The XX Factor

Don’t Want No Short Short Man

The modern equivalent of blaming Eve for the fall of mankind may be blaming Stone Age societies for today’s gender relations. Sharon Begley has a nice summary of this attitude in her recent Newsweek story on evolutionary psychology:

Men who were promiscuous back then were more evolutionarily fit, the researchers reasoned, since men who spread their seed widely left more descendants. By similar logic, evolutionary psychologists argued, women who were monogamous were fitter; by being choosy about their mates and picking only those with good genes, they could have healthier children. Men attracted to young, curvaceous babes were fitter because such women were the most fertile; mating with dumpy, barren hags is not a good way to grow a big family tree.

So if all of this is true, it should be true for all humankind. It should especially be true in modern hunting and gathering societies. Unfortunately, as Begley details in her article, the evidence rarely bears out the these theories. (I am aware that not all evolutionary psychologist are obsessed with cavemen sex , but here I have chosen sensationalism over dry talk of spandrels . Sorry.)

One of the strongest trends in modern mating is women’s preference for taller males. In post-industrial cultures, there are far fewer women married to men that are shorter than them than would be expected by statistical chance. Are women hard-wired to think that taller men would kill way more giraffes than shorter men, thus providing a luxurious Stone Age lifestyle? How better to test this than to look at a society that actually hunts giraffes?

The Hadza of Tanzania are among the few hunter-gatherer people left on earth. Despite threats from agriculturalists, diminishing game, and an Emirati land grab , the Hadza have maintained their traditional lifestyle. To see if actual hunter-gatherers had height preferences in their mates, Rebecca Sear and Frank W. Marlowe examined mate selection in the Hadza . They also wanted to see if the Hadza married people that had similar physical characteristics to themselves-for example, did tall, thin Hadza marry other tall, thin Hadza?

The Hadza proved to be far less judgemental about height than the Western press . There was no evidence of height preference: About as many women were married to shorter men as would have been expected by random chance. There was also no correlation between the couples’ height, weight, BMI, or percent body fat. Sear and Marlowe concluded that “mating is random with respect to size in this population.”

Why don’t the Hadza care about height? Sear and Marlowe speculated that since the Hadza live in small, homogenous communities, they could make decisions based on the entire health history of a potential partner, obviating the need for height as a proxy of health . Or height might actually be a disadvantage in a food-limited society, since large people require more food. Though this study doesn’t explain why Westerners value male height so highly, it does illustrate the peril of assuming that human preferences are set in Stone Age stone.

Photograph of a tall couple by David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images.