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Evolution study links men’s spatial ability, roaming distance and number of lovers

A University of Utah study of two African tribes found evidence that men evolved better navigation ability than women because men with better spatial skills – the ability to mentally manipulate objects – can roam farther and have children with more mates.

By testing and interviewing dozens of members of the Twe and Tjimba tribes in northwest Namibia, the anthropologists showed that men who did better on a spatial task not only traveled farther than other men but also had children with more women, according to the study published this week in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

“It’s the first time anybody has tried to draw a line between spatial ability, navigation, range size and reproductive success. Most of this chain has been assumed in the scientific literature,” says Layne Vashro, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology.

Anthropology professor Elizabeth Cashdan, the study’s senior author, says, “Some of the links have been demonstrated, but this study looks at the whole chain and that’s what is novel about it.”

“Among the most consistent sex differences found in the psychological literature are spatial ability and navigation ability, with men better at both,” Vashro says. “In the anthropological literature, one of the most consistent behavioral differences between men and women is the distance they travel. This difference in traveling is assumed to explain the observed differences in spatial ability and navigation ability. Now, we’ve drawn a link between spatial ability and range size.”

There is a demonstrated relationship between sex differences in how far some mammals – including voles and deer mice – range or travel, and sex differences in their spatial and navigation abilities. But until now, little has been known about this relationship in humans, Vashro adds.

Funding for the study came in part from a dissertation improvement grant to Vashro from the National Science Foundation.

Male-Female Differences in Spatial Ability and Range Size

Cashdan says spatial skills include “being able to visualize spatial relationships and manipulate that image in your mind.” Vashro says an example is to “visualize how you fit a bunch of things into the back of a truck, and how you could rotate them most efficiently to fit.”

Cashdan notes that relative to other cognitive differences between the sexes, such as cultural differences in math skills, the difference in spatial skills is large, and it is found across cultures and in some other species. “That’s why we think it may have evolutionary roots,” she says.

“The argument in the literature is that you need good spatial ability to navigate successfully, and you need to navigate effectively to travel long distances in unfamiliar environments,” Cashdan says. “That is the hypothesized link.”

The new study connected links in that chain.

“These findings offer strong support for the relationship between sex differences in spatial ability and ranging behavior, and identify male mating competition as a possible selective pressure shaping this pattern,” the researchers conclude in their paper.