Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target article

Cultural and reproductive success in industrial societies: Testing the relationship at the proximate and ultimate levels

Daniel Pérussea1

a1 Department of Anthropology, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada H3C 3J7 Electronic mail:


In most social species, position in the male social hierarchy and reproductive success are positively correlated; in humans, however, this relationship is less clear, with studies of traditional societies yielding mixed results. In the most economically advanced human populations, the adaptiveness of status vanishes altogether; social status and fertility are uncorrelated. These findings have been interpreted to suggest that evolutionary principles may not be appropriate for the explanation of human behavior, especially in modern environments. The present study tests the adaptiveness of social status with actual mating and reproductive data in a representative sample of males from an industrial society. Reproductive success, even when assessed by a more reliable measure of actual male fertility than the one commonly used, fails to correlate with social status. In striking contrast, however, status is found to be highly correlated with potential fertility, as estimated from copulation frequency. Status thus accounts for as much as 62% of the variance in this proximate component of fitness. This pattern is remarkably similar to what is found in many traditional societies and would result in a substantial positive relationship between cultural and reproductive success in industrial populations were it not for the novel conditions imposed by contraception and monogamy. Various underlying mechanisms are suggested for these findings, illustrating the value of current behavioral and reproductive data in the study of adaptation. It is concluded that evolutionary explanations of human behavior remain entirely relevant in modern societies.