A Gene’s Eye View of The Gender Dance. Making Babies: Will My Genes Be Carried On?

None of your direct ancestors died childless. Think about that for a moment. It’s obvious that your parents had at least one child. Your mother’s parents and your father’s parents had children. If we could look backward and trace our ancestors as far back as we could go, we would find an unbroken chain of reproductive success.

We all know people today who don’t have children. However, that was not the case with any of our direct ancestors. Over a period of 5 million years, not one of our family members dropped the ball. We are a product of their reproductive success and you can bet that what it takes to pass on our genes to the next generation is built into our attitudes, desires, and behaviors. From an evolutionary perspective, whatever contributes to our genetic success makes us feel good. Whatever stands in the way of our evolutionary success makes us feel irritable, angry, and depressed.

Although our current research on the genome gives the impression that humans are increasingly in charge of our evolutionary future, it is a valuable exercise to look at humans “through the eyes of the gene.” Richard Dawkins was the first to make this view explicit. In his book The Selfish Gene, he says “No matter how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your life, not one jot will be passed on to your children by genetic means. Each new generation starts from scratch. A body is the gene’s way of preserving the genes unaltered.”

From a gene's perspective, it is less important whether we survive to a ripe old age, than whether we reproduce. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory, called this process "sexual selection." The idea that reproduction was the key to understanding why we do what we do was ignored for many years after Darwin's death and has only recently come back into vogue. "Its principal insight," says Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, "is that the goal of an animal is not just to survive but to breed. Indeed, where breeding and survival come into conflict, it is breeding that takes precedence; for example, salmon starve to death while breeding. And breeding, in sexual species, consists of finding an appropriate partner and persuading it to part with a package of genes."

The basic reality of sexual selection helps us understand a good deal about men and the Irritable Male Syndrome. We often wonder why it is young men, more often than young women, who take risks that put their lives in danger. An important reality is that during these key reproductive years it is the males who must compete against other males for access to the females. Whether he is a bull moose or a bull headed 20 year-old, he is willing to fight other males or take risks in order to have the best chance of having sex with the most attractive female he can find.

At the other end of the age spectrum it helps us understand why older men more often leave their partners or have affairs than do older women. Rarely do these older men hook up with a woman the same age as their wives. It’s almost always with a younger woman. Why? From an evolutionary perspective a person’s success is measured, not by their bank account or the value of their car, but by the number of children they are able to bring into the world and who grow up enough to have children of their own.

Have you ever watched Dr. Phil, the psychologist who became famous on Oprah Winfrey’s show? One of his favorite answers to women who ask “why does he do that?” (Usually the “that” has to do with some way in which the man is treating the woman badly.) Dr. Phil’s answer is often an in-her-face “Because he can.” What he usually means is that he does it because she lets him get away with it.

In the world of evolution “because he can” means “because he can produce children.” There is a reality that most 50-something couples don’t deal with directly. She is post-menopausal and cannot produce more children. He, on the other hand, has the biological potential to have more kids. If he continues to be stay with his 50 year-old wife, his genetic potential is limited. If, on the other hand, he finds a 35 year-old or a 25 year-old to have sex with him, his genetic success can be increased.

Remember, this does not occur on a conscious level. Few men say to themselves, “I’d like to increase the success of my genes, so I think I will leave my 50 year-old wife and date two 25 year-olds with the chance that I might have more children to carry my genes.” More often it expresses itself as “I love my wife, but we just don’t have the old spark we used to. We fight all the time and she just doesn’t like to do the things that I like to do. And, well, there’s this woman who I work with….”

Let me be very clear here. I’m not saying that because men have a genetic urge to leave their wives or have affairs with younger women that this is a good thing. I’m not saying that we are prisoners of our genes and that we have no power to decide what is right or wrong. I am saying that our biological urgings to reproduce and pass on the most genes to the next generation is powerful. If we are not aware of the strength of these desires we will have less success controlling them.

Remember, too, that for every older man who hooks up with a younger woman, there is a younger woman who wants to connect with an older man. As we will discuss later in the chapter, men have a biological attraction to young, attractive females because they have the best chance of producing children. Women have a biological attraction to successful men with resources available to share with them and their children (These are often older men who have had a chance to become successful in the world).

Yet, biology is not destiny. Older men don’t have to leave their wives and have affairs. Younger women don’t have to go after the husbands of those older wives. We all can choose, but the choices aren’t always easy.

Are you one of the people like me who has a hard time keeping your weight under control? I do well until I see the candy, cake, pies, or pudding. I can’t resist. Why is it so difficult for us? Evolutionary biology can help us understand our desire for sweets and other strong urges. It tells us that for most of our 5 million year ancestral history, sweets and fats were scarce. Those who learned to find the most and eat what they found were the most successful and passed on their genes to the next generation.

The problem today is that we still have the same biology, but now sweets and fats are everywhere. If we followed our biological urgings all of us would be 400 pounds and unable to walk. My point is that we can and do control our evolutionary desires, but it isn’t easy.

The knowledge of how difficult it is can help us be more successful. Whether we want to understand why we overeat, why young men take such high risks, why Viagra is the most successful drug of our times, why men stray, or why we are so irritable, we need to understand our evolutionary history and how our genes act on our minds, bodies, and actions.

We may not like the ways our genes influence us, but we better pay attention to their pull. “Genes never sleep,” say Drs Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, two experts on genetic influences and authors of Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food—Taming Our Primal Instincts. “Instead of a blissful ‘they got married and lived happily ever after,’ gene fairy tales end with offspring and more offspring—any way the genes can get them.”

©2010 Jed Diamond

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Wealth can't buy health, but health can buy wealth. - Henry David Thoreau


Jed Diamond is the internationally best-selling author of seven books including Male Menopause, now translated into 17 foreign languages and his latest book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing. The 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. For over 38 years he has been a leader in the field of men's health. He is a member of the International Scientific Board of the World Congress on Men’s Health and has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network since its founding in 1992. His work has been featured in major newspapers throughout the United States including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. He has been featured on more than 1,000 radio and T.V. programs including The View with Barbara Walters, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, CBS, NBC, and Fox News, To Tell the Truth, Extra, Leeza, Geraldo, and Joan Rivers. He also did a nationally televised special on Male Menopause for PBS. He looks forward to your feedback. E-Mail. You can visit his website at

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