Saturday, March 10, 2012

Evolution and Sexism

Social psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister of Florida State University argues that differences in the behaviour and wealth of men and women today are heavily determined by differences in male and female biology, a theme explore in his book Is There Anything Good About Men? In this podcast he discusses the book with economist Russ Roberts. I disagree with a few points Baumeister makes, especially his belief that society has become feminised and boys are being encouraged to behave like girls - I certainly don't see it here in Ireland. But his is an intriguing, challenging approach to explaining gender disparities.

For example, Baumeister argues that in primitive times most women would have children sooner or later, while a much smaller proportion of men would father children. Why? Here is Roberts discussing the book:
You refer to a DNA study on that, and the proportions are rather striking about how many of our ancestors are women, versus men. You assume it's 50-50--we each had a father and a mother, as you point out in the book.... The DNA research came out a few years ago and said: Well, no, it's twice as many women as men.

Now, laypersons have been surprised because they thought it should have been 50-50 and have a hard time understanding how it could be unequal. But when you talk to biologists and people like that, they are surprised the difference isn't bigger. Because in many species, 20% of the males but 90% of the females will reproduce.
For females reproduction was highly likely; they would sooner or later have sex and get pregnant. Males, though, were in a winner-takes-all situation where a wealthy elite could have great harems and father vast numbers of children while many more men never have children at all. For Roberts and Baumeister, this contributed to the spread of male genes associated with extreme aggression and competitiveness. Getting to the top meant securing mass-reproductive rights. Less competitive traits would disappear from the gene pool as those men failed to secure the wealth and status to boost sexual access to women. One intriguing implication is thrown up in an off-hand comment by Roberts:
Polygamy has been the norm more often than not; it's only the last couple of centuries we've begun to insist on monogamy; which in my understanding is a way of spreading the women around so that every man could have a woman. That equalizes things much, so that will drive in the long run the number of our ancestors closer toward sort of 50-50.
He says polygamy but means specifically polygyny (men having more than one wife). Baumeister points out that while modern discourse sometimes describes polygyny as being sexist against women - what woman wants to be the fifth wife of some grizzled old man? - really it was much more sexist against most men because it created big winners with multiple wives and losers, men who would never marry at all. That is an intriguing viewpoint: that monogamy was a way for men to reduce their risk of total failure. (I wonder could monogamous cultures have had a competitive advantage over polygynous cultures by having greater internal stability because the men weren't busy hacking one another to bits to grab more women?)

He points to the fact that when the Titanic sank, women were much more likely to survive than men - the very poorest women still survived at greater rates than the very richest men:
So, anyone who talks about patriarchy--those guys were the patriarchs. The rich, upper-crust. Quite males. And yet they couldn't even get seats in the lifeboats as long as there were poor, impecunious women in line. The women all had to go first.... I think most men know that in a pinch they will be expected to sacrifice their lives in order to let the women and children survive. Society values the lives of women and children better.
I had interpreted that kind of chivalry - 'women and children first' - as a sign of the cultural contempt for women in 1912, which saw them as being so pathetic that they needed to be protected like children. Baumeister's view is different. Women were more important for the survival of cultures and populations than men because a small number of men can have sex with lots of women and repopulate a depopulated region, while a large number of men are demographically useless if they lack women to give birth to the new generation. Chivalry probably granted cultures competitive demographic advantages compared with cultures which neglected to protect the child-bearers.

Baumeister makes a number of strong generalisations about male and female behaviour, some of which I'm doubtful of, but he adds this wonderful and important reminder:
Remember too we're not talking about: men are totally one way and women are totally a different way, we're talking about overlapping distributions.
Yes! This comes back to a point I was making a few days back:
When, for example, wage differences between men and women are discussed, it is the mean wages that are considered.... That the male mean is higher than the female mean does not mean that 'men earn more than women' because there will be high-income women and low-income men. But, knowing nothing more than a person's sex, our guess about their likely income is slightly improved.
That is what Baumeister is talking about here too: not all men differ from all women, rather the means and, especially, the distributions differ. Here is an example from, showing the distributions of male and female heights. Yes the means are different, yes there are far fewer very tall women, but there is also lots of overlap:
Oddly enough, that graph has a characteristic that Baumeister says is also true for IQ: male results are more widely distributed than female, with more men at the extremes of both high and low height.

Anyway, simply knowing an individual's sex should not make us confidently predict their behaviour, since there is overlap in distributions. I imagine that discrimination based on sex or some other characteristic which we can determine by appearance is only really smart if we have no time to make a considered decision: if we have to decide in a second whether or not a stranger on a dark street is a criminal for example.

A final point. Much of what Baumeister argues is bound to be attacked as sexist or heteronormative. I also am uncertain about his arguments, but I am grateful to hear them, and that he is free to make them. Sometimes in debates over biology and gender I have found ideas like his shouted down and derided, dismissed off hand. Baumeister:
There is plenty of good social science, but I would say in the fields of gender that there are more people with axes to grind and more bias, and more political correctness, so that lowers the quality of stuff. You are not free to just follow your ideas or thoughts or your data, wherever they may lead.

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