Friday, April 07, 2006

Fists of the patriarchy....   posted by Razib @ 4/07/2006 08:14:00 PM

I mentioned on my other weblog that I have recently finished No Two Alike by Judith Rich Harris. I'll write up a review when I've thought through my impressions and reflections, but, in the meantime, one of the great things about Harris' books (The Nurture Assumption was similar) is that the wide survey of the psychological literature induces many cross-linkages and inferences that are orthogonal to the thrust of her book.

But before I get to that, let me back up and state that one of my favorite classes as an undergrad was a sociology course taught by a black graduate student. I state his race because being sociology it was a PC-soaked environment, though being a freshman chemistry major I wasn't totally aware of this initially, and he definitely used his color as leverage in making outrageous statements which seemed designed in part to goad his audience. For example, he once made an offhand comment that "there has never been a matriarchy." This elicited a rumbling of discontent from the class, and a outspoken feminist in the back of the classroom raised her hand and claimed he couldn't back up the generalization. The instructor's response was concise and precise. He laughed and asked her to name one matriarchy. She responded with something about a culture in rural Mexico (this was a collegiate legend at my university, I heard this same story about a "tribe in rural Mexico" several times over the years, but no one could recall the name of this tribe). He laughed and stated that she couldn't name it because it didn't exist.

In any case, that incident stuck with me because I'm something of an ethnology buff. Obscure peoples and their customs interest me. I've sought out books & monographs on the Yezidis, the Kafir Kalash and the Garamantes. And in all my years of searching through the literature I haven't stumbled upon a matriarchy. I emphasize the "archy" because there are many cultures that are matrilineal, matrifocal, or, where women have a prominent role in the decision making process within a society. Among the Iroquois older women had veto powers over the decisions of the male war leaders. But note that their powers were of veto, men still ultimately presented and constrained the range of choices. My overall point is that there are many cultures where men and women are rather equal in their power in comparison to the stratified societies of the Eurasian civilizations. But, the distribution is skewed, there is no inversion to the operational chattel treatment of respectable females that was characteristic in ancient Athens or modern Saudi Arabia. The alternative to patriarchy is not matriarchy, it is non-patriarchy.

Why is this? A clear point to make would be that the average male is larger and stronger than the average female because of sexual dimorphism. In fact, only 1 out of 10 males in the United States has a lower body mass than the average female. One could posit that male-female strength difference naturally results in a patriarchy on the macroscale, the idea of women treating men as chattel seems ridiculous because of their smaller size. I don't think this can be totally dismissed, and the larger size of men seems to me a barrier toward a realization of an oppressive inverse-Athenian style matriarchy in the past, but size isn't everything. I think it could be argued that the Romans who marched with Julius Caesar into Gaul and later with Agricola deep into wildest Britain were on average smaller and not as strong as the Celts they overwhelmed and cut through. Some of this is endogenous and a function of geography and the convential increase in mass as a species range expands north. Some of it was probably a function of the fact that the more "civilized" Romans might have gone further down the path of a nutritionally depleted and starch-based diet than the Celts.

In other words, size matters, but it isn't the end of the story. When you read about the counter-campaign against Boudica's rebellion, the discipline of the outnumbered Romans pays off. The behavior of the "barbarians" during this period seems likely to have been somewhat like the apocryphal tale of the Vikings on the way to Paris being asked to parley with a local noble. Their leader was asked to present themselves, at which point the Vikings got into a argument about who exactly was the leader.1

What does this have to do with No Two Alike you ask? From page 214:

During middle childhood-what Freud called the "latency period"-girls and boys spontaneously separate into single-sex groups. As developmentalists have observed, boys' groups tend to be larger (girls often split up into pairs or trios) and more hierarchical, or at least more overtly hierarchical. Boys appear to be more concerned about competition and status and their play is rougher....
[the reference is Maccoby 1995 for those curious]

I bolded the two points of interest to me. First, boys groups are larger, and second, they are more hierarchical. Is the boy the father of the man? I don't know, but he might be so. I think the rise, and dominance, of patriarchy is in part a function of the difference between male and female socialization, and the fact that male sociality scales better. The hypothesis that I am putting forward is that in the days of yore when small clusters of humans generally lived in groups of ~10-100, there was little asymmetry in the ability of bands of brothers and sisterhoods to apply group pressure on the social mores of the community. The community emerged out of native cognitive aptitudes of social intelligence that most humans possess, and that women to some extent on average possess to a finer and more generous degree than men. But as the Neolithic Revolution opened up the possibility of denser agglomerations of human society which quickly scaled up, at a certain point male dominance heirarchies were much more easily able to make themselves literally kingmakers, and the smaller female social circles simply could not compete. This is a case where the Romans were larger and more ferocious than the Gauls, not to mention more disciplined. One stick alone breaks, many tied together hold.

But, there is still a range in patriarchy, in the power of the "bands of brothers." In Marriage, a History, the author points out that in the 19th century Victorian mores that emphasized the nuclear family and romantic love between a husband and wife began to eat away at the time spent between men, especially dominant men and their underlings. Laborers during the transitionary period recounted the shift in habits as their supervisors no longer went for dinner & drinks every night, but retreated to the home. Similarly, in an inverse situation, I recall an Afghan American boy who traveled to Kabul who noted the testosterone in the air in universal male only social situations. The sexes differ, and the character of all male social situations differs from mixed-gender ones in a non-additive fashion (I can't speak to all female ones obviously).

In the past I've alluded to the possibility that "moderns" are in some ways reverting back to hunter-gatherer social mores. I think that powerful and exclusive patrilineages, the absolute exclusion of women from male social life, and the denigration of romantic love as a powerful cement in the pair-bond are characteristics that emerged after the rise of the Neolithic mass society. Of course, the trend is not universal and absolute, in republican Rome men and women ate together, in contrast to democratic Athens, while amongst the Etruscans women seem to have had a high status. There is a sample space of possibilities, but my point is that some of the possibilities are more strongly biased. The cultural world is not flat, it is textured with wrinkles, canals, peaks and valleys.

I want to tie this in to one other point that Judith brings up in her book, and that is cross-cultural differences in personality. She repeats some of the research reported in Geography of Thought and Not by Genes Alone which suggests that cross-cultural differences that we see around us can be easily shifted. For example, East Asians are more communitarian and Canadians more individualistic, but the children of East Asian immigrants in Canada tend to be individualistic as adults if they were brought before the age of 12, in between when they are brought in their mid-teens, and more East Asian if they arrive in their late teens. Geography of Thought also reports that bicultural people can quickly "switch" between mental styles. In any case, I was interested when Judith offered that Americans have become more individualistic over the last 50 years. In terms of the topic of the post, I would argue that communitarian societies on the mass scale will tend to be patriarchal, as bands of brothers will rule the roost. But, individualism, and a less structured and controlled social environment tends to tilt the field back toward women as dominance heirarchies have less power to coerce individuals toward their own ends (usually the ends of the alpha male).

Working back up to the launching point in regards to male and female groups, why the difference? There are lots of ways we could approach it, for example, males need strict dominance heirarchies because they lack the requisite social intelligence to fluidly manipulate different contexts. But, I will offer tentatively that it might have to do with reproductive skew.

Say what? OK, here goes. The Trivers-Willard Hypothesis suggests that high status females should bear male offspring to maximize their potential reproductive output because high status males can breed a lot more than high status females. There are lots of ways to rework and spin this, but that's the gist. The flip side is that low status females should invest in female offspring since these will be more of a "sure thing," as reproductive skew might result in all her sons simply not passing on their genes (because they'll never be high enough on the totem pole).

What does this have to do with dominance heirarchies? I will posit that perhaps males are phenotypically more varied that females, that is, their standard deviation on characters is greater. The idea is that the SRY induces greater developmental instability in male fetuses than female ones. Some of this is bad, ergo, more pathological or subfit males. But, some of it explores the outer edges of fitness space, and who knows when new traits might come in handy? Now, consider two women who have 10 sons. Imagine that the expectation is the same for the characteristics of sons for both women, but the variance for one woman is far greater than for the other. In a winner take all reproductive skew scenario all of the sons of the woman whose offspring exhibit no variance might not reproduce. In this case, the "risky" strategy, where a mother produces superfit and subfit sons, is the optimal one. To some extent this is a reductio ad absurdum, humans are not elephant seals, and our relatively mild sexual dimorphism is a clue that we are not a hyperpolygnous species (though we are not exclusively monogamous in the sense idealized by modern romantics).

So you have a situation where males exhibit greater phenotypic variance than females, and so establishing dominance heirarchies will be easier because more of the males will clearly never have a shot at dominance. Since the female distribution is more "bunched" together there are more potential queen bees, ergo, more competition and tumult because of a greater number of contenders. Bryan Caplan would be proud of my logic!

There's only one problem with this: I have had a hard time finding evidence for this variance difference in the past. If readers have literature citations, positive or negative (either lending support or falsifying), pass them on. I tried looking at height-weight data once, and I didn't find anything there, though at least in regards to weight Americans are not really in a "state of nature." You can find them in the psychometric data, but I'm curious about physiology and morphology as well.

1 - The near successful counter-attack under Vercingetorix during the Gallic Wars and slaughter of the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest under the leadership of Hermann shows that the barbarians could be devestating when organized appropriately. Note that Hermann was also known as Arminius, and had Roman training.