Sleep With Whoever You Want, Jeremy Yoder

By August 17, 2013 4 Comments

From a gene’s eye view, is it better to be in the body of a machiavellian psychopath or in the body of a socially-responsible nice guy? The answer to that question depends on the environment, and recent evidence suggests that the answer is far from obvious. My debate with Jeremy Yoder comes down to the question of whether or not conscientious sexual choices can change this equation.

In his third and (thankfully) final post critiquing my “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” campaign, Yoder helpfully narrows his scattershot objections down to a simple and easily refuted point:

My argument isn’t that this genetic contribution [to individual differences in meanness] doesn’t exist—it’s that this genetic contribution is pretty much meaningless from the perspective of an individual person’s dating life.

I should note that this is Yoder’s argument now. In his previous post it was about how “natural selection needs genetic variation in order to operate” and Yoder was (or acted like he was) skeptical that differences in meanness are due in any part to genetic variation. Now he acknowledges the evidence that genetic variation does in fact play a role in determining human temperaments, but claims this is irrelevant to selection because our genes are sensitive to environmental triggers:

If genetic variation is only strongly predictive of variation in criminality for people who’ve experienced many environmental risk factors, then you’d have to exclusively date people with those risk factors (this is a filter I haven’t found on OKCupid yet) in order to know that the variation in their personalities is probably due to genetics.


Let’s take a moment to note that my campaign is not titled “Don’t Sleep With Genetically Mean People.” The concept is specifically agnostic about the relative contributions of environment and genes – it doesn’t matter! As I’ve said from the beginning, I’m assuming only that some component in some people is genetic. As long as that’s true, targeting meanness in general will impact both genetically and environmentally caused meanness, by incentivizing good behaviour while reducing the relative fitness of mean genes.

“Do something good for your species today. Boycott Dark Triad dudes and stamp out narcissism.” Susan Walsh at

Let’s say a young lady, call her Courtney, were to change her ways and eschew sleeping with bad boys like the guy above. Anytime a prospective lover brags about beating someone up or expresses enthusiasm for street racing or firearms she breaks things off with him. She doesn’t know (or care) which of these guys were exposed to risk factors and which weren’t, which of them have mean genes and which are a “product of their environment.” They all get dismissed in turn, and she ends up settling down with a conscientious, supportive, responsible guy. What’s the worst that could happen? Here’s Yoder’s doom-and-gloom scenario:

You could end up reproducing with someone whose genome is chock-full of variants for “meanness” that are never apparent in the right environment.

In other words, the guy is a prince among men and never mistreats her or anyone else, but he carries latent genes for meanness. So what? She gets a great guy and has a happy life! Genes for aggression that don’t get expressed can’t be targeted by selection (Yoder’s point) but they also don’t increase the rate of spousal abuse or armed robbery (my point). And if those genes manifest themselves as meanness in the next generation due to encountering the requisite environmental triggers, they will be screened out by the next generation of young women who don’t sleep with mean people. Or maybe the carriers will adapt to the new environment (where meanness is suddenly maladaptive), and figure out how to act right. Either way, individuals like Courtney win, humanity wins, and mean people lose (along with Yoder’s argument).

This is not just a cockamamie scheme I cooked up, it’s something that has been happening for tens of thousands of years already. Richard Wrangham and Nicholas Wade have written about the phenomenon of “gracilization” or “self-domestication” in humans and in our close cousins the bonobos. This self-domestication is driven by an evolutionary process in which “the violent and aggressive males somehow had a lesser chance of breeding.” If you agree that a less violent world would be a better one for everyone involved, this transformation is something to celebrate. It is aided by moral philosophy and the rule of law – Geoffrey Miller argues “moral philosophy and political theory have mostly been attempts to shift male human sexual competitiveness from physical violence to the peaceful accumulation of wealth and status.” It is aided by (pop) cultural evolution when peaceable high-status males like Ashton Kutcher inform screaming female fans that sexiness consists of being “intelligent, thoughtful, and generous.” And I hope it is aided, in some small way, by my campaign.

When Jeremy Yoder first started sniping at me I thought he was just being an annoying pedant, but I’ve been flabbergasted to discover that he truly believes mate choice makes no difference to human behaviour, and individual sexual choices could not, under any circumstances, make future generations perceptibly, genetically nicer. How on earth could a practicing biologist adhere so tenaciously to this position? Does he really think male-on-male aggression is sexually selected in every mammal species except ours? Yoder is clearly not a blank-slatist, so in the end I can only return to my original “ad homo-nem” diagnosis (with apologies to Jesse Bering). Like the grinch that stole Christmas, Yoder is mad at my “heteronormative” campaign because he feels left out of it as a gay man. His mate choices are very unlikely to influence genes via sexual selection, so he argues that sexual selection “is pretty much meaningless from the perspective of an individual person’s dating life.”

Confidential to JY: if you had just expressed your outrage by saying “I feel hurt and left out” instead of accusing me of peddling pseudo-science, we could have avoided all this ugliness.

My only consolation for Yoder is to point out that we are virtually in the same boat. Because violence is mostly perpetrated by heterosexual males, it’s heterosexual female mate choice that has the greatest chance of changing the evolutionary equation. Peace-loving males like Yoder and I are cheerleaders at best, arguing about the details while female mate choice continues its slow but relentless reshaping of the human genome. I have no delusions that I can change its course, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to give it a nudge.

Baba Brinkman

Author Baba Brinkman

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Jacq says:

    I generally like your music and have been following you for quite a while. But this whole campaign rubs me the wrong way (I checked it out after the email blast in mid-july and chose not to donate then). I haven’t been following it too closely, so sorry if I’m touching on things you’ve aready addressed directly elsewhere.

    “Males like Yoder and I are cheerleaders at best, arguing about the details while female mate choice continues its slow but relentless reshaping of the human genome.”

    Why do you take it upon yourself to tell women what their sexual selection should be? You’re attempting to remove agency from women – the right to choose who they have sex with – under the guise of it being better for humanity as a whole, despite the fact that most sexual encounters (all of mine for the last 28 years, for instance) don’t end in children. In fact, it’s more of a Christian Scientist or MRA-bent argument to assume that women use sex as a currency, in exchange for something else – children, money, validation, etc. And that’s a pretty gross way to think.

    The naming is also pretty problematic for me, and I assume intentionally. “Don’t Sleep with Mean People” = “Only Sleep with Nice People.”
    1) A person telling me who I should and shouldn’t sleep with is the best way to convince me not to sleep with that person.
    2) The use of Nice/Mean conjures up the image of the often-lambasted “nice guy”, who complains of being friend-zoned, and feels somewhere that women are machines, that they can put kindness coins into and sex will come out.
    3) If a women chooses to sleep with a “mean” person – as compared to a self-named “nice” guy, the implication is that she’s flawed somehow and making a mistake, either for herself of the future of the race of whatever, and not that the fault may be on the “nice” guy.

    This is not to mention what happens when you expand the idea beyond individual relationships. For example, black men are more likely to be the instigators of violent crime than white men – should a woman “play it safe” and only sleep with “nice” white men, because the odds of that particular person turning “mean” later is lower? Ditto with poor people, or young people, or uneducated people. The definition of “meanness” doesn’t take into account “mean” things that have their roots in non-evolutionary causes – such as systematic oppression by the state, or limited options caused by low socio-economic status, the broad point is basically just not to sleep with anyone but middle-to-upper-class college-educated white men. Which is kinda boring.

    Finally, it’s a bit off topic, but the “performance-feedback-revision” approach to sexual relationships (in which babies are optional) has something similar to the tipping culture in the united states, by my estimation. People are under an illusion that good or bad tips are rewards or punishment for the level of service received, but in actuality an individuals tips vary by a very small amount (0.11) based on service (source: Lynn, M. (2003). Tip levels and service: An update, extension and reconciliation. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 42, 139-148.) When the “feedback” portion of the system breaks down, there’s no drive to revise, and therefore performance does not change. So a given waitstaff only receives a tip variation of 0.11 for bad service, but always experiences an increase in tips when they draw a smiley-face on the back of the cheque. One form of feedback is stronger than the other, but ultimately neither of them amount to much, so performance stays fairly steady.

    Relationships (especially those that are ending) are messy and biased and usually involve a breakdown in communication somewhere. It’s super unlikely a given woman will say “I’m breaking up with you / not sleeping with you because you are mean.” BUT, even were that to happen, it’s just as likely the male will say to themselves “I know I’M a nice guy, so she must be crazy!” (which, funnily enough, may be your very response to this post 😉 ).

    • Baba Brinkman says:

      Thanks for your comments Jacq. I try to be careful not to tell anyone what they “should” do, and I disagree that this removes agency from women in any way. In fact, the whole concept is based on the premise that women have reproductive choices to make, and those choices have consequences.

      The campaign also assumes that a good deal of male aggressive behaviour is directed at increasing status compared to other men in order to become more attractive to women. If guys opt out of these competitions they potentially face sexual limbo, UNLESS women encourage them to compete in other ways. This already happens. Some women are turned on by street-racer or bar-fighter types, but other women are turned on by musician types or scientist types or many other types, and turned off by violence. “Nice guys” don’t have to be losers, they just aren’t thugs.

      The world was a more violent place in the past, so violence was more often a “favoured strategy” for guys, and those guys were often more attractive as strong protectors. Today violence is on the decline for a confluence of many reasons, and I advocate sexual selection as a way of accelerating this process (presuming less violence is generally a good thing). Sexual choice is obviously not the only way to make a difference, but on average I think it’s usually good for both the individuals involved and for the greater good to favour kindness over cruelty in a lover.

      It certainly has nothing to do with upper middle class educated white men! Meanness cuts across education levels and racial groups and all kinds of other demographics, but it does tend to be far more concentrated in males than females, which is why I focus more on female than male mate choice. In nature it’s the choosiest sex that exerts the greatest influence over evolution!

  • Helen Neville says:


    this could work fast
    see nat geo’s documentary
    Stress:anatomy of a killer
    features Robert Sapolsky, Michael Marmot etc

    It is GREAT
    with respect to the argument here a natural experiment occurred when a baboon troop came across an abandoned tourist site where there was a heap of garbage (food)

    Of course the alpha males had a first go at it– it was contaminated and they ALL died

    for over 25 years now that troop consists of males and females who groom
    no more aggression; no hierarchy

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