Men Better at Both Hunting and Gathering, Says Study


But they were living naturally and light on the land

A popular paleoanthropological notion is that early on in evolution men specialized in obtaining high value but uncertain supplies of protein by hunting which they exchanged for more certain carbohydrates gathered by women (protein was probably exchanged for sex, too). This suggested that evolution may have optimized each sex for these activities. Leeds University (U.K.) psychologist Gijsbert Stoet tested this hypothesis using computer games that simulated gathering tasks. The results published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that men were in fact better at gathering than women. As the abstract explains [PDF]:

The hunter–gatherer theory of sex differences states that female cognition has evolutionarily adapted to gathering and male cognition to hunting. Existing studies corroborate that men excel in hunting-related skills, but there is only indirect support for women excelling in gathering tasks. This study tested if women would outperform men in laboratory-based computer tests of search and gathering skills. In Experiment 1, men found target objects faster and made fewer mistakes than women in a classic visual search study. In Experiment 2, participants gathered items (fruits or letters presented on screen), and again, men performed significantly better. In Experiment 3, participants' incidental learning of object locations in a search experiment was studied, but no statistically significant sex differences were observed. These findings found the opposite of what was expected based on the hypothesis that female cognition has adapted to gathering. Alternative interpretations of the role of object location memory, female gathering roles and the division of labor between the sexes are discussed.

The division of labor is the crucial issue here. As Stoet notes in the discussion section of his article:

There can be different reasons for a division of labor in a society, and it is not necessarily the case that both genders need to be optimized for the tasks they are doing. It could simply have been the case that a division of labor was driven solely by the fact that men were good at hunting. Women might have chosen to do the gathering, not because they were adapted to it, but because it was the task that remained to be doing. Given that there is no apparent evidence for women being excellent gatherers, this must be considered a plausible scenario.

I found it curious that Stoet did not expliciitly mention the concepts of comparative advantage and the gains from trade. Journalist Matt Ridley offers a nice explanation of how comparative advantage and trade might have worked in early human evolution in his excellent book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

Take the case of two cavemen Adam and Oz. Clumsy Adam takes three hours to make a fish hook and four hours to catch fish (7 hours total). Handy Oz can make a fish hook in two hours and catch a fish in an hour (3 hours total). Since Oz is better at both tasks, does Oz really have anything to gain from Adam? Yes. If Adam makes two hooks in six hours and trades one to Oz for a fish that allows Oz to now spend two hours catching two fish. By specialising and trading both Adam and Oz gain an hour of leisure. (A nice illustrated version of Ridley's description of comparative advantage can be found about 5 minutes into this video of his TED talk). 

The same sorts of gains from trade would have been operating with regard to the paleoanthropological division of food acquisition labor between men and women. 

See also my interview with Ridley here

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  1. It “White Indian” still here ? I am sure he would be delighted with articles like this.

    1. I was thinking he, combined with Jezebel posters, would synergize for a perfectly awful thread.

    2. The PRIVATION property society…yadda yadda. The natural gathering society…stupid stupid. The ills of modern man…retarded retarded. Hunter gather forebarer….herp derp herp derp.

  2. Nesting is where the real money is.

    1. Say it! Say it! Say “I lost the nest-egg.” Go on, say it!

  3. “…protein by hunting which they exchanged for more certain carbohydrates gathered by women (protein was probably exchanged for sex, too).”

    or bone some neanderthal strange for free

    1. That not type of protein Oog was talking about feeding to her…

  4. Lots of big and diverse concepts here.

    I wonder if women didn’t gather simply because it’s easier to do with kids in tow…

    1. Hey, a topic in which I actually get to break out my anthropology degree. (Hardly any wear on it! Fourteen years old and only ever driven to church on Sunday by a little old lady.)

      This study slightly conflicts with existing studies of hunter-gatherer behavior, although that could be because they might be measuring somewhat different things. IIRC, studies of actual hunter-gatherer societies find that gathering brings in the majority of the overall calories. Men might be “better at both tasks”, but if one of the tasks just isn’t as rewarding, expending time and energy on it may not be worthwhile even if you do have a comparative advantage.

      That said, the comparison is complicated by the fact that the two activities aren’t quite fungible – doing both may be necessary in order to have a better diet, or one source may be more consistent than another.

      1. Yep more calories =/= better necessarily. Also, there isn’t an unlimited supply of gathering material or meat. Doing both likely would maximize calories in the long run and even the short run.

    2. simply because it’s easier to do

      Obviously thats why they did it, kids or no kids. Its why kids do it too. It why modern families simply assign the traditional womens’ homemaking chores to the kids. A kid can easily take over all the housewife duties, while they certainly can’t stand in at a real job.

      Women have to do things on noob mode, same as kids. They can’t compete with adult males physically or intellectually. They are just lucky that too many men like looking at or listening to them. Theres a reason they vote 2/3 in favor of leftists in every electorate – parasitism – just like the rest of the leftists.

      1. Like listening to them?






        good one.


  6. Or Adam and Oz could form a socialist collective where Oz does all the producing and Adam sits around eating fish and whinging that Oz isn’t “paying his fair share”.

    1. That’s what I was going to say.

  7. Bombshell study. Men better at women playing computer games.

    1. Women don’t play computer games, nor are they on the internet. There is a myth that they do exist in gaming and the online world, but it is a myth like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Jesus. Nope. They’re too busy in the kitchen makin’ us sammiches.

  8. Yesterday, As an evolved man, I let my wife hunt for a beer in the fridge for me, and also gather some potato chips. Then, I allowed her to have sex with me, even though she had bought the wrong potato chips.

  9. I found it curious that Stoet did not expliciitly mention the concepts of comparative advantage and the gains from trade.

    I was about to go on a comparative advantage rant. Thanks for saving us all from that.

    1. C’mon, robc, morning links was kind of dull what with John being on meds. Liven the place up some with a good rant.

    2. Indeed. Reason is probably one of the few magazines where the science beat guy is familiar with and understands comparative advantage.

  10. I would say something misogynistic here, but it seems like overkill.

  11. … or it could be that men have more practice at video games.

    1. refer to my reply above to AlmightyJB

  12. Nancy can type 60 words per minute, and can fetch 20 cups of coffee in an hour.

    Glenda can only type 50 words per minute, but can fetch 30 cups of coffee in an hour.

    Barbara can type 80 words per minute, and can fetch 40 cups of coffee in an hour.

    Martha can type only 20 words per minute, and can only fetch 10 cups of coffee in an hour.

    Martha left on a train leaving St. Louis headed east at 40 miles an hour, and Nancy is on a train leaving St. Louis headed west at 50 miles an hour, but left 20 minutes after Martha’s train departed.

    Which of the girls should Mr. Smith hire to be his secretary?

    1. Who’s the best looking one?

    2. Martha, obviously.

      Martha is clearly inferior at typing and coffee fetching, but she was hired anyway. This implies that she must have a skill set that the boss found attractive; she will go far in the organization.

    3. The canonical answer to this question is “the one with the best rack”.

    4. Barbara, especially if he’s gay.

    5. Martha must be a “hunt ‘n pecker.” Not sure about the others.

    6. I’m looking for work.

      1. Do you have change for a quarter?

  13. PJ ORourke brought up comparative advantage in his classic “eat the rich” iirc.

    just another example of how awesome he is.

  14. i wonder how much this “study” cost taxpayers.
    the government needs to stop this tomfoolery.

  15. I have conducted my own extensive studies while waiting for my wife unit in various stores at the local shopping mall. Women do indeed excel at both trading and gathering.

    1. It depends on how you define ‘excel’. If you define ‘excel’ as they like to spend an inordinate amount of time doing it, then yes, they definitely excel.

  16. Why Bailey, why? Don’t attempt to conjure the paleolithic nostalgia asshole!

  17. As a child in tow of my Mother i instinctively knew she sucked at shopping.

    First off she not only did not go straight to the candy isle or toy isle she took fucking FOREVER to get the hell out of there.

  18. women (protein was probably exchanged for sex, too).

    I see what you did there…

  19. The hunter?gatherer theory of sex differences states that female cognition has evolutionarily adapted to gathering and male cognition to hunting

    All participants had normal or corrected to normal vision.

    So they tested for evolutionary adaptations to hunting and gathering with a group of people who haven’t hunted and gathered in so long they’ve lost the ability to see. Brilliant.

  20. Sigh …every idea this article is old news and none of them were developed by Ridley.

    Read “The Company of Strangers” by Seabright, the book Ridley’s is largely based on. Google “Biodiversivist Rational Optimist” for an overly long review of Ridley’s version of that book.

    1. Amusingly, every thought in your comment is old news, and none it original to you!

  21. Uh… isn’t the primary problem here that “gathering” means whatever bullshit approximation these guys made up, rather than actual foraging for food? It tells us a lot about whether men are better at the test they set up, but not much about an actual hunter-gatherer setting.

    Most of the things I’ve read describing what made women better at gathering focused on things like sensitivity to subtle color differences, which would be important for distinguishing things that are edible instead of things that are poisonous. I doubt that was tested well in their experiment.

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