19 July 2010

Sex after dawn: Marriage and natural selection

ResearchBlogging.orgThe book Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, has had a lot of press in the last month—it first popped up on my radar with Eric Michael Johnson's review for SEED, and then it became unavoidable (for me, anyway) when Dan Savage devoted a whole column and podcast to it. The thesis of Sex at Dawn is that early humans were highly promiscuous, and that modern expectations of monogamy are probably not consistent with our biology. I haven't read the book yet, but the discussion surrounding it has largely missed an important detail—human evolution didn't stop when we invented agriculture.

In fact, we've evolved in response to agriculture. My capacity to digest milk proteins at age 28—most other mammals lose this ability as soon as they're old enough for solid food—is the result of natural selection acting on my northern European ancestors. Sex at Dawn coauthor Christopher Ryan acknowledges exactly this, citing the same example, in a recent response to a question on his blog. I'm not aware of a study that documents human evolution in response to marriage customs, but conveniently enough, an article in the current issue of The American Naturalist does show that a population's marital customs can shape its response to natural selection [$a].

Vintage postcard via chicks57.
The intensity and nature of natural selection often varies with age—it's strongest on traits expressed prior to and during the period of life when most reproduction happens, and weaker on traits having to do with life after reproduction is mostly complete.

The new paper examines the effect of marriage on this relationship between age, reproductive activity, and the strength of natural selection. The authors are able to do this thanks to church records of births (via christenings), marriages, and deaths from four Finnish towns during the nineteenth century—a deep multigenerational dataset. The society described is probably as far away from the Sex at Dawn world of communal relationships within hunter-gatherer tribes as Western society has ever gotten—the births recorded are all in the context of monogamous marriages. How monogamous these marriages actually were is debatable; this was also a world before paternity testing. But the study follows women, who would probably have had less opportunity, and certainly had less social leeway, for affairs outside marriage.

Within that society, women's reproductive success depended strongly on their husbands' economic status, as approximated by whether or not they owned land. Women who married landowners married almost three years earlier, on average, than those who married non-landowners (between 24 and 25 years old, compared to 27). Women who married at an earlier age generally had more children survive to age 15, the paper's benchmark for lifetime fitness—and this effect was stronger for women who married landowners.

Vintage wedding portrait via freeparking.
This meant that the intensity of potential natural selection acting on women in the study group peaked around their 30th birthday, declined slowly for around a decade, and then dropped off sharply. By comparison, an estimate of selection intensity based only the women's probability of survival to a given age (i.e., without accounting for the need to marry before having children) just shows a steady decline with age. So marriage customs probably shaped the way natural selection could act on this population. (The comparison made, though, is a pretty facile one. I'd love to know what the intensity of selection looks like under other post-agricultural mating systems like, say, polygyny.)

Does that mean that these nineteenth-century Finns were evolving in response to the strictures of monogamy? Not necessarily. This study only estimates how strong selection would be on a trait relative to the age at which it's expressed. That is, traits that reduced (or improved) a woman's ability to bear children would be more strongly selected against (or favored), if they were expressed while she was between the ages of 30 and 40.

So the fact that marriage customs shape natural selection doesn't mean that we've evolved to be better adapted to current marriage customs than we are to those of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. Marriage customs vary considerably among cultures, and over time—I don't know of any culture that has maintained strict monogamy since the origin of agriculture. Even if a single culture did prefer monogamy that long, natural selection to adapt to that mating system would be working from a pool of genetic variation evolved from hundreds of generations of our earlier polyamorous lifestyle. It doesn't matter how strongly natural selection would favor a perfectly monogamous person, if such a person doesn't exist.

In other words, the key insight of Sex at Dawn—which is also a key insight of evolutionary biology in general—is right: What we can become is shaped by what we used to be. That's certainly an important thing to keep in mind when considering a commitment that lasts till death do you part.

(For example, you might want to makes sure your significant other is of at least the same genus as you. I mean, talk about biological impediments.)


Gillespie, D., Lahdenperä, M., Russell, A., & Lummaa, V. (2010). Pair-bonding modifies the age-specific intensities of natural selection on human female fecundity. The American Naturalist, 176 (2), 159-69 DOI: 10.1086/653668


  1. Thanks for turning me on to that paper. Hope you get/enjoy the book. Would love to read your comments if you do (get it, not necessarily enjoy it!).


  2. Christopher -- Hi! I'm totally flattered you found the post helpful. Sex at Dawn is at the top of my to-read list, and I'll be sure to post some better-informed thoughts when I finally track down a copy.