Girl Power

Girl Power
Women in Games

Chris Crawford | 1 Nov 2005 11:00
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So, this evolutionary psychology stuff isn't total balderdash. It does a decent job of predicting the kind of play that young males would prefer. Our next problem is to figure out what kind of play females would prefer. To do this, we must identify the specializations forced upon ancestral women.

Hunter-gatherer women did not succeed primarily because of their gathering skills. One of their primary tasks was raising children because, as I wrote earlier, they're the ones with the breast milk. There were many skills required to survive in those days, but one skill that was especially important for females (and not so important for males) was social reasoning. The sad truth, as any modern mother can tell you, is a single mother cannot easily cope with the huge task of raising children alone. Even with all the conveniences of modern life, it's still an onerous job. Imagine just how much more difficult it must have been a hundred thousand years ago, when life was more precarious. A woman back then needed a lot of support to raise her children. Fortunately, she could recruit that support in a number of ways.

The first source of support was her own mother. Although the average life expectancy back then was only in the twenties, if you made it to adulthood, you stood a good chance of living to a ripe old age of 40, or even 50. This raised an interesting theoretical problem for evolutionary theory: Why did women continue to live after they aged after fertility? If she couldn't make babies, why did she continue to live, consuming valuable resources that could be devoted to her descendants? Would this not comprise a selection effect against living beyond menopause? One answer, it turns out, was that older women play a vitally important part in the upbringing of children: They're the grannies. Mom could go off gathering nuts, roots and berries while granny took care of the kids. Granny might not be strong, but she could mind the kids adequately. Her contribution freed up Mom to provide more nutrition for the kids.

The second source of support came from the other women in the little hunter-gatherer band. They had learned that, by pooling their efforts, they could provide better care for their children. A daycare center operated by grannies with one or two lactating mothers on hand could take care of the kids and leave all the healthy young mothers free to gather food. But to make this work, the women had to cooperate. Each babysitting mother had to provide suck to every infant in need; how was an absent mother to know whether her own children were getting their fair share? This required trust, cooperation and effective manipulation of the complex social structure of the female group.

The third source of support was the father. In those days, fatherhood was less secure than it is now. It was impossible for any man to know for certain if any given child was his own. It was not difficult for a woman to obtain fertilization from the guy with the best genes, while obtaining nutritional support from a lesser stud, fooling the cuckold into thinking the child his own. Men who fell for such tricks soon had their genes removed from the gene pool, leaving behind only those men who went to great lengths to ascertain the true paternity of the children they were supporting. This led to the common male obsession with the fidelity of his wife that we see so often today. From the woman's point of view, the problem was to manipulate the male into supporting her children, mostly by convincing him that the kids really were his.

Thus, women had strong selection pressures for their social skills in manipulating the social relationships in their clans. Over the millennia, women were selected for the gene pool based on their ability to mobilize the most nutritional support for their children. Modern-day descendants of these women are highly skilled in sensing the subtle moods of others, calculating their motivations, and determining the best means of turning this understanding to their own advantage. The overall collection of skills is called "social reasoning," and that's what women excel in.

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