Sex & Power: Battle of the Daves
David Buss on mating, Davids Graeber & Wengrow on money
David Buss, evolutionary psychologist on mating strategies, claims men are wired to seek multiple partners who are as young and fertile as their social status allows. But why do young women mate with them? To answer that, I consult anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow on the Yanomami of Venezuela, the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, and the Wendats of Canada. They show that sexual liberty was the norm when women owned the economic resources and money was just a plaything used for status, political apologies, and gambling.
On Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast, he interviewed David Buss, who founded the field of evolutionary psychology. Buss focuses on the evolutionary origins of mate selection, infidelity, mate poaching, and mating emotions like lust and jealousy. He’s written The Evolution of Desire, Why Women Have Sex, When Men Behave Badly, and The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex.
One of the influences he mentioned was psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. For both Buss and Pinker, life for our ancestors was ‘nasty, brutish and short,’ until civilized society began around five thousand years ago with the advent of cities, states and government. Since they were given a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, implies Pinker, things have been getting less violent overall. For Buss, those 5000 years lengthened our life spans, gave us access to medicine and food that created population booms, yet left us with a monkey brain in charge of our unconscious reproductive strategies.
I happened to be reading a book that starts out by debunking Pinker called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It’s a decade long conversation between anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow. Graeber, who is the primary influence on my own book, How to Dismantle an Empire, died three weeks after they finished writing their book, in September of 2020. One of my viewers, Jack Sirius, said he was reading my book and Graeber’s simultaneously and they made great companion pieces, like two connect-the-dots pictures overlaid, and that the least mystical thing he could say was that we both seemed to be cut from the same cloth. I think this might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.
As Wengrow says about Graeber in the foreword, he’s much more than an anthropologist. His magnum opus was Debt: the First 5000 Years, and it changed everything I thought about money. He also wrote Bullshit Jobs and The Utopia of Rules. He was credited with coining the phrase, ‘We Are the 99%’ at Occupy Wall Street although, speaking as a true anarchist, he says it was a group effort. I guess that would be “he said.” I keep forgetting to put him in the past tense.
So let’s revive David for one more convivial debate of the Daves. First, let’s define the question. Did the current state of relationships between the sexes evolve from nature or is it a reflection of the “nurture” of money and its power dynamics? Is it evolution or social distortion? Is it a ‘better angel of our nature’ or a devil in the details? So to begin, what is the current state of binary-gendered sexual relationships?
Dismal, from Buss’s account. The birth rate is down, marriages are down, and sex itself isn’t happening so much. Pornography is something in which most men engage. As is chronicled in the excellent book, Facebooking the Anthropocene in Raja Ampat, that’s a worldwide phenomenon, although Buss hastens to add that he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Testosterone and sperm counts have shrunk, along with penis size, but erectile dysfunction Viagra has solved the problem as long as you value form over function: sex as recreation rather than reproduction.
Buss ascribes the mating behavior of men to an evolutionary urge leftover from the caveman brain driven to propagate his seed as widely and fruitfully as possible. That’s why men with more resources, prestige and social status—that which makes life worth living, in his words—are attracted to young women who are more fertile.
He gives Leonardo di Caprio as an example; as he’s aged, his wives and partners continue to be in their early 20’s. To Buss, this has nothing to do with the penis-brain being stuck in adolescence. Nor is it a lack of mirrors, my own theory for why men over 50 see themselves as if they’re in their 20’s. Instead, it’s just the monkey brain that wants babies, babies, babies staring back at them with their very own simian eyes.
Surely the connection between sex and reproduction is more evolved in women? Only in the sense that their investment is higher, since they have to carry and nurse their infants—after which, presumably, they’re on their own. So while men are driven to have multiple partners, increasing their sperm’s biological chances, women choose quality over quantity. And what are those qualities? Resources, prestige and social status. These give their offspring a better chance of survival.
What about women who have their own resources and prestige, do they mate with twenty-somethings? Buss says no, and uses the example of actresses whose physical attractiveness has given them status and choices. They use their resources to improve their offspring’s genetic mashup. No other examples of successful women came to Buss’s mind.
So when men want sex with college co-eds, it’s because “my monkey brain made me do it.” But even when women have sex, it’s not because they want sex. According to his book by that title, it’s to keep the breadwinner bringing home the bread, to boost their own self-confidence, to get him to wash the dishes, or to get rid of a migraine. For Buss, no book is needed for why men have sex—it’s self explanatory, if it wasn’t for social pressure, they’d bonk a half-dozen attractive young things walking down the street. That’s because men have sex to reproduce, obvi.
But for women, they have sex in order to get something other than sex. That’s where conflict, competition and manipulation comes in—things Buss says pervade human sexuality. Boys just wanna have fun (and make babies) while girls are genetic grifters who also wanna grab the resources.
Now, when Buss uses the term resources, it makes it sound like an oil rig or a bean field, but he’s really talking about money. He admits that women don’t compete to mate with the janitor, no matter how his 23 and me shapes up or how resourceful he is.
Buss also sees online dating as a genetic bonanza, allowing for the meet ‘n greet of sperm and ova from halfway around the world. But when he pictures the Bangkok or Sao Paulo hookup with the paunchy stockbroker, does he really think that no money is exchanged? The question isn’t really why middle-aged men want to have sex with 20-somethings, it’s why those women would have sex with them. That’s where we need anthropology to give us answers.
In The Evolution of Desire, Buss gives examples from 37 cultures, one of which is the Yanomami of Venezuela, also studied by Pinker as his example of the violent savage. According to the Davids, Graeber and Wengrow, the Yanomami aren’t statistically more violent than other American tribes but a book on them called The Fierce People sealed their reputation. How does this affect the primordial “battle of the sexes” and whether Western Civilization has made love and life better, as Buss and Pinker claim?
To Team-David, the only way to test that theory is by looking at people who’ve experienced both and have a choice. Pinker briefly mentions a “white girl” who was abducted by the Yanomami in 1932 and he quotes her account of a violent raid. The Davids present her in more context as Helena Valero, who married twice within the tribe but chose as an adult to return to her family in Brazil. There she says she experienced occasional hunger and constant dejection and loneliness. She returned to the Yanomami with whom she lived out the rest of her life.
The Davids present accounts I’d read before by Ben Franklin showing this wasn’t unusual. He writes that when Indian children raised by the colonists went on just one “Indian ramble” with their relatives, there was no persuading them to return. Likewise when white persons of either sex were taken prisoner young by the Indians, even when ransomed, they would run away back to the Woods at the first opportunity. The Davids summarize the choice by saying:
‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.
In 1609 a French missionary in Nova Scotia reported that he was having little success converting the Mi’kmaq because they observed:
You are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.
Later that century, the Jesuits wrote about the Wendat nation in modern day Canada. They found the sexual equality and freedom particularly scandalous and were convinced the women were out to seduce them. But even more scandalous was the lack of authority—a child need not obey their father, a wife her husband, and even the chief “couldn’t compel anyone to do anything they didn’t wish to do.”
There were also no laws they needed to obey but the Jesuits had to admit that the Wendat system of justice worked. If a wrong had been done, the clan paid gifts to the offended party, to appease retaliation. Each person added what they chose, and it was a matter of honor for someone to give more. So relatives kept their kin under control and the offender was emotionally indebted to those who paid, while it created bonds of sympathy and forgiveness between clans. This is a model worth keeping in mind when we look at how to reinvent our system of justice.
But the most important difference between Western and indigenous societies, for this theme of sex and power, was in their conception of money. In my YouTube episode The Story of Money, I talk about David Graeber’s research into the origins of coinage and how debt and taxes turned conquest into a self-perpetuating machine with everyone either contributing to a military enslaving their neighbors or becoming enslaved themselves. Debts required the debtor to sell his wife, his children or himself into servitude, when all else failed.
The Wendat distinguished money or wampum from economic resources like land, which I define in my book as wealth, not money. Land was owned by families and worked by women, with their products stored and distributed by women’s collectives. Wampum was made of strings of beads made from shells. It was used by men politically as gifts to appease for wrongdoing or as generosity to a visitor. Women used them for gambling, of which they were quite fond.
But the Davids emphasize, there was no way to use money or wealth to make others work for you. And so, to the outrage of the Jesuits:
… women were considered to have full control over their own bodies, and that therefore unmarried women had sexual liberty and married women could divorce at will. … The ‘wicked liberty of the savages,’ one insisted, was the single greatest impediment to their ‘submitting to the yoke of the law of God.’
Or women submitting to the yoke of the law of men. The Wendat evolved from the same cave man monkey genes as we have, so perhaps the statesman with lots of wampum desired women half his age but there’s no evidence that this was reciprocated and it couldn’t be compelled by withholding the means of sustenance. Perhaps strings of wampum could be exchanged but the man would lose in status what the woman gained in tokens for gambling.
If nature can be eliminated as a reason young women mate with men of “status,” what about nurture or the lack thereof? In our “culture”—a word I use loosely—it is impossible to raise a child without a steady supply of money. Money is required for shelter, food, healthcare, transportation, heat, light, communication, education, clothing, entertainment. As a single mother, you’re on your own with no community to support you while you support your child. If we were evolved to live this way, none of us would be here.
What David Buss gets right, and is self-evident, is that evolution is reproduction, the two terms are redundant. But it’s a sorry statement for men if they haven’t evolved beyond impregnating as their goal. The nurture of the next generation is the purpose of any species evolved beyond squid, whose males use the shot-in-the-dark strategy of mating with anything with eight arms, including other male squid.
We need to catch up to the 17th century Wendat and put the wealth back in the hands of women, to be passed on through the matriarchal lineage, preserving the means of self-reliance for generations to come. When men go back to hunting and playing politics with tokens that can’t force anyone to work for them, we’ll test whether young women are driven by evolution to mate with rich old geezers.
The Story of Money
Are we seeing the desperate end-times of empire? It's not too soon to start planning the next system we want. But first we need to understand how money began and what it really is. In this episode I explain the second chapter of my book, How to Dismantle an Empire. Called Making a Market for Plunder, it quotes the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber on his book, Debt: the First 5000 Years, and Gil Baile on the justifying myths of violence. I conclude that money, from its inception, was trade in pieces of slave and that coinage coopted us into being shareholders in conquest.
Three Biggest Conspiracies in Plain Sight
Responding to Russell's interview of Edward Snowden, called The Greatest Conspiracies Are In Plain Sight, I give my list of the three biggest conspiracies: tax havens, financial derivatives and money itself. I explain what Mafia techniques are used with tax havens, how one building in Delaware houses 280,000 companies, why the interest rate makes me hot, and who stole the right to make money out of nothing and own your home for free. But to start, I find a common 'rub' between pole dancing, online dating, and capitalism.