The biology and economics of the sex war

Human beings ability to cooperate with each other lies behind our success as a species. But since the skills of coalition-building are essentially for masculine activities notably hunting and warfare they have also been the key to mens subjugation of women.

That was the central message of Professor Paul Seabright when he delivered the 2005 Royal Economic Society Public Lecture on Thursday 8 December in Edinburgh and again on Friday 9 December in London.

Professor Seabrights lecture took his audience through a tour of the many ingenious strategies that males and females have used to manipulate their partners and rivals, from primates to prehistoric humans to modern men and women. He concludes:

Cooperative man was the key to our civilisation but he has used his success to isolate, confine and control the women in his life.

Throughout the animal kingdom, relations between the sexes involve a fascinating mix of conflict and cooperation, and human beings are no exception. In nature, the females of each species control scarce biological resources for access to which males have to compete. Why then have men controlled more economic resources than women, in almost all societies and at almost all periods of history?

Females are defined in nature as the sex whose eggs are scarce relative to the abundant sperm of males. The result is intense competition among males for access to these scarce reproductive opportunities. In response, males of many species including our own have evolved to be, on average, more competitive, more violent and more inclined to take risks than females.

Sometimes this competition is purely among males they compete to be first in the queue to mate with females, who have little choice in the matter. Sometimes the competition is to impress, persuade and charm females, who have a good deal of freedom in choosing among rival suitors.

The lecture looked at evidence suggesting that until quite recently in our evolutionary history, human females had a lot of choice over their mates, and comparative freedom in their social and personal lives. That choice has been progressively eroded since we stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down to farming. Women have been confined and controlled, though to very different degrees in different societies.

Why? The answer, paradoxically, lies in the very capacities that have made for human beings extraordinary economic, social and military success in the modern world our ability to cooperate.

Cooperation on a large scale has been honed by our activities of hunting and making war. These are overwhelmingly masculine activities and the skills that men have developed in these domains has been turned against women, the development of whose coalition-building skills have been much more constrained by the biological and social circumstances in which we evolved.

So what should be womens response? Professor Seabright comments:

Women too need to refine and apply their coalition-building skills. The changing nature of modern industrial production is also raising womens bargaining power the information economy needs women who cooperate with men out of motivation rather than compulsion.

Learning from our biological evolution is the best way to move towards more humane and cooperative relations between the sexes in the 21st century.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam, RES Media Consultant, on 07768-661095 (

The 2005 Royal Economic Society (RES) Public Lecture, The Biology and Economics of the Sex War by Professor Paul Seabright, was delivered at the Royal Society of Edinburgh at 3.30pm on Thursday 8 December and at the Royal Institution in London at 3.30pm on Friday 9 December.

Paul Seabright is Professor of Economics at the University of Toulouse. Before that, he taught at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His book The Company of Strangers: a Natural History of Economic Life, which was on the shortlist for the 2005 British Academy Prize.

Find more papers by Paul Seabright at the EconPapers. Intute: Social Sciences also links to more resources on the issues of gender in economics and Women and Economics.

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