Cell Phone Data Suggests Female Friendships Drive EvolutionS

After analyzing the calling patterns of three million cell phone users — that's 1.95 billion calls and 489 million text messages — researchers found that "women's friendships in particular drive the process of finding a mate and supporting the next generation," meaning, essentially, that "women drive the evolutionary fitness of humans," undermining the traditional theory that our lives are influenced by a patriarchy.

Wow! That's a pretty radical conclusion to glean from LOLs and emoticons. What were Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar and his researchers looking at, exactly? "Working on the assumption that close friends communicate most frequently, the team analyzed the top three friendships of each cell phone user based on the frequency of communication to spot patterns in the average male or female user at various ages," reports Scientific American. The researchers only studied communications between users of a known age and sex (and, although they don't say it, of a known sexual orientation). They expected to find individuals texting and calling people just like themselves, but the data revealed that "romance trumps other forms of friendship" for people in their 20s and 30s and that an individual's "best friend" during that time is usually someone of the opposite sex. The man in a woman's life is her "very best friend" for around 15 years, but only seven for men. The peak conversational time for women is 27 and for men, it's 48.

Researchers also determined that digital communication is more tailored to females than to males. Phone records showed women had "intense, one-on-one friendships maintained and shaped through frequent communication" — benefitting from texts, IMs, and so on — while men prefer to bond in groups doing shared activities.

However, after age 50, both sexes seems to seek companionship more than, say, sexting. Women replace their male friendship with a younger women, which the researchers interpreted as mother-daughter relationships, further indicative of how biology affects female behavior, which, in turn, affects the men who procreate with them:

"Generally, we have probably underestimated how important these family support networks are," Dunbar says. He speculates that contemporary declines in family size may reflect the mobility of modern women, isolating them from their supportive maternal network. In addition, he believes that the bonds between mother and daughter and the strength of a woman's influence on mating are so strong that they may underlie human society's natural tendencies. "I think the default for humans, if all else is equal, is actually a matrilineal society."

The research is interesting, but kind of vague, and doesn't account for non-traditional families in the slightest. Where are non-heterosexual couples, the multiple divorcees, and the childless? "There are innumerable alternative explanations for the patterns they have come up with," said University of Rochester psychologist Harry Reis, who said the study was too speculative and pointed out situations where opposite sex individuals who aren't romantically involved communicate frequently, such as with coworkers or an employer. "Our problem, in a way, is that we're looking at averages," Dunbar himself agreed. Individuals who do not conform to the assumptions of the study — and there are a lot of them — are assumed to be in the minority. It's disappointing that his team would undergo such a modern technology-based study while still holding on to the traditional, mid-20th century idea of a nuclear family.

BFF?: Cell Phone Study Shows Evolving Lifetime Relationships in Men and Women [Scientific American]

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