What's the evolutionary benefit of nerdiness given it's link to behavioral sterility?

This thread inquired about the genetic advantages of homosexuality and asked why this trait would persist in a human population over time when it is generally considered to be a trait that wold tend to hamper reproduction.

Straight Doper Science Adviser Colibri had this insight -

So the question is, given these difficulties, how does the trait for nerdiness, which tends toward behavioral sterility, manage to procreate itself generation after generation in human populations? One would logically expect that it would have extinguished itself by now given the extent to which it restricts mating opportunities, but up it pops like a genomic Wack-a-Mole again and again.

What are the evolutionary advantages of nerdiness? Is it purely genetically defined trait is or is there some element of nature-nurture in it’s expression in populations? Do hormonal influences in the womb have any impact on whether a child goes nerd or not?

How can nerds exist?

Nerdiness is not a trait; it’s a stereotype.

Since some evidence indicates homosexuality is genetic, then questions about how that works are bound to arise. If you’re trying to point out the absurdity of the question of homosexuality, this is a meaningless question: it has no relevance to the other.

Do you really have any sound evidence that “nerds” (which is a non-quantifiable term) reproduce in any lesser numbers than the general public?

If not, then there is no problem here to solve.

In modern day America nerds reproduce. Plenty of guys who couldn’t get a date in high school grow up, get a good job and get married and have children.

In medieval civilizations, things may have been even better for nerds, since economic success could easily spell the difference between life and death.

It would be interesting to see how many nerds there are in uncivillized areas of the world.

I don’t support your concept that Nerdiness is Genetic but even if it was, Nerds have been doing quite well in reproducing. We find Nerdy/Geeky Girls and have kids. Kids who start to realize, wow my Dad’s a real Geek. :wink: How embarrassing.
I and most of my nerdy/geeky friends are now married and most of us have kids.

Jim {middle-aged geek with two kids}

[tongue in cheek]
Well, what you must understand is that the ‘poindexter’ gene is a classic case of a semi-recessive genotype… that is, a genetic element that shows its most extraordinary effects in the population only when doubled up.

And that is key to the evolutionary survival of the gene. A person who inherits one copy of the gene, P/D, will show somewhat higher levels of intelligence, attention to detail, and/or fine motor control skills with only a neglible drop in social skills. The individual who inherits two copies of the gene, P/P, on the other hand, becomes your classic star-trek-loving dateless wonder.

Compare the evolutionary survival of sickle-cell anemia, where one copy of the gene provides higher resistance levels to malaria, while double copies often lead to early death.
[/tongue in cheek]


My WAG at the psychology of Nerds and Geeks getting married.
The traits that make a nerd, tend to mellow with age and experience.
What a girl in High school sees as undesirable becomes much more desirable when she starts to think about marriage and family.

  1. Older Nerds are usually less nerdy.
  2. Nerds have an above average chance of going on to college and getting a good paying job.
  3. Nerds had so little dating experience as teens, they are more loyal husbands and less likely to cheat.
  4. Many Cute girls are geeks, but this is not exposed in High School because they are cute girls. They are more willing to be themselves after College.
  5. This all adds up to potentially better marriage material then a dumb aging jock that got all the girls in high school.
  6. There aren’t enough smart, with it, well adjusted, athletic males to go around so we geeks get the shyer or geekier cute girls.

Jim {Yes Tounge also in cheek for much of this, but also half serious}

Hmm… so…yes… a viable hypothesis! It takes two copies of this gene to become a Magic The Gathering player, “Trekker” &/or Star Wars CON goer, LARPer, or a Fanfic writer. Yes… quite viable.

OK, my comment in that thread was partly tongue-in-cheek, but there is a real phenomenon there that requires some explanation.

In the United States, the percentage of people who have never been married is rather high: Currently, at ages 40-44, it is 17% for males, and 12% for females. In 1970, the corresponding percentages were about 5% and 6%. Of course, in the 1970s, there were much stronger societal pressures to get married.

Now, some of these never-married people have had children, of course, but the rate of childlessness in the US is extraordinarily high from an evolutionary point of view. From tables available here, at ages 40-44 over 19% of females had never had children; even in 1970 the rate was over 10%. Of course, reliable information on this is much harder to get for males.

However you slice it, this suggests a rather high rate of behavioral sterility (whether by choice or because the people involved actually couldn’t get a date) in the United States, even back in the 1970s, and higher than could be explained by homosexuality alone.

My fundamental point is that behavioral sterility affects many heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. This point is usually ignored in discussions of the evolutionary cost of homosexuality.

As another data point, this reference indicates that, for couples under 35, only about 2% are unable to conceive after 36 months, which may give a ballpark estimate for the rate of biological, as opposed to behavioral, sterility.

Throughout human history I’m sure most homosexuals just pretended to be heterosexual and had families. There are endless stories of gay men/women coming out after having a family.

As far as nerdiness, its really hard to say. I don’t know if there is evidence that nerds reproduce less than non-nerds. Also there are some evolutionary benefits to nerdiness.

Peacock males grow extremely lavish tails to attract mates. It works because when a peacock grows a long, lavish tale it implies to the female peacock that he is healthy and has the expendable calories to waste on a big tail. Sick and malnourished peacocks can’t grow giant tails. Modern men do the same thing as peacocks when they buy $50,000 cars (they subtly imply to women that they have money to burn on luxuries the same way peacocks imply that they have health and calories to burn on a giant tail). There is a theory that intelligence is attractive for the same reason. The brain is a very needy organ as far as energy goes and only those who are healthy, have access to abundant nutrition and eat a healthy diet can hope to become smart (malnourished people tend to become retarded). So nerdiness may be an evolutionary advantage and at the very least intelligence is because it implies access to a healthy diet, a strong immune system and ample calories. That is a theory of it.

Were you talking about nerds or geeks? Nerds are extremely intelligent, geeks enjoy socially unacceptable things far too much (D&D, star trek).

Considering that for most of human history marriage (and probably mating in pre-civilization eras) were based more on necessity than the kind of dating we have now where you pick and choose among endless options I don’t know if it would matter as much.

I think there’s an interesting question to be put regarding whether human culture can overwhelm the evolutionary process. Focusing on homosexuality or geekiness with regard to lack of reproductive outcome is kind of missing the point. If the whole of Western Europe is reproducing at below replacement rate, you have to wonder if the world’s population would plummet as an outcome of universal prosperity. Or a nice big nuclear exchange, if it came to that.

I plead guilty to conflating these terms to some degree. You seem to have some expertise re these categories. Break them out for me a bit - What are the non-overlapping, unique attributes of geekiness and nerdiness as distinct categories?

You’ve come to the right guy. To me a geek is someone who enjoys sci fi and/or activities that are scorned by the public at large as something losers would do. Nerds are just highly intelligent and devote themselves to studying.

I’m sure you can find alot of people who find geekiness endearing, so it shouldn’t be a major reproduction problem.

There is a lot of debate over this on this board and elsewhere. Geek has been embraced for many different groups. You see and hear the phrases band geek, drama geek, Computer geek, Trek Geek, Star Wars geek, Comic book geek, etc. Do a few searches on the term Geek and Nerd both here and on Google. Geek now seems to mean that the person obsesses on one interest but doesn’t preclude normal interaction. Nerd still points to the Poindexter stereotype, very smart and brainy and not socially adept. Then their is the Dork, awkward and not overly intelligent. Think Millhouse.


Thank you for the clarification! This genomic “Pointdexter Paradox” is slowly unfolding it’s subtle “How nerds get laid” mysteries.

It does seem to me that attraction to intelligence would be an adaptive trait. A woman who decides to mate with an intelligent man is likelier, all else being equal, to have her children survive to reproduce (and therefore carry the “nerds are HAWT” genes to another generation). Same thing for a man who decides to make with an intelligent woman.

Of course, another adaptive trait is to think that physically fit people are HAWT and try to mate with them. Nerds stereotypically are not in the best physical shape.

The flip side of both of these is that a drive to be intellectually fita nd a drive to be physically fit would both be adaptive, both directly (smart people can figure out how to build a good shelter, fit people can fight off the wild boar) and indirectly (smart and fit people are hawt).

Natural selection isn’t guided by a benign intelligence; it’s a random crazy mishmash of a system. It’s very possible for two adaptive traits to clash. In this case, the drive of intellectual curiosity and the drive toward physical fitness often exist in one person to the exclusion of the other. Even if both traits are adaptive, it may be the case that, randomly speaking, some folks would exhibit one or other of the traits in a nonadaptive amount, through the course of normal variation.


We have no way of knowing what a geek or a nerd would have been 900,000 years ago. All we can assume is that in any given population of humans, a certain percentage of them will fail to make the grade, reproductively. So what? Evolution does that all the time.

Mental and physical fitness tend to be polar opposites of the activity scale, though. Both are demanding of one’s time as both require a great deal of effort to build and maintain. Without a consuming, overriding drive to succeed at both, the vast majority of personality types will be drawn to one almost to the exclusion of the other. This is further reenforced by the environmental stereotypes impressed at a young age where those interested in fitness are jocks and those interested in brains are nerds. Thus, jocks are built and stereotypically regarded as none too bright, while the nerds would be highly intelligent while being none too built.

Perhaps even more important to reenforcing those stereotypes is the reaction of women to both types, and since first impression is almost purely visual in nature (he’s hawt) the nerds are at a disadvantage because without being a serious sideshow freak, brains are not visible, and therefore cannot confer hawtness on first inspection. And anyway, they wouldn’t if they were. They’d confer nucular levels of gross.

Thus, the jocks get the chicks and the nerds get “friends,” whence comes the stereotypical social ineptitude of the geek patrol; without the same kind of opportunities to interact with the chicks the skill gets underdeveloped making them even less likely than their lack of a hawt bod to get dates.

Not that I’m, uh … speaking from experience or anything. ahem