Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gender Homogenization

I guess this blog fits in thematically with some recent blogs (1 2 3). Funny how themes tend to develop and thread themselves through what otherwise might just be random musings...

I found this article in the WSJ:

Why Women Don't Want Macho Men

New research suggests that women from
countries with healthier populations prefer more feminine-looking men...

how masculine a woman likes her men based on her nation's World Health Organization statistics for mortality rates, life expectancy and the impact of communicable disease. In countries where poor health is particularly a threat to survival, women leaned toward "manlier" men. That is, they preferred their males to have shorter, broader faces and stronger eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw lines.
The answer begins with the theory of sexual selection. It goes that women are the choosier sex because they take on most of the risk and burden of reproduction and child rearing. While a man can sleep around with 100 women in a year's time and have 100 kids, a woman who sleeps with 100 men in a year will only have one baby (barring multiples). She has more at stake in each pregnancy. Therefore, it is in her best interest to at least choose a high-quality mate. And one of the hallmarks of a quality male is good health.
But what does health have to do with masculinity? The link is testosterone, the hormone behind manly muscles,
strong jaws, prominent eyebrow ridges, facial hair and deep voices. Testosterone is immunosuppressive. This means a man must be healthy and in good condition to withstand its effects on his development. Testosterone is also linked to other traits related to strength: fitness, fertility and dominance. From an evolutionary perspective, masculinity is basically man's way of advertising good genes, dominance and likelihood to father healthier kids. When disease is a real threat, as it had been—and arguably still is—heritable health is invaluable.

Masculinity, however, can come at a high price. Women often think of high-testosterone types as uncooperative, unsympathetic, philandering, aggressive and disinterested in parenting. In fact, there is evidence that they really do have more relationship problems than other men.

...if you're a woman living in a country with a decent health-care system and few harmful pathogens [...] while a masculine father's "good genes" may confer health advantages to children, so do good medical attention and aclean environment. [...] women with the weakest masculinity preferences tended to live in some of the healthiest countries: Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Austria. Other countries in the study with low masculinity preferences are Romania, Greece and New Zealand. Women with the weakest masculinity preferences of all lived in Belgium, a country considered to have one of the best publicly funded health-care systems in Europe (alongside Denmark and the Netherlands in the health-care index).

And so on. Read the article if you're interested

First of all, there's nothing new about this, though it points to a problem compounding, possibly to a point where it'll be hard to imagine how it could be fixed.

Why isn't it new? Well, it's just another variant on what happens when hunter-gatherer, nomadic, or warrior-like societies become agricultural. The adaptation required from a farmer-type is quite different to those on a hunter or warrior. Also, farming societies tend to be more gender-homogenized than the hunter/warrior ones; a feature that, with the wisdom of hindsight, should have alerted aspiring futurologists to what would happen when urbanization overtook ruralization as a major social development. Actually, it really just needed a bit of study of history and the 'great' civilizations that have come and gone. Rocket science it is not.

'Gender-homogenization' is a kind of measure of how much men and women share activities, roles and, above all, personal goals, in a given group or society. It has nothing to with equality or the lack thereof, equal opportunity or not, equal pay, dominance by one sex over the other, and so on. A society can be quite highly gender-homogenized and still have gender inequalities. In the case of farming societies, past and present, it's indeed quite obvious that men and women were and are unequal in many ways; but they still will share a lot of activities associated with the farm, and they will probably differ much less in their life goals—make the farm work, bring up the family, and so on—than, say, men and women in hunter or warrior societies. The reasons for this are simple: the less people have to rely on gender-specific attributes and requirements to perform their social roles, the more both genders will occupy those roles to which this applies. This may not happen immediately, but it will happen, as evidenced by history again and again. In a society whose role-requirements and made progressively more gender-neutral, this will obviously lead to exactly what we are seeing.

By the way, I'm not passing positive or negative judgment on this—just presenting the facts.

Gender-homogenization results in the feminization of men and the masculinization of women. Those terms aren't meant to be emotionally loaded either. It just means that the difference between 'traditional' gender roles becomes progressively more blurred. And—and here I'm going to be so un-PC that it'll probably raise quite a few hackles—it means that the 'masculine' male and the 'feminine' female, of what you might call the 'traditional' kind, will become progressively restricted to those social groups who have have a tendency to reproduce with the greatest efficiency. And these aren't exactly the people whom I consider to be prime examples of the positive aspects of evolution.

Is all of this a problem for us? Isn't the world becoming a better place with all that? After all, the less 'difference' the less cause for fighting. Or so you would think. Just like at one time, as the song went, let's all work to produce "coffee-colored people", to get rid of the 'race' thing. That way it'll be all make-love-not-war and so on.

What it amounts to is a reduction in diversity, of course—which is something that, in the context of biology, is generally considered to be a bad thing. In fact, I can't think of any instance where a decrease in the level of diversity, despite occasionally lowering conflict levels, has, in the long term, shown to have had beneficial effects. The experience in ecology is that decreasing diversity also decreases the robustness of ecosystems and lowers the survival probability of the system itself, as well as the species living in it. Given that we are now living in a world that is far from stable and may indeed be soon confronted with high levels of threats to planetary and human survival, it may not be such a good idea to sit back and congratulate ourselves on all our social achievements, such as there are, and to think that our haphazardly out-together societies and their infrastructures are really going to ensure that he conditions that make, inter alia, women in certain societies choose progressively more non-male males, are going to remain in force.

In the West we are, by and large, so far removed from an understanding that we, as a species, are actually still in a battle for our very survival—maybe more so than ever—that such thoughts will at best cause a few raised eyebrows, followed by a dismissal of the issue.

Still, the truth is stark and clear: The price we pay for being able to survive as a species is the existence of conflict, which is a direct consequence of diversity. And while it is true that we are woefully unprepared by evolution for the demands placed on us today that will enable us to survive as a species, it is also true that, as usual, we are over-correcting and missing the target again. It remains to be seen whether the 'new' ways—which, by the way, are just a paper-thin veneer—are going to work better than the old ones. I certainly hope so.

Still, what I said many blogs ago, does it really have to mean that we have to extinguish the fire? For fire destroys, this is true. But it also warms and energizes, and in its destruction of certain things lies the source of creation for others.

The price we have to pay. The choices we have to make.


Brian said...

So what is the solution?

Till said...

Solution? Hmmff...

The first question to ask is just what exactly the problem IS. Or what the problems ARE. And once that has established that—if it can be established—then the next question is whether these problems are amenable to 'solutions'.

My personal view is that they aren't. Solutions require social engineering of some kind, and any attempt at social engineering throughout history hasn't just failed, but brought in its wake more chaos than benefits.

Way I see it, this thing is like a bad flu: it has to run its course to the end, and hopefully whatever comes out of it is still viable. In this instance it isn't just one disease, but a bucketful of them, and they all work together in a fiendish synergy to take us places we really don't want to be.

Still, I'm an optimist, and I believe in the self-regulatory power of 'nature', whatever that is. Let's hope it doesn't over-regulate...