The human operational sex ratio: effects of marriage, concealed ovulation, and menopause on mate competition

J Hum Evol. 2012 Dec;63(6):834-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2012.09.004. Epub 2012 Oct 30.


Among mammals, male-male competition for sexual access to females frequently involves fighting. Larger body size gives males an advantage in fighting, which explains why males tend to be larger than females in many species, including anthropoid primates. Mitani et al. derived a formula to measure the operational sex ratio (OSR) to reflect the degree of male-male competition using the number of reproductively available males to females who are cycling and capable of conceiving. The OSR should predict the degree of sexual dimorphism in body mass-at least if male-male competition involves much fighting or threatening. Here, we use hunter-gatherer demographic data and the Mitani et al. formula to calculate the human OSR. We show that humans have a much lower degree of body mass sexual dimorphism than is predicted by our OSR. We suggest this is because human competition rarely involves fighting. In human hunter-gatherer societies, differences in the ages of marriage have an impact on competition in that the age of males at first marriage is younger when there is a lower percentage of married men with two or more wives, and older when there is a higher percentage of married men with two or more wives. We discuss the implications of this for females, along with the effects of two key life history traits that influence the OSR, concealed ovulation and menopause. While menopause decreases the number of reproductively available females to males and thus increases male-male competition, concealed ovulation decreases male-male competition. Finally, we discuss the importance of mostly monogamous mate bonds in human evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthropology, Physical
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Competitive Behavior
  • Female
  • Hominidae
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marriage*
  • Menarche / physiology*
  • Menopause / physiology*
  • Ovulation / physiology*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sex Ratio