Male superiority in spatial navigation: Adaptation or side effect?

Edward K. Clint, Elliott Sober, Theodore Garland, Justin S. Rhodes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the past few decades, sex differences in spatial cognition have often been attributed to adaptation in response to natural selection. A common explanation is that home range size differences between the sexes created different cognitive demands pertinent to wayfinding in each sex and resulted in the evolution of sex differences in spatial navigational ability in both humans and nonhuman mammals. However, the assumption of adaptation as the appropriate mode of explanation was nearly simultaneous with the discovery and subsequent verification of the male superiority effect, even without any substantive evidence establishing a causal role for adaptation. An alternate possibility that the sex difference in cognition is a genetic or hormonal side effect has not been rigorously tested using the comparative method. The present study directly evaluates how well the range hypothesis fits the available data on species differences in spatial ability by use of a phylogenetically based, cross-species, comparative analysis. We find no support for the hypothesis that species differences in home range size dimorphism are positively associated with parallel differences in spatial navigation abilities. The alternative hypothesis that sex differences in spatial cognition result as a hormonal side effect is better supported by the data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)289-313
Number of pages25
JournalQuarterly Review of Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2012


  • Adaptation
  • Comparative method
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Home range size
  • Sexual dimorphism
  • Spatial cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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