The mating market — a mindboggling mess

“We are not a classic pair-bonded species. We are not a polygamous, tournament species either…. What we are, officially, … is a tragically confused species.” (Robert Sapolsky)

The first two decades of the 21 century have come and gone and while dating has never been completely effortless, the mating market is in a mindboggling mess like never before. One might think with no forced marriages, a relatively liberal ideology and dating websites finding a partner should be easier than ever before. The opposite is true. It looks like Tinder and co. make finding the soulmate not easier, but harder than ever before.

One obvious problem is the paradox of choice. The more choice the harder to choose. In small hunter-gatherer bands (30–50 member), in which the majority of people were not part of the potential mates (too old, young, or simply to closely related) mate choice was fairly restricted and after having tried out two or three partners, you generally could be pretty certain who was the best partner for you. There are literally no singles in hunter-gatherer societies — by the time girls are grown-up they have a partner and biological reproduction begins. If you have millions of mates to choose from, when is the optimal number of trying out reached and it is best to settle down? For some people obviously never.

Adding to the confusion is that some people have far more sexual partners than in the past, whereas more and more males are becoming incels and more and more women are deciding to remain single. An estimated 50% of American single females have resigned and decided to stay out of the mating market.

In order to understand the current mess, we have to understand our evolutionary roots. Societies have changed, human nature has not. The most common form of partnership nowadays is serial monogamy, which is effectively a form of polygamy. The most common form of marriage in ancient egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies was monogamy, polygamy was more common in highly stratified farmer (e.g. Zulus) and herder (e.g. Datooga) societies, as polygamy relies heavily on unequal wealth distribution. We have, to a large extent, inherited our ancestors evolved temperaments: forager, farmer and herder. Of course, nowadays we are very much a mixed society, but the phenomenon of assortative mating made sure that people often have strong tendencies towards one of these three types. Farmer types tend to attract women with money, herder types with muscles and the best that hunter-gatherer types, who generally don’t play mating games, have to show off: a PhD. diploma.

The biggest losers in the mating games nowadays are kind gatherer type males (think Ed Sheeran, who fortunately made it) and highly intelligent hunter type females, who seem to be in low demand on the mating market (think Hillary Clinton).

The biggest losers in this game are also the children. The system produces more cads than dads and the Western World is following America in the “Father Crisis”. Fewer and fewer children are growing up with a father by their side, and those who do often barely see them as they are away making money for the family. Famer types are the ones who still have children, but herder and hunter-gatherer types are having fewer and fewer. Herder types often lack children due to commitment problems and hunter-gatherer types often due to prioritizing self-actualization. Hunter-gatherers practise alloparenting (it takes a village to raise a child) and it is typically hunter-gatherer type females who struggle most with bearing all the burdens of child-rearing. My hunch is that most cases of postpartum depression are female hunter-gatherer types who lack a strong social network. Cases of postpartum depression have been soaring during the Covid lockdown. Also, hunter-gatherer females are the ones who are most likely to remain single mothers after divorce, whereas farmer and herder type females have the tendency to reassemble quickly into patchwork families.

Last, but not least, the growing qualifications of women leave many men out of the mating market. The more status-oriented farmer and herder type females certainly do not want to marry beneath their status, and the more sapiosexual hunter-gatherer female find it hard to marry beneath their level of education. The biggest problems for women is to get their desired mates to commit. In a sexually liberally society, where sex is easy to have and cheap to buy (pornography and prostitution) there are increasingly fewer incentives for men to commit.

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Originally published at on December 8, 2020.