Oliver James: Revolutions in evolution

I have a happily married friend in her mid-thirties, university-educated and with a successful career, who fancies Tom Jones. She attends his concerts and really - I kid you not - has been known to rip off her knickers and chuck them at the stage.

My friend is not alone. Many are the modern and liberated young women who have confessed to a partiality for the septuagenarian Sean Connery, or the late rake Alan Clark, MP.

A survey of 37 cultures, half of them not in developed nations, showed that overall, women are looking for dominance (but not aggression), industriousness, ambition and any or all of power, status and wealth. On average, they prefer their man to be 3.42 years older than them. They place less emphasis than men on looks and sex. They start later, have fewer partners and are a lot less focused on intercourse as the goal. Instead, they are looking for romance.

The likes of Steven Pinker and our very own Lord Robert Winston (whose real specialism is fertility, not psychology) marshall the ubiquity of these female tastes as evidence that they are part of our gene pool. They speculate that back in the primordial swamp where we evolved, women who had a dominant, successful man would be more likely to be protected by him, ergo, better able to nurture their offspring to adulthood and thereby reproduce their selfish genes.

The only trouble is that, as so often with these Darwinian gents, they make no attempt whatsoever to consider the alternative - that differences in the way societies treat men and women could explain their sexual tastes.

Evolutionary psychology is not scientific because it works backwards. It assumes that everything about humans evolved to serve a useful purpose at some point during our primordial past.

Pinker and Winston are lapped up by the rightwing press because their ideas always support the status quo. Men are men and women are women because that worked best in the swamp. Likewise, the rich are rich, the poor, poor and the mad and bad, mad and bad because genes have made them that way.

How very reassuring. Not much point in trying to change things then. Yet there are theories we never hear about. For example, American Alice Eagly strongly challenges evolutionary claims about women's sexual tastes. In 1999 she went back over the evidence in the study of 37 cultures to see if the extent to which women rated wealth or an older age in potential partners was determined by the kind of society. It turns out that, surprise, surprise, the more gender-equal a society, the less a woman wants an older, richer man. Indeed, other studies suggest that women's behaviour changes dramatically if they have equal opportunities. Surveys of German and Swedish schoolgirls - nations where sexual equality has been far advanced for several decades - show not only that they start sex younger than their male peers, but they have more of it.

Two conclusions: since our society is rapidly equalising, nascent Tom Joneses should rethink their careers; I was born 30 years too early. Next week: why men fancy Anna Kournikova...

· Oliver James is unable to enter into any personal correspondence.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.