Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why Women Won't Compete

According to the great expert, John Tierney, of the once-respectable New York Times:

Discrimination is one big reason, because men have traditionally made the rules to suit themselves and keep out women. But if you think that leveling the playing field would eliminate gender disparities, consider an unintentional experiment conducted in the Scrabble world, which is hardly a hostile environment for women.

For a quarter-century, women have outnumbered men at Scrabble clubs and tournaments in America, but a woman has won the national championship only once, and all the world champions have been men. Among the world's 50 top-ranked players, typically about 45 are men.
The guys who memorize these lists have a hard time explaining their passion. But the evolutionary roots of it seem clear to anthropologists like Helen Fisher of Rutgers University.

"Evolution has selected for men with a taste for risking everything to get to the top of the hierarchy," she said, "because those males get more reproductive opportunities, not only among primates but also among human beings. Women don't get as big a reproductive payoff by reaching the top. They're just as competitive with themselves - they want to do a good job just as much as men do - but men want to be more competitive with others."

Evolutionary psychologists see two kinds of payoffs that traditionally went (and often still go) to victorious men. Women have long been drawn to men at the top of a hierarchy (a clan leader, Donald Trump) who have the resources to support children.

And when women pursued what's called a short-term reproductive strategy - a quick fling - then presumably evolution favored the woman who was attracted to a man with good genes, as manifest either in his looks or in some display of prowess. If the theory's right and the unconscious urges persist in women, you can begin to understand why some women wait in hotel lobbies looking for rock stars.

Yes, I was expecting the evo-psychos to rear their ugly heads any time soon after the last Tierney column on women. Note how far into the quote you have to read before you come to the these little words:

If the theory's right...

It's a theory, my friends, and one that we cannot prove or disprove, really. There are no archeological remains that could help us here, no paleoanthological findings, nothing. Your guess is as good as mine. Or probably better, given that I'm just an amateur and not a hi-faluting evolutionary psychologist.

But let me just point out that the traditional way of looking at the sexual selection in this genre assumes that the competition is over when a sperm has been deposited. It completely skips the nine months that follow and the years that take before the fertilized egg has become an equally fertile human adult. The assumption is that none of this long time period involves any competition whatsoever, at least not by the women. But that's all it is: an assumption. And an assumption that makes women look like they don't compete.

Besides, the arguments presented above are circular. The men that women might have had quick flings with must have "presumably" been with men who have good genes and such men must have been good Scrabble players or something. Maybe the women had their little flings with guys who had big soulful eyes and who were good at listening when you moaned and complained about the thug you were usually saddled with? Maybe these guys had gentle fingers and nimble tongues and knew a better way of cooking mammoth? Who knows what the prehistoric women thought.

Note also how Tierney discounts the idea that we might have inculcated anti-competitive values in women by the way girls are traditionally brought up (by likening discrimination to a simple leveling of the playing field), and he doesn't even question the assumption that all Scrabble players had the same opportunities to dedicate time and money to this one hobby. Tierney could have looked at competitions of other types, too, such as the pie-baking ones or the ones for the best roses or whatever, and I bet that he would have found very little support for his theory.

I'm a believer in evolution in general because I can see the evidence for it. When it comes to evolutionary psychology I'm a lot more cynical, and the main reason is the near-total absence of clear evidence for the most misogynistic arguments possible. It seems to me that most evo-psychos attempt to explain the status quo as impossible to change and in that sense they all have wingnut (caveman?) axes to hone. Never mind that the society has changed drastically over centuries, evo-psychos always stress its unchanging nature.

The wingnuts have two major approaches to the "Woman Question". One is the use of fundamentalist religion to subjugate women. The other one is pseudoscience* of various types, from Freudianism to this crap. Be forewarned.
*By pseudoscience I mean theories which look scientific but which don't lend themselves to proper scientific testing.