« Poesy ennobles; silence defames | Main | Hoover Hog Interviews: The First Five »


I would love to see a conversation between JM and Peter Sotos.

Not that I necessarily disagree, but why do men have a duty to protect women? Is it because we are so cute and paedomorphic?

JM's point about feminism is extremely important. Feminism takes the denial of evolutionary biology to such an extreme that we end up with "knowledge" like "rape isn't about sex."

JM's position is nuanced. Simplifying a little, I might accuse JM of doing the opposite of what the feminists do: of *romanticizing* evolutionary biology and especially sexual dimorphism.

Evolutionary biology is not looking out for our happiness. Sexual dimorphism is a consequence of the particular mating strategy of our ancestors. Is it really so wonderful? JM's conception of masculinity actually sounds great. But looking at the evo-bio and traditional social sources of value, femininity is kind of a crap deal. Men are held to standards of honor, courage, valor - and women are judged based on sexual chastity and perhaps aptitude at lactating.

(Of course, I think that's fine for some people - some people are really into sexual chastity and lactation.)

I like that JM points out that marriage is traditionally about female virginity - a contract for breeding capacity between a woman's male relatives and her husband. It's strange between two men, absolutely. But does it make any more sense for lesbians or modern heteros?

Here's my problem with marriage: It's apparently slightly better for raising children (at least if you're white - http://www.unews.utah.edu/p/?r=080306-2). But marriages don't last unless they're enforced by a miserably coercive society (http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/02/19/asia/divorce.php). And change in marital status is associated with even worse outcomes than stable single parenthood (http://sswr.confex.com/sswr/2005/techprogram/P2259.HTM). And of course stepfathers are horrifically dangerous (http://psych.mcmaster.ca/dalywilson/Cinderella_Effect.pdf).

So the choice for a society seems to be between (a) being extremely coercive and promoting marriage at the expense of personal liberty (especially for women) - think of the children - or, if it's not willing to do that, (b) trying to figure out some other way of managing humans' biological drives.

Well Sister, if you accept the premise that the strong have an obligation to protect the weak, then I think it's clear why men would have a duty to protect women, since men are generally stronger than women. If you don't accept this premise, then I guess all bets are off.

I take your point that women and girls are traditionally more praised for chastity than men are, but I think it would be a mistake to reduce the tradition's view of female virtue as a mere virginity/motherhood cult of some kind. Think of St. Joan of Arc, St. Theresa of Avila, and soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta. Yes, they were all chaste, but I hardly think they were praised and continue to be praised merely because they took and kept their oaths of chastity.

Andy, I think there has to be more information contained in "men have a duty to protect women" than just the average strength difference. Épée fencers are, on average, stronger and larger in stature than foil fencers, but it seems weird to generalize to "épée fencers have a duty to protect foil fencers."

Dimorphism doesn't begin to explain it. The male protective impulse toward women (and girls) is EP 101, amplified through a complex skein of culture and tradition and myth.

Here is Steve Sailer in 2003 on the public reaction to the Jessica Lynch story (itself a germinal mythic narrative):

"From a traditional perspective -- supported in recent years by the new science of evolutionary psychology -- it makes sense for many men to risk their lives to try to free a beautiful young woman. Humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in small bands. Fertile females were the critical resource. Even if all the males in the band but one died, he could still face up to his tribal duty and impregnate all the women in the band.

But if too many younger females were killed or stolen by an enemy group, the band's survival was in doubt. As University of Florida zoologist Laura A. Higgins wrote in 1988, 'Because fewer of them are needed to produce and maintain offspring, from a population maintenance perspective, males are more expendable than females.'"

Females' childlike appearance is significant inasmuch as it is a signal for fertility. Males don't go to lengths to protect all women equally. They are more readily summoned to action when the victim is young, attractive, and phenotypically similar. This fits neatly with a basic indie-adaptive theory that seeks to optimize reproductive fitness by ensuring sexual access to fertile females, and it fits with a more expansive altruistic imperative that arises through adaptive kin-selection.

Disparate cultural responses tell the same story. The public imagination isn't stirred over just any threat to just any female. Once you get specific, the romance of valor is degraded to a brutish genetically-driven strategy. Just look at the stories that preoccupy Nancy Grace for high ratings, and the ones that don't make the cut. A missing slender young white beauty from the suburbs equals ratings. But a missing black girl from an urban enclave somehow doesn't tweak the same emotional response. Everyone remembers the Jessie Lynch farce, but somehow the viewing public didn't seem overmuch concerned when Shoshana Johnson's terrified face was shown on the evening news. No phony-baloney rescue mission was launched to save her black ass. Chivalry isn't dead, but it is finicky.

The male urge to protect women is further complicated -- and nursed -- by an opposing tension that is revealed through the naked lens of pornography. Men glorify the protection of the fairer sex in part because at some not so primal level, they want unfettered sexual access to their flesh. The boundaries and myths fostered through culture and civilization seek to sublimate and channel the rapist's urge into something removed and sanitized and structurally adaptive. It's like cheering for the home team instead of invading Canada.

Chip, I don't think evolutionary strategies explain everything. I mean that both in a general sense, and with regard to this particular issue. Yes, beautiful, elegant Elizabeth Smart generated more interest that some nappy-headed skank from the 'hood would have. But... it's also true that most people would look down on a group of thugs roughing up an old lady than they would in a similar case where they picked on someone less frail and vulnerable. I think most of us are aware of a moral code whereby it's especially unsporting to pick on someone smaller and weaker than yourself. Where this moral code comes from is up for debate, of course, and such debates can be tedious and are generally not worth engaging in (I judge from experience). But I think it's fair to say that protective behavior doesn't necessarily stem from an impulse to want to propagate our species.

I enjoyed this interview very much, and I'm planning to check out Jack's website. However, the fact that people can't communicate without resorting to "that said" or "moving forward" is very upsetting to me. I can't take anyone seriously once they have offended my delicate sensibility in this manner!

I take your point that women and girls are traditionally more praised for chastity than men are, but I think it would be a mistake to reduce the tradition's view of female virtue as a mere virginity/motherhood cult of some kind.

In the world the most eternal happiness is ordinary, in the life most long-time has is to cherish. Cherish the love between, cherish life, cherish your health. Cherish the dribs and joy, cherish the colorful world. Cherish your network meet!

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Affiliated Sites

Blog powered by Typepad