Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Mating Game: A primatologist looks at the mathematical community

Are you like me? Do you love reading those books by Jane Goodall and Frans De Waal where they observe a community of great apes and describe all of their social interactions in graphic detail?

If so, you're in luck! Because I have observed a primate society myself (in their natural habitat!), and today I am going to share my observations with you!!!

Alpha males

Many people do not realize that the mathematical community has alpha males. Outsiders often think that mathematicians are all more or less equally dorky and socially maladjusted. To outsiders, perhaps they are! But not within their own society.

Everyone within the community knows who the most brilliant world-famous researchers are. Outwardly everyone generally treats everyone else in a friendly and egalitarian manner, from the genius Fields Medalist down to the lowliest first-year grad student. Yet the rest of the community will defer to the top dogs in subtle ways merely by virtue of the esteem and awe their brilliance inspires.

(Note: There are also females in this category, but they are more rare and hence less well-understood by the primatologist.)

Establishing dominance

The principal manner of establishing dominance is by proving an important theorem and publishing it. It is particularly highly regarded to solve a famous problem, prove a long-standing conjecture, or win a prize such as a Fields Medal. However, dominance is also often established and expressed at lectures in seminars or conferences.

Dominance is established in a lecture by asking the speaker lots of relevant and insightful questions. Math research lectures are notoriously deep and complex even for good mathematicians! If you ask relevant and insightful questions about the lecture, it shows that you are following it well enough in real time to be one step ahead of the lecturer. This will impress everyone in the audience.

Asking questions throughout the lecture is also a means of demonstrating your importance. An alpha-male world-famous researcher will sometimes sit in the front row and talk to the speaker as if the lecture were a personal conversation between himself and the speaker, despite an entire lecture hall full of less important people. I've even seen one guy put his feet up on the podium while chatting with the speaker!

Only people who are very confident of their top-dog status would dare (and be permitted) to do this.


Mathematicians love to gossip! They particularly love to gossip about famous mathematicians. At almost any dinner or party for mathematicians, once they're done discussing the technical precisions of this or that theory, they start gossiping.

The main purpose of this appears to be an excuse for name-dropping -- i.e., you wouldn't know a bunch of random details about so-and-so's personal life unless you know him personally, and perhaps you are brilliant enough yourself to be doing a research project with him. In the mathematical community, if otherwise serious and reserved grown men are spreading a bunch of questionable stories about you behind your back, then you know you've really made it!

Male sexuality

A top researcher who is world-famous in his field will have plenty of opportunity for sex with female grad students and post-docs. How the researcher responds to these opportunities is a question of temperament. Like many humans, some will choose to be monogamous anyway. Others take up these opportunities. Some researchers who are famous for their mathematical results also have a reputation for sexual conquests. Hard to believe, but there exist humans who -- to the untrained eye -- look like ordinary boring professors, but in their own society are alpha-male casanovas!!

Outside of the top echelons, however, sexual opportunities within the community drop off rapidly for males because of the scarcity of females. Mid-tier (respected but not awe-inspiring) males often succeed in attracting another mathematician as a mate. Below that level, males are typically obligated to look outside the community for mates. This is less desirable because it requires engaging in non-math-related social activities.

Juvenile males (undergraduate and younger) are often sequestered in a math and science curriculum where they have limited access to females. Many of them have no sexual opportunities at all.

Female sexuality

Because the supply/demand ratio is in their favor, female mathematicians have their pick of mates at every level. One common result of this is a complete gender-role reversal of the typical human mating strategies.

In ordinary human society, the female is commonly more interested in establishing a monogamous relationship while the male is more interested in having sex with multiple partners. This is often reversed in the mathematical community because the males have so few sexual opportunities that they logically attempt to hold onto those opportunities that arise, whereas the females have so much opportunity that they are hesitant to commit too quickly.

Some females deliberately seek out the most famous researchers just for the status that comes from seducing someone who is held in such esteem by the community.


A mathematician is a shy and often misunderstood creature. Yet careful observation shows him to have similar social habits to those of other primates.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor October 27, 2005.


BetaCandy said...

Hmm, I'm beginning to see why people sexually perceive me as male, to the extent that men are baffled and frightened when I show interest, and women hit on me: I manifest every dominant behavior you described there. Hmm.

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Beta Candy!!!

You even put your feet up on the podium during a lecture? That's not polite!!! But I can see how it might inspire women to hit on you... ;-)

The Sacred Sister said...

OMGawd, CL...You crack me up!! I love this post!

C.L. Hanson said...

Thanks Caryn!!!

JohnR said...

chanson, where're the citations, the references to recorded observations, the detailed observations of mating behaviors? You haven't given us enough information to duplicate and test your observations! :P

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey JohnR!!!

Well, for the details of course you have to see my paper in the American Mathematical Monthly... ;^)

woundedhart said...

This cracked me up. My DH is a math person (an engineer, really) so he has his own theories. But the only way I ever would have met him is through church. :)WherecanIturn