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How Have Our Ancestors Shaped Female Mate Selection?

Kalyn's picture

How has evolution shaped mate preferences for human females? Everyday women are subconsciously drawn to specific key signals when looking for a mate. The traits females find attractive go back to the time of our prehistoric ancestors. The biological need to reproduce healthy children was the driving force that determined a favorable mate from an unfavorable mate. Because reproduction was a priority it came to be that highly sought after mates were ones that possessed strong indicators of healthy genes.

There are two different “good-genes” models known as the viability-indicator model (Anderson, 1994) and the more well known sexy-son model also referred to as the Fisherian model (Fischer, 1930). Anderson’s model states that “mate choosers prefer mates who possess indicators of viability. These individuals live longer due to better genetic coding resulting in healthier immune systems. Because viability is partially heritable, these mate’s offspring also live longer which generate a higher probability of future reproductive success” (Buss, pg 156) Fischer’s sexy son model does not assume that certain mates or their offspring have any greater ability to survive than any other mate’s offspring. Instead this model states that “individuals prefer mates who are attractive but live no longer than others or possibly earlier” (Buss, pg 156) The attractive features of their offspring give them an advantage when selecting mates allowing them to ensure genes are passed on during reproduction. Both models only differ in their notion of what one does with their reproductive advantage.

The outcome of our ancestral female’s mating selections served its purpose by passing down the parent’s healthy genes to their offspring which in turn increased the offsprings chance of survival. The exact advantage is unclear but evident regardless as reproduction is the primal force driving the specific preferences of female ancestors. During prehistoric times it was necessary for females to develop methods of selecting viral mates that could produce healthy children. Females are genetically endowed with the majority of the child rearing responsibilities. The entire fertilization process takes place within the woman’s body and during this time a child is carried to term for nine months. This is a result of one sexual act that requires very little investment from a male. “Because women in our evolutionary past risked enormous investment as a consequences of having sex,evolution favored women who were highly selective about their mates. Ancestral women suffered severe costs if they were indiscriminate. They experienced lower reproductive success and fewer of their children survived to reproductive age” (Thornhill & Gangestad, pg 20). As females evolved their mate preferences changed to suit their reproductive needs. 

As stated previously the biological goal of our ancestral females was to successful reproduction with a suitable male. In society today these goals are no longer a conscious priority as the human species has evolved enabling both the growth of the brain and a shift in needs. Evolution, however, takes longer to change and still has its seeds planted deep within the human subconscious. As females still wish to reproduce children men seek to spread their DNA. In order for men to be successful they must reproduce. Within the 21st century an ideal manner of reproduction takes place under mutual consent from both partners. In this case in order for a male to reproduce successfully he must make himself appear as an ideal candidate for mating. Since women define the ideal characteristics that comprise a suitable mating partner men are bounded to the feminine standard of masculinity.

Evolution has given women the intuitive ability to focus on the potential qualities that a male mate possesses. Today for example, the modern woman notes the many advantages and disadvantages of a mate with children in addition to many other components that make up a males attractiveness. Adding to that each women gauges a man’s potential uniquely to herself. This makes sense when you consider each women will value and then rate certain qualities as more valuable to herself than another women. Biology takes into account that women all highly value and look for qualities of a monogamous caregiver. This means women at some point all desire a single mate that agrees to a exclusive mutual relationship. These mates tend to show certain qualities such as providing resources, high social status and deep commitment. By examine why these qualities were considered valuable to our female ancestor’s one can discover their importance in a female’s mate today.

A mate that shares their resources is a benefit to a woman and her children. It takes a large amount of resources to raise a child and a female can double her resources with the help of a fellow mate. “Women over human evolutionary history could often garner far more resources for their children through a single spouse than through several temporary sex partners” (Thornhill & Gangestad, pg 23). In addition to basic resources such as food and shelter men also provide additional caring and protection for children. In this regard women gain tremendous advantages from selecting mates with a preference for sharing their resources. Financial resources are such a female preference that they’ve been scientifically documented across cultures that even practiced polygyny. The study by Buss et al. studied a sample of 10,047 male and female individuals. Ina eighteen characteristic value test women consistently rated financial resources as the most valuable 100 percent more than males. This cross-culture data came to the conclusion that such a value on finances is rated two times as important to females than to males.

Our society today is going through times of economic crisis making it harder for a single working mother to support and raise children. The additional benefits of having a second income is enormous as it provides many additional benefits for the education and growth potential of a child. Resources branch into a wide variety of areas that can include but are not limited to money, kin support, food and shelter.  The more resources a spouse provides the greater reproductive freedom his mate can have. Mates who can successful produce resources for their children can offer their mate’s the choice of producing more offspring. This effect would be reversed for a mate who could barely provide for his partner and child since additional children would strain what little resources were available in the first place.

Ancestral men lived in hunter gather societies that prescribed rank on individuals as hierarchies existed. Those who enjoyed the highest rank also received the best benefits and had the freedom to distribute these benefits to their mates. Women who express a preference for men of higher status seek to reap the benefits of a mate who will share these resources with her. In turn men are often seen in society as expressing a desire to  achieve high status in the form of their careers. High powered careers also require extensive educational backgrounds. Women who look highly at women with careers that generate status are ensuring that their mate has resources and is intelligent.

Society still prescribes status to people who achieve great feats in careers and lifestyles. Titles are presented to those in the armed forces and within the medical career to be used in and out of their profession. It carries with it a form of identity that extends into the world and is often placed under scrutiny by others. Men seek out high leveled positions of authority to show their power which yields a command over resources. These can take the form of college degrees from Ivy League colleges and upper management positions within large corporations. These are visible cues which tell potential mates that they have ready and willing access to resources which can be focused on a mate and her future offspring. Men who lack such credentials tend to over exaggerate their careers and available resources in an attempt to impress a nearby mate. “Statistics say men lie five times more often than women. Men are going to tell you they’re richer, stronger, taller and more important than the next guy to win your affections” (Oakes). In the animal world males also go through elaborate displays such as brightly colored feathers, puffed out chests, intense rivalry fights and acrobatic feats to show their superiority. One can consider the grand gesture of over exaggerating a similar attempt at showing off. This as become so common that women share a general knowledge to their female kin and close female friends in an attempt to educate on ways to vigilantly watch for clues that detect a lying male. For men, the idea of lying successfully to attract females has turned into an art and recreational sport. Both magazines and television set-up acceptable cultural stereotypes for men to follow utilizing successfully deceive women. A select few of men who preform this task so well regardless of the female targeted are known today as “players.” These men play with their words in order to deceive women into thinking they wish to form a monogamous relationship. 

In order for a women to devote herself to having the children of her spouse she needs to know that her spouse will be committed to her. A monogamous relationship is important for a women and her child as it ensures that a man’s resource’s will not be compromised on another. People who are dependable and show stability are preferred over mates that do not. Ancestral times were filled with predators and dangerous circumstances such as uncontrollable climates and plagues. When a man was not dependable neither was his resources. In turn the female and her children suffered as a result. “In human ancestral times women, who chose stable, dependable men had a greater likelihood of ensuring the man’s ability to acquire and maintain resources for use by them and their children. Women who made these wise choices avoided many of the costs inflicted by undependable and unstable men.” (Etcoff, pg 34) Modern stability provides women with a reflection of a man’s future actions. Females hope a man who is stable and is consistent in his actions will be a steady mate. This is important because a women only benefits from a mate when he is attentive and devoted. If a mate decides to leave and pursues an alternative mate the woman will suffer the consequences of abandonment if she is pregnant. By ensuring a man’s stability she is predicting his faithfulness as her future partner and father to their children.

Women are constantly looking towards the future and require mates that seek to invest their time and energy into a relationship. The qualities they found valuable in a mate reflect the modern woman’s needs as a caregiver for her potential role as a mother. These needs were determined overtime as our ancestors expressed preferences through their mate selection. Today these preferences have shaped our culture and have defined the way males shape their lives in order to attract females. Today the financial success of a male is the ancestral equivalent of resources. Money is the modern day currency that can be exchanged for various resources. A mate with copious amounts of money is in a better position to care for a spouse with children and therefore becomes a more desirable mate. Is it any coincidence that certain professions are noted for being male dominated? Men are simply trying to ensure their status as a dominate provider in the eyes of potential female mates. Certain jobs such as surgeons and doctors give men both copious amounts of resources and a respectable status image. Status can generate even more resources to a man’s mate and benefit her children.

The evolutionary roots of mating preferences will always stem back to the cultures of our prehistoric ancestors. Even though today culture and our own conscious would seem to free humanity from ancestral preferences this is still not the case. Mating selection preferences have been universally discovered and are a characteristic of our species. The concept of love is not the mentality of mating. Love falls into an area of ideas and infatuation but mating is a form of strategic problem solving that proves the process of mate selection is never entirely random. Sexual strategies available now were the tools of our successful ancestors who where able to mate. Since we are the products of their strategies we continue to select mates that fit our ancestors criteria's.

Works Cited

Buss, David M. Dangerous Passion Why Jealousy Is As Necessary As Love and Sex. Darby: Diane Pub Co, 2000. Print.

Buss, David M. The Evolution of Desire Strategies of Human Mating. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Print.

Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the Prettiest The Science of Beauty. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.

Oaks, Simon. "First Encounters." Baby-Boomer Women: Articles on Health, Beauty, Family, Relationships, Money |. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <>.

Tallis, Frank. Love Sick Love as a Mental Illness. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2004. Print.

Thornhill, Randy, and Steven W. Gangestad. The Evolution of Desire Strategies of Human Mating. Oxford UP, 2008. Print.  MERGEFIELD First


Paul Grobstein's picture

mating strategies, love, and evolution

"Since we are the products of their strategies we continue to select mates that fit our ancestors criteria's."

Maybe not only because of unconscious "mating strategies" but also unconscious influences on "love"?  Maybe there is something to be said for starting out with the wisdom of our ancestors?  And maybe we can both make use of and transcend that?