The Blog

On the Origin of Cuckolds

Confronted with the hyper-vigilant and often violent jealousy of generations of men protecting their genetic legacy, evolution predicts a psychological arms race between the sexes, producing ever more keen-eyed and suspicious men and ever more creatively deceptive women.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

"There are likely to have evolved social and psychological biases that increase the prospects that women can successfully deceive cuckolded males into providing paternal investment, and co-evolving male counter strategies." (Daly & Wilson, 1982)

In The Merchant's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, a rich old bachelor, January, decides it's finally time to get married, and settles on an eighteen-year-old girl named May as his ideal wife. Chaucer relishes the details of the wedding night, the physical discrepancy between wrinkled old January: "The slake skin aboute his nekke shaketh" lusting after beautiful young May, who "was broght abedde, as stille as stoon," understandably. The bedroom scenes have all the gleeful mischief of Ricky Gervais roasting Hugh Hefner at the 2011 Golden Globes: "Congratulations to Hugh Hefner who's getting married at the age of 84, to 24-year-old beauty Crystal Harris. When she was asked why she was marrying him, she said 'Because he lied about his age -- he told me he was 94!'" Gervais' advice to Crystal could be helpful for May as well: "Just don't look at it when you touch it" [mimes gagging]. Chaucer is a bit more subtle, though still suggestive, when describing May's reaction to her husband's depredations: "And she obeyeth, be hir lief or looth. / But lest that precious folk be with me wroth, / How that he wroghte I dar nat to yow telle, / Or wheither hir thoughte it paradis or helle."

January's comeuppance soon arrives in the form of a young seducer, Damian, who wins May's heart with a secret love letter, but January is so jealous and watchful that they have to wait months to consummate their attraction. Soon the old man goes blind, which makes him even more jealous, until May concocts an elaborate scheme to meet her would-be lover in the garden, with her husband waiting oblivious and blind nearby. The denouement occurs when May and Damian get caught in flagrante delicto thanks to a stroke of divine intervention.

The gods' intervention takes the form of both a miracle and an origin myth, expanding the story's significance from the narrow world of a single love triangle into the wider world of human nature and the ancient battle of the sexes. To pre-empt the act of adultery, one of the gods gives January a gift, the physical gift of sight because he has gone blind, but also the ability to perceive or recognize the "vileinye" of women in general: "Thanne shal he knowen al hir harlotrye, / Bothe in repreve of hire, and othere mo." And another of the gods gives May and "alle women after" a counter-gift -- empowering them to respond to any accusation with a "suffisant answere." From that day forward, women are blessed with a natural ability to argue, make excuses, and persuade men of their virtue whenever it is questioned: "Yet shal we women visage it hardily, / And wepe, and swere, and chide subtilly, / So that ye men shul been as lewed as gees." The power given to women by the gods is so overwhelming that they can now manipulate and deceive men even in the face of bold evidence: "Al hadde man seyn a thing with bothe his eyen."

This sounds uncannily like an arms race, where two sides of a conflict acquire new weapons perpetually in a cycle of reciprocal one-upmanship. In nature, arms races are produced by natural selection. The female defense has an especially Darwinian quality, in Chaucer's words: "For lakke of answere noon of hem shal dien." It makes me picture a group of women in the Pleistocene, all of them endowed with mammalian sexual desires and occasionally unsatisfying mates, but when confronted by a jealous spear-toting husband, some of them have a ready and clever answer that placates their accuser, while others have none. Which of these women is most likely to be our ancestor?

Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker explains the origins of male sexual jealousy like this:

The human male is unusual among mammals in that he feeds, protects, and cares for his offspring and for their mother. But this investment is genetically risky. If a man's wife has a secret dalliance, he could be investing in another man's child, which is a form of evolutionary suicide. Any genes that incline him to be indifferent to the risk of cuckoldry will lose out over evolutionary time to genes that incline him to be vigilant. As always, genes don't pull the strings of behavior directly; they exert their influence by shaping the emotional repertoire of the brain, in this case, the emotion of sexual jealousy. Men are enraged at the thought of their partner's infidelity, and they take steps to foreclose that possibility. One step is to threaten her and her prospective partners and to enforce the threat when necessary to keep it credible. Another is to control her movements and her ability to use sexual signals to her advantage.

Of course, Pinker concedes that "women as well as men are jealous of their partners, as a biologist would predict from the fact that men invest in their offspring." But the key to the arms race lies in the variable consequences of infidelity, which are fundamentally different for males and females, since it is biologically impossible for a woman to be cuckolded by a man. Since the cost of sexual infidelity is far worse, genetically, for males than females, Pinker continues, "a man's jealousy has been found to be more implacable, violent, and tilted toward sexual (rather than emotional) infidelity. In no society are women and in-laws obsessed with the virginity of grooms." Pinker has a chosen name for this phenomenon -- this quintessentially male desire to control and restrict female reproductive choice. He calls it an evolved male instinct towards sexual "proprietariness." To make the concept more accessible, I prefer to call it an instinct for "Bush Administration."

Confronted with the hyper-vigilant and often violent jealousy of generations of men protecting their genetic legacy, evolution predicts a psychological arms race between the sexes, producing ever more keen-eyed and suspicious men and ever more creatively deceptive women. This theme of the complementary gifts of the sexes comes up repeatedly in The Canterbury Tales, which is usually explained as a psychological difference bestowed by the gods. Even if Chaucer got the origins wrong, I find it impressive how clearly he saw the nature of the difference.

Baba Brinkman is currently performing off-Broadway in the first-ever hip-hop theatre cycle, "Evolutionary Tales."


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Jill Mann, ed. Penguin Classics, 2005.

Daly, M. and Wilson, M. (1982). "Whom are newborn babies said to resemble?" Ethology and Sociobiology, 3, 69-78

Pinker, S. The Better Angels of Our Nature (Kindle Edition). Location 8438. Viking Penguin, 2011