Monday, April 30, 2007

"The Return of Patriarchy"

An article by that provocative title ran in Foreign Policy magazine. (That link goes to an incomplete version however -- to read the whole thing you'll need to read this post through Google groups.)

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.


Ahruman said...


The concept is similar to the idea that people will get stupider as stupid people reproduce faster, an idea that’s been made into a mildly amusing film. That one is rather old, and has consistently failed to predict reality (or even to predict the past). It’s easy to point out a flaw, though: the idea confuses intelligence with intellectualism, assuming the intellectually lazy will have unintelligent children. This is not the case, and sufficiently many intelligent children of “dumb” people have broken out of their cultural context and the proportion of intellectuals has in fact grown steadily for the past few century (even if it doesn’t immediately appear that way).

Going back to the patriarchy thing… there isn’t an equally obvious distinction between a “credulous” gene and personality and lifestyle choices in this case. However, the proportion of atheists/humanists/rationalists has in fact grown in much the same way as he proportion of intellectuals (what a coincidence, eh?).

I suspect that the current prominence of religious extremists in the West is, to a large extent, a particularly strong permutation of the usual left/right pendulum mechanism. Whether it will swing back as far the other way will be interesting to see.

It’s hard to be so optimistic about the Middle East/South Asia/most of Africa, but then, it always has been. There, we’re stuck with the same old needs – general education, which needs enough food and water that kids don’t need to spend all their waking hours begging, which requires more money and less corruption. An attitude of questioning religious authority is never going to be successfully delivered by airdropping explosive devices… still, looks like Turkey’s not succumbing.

Wow, how cheerfully optimistic I get in spring. :-)

Mary said...

Believe me, I have no sympathy for the idea that intelligence is genetic, or even passed down directly from parent to child culturally. I don't even think "intelligence" is defined well enough for us to talk about how it's passed on. I certainly don't believe it has anything to do with IQ tests, which are ridiculous. There's not enough agreement on what "intelligent" even means.

So I have no sympathy for real social Darwinists who think they can breed some superior mind by mating intellectuals. That's just not how geniuses are produced.

But, y'know, this is a simpler case. We're talking about reproductive policies having an effect on the size of different kinds of society. Of *course* the society that puts the biggest premium on having children is going to become the most numerous. So of course most of us are going to come from that kind of society.

I'm not saying that the desire to have kids (instead of working outside the home) is somehow genetic, or even passed on from parent to child culturally... Just that societies where there's social pressure to stay home and produce lots of kids will end up with lots of kids. That society may then change (although societies do seem to have a kind of inertia. It's hard to change them all at once, in one generation.) It may be that the next generation doesn't have that social pressure, and is smaller... But then, after a few generations some other society which still does have the lots-of-kids pressure will catch up to it.

I heard somebody use this metaphor recently -- "You know that most of the universe is empty, with something like one particle per cubic centimeter. You also know that the local density of the universe around you is much higher, like 10^18 particles per cubic centimeter. But you don't think that's a strange coincidence that needs an explanation. You know it's because life can't form in interstellar space that you happen to have been born in such an unusual spot. A selection effect."

Similarly, this is saying that most of us find ourselves inheriting a patriarchal society is that children are more likely to be born, in patriarchal societies. We can change society if we want, but unless we have lots of kids, the next generation is still going to be born into the patriarchal societies that remain.

Mary said...

Oh, I fixed the weird error, thanks.

Anonymous said...

From Pyracantha at ELECTRON BLUE:

Since lady physicists (like yourself) almost always marry other physicists, and their children often become physicists too, does this mean that physicists will eventually evolve into a "caste?" Are there evolutionary advantages to the endogamy among physicists (and other scientists?)

Mary said...

Pyracantha - I didn't get married so I could join a "caste." Really. I got married for the traditional reasons. I fell in love, and I wanted a family.

I don't think science really lends itself to caste-ness. It's not exclusive enough. As you of all people know, anyone who wants to can pick up some textbooks and join in. So there can never really be a science aristocracy -- there's no way of keeping anyone out.

Anonymous said...

Patriarchy is a counterproductive cancer that has entrenched itself in society and abjects women by pressuring them to submit to the role of child bearing vessel. While it is true that patriarchal values increase the birthrate due to total disregard for women as human beings, it's also true that you have a lot more people being born into oppressive and miserable circumstances. Another way male rule is illogical. Secondly, there WERE women who participated in society. Of course their achievements were disregarded or subsumed under those of men because male historians have always tended to exclude women in their writings. It's not that women were always happy to stay home, pump out babies and waste their lives.