Dan Yarosh

The Evolutionary Biology

of Rock and Roll - Part I

Copyright Daniel B. Yarosh, Ph.D. 2014.  All Rights Reserved.

Pete Townsend was an art student and Mick Jagger studied at the London School of Economics before they began their rock and roll careers.  Greg Graffin of the LA punk rock band Bad Religion received a PhD from UCLA with a dissertation on evolution and religion.  Not many others studied evolutionary biology.  But most of the music is about love, and love is about mating – the foundation of evolution by relative reproductive success.  It’s not surprising, then, that many rock and roll songs address key issues of human evolutionary biology.

“Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean,
and the way she looked was way beyond compare.”
– The Beatles, I Saw Her Standing There

From a simple evolutionary biology outlook, you would think that men should focus their attention on wooing women who are best able to provide them with children. However, human males, as well as those of other primates, are attracted to females who have not yet reached their full reproductive maturity.  Adolescent girls display signs of maturity (breasts, increased hips relative to waist, radiant skin tone) years before they reach maximum fertility as women.

Girls develop maturity signs so much earlier than boys that when you look a group of teenagers, you would think they were from different species.  So for some reason men pay particular attention to 17-year old adolescent girls who are “way beyond compare”.

These signs of sexual maturity, of course, advertise the onset of fertility, and adolescent girls use them to compete with each other.  But the targets of the competition are not boys of similar age, but older men.  Just ask any 17-year old girl if she would prefer a similar age or older boyfriend.  In the distant and even recent past of many cultures around the world women were married as teenagers.  So what we have is a co-evolution over human history of signs of maturity in younger and younger girls and increasing preference for those signs by men.

Why would men prefer adolescent girls who have not reached full fertility?  One theory is mate guarding.  Since men can never be quite sure about the paternity of their mates’ children, they choose and guard their mates to prevent affairs.  There are many forms of mate guarding, such as emotional jealousy, emphasis on virginity prior to mate pairing, chaperones, marriage, restrictions on women traveling or appearing in public alone, and women wearing veils and covering their hair.  To be even surer, a man can choose his partner early in adolescence, before she reaches full reproductive maturity, and guard her carefully.

“They can beg and they can plead but they can’t see the light, that’s right. 
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right. 
‘Cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.”
– Madonna, I am a Material Girl

“You know nowadays, well it's the old man’s got all the money.
​And a young man ain't got nothin' in the world these days.”
– The Who, Young Man’s Blues

“Daddy said, ‘Son, you better see the world, I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to leave. 
But remember one thing don't lose your head, to a woman that’ll spend your bread.’”
- Rod Steward, Every Picture Tells a Story

Why would a woman prefer an older man and conform to the restrictions of mate guarding?  Because she is looking for more than just a donation of genetic material from her mate.  For generations leading up to the modern world, resources from a spouse (in the form of food, money, shelter, defense) greatly increased a woman’s prospects of successfully raising children and grandchildren.  In any society or culture, it takes time to acquire resources, so inevitably older men control more material support than younger men.

Once again we have co-evolution of behavior that drives men to acquire resources to attract mates, and women to prefer older men who have acquired it.  Of course, these are broad generalizations about behavior, and people choose their partners for many other reasons, often contrary to this evolutionarily selected behavior.  But when we look across cultures and over centuries, it is unmistakable that these types of pairings are prominent.

As a word of caution, the Beatles warned about a relationship built too superficially on material exchange:

“I'll give you all I got to give if you say you'll love me too. 
I may not have a lot to give but what I got I'll give to you. 
I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love.”
– The Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love

What happens when, despite all efforts, the doubt of paternity arises?  Before the age of DNA testing, appearance was everything.

“Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee;
The first one says she's got my child, but it don't look like me.”
– The Grateful Dead, Friend of the Devil

“Billie Jean is not my lover.
She's just a girl who claims that I am the one,
but the kid is not my son
…then she looked at me then showed a photo,
my baby cried ‘cause his eyes were like mine (oh, no!)”
​- Michael Jackson, Billie Jean