Sex and Strategy

I don't feel we've spent enough time this week waging the war between men and women. The fertile comments section over at Megan McArdle's place sent me to a 2007 talk by Roy Baumeister engaging in the ever-popular game of using evolutionary biology to explain why men are from Mars and women from Venus. ("But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.") One of his more widely publicized explanations derived from 2004 research suggesting that our ancestral breeding population included twice as many women as men. In other words, women were twice as likely to have surviving progeny as men, so the reproductive competition was a game with much greater risks and rewards for men, who tended either to produce a lot more children than average or to suffer the extinction of their bloodline.

Baumeister concludes that this gender difference produced men who were willing to bet it all on risky ventures like discovering the New World, while women were content to stick with the status quo. He produces evidence that, although men and women may vary only slightly in their average capabilities in many areas, the bell curve is flatter for men, so the "tails" on both the negative and positive ends are greater for men. More geniuses, but more morons; more world leaders, but more homeless or incarcerated men. He believes this pattern can be explained by the effect of natural selection on the higher riskiness of male reproduction.

Myself, I wonder if you couldn't as easily argue that men, exposed to the risk of not reproducing at all, would be fiercely conservative and protective of their few opportunities, while women, virtually assured of reproducing no matter what, would be willing to throw caution to the wind and experiment. That's the problem with a lot of evolutionary biology, isn't it? It's fun to spot the patterns and try to reduce correlation to causation, but without a genetic mechanism it's hard to find a definitive answer. For instance, it's one thing to say that natural selection operated differently on men and women, and another to say that men ended up with the genes that worked well for men, while women ended up with the genes that worked well for women. In reality, of course, men pass their genes down to children of both sex, as do women. Unless you can tie a male trait to the Y-chromosome, or a female trait to the absence of the Y-chromosome, it's not easy to make a case for a genetic differentiation in the present generation on the ground of gender-based natural selection in past generations.

Baumeister's arguments may work a little better when he ties the unequal ratio of reproductive success to cultural norms rather than to supposedly innate heritable differences between men and women. He suggests that many cultural conventions make sense if you assume that only a few men can be expected to reproduce successfully, while most women can. This assumption leads a society to assume simultaneously that men should be the cannon fodder and that men should end up on top of the heap when it comes to wealth and power. As he points out, if half the men are killed and you're left with only the most successful half, you can rebuild your population fairly quickly. If half the women are killed off, you're in for a slow and dicey recovery.

At all events, I found Baumeister's talk highly entertaining, particularly when he analyzes the different areas where the sexes excel:
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.

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.
It rings true for me, anyway. I've always said I practice socialism under my own roof, and to a lesser degree within my small intimate circle, but I firmly believe competition works best for the country at large. And while I may not be an entirely conventional female in some ways, there's no doubt of my strong preference for small-scale social interaction. So the male-dominated institutional pattern of large, relative anonymous groups doesn't suit me, which is why I enjoyed practicing law in a big firm as long as I could toil away at difficult problems in small groups of like-minded professionals whom I trusted, but I hated networking and rainmaking and was perfectly awful at it.


Grim said...

His causality may be iffy, but his evidence is pretty good. I think all of this, for example, is true:

The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men. Likewise, who gets killed in battle? Even in today’s American army, which has made much of integrating the sexes and putting women into combat, the risks aren’t equal. This year we passed the milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938 were men, 62 were women.


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.
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. Want to think women are better than men? Then look at the bottom, the criminals, the junkies, the losers.
In an important sense, men really are better AND worse than women.

That seems to be true as a matter of fact. The question is why it is true. You're right that evolutionary biology (or psychology) is vulnerable to just the kind of mistake you cite. On the other hand, a cultural argument doesn't really work either, because these facts seem to be true in all cultures. Ours, which has gone further toward equality than most in this regard, still has the imbalance in the Iraq war dead he cites. We award most of our higher degrees to women, but men still publish the most cited journal articles. That effect is even more pronounced in fields (unlike psychology) where one can be proven wrong in public if one's article is flawed.

If these things remain true in spite of culture, then, a biological explanation seems to be indicated. This may not be the right one, but it's more likely than not that there is one.

Grim said...

On the difference between the communal and the exchange system, I must differ. There is a difference between the commune and the comitatus. Men function very well under the latter terms -- as a band of brothers who help each other pull through, whether at war or in other demanding circumstances. This is a highly masculine model.

Texan99 said...

I took him to be saying that the communal model works better in small groups while the competitive one gives better results in large groups, and that women on the whole prefer the former to the latter. That's not to say that women can't learn to take advantage of the large-competitive system, or that men can't learn to see the value of the small-communal one, without that being their go-to mode.

When it comes to modern societies changing the pattern and moving toward more equality, we might expect to see some parts of it change faster than others. Some assumptions are more ingrained and arouse more unanalyzed passions, such as who should get shot at, or who should have his finger on the nuclear button.

Grim said...

I can see your reading, T99; I just meant to say that the comitatus is an explictly masculine formation. It's most suitable to a small group, in the sense of people you know; but as we've seen with the Army at war, once you have an enemy against you, it is readily extended to even a fairly sizable force.

Texan99 said...

See, sometimes men can learn something from women without devaluing it. :-)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I knew this was your post one paragraph in. A couple of things. It is hard to rely on the data from the bottom of the IQ curve, because men - because of their risky behavior from earliest years - have more head injuries, padding their total at the bottom. When we try to pull that factor out to see if there really are more men at the bottom, it may be that it's true, but it's not clear.

People do pass trait on to both sexes, but that's not clean either. Some things are testosterone-activated. I don't think we've found much that estrogen-activated, but it's possible. Genes can partially activate, delay activation, etc. I like evolutionary biology, as you know, but I find the same difficulty you do: too many just-so stories that could read the other way.

As to socialism near and competition for the distant, that works on a larger scale as well. The places where socialism has not destroyed economies are hardworking cultures where everyone is from the same tribe - Sweden, Netherlands, etc. But they are quite ruthless competitors in the international market, which is why they have money to give to other Swedes.

Texan99 said...

I assumed testosterone was controlled by the Y-chromosome and lumped it in there with things that might plausibly be selected for in the male line in that fashion. But it's still necessary to draw a connection between testosterone and the behavior in question.

I think I remembering reading some years ago about a direct link between testosterone levels in lower Manhattan and the performance of the Dow, the idea being that we'd all benefit from putting more strip clubs on Wall Street. But I can't remember what economic behavior was supposed to be stimulated by testosterone -- risk taking? Optimism?

Grim said...

If strip clubs were the recommendation, it must have been optimism. To whit: "Pessimists think that all women are bad. Optimists hope that they are."

Mark said...

Just about everything works better in small groups, except world wars and such.