Ask a group of friends what their hobbies are.  If you have many young, unmarried friends of both sexes, chances are that many of your female friends would mention traveling as one of their hobbies, while very few of your young unmarried male friends would.  Alternatively, you may find that many of your young single female friends have recently been to a foreign country on a vacation, but few of your young single male friends have.  Why is this?

Or make a completely different observation.  Pay close attention to the news coverage of the most recent Ku Klux Klan rally in the United States or the convention of the British National Party or any other gathering of an expressly xenophobic organization.  You will notice that most participants in such xenophobic organizations are young, unmarried men; there are comparatively few women or older men in the membership of such organizations.  Why?  It turns out that the reasons why more young single women vacation abroad may be the same as why most neo-Nazis are young single men.  It may have to do with a zoological phenomenon called lekking.

Lek is a Swedish word for “play” and refers in zoology to a complex of behavior whereby members of one sex, almost always male, strut and display their genetic quality in a contest, in front of an audience consisting of members of the other sex, almost always female.  At the end of the lek, the females choose the winner and exclusively mate with him.  The winner of lekking monopolizes all of the mating opportunities, and none of the other males get any.

At first sight, humans appear to be an exception in nature.  Among most species, males are gaudy, colorful, decorated, and ornamented, while females are drab in appearance.  (Compare peacocks with peahens.)  Males of lekking species display their physical features in order to attract mates, and females choose their mates on the basis of the males’ physical appearance; the gaudier and more colorful, the better.  In contrast, among humans, it is women for whom physical appearance is more important for their mate value, and it is men who choose their mates mostly for their physical appearance.  And, at least in industrial societies, women tend to be more decorated and ornamented than men are, although men in many preindustrial societies often wear more elaborate ornamentation than do women.

The female of most species in nature does not receive any material benefit from her mates; the male does not make any parental investment beyond the sperm deposited inside the female body during copulation.  This is why the male’s genetic quality is especially important for the female; in fact, nothing else matters.  So among these species, males display their genetic quality in lekking, and the females choose their mates solely on the basis of their genetic quality.

Human males are exceptional in nature in this regard; they make a large amount of material investment in their offspring, even though they don’t make as much parental investment as women do, as I explain in previous posts (Part I, II, III).  This does not mean, however, that their genetic quality is not important to women; men’s genetic quality can predict their future ability to acquire resources and attain status, hence their ability to make parental investment.  For humans, because of high male parental investment, what is important is not the male’s genetic quality per se but his earning potential.  His genetic quality is important only to the extent that it predicts or correlates with his potential to earn and accumulate material resources.

This is why when men lek, they display their earning potential and accumulated wealth in addition to their genetic quality.  And unlike other lekking species, like the sage grouse or the antelope, men lek mostly by nonphysical means.  They drive luxury cars, wear expensive watches and designer suits, carry electronic gadgets like the latest cell phones and PDAs, and brag about their achievements in casual conversations.  Young men also advertise their genetic quality and earning potential by “cultural displays” – excelling in such “quantifiable, public, and costly” activities as music, art, literature, and science.

In one study, for example, researchers covertly observed patrons of a bar in central Liverpool in the late 1990s, when cell phones were still relatively rare and expensive.  The researchers discovered that men’s tendency to place their cell phones on the table in clear view of others, unlike women’s tendency to do the same, increased with the number of men in their group and its ratio of men to women.  The researchers’ interpretation is that men do this, consciously or (more likely) unconsciously, in order to compete with other men in their group for the attention of the women, and to display their wealth and statlus and hence their genetic quality and earning potential.  So men lek via social and cultural, rather than physical, ornamentation.

What in the world does any of this have to do with xenophobia and foreign travel?  I will explain in my next post.

About the Author

Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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