- Social ostracism of certain sexual behavior (promiscuity, sexual violence, homosexuality (?) …)
- People in powerful positions influence laws and social norms to empower themselves and their offspring.
The sexual arm race is influenced by innumerable factors and the effects on our society are manifold. Which maneuvers are “profitable” for men and women and which reactions they entail, depends on many environmental variables. e.g .:
- Are there many resources freely available (reduces the value of men)
- Are there many enemies / aggressors / unstable environment (increases the value of men)
- Is the pregnancy and lactation short (reduces the value of the men).
- Are there many women (reduces the value of sex).
- Acceptance or even promotion of liberal sex (reduces women’s market power – makes sex more accessible to men)
- Do women have access to help and resources without men (reduces the value of men as a resource provider)
- Can women control their conception (increases their control, but leads to higher availability of sex)
- Can men use their physical strength (increases their persistence, lowers the value of sex)
- Suppression of promiscuous sex (increases market power of high-status women and men – disadvantage especially for low-ranking men)
Depending on the composition of these, and an infinite number of other factors, a group-specific sex/power dynamic emerges for each local and national group. For example: In a teenage girl clique other rules apply than in a male dominated motorcycle gang. But the underlying mechanisms of how these rules emerge are based on the quest for status and sex. I go even further: the emergence of all social norms and laws are driven, directly or indirectly, by the pursuit of power and sex.
Maybe not even intentionally
In the text above, I often use expressions that convey a conscious intention of people. This is for the sake of readability. Of course, the dynamics described above are driven by feelings such as love, jealousy, anger, aggression, lust, curiosity, fear, envy, etc. and the conscious mind. The latter modifies the behavior induced by feelings because it allows the consideration of norms and rules. Add to this the individual genetic and psychological characteristics. But regardless of whether we do it consciously or not, our behavior is driven by the pursuit of power and sex.
Is it as rigid and strict as described above? Today, more than ever, we are experiencing a greater fluidity of gender roles, changing social sexual norms and thus a higher complexity of “the game”. Of course, men use damage to the other’s reputation, and women use overt dominance. Also today we see more women as “alpha animals” in groups – one of the best known examples would be Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. So, no, it is not that strict, and we witness an expansion of the repertoire of available power moves. Both sexes have all tactics available.
Whether plants or animals, everything revolves around reproduction. This is not different for humans. Men compete with men, women with women and the sexes try to make the other pay the bill for the offspring. Men increase their reproductive success over the number of children or by caring for them. Women achieve better reproductive success by the preservation of their bodies and the intensive care for their offspring. In both cases, success depends largely on how much man or woman can influence other humans, and this game is played within groups. There are endless strategies for this. Some obvious and violent, others subtle and hidden. In the end, whoever controls the resource flow most effectively, wins. It’s all about power. For what? Sex.