Well, what a surprise: scientists are drawing grand evolutionary conclusions about gender again. Only now, they're using cell phone data. New research conducted by Oxford University analyzed 1.95 billion cell phone calls and 489 million text messages to study how men and women use communication to drive relationships. Researchers say they've found that women, in particular, drive the process of finding a mate and producing the next generation.
It seems obvious enough. Women like to talk. Women like to talk on the phone. Women like to talk on the phone with their friends about their relationships. These might be some big stereotypes, but the researchers argue their findings actually help undermine misconceptions about who's in charge.
"There has been a view in anthropology that the ancestral state for humans is a form of patriarchy, and I'm not sure that that's true," says University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar, an author of the study.
According to the conclusions the study's extensive data, it's women who are running the evolutionary show. Scientists drew this conclusion after following cell phone communications from men and women over a seven-month period. An article in Scientific American explains what they found:
"The researchers expected to find "homophily," or the tendency for an individual to pick a friend like him or herself. Instead, it seems that romance trumps other forms of friendship: The data revealed that an individual's best friend, particularly in one's 20s and 30s, happens to be someone of the opposite sex and a similar age. In addition, striking differences exist in how men and women communicate with their presumed romantic partner."
Sisters before misters, I think not. So how does that translate into women running the evolutionary show? Well, researchers also found that after age fifty, women refocus on friendship and communicate most with women who are a generation younger than them. Read: their daughters. Cue the broad evolutionary conclusions:
"Putting together the strong preference in women for first a man and then a daughterlike figure, the researchers conclude that biology shapes female behavior, which in turn affects men. Dunbar suggests that women initiate and prioritize the relationship with a romantic partner earlier in life than men, an action that gradually leads men to reciprocate. This relationship remains top priority throughout the average woman's childbearing years. After that, she turns her attention to supporting the next generation of women as they approach childbearing."
Now, normally, I might not be so skeptical of a study like this, since I'm sure there's a lot of truth to it. But right now, I'm reading the amazing Sex at Dawn, which has a beef with this kind of evolutionary science. This book exposes the way science has been used to make flawed conclusions about gender and sex since even before Darwin, and, in lots of ways, how it ends up screwing us all over in the long run.
We tend to look to science to reinforce not necessarily substantiated ideas about gender and sex. Look at any women's magazine and they'll use evolution to remind you that it's "natural" for women to want to lock down a mate, and for men to want to spread their seed. Or in the case of this study, for women to care about having sex when they're fertile, and about their daughters when they're old and dried up. Stay critical, sex-positive readers.