Marriage Negotiation: Of Chimp and Man

We human beings are close evolutionary cousins of the apes, closest of all to the chimpanzee and the bonobo. But economist Paul Seabright explains in his new book, “The War of the Sexes,” that male-female relationships differ from ape relationships. Squared Away asked Seabright to explain how evolution shapes financial negotiations between marriage or other partners. It all comes down to competition and cooperation, he says.

Q: Human behavior is determined by evolution?
Seabright: Yes. When Charles Darwin wrote “Origin of Species,” he was very, very cautious about saying too much about human behavior, because it was such a big thing to get people to swallow [that] we’d descended from animals. To talk about how human behavior was physically shaped, he didn’t do that until he wrote “The Descent of Man.” My book takes up the question of how much relations between men and women in modern society are shaped by our great ape inheritance.

Q: What is our evolutionary connection to the chimpanzee?

Seabright: The chimpanzee and the bonobo are like our two cousins. We share grandparents with them, a species that no longer exists, and all of us share great grandparents with gorillas. But we [humans] did this funny thing, which is we went into having kids who took much longer to raise. That’s relevant to financial behavior, because we have to look out for the future including the future of our kids, and there’s something especially human about that. Other species look after their kids, of course, but it’s a much bigger deal for us.

Q: How do chimps raise their young?

Seabright: Mother does the work and father doesn’t contribute to the kids, except for occasional food, because they’re in a long-term commitment – instead, they take care of kids to get sex. But humans, in all sorts of ways, have engaged in negotiation to make adults invest over longer periods of time. That’s where cooperation and financial planning comes in.

Q: Can you explain?
Seabright: Financial relationships are the practical way in which we modern humans realize something prehistoric that humans had to work out long and painfully: Our kids are so helpless for so long that they need some kind of commitment from the adults all around them. This isn’t necessarily a story about pair bonding. It doesn’t mean the father has to be the main provider, though he could be. It means the mother of an infant has to put together a coalition of other adults, other women, grandparents, the child’s biological father, or other men – but she can’t do it on her own.

Q: Despite our modern times, men often seem dominant in financial relationships. What is going on?
Seabright: How dominant men have been has changed according to the nature of the economic system. In agricultural societies, men could be very dominant because women don’t need much autonomy if they’re weeding the fields and planting seeds. Most of what we think of as traditional societies are agricultural societies, so we think of women’s roles as very subservient. In hunter gatherer societies, they weren’t subservient. Going out to forage isn’t like weeding fields – it requires autonomy, intelligence, flexibility. You have to understand your environment and be shrewd enough about gathering up plants. The modern economy is much more like a forager society than like a farming society.

Q: How are male-female relationships – including financial ones – in conflict and cooperative?
Seabright: The conflict and the cooperation are intimately linked. This comes from the fact that if the relationship works, we can do really well, but if it breaks down we each do much worse. Divorce is really bad news for families. If a household splits up, and they’re living in separate households, it’s more expensive, not to mention the emotional distress for all concerned. Divorce is sometimes a better option than staying together dysfunctionally, but when it happens, it’s costly to the kids and partners. So most partners understand that you tend to stick with the relationship even if it’s not perfect. It’s selfish for me to insist on a perfect relationship, because the alternative is worse.

But there are big risks here. If you put up with things that are okay without being perfect, and you feel that your partner hasn’t been willing to do that, you can have the impression that your willingness to compromise has been exploited, and you get even madder.

Q: What illustrates this better than household finances?
Seabright: Right. Some spending decisions you make together. But a lot are implicitly made by one partner or the other. The wife might say, “That car you bought is too expensive. Because you want to show off to your friends, we have less as a family.” Or he might say, “Those shoes are ridiculously expensive.” Supposing instead she thinks, “I just love those shoes but I can’t do that because he’ll think that’s incredibly extravagant and not justified since we’re scrimping to save for a family vacation.” And then two weeks later, he buys a really fancy gadget and has some ridiculous story about why it’s important to his work. [She thinks], “I didn’t buy those shoes, and you waste money on this!” These conflicts can appear to start over something trivial, but they get out of hand because what’s really going on is that the parties are thinking of themselves as being exploited for their willingness to compromise. Conflict goes back to our evolution, because this big project of trying to raise a family together shapes a lot of what we do.

Q: Do you find it’s still hard for people get their heads around the fact that our behavior is, like animals, shaped by evolution?
Seabright: I agree. I find studying biology makes me have huge respect for these animals. What I learn about chimps and bonobos is that these are immensely sophisticated creatures. Reflecting on the fact that humans are animals doesn’t make me respect humans less. It makes me respect animals more.

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