Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Darwin Economy and Islamic niqabs

I am reading Robert H Frank's The Darwin Economy, which argues that Charles Darwin's insights on competition between individuals for mates have deep significance for modern economics.

Briefly, Frank distinguishes between objective improvements and relative improvements. For example, an athlete might run very fast indeed, but it is his or her relative speed compared with a rival athlete that determines whether or not a medal is won.
In nature an example is the strangely huge antlers of bull elks. The bull elks compete with one another for female mates. Those with larger antlers, he says, tend to win these competitions and mate more widely, passing their genes for big antlers down to offspring. As time passes, the antlers get bigger and bigger because the small-antler genes disappear. So, having huge antlers is a reproductive advantage for the individual male elk.

Frank points out, though, that huge antlers are also an impediment to movement, and increase the risk of the elk being caught by predators. Supposing all the male elks could agree to halve the size of their antlers overnight. The species would benefit, as mobility recovers and they avoid predators more easily, and the same individuals with the relatively bigger antlers would still win mates. Nothing would change but the collective population would become much healthier.

Frank gives lots of examples of relative well being in society, where individuals cannot all improve, but that there is always some kind of hierarchy. When houses are tiny and cramped, a bigger house is a real benefit to the occupant. But after a certain level, bigger and bigger mansions (Frank says) add little more satisfaction to the owners. They keep building bigger houses only because they want to out-compete the other rich people. They want not only the material benefits of wealth, but also the status benefits of relative wealth, of being richer than everyone else.

In Frank's view, this often creates a kind of arms race as individuals compete for status or mates by pouring resources into something which gives no tangible material benefit, only status and relative benefits.

For Frank one solution is simply a collective rule (a law) which covers all individuals and prevents this arms race. For example in ice hockey one study found that most players supported a rule to make wearing helmets mandatory, but none of them actually wore helmets. Why the discrepancy? Because helmets put players at a slight disadvantage to non-helmeted players whose vision is less impacted. So long as any player goes without a helmet, all the others are at a relative disadvantage to him. As individuals they reject that risk and go without helmets, but as a collective they want to keep their heads safe and so favour a universal helmet rule.

There is a lot to think about here, and I will probably follow other avenues on this book in later posts. Just one simple thought for now:

Might Islamic niqab play a similar role to the helmet rule? That is, I wonder if women are in a kind of arms race to look as attractive as possible to compete for good male mates. Any individual woman who refuses to join in this, who refuses to look attractive and wear clothes that flatter her body, may be out-competed by her rivals. But a universal niqab rule that forces all women to cover up and hide their bodies, might level the playing field. Perhaps - I'm not sure yet - it's also relative beauty that is important here. So by concealing their appearance, all women are freed from the pressure to compete for a mate against one another.
Of course I don't support any law that forces people to dress in a particular way. But I'm also aware that despite complaints that niqabs as signs of the oppression of women by Islam, some Muslim women do choose to wear it and some support laws to make it mandatory. If Frank is right, it seems plausible that some might welcome the field-levelling offered by a universal niqab law.

A final weird thought. Frank adds that sometimes actors will reject laws and agreements that try to regulate arms race situations because they think it is a race they can win. Ronald Reagan pushed for military developments in the 1980s in the hope that forcing the USSR into an arms race would cause their economic collapse. So I wonder if some especially attractive women who have been able to use their beauty to attract a good mate or more might resist niqab laws for the same reason. While the less attractive women might favour a universal niqab law to level the field, the more attractive might not want to lose their competitive advantage. So in countries like Saudi Arabia do more attractive women tend to prefer liberalisation and less attractive women tend to support universal niqab laws? Now that would be an interesting research project indeed.

Niqab image from Walter Callens at Wikipedia, elk image from קלאופטרה at Wikipeida.

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