evolution of the hymen (was: Re: Male Virginity and Circumcision (was: Re: Origin of circumcision)

Tim Benham (bentj93@cserve.cs.adfa.oz.au)
27 Nov 1995 20:45:33 GMT

Gerold Firl (geroldf@sdd.hp.com) wrote:
: In article <48c2ie$so5@hermes.cair.du.edu> sfolse@phoebe.cair.du.edu (Stephanie G. Folse) writes:


: >As the male role increased in importance in society and males gained more
: >power over females, they had the power to control a woman's virginity in
: >order to ensure paternity.
: >
: >Am I making sense here? Just speculating on the run...

: OK, if we follow the line of reasoning which looks to male and female
: strategies for maximizing biological fitness, and consider the hymen as an
: analog of the seal on a jar of jam, the utility in terms of a paternity
: guarantee seems very limited.


: In an H-G culture, where women are engaged in more independant activity
: foraging away from camp, paternity becomes less certain; it could be argued
: that this actually places a *greater* significance upon virginity than what
: is found in more settled economies. If a man can infer a statistical
: confidence that at least a woman's *first* child is his, then he will have
: a greater stake in supporting her and that child. Hence, we get a more
: cohesive society and a positive selection pressure for a physiological
: guarantee of virginity.

: Speculative, but plausible.

This is a group selection argument and is therefore not plausible. It is
much more likely that the hymen evolved for reasons connected with
women's own reproductive problems, not for the sake of solving a male
reproductive problem (assuring paternity) or creating a cohesive
society. The hymen may play some simply physiological role (keeping
flies out, or whatever) or it may serve to signal to potential
long term partners that the female is not already bonded. It is a
cliche in at least Western culture that a woman always yearns for the
embrace of her deflorator; this may be exaggerated, but ones first
sexual experience can be a severely bonding one for both sexes.

Thus a woman's hymen's importance may be more as a guarantee of future
fidelity than as proof that she isn't already pregnant to someone

: It still leaves the question of why we do not see an emphasis on virginity
: in current H-G cultures; if it was important enough in the past to lead to
: the evolution of the hymen, why is it no longer seen? Are there
: counter-pressures which have selected against a culturally-significant
: place for virginity among H-G peoples? An interesting question.

If you wanted to continue your group selectionist approach you could
argue that the explanation is that curent H-G societies are just
those ones which 'failed to make it' because they failed to realize
the importance of virginity in ensuring social cohesion. :-)

: >Have there
: >been any studies that compare the frequency of the hymen occurring in
: >hunter-gatherer populations (that have been h-g for as long as we can
: >tell) and other populations?

: That would be interesting; I haven't heard of any. My expectation is that
: if modern h-g peoples did *not* feature the hymen as part of their
: equipment, it would be widely known, but perhaps I'm over-estimating the
: investigative zeal of anthropologists and missionaries... %^)

I don't know about anthropologists, bu the missionary position is not
the best one for investigating the hymen.

: >And we have to consider the question of exactly when it began to occur --
: >perhaps it was a trait that evolved for some reason in an extinct common
: >ancestor for some unrelated reason that simply hasn't been fully bred out
: >of the human line due to a (first) relatively minor emphasis on virginity
: >and then later more of an emphasis?

: dubious.


: One further point: I think the "purpose" (meaning, the reason the custom
: exists) of female circumcision really is to increase confidence in
: paternity. It doesn't have to work 100%; a 10% increase can be significant.
: We see how evolution works with small variations in fitness, and magnifies
: them over time into huge changes; culture evolves, too.

This is confusing the transmission of ideas (cultural evolution) with
the transmission of genes (biological evolution). If being an
infibulator was an hereditary male characteristic then a 10% increase
would do just fine; but it isn't. It is a cultural tradition and if
its maintenance has anything to do with assuring paternity then all it
has to do is give husbands a nice warm feeling that they are not being
cuckolded. As long as they believe that then it doesn't matter whether
it in fact increases or decreases (statistical) confidence in


People who like this sort of thing
will find this the sort of thing they like.
Tim J.Benham bentj93@cs.adfa.oz.au