Fidelity, Language And The Con

Throughout those sections of the animal world where the males expend a lot of energy on raising the young, they put an equivalent amount of work into avoidance of cuckoldry. Male swallows, for example, never let the females out of their sight. Contrariwise, wherever there is a high risk of cuckoldry, the males take little care of their young. To put it another way, the higher the paternity confidence, the more of their energy budget males devote to parenting at the expense of new matings; and the lower their paternity confidence, the more of their energy budget they sink into the “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” mode of reproduction.

There is no particular reason why human males should behave differently, since they face the same decisions about how to invest their overall energy. What is peculiar to our species is the way language impacts these decisions. Richard Wrangham, for example, has suggested that one of the driving forces behind the evolution of human language is the need for a husband to inform his wife that he is aware of what the community is saying about her fidelity, or lack thereof, during his absences. On the other side, language now allows females to browbeat the males in an attempt to convince them that it is very wicked of them even to desire paternity confidence, and even more wicked of them to take steps to achieve it. Females, they are saying, should be trusted absolutely, even while proclaiming their right to absolute liberty. This is, of course, a female reproductive strategy designed to have it both ways: free selection of sperm donors combined with social intimidation of the non-donors into doing the work of child-rearing.

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