The Natural Basis for Inequality of the Sexes

Is the Natural World a valid source of guidance for our behavior, morals, ethics, and other more mundane areas of thought such as how to build an airplane and what to eat for breakfast?1 When it comes to airplanes, you'd better be a servant to the rules of nature (such as gravity) or the airplane will go splat. When it comes to breakfast, it has been shown that knowing about our evolutionary history can be a more efficacious guide to good nutrition than the research employed by the FDA, but you can live without this approach and following FDA guidelines will not do you in. A naturalistic approach can work when it comes to behavior too, but there are consequences. You or someone you love would probably not like the consequences.

Consider, for example, this question: Should society and the law give men and women fundamentally different rights? Would it be OK if men and women had different pay for the same job, or different access to jobs? Would it be OK if men and women were treated differently by the law in a way that accounted for the behavioral differences between them that arise from their biology? Should men and women have different status because of their gender? Similar questions can be extended to people that are biologically different in other ways, such as by age, gender orientation, physical handicap or, should it be proven a valid categorization, race. But for now, let's stick with the basic adult male vs. female difference.

Let's use the term "naturalistic" to mean the assumption that what we observe in nature is the optimal, correct, or "best" approach to doing something. That which we observe in nature is the best guide to how things should be. We can see that in mammals mothers nurse their young. Departures from this (bottle feeding, early weening, feeding young something other than mother's milk, etc.) are risky and typically have negative consequences. Humans in a "state of nature" (such as hunter gatherers) get a moderate but regular amount of exercise in carrying out their day to day business compared to humans in a "state of suburbia" who can get their stuff done with almost no physical movement. Human foragers are trim and fit, human suburbanites tend towards heart disease. This suggests that regular moderate exercise is good, and both scientific research and experience seem to support this.

So far so good. A "naturalistic assumption" seems the way to go.

In the Western industrialized world, we have a widely held concept of what is "natural" and we tend to make a link between "natural" and "good." We tend to 'believe' in a socially constructed balance between natural and non natural choices. However, we also possess other beliefs and priorities that sometimes conflict with the naturalistic assumption. For example, a child that is fatally allergic to mother's milk would be left to die with a pure naturalistic philosophy. However, the life of such a child is typically valued more highly than one's philosophical purity, and non-natural intervention (feeding the child soy milk from a bottle) is chosen as the 'correct' decision. In truth, day to day, we are utterly arbitrary in adherence to or ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the naturalistic premise. We do what is convenient, what feels good, what provides us some perceived good or benefit (money, status, etc.). Then later we explain our decision rhetorically as necessary, and sometimes the naturalistic premise is invoked.

Naturalistic perspectives are often invoked when considering political or economic decisions. Free market capitalism is natural. Competition is natural.

Let's look more closely at one of the often cited examples of using a naturalistic premise to justify a social or economic reality which is rather controversial: The well documented fact that women get paid less than men in Western society.

There is plenty of room for clarification here ... do women get paid less than men for the same exact job? Do women get paid the same but end up with a lower salary because they take unpaid leave to have babies? Do women get paid the same but end up with lower pay because they take unpaid leave which indirectly contributes to slower (in calendar time) advancement on the pay scale? Are women kept out of jobs, or even entire professions, that tend to be higher paid? Some or all of the above?

I've collected a list of phrases that are typical of the naturalistic assumption being applied to the question of salary, paraphrased from comments over a period of time made on my blog. The purpose of this list is to provide an evidence based description of what people are saying about women's salary.

  • Is every difference in how we treat males vs. females insulting? Why stop at lower salary for women? What about holding the door for the weaker sex? What about getting to improve one's daily look with make-up being the exclusive right of women? Why should men, the stronger sex, always carry all the groceries?
  • Is paying women and men the same salary really fair? The two sexes are different, having different strengths and advantages, and are limited in different ways. Those differences justify the fact that salaries are skewed.
  • ... from an evolutionary point of view it is more important for men than for women to earn money, as money is earned for status, and not for consumption.
  • Psychologically, men are more aggressive, more ambitious, and more authoritative. They are more often psychopathic, and generally less caring of others ...
  • ...being more aggressive and ambitious, more authoritative and psychopathic, less caring of others are "qualities" that are sought by corporations seeking high-end CEOs...
  • ...hiring a woman results in the risk that she will be unable to work if she gets pregnant. The "worth" of that employee is thus reduced.
  • divorces it is the wife who gets the children. .... it is reasonable to consider the higher salary of men as a compensation for that.
  • Clearly, the salary difference has a biological basis. Until it is thoroughly understood why this biological difference exists it is wrong to say that it should be abandoned.

Is there something to these comments? Is there a way to not just explain, but actually justify our social and cultural rules and behaviors from a naturalistic premise?

A naturalistic basis for determining what is proper or justified in human behavior may take into account the fact that we are mammals. Our mammalness, as part of our broader "animalness" encompasses many of the critically important facets of our lives. We have two sexes, a male (producing sperm) and a female (producing ova). Pregnancy lasts a long time relative to the overall life cycle of a given female, so baby-making is a big investment and any risks or costs associated with this endeavor are large. The females nurse the young, adding significant time and energy in the form of child care. In mammals, males typically fight or display for sexual access, and females are either herded or harassed by males or choose males with which to mate, and males provide virtually no offspring care in most species. In some species there is courting and female choice, in others, hormonally mediated sexual arousal and activity, in others, what we might call rape.

That is a pretty wide range of behaviors, but one must use this wide range to describe 'typical' mammals, as they do vary. There are key characteristics that do pertain to all mammals, however: Pregnancy and nursing being entirely female, longish period of offspring care, and internal fertilization which results in a certain amount of paternal uncertainty (unclear attribution of fatherhood) for all males.

Given this, we may expect human males to be less choosy (sexually) than females, we may expect males to be promiscuous, we may expect females to be more cautious, we may expect males to be show-offs and often more violent than females, and we may expect males to be bigger and stronger than females. Given this, perhaps we can begin to explain human males' attention to sports, and shopping behaviors found among females. Perhaps we can even justify certain human behaviors. Violence, for instance. Indeed, there are historically documented legal systems that would punish a woman severely for the murder of her husband's illicit lover, but punish the man much less severely for killing his wife's illicit lover.

But wait, there's more. We are mammals but we are also primates, which is a subset of mammals. Would it not be more appropriate to look to primates, rather than mammals more broadly, for our fundamental naturalistic natures?

Well, most primates are either solitary or monogamous, with males and females not differing very much in size. Mating happens as a matter of female choice more than male-male tournament competition in most primate species. In many primate species, especially the polyandrous ones (where a single female has two or more male mates) there is a certain amount of male care of offspring, while in others, not so much. There is almost no difference in the potential effectiveness of fighting anatomy (such as canines) in males vs. females in most primates.

So, our evolutionary heritage as primates actually looks quite different than if we look more broadly at mammals. We might expect male humans to track females very carefully, be more or less at their service with respect to child care, and we should see very little difference between the sexes in who gets to use force or coercion for personal gain. Males and females would roughly share the job of protecting home and hearth (proverbially or otherwise). Males in many cases would not know if they are the father of a particular female's offspring, but they would remain devoted to the female and her young because the young are related in some way. The multiple males hooked up to individual females would typically be half brothers, for instance.

But really, while we are in fact primates, we are actually Old World Primates. If we remove the prosimians and the New World Primates from the mix, and look only at Old World 'higher' primates, we get a different picture. In this comparison, we actually drop all of the polyandry and most of the monogamy. We now get a pretty large difference, on average, in body size of males vs. females, but male coercion is rarely a means of sexual interaction ... rather, females and males both engage in quite a bit of politics (these are smart animals) and these political interactions are mediated by quite a bit of biting and poking (within both males and females, but maybe more so in males). The result is often a parallel (male vs. female) set of hierarchies, and position in these hierarchies determines for males who gets to mate and for females who ends up most successfully raising offspring.

From this perhaps we can still understand such human behaviors as guys getting together to do sports and gals getting together to shop and compete over makeup and shoes, and we get to explain politicians and People Magazine as well! Gossip, politics, personal status, etc. are all expectable pastimes or passions from such an Old World Primate ancestry. When we look at a modern politician, we can often imagine a baboon. When we read a popular culture magazine, we may be reminded of that troop of Japanese macaques we saw last week at the zoo. Now, we're really getting somewhere!

But wait, the Old World Primates split into diverse evolutionary branches a VERY long time ago. Maybe we should look at the subset of Old World Primates of which we are a part ... the apes.

The majority of ape species are monomorphic in body size (the males and females are the same size) and practice life-long pair bonding. Both males and females are physically equipped (strong bodies, big canines) to defend the territory and the young, and both take similar roles in this regard, though the females nurse the young so there is some difference in male vs. female role in offspring care. A considerable effort is put into care of offspring overall, and with setting them up in new territories, etc., and this sort of care involves the males at least as much as the females.

So we might expect humans, as apes, to be highly monogamous and to put huge amounts of efforts into offspring ... somewhat different in style but with similar levels of effort for males vs. females.

But hold on a second there... we are apes, yes, and this characterizes the average ape because gibbons and siamangs are all apes and most apes are gibbons or siamangs, if we just count the number of species. But they are so-called "lesser apes" and we are so-called "great apes!" The great apes constitutes a smaller taxonomic group. Maybe we should look at the great apes only and forget the gibbons and siamangs.

OK, when we do that, we are looking at orangs, gorillas, chimps, and bonobos. Orangs have a very high level of sexual dimorphism, are primarily vegetarian, and the most typical form of sexual interaction is either forced copulation (akin to rape) or females swooning over gigantic, and presumably very sexy, but rare, super males. All offspring care is provided by the female. In fact, the largest social group among these apes is the mother and offspring with a random male busy raping the female while the offspring hangs out on a nearby branch eating some wild figs. Gorillas also have a high level of dimorphism in body size, but live in large groups with the key group structure consisting of a silver back male and a harem of females who are totally devoted to and sexually monogamous with the male until a lone silver back shows up and starts to kill the female's infant offspring now and then. When that happens, the females join the infanticidal male and abandon their devotion to the original silver back.

These two apes provide very different models, but are similar in that females are either raped or have their "children" killed (and they can stop that by joining the killer) and when push comes to shove, the enormously large males get to do all the pushing. This would suggest that humans get comfortable with a very male dominated society and that the females should just get in line. Fast.

But hold on, we are much much more closely related to the chimpanzees. We are equally related to each of the two chimpanzee species, common chimps and bonobos. So let's look at their lifestyle.

Both groups have the unusual and interesting feature of multiple adult sexually mature males and females living in the same group. When a female is in a state of ovulation, she also enters a state of estrus ... the visible display of ovulation. Some of the males may be forced to not mate with this female (forced by dominant males or coalitions of males) but for the most part every male mates with such a female at some point. Over time, all of the females go into estrus one or two at a time. So, over the course of several years, every single male will eventually have potentially baby-making sex with every single female. This is done in the form of giant orgies in which only one female participates.

That is true for common chimps, but it is also true for bonobos, with an added twist. All the chimps have lots of what I will call erotic interaction all the time, including auto erotic. But for bonobos, there is the added feature of almost every possible gender and age combination of non-baby making erotic interaction, and every combination of body part interaction. So a young female may provide oral sex to an older male. An older male may provide oral sex to a young male. Two adult females may engage in genital-genital rubbing. And so on and so forth. Over and over again. OMG.

Young males do not seem to have sex with their mothers. Otherwise, pretty much every combination of erotic interaction can and does happen.

So, given the chimp model, we should all be bisexual and disregard age or gender of our sexual partners. Almost all baby making sex should involve a gang bang lasting several days. We should have strong male hierarchies and female hierarchies that determine, ultimately, who gets to be the father of each child (more or less) not by who has sex with whom, but by regulating exactly when in the ovulatory cycle intromissive sex with male orgasm happens. If we lean towards the common chimp model, all males should be dominant over all females. If we lean towards the bonobo model, all females should be dominant over all males. And somehow, from this, we have to explain human female shopping behavior and sports.

So, that is the sum of our naturalistic models ... where they come from and how we might use them ... assuming that our evolutionary heritage, our phylogenetic framework, our Darwinian determinism, should provide us with the best naturalistic guidance for day to day behavior.

But hold on one more time: There is another thing we should think about in building our naturalistic model: Birds.

We might be mammals, but we act like birds. Like chimps, we exist in societies with multiple potentially sexually mature males and females. But we tend to pair bond (or nearly so) within this framework. In this sense, we are very different than our closest living mammal relatives (who, by the way, are relatively very distant in relationship compared to many other pairs of species!). We are not that closely related to birds, but if we look at a wide range of human societies known to live off the land ('preagricultural' groups, either in the present or ethnohistorically known), we see that human societies are often very close to bird societies. We have some kind of monogamy that occasionally develops into a bit of polyandry (like traditional Tibetan highland groups and the phalarope birds of the arctic) or a bit of polygyny (like many cattle keeping groups or the oft-studied oft-cited red winged blackbirds and many other birds). But even in societies that do allow polygyny, most families are based on monogamy, though it is serial monogamy (like the vast majority of bird species including almost all song birds).

Yet, when certain economic features ... like land (nesting sites) and professional or social milieu (territories) are essential to status and wealth, we have very long term monogamous systems in humans such as the immutable Christian Victorian marriage (or in birds the life long bonding of raptors). In all birds, there is a LOT of care invested in offspring, and males and females deliver similar levels ... and in some species very similar kinds ... of this care. In humans, there is also considerable care in offspring but ... alas ... we are mammals so females don't lay eggs (allowing for male investment at an early stage) and males can't nurse the young. This starts a cascade of male-female differences. Perhaps females care for the young directly while the males busy themselves defending the territory.

Why, it is rather remarkable how birds map human variation in society in so many ways. But not all. Birds rarely live in tightly knit, spatially close groups of sexually active pairs. One example of this is nesting sea birds like gulls and terns. And for gulls and terns, the biggest survival risk in early life is that your neighbor eats you while your parents are distracted. There are certainly human analogs to this (infanticide is a real factor in shaping human society) but the parallel is weak.

Dear reader, if you are still with me (and I would understand if you've gotten bored or frustrated and gone away by now) then you can easily see this point: We have a rich supply of models from which we can draw naturalistic conclusions, and these models can be used to 'justify' or explain almost anything. This makes them lousy models, unless you are in the business of just making stuff up.

A better approach might be to ask: What is the premise we choose, as a society, to be the basis of our ethical and moral codes, our laws, etc.? For many people, this premise is mutualism. We agree to equality of all individuals (with special exceptions). This equality does not mean individuals are identical. Indeed, there may be categorical differences among groups. Females do have babies, males do not. But equal rights are to be preserved. Then on the basis of this equality, we agree to interact in positive, mutually beneficial ways. One hand washes the other. What goes around comes around. We watch, and occasionally scratch, each other's backs. Friendship, camaraderie, and civility are valued practices.

This does not mean that the naturalistic consideration goes away. What it should mean is that naturalistic models can not be used to justify systematic social, cultural, legal, economic, philosophical, or political inequalities. But they can be used, if used properly (and that is an academic, not political issue), to explain some things. Even so, most of the explanations we encounter in the popular literature are selective, unjustified, inappropriate and poorly executed. In my opinion, we are very very far from being able to explain much with what we currently know, and certainly not at the pop psychology level seen in the comments cited above.

But I do want to make an attempt at a naturalistic consideration of modern human society with respect to two realities. One, females have the babies and males do not, and two, males tend to be more violent and aggressive than females.

The fundamental reality of these propositions needs to be tested first. Do the females really have the babies, and what does this mean? Well, it is not so simple. For the most part, females do have the babies but with modern approaches it is possible and indeed quite common, and in some cases, necessary, for males to have much more input in offspring care in humans than one might otherwise predict from a purely naturalistic model. For example ... and very few people know this about me, and learning this is your reward for sticking with me this far along in this essay ... I personally fed my daughter for her entire nursing period. I held her, I gave her the milk, we stared into each other's eyes and bonded lovingly, the whole nine yards. Not her mother. Me. So, while the female clearly has a major biological commitment to the process, it is not as absolute as one might assume.

With respect to male violence and aggression, remember what Margaret Mead said. Mead claimed that there were societies in which females were more aggressive or violent than males, and thus, the whole male aggression thing was a pure cultural construct. Well, Mead was a great person and a great anthropologist, but she was wrong about that. There are no such societies. On the other hand, and in anthropology there is always another hand, Mead was not totally wrong.

Yes, males are always, without exception, more violent and aggressive, on average (and bigger and stronger too) than the females within a given society. But the absolute level of aggression and violence among both males and females is highly variable. Therefore, there can be females in one society who are more violent and aggressive than the males in another society. Most importantly, the level of difference between males and females in a given society ... and especially the level of male control over females ... varies greatly. There are societies in which there is very little difference between males and females, and there are societies in which the difference is great. Americans: You live in a society where the difference is considerable, more than the average. That is not how it has to be.

So, with respect to our individual selfish Darwinian reproductive goals, our broader social (territorial, economic, etc.) goals, and our cultural fixations, babies and aggression are both important. Offspring are our Darwinian legacy; sons are guns; little girls grow up and give their parents more Darwins (a unit of fitness) by helping raise more children and by having babies of their own. Sexual access must be ensured and paternity managed. Territory must be held, resources protected. And so on.

The problem is that only the ladies can have the babies, and it mainly falls to the gents to be the tough guys. On top of this, when a woman has a child she may fall short in some other responsibilities such as carrying all the firewood and water and other physically demanding tasks (as occur in most societies where women do the vast majority of hard labor). For their part, this aggressiveness of males comes in handy for defending the group territory, but it often becomes a nuisance and becomes a very serious problem when this aggression turns to beating, raping, murdering, and threatening others, mainly women.

So how do we deal with this? Start out by admitting that we as a society owe women a great deal for being the baby bearers. It is hard, painful, and you can die doing it. But no. In our society, we take away a woman's rights because she is the baby bearer. She is paid less, and as one of the comments cited above suggests, her value is diminished.

  • "...hiring a woman results in the risk that she will be unable to work if she gets pregnant. The "worth" of that employee is thus reduced...."

We also deal with this by admitting that aggressive male approaches are not necessarily a good thing. Yes, it may be true that men earn money in part for status, and not for consumption, but that would be because men are being assholes. If it is true that being aggressive, ambitious, authoritative, less caring and even psychopathic are 'qualities' that are sought in CEOs, then we have to stop doing that. We have to stop seeking and rewarding those qualities.

Compensation works both ways. We must compensate, as a society, for the burden of our evolutionary past as manifest differentially by gender. Our behavior is flexible, and thus it is incumbent on our society to attenuate violent leanings. Childbearing is fundamental and essential but cannot be totally outsourced by the women who do it. Punishing women for having this responsibility is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

A review of our evolutionary context is interesting to me (it is what my professional research life is largely about) and this context is causative. But a realistic look at our evolutionary biology does not give any simple answers, and never, ever does it provide justification for unfairness or violence.

There is a reason they call it the Naturalistic Fallacy.

1The entire conversation related to the evolutionary context of modern human health and behavior can be researched by beginning with the work of Eaton, Konner and Shostack and working backwards and forwards from there. Here are two of the key references to get your started.

S Eaton (2003). An evolutionary perspective on human physical activity: implications for health Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology - Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 136 (1), 153-159 DOI: 10.1016/S1095-6433(03)00208-3

Eaton, S. Boyd, Konner, Melvin (1985). Paleolithic nutrition: A Consideration of its nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine, 312 (5), 283-289


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Well done, particularly the focus on both the complexity and arbitrariness of the parallelisms. I would add Sarah Blaffer Hrdy to the list of "must read" on these issues.

You're right that it's a fallacy to assume that natural is always better, or to look to other species to determine our proper behavior. We are clearly very different than other primates and mammals. We constantly do things that they don't do, such as using language, using air conditioning, wearing clothes, using antibiotics and pain medication, etc. I think our biggest evolutionary achievement is our ability to adapt to our culture and change behavior significantly without the need to wait for genetic mutations to do it for us.

Really nice, Greg! You did a great job walking the reader through the assumptions, the models, the problems, and sharing your own thoughts. It was worth the length ;).

Thanks for this one.
Cross-cultural studies of "human universals," especially in moral decision-making, suggest that part of our "nature" is to be moral animals. Culture is biology, and isn't it convenient that some nice things have evolved (turned out to be adaptive or linked to something that is) since we diverged from our common ancestor? (agreeing with catgirl)

By don cotler (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

Fantastic. The next time I get into an argument with someone about gender I'm just going to point them to this article.

By Jonathan Simmons (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

I agree. This will be one of those "but... but.... look at this! Read this!" blog posts. Bookmarking now....

I was with you all the way through. You've developed this wonderful loping, syncopated style that keeps me hooked. Once i realized you were working through a list, I couldn't wait until you got to the bonobos. I thought that would settle it. But no, the birds have something to tell us. Hilarious! I've always thought that the main reason to develop "culture" was to work out the inequities and plain bad luck handed out by nature. And of course another important reason, is to make art.

Or, as we said in the 60's, "biology is not destiny." Unfortunately, it can be a pretty depressing explanation for the status quo, though. (As Reagan said, "'status quo' is Latin for 'the mess we are in.'") Nevertheless, thanks for the wonderful explication of a conclusion many of us reached long ago.

RE our commonality with birds: Remarking on our similar dependence on one of our senses above others, my ornithology prof pointed out, "After all, we go out into the field to watch birds; we don't go out to smell mammals..."

I agree with Jonathan here, this post will come in handy during all those sexist debates! Seriously, this is an excellent run-through of all the angles to the issue ...and thanks Greg, for the tribute .."we as a society owe women a great deal for being the baby bearers".
Which makes me wonder what would happen if the roles were reversed and child bearing was no longer the domain of women alone????

Yes, but if biology were destiny, we'd be bonobos. Or at least, I sure would.

Really wonderful, Greg -- definitely a keeper. Oh, and the "loping" style really worked for me, too. With you all the way . . . laughing at each "reveal".

By Leigh Williams (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

I've always been puzzled by the idea of "holding doors open for women". I hold doors open for anyone who happens to be fairly close behind me - I mean, isn't it kind of rude to let it whack into someone's face?

(But yes.)


You are confusing naturalistic and mechanistic arguments, by portraying the latter as the former.

Naturalistic argument: "Nature has ordained that the female of the species should take care of the young, ergo we ought to keep women in the home, and pay them less when they take a job".

Mechanistic argument: "The reason why women are paid less is that they do less (e.g. by spending more time on having children, or being less aggressive in generating additional activity or revenue)."

Notice the difference? In the former, an interpretation of "Nature" is held as the basis for a value judgement (an "ought to"), which commands inequality. The inequality is explicitly embedded in the "ought to".

In the latter, the (implicit) value judgement does not logically entail inequality. This value judgement, the unstated "ought to", is that we should pay people according how they perform, rather than who they are. Any difference in pay results from external, mechanistic factors.

Of course you could say that the argument is wrong, e.g. that pay differences really result from prejudice and sexism, rather than difference in performance. That would be a valid reason to reject the argument. But that's not what you're saying. You're portraying the mechanistic argument as a naturalistic one, in order to (falsely) tag it as an example of the naturalistic fallacy.

In the final bit, you implicitly accept the mechanistic nature of the argument, which leads you to reject the associated "ought to" of performance-based pay. Basically, you are saying that we should not pay people according to how they peform, precisely because this gives an edge to one gender. In particular, you state that we should stop rewarding increased competitiveness, specifically because it (supposedly) favours the more aggressive male. You also say that we should stop penalising lower activity, specifically because it (again, supposedly) discriminates against females who must take more time off due to pregnancy.

Of course there is an obvious trade-off here, in that these actions might well have a negative effect on society overall (as in, making everybody worse off through reduced economic activity). Or not. That's worth discussing. But you deliberately use obfuscated, value-laden, emotionally charged language, in order to prevent any appreciation of these potential consequences.

"Naturalistic perspectives are often invoked when considering political or economic decisions. Free market capitalism is natural. Competition is natural."

Actually free market capitalism is highly unnatural.

And I haven't personally heard it defended with the argument that it is natural.

Jr, you haven't heard people invoke natural selection to defend a free market?

toto, Greg is arguing both, and quite transparently. He lays out the arguments people use that say there must be performance differences between the sexes, which turn out to be based on gender roles. Then he examines whether we have any good model for believing those gender roles are anything but culturally determined. Then he raises a separate question: given the very small difference we do know is sex-determined (i.e., childbearing) and given the vast amount of our behavior that is culturally determined, how do we as a culture want to handle the issue of pay relative to those tiny differences?

Also, before you get into the question of whether we should continue to pay based on performance, you've got some work to do. First, you need to define good metrics for performance. Number of hours of butt in chair in a year, which is the lost-mommy-productivity metric, is a lousy metric. Second, you need to demonstrate that, despite the assumptions (not metrics) about gender-variable productivity that are hauled out every time the subject is brought up (see the original post), actual pay decisions are made based on real performance rather than on these assumptions. Then we can argue about what Greg wants to abandon.

I had to stop reading in the midst of this. If this were a justification for the basis of why whites and blacks are treated differently, someone could end up losing a job, friends, their status, even relatives and more. To be able to justify why women are treated differently then men is simply yet another testimony to the fact that sexism is upheld (while racism has become totally unacceptable). Why do women continue to "allow" men to theorize and degrade women's worth?

Thanks for the great read. Shared it with my colleauges via Facebook.

By Deconstructed Harry (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

Carrie, it seems that you started reading this with a certain expectation and stopped reading it before your expectation could be shattered. If you treat everything you encounter this way you are bound to remain in a state of perpetual ignorance.

Toto: Your binary construct of naturalistic v. mechanistic is false and inappropriate A naturalistic argument can have a mechanistic aspect (men are stronger than women because of differential conditioning of muscle by androgens; women are smarter than men because of differential effects of androgen; and so on) as well as other levels of explanation.

(see this:…

Also, your example of a "naturalistic argument" is absurd. What does "Nature has ordained" mean? Even in a fallacious argument, a phrase like "Nature has ordained" is rather spooky. That's not even a good straw man.

Regarding your effort to pass off a false economic argument as a valid "mechanistic" argument: Sorry, no go. The reason why women are paid less is that their efforts are divided across a range of essential functions, some of which are not paid for. Furthermore, the unpaid portion is whenever possible under the control of a patriarchal system limiting choice and where possible, even, owning the women themselves.

Your comment is largely sophistic.

Jr: As Stephanie points out, the free market is very much thought of as a natural system, and it probably really is. It emerges from the collective unmitigated behavior of humans, as well pigeons and other test animals behavioral economists like to use. The premise of market theory is that utility maximizing behavior drives the system. Furthermore, there is an exact one on one correspondence between all of the elements of Evolutionary or Darwinian behavioral models and economic models.

I think perhaps what you are reacting to is an interesting example in some of the literature of the naturalistic fallacy. I have seen here and there commentary that "the free market certainly is NOT natural, therefore yada yada yada..." wher "yada" = an argument that the free market is actually potentially evil.

So what is going on there is this:

Natural = good

Free market = natural

Therefore free market = good


We don't like the free market because it stings when you touch it, therefore it is bad

So, free market /= natural

When in fact, the natural = good is the fallacy part of that argument.

Carrie: Right, you missed the point. Maybe you should start reading from the end and work backwards.

While I agree that it is a common fallacy of logic to assume that facts of nature themselves directly imply moral values; they don't. But it is critically important to take well-founded scientific facts into account when deciding how to apply one's chosen moral values to particular circumstance. For example, we choose as a value to despise the act of an older person having sex with a younger person too young to understand the physical and emotional consequences of the act--and I happen to agree with that value. But the well-researched facts of reality indicate a real gender difference here: young women victimized in this way by older men suffer far greater injury than young men abused by older women (who may suffer no ill effects at all). The law should allow for these real differences and treat these acts differently.

Worms. Can. Opened.

Mr Crocker, the argument could be made that it is the crime not the effect on the victim that determines the sentence. Not that the victim is irrelevant, but just that the victim is variable. A person's personal level of pain tolerance could then be used to set sentece for assault, for example.

I enjoyed your article. It is a hard subject to consider, and I thought you did a good job. I think it is important that we not shy away from difficult subjects - the search for truth should be thorough (though of course we need to consider social feeling to some extent - as you did - if we want our thoughts considered).
Two things - or three, depending on how you count - came to mind in reading it.
One: was on the issue of comparative body size. In my undergrad anthropology degree, a thing that stuck with me was when a teacher said that, although differences in degree of relation to us, and other variables, make studying "normal gender roles" difficult, in a study of comparative body size among primates, the degree to which average male and female size were the same or differed correlated strongly with the degree to which their societies were gender-equal or male-dominated. The examples given as extremes were gorillas, where the average female is 60% the size of the average male, and where males have harems which they control, and a form of monkey (I forget which, but I believe an Old World one - maybe a macaque?), where the males and females were the same size, where the power relations between the genders were equal. Humans fall exactly in between in terms of body ratio, with the average female 80% the size of the average male. From this, we would expect to find - as we do - some gender inequality. This was hard for me to accept as a modern, non-doormat female, but it would be a disservice to my gender to turn away from intellectual consideration just because I didn't like it.
Two: on monogamy; there were two things that I made note of. First, I was taught in anthro undergrad that monogamy was mostly a modern Western construct - that in fact, over the course of human history and across cultures, approximately (I forget the exact number, but I think it was the higher) _80-95%_ of human cultures practiced polygyny, although many individual males in these societies could only afford one wife. Only 2% practiced polyandry, and these tended to be those in places like Tibet where arable land is scarce, so men, usually brothers, pooled resources to afford a wife, but afterwards could add more wives if they chose, so were not strictly polyandrous. Therefore, historical cross-cultural studies would agree with a survey of primates that the natural state for humans is polygyny (another idea I find problematic, except when I wish I had a wife myself to clean the house, watch the kids, and do the traditional "wifely" duties while I type on Facebook.)
The other part about monogamy relates to birds. Now, do I remember from your Facebook posts that you are a birdwatcher? If so, I would hesitate to argue with you on birds, which are not my subject. However, I do recall reading a Time magazine cover story in 1994 or so (I know, not a scholarly journal, but it was a well-researched article) on monogamy that said that actual study of both supposedly monogamous birds and supposedly monogamous humans showed that females routinely cuckolded their mates. Mates were chosen for factors like ability to bring in food, build nests and care for the young, while baby-fathers were chosen for pretty feathers, pretty songs, or other less clear features. Plenty of human folklore sounds like that ... the rich lord, young pretty wife, travelling knight or troubador ... The article found, as I recall, though this number seems astronomical, that in one Irish (or Scottish?) port town, where many sailors came through and then left, as many as 25% of all babies were not fathered by the men who thought they fathered them.

By Joya Beebe (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

On body size dimorphism: All bets are off when comparing modern (last 100,000 years or more) humans with other primates, becuase:

1) Primates have fangs, modern humans have spears.

2) Modern humans are upright and have very different capacities than do ape in how they move, grab, fight, etc.

3) Even though the 80% number has been cited ... well, we don't use that system. Rather, 1.0 = monomorphism and higher numbers = larger males, so the claim would be reasted that sexual dimorphism in human is 1.25 However,this varies across societies quuite a bit, and if you look at old world foragers, you actually get a number closer to 1.1

I think body size dimorphism is important but it is hard to fit humans into the ape or primate scale because of these factors that make the direct comparison difficult.

Regarding monogomy: All the traditional cultures that are used to make various points about human society are recent agricultural groups that have social systems that post date a few thousand years ago. Also, although there are 80 % societies that have polygyny, the vast majority of individuals who are married in such societies are in monogamous relationships, and about ten percent or so of "western" humans these days are actually in polygynous relationships.

Glad you brought up the birds! Yes, a surprising percentage of monogamous bird offspring are fathered by a male other than the one who is "supposed" to have been the father. That number, between 14 and 25%, is the same number, though, for humans. Hmm....

@ "do women get paid less" etc.
Don't forget that women get lighter duty and favored treatment in hard work manual labor situations--like foxholes, ditch digging duty, working in any restaurant anywhere(factor in that the 'prettiest girls' get light duty, and the illegal alien girls get the hardest tasks), or concentration camps(can of worms squared)and everywhere else there is hard work to be done.

But on the subject of birds, yeah, isn't it amazing how cuckoldry isn't viewed as an exertion of female aggression, or female violence directed at male life? Factor in the inequity and injustice that men face in child-support situations, and wowsers, it's matriarchy-runs-the show bingo!

By the real flamb… (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

cuttlefish: Go shit a watermelon and come back and we can talk.

By Mother of your child (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

@ [not] Mother of my child: Yeah, AFTER you squeeze the bullets out of my body that some single mother raised fellahs stuck in there while they were out hustlin' you some crack money.

By the real flamb… (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

Good post though I have a couple issues.

First the argument on naturalistic basis seemed to center on "B has one model, C has another model, D has yet another, therefore A has no consistent model".

However all the other species seemed to have internal consistent models. Which if anything makes the hypothesis that humans have some degree of an evolutionary model more plausible.

I do sympathize with the arguments that any naturalistic model for humans is swamped by cultural forces (clearly human societies have MANY different models). I could even accept that it shows that there's no strong moral basis for our naturalistic model (though I'm not quite convinced).

For a discussion of the naturalistic model I'd be much more interested in your anthropological experiences rather than other species as we're evolutionarily still hunter-gatherers.

As for the following:

"Yes, it may be true that men earn money in part for status, and not for consumption, but that would be because men are being assholes."

Are you arguing against seeking money for the accumulation of status (as opposed to material goods?). For what motive do you think men should accumulate capital for?

Regardless for the most part there's not a lot of fundamentally dishonest ways to make money (yes, crime/corruption/scams exist but they're not the standard). On the whole I think status seeking manifesting as economic productivity is a very useful thing for society.

Aaron- I am pretty sure greg was saying that from the perspective of people who say that men are naturally better at earning money. I am inclined to agree; when people say dudes are naturally better at business it usually involves talk of dominance and aggression, as though that makes them better workers intstead of just awful people. A world that rewards that kind of behavior doesn't mean the people who are making it further are actually any good at what they do.

Why would we "expect" males to be more violent given their paucity of investment?

It would stand to reason that females would be more violent given their larger investment.

But that is why we value empirical evidence over reason.

Moreover just because we see two phenomena together repeatedly, doesn't mean we've demonstrated the causal link. Remember Hume.

Your essay, sir, is long on chains of reasoning from "common sense" and short on data.

By Paul Jones (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

@17- Wouldn't it be a more logical naturalistic argument to say we need to pay women more on a per hour basis? Afterall, I don't see how you look after children without time and money.

@32- You are so right! Female-initiated violence is obviously not taken seriously enough. But I'd be happy to bash your skull open with a hammer or rip your heart out and eat it, if you need some assistance demonstrating that women can be violent. Or maybe I could catapault you into a bed of spikes? Or find some TNT to stuff in various places, ala looney toons? Just say the word and you got it!
I'm so sweet and helpful!

@35- actually I'm not sure we have internally-consistent behavioral models of *any* animal species. Some types of animals may have salient features of their behavior more strongly influenced by genes than others (prairie voles with more or less oxytocin, I'm looking at you). However, particularly as one starts looking at primates, there is just too much interindividual and intergroup variability to say one consistent model is at work.
Greg's characterizations of the chimps and the bonobos are great fun pop-science, but it is also known that there are some very genteel chimp groups and some very violent (monkey-murdering!) bonobos.
You can have two entirely different cultures of genetically-closely-related chimps on two sides of a river, simply because of how rare food is on each side. Primates are adaptable.
Humans are even more variable, and this is not entirely a modern phenomenon. This is one reason there is so much dispute over what, exactly, a "hunter gatherer lifestyle" represents. (although, if I'm correctly informed, if you insisted on a single model to represent the hunter gatherer lifestyle, it should involve the lion's share of calories from woman-dominated gathering and a minority of calories male-dominated hunting).
Culture is part and parcel of our evolutionary adaptations. We've evolved to be able to function with many different social models. So why not pick ones that don't encourage anyone to be jerks?

Aaron: good questions, but there is no naturalistic model in which males seeking status as something (via productivity) 'useful for society' is valid. There is no individual behavior - society link that works from a biological perspective.


An essay that is only a few hundred words long is not going to be very long on data. Perhaps you don't realize how much data there actually are. We have about a hundred years of chimp observation in the wild, and about the same amount for the other apes combined. Baboons and macaques are the subjects of dozens of monographs and hundreds of papers just presenting observational data, and hundreds of papers doing comparative studies on primates have been published. Your objection that there is no data is utterly laughable, but I'll assume that rather than tossing up some smokescreen you simply don't know.

So, you can learn about the data. Start here:

Regarding female violence: A huge mistake being made here is glossing "violence" as "violence" How this is manefest is going to vary a great deal across species and sexes.

Let me remind you'all that I am partly lampooning the models. Having said that, when I refer to violence in the above essay I'm talking about male-male competitive strategies.

Regarding animal models, as Becca suggests, it is true that we nominalize non-human models and pretend we know stuff. We do have some excellent non-human models for many behavioral systems.... it is not as bad as Becca suggests. But if you look at a chart of body size dimorphism data among the OWM's don't expect there to be a suitable equivalent set of behavioral data.

Oh, and whoever said that correlation does not equal causality: Oh, come one. We are a bit beyond that here I think!

That one paragraph about the implications of females "going into estrus" should arguably belong earlier in the essay, being (sfaik) a common trait among almost all mammals.

Except for one, known as H. sap, where that particular cycle has been so attenuated many claim it doesn't exist (though understanding of hormonal & pheromonal influences on human behavior has a long way to go).

Just when in our evolutionary past did this change occur, and why - and what does that imply regarding our "natural" roles?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

Basically, you are saying that we should not pay people according to how they peform, precisely because this gives an edge to one gender

As Greg pointed out, not in quite these words, this argument depends on Gerrymandering the working definition of "performing."

Why would we "expect" males to be more violent given their paucity of investment?

It would stand to reason that females would be more violent given their larger investment.

Among other things, there is a 0% chance of a male miscarrying if he picks a fight and then gets the worst of it.

I think it is now clear that the fighting that is being talked about is not protecting the investment but rather in getting the opportunity to make the investment. Males to have to fight for that opportunity (in many mammal species) but females do not.

I'm not sure how to parse this statement

"there is no naturalistic model in which males seeking status as something (via productivity) 'useful for society' is valid. There is no individual behavior - society link that works from a biological perspective."

Are you saying that there's no naturalistic model where males seek status by doing actions that are useful for society? Does that mean they have other mechanisms for seeking status or that there's no real consistent naturalistic method that males use to seek status. How do individuals gain status in a tribal setting, by being the best hunters or the best talkers?

I read the whole thing! Can I have a gold star?

Very well put.

Are you saying that there's no naturalistic model where males seek status by doing actions that are useful for society?

yes! That would be species level or group level selection. Even if naturalistic models are tricky, and even if the naturalistic fallacy is a bad thing, if we are going to talk about nature we have to keep the biology solid, and group selection is not the way to go.

The status part is fine. The doing it for society is not. The appearance of altruism may be useful, but nobody is society, so one can only go so far with that

Elyse: Thanks!

Thank you for a very entertaining and insightful post. This is exactly why I read scienceblogs. (And, no, it wasn't too long; if it had been shorter, you would have had to leave something out.)


Unless I'm misunderstanding I don't think that would be an example of group selection. Individual A does an action that helps the group, therefore it's in the interest of individual B to reward A since B, being a member of the smallish group, benefits from the action. Since both parties have a selfish motive and the net result is a status gain for individual A Group selection is not required.

You can argue whether A's gesture is consciously genuine or not but it still benefits the group and results in a status increase.

On the original point with earning money it's a little different scenario as in the free market A's claimed motive is no longer selfless but explicitly selfish, as is B's payment of A. However, I would argue that the actions of A and B have consistently helped their respective societies. Of course I don't really know if you can claim and naturalistic model for free markets.

Aaron, that only works if the act is selfish. So, it is acting selfishly and not in the interest of the group. If acgting in the interest of the group is only selected for when it is also selfish, and other acts that are selfish are also selected for, then there is no group selection and there is no acting in the interset of the group.

And all the above of course must be cast in terms of kin selection.

Paul Jones: "It would stand to reason that females would be more violent given their larger investment"

The problem is definitional--womens violence directed at children is tolerated in most cases; womens violence directed at men is overlooked unless it has deadly consequences, and then it is minimized away as a problem due to the myth of patriarchy.

For proof, note becca @ "Female-initiated violence is obviously not taken seriously enough. But I'd be happy to bash your skull open with a hammer"

becca: I too would be happy to do all the same to you, but only with your consent--unlike the children that are victimized and traumatized by this sort of female verbal violence or the young males who are eventually victims of vio9lence at the hands of women--but thanks for acknowledging and claiming your own piece of the female violence puzzle. And for that, I will allow you only the first and second free shots at my jaw--but you are on your own after that, and will likely have to cry wolf so some silver back comes to save you from your own violent actions.

By the real flamb… (not verified) on 30 Jul 2009 #permalink

p.s. becca: did I mention that my only aunt on my mothers side actually had her head bashed in with a hammer by her husband, who from all accounts, planned the act from the day he married her...?
I was born three weeks later.

By the real flamb… (not verified) on 30 Jul 2009 #permalink

@TRFC- Wow, I hate it when I guess right like that, it's just too weird. I was totally going for cartoon-level-absurdity so as to diffuse any threat, too.
Anyway, you aren't going to have progeny, right?
Because I'm thinking that whatever genes-cause-people-to-want-to-bash-your-skull-in-with-a-hammer are floating around in your gene pool, they probably shouldn't be passed on.
/absurd snark

Grandfather of five actually. All bastards too, by the dictionary definition--slaves to matriarchy. You might actually be one of them based on your violence wavelength, and that hint of 'the bad menzfolks all done me rong' on your lips.

Now, in regards to the skull bashing of my only auntie on my moms side: it was a man with an attitude towards women--a man just like you with your attitude towards men--that did her in. The guy actually read up on the brain, and the skulls weak spots, and he left a mess upstairs for my dad to clean up. So, it wasn't my hormones, or my genes that were messed up: it was my mothers intra-uterine gestational bellyjuices gone haywire.

Now, from what my dad tells me,about my aunt " that bitch had a mouth that could have made anyone want to bash her head in", so I take it as it is--she must have been a becca...

So apparently, you and your mouthy-enough-to-get-her- f#ckin'-face-smashed-in by my sidekick [My baseball bat that is] possibly makes you and me::yuk::relatives/
grossly reflective Lacanian snark.

AND i am glad you are so, sooooo gay that you likely won't breed either.../mildly serious snark, intended with the same "cartoon-level-absurdity so as to diffuse any threat" that you employed ;-P

By the real flamb… (not verified) on 31 Jul 2009 #permalink

Women arent paid less than men for the same jobs. They do different jobs.

Jamie, sorry, that is just simply not true.

It is true that jobs traditionally thought of (and still tyically filled by) women are paid less than male analogs. that's sexist, unfair, and bad. But in addition to that, within the SAME EXACT JOB the average for women is lower than for men, almost all the time. The degree to which that is true is reduced, but not zero, and there is no reason for that to be the case.

very interesting. I really apreciated this. thank you!!!! (yay feminism)