Can the Internet, and online dating in particular, change our society in a dramatic way? Clearly, the Internet represents a discontinuity in the way men and women meet. Our biology can handle picking the best spouse out of a handful of people, maybe out of a few hundred. That’s what we evolved doing. But what happens when you can now chose your spouse out of 100,000’s of candidates that the Internet puts in front of you from all over the world? Is it more of the same, or will there be a fundamental shift in society. I will make that case that it’s the latter, and the family unit of one man and one woman will be altered. A big change is coming via the Web 2.0.
What is the current state of affairs between men and women? Throughout history, humans have shown mostly two kinds of relationships between men and women. The first can be called ‘domestic-bliss’, man and women find each other and live happily ever after, each doing their share raising the young. The second is a polygamous relationship I’ll call the ‘harem’ where women do all the work for rearing the young and the man does little more than fathering the child and has many wives. I will make the case that with the abundance of information provided by the Internet, society will move from domestic-bliss to harem.
But first let’s think about why these two kinds of structures evolved, because it plays a big role in my argument. It’s all because of our biology. In biological terms, a ‘male’ is the one whose sex cells are small numerous and mobile. The ‘female’ sex cell is few, big and immobile. As a result, a female can’t give an egg to a male, but a male can give his sperm to the female. And this makes all the difference in man-woman relationships.
Since the female’s contribution to the offspring is bigger and more immobile this creates an opportunity for the male to desert the female and let her do all the work in rearing his child. In genetic terms, if the male could copulate and then desert the female, knowing that the female has a chance of rearing the young alone, then that male has an advantage. He will have an offspring without paying the cost of rearing it. That cost is borne by the female. What this means is that if a gene evolved that made the male a ‘deserter’ it will have a higher chance of multiplying in the gene pool, than the ‘loyal’ male gene. Richard Dawkins has a marvelous chapter in, The Selfish Gene, that explains all this.
So what’s the female counter strategy? The first, she can try to find a male that won’t desert her. She works hard to find Mr. Right who will love and be loyal forever. This is the domestic-bliss strategy coined by Dawkins.
The second is the harem strategy. In this case, the woman says “OK, if I am going to have to take care of our child alone, then it will be the child of the best man out there. ” So the female waits to find the best possible suitor. When other females employ the same strategy you get a harem. For example, in sea lions 80% of the mating is done by 4% of the males. Harems, or polygamous relationships, have appeared in numerous human societies as well. A woman wants to become a part of the sultan’s harem, because once there, his son is protected and has a chance to become the sultan. No different than sea lions.
Enter Internet. In the Internet world where there is an abundance of information on dating sites, social networking sites, blogs, eHarmony, Google etc, it is not a big leap of faith to say that people will have a lot more information about their prospective mates. One can easily see a global & voluntary ranking of men and women by different traits. So every woman will have the same information on who the best domestic-bliss guys are and who the best ‘harem’ guys are. Nothing prevents one guy to be both. A woman could say “yes, this guy is happily married, but he’s healthy, smart athletic, good looking, charismatic and I would love to have his kids if I had a choice, even if it is to raise him alone.” So what’s new here?
Here is the rub. On one end of the spectrum we have domestic-bliss guys who invest in rearing the young and are committed to one woman. The top 1000 such guys can satisfy 1000 women who think their mate is Mr. Right. But on the other end of the spectrum the top 1000 ‘harem’ guys can satisfy 100,000s of women. It’s rather asymmetric. And most of these best ‘harem’ guys are largely untapped because society shuns on this. They are probably married, when they could have many many wives. So one strategy can make a lot more women happy and satisfied than the other and it’s available. The women who were not able to find Mr. Right face a very cruel dilemma: “I either settle down with an OK guy, not exactly what I had in my dreams, or I go for the best guy possible and have his kids, and rare the child on my own.” But what kind of woman would want this? Are they crazy?
Enter Karyn. A “39-year old executive who pulled her profile off JDate and Match.com, two sites she had been using, along with an endless series of leads, tips and blind dates arranged by friends an colleagues, to search for a man she wanted to marry and raise a family with.” This is straight out of the cover story in the March 19th edition of the New York Times magazine.
They are called ‘single mothers by choice’ (or choice mothers) and they are appearing in big numbers. These are women who go to the web page of a sperm bank, instead of Match.com, to find the right kind of donor. In some cases these donors are ‘open’, you know who he is, where he is from, you know his health etc, before you chose to purchase his sperm. He gives his sperm, and does nothing more to raising the child. The female that chooses this route is one that could not find the ‘domestic-bliss’ Mr.Right and is sick of paying the cost of looking for one. According to the New York Times, the number of children born to unmarried women between the age of 30 and 44 jumped 17% between 1999 and 2003. A support group called “Single Mothers by Choice” saw membership double in the last 10 years.
“Choice mothers” are opting for the ‘harem’ strategy! The cruel asymmetry between the two strategies is causing them to give up on finding Mr. Right, and focus on finding Mr. Right Sperm Donor. This is not a theory, this is what’s happening today.
So I ask the following question. Why stop at sperm banks? Why won’t these women proactively reach to anybody in their society they deem as the right guy to raise their kids. I predict that we will start seeing unsolicited requests for sperm. A woman will get to know a man from his online presence, know what he did, what he does, who his friends are, and whether he is worthy, and then approach her. Social networking, blogging, email, all will help women figure this out. Why limit your choices to the guy you can find at the sperm banks list? Find a guy you like and go straight for him. Period. End of story. Women think the Internet will help them find a husband, but it will really help them find a harem, and they’ll go there willingly. What if the harem candidate says no? Well, that’s a problem that money can fix now isn’t it?
So there you have it. I predict a society in the near future where there will be men with 100s of kids. Maybe in the future your blog will say “Click here to subscribe to my blog and click here if you want to discuss obtaining my sperm.” This will happen. The Internet will push society from one where a “one-woman-one-man family” unit to a big wide distributed harem. The irony of it all, it will be the women who want this harem and not the men, which is diametrically opposite of how kings and sultans used to have it.