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Study Notes

Relationships: Evaluation of The Evolutionary Explanations of Relationships

AS, A Level

This study note explores potential evaluation points on evolutionary explanations of relationships.

Counter-argument: Buss’ study of actual marriages in 29 countries found that men do express marked preference for younger women.

Evolutionary explanations ignore social and cultural influences. For the past 100 years, Western societies have experienced significant changes in terms of gender equality and women’s independence. These changes mean that women in modern Western societies may no longer be looking for a man to provide them with resources; and other qualities in a mate become more important. Scientific research supports this argument: for example, Kasser and Sharma (1999) found in their analysis of 37 cultures that females mostly valued a mate with resources in societies where women’s access to education and workplace was severely limited. This makes evolutionary explanations limited, as they only explain human mates’ choice in terms of evolutionary adaptiveness, ignoring other important factors, such as culture and social norms.

Another criticism of evolutionary psychologists’ claim that women universally prefer high-status and well-resourced men comes from the methodological weaknesses of research to support this claim. Most of the studies into females’ choice of mates were carried out on undergraduate students. As these women were expected to achieve a high education status leading to a secure income, their preference for high-status men may stem from similar interests and prospects, rather than be a search for a resourceful mate. Furthermore, research into evolutionary explanations also may suffer from a problem of validity, in terms that it measures expressed partner preferences rather than real-life ones. It is also a retrospective approach, largely based on speculations about what may or may not have been evolutionary adaptive for our ancestors. There is no reliable way to check whether these suggestions are valid.

Yet another criticism of evolutionary explanations is that it is a retrospective approach, largely based on speculations about what may or may not have been evolutionarily adaptive for our ancestors. There is no reliable way to check whether these suggestions are true.

Mate choice may be more complicated than suggested by evolutionary explanations. For example, research by Penton-Voak et al. (1999) suggests that females’ mate preferences change across the menstrual cycle. They found that females preferred a partner with strongly expressed masculine features during their fertile period, but showed more preference for a partner with slightly feminised features as a long-term mate. This may be because masculine appearance suggests a healthier immune system, which would be advantageous to pass to offspring, while slightly feminine features suggest kindness and parental cooperation – very desirable traits in a long-term partner!

Evaluation: Issues & Debates

Evolutionary explanations of relationships suffer from evolutionary reductionism, as they argue that strategies for choosing a mate are the result of genetic inheritance and a striving for reproductive success. However, this is not always as straightforward in real life, where individual differences in partner’s choice play a huge part. For example, evolutionary explanations fail to account for homosexual relationships where choice of partner clearly does not result in reproductive success and so doesn't have an evolutionary advantage.

Likewise, evolutionary explanations of relationships also suffer from determinism, as they seem to claim that choice strategies are determined by a person’s gender, and that humans are attracted to people who will have, provide and/or care for offspring.

Furthermore, evolutionary explanations of mate preference also emphasise the differences in what males and females look for in a potential partner. This exaggeration of the differences between the genders is known as an alpha bias, and the differences between males and females may be overstated. It is plausible to argue that males and females actually look for similar characteristics, such as loyalty and kindness, and such characteristics are not reported in the research, which tends to look for clear differences.

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