Friday, August 23, 2013

The Bunny Rabbit Theory of Male Advantage And Other Wild Stories

This has been a fun week in the sorta-essentialist camp of gender stories. 

Sit back and relax, because you are going to be fed lots of very serious theory about why women have the roles they do and why men have the roles they do, at least traditionally speaking.  Very Serious Theory, Coming After Decades of Study.

First, here's the reason why most programmers are men in the US:

Now, I'm sure there is sexism, probably a lot of sexism. But I also think there's something about programming that makes many women not want to do it. Here's a theory why that might be. 
Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient. I imagine it's a lot like sitting in a blind waiting for a rabbit to show up so you can grab it and bring it home for dinner. 
There is specialization in our species. It seems pretty clear that programming as it exists today is a mostly male thing. Which also raises the obvious question that perhaps we can make it so that it can better-use the abilities of the other half of our species?
To give the author, Dave Winer, credit, he decided to strike out that theory part.  But I still like that "theory!"  It's a lot like the theories I might get about, say,  opera (on which I know nothing) after a mug or two of divine mead, while chatting to my demon opera friends.  It shares with them the lack of information, the lack of any deep thinking and a certain lack of respect towards the possibly-more-knowledgeable audience.


It's also based on evolutionary psychology, the idea that squatting silently, waiting for the bunny to put its shy head out of the hole, is what prehistoric guys did, all day long, most days.  Or at least long enough to develop an advantage over the kinds of guys who did other stuff, so that the programmer guys passed their genes on more than the non-programmer guys.  And the programmer genes were passed on only in the male line and so on.

It's a possible theory, naturally, given our inability to learn anything about the life of ancient bunny rabbits or their enemies.

But it skips merrily over various other more proximal causes, including the fact that computers, in general, have become coded more male fairly recently.  It also skips over the fact that things such as sitting silently knitting etc. have some similarities to programming, too.

And it does the usual thing where something like a connection between hunting and being male can be used in any which way, depending on what one wishes to support.  So that usually hunting is assumed to be more vigorous, more ranging, more amenable to teach guys map-reading and three-dimensional mental rotation etc.  But it can also be turned upside down like in this example, to explain why guys are better able to concentrate and sit quietly.

That's why I call this beautiful.  Though it makes me wonder why I bother studying any of this crap at all.

A second pretty story just came out at SlateIt's  an answer offered  to this question:

Why Did Almost All Societies Believe that Women Were Inferior to Men?

The answer argues:
All modern societies evolved out of agrarian societies. Before the Industrial Revolution, the male endurance value and physical strength translated directly to political power. Men fought in wars, hunted beasts, erected buildings, and plowed fields PRECISELY because they possessed the physical stamina to do so at a far greater degree than females.
I'm a HUGE fan of saying, "History does not occur in a vacuum." Which is a fancy way of saying, "S*** throughout human history happens for VERY good reasons." Back before the Industrial Revolution, human fertility was the highest premium factor in existence. People lived to have babies, and babies were the most important thing men and women brought into the world. The female role in reproduction—shall we say—involves a lot more time, effort, and pain (and before recently, a hell of a lot of death). Every moment women spent pregnant (which was a LOT of time) was time that she would have been taken away from power-playing.

Bolds are mine, to point out the obvious contradiction between the question and the answer.

In any case, that the article doesn't really answer the question.  It's perfectly possible to imagine an early society where the ability of women to make babies (what with human fertility being the "highest premium factor") would have been worshipped to such an extent that they would have been given a lot of power in the society.  In short, it's not the presumed gender roles that explain why women would be regarded as inferior.

Those presumed gender roles in the article are probably also incorrect, because they simplify women's role into just some sort of queen-bee-egg-laying-activity. 

Women not only cooked, wove and made pottery but also  farmed, cultivated gardens, probably domesticated some animals and so on.  Or at least there's a good case to argue that this was the case.  And pregnancy doesn't turn a woman comatose in such a way that she cannot play power games.  Neither does breast-feeding or any of the other stuff related to bringing up children.

It's also hard to state how common pregnancy was in the prehistoric world.  The author of the piece I discuss, Dan Holliday, assumes that women were pregnant essentially most of their reproductive lives.  But some studies of more recent nomadic tribes suggest that the number of children born per woman isn't that high, given prolonged breast-feeding, say.

It could be that the calculus changed with agriculture, but that's an assumption, not actual evidence.  One study from the medieval Paris found that the average number of children among lower class families wasn't that high then, mostly because the poorer people got married at older ages. -- I'm not arguing that data so old can be used for evidence.  But the point I wish to make is that we can't just assume some meta-trends in history without questioning their veracity.

My guess is that the piece is really about pointing out that it's not current men's fault what happened in the past and, in any case, women then liked it well enough. Or at least those who didn't like it didn't get their voices heard very easily (with the possible exception of a few rare examples such as the Wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales).  And of course it isn't current men's fault what happened in the distant past, just as it isn't my fault, either.  Or yours.

But that's no excuse for off-the-cuff stories about the meta-history of gender.