How early female empowerment may have saved the human race

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In a buzzed-about opinion piece that ran in The New York Times last weekend, writer and social researcher Wednesday Martin pulled back the curtain on the upper echelons of the Upper East Side, revealing a disturbingly modern patriarchy.


Among a certain set, she reports, men spend their days making millions on Wall Street while their Ivy-educated wives care for the kids, eat at separate "wives only" tables during dinner soirees, and eagerly await their year-end "wife bonuses," doled out at the husband's discretion. Equality has all but left the high-rise building.

Call me hyperbolic, but this type of gender segregation isn't just a step back for women—it may be a step back for humanity.

In a new study published in the journal Science, anthropologists argue that gender equality helped the human race evolve to be the social, cooperative creatures we are today, which in turn secured our survival.

The study

University College London researchers Mark Dyble and Andrea Migliano hypothesized that it was gender equality in early hunter-gatherer societies that led to more diverse living arrangements, which in turn led to more cooperation and more genetic variance.

In other words: When men and women were given equal say within the society, husbands and wives were more likely to surround themselves with more non-related individuals (non-kin).

To test this theory, the researchers developed a model to better understand how hunter-gatherer camps ended up living with non-kin, despite the natural preference humans have toward living with family members. They plugged two conditions into the model: one in which groups were egalitarian (husband and wives had equal say about where they lived) and one in which groups were non-egalitarian (only the husband had a say).


Sure enough, after running 100 simulations with a group size of 20, individuals in the egalitarian model had a 12 percent chance of being unrelated to someone else in their group. In the non-egalitarian model, individuals had less than a one percent chance of not being related to another individual.

The researchers then compared their simulation to real life using data from two modern day hunter-gatherer societies: the Palanan Agta people of the Philippines and Mbendjele pygmies of Central Africa. Plus, one patriarchal farming group that lives near the Agta called the Paranan, which represented the non-egalitarian component.


Using two years worth of data, Dyble and Migliano found that the model and real-life groups yielded similar results. In the egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, 16.7 percent were unrelated versus only 4.2 percent of the non-egalitarian farmers.

Why is this important? 

Living in societies with more genetic variance is not only good for survival of the species, it also leads to more cooperation and social harmony—a staple of human social networks.


According to the study, "Co-residence with unrelated individuals set the selective environment for the evolution of hypercooperation and prosociality." These circumstances meant hunter-gatherers could move from camp to camp and learn to cooperate with other humans who were not genetically related to them.

"Sex equality suggests a scenario where cooperation among unrelated individuals can evolve in the absence of wealth accumulation, reproductive inequalities, and intergroup warfare," the authors write.


Patriarchy and gender inequality, on the other hand, didn't come along until the birth of agriculture. "Once heritable resources, such as land and livestock, became important determinants of reproductive success, sex-biased inheritance and lineal systems started to arise, leading to wealth and sex inequalities," the authors explain.

Basically, a system in which men control the resources and women have little-to-no say in how society is run is detrimental to the survival of the human race.


Upper East Siders, you may want to rethink those wife bonuses.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.