The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Gender

How Society Creates Ability

Let’s start with biological sex and the differences between men and women.

There are obvious differences, in size and upper body strength. There are large differences in some of the senses, such as taste and smell (women tend to be far more acute).

Other differences appear biological, but this is not as clear cut as it seems, because socialization feeds into biology.

A simple example is that people raised under constant stress have differences in their brains from people who aren’t raised under constant stress.

So let’s take a simple claim: Men are better at math. Seems straightforward, quite robust, but it turns out that in Iceland, which is very egalitarian, young women are now outperforming young men.

There is a well-known effect in the social sciences that runs as follows: People who feel inferior, perform worse. This is quite robust. Tell someone they suck, or that they are lower on the totem pole, and they will do worse by pretty much every metric.

So, if you live in a society where men are widely considered superior to women (and let’s not pretend our societies aren’t like this), then that will have an effect. If this goes on as people grow up, it’s unlikely that this effect won’t get baked into brain and body.

Take another standard observation: Women are more prone to anxiety and neuroticism.

The problem with this is that women live in societies where they are less powerful than men, have less money, and are less violently proficient, when violence is often used as coercion.

Put more brutally: They live amongst a bunch of potential rapists who are larger and stronger than them.

So, they’re under constant stress, a point which I don’t think many men truly understand. That constant fear has effects on the brain and body; again, if you’re constantly exposed to stress, you actually become more sensitive to it.

The point here is that it is very hard to determine what is “natural” and what is “social.” We can say, “This is natural in this sort of society,” but that can’t be used as a reason not to change society.

What we do know, I hope, is that it sucks to be scared and it sucks to be told you’re inferior, and that underperforming not because you are inferior but because you’ve been told you are, is unfair and a stupid way for us to run our society.

This feeds into a lot of different things, but the simplest is the misunderstanding of fitness to mean “winning in the current scheme.”

IQ correlates well to success in our society, so we say, “They’re smarter, they deserve success.” But IQ correlates well to success in society because it correlates to two things: (1) academic success, which gates almost all the good jobs in our lives, and; (2) verbal and cultural fluency in the dominant culture, which are necessary to get ahead as well.

In other words, we’ve created a society which says, “If you have a high IQ, we will let you have good jobs.” Well yes, that’s how we made it, it’s not independent. (The getting along with the dominant culture may always be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should always approve of it as a necessity, nor try not to mitigate it.)

Fitness, in racial terms, is actually about being able to survive changes in the environment. Fit species are diverse, and able to adapt, and if a species loses diversity, it is less likely to survive changes.

Much of our environment, as humans, is social. But society changes. The cluster of skills which make up IQ weren’t always highly valued, rather the contrary. Brave-to-the-point-of-insanity dunderheads were what many feudal and aristocratic societies wanted (reading 19th century British colonial military biographies makes this clear). Right now, geeks rule, but when I was growing up they sure as heck didn’t (and their rule, today, is somewhat exaggerated).

These periods come and go. There was a time in the 19th and early 20th century when geeks (actual engineers and scientists) did very well, seeming to rule the roost. Edison is a good example. But as the industries they had invented became mature, they were forced out and down. This took time, but basically after about 40 to 80 years, the engineers become nothing but tools of management: The money men and social glad-handers will eventually take over.

What you’re good at is at least 50 percent due to a simple luck of the draw (arguably entirely, as you didn’t choose your parents, and thus when or where you were born). At that point any genetic endowment you may have (innate ability) meets the environment, and the environment has the final say, in almost all cases, about how well that endowment flourishes, and certainly about how well it is rewarded.

Most of what seems like merit, in other words, is luck. If you have it, be grateful. If it’s rewarded, be even more grateful.

And don’t assume you know exactly which is which.

Those who have been lucky, and thus have merit in a society or environment, should recognize their luck, and be humble, knowing how little it had to do with them. And if you want a metric upon which to measure your life, perhaps it could be how much good you have done divided by how much “merit” you have.

By this measure, the rich are rarely worth saving, because as studies show, the poor give more compared to what they have than the rich do.

That fact should be chewed on very carefully.

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Power and Gender

Image by Nick in Exsilio

Image by Nick in Exsilio

Many years ago I took a sociology course which really turned out to be about anthropology.  Indeed the two disciplines are so close that Carleton U used to offer a 100 level course called “Introduction so SocioAnthropology” or something fairly similar to that.

Anthropologists roughly divide societies into basic groups by how they extract a living from the environment. The basic groups are hunter/gatherers, horticultural (take a stick, push it in the ground, drop a seed in), agricultural (plows) and industrial (nomads exist off to one side). What’s interesting about this is that that with very few exceptions (the Inuit are one) hunter gatherer bands are the most egalitarian societies, by far – even more egalitarian than modern industrial societies.

Agricultural societies, on the other hand, are the least egalitarian societies in general.

My Prof at the time posited the following: the more a gender contributes the more powerful they are. In typical hunter gatherer bands women account for 60% to 70% of the food – while the men are out hunting, they gather, and they gather, in fact, more food than the hunters bring in. In agricultural societies, on the other hand, men do the plowing, and women are generally relegated to the home.

But this begs an obvious question, one I immediately asked. If power is based on contribution, why aren’t hunter gatherer bands matriarchal? After all, the women are actually contributing not an equal amount of food – but much more than the men!

The answer was interesting, and I think, has a lot of truth to it. Gatherers don’t work in tight teams. Hunters, as a rule, did (remember, these guys didn’t have guns.) So the men had stronger social ties than the women.

And it is true, in general, that wherever you see women with low status, they are kept from interacting much – from forming ties with other women, or even more so, with men outside their families.

In our own society, it is striking that when things go really bad it is often with women who have become practically house bound. And it is also notable that the 50’s had women practically confined to the house.

None of this, really, should come as a surprise.

If you have the ability to produce more money, you’ll be more powerful. And who you know is one of the biggest determinants of how influential and powerful you are. Simply mentioning that you are friends with a noted lawyer, or being known to hang out with powerful people, can make you money or scare off potential predators. Not to mention give you leverage against an abusive spouse.

The housebound period then, that many modern women go through when they have their children, reduces their power both directly by reducing their earning power, and indirectly because it is often accompanied by a collapsing social circle. Likewise the tendency of many to lose friends once they become married is something to be guarded against.

The general principles, however, suggest hope for those who prefer more egalitarian societies. Because, in general information societies, should we manage to attain such, will increase the ability to maintain and extend social ties despite physical circumstances, and upper body strength will be even less necessary than it is now to earning a living. The hangover of old attitudes, the glass ceiling and so on will still be there, but there should be more cracks in that ceiling, and more power and influence to use in combating those attitudes.

Originally published at the Agonist, or maybe BopNews.

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