Hunting, gathering and comparative advantage


Jason Collins


October 6, 2011

From an article by Gijsbert Stoet in the latest issue of Evolution and Human Behaviour:

The hunter-gatherer theory of sex differences states that female cognition has evolutionarily adapted to gathering and male cognition to hunting. Existing studies corroborate that men excel in hunting-related skills, but there is only indirect support for women excelling in gathering tasks. This study tested if women would outperform men in laboratory-based computer tests of search and gathering skills. In Experiment 1, men found target objects faster and made fewer mistakes than women in a classic visual search study. In Experiment 2, participants gathered items (fruits or letters presented on screen), and again, men performed significantly better. In Experiment 3, participants’ incidental learning of object locations in a search experiment was studied, but no statistically significant sex differences were observed. These findings found the opposite of what was expected based on the hypothesis that female cognition has adapted to gathering.

The expectation that women would be superior to men in gathering tasks is misplaced. The observed division of labour is indicative that women have a comparative advantage, not an absolute advantage, in gathering. We should expect that the relative efficiency of production by men and women differs. If relative efficiency does vary, women and men both benefit from specialisation, even if one or the other is more productive in both activities. Without hitting the nail on the head, Stoet hints at this:

There can be different reasons for a division of labor in a society, and it is not necessarily the case that both genders need to be optimized for the tasks they are doing. It could simply have been the case that a division of labor was driven solely by the fact that men were good at hunting. Women might have chosen to do the gathering, not because they were adapted to it, but because it was the task that remained to be doing. Given that there is no apparent evidence for women being excellent gatherers, this must be considered a plausible scenario. Indeed, empirical research supports the idea that women doing the gathering might often be the best arrangement for a group of hunter–gatherers as a whole, who need to reckon with multiple constraints (Gurven & Hill, 2009; Wood & Eagly).

While I normally lament the lack of evolutionary biology in economics, this is one example where economics can lend a genuine (200-year-old) insight in the other direction.