Thursday, 5 September 2013

Parental choice determines mating/ marriage in most historical societies


I have (belatedly) stumbled across the fascinating work of Menelaos Apostolou

which focuses on the evolutionary significance of the (apparent) fact that in most known historical societies (and indeed in much of the world today) it is parental choice (and not the wishes of participants)  that most strongly determines sexual access.


For example in "Sexual selection under parental choice in agropastoral societies" Evolution and Human Behaviour  2010; 31; 39-47, he looks across the data on marriage for different types of society such as hunter-gatherer, animal husbandry (herding), agriculture and different mixtures of these - to discover whether marriage was purely arranged by parents, purely by courtship of prospective spouses - a mixture of parent approval confirmed or vetoed by courtship, or vice versa.

Paper available at:


In all types of societies, the parental choice was a stronger influence on women than men; and the proportion of marriages organized primarily by parental arrangement (with or without courtship) was 65% (agric), 82% (animal), 74% (agric-animal), 54% (mixed H&G) and 56% (H&G).

So, most marriages in all societies are mostly chosen by parents, but this is especially the case for the kind of post-hunter-gatherer, herding and agrarian societies which have increasingly dominated the world over the past ten thousand years, or so.


This means there have been approximately 400 generations (at a rate of 4 generations per 100 years) for human evolution to be shaped by the selection factor of extremely significant parental choice - at least in those parts of the world which have experienced agriculture for the longest.

This in turn implies... well many things!

For a start that many of the signals of attractiveness which draw together men and women in the modern world of almost pure courtship (little influenced by parental preferences) are novel forms of selection.

Further, that humans are not 'well evolved' to choose mates for themselves - in the sense that it has apparently been usual to have marriage partners chosen by parents for as far back in human society as we have the capability to measure.

And finally (for now!) that - to put matters another way - it was the possession of physical and psychological traits that appealed to your future in-laws (and not to your future spouse) which was probably most important in the past; and which therefore shaped human physical and psychological evolution - especially over the past several thousand years.


Note: Level of punishment for female adultery.

Apostolou also looked at the level of punishment when a woman is discovered to have committed adultery. Three levels were coded: No punishment or light punishment; moderate punishments including beating and divorce; severe punishment such as beating to death.

The results are pretty shocking: No punishment or light punishment were found in only 5 out of 54 of these agropastoral societies; while severe punishments for adultery were found in about two-thirds of these societies - a large majority of 35 out of 54.

It is therefore possible/ probable that significant aspects of heritable human psychology were formed in an evolutionary context with respect to female marital infidelity that was extremely different from now; and that contemporary behaviour may therefore be considered a 'mis-match' phenomenon - perhaps due to ancient psychology operating in a modern context for which it is plausibly functionally maladaptive?