The Total Package

Is it me? Samwise asks herself. The critical question comes to mind after another ill-fated mating; Titan, a high-ranking male, has just provided her with a loutish four seconds of dis-pleasure, and while his physical appearance is something to be admired, his general demeanor can be much less attractive. Like many of the men who have caught her eye, Titan’s striking features (confidence, masculinity) often lend themselves to ungentlemanly behavior, leaving traits like warmth and intelligence as something to be desired. Oh Samwise, how you represent the struggles of nulliparae everywhere! It would seem that you are destined for a series of puzzle-piece affairs, each of which will satisfy one of your needs yet fall short on another. It’s the perfect material for a quiz one might find in Cosmopolitan magazine: If you answered mostly A’s, you want a mate who is SMART, mostly B’s, a mate who is STRONG. And like reproductive-aged women everywhere, you are left wondering whether the two really are mutually exclusive after all…

In the world of chimpanzees, this answer remains to be seen. Research points out the benefits of being a lunk-headed brute, suggesting that there may be a selective pressure for males to keep up with the “bad behavior”. Not only is force a successful strategy for making it to the top, but it may ensure fruitful relations with females. In fact, it was recently demonstrated that aggression against non-receptive females increases the probability of male paternity [1]. Now for obvious reasons this tactic should not apply to the human world, but as a former frequenter of college bars I have had my fair share of experiences with men who believed (and possibly still believe) that a firm slap to a stranger’s behind could be a successful courting method. Borrowing a response from the chimpanzee world, I would waa bark, and threaten with my arm, and sometimes, for good measure, defecate, before leaving the premises. But what else is to be expected? In many cultural arenas–athletics, for example–we allow brawn to flourish in the absence of brain. Individuals can develop and succeed, both in life and as mates, with strong arms and broad chests, or long legs and washboard abs. Yet there is something to be said for capable bodies, forms that excel at running, or lifting, or other active endeavors. Titan, brutish as he may be, is capitalizing on an ability to out-compete other males in physical contests. He may not be the kindest or most thoughtful male of the bunch, yet he has sired several offspring. But success, in other forms, is a subjective measure, and as far as Samwise is concerned, she’s after more of a Renaissance man.

So enter Pax, the next most eligible chimpanzee bachelor. Listen up ladies, because here is a savvy sophisticate who enjoys tender bouts of grooming and long walks on the beach. Looking for a man with a sensitive side? His best friend is an orphan (Keaton, a young female) and his name literally translates to Peace. Pax survives and thrives in the group with his brains: he is consistently aware of the current alpha, any new up-and-comers, and he tries to saddle up to the most influential individuals in order to ensure a long, harmonious tenure within the group. He is able to predict the behavior of others, a cognitively advanced skill called Theory of Mind, and with such rigorous intellect he is able to maneuver about his social world in the complete absence of brawn. But like many clever politicians, for what he possesses in wits he lacks in balls (seriously, his testicles were severely damaged as a juvenile and in adulthood are virtually absent). Thus his puzzle misses a piece. While mental power is of great importance, if not necessity, in the makings of a good mate, it has little value in the absence of practical application. Specifically, what good is predicting the behavior of others if one cannot make it into the group without being pummeled? Were Samwise to choose Pax as her ideal man, she would forgo a mate who could buffer against aggression during her cycles and foster large, potentially alpha-material offspring. It would be something like pairing with a human male who didn’t know how to grill a good steak. Genteel? Perhaps. Helpful? Not in the least.

Well, Samwise, your fate looks grim. Is would appear that STRONG or SMART truly is a question worth asking, as the males in your group tend to lean towards one or the other. Is it possible that because being  very strong or very smart can provide reproductive advantages, selection acts on only one of these strategies at a time? After all, why cogitate and connive when you can simply throw your weight around? And why get physical with an opponent when he can be defeated with a bit of mental acuity? To be both strong and smart may complicate an already utilitarian approach. But just as Samwise emits a sigh, the unmistakable sound of a woman who has just realized her limitations, a large, handsome male enters the group. Instead of tearing through the crowd in a display of bravado, he walks up to her calmly and sits down. He does a bit of grooming with Titan, thoughtfully subduing any potential outbursts from his rowdy competitor, and later bristles his hair to intimidate two younger males into obedience just as they begin to squabble. Oh Samwise, still your beating heart! It is Ferdinand, the rare blend of strong and smart, and the answer to your prayers. The elusive combo does exist, and not only that, it appears in the group’s alpha male. It looks like you have found the total package– now just remember to make sure that he has a Vonnegut-esque wit and a mock-heroic passion for Bob Seger karaoke.

[1] Feldblum, J.T., et al. (2014). Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. Current Biology 24:2855-2860.

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