Gender equity can cause sex differences to grow bigger

1960 Le Lac des cygnes ballet - Jean-Paul Andreani and Claire Motte performing on stage at Opera de Paris.  Credit: Christjeudi10, Wikimedia commons
1960 Le Lac des cygnes ballet – Jean-Paul Andreani and Claire Motte performing on stage at Opera de Paris. Credit: Christjeudi10, Wikimedia commons

How do sex differences arise? Few questions animate as much disagreement and contention, in everyday society and in academic study. For as long as the question has been asked, the answers have fallen between two extremes: sex differences arise innately, or they come from social experience.

That same polarity defines much of the study of human behaviour and society, and has done since the ancient Greeks asked whether ideas arose innately (Rationalism) or from experience (Empiricism). The modern fault-line runs deepest between rationalist biology and empiricist socialisation.

Impossible as it might seem for any serious thinker, awake and aware and living in the current Century, to dismiss either biology or socialisation, you might be surprised. Dogmatism and ignorance still stifle the study of human behaviour, and the topics of gender and sex differences in particular. And the lay public is equally awash in tightly-held, but often flimsy ideas about how women and men come to differ, on average, in all sorts of traits.

The evidence is in: samples of women and men differ, on average, in a vast number of personality, emotional, behavioural, cognitive and attitudinal measures. Yes, the sexes overlap. And one cannot and should not rush to inferring anything about a person from the average properties of those who share the same genital configuration. But sex differences are present, found in many replicate studies, and often similar in magnitude across societies.

Rationalist biology holds that such differences have evolved. The combination of traits that made our male ancestors successful fathers differ from those that turned our female ancestors into successful mothers. This idea chimes with the repeated presence of so many sex differences across cultures, but the fact that the magnitude of the differences varies considerably among cultures suggests much more than biological determinism.

The Empiricist thinking that has dominated the study of gender in the social sciences for more than half a century holds that sex differences arise from extensive socialisation, and differences in the power that women and men hold and wield. This view brings us the notion that by ceasing to socialise boys and girls into stereotyped sex roles, and breaking down power inequities within societies, sex differences will diminish.

The idea that teaching, socialisation and structural change will progressively erode sex differences and gendered behaviour has a powerful hold. It underpins social interventions from “No Gender December” (a.k.a. the Christmastime war on pink toys) to the current Stop it at the Start campaign against domestic violence.

Stop it at the Start video, part of an Australian Government campaign to combat domestic violence against women.

A testable prediction

A recent book chapter by eminent evolutionary psychologist David P. Schmitt adds an interesting dimension, sure to be controversial, but also with considerable potential to rejuvenate debate. The book, The Evolution of Sexuality (Springer, editors Todd K Shackleford and Ranald D. Hansen), at US $139 will likely prove inaccesible to readers without access to an academic library.

Alice Eagly, Wendy Wood and Mary Johannesen-Schmidt, among the most persuasive advocates for the primacy of socialisation into sex roles, predicted that increasing gender equality would lead to “the demise of many sex differences”. That prediction seems so intuitive, so consistent with contemporary thinking about gender equity, that it hardly needs testing. But Schmitt didn’t think so. He recognised that not only should the idea be put to the test, but that there exists a wealth of data on cross-cultural on variation in personality, behavioural and other traits that could be matched with good measures of gender equity and sex role ideology.

Counter to the prediction of social role theory, in only 2 out of 28 traits examined by Schmitt did sex differences narrow as gender equity increased. In six traits, the sex difference remained stable, and in 20 traits it widened.

For example, women tend to score higher than men on personality tests for extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Gender equity tends to elevate all three of these traits, but it does so more in women, widening the average sex difference.

Likewise, men score higher than women for the “Dark Triad” traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy. Gender equity has the salutary effect of reducing each of these three rather nasty traits, but it does so more for women than for men, resulting in wider sex differences.

The two traits in which gender equity narrowed sex differences are instructive, too. Women are more likely than men to value resources and wealth in a mate. Gender equity reduces this preference, but does so more in women, narrowing the sex difference. And men tend to report a more unrestricted sociosexuality – fantasising about, attitudes toward and engaging in uncommitted sex – than women do. Sexuality grows less restricted with gender equity in both sexes, but more so in women, again narrowing the sex difference.

The narrowing of sex differences in preference for wealthy mates and sociosexuality are to be expected, and very much in line with the politics of sexual and domestic liberation. This is exactly what any observer of contemporary society would have expected, irrespective of the moral valence they give to the issues involved.

Many behavioural traits showed general changes for the better with increasing gender equity. Personalities take on more socially desirable forms. Couples emphasise love within their romantic relationships. Intimate partner violence declines. And rates of depression decrease. And yet the fact that sex differences in so many of those traits increased opens up considerable new space for empirical study, and for us to question dogma and doctine of all kinds about how sex differences arise.

This study is just a start. There remains some way to travel if we are to make stronger inferences about causation. But it is worth wrapping our head around the paradox that moves toward gender equity in opportunity, including the dismantling of patriarchal power structures, might, paradoxically, also widen sex differences.

Bohemian Like You, the Dandy Warhols.

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Rob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Australia

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Violence: blaming the bloke but not the booze

“Spoiling for a Bar Fight” Jonathan Cohen/Flickr, CC BY-NC
“Spoiling for a Bar Fight” Jonathan Cohen/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Is alcohol-fuelled violence caused by the booze itself or by the macho culture in which the drinking occurs? If we are to believe a recent study commissioned by the alcohol company Lion, it’s the culture that’s to blame. That’s a rather convenient conclusion for the alcohol industry. But it hinges on a fallacy and has the potential to cause much damage.

The study was conducted by Dr Anne Fox, consultant anthropologist and founding director of Galahad SMS Ltd (SMS stands for Substance Misuse Solutions) who studies drinking cultures. Fox has been promoting her report in the broadcast media and op-eds, pushing her conclusion that

It is the wider culture that determines behaviour while drinking, not the drinking per se. While there are very good health reasons to reduce excessive drinking, you must influence culture if you want to change behaviour.

The Lion and the Fox

Fox’s report reads as a series of anecdotes and quotes, gathered during discussions with drinkers in a variety of situations, workers in bars, taxi drivers, police, emergency workers, government officials and various other people. Fox’s observations are organised thematically, interspersed with folk-evolutionary speculation of the following kind:

Could ritualised drunken behaviour be a re-enaction of an evolved ancient need for joyous bonding that still persists? Given what we know about alcohol and the brain, and the evolution of the brain itself, the question can at least be asked.

And simplistic characterisations of national drinking cultures, such as:

Spaniards and Italians … are culturally much more emotionally extroverted and do not associate alcohol so much with romantic or sentimental expression.

There is no attempt to grapple with numbers surrounding violence, or the consumption of alcohol. In fact there seems to be no way of sifting evidence with any kind of fairness to the competing alternatives at all. Instead, as might be expected when a liquor company commissions an expert on ‘drinking culture’ to study what causes the violence that too-often erupts in and around venues where alcohol is served, the conclusions seems inevitable: you have to change the culture in which the alcohol is consumed.

And which aspects of culture are most in need of changing? Why, masculinity, of course. As Fox put it in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The way to tackle the real underlying causes of anti-social behaviour is to address the cultural reinforcers of violence, misogyny, and aggressive masculinity in all its cultural expressions from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media.

Who better to tie together alcohol, misogyny and high culture then Snoop Dogg? Gin and Juice (1993)

Could it work?

The Fox/Lion report reminds me of nothing more than the American gun lobby slogan that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. By reducing the complex issues of gun-related homicide to two apparently contradictory alternatives, those most wedded to their right to bear arms find rhetorical – if not logical – comfort in blaming the shooter and not the weapon.

Having read the report, I think there are interesting observations about the relationships that Australians and New Zealanders have with alcohol, well worth injecting into the national debate on antisocial behaviour. But should we leap from observing that culture is important to focusing all interventions on the remodelling Austral masculinity? I’m sure the liquor lobby would like to do so, but I’m not the only one who disagrees.

Deakin’s Peter Miller has already published an excellent Fact Check on the Fox/Lion report, concluding:

It’s not correct to say you can’t “alter the culture of violence and anti-social behaviour in any meaningful way” by tackling the way people drink. There is a lot of evidence showing that changing people’s drinking hours and consumption patterns reduces violence and hospital admissions – which is a lot more significant than tinkering at the margins of culture.

Cultural creationist wishful thinking

It seems that those who study ‘culture’, that slippery omnipresence in which we all wallow, inevitably conclude that the only way to improve society is to change culture. Drain the toxically misogynist, masculine swamp, and replace it with a more rarified egalitarian pond, and everything will be okay.

Changing ‘culture’ isn’t easy. And it certainly amounts to far more than education campaigns, shaming and punishing bad behaviour.

Fox, to her credit, doesn’t insist on throwing out all biological insights. She recognises that night-time drinking among young people is about meeting evolved biological needs, for bonding, belonging and courtship. And that young men competing with men, and seeking to impress women are the well-spring of most of the anti-social behaviour.

Her report considers the example of Icelanders who consume more booze and own more guns, but do far fewer stupid, violent things per capita than Australians. She even recognises that Iceland’s low-levels of economic inequality remove some of the incentives for young men to pose, to impress, and to take out the competition.

If Australia wants to “change the culture” in which drinking takes place, it will have to change more than arbitrary social sanctions and “culturally constructed” ideas of what it means to be a manly man. If that is even possible. It will have to recognise that economic conditions, create the incentives for young men to strive, to compete and to take stupid risks.

And that means resisting the temptation to blame single causes. It isn’t just the booze, it isn’t just the blokes, it isn’t just the economy and it certainly isn’t just the culture. What matters is how those ingredients combine.

Perhaps we need to look more closely at the incentives for young men to strive and take risks. Eminem captures this in “Lose Yourself”.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

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Sexually despotic men rewrite history

Alfred L. Kroeber (left) with Ishi, the last member of California’s Yahi people, in 1911. Wikimedia Commons
Alfred L. Kroeber (left) with Ishi, the last member of California’s Yahi people, in 1911. Wikimedia Commons

“Heredity”, opined the pioneering cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber in 1915, “cannot be allowed to have acted any part in history”. I have yet to encounter a crisper expression of the view that biological explanations have no place in the study of society and history. Kroeber’s words have resonated through the social sciences for a century, divorcing nurture from nature, social from biological, at considerable harm to our understanding of society and what it means to be human.

 

Fortunately, many 21st Century anthropologists, economists, neuroscientists, geneticists, sociologists and thinkers so busily inter-disciplinary that they defy dusty departmental labels, are consigning the hoary distinction between nature and nurture to the past. Likewise the distinction between heredity and history is steadily dissolving as the where intimate links between evolutionary fitness and major historic transitions come into view.

Last week’s European Journal of Human Genetics, for example, carried a fascinating article led by evolutionary geneticist Patricia Balaresque exploring the signature of historic population expansions in the distribution of Y-chromosome genotypes of men alive today.

The Y of who, what and when

The the human Y chromosome represents a tiny portion of the genome, including the genes that trigger a foetus to develop into a male, rather than following the default female pathway. Every now and then a small change occurs in one of the less important parts of a Y-chromosome’s DNA. Such a change is passed to a man’s sons, those sons’ sons, and so on. That means there’s quite a bit of variation in these Y-chromosome sequences in any human population.

Marco Polo at the Kublai Khan. Miniature from the Travels of Marco Polo c 1298.
Marco Polo at the Kublai Khan. Miniature from the Travels of Marco Polo c 1298.

So if a man happens to have many sons, who each go on to have many sons and so on, one might detect a sudden surge in the frequency of the Y-chromosome sequence borne by that line of men (patriline). In 2003, a large team from Oxford University detected evidence of just such an event. Across much of Asia, one particular Y-chromosome sequence was carried by 8 percent of all men. In a paper pithily titled “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols”, they famously fingered Genghis Khan as the chief suspect.

The pattern of variation within the lineage suggested that it originated in Mongolia approximately 1,000 years ago. Such a rapid spread cannot have occurred by chance; it must have been a result of selection. The lineage is carried by likely male-line descendants of Genghis Khan, and we therefore propose that it has spread by a novel form of social selection resulting from their behavior.

Where by ‘behaviour’ they mean more than the Great Khan’s triumph in unifying the Mongols and establishing the largest continuous empire history has ever known. For Khan was as much about the establishment of a genetic dynasty as a political one. According to one disputed quote, he once said:

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

Or words to that effect.

Such a genetic legacy is far more than the work of a single man. It is likely that Khan’s uncles, brothers and cousins, played a substantial role, too. And his direct male descendants spread both his empire and his genetic legacy. Ghenghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, married four main Empresses, but, according to Marco Polo’s Travels was attended to by hundreds of beautiful young women, working five at a time in three-day shifts. And a much greater number of women, recruited to the palace but, after a second round of screening, not deemed perfect enough for the Khan himself, were bestowed on Kublai’s nobles, many of whom would have been relatives sharing his patriline and Y-chromosome.

Khan not the only one

The Mongol expansion is far from the only such event to leave a genetic signature. A 2005 paper identified a particularly successful lineage that expanded about 500 years ago in Northeastern China, possibly through the lineage who established the Quing Dynasty.

Last week’s findings report on a survey of 5321 men from 127 Asian populations, testing for evidence of similar population expansions. Belaresque and her collaborators identified eleven such events, including the ones tied to the expansions of the Mongols and the Qing dynasty. And some of those events date back as far as 2100 BCE.

The earliest expansions, between 2100 and 300 BCE, are associated with the flourishing of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, East India, and South East Asia. As agriculture took hold, elites accumulated wealth and influence beyond anything our hunter-gatherer ancestors could have conceived. These represent perfect conditions for sexual despots: male rulers who take many wives, keep numerous concubines or mistresses, and have many offspring. They also establish successions that favour their male descendants, handing them the wealth and power to become sexual despots themselves.

Another expansion began around 1100 CE in the Near East and expanded to the South East Indian coast. This might be a signature of the “rapid expansion of Muslim power … after the establishment of a unified polity in the Arabian peninsula by Muhammad in the 7th Century and under the subsequent Caliphates”.

The Mongol and Qing expansions, and another from Northeast China beginning no earlier than 850 CE, were not associated with the establishment and spread of agriculture, but rather with nomadic, pastoral lifestyles made possible by the domestication of horses. Pastoral nomads ruled the steppes for thousands of years, thanks to their horse-powered mobility and fighting ability.

They established several empires, giving rise to hierarchies, elites and patrilineal reproductive despots like the Khans and the Qing. And their Silk Road trade corridor facilitated westward expansion of their genetic dynasties.

Heredity and History

Even in the rather well-studied case of Genghis Khan we are well beyond certain idenfification of the individual progenitors whose success sparked each expansion. Innovative analyses and lucky ancient DNA finds may yet do so for some cases. But the ability to detect great tides of patrilineal descent in societies of various types offers far more interesting possibilities than compelling personal narrative.

The evidence shows that with great power and wealth can come great evolutionary fitness. The tools are now falling into place to assess how much the psychological adaptations that shape reproductive success have given history its shape.

This is one tale where History certainly represents HIS Story. The fact that new Y chromosome sequences can spread so fast and so wide when history’s tide turns suggests that a very small number of sexually despotic men can leave massive numbers of descendants. But each man who traces his descent back to Genghis Khan or another such super-ancestor through an unbroken male line has sisters who do so too, save for the very last branch in their family tree. If 2% of people in Asia descend on a male-only lineage from the same male ancestor as Khan, then how many times do they descend from him through at least one female ancesor?

Each of us descends many times over from a great many sexual despots. It would be Kroeber-like wilful ignorance to be think we don’t also inherit many of the genes that biased their behaviour toward the accumulation of power, the vanquishing of rivals and reproductive despotism.

And when I say “we”, I don’t only mean men. Every man has a mother. Every descendant of Ghenghis Khan is also a descendant of his mother Hoelun.

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Fear not the hipster beard: it too shall pass

If you haven’t been outdoors in a few years, you might not have noticed that beards are back. Back in such a big way that apparently many New York hipsters are paying north of US$8,000 for “facial hair transplants” to embellish their patchy beards.

While the hipster subculture appears to be ground zero for the latest swerve toward beardedness, men who would not be seen dead in skinny jeans or thrift-shop cardigans are letting the whiskers grow in a way that hasn’t been fashionable for decades.

Why are beards sprouting from the unlikeliest faces? And is there anything that might make them stop?

The advantage of rarity

Today in Biology Letters we provide experimental insights into why beard fashions come and go, and why there is no single optimum pattern of facial hair. By we, I mean my former Honours student Zinnia Janif, my colleague and Zinnia’s co-supervisor Dr Barnaby Dixson and me.

We speculated that a phenomenon called “negative frequency dependence” (NFD) might help explain diversity in facial hair patterns. Negative frequency dependence simply means that rare traits enjoy an advantage.

In evolutionary genetics, NFD selection is an important force, favouring rare genetic alleles over more common ones. In guppies, for example, males bearing rare combinations of coloured spots are both less likely to be preyed on and more likely to gain matings in the wild. So a rare colour pattern can spread very rapidly until it becomes so common it attracts attention from predatory fish and starts looking like old hat to female guppies.

A sample of male guppies, caught from Alligator Creek, North Queensland, where they occur ferally. The size and placement of colour spots in male guppies is among the most genetically variable traits yet studied.
Rob Brooks

The selective advantages enjoyed by rare colour patterns explain why guppy colour patterns are among the most genetically variable traits yet studied. Could more subtle forms of NFD selection explain why so much genetic variation persists in most traits, even though natural selection is expected to remove genetic variation by eliminating “bad” genes. Under NFD, “good” or “bad” depends on how common the gene is.

What if, we speculated, rarity also operated in the world of fashion? In this case, what if rare patterns of facial hair enjoy an advantage purely on account of their rarity?

Experiment

To test this idea we set up a simple experiment using a suite of photographs of 36 men. Each man had been photographed when clean-shaven, with five days of growth (we call this light stubble), 10 days of growth (heavy stubble) and at least four weeks of untrimmed growth (full beard).

One subject displaying the four levels of beard: clean shaven, five-day growth, 10-day growth and full beard.
Barnaby Dixson

Subjects, recruited via our research group webpage (where we are always seeking subjects and Facebook – thanks IFLS for the traffic), each rated 36 faces – one of each man. Over the first 24 faces we manipulated the rarity of beard types. Subjects either saw all 24 men clean shaven, all 24 with full beards, or six men from each of the four levels of beardedness.

We then analysed how subjects rated the same – last – 12 pictures comprising three from each beard level. In line with our prediction, when clean-shaven faces were rare (among the early 24 pictures) they enjoyed a significant premium in attractiveness ratings (in the last 12) over when they were common. And when full beards were rare or when the four levels of beardedness were evenly distributed, full beards enjoyed significantly higher attractiveness than when full beards were common. Five- and 10-day stubble did not really vary in attractiveness across the three treatments.

What this means is that, under experimental conditions at least, patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they are common. Whether this scales to more nuanced judgements in the more complex and varied real world remains to be seen. But it suggests that beard styles are likely to grow less attractive as they become more popular. And that innovative new styles may enjoy a premium while they are still rare.

Fashion and facial hair

Negative frequency dependent choices might well be an important ingredient in changing facial hair fashions. The current fad for facial hair is just the latest development in a long history.

Dwight E. Robinson went to the trouble of scoring the facial grooming of all men pictured in the London Illustrated News between 1842 and 1972. In the 1890s, more than 90% of men pictured had some form of facial hair, a figure that dropped to below 20% by 1970. Sideburns occupied the news in the mid-19th century, whereas full beards reigned from 1870 to 1900, only to be replaced by moustaches.

Negative frequency dependence might play a role early in an establishing fashion.

The New York Times reckons the current beard trend emerged among local hipsters in late 2005. I’m not sure the NYT would notice anything that happened or – heaven forbid – started outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. But suffice to say the current fashion has been almost a decade in the making.

Noveau-beard has been propelled along the way by various sportsmen, movie stars and musicians. But the fashion has now spread to the point where astute commentators reckon the tide of hipster cool has turned. When Buzzfeed breathlessly lists the “51 Hottest Hollywood Beards”, it’s time to seek higher ground to avoid the tsunami set off by the implosion of cool.

That is one way in which negative frequency dependence can work: when a fashion goes mainstream it loses the advantage of rarity. And so it begins to subside.

“Joaquin Phoenix is a Poser”. Graffiti stencil, New York City.
David Shankbone/ Flickr

Not everybody should grow a beard

Much of this discussion has concerned the attractiveness of beards. But although many hirsute men have formed the zealous conviction that their beards place them at an advantage with the ladies, evidence is far more equivocal.

Dixson’s previous research has shown that heavy stubble – a substantial growth that is well kept – is more attractive than clean shaven, light stubble or a full beard. And individual women vary in their tastes, some are pro, and others vehemently anti-whisker.

Far less ambiguously, beards tend to make those men who can grow them look more masculine. Hardly surprising, actually, given the ability to grow facial hair kicks in during puberty, marking the transition to manhood. The beard might be as much a signal to other men as it is to women, which might explain why so many warrior cultures grew resplendent beards, and why professional sports teams grow beards in playoff-time solidarity.

Female attraction to bearded men can arise due to the manly connotations of facial hair. Nicki Daniels certainly makes this point in her hilarious Open letter to bearded hipsters.

Unfortunately, you guys have turned it into a fashion statement. The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity. Sure it looks sexy, but whatcha got under there? There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks, and most of you can’t change a fucking tire.

If the messages signalled by growing facial hair are diminished when every man-boy over 20 is sporting a beard, that constitutes another way in which negative frequency dependent choice might work.

The reasons beards diminish in value when everyone is wearing them remain to be teased apart, but the fact that they do suggests that the hipster beard, like the handlebar moustache, the mutton chop and countless other fashions before them, will, in time, pass.


“Jimmy Niggles”, grew Australia’s highest-profile contemporary beard to raise awareness about melanoma. Now he’s looking to sell it for A$1million to support cancer research.
Tim Jones

P.S. Beard Season is coming up

You may already have encountered Jimmy Niggles (aka Scott Maggs) and friends who are raising awareness about melanoma – in honour of their mate Wes who lost his life to melanoma at age 26 – through their Beard Season campaign. Jimmy uses his resplendent beard to start conversations with strangers (and leverage considerable media interest) about the importance of having their skin checked. Jimmy is currently selling his beard for A$1 million in order to raise money for melanoma research.

Talk about a positive expression of contemporary masculinity.


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Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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