Yes, Chicks Dig Jerks
And evolutionary science gives us a good idea why.

Rihanna and Chris Brown in better days


Kevin D. Williamson

Fertility and violence interact in complicated ways: Men are more likely to be violent toward fertile women, and fertile women select men who are more likely to be violent. A study of women’s sexual preferences conducted at St. Andrew’s University (and since replicated) found that in most cases women preferred photos of men whose faces had been digitally altered to make them more feminine — but during ovulation, they reversed their preferences and chose photos of men whose faces had been digitally altered to make them more masculine: “A growing literature has shown that women in the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle demonstrate stronger preferences for men with masculine traits than they do when in the non-fertile phases of the cycle,” the study says. It is well established that high levels of testosterone in men are associated with a number of personality traits: aggression, assertiveness, territoriality — and violence.

The academic literature consistently finds that women cite a handful of reasons for staying in abusive relationships, with love and sex leading the way, and economic necessity and fear of retaliation lagging behind. We ought to do victims of domestic violence the courtesy of treating them like adults and taking them at their word — at least we should if we want to understand the phenomenon rather than tell ourselves a just-so story that reinforces our preexisting worldviews and political preferences.

There is in evolutionary science something called the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, which holds that parents with abundant resources will invest more of them in their sons relative to their daughters, and that parents with fewer resources will invest relatively more heavily in their daughters. Consequently, there are localized variations in sex ratios. Evidence has supported this thesis in many different animals: Deer in good health have more male offspring, while deer in poor health have more female offspring. Dominant female macaques have more sons, while low-ranking macaques have more daughters. The effect holds true among homo sap., too: Rich families have more sons than daughters.

Women suffering domestic violence also have more sons than daughters, which has led some evolutionary psychologists to posit that they stay in abusive relationships because in the ancestral environment — which, as I noted on NPR, was not very much like the campus of Bryn Mawr College — there were advantages to doing so. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology published a fascinating study of this subject by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics. (Mr. Kanazawa, it should be noted, is a controversial scholar.) “Aggression and violence,” he writes, “while they exact enormous physical tolls on the women in the context of spousal abuse, are at the same time important determinants of the outcomes of intrasexual competitions among men, especially in the ancestral environment, where most, if not all, dominance contests were at least partly physical. And women often seek out dominant men of high status as their ideal mates.” He goes on to point out that in studies of polygamous societies, men who have killed tend to have more wives, and that even in the 21st century, testosterone levels correlate with status in organizations such as the U.S. Army. (But not in the U.S. job force: High levels of testosterone correlate negatively with career success in the United States. Corporate America really is full of girly-men. But you knew that.)

All of which is to say that there is good evidence and good theory behind the belief that chicks dig jerks — mildly psychopathic men with lots of testosterone and little empathy. (Or, if you want to take the Richard Dawkins view, chicks’ genes dig jerks.) Those who do will have relatively more sons. And what will those sons be like? It is worth keeping in mind that those traits are heritable.

Liberals generally accept the biological explanation of human sexual behavior in exactly one case: that of homosexuality. But human desire is a stranger and sometimes darker thing than we imagine, and certainly a more complex one. Those who would try to understand it must be willing to ask uncomfortable questions and to entertain uncomfortable answers.

— Kevin D. Williamson will continue the discussion today with Michel Martin on Tell Me More.