Skip to main content

Beefcakes such as Hugh Jackman and Brad Pitt may be the biggest draws at the box office, but in human evolution, alpha males have lost ground, a study suggests.

Back in the days when alpha males had their pick of fertile females, low-ranked "beta males" led a "sexual revolution" by caring for their offspring rather than fighting their way to the top, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pair-bonding replaced promiscuity as females began to choose good providers over chest-pounding males.

Story continues below advertisement

It's the female equivalent of "gentlemen prefer blondes – but they marry brunettes."

Humanity's early social structure was "pretty much what chimpanzees have," says Sergey Gavrilets, a theoretical evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "Alpha males completely dominated everything," he told Cosmos magazine.

Humanity evolved into a largely monogamous society because subordinate males began to offer food and paternal care to gain the affection of females, who actively chose their mates.

"Pair-bonding provided a foundation for the later emergence of the institution of modern family," says Dr. Gavrilets, who created a theoretical model to simulate the evolution of early hominid mating systems.

The social contract went two ways, of course. Males would only provide for a mate who remained faithful, Dr. Gavrilets says. "That creates a co-evolutionary process where both provisioning and faithfulness increase in parallel."

According to his model, the quid pro quo predates human language and culture.

"This model deals with what animal biologists call social instincts and shows that some of these behaviours can be coded in our genes," Dr. Gavrilets says. "Culture came much later and only augmented things that were already in place."

Story continues below advertisement

But not everyone is convinced that ancestral mothers needed a helping hand. Bernard Chapais, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Montreal, calls the study's thesis "extremely unlikely," adding that it's an assumption based on the present-day structure of human families.

He suggests that the transition toward pair-bonding was gradual and probably involved a harem-like phase in which a male bonded with several females – the systems used by gorillas.

Who said mating was romantic?

Do you find that "beta males" win out in the end?

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.