What the author seems to be saying is "The system where women and children are effectively the property of men really sucks for everyone, including men. But it is effective from the point of view of producing lots of children, and so, historically, this kind of society tends to win out over happier but less fertile societies, by sheer numbers." He says that religious people in the U.S. are outbreeding the secular, and that in the next few years most people will therefore be descended from religious families. And that religious, patriarchal cultures world-wide are outbreeding western cultures, so that in a few generations, the relative percentage of, e.g. Muslims is going to be much higher. (He summarizes the numbers in a shorter piece for USA Today)
Now some people in this discussion thread interpret this as just a sort of prejudiced fear-mongering. "Oh, no! The brown people are going to replace us! Quick, start having babies!" Others seem to think he is sounding an alarm about the dangers of falling populations overall, in global terms. "But the population can't rise forever," they point out. Isn't it better that total global population should level off through cultural changes than through disease, war, and famine due to over-population?
So some people will probably think that he sounds nationalist and anti-population-control, very right wing.
Others, however, will notice that he seems to think that the return of patriarchy is a bad thing, and that the major religions are all patriarchal. What's more, his argument is essentially an evolutionary one. He's predicting that society is going to get more religiously-conservative/patriarchal based on the fact that religious conservatives produce more children. If you assume that parents pass on their ideas as well as their chromosomes (their memes as well as their genes) to their children, this is straight-forward Darwinian logic. So -- an anti-religious "social Darwinist." Must be an evil left-winger.
Not to mention all of the feminists who are going to be pissed off because he's implying that patriarchy is a winning survival strategy.
I, on the other hand, loved it.
Basically, I'm thrilled to have a logical, compelling explanation as to why women have played the role that they have, in so many cultures, for so many years. Why have they stayed home while men discovered continents and then telescopes and planets? While men wrote epic poems and immortal plays? While men built ships and cities? If it was because men bullied them into staying at home, why did they let themselves be bullied? Women may be physically weaker than men, as individuals, but we are not a minority. We make up half of any given society, and if "society" works a certain way, then women are complicit in making it that way. But why? Didn't women want to participate in the world? Or are they, as Larry Summers would have us believe, just not genetically capable of contributing?
(And I know, there have always been women who did participate. Hypatia and Maria Mitchell and all that. But why so few?)
From the article:
Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents' investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.
Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of "illegitimate" children.
Under patriarchy, "bastards" and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers' name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, "legitimate" children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers' family, and not to their mothers', which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children until they produce at least one son.
Another key to patriarchy's evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives.
Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, "Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation." Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options -- be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children -- has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.
One more advantage, which he doesn't mention but which has occured to me before, is that keeping women at home keeps them safe from physical threats. Lets say you have a war and half your men die. At least in principle, this does not necessarily make the next generation any smaller. If the remaining half are willing to be less than monogamous then the next generation can be the same size as the previous. But if half your women died, the next generation is going to be half the size of the last. Women are the bottleneck in the system. So obviously, keeping women out of harm's way has advantages.
Of course, there's nothing so physically dangerous about learning to read, or studying the stars (although medical and chemical research are dangerous -- consider what happened to Marie Curie.) So this wasn't a complete explanation, to me, as to why women should have done so little. But in combination with the other advantages the article mentions? I think it's sufficient.
It's not that women are incapable of making discoveries, nor that men have evilly oppressed them to decrease the amount of competition. It's just the societies in which women are socially expected to be "reproductive specialists" are those which produce the most kids. So most of us happen to be descended from those societies.
But nowhere does he say that people are happiest in these societies. It's obvious why many women might not be. But the article also points out that men don't necessarily want to have to support a large family. In a society where women don't work and each marriage produces many children, and men are expected to marry... Well, that's a heavy burden. Is that really the ideal life for the majority of men? A marriage of equals, with equal responsibility, is less confining, with much less pressure.
So, it seems that even if patriarchal societies do tend to produce more children, those children tend to set up more equal societies among themselves, if they can.
As the industrial revolution continues to spread (it hasn't reached some parts of the world yet) I think more and more of these societies will be able to afford to change, to become more equal. Lower infant mortality and better prospects for old age mean that you don't need so many children. So even if the author is right that patriarchy is going to expand again in the short term, I think the long term prospects for equality are good. I think we have already taken some steps that will not be reversed.
So all in all, I like the article.