It's not worth getting all hot and bothered every time evolutionary theologists -- I mean psychologists -- come up with a study that explains how a given gender stereotype is just a natural reflection of Darwinian impulses: why men like blondes, why women like pink. But a recent study snagged my attention. It found that women who marry older men have more children.
I've always cast a jaundiced eye on our cultural assumptions that men should be older (not to mention taller) than their wives. It seemed just another manifestation of the gender imbalances that coursed through our workplaces, government and educational system. Of course, when in love, all bets are off: My anti-age-gap theories didn't stop me from marrying a guy 11 years older. I'd always thought I was making this choice myself, but was there some deep biological impulse driving me to ignore my political analysis to find an optimal breeding partner?
One study analyzed data from that scientific treasure trove, the Swedish census, and found that men who marry women four to six years their junior end up with the highest breeding productivity. The scientists assume the age-gap preference has evolved because men choose on the basis of fertility potential and women choose on the basis of financial stability. Exactly how financial stability translates to our cave-dwelling ancestors they don't explain, but maybe this evolutionary development is actually (horror of horrors) cultural. A study of the Sami people of northern Finland between the 17th and 19th centuries, which found that the optimal age gap was 15 years, would suggest that age-gap proclivities are in fact a result of messy and changeable cultural practices, not pure evolutionary impulses.
I wonder how our recent cultural shift toward older parenting may change our older men/younger women scenario. Will it evolve as women have more babies later in life? or will the increasing numbers of older men fathering kids enshrine the practice anew? In my own life I've seen how 40-something Peter Pans wake up one morning, want children, and end up dating and marrying women young enough to start a family (yes, this might mean another 40-something woman but probably not a 50-something, unless they want to go to extraordinary technological lengths or adopt). I know, for a lot of dudes, it's not all about a biblical desire to go forth and multiply: Plenty of soon-to-be geezers still believe they can ward off death with the old knee slapper, "You're only as young as the body you feel." But the rise of older fathers does explain at least one reason why some men consciously choose to date younger women. Why women go along with the same trend may be more of the same: If you want a relationship with a guy who is ready to have kids, the pool of younger men may not be the best place to go fishing.