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Baumeister: an apology for men (I)

Bianco Luno’s notes on Roy F. Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?” (American Psychological Association, Invited Address, 2007)

I | II

Editor’s Introduction

Baumeister intends a corrective to a popular view that favors the qualities of women over men. That view, which usually takes feminist form, arises as a reaction to a history of social and political oppression and marginalization of women. Baumeister argues that there is a evolutionary reason men are a more forceful presence in larger social and political environments than women, a natural consequence of which is marginalization of women in those environments. He purports to present his case in such a way that merely describes what is without predisposing judgment as to whether it should be. It is not difficult to fail at this and he does, as do the feminists he seeks to place in perspective, which Luno brings out in his commentary. But little of importance hinges on whether or not Baumeister succeeds at being value neutral except that it shows a naiveté about how deeply values infuse not just judgment but description. In this, he is no worse off than conventional feminists. However, his point that nature has an agenda that pulls strings governing our behavior as men and women quite apart from our consent, conscious or otherwise, is essential to understanding the conflict and, to the extent it exists, the complicity among women and men. The point is an important one to make if we are ever to get beyond misunderstanding to the very real incommensurability between women and men. Baumeister’s reminding us of the near obvious is invaluable—as much as, Luno argues, the work of June Stephenson, which is among those Baumeister explicitly reacts to. For Luno, the obvious is not supposed to align itself with our judgment. The real work of understanding is in doing the reverse.

Baumeister should be read in tandem with Stephenson. Luno offers commentary on each in light of the other. (We recommend reading Baumeister’s complete lecture available online.) As in most of his commentaries on sex difference, Luno is preoccupied with finding fodder for his Weiningerian moral theory. Baumeister and Stephenson are both rich sources.

Text in black below is from Baumeister’s address. Text in blue and brackets is Luno’s commentary, unless otherwise noted.

…most often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other.…

Also I think it’s best to avoid value judgments as much as possible. They have made discussion of gender politics very difficult and sensitive, thereby warping the play of ideas.

[Odd that one might think value judgments could be avoided in politics, since those are what political disputes are founded upon. Perhaps, what Baumeister means is that politics distorts facts with trumped up, misguided values. If so, he is correct. But values are properly a philosophical, specifically, moral and aesthetic concern. But it is also odd to think science can carry itself out without the intervention of morally bound human beings, to think we may have a chance at avoiding discussion of values while alluding to facts. Even the choice of facts to study is guided by values. The facts cannot be discussed in a value-free vacuum. Except very temporarily, for about as long as it takes for them to be declared in a sentence. Almost instantly after that, the “warping” Baumeister fears sets in. Whatever their apprehended state before they were “warped,” that, too, was a product of value.]

I have no conclusions to present about what’s good or bad or how the world should change. In fact my own theory is built around tradeoffs, so that whenever there is something good it is tied to something else that is bad, and they balance out. I don’t want to be on anybody’s side. Gender warriors please go home.

[The desire to have or see things balance out is itself no minor value judgment. Why should nature care about balance? If anyone does, we do. It’s a bit like the fallacy about “being kind to Mother Nature”: nature is not a mother and wouldn’t know kindness if it bit her. We must have been brought up too well to say directly what we care about: ourselves and our own survival (or at least the memory of them).

Do we mean, rather, that in nature certain characteristics of a species have to be in some sort of equilibrium or it will not survive? Balance is necessary for survival? Imbalances also survive. Perhaps it is the case that balanced we survive longer. But how long is long? Maybe we are not immortal because we are not balanced enough? Has nature shown any sign that it cares for immortality or anything approaching it?… The point (as I will harp on again) is that nature is no source of value. Balance may or may not be an object of value but, if it is, that presupposes a subject in whom the event, perhaps act, of valuation happens.

And culture appears to be taken by Baumeister as an extension of nature. Again, the same thing applies.]

Most cultures shield their women from the risk and therefore also don’t give them the big rewards. I’m not saying this is what cultures ought to do, morally, but cultures aren’t moral beings. They do what they do for pragmatic reasons driven by competition against other systems and other groups.

[“Cultures aren’t moral beings.” This sounds right. I, myself, have argued that states and corporations are not moral beings. I think it is sad that they aren’t. Thus a lot of evil gets done with no one to blame. Actually, individuals, too, are for the most part not moral beings either, one gathers from observing them. Moral beings are mythical (in theory in the first instance of corporate bodies, in practice in the second of individuals). The idea such beings instantiate has its fans. It comes up in sermons or other sanctimonious occasions. But by and large individuals also do what they do for pragmatic reasons… My question is always should there be moral beings? I see no special reason why in theory there cannot be moral beings of a collective sort if it is true that there can be of a individual sort. Assuming that, should there be? Maybe what Baumeister is disagreeing with is the optimistic tendency of certain progressive types to think that such exist.]

I said that today most people hold more favorable stereotypes of women than men.

[I suspect the “people” here are college-educated and from stable homes. I think it’s not correct to say that is “most” people, not even in developed countries. But then who are the readers of this address likely to be? Most people do, today and always, indeed, live by stereotypes: fashion will dictate the favored ones. Forget about what they “hold,” more important is their instantiation of attitudes. This, more than what they say to themselves and others, is the object of moral scrutiny. These people with “favorable” stereotypes don’t oppress less, they oppress differently from the ones with unfavorable stereotypes.]

I’m sure you’re expecting me to talk about Larry Summers at some point, so let’s get it over with! You recall, he was the president of Harvard. As summarized in The Economist, “Mr Summers infuriated the feminist establishment by wondering out loud whether the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top of science.” After initially saying, it’s possible that maybe there aren’t as many women physics professors at Harvard because there aren’t as many women as men with that high innate ability, just one possible explanation among others, he had to apologize, retract, promise huge sums of money, and not long afterward he resigned.

What was his crime? Nobody accused him of actually discriminating against women. His misdeed was to think thoughts that are not allowed to be thought, namely that there might be more men with high ability. The only permissible explanation for the lack of top women scientists is patriarchy—that men are conspiring to keep women down. It can’t be ability. Actually, there is some evidence that men on average are a little better at math, but let’s assume Summers was talking about general intelligence. People can point to plenty of data that the average IQ of adult men is about the same as the average for women. So to suggest that men are smarter than women is wrong. No wonder some women were offended.

But that’s not what he said. He said there were more men at the top levels of ability. That could still be true despite the average being the same—if there are also more men at the bottom of the distribution, more really stupid men than women. [Recall Weininger’s comment about women being unable to be as stupid as men can be.] During the controversy about his remarks, I didn’t see anybody raise this question, but the data are there, indeed abundant, and they are indisputable. There are more males than females with really low IQs. Indeed, the pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius, namely that as you go from mild to medium to extreme, the preponderance of males gets bigger. [Again, recall what Weininger said about genius—though his conception of genius was moral, an imperative to a certain qualitative character rather than the conception of quantitative talent apparently supposed here. Weininger’s conception of genius was largely a matter of choice within compulsion and constraint, not about talent, about will, not about fate, rather a “will to value,” as he called it; but this impulse to push will to its limits is distinctly a masculine principle. And, as Baumeister suggests, the biological impulse (back of the normative will) has consequences for the survival and development of the species. Not necessarily good consequences—just consequences. We pretend to leave the question of value aside for now: as any good scientist (but not philosopher) must do. For Weininger, survival per se had nothing necessarily good about it.]

All those retarded boys are not the handiwork of patriarchy. Men are not conspiring together to make each other’s sons mentally retarded.

Almost certainly, it is something biological and genetic. And my guess is that the greater proportion of men at both extremes of the IQ distribution is part of the same pattern. Nature rolls the dice with men more than women. Men go to extremes more than women. It’s true not just with IQ but also with other things, even height: The male distribution of height is flatter, with more really tall and really short men. Again, there is a reason for this, to which I shall return.

For now, the point is that it explains how we can have opposite stereotypes. Men go to extremes more than women. Stereotypes are sustained by confirmation bias. Want to think men are better than women? Then look at the top, the heroes, the inventors, the philanthropists, and so on. [Supposedly, what Weininger did.] Want to think women are better than men? Then look at the bottom, the criminals, the junkies, the losers. [Supposedly, what Stephenson does.]

In an important sense, men really are better AND worse than women.

Trading Off

When you think about it, the idea that one gender is all-around better than the other is not very plausible. Why would nature make one gender better than the other? Evolution selects for good, favorable traits, and if there’s one good way to be, after a few generations everyone will be that way. [Evolution could care less about individuals (assuming—beyond a period when it finds them amusing—it even cares for species). The arguments of feminists and their critics, in contrast, are targeted at the encouragement or discouragement of individuals—and, through them, at governing institutions. The arguments are meant as steering or normative claims as opposed to mere commentaries on the cosmos—what the scientist aspires to.]

But evolution will preserve differences when there is a tradeoff: when one trait is good for one thing, while the opposite is good for something else. [The question always needs to be asked when invoking evolution in a normative context is what does evolution have to do with me, us? We might as well imply that the temperature on the surface of some distant star will affect my choice for dinner tomorrow evening. There may indeed be some connection in the scheme of things, but—what am I supposed to do with the news? If I were trying to understand the behavior of an exotic species of insect, cosmic determinisms such as evolution might help with devising an explanatory structure or telling a coherent story. But there is confusion if we think that “trying to understand behavior” is behind the passions aroused by the issue.]

Let’s return to the three main theories we’ve had about gender: Men are better, no difference, and women are better. What’s missing from that list? Different but equal. [”Different” as a matter of fact (the opposite of which would be “identical”), “equal” as a matter—not of fact, but of morality.] Let me propose that as a rival theory that deserves to be considered. [But the “equal” part is not theory. It is a decision, fiat. Nature, recall, doesn’t suffer from a sense of value. There is nothing like “equality” in nature. Do you think it cares if one species vanishes and another (or any) replaces it?] I think it’s actually the most plausible one. [If it is plausible, at least half of the reason for it, is not scientific.] Natural selection will preserve innate differences between men and women as long as the different traits are beneficial in different circumstances or for different tasks.

Tradeoff example: African-Americans suffer from sickle cell anemia more than white people. This appears to be due to a genetic vulnerability. That gene, however, promotes resistance to malaria. Black people evolved in regions where malaria was a major killer, so it was worth having this gene despite the increased risk of sickle cell anemia. White people evolved in colder regions, where there was less malaria, and so the tradeoff was resolved differently, more avoiding the gene that prevented malaria while risking sickle cell anemia.

The tradeoff approach yields a radical theory of gender equality. [Rather, …of gender interdependence and incommensurability. To use the loaded term “equality” in the context is to provoke unnecessarily. All we need to say, as scientists, is this is how it is or seems to be according to our most disciplined efforts at measurement. How are we to take it? What are we to do with it? By asking those questions, we change, not so much the subject as the type of being asking? We operate in a different mode, as it were, as beings who are going to make a decision, given the way things are or appear to be.] Men and women may be different, but each advantage may be linked to a disadvantage.

Hence whenever you hear a report that one gender is better at something, stop and consider why this is likely true—and what the opposite trait might be good for.

Can’t Vs. Won’t

Before we go too far down that path, though, let me raise another radical idea. Maybe the differences between the genders are more about motivation than ability. This is the difference between can’t and won’t.

Return for a moment to the Larry Summers issue about why there aren’t more female physics professors at Harvard. Maybe women can do math and science perfectly well but they just don’t like to. After all, most men don’t like math either! Of the small minority of people who do like math, there are probably more men than women. Research by Eccles has repeatedly concluded that the shortage of females in math and science reflects motivation more than ability. And by the same logic, I suspect most men could learn to change diapers and vacuum under the sofa perfectly well too, and if men don’t do those things, it’s because they don’t want to or don’t like to, not because they are constitutionally unable (much as they may occasionally pretend otherwise!). [Changing diapers doesn’t have the same social prestige as doing math. Is this because of some quality in the respective acts or is it a social strategem for encouraging something more difficult? Both acts have immense social utility. Think about it. And both are difficult—in different ways, certainly. Ways whose appeal varies with the sex of agent. Is it because social prestige is what it takes to get men to do difficult things where a woman’s motivation is broader?]

Several recent works have questioned the whole idea of gender differences in abilities: Even when average differences are found, they tend to be extremely small. In contrast, when you look at what men and women want, what they like, there are genuine differences. [This difference in motivation or normative drive or value orientation, etc., combined with gross and subtle differences in their apparatus for apprehension essentially prefigure entirely different worlds of experience separating women and men. The taste of chocolate, the feel of a fabric against skin, the connotation of a gesture or syllable, etc. must be different experiences for each sex. We are not confining ourselves to rare cases where sex makes for a gross difference in likes and dislikes. Every experience must in its tone and coloration, in its associations and ranking,… be so permeated by sex difference that, as we have said many times, it ought to be an object of wonder that we interbreed as a species as well as we do or at all… But motivational difference is especially close to our central concern with morality, his and hers, because of its power to further shape human environment, i.e., create culture.] Look at research on the sex drive: Men and women may have about equal “ability” in sex, whatever that means [it’s not clear that it means anything: a bit like saying that fish and birds are equally mobile], but there are big differences as to motivation: which gender thinks about sex all the time, wants it more often, wants more different partners, risks more for sex, masturbates more, leaps at every opportunity, and so on. [The scare quotes around “ability” are emblematic. There ought to be such around all terms purporting neutrality: equality, freedom, pain, pleasure, meaning, purpose… As Weininger wrote, even apprehension of basic logical and mathematical concepts is not immune to sex difference: the law of identity (a = a) he concluded is not perceived with the same mental urgency or legal force in women as in men. This was to the profound detriment of women as a class to the extent they were judged on the same scale masculine culture had devised to measure itself. It is why he concluded their moral and mental nothingness—again, as viewed through a lens contrived for viewing masculine landscapes.] Our survey of published research found that pretty much every measure and every study showed higher sex drive in men. It’s official: men are hornier than women. This is a difference in motivation. Likewise, I mentioned the salary difference, but it may have less to do with ability than motivation. High salaries come from working super-long hours. Workaholics are mostly men. (There are some women, just not as many as men.) One study counted that over 80% of the people who work 50-hour weeks are men. [Workaholics at home are still mostly women, as any feminist will tell you… Needless to say, the higher or—more, accurately, urgent—libido is dissipated in part in the distraction of work, where its destructiveness is mitigated… The character of the work that men work long hours at is worth noting. The work that so engages them is generally about rearranging reality, human and natural, and less about augmenting, enriching, and maintaining the relationships that make possible its initial and ultimate apprehension. Men would do great damage, more than they already do, doing what they do outside the home at home. But the choice to reinforce natural tendencies or counter them is still a very real moral choice. Contrary to a common myth, what is healthy is not in virtue of that moral. If it is seen that way, a choice has been made that nature had no part in. Survival, its length and character, is our concern.]

That means that if we want to achieve our ideal of equal salaries for men and women, we may need to legislate the principle of equal pay for less work. Personally, I support that principle. But I recognize it’s a hard sell. [Again, the feminist will quarrel with the suggestion that women work less. What is clear is that men need the pay, the material, abstract currency, the more the better, to be motivated where women can be motivated by a broader set of incentives.]

Creativity may be another example of gender difference in motivation rather than ability. The evidence presents a seeming paradox, because the tests of creativity generally show men and women scoring about the same, yet through history some men have been much more creative than women. [As Weininger is often faulted for pointing out.] An explanation that fits this pattern is that men and women have the same creative ability but different motivations.

I am a musician, and I’ve long wondered about this difference. We know from the classical music scene that women can play instruments beautifully, superbly, proficiently—essentially just as well as men. They can and many do. Yet in jazz, where the performer has to be creative while playing, there is a stunning imbalance: hardly any women improvise. Why? The ability is there but perhaps the motivation is less. They don’t feel driven to do it. [Why take chances? A woman would ask. Why not? A man might respond. Commonly, these will be taken as rhetorical questions, when in fact there are real and have revealing answers. In classical music the greatest works have been written by men. This because of the chances taken, the willingness to express vulnerability, appear ridiculous, risk all for the remote but real possibility of emotional vindication. (Editor’s note: see Luno’s fourth fragment in Smithereens.) Everyone from Schopenhauer to Camille Paglia has noticed this difference in cultural creation. But even Schopenhauer, that athlete of misogyny, confessed this difference in propension to great creativity was not a question of difference in talent as much as motivation channeled by bio-cultural infrastructure.]

This brings us to an important part of the argument. I’m suggesting the important differences between men and women are to be found in motivation rather than ability. What, then, are these differences? I want to emphasize two.

The Most Underappreciated Fact

The first big, basic difference has to do with what I consider to be the most underappreciated fact about gender. Consider this question: What percent of our ancestors were women? It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. True, about half the people who ever lived were women, but that’s not the question. We’re asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a father, but some of those parents had multiple children. [About half of those who have ever lived have been women. But a much larger proportion of the half that were women reproduced. Many more men than women have died never having fathered a child. So most of our genetic heritage is from women.]

Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.

I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.

For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We’re descended from women who played it safe.

For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities. Sailing off into the unknown may be risky, and you might drown or be killed or whatever, but then again if you stay home you won’t reproduce anyway. We’re most descended from the type of men who made the risky voyage and managed to come back rich. In that case he would finally get a good chance to pass on his genes. We’re descended from men who took chances (and were lucky). [And were able to nudge the odds in their favor, in other words, the strongest and brightest.]

The huge difference in reproductive success very likely contributed to some personality differences, because different traits pointed the way to success. Women did best by minimizing risks, whereas the successful men were the ones who took chances. Ambition and competitive striving probably mattered more to male success (measured in offspring) than female. Creativity was probably more necessary, to help the individual man stand out in some way. Even the sex drive difference was relevant: For many men, there would be few chances to reproduce and so they had to be ready for every sexual opportunity. If a man said “not today, I have a headache,” he might miss his only chance. [Baumeister is to be credited for linking creativity and maleness. The connection is not incidental (a point, of course, Weininger spent great effort to make over a century ago). There is a moral problem lurking just beneath the surface of this fact, however. To reproduce, men must avail themselves of every opportunity. Creativity in the context of reproductive success entails using the capabilities at hand to that end. Superior physical strength is foremost. Forcing sex on females—on as many as often as possible—is a viable natural stratagem, indeed, it is the purest form, if the aim is above all the passing on of genetic information. (Baumeister will shortly allude to Genghis Khan.) Rape has a natural license. Finessed rape, aka seduction, is a cultural development engendered by the fact that physical differences are by themselves not the most efficient. There is development away from purely physical means toward guile and wit. Intelligence is exercised in the act of forcing a negotiation on the part of women and meeting subsequent demands on the part of men. Backsliding toward purely natural or physical means of engendering is a violation of this imperative toward creativity. This is what makes rape immoral: the demand that reproduction happen only after rites and trials of passage enforced by the feminine interest in selectivity and the masculine one in being regarded as worthy. Rites and trials of passage are the makings of culture. Thus morality is closely tied to an imperative to creativity, and creativity to increasing awareness. The idea is that this sophistication is and ought to be what is selected for in evolution. The ought here is not the same as the is: rather it evolves from, is a further development of it.

Baumeister, in reminding us of the natural license of sex in light of sex differences, conjures up that pre-moral condition that is never very far beneath the cultural veneer. Done in the interest of moral humility or in the interest of science this is a good thing. In the interest of humility? Is that happening here? And since when do we ever do things purely in the interest of science?]

In terms of the biological competition to produce offspring, then, men outnumbered women both among the losers and among the biggest winners.

To put this in more subjective terms: When I walk around and try to look at men and women as if seeing them for the first time, it’s hard to escape the impression (sorry, guys!) that women are simply more likeable and lovable than men. (This I think explains the “WAW effect” [women are wonderful] mentioned earlier.) Men might wish to be lovable, and men can and do manage to get women to love them (so the ability is there), but men have other priorities, other motivations. For women, being lovable was the key to attracting the best mate. For men, however, it was more a matter of beating out lots of other men even to have a chance for a mate.

Tradeoffs again: perhaps nature designed women to seek to be lovable, whereas men were designed to strive, mostly unsuccessfully, for greatness.

And it was worth it, even despite the “mostly unsuccessfully” part. Experts estimate Genghis Khan had several hundred and perhaps more than a thousand children. He took big risks and eventually conquered most of the known world. For him, the big risks led to huge payoffs in offspring. My point is that no woman, even if she conquered twice as much territory as Genghis Khan, could have had a thousand children. Striving for greatness in that sense offered the human female no such biological payoff. For the man, the possibility was there, and so the blood of Genghis Khan runs through a large segment of today’s human population. By definition, only a few men can achieve greatness, but for the few men who do, the gains have been real. And we are descended from those great men much more than from other men. Remember, most of the mediocre men left no descendants at all. [I can’t help but think how mediocre in their greatness these great men must have been to account for all the mediocrity I see around me… I don’t mean to be entirely joking here: it’s possible this is because the extremely great, as opposed to the celebrated great, like the very deficient, also did not reproduce, so we may know less about them. Mediocrity in greatness as in everything else is what survives. The rest is fodder for evolution—or, at the other end, so advanced that it tends to filter itself clean out of existence. (The gene, to speak metaphorically, for moral greatness must be extremely recessive or it would have been bred out altogether by now. Very few of the greatest philosophers, for example, reproduced. I think this might have something to do with the conflict between an imperative toward awareness and nature’s blind agenda. Perhaps, the reason we haven’t evolved faster than we have is because of this friction.)]

Are Women More Social?


The gist of our view was that there are two different ways of being social. In social psychology we tend to emphasize close, intimate relationships, and yes, perhaps women specialize in those and are better at them than men. But one can also look at being social in terms of having larger networks of shallower relationships, and on these, perhaps, men are more social than women. [Hence, male dominance in corporate and national politics.]

It’s like the common question, what’s more important to you, having a few close friendships or having lots of people who know you? Most people say the former is more important. But the large network of shallow relationships might be important too. We shouldn’t automatically see men as second-class human beings simply because they specialize in the less important, less satisfying kind of relationship. Men are social too—just in a different way.

So we reexamined the evidence Cross and Madsen had provided. Consider aggression. True, women are less aggressive than men, no argument there. But is it really because women don’t want to jeopardize a close relationship? It turns out that in close relationships, women are plenty aggressive. Women are if anything more likely than men to perpetrate domestic violence against romantic partners, everything from a slap in the face to assault with a deadly weapon. [“Assault with a deadly weapon…” but they don’t as often pull the trigger… Compare the situation with suicide: women are more likely to talk about and attempt it, but men are more likely to succeed. While women use violence as expression especially in domestic situations, it is men who are more likely to kill. Which suggests that violence, is one form of expression, albeit degraded, for women. For men, it is an act, even an end in itself. If it is expression at all for him, it is expression of something metaphysical: a more tenuous lease on or investment in life.] Women also do more child abuse than men, though that’s hard to untangle from the higher amount of time they spend with children. Still, you can’t say that women avoid violence toward intimate partners.

Instead, the difference is found in the broader social sphere. Women don’t hit strangers. The chances that a woman will, say, go to the mall and end up in a knife fight with another woman are vanishingly small, but there is more such risk for men. The gender difference in aggression is mainly found there, in the broader network of relationships. Because men care more about that network. [Anyone who has had adult domestic cats of different sexes will notice something similar: the females may be more fiercely aggressive toward other cats but within a much smaller sphere. The males will wander far and wide looking for trouble. However, when they find it, the inevitable violence is often ritual, even stylized, as though following a certain protocol, and, after a period of trial, comes to a definite end in a relatively stable hierarchy. But consider mixing these combinations of adult cats, strangers to each other, in the same household: two females, two males, and a female and a male. The first combination is the worst as far as the violence that ensues. Two males are more likely to come to a truce or understanding after a period of sorting things out. The last combination has the best chance of success because each cat can more readily cede to the other dominance in its preferred territory: they are not quite competing for the same things.]

Now consider helping. Most research finds that men help more than women. Cross and Madsen struggled with that and eventually just fell back on the tired cliché that maybe women don’t help because they aren’t brought up to help or aren’t socialized to help. But I think the pattern is the same as with aggression. Most research looks at helping between strangers, in the larger social sphere, and so it finds men helping more. Inside the family, though, women are plenty helpful, if anything more than men.

Aggression and helping are in some ways opposites, so the converging pattern is quite meaningful. Women both help and aggress in the intimate sphere of close relationships, because that’s what they care about. In contrast, men care (also) about the broader network of shallower relationships, and so they are plenty helpful and aggressive there.

The same two-spheres conclusion is supported in plenty of other places. Playground observation studies find that girls pair off and play one-on-one with the same playmate for the full hour. Boys will either play one-on-one with a series of different playmates or with a larger group. Girls want the one-to-one relationship, whereas boys are drawn to bigger groups or networks. When two girls are playing together and the researchers bring in a third one, the two girls resist letting her join. But two boys will let a third boy join their game. My point is that girls want the one-on-one connection, so adding a third person spoils the time for them, but it doesn’t spoil it for the boys.

The conclusion is that men and women are both social but in different ways. Women specialize in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships. Men specialize in the larger group. If you make a list of activities that are done in large groups, you are likely to have a list of things that men do and enjoy more than women: team sports, politics, large corporations, economic networks, and so forth. [Baumeister is quite correct to point this out. And it does need pointing out, especially in a time still blinkered by heady normative notions of “equality”—as though only by insisting that there are no important differences between women and men can we do each justice. But, again, this is just a starting point. Given that women and men are incommensurable, as we prefer to say, how ought each to regard the other and themselves? That question is not scientific. When Baumeister ventures to address it, he expresses benign (perhaps) but unjustified, sentiments. (Of course, he is not alone in these sentiments—indeed, he barely strays from political and social correctness in addressing them.) It is never morally correct to appeal to what nature does, because, as we should know, nature could care less.]

Traded-Off Traits

Again, important personality differences probably follow from the basic motivational difference in the kind of social relationship that interests men and women.

Consider the common finding that women are more emotionally expressive than men. For an intimate relationship, good communication is helpful. It enables the two people to understand each other, appreciate each other’s feelings, and so forth. The more the two intimate partners know about each other, the better they can care for and support each other. But in a large group, where you have rivals and maybe enemies, it’s risky to let all your feelings show. The same goes for economic transactions. When you are negotiating the price of something, it’s best to keep your feelings a bit to yourself. And so men hold back more. [Ironically, there are expressive men who cannot be trusted precisely because they seem to wear their heart on their sleeve. Think Bill Clinton. Consider this: wouldn’t it be a sign of how clever and effective he was at getting what he wants that he could appear so vulnerable and open? It can be a sign of confidence that we can stand to talk about our secrets and failings. They may even serve as bait to lure others to reveal themselves in more truly vulnerable ways. Openness may well be a conscious or semi-conscious technique no less than taciturnity. After all, a man who expresses little may have little to express. That may make him boring but it may also make him safe. (Or catastrophic, as the case may be: perhaps, he expresses well enough, only he expresses transparently what his audience wants to hear: pure pablum. Think George W. Bush.)]

Fairness is another example. Research by Major and others back in the 1970s used procedures like this. A group of subjects would perform a task, and the experimenter would then say that the group had earned a certain amount of money, and it was up to one member to divide it up however he or she wanted. The person could keep all the money, but that wasn’t usually what happened. Women would divide the money equally, with an equal share for everybody. Men, in contrast, would divide it unequally, giving the biggest share of reward to whoever had done the most work.

Which is better? Neither. Both equality and equity are valid versions of fairness. But they show the different social sphere orientation. Equality is better for close relationships, when people take care of each other and reciprocate things and divide resources and opportunities equally. In contrast, equity—giving bigger rewards for bigger contributions—is more effective in large groups. I haven’t actually checked, but I’m willing to bet that if you surveyed the Fortune 500 large and successful corporations in America, you wouldn’t find a single one out of 500 that pays every employee the same salary. The more valuable workers who contribute more generally get paid more. It simply is a more effective system in large groups. The male pattern is suited for the large groups, the female pattern is best suited to intimate pairs. [Again, the “best” judgment here is question-begging. If decisions taken on the scale of “large groups” never affected “intimate pairs” or if abuse was not endemic to intimate relationships precisely because of too much concern for sharing and sharing alike, we could rest here. The patterns are real enough, but the sliding to the conclusion that the patterns are justified is not legitimate. What is justified will depend on an insertion of value into an adiaphorous world. That will require responsibility. That, in turn, an uncommon amount of reflection. The bottom line is that nothing in nature dictates liberal democracy on one level and communism on the other. What it does seem to dictate is eternal struggle, and when sides are needed in a struggle each of these competing expressions of value in the distribution of goods is game. Baumeister here is edging toward a justification of untrammeled equity in large groups. Seeing a balance of effort and desert as equitable is a function of a willingness to curtail reflection at an arbitrary point, much as seeing agents as inherently entitled to equal treatment is a blindness of another sort. A version of a naturalistic fallacy (the notion that the way things are is evidence for how they should be) seems to be a feature of Baumeister’s view. He has got well enough the are right. But some feminists may be correct about the should. Or at least nothing directly can be concluded about the should from what Baumeister says here. Yet that seems to be his drift.]

Ditto for the communal-exchange difference. Women have more communal orientation, men more exchange. In psychology we tend to think of communal as a more advanced form of relationship than exchange. For example, we’d be suspicious of a couple who after ten years of marriage are still saying, “I paid the electric bill last month, now it’s your turn.” But the supposed superiority of communal relationships applies mainly to intimate relationships. At the level of large social systems, it’s the other way around. Communal (including communist) countries remain primitive and poor, whereas the rich, advanced nations have gotten where they are by means of economic exchange. [The scent of apology for some version of a Western liberal status quo. But before we dismiss Baumeister too quickly, let’s be clear that he has facts on his side. Being “rich” is a good thing, right? I dare you to answer that question without tracking in some conception of value onto the pristine floor of good “science.” Being “poor” is a bad thing but only to the extent it impedes a development toward a higher expression of the human, something akin to what Aristotle meant by “flourishing.” Being “rich” is also a bad thing held to this same standard. (Very rarely is a concentration of wealth beyond a certain a point justified by the enrichment of its possessor’s experience.) Different societies specialize in different ways of being bad. Those societies where communal connection prevails over the looser one implied in liberal democracy are bound to suffer differently…. Someone will say: “But given a choice, wouldn’t you rather…?” but consider Wittgenstein’s cave man remark. The “rather” question is always asked from one side and not the other.]

There’s also the point about men being more competitive, women more cooperative. Again, though, cooperation is much more useful than competition for close relationships. What use is there in competing against your spouse? But in large groups, getting to the top can be crucial. The male preference for dominance hierarchies, and the ambitious striving to get to the top, likewise reflect an orientation toward the large group, not a dislike of intimacy. And remember, most men didn’t reproduce, and we’re mainly descended from the men who did fight their way to the top. Not so for women.

One more thing. Cross and Madsen covered plenty of research showing that men think of themselves based on their unusual traits that set them apart from others, while women’s self-concepts feature things that connect them to others. Cross and Madsen thought that this was because men wanted to be apart from others. But in fact being different is vital strategy for belonging to a large group. If you’re the only group member who can kill an antelope or find water or talk to the gods or kick a field goal, the group can’t afford to get rid of you. [I, myself, have always sought to distinguish myself by working out answers to the world’s most difficult questions, half hoping that the group would appreciate this. So far, no luck. And, sure enough, I have not reproduced myself.] It’s different in a one-to-one relationship. A woman’s husband, and her baby, will love her even if she doesn’t play the trombone. So cultivating a unique skill isn’t essential for her. But playing the trombone is a way to get into some groups, especially brass bands. This is another reason that men go to extremes more than women. Large groups foster the need to establish something different and special about yourself.

Benefits of Cultural Systems

Let’s turn now to culture. Culture is relatively new in evolution. It continues the line of evolution that made animals social. I understand culture as a kind of system that enables the human group to work together effectively, using information. Culture is a new, improved way of being social.

Feminism has taught us to see culture as men against women. [I think I can hear them say, “Culture has always been just another name for men on top of women.”] Instead, I think the evidence indicates that culture emerged mainly with men and women working together, but working against other groups of men and women. Often the most intense and productive competitions were groups of men against other groups of men, though both groups depended on support from women.

Culture enables the group to be more than the sum of its parts (its members). Culture can be seen as a biological strategy. Twenty people who work together, in a cultural system, sharing information and dividing up tasks and so forth, will all live better—survive and reproduce better—than if those same twenty people lived in the same forest but did everything individually. [The late John Rawls, America’s premier political philosopher, argued famously that an efficient division of labor and a corresponding division of benefit was justified for similar reasons, but with a proviso that the least well-off benefit from that division. Rawls was inserting something into the picture of how nature works, a certain distinctly unnatural color, a conception of what it means to be human that transcends anything in nature. What is valuable in the world is something imported by this conception. Survival at any level, individual or collective, in this conception is not the point. It is an essential part of our humanity that we do not accede to the patterns of nature, that we recognize that though luck every bit as much as effort has a hand in our well being and material fate, neither dictates anything. So we assert our humanity by telling nature this is how it will be. The sick, the weak, the unlucky, even the perverse, will be taken care of as much for the sake of the conception we have of ourselves as for them. It is not because “there but for the grace of God” or because somehow “we are in this altogether,” whatever truth there may be in such sentiments, but because of the kind of being we take ourselves to be: the kind that for the space and time its consciousness takes up is an exception to the mandates of nature. (One may tell an evolutionary story here, too: That interfering with the tyrannical rule of the survival of the fittest is, to an extent, more optimal even on pure evolutionary grounds because some traits exclusive to the weak may be at some point useful to the larger gene pool. But this parallel story is logically independent of the cultural one.)]

Culture thus provides some benefit from having a system. Let’s call this “system gain,” which means how much better the group does because of the system. Think of two soccer teams. Both sets of players know the rules and have the same individual skills. One group has only that, and they go out to play as individuals trying to do their best. The other works as a team, complementing each other, playing with a system. The system will likely enable them to do better than the group playing as separate individuals. That’s system gain. [“System gain” is good. But what does that have to do with me? If you answer that it helps to insure my, or my genetic makeup’s, survival, you presume too much. That I care at all for the survival of my genes, that I care more for my survival than I do for the fact that I have survived and the quality of that survival: that is, what other values than survival I have instantiated. If I can’t say, “if I die today, the experience of the world will have been richer for having had me in it,” I am not at all certain that it is good thing for anyone, least of all me, to survive. Each breath I take may be one robbed from another more worthy.

But you may respond that my moral rarifications have no significance in the larger, natural, material scheme of things. I can only reply that in that larger scheme of things, where both you and I and all of us together are not even pawns but the molecules of which pawns are made of, there is no such thing as significance. That is the mother of normative concepts.]

And one vital fact is that the scope of system gain increases with the size of the system. This is essentially what’s happening in the world right now, globalization in the world economy. Bigger systems provide more benefits, so as we expand and merge more units into bigger systems, overall there is more gain.

There is one crucial implication from all this. Culture depends on system gain, and bigger systems provide more of this. Therefore, you’ll get more of the benefit of culture from large groups than from small ones. A one-on-one close relationship can do a little in terms of division of labor and sharing information, but a 20-person group can do much more. [What about “system loss”? Curiously, the impulse that catapults men to achievement by leveraging system gain is instilled in them at the start by the special significance their mothers bestowed on them. Larger and larger systems with all their purported gains cannot be without losses to the most intimate of relations. If it begins with mothers, might it not end with them? I know of one philosopher’s mother who said to her grown son: if I had known what you would one day write I would have aborted you. (E. M. Cioran.) Is there an upper limit on system gain beyond which the system will begin to see value in its own self-annihilation? (This, too, could be given a evolutionary twist. Nature expresses no special interest in our or any species evolution beyond a certain arbitrary point. The only pattern I see in nature is that she gets bored. New species—or none at all for awhile—may offer more diversion.)]

As a result, culture mainly arose in the types of social relationships favored by men. Women favor close, intimate relationships. These are if anything more important for the survival of the species. That’s why human women evolved first. We need those close relationships to survive. The large networks of shallower relationships aren’t as vital for survival—but they are good for something else, namely the development of larger social systems and ultimately for culture. [Baumeister is right as far as he goes here. Culture is largely a male invention—as Weininger made much of a century ago. The darker side, however, of culture is criminality on the same global scale. When the leaders of world powers are no better than gang leaders or terrorists, culture has reached a pretty pass. Weininger was keenly aware of that even then (and it would be the fate of his book that both Hitler and Mussolini would praise it—they must have read the Cliff Notes version of it) and tried, in vain, to steer the masculine impulse toward more transcendent, heterocosmic pastimes, and away from the glories of blood-letting and amassing piles of junk. If it meant men would just have to excuse themselves from existence, well then so be it, but he thought it could be achieved with more grace through celibacy than though murder and war… Yes, he was a “mere boy,” as Germaine Greer said.]

I | II

Posted by luno in rape, philosophy and sex, sex differences, feminism (Wednesday October 6, 2010 at 11:00 am)
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