Satoshi Kanazawa

The Scientific Fundamentalist

An evolutionary psychological view

Why male politicians risk everything by having an affair

Posted Mar 11, 2008

Here's an excerpt from our book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters (pp.142-144):

Question: Why do Politicians Risk Everything by Having an Affair (but Only if They are Male)?

On the morning of Wednesday, January 21, 1998, Americans woke up to breaking news. The Washington Post, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, reported the allegation that President Clinton had an affair with a 24-year-old White House intern. On that January morning, as the story unfolded in front of the stunned nation, America and the rest of the world had not yet had an inkling of what was in store: a year-long political scandal which consumed the nation (and the world) and culminated on 19 December with Clinton being impeached by the House of Representatives -- the first elected President ever to be impeached in American history.

While the whole nation was in shock, one woman in Michigan woke up to the news on the morning of January 21, 1998, sipped her coffee while watching the events unfold on TV, smiled to herself, and said “I told you so.” She is the Darwinian historian Laura L. Betzig. For more than 20 years, Betzig has written on the mating behavior and reproductive success of politicians and other political leaders in history. She points out that, while powerful men throughout western history have married monogamously (they had only one legal wife at a time), they have always mated polygynously (they had lovers, concubines, and female slaves). Many had harems, consisting of hundreds and even thousands of virgins. With their wives, they produced legitimate heirs; with the others, they produced bastards (Betzig's term). Genes and inclusive fitness make no distinction between the two categories of children. While the legitimate heirs, unlike the bastards, inherited their fathers’ power and status and often went on to have their own harems, powerful men sometimes invested in their bastards as well.

As a result, powerful men of high status throughout human history attained very high reproductive success, leaving a large number of offspring (legitimate or otherwise), while countless poor men in the countryside died mateless and childless. Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, whom we encountered in Chapter 2, stands out quantitatively, having left more offspring than anyone else on record, but he was by no means qualitatively different from other powerful men, like Bill Clinton.

Why not?

From Betzig’s Darwinian historical perspective, the question that many Americans and others throughout the world asked in 1998, “Why on earth would the most powerful man in the world jeopardize his job for an affair with a young woman?” is a silly question. Betzig’s answer would be: Why not?

Recall from Chapter 1 (“What is evolutionary psychology?”) that the underlying motive of all human behavior is reproductive; reproductive success is the purpose of all biological existence, including humans. Humans do much of what they do, directly or indirectly, knowingly or (usually) unknowingly, to achieve reproductive success. Attaining political office is no exception. From this perspective, men strive to attain political power (as Bill Clinton did all his life, since his fateful encounter with John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1963), consciously or unconsciously, in order to have reproductive access to a larger number of women. In other words, reproductive access to women is the goal, political office is but one means. To ask why the President of the United States would have a sexual encounter with a young woman is like asking why someone who worked very hard to earn a large sum of money would then spend it. The purpose of earning money is to spend it. The purpose of becoming the President (or anything else men do) is to have a larger number of women with whom to mate.

What distinguishes Bill Clinton is not that he had extra-marital affairs while in office; others have, and more will in the future. It would be a Darwinian puzzle if they did not. What distinguishes Clinton instead is that he got caught and his affair became a spectacular political scandal. What Clinton’s genes did not know is that he was not permitted by others to have sex with a large number of women and that he could not get away with it when most of his predecessors have, like all the kings, emperors, sultans, and democratically elected presidents whose reproductive lives Betzig’s work describes in great detail. Clinton’s genes didn’t know about the DNA fingerprinting technology that ultimately exposed the affair and forced him publicly to admit it, because no such thing existed in the ancestral environment.