WASHINGTON — What do you want in a mate? If you're a free-thinking, independent, feminist woman in a relatively egalitarian society, you might want all kinds of things: a guy with a sense of humor, maybe, or who likes to cook exotic foods.
And if you're not overly familiar with certain annoyingly persistent theories of mate selection, you'll be surprised to find out that you're looking for all the wrong qualities, evolutionarily speaking. You're supposed to want someone stronger, smarter and richer than you. Someone who would sire healthy offspring and protect them from saber-toothed cats on the Pleistocene Epoch savanna.
And if you're a free-thinking, independent, feminist man in a relatively egalitarian society, you might not realize that you are supposed to prize youth, fertility and chastity (a woman who will birth all those babies you're supposed to protect and let you know they're really yours) over quirky taste in movies or a love of travel.
There's nothing inherently wrong with evolutionary psychology — our thoughts and behaviors have been shaped by millions of years of hominid evolutionary history, and it's worth studying how natural selection acted on traits that we still express today. But too often, evolutionary psychology is a force for social conservatism. Researchers identify a pattern of behavior, usually some stereotypical sex difference (in part because it's easy to measure whether men and women score differently on a standardized test), construct a scenario in which that behavior would have been adaptive in the distant past, and say the behavior is therefore evolutionarily selected and encoded in our genes.
David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas, is the worst. He has theorized that women are jealous of pretty rivals and men are jealous of rich ones, that men prefer more sexual variety than women do, that women need to trap a mate and men are motivated to sleep around — and attributes all of these traits to our genetic makeup. Also, you may think your opposite-sex friends are just friends, but he thinks you're fooling yourself. And he's a big proponent of the idea that men and women are seeking fundamentally different qualities in a mate. Because, he says, of evolution — and that's the problem.