On the Origins of Gender Inequality
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On the Origins of Gender Inequality

Joan Huber

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On the Origins of Gender Inequality

Joan Huber

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In our fast-paced world of technology and conveniences, the biological origins of women's inequality can be forgotten. This book offers a richer understanding of gender inequality by explaining a key cause-women's reproductive and lactation patterns. Until about 1900, infants nursed every fifteen minutes on average for two years because very frequent suckling prevented pregnancy. The practice evolved because it maximized infant survival. If a forager child was born before its older sibling could take part in the daily food search, the older one died. This practice persisted until the modern era because until after the discovery of the germ theory of disease, human milk was the only food certain to be unspoiled. Lactation patterns excluded women from the activities that led to political leadership. During the twentieth century the ancient mode declined and women entered the labor market en masse. Joan Huber challenges feminists toward a richer understanding of biological origins of inequality-knowledge that can help women achieve greater equality today.

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FROM A SOCIOLOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE, anthropologists’ search for the origins of gender inequality appeared to peak in the early 1970s and then slow nearly to a halt. But it was only the search conducted in cultural anthropology, the area of the discipline with which sociologists are most familiar, that peaked and declined. Spurred by the renewal of feminism in the late 1960s and the rise in the number of women in social sciences and humanities a little later, many cultural anthropologists had wanted to know why women’s subordination to men seemed to be universal.
Despite cultural anthropologists’ involvement in human origins research in the 1970s, many of them were leery of biological explanations. It had been a biological perspective that led European anthropologists to explain group differences in racist terms. Early in the twentieth century Franz Boas urged colleagues to use the concept of culture instead of race to explain group differences lest American anthropology take the route of its French and German counterparts. Other social scientists resisted imports from biology owing to the legacy of eugenics and Social Darwinism, better named Social Spencerism, for unmerciful competition was praised as depicting what Darwin actually had taught (Mayr 1982:883; Haaga 2002:515). The exclusion of biology ultimately led to the Standard Social Science Model, the idea that human culture was solely a product of history and environment, not reducible to biology or psychology (Wilson 1998:188).
Thus, the time span of the search for origins conducted in anthropology as a whole was brief. The most likely reason it petered out is that the divide between biological and cultural anthropology, the fields that comprised the intellectual center of the search, had become a deep chasm by the mid-1980s. Two new trends that shared no elective affinities, sociobiology and postmodernism, pushed biological and cultural anthropology in opposite directions. Scholarly exchange became difficult, which deprived other disciplines of anthropological syntheses that might have explained the consequences of the interaction of biology and culture, especially after humans invented farming 10,000 years ago.
The new theory of sociobiology stirred the imaginations of biological anthropologists. The focus on the evolution of animal behavior was a giant step forward in all of biology, for it demonstrated a way to measure the evolutionary aspects of an animal’s reproductive behavior. The reception of sociobiology in the social sciences was muted owing to a careless application of the findings about animals to humans and a flavor of Victorian sexism that disturbed feminists, including those who did biological research. The claim that anthropology and sociology could be subsumed under sociobiology probably displeased most social scientists. By the late 1970s, sociobiology was a favorite target of academic radicals. By the mid-1980s, only a plurality in the cultural field accepted sociobiology’s central concepts even though it had become biological anthropology’s most basic perspective (Lieberman 1989).
By contrast, the postmodernist trend primarily affected disciplines in the humanities as well as areas of social science that emphasized description and interpretation. Postmodernism held that there was no truth. There was only text. The material world was irrelevant. Intensifying the perception of many social scientists that racism and sexism were inherent in biological research, the postmodernist rejection of science helped to bring about the dissolution of the search for human origins in cultural anthropology.
Yet, despite the chasm created by the polar perspectives of sociobiology and postmodernism, the four fields of anthropology at that time were much alike in one respect. Archeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics together comprised a no-woman’s land. The research faculty, mostly male, had given scant attention to what women thought, what they contributed to subsistence, and how they nourished their children. A two-sex perspective on human origins would require a significant substantive contribution.
In recounting the search for human origins, I introduce sociobiology first, a little out of order, for it appeared in 1975. However, it is basic to the understanding of modern biology. I then discuss the male model of human origins, the search for a two-sex model, the effect of postmodernism on interpretive studies, the virtual ending of the search for origins, and the costs of excluding biology in explanations of human thought and behavior.
Sociobiology, introduced by Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson (1975), applied natural selection theory to the behavioral aspects of reproduction. The explanation of animal reproductive behavior assumes that the purpose of the behavior is to maximize individual reproductive success (Konner 1982:15). The theory of sociobiology held that the evolutionary success of individuals is measured by the quality of fitness, defined as the number of an individual’s offspring who live long enough to reproduce. The individual who is most fit is the one who contributes the most genes to the next generation. Sociobiology thus differed profoundly from theories holding that natural selection benefited the species rather than the individual. The emphasis on the individual provided a way to engage in far more precise measurement, and the new theory spawned a flood of research that elegantly explained evolutionary aspects of nonhuman animal behavior. The theory is widely accepted today in all of the biological sciences.
In the light of subsequent criticism, it was ironic that Wilson (1975:551) began by claiming that the handling of genetics by Konrad Lorenz, Lionel Tiger, Robin Fox, Robert Ardrey, and Desmond Morris, who emphasized the inevitability of male dominance, was inefficient and misleading. Based on a review of a small sample of animal species, these authors would select a plausible hypothesis, then advocate it to the limit [Wilson’s italics], though real theory must be deductive and testable. In The Imperial Animal, for example, Tiger and Fox (1971) did not formulate their theory about human male behavior in a falsifiable form. The substitution of advocacy for strong inference makes science nothing but a wide open game that any number can play (Wilson 1975:29).
Despite Wilson’s advocacy of the scientific method, sociobiology intensified social science skepticism about biology and deepened the divide between anthropology’s cultural and biological fields. Over time, the label became so politicized that many biological scientists would refer to research on animals as behavioral ecology and that on humans as evolutionary psychology (Zuk 2002:1). Four aspects of sociobiology especially troubled social scientists.
First, Wilson applied his animal findings to humans. Social scientists directed most of their attacks against this particular application (Mayr 1997:203). The extension to humans was especially risky because Wilson’s view of humankind generally displayed the moral prejudices of the twentieth century Western world along with an “astonishing” ignorance of non-Western peoples (Ingold 1986:68). Rather surprisingly, Wilson also ignored the complexity of the human brain and the possibility of cultural adaptation (Gould 1983:243) and seemed unaware of the problems that plague sociological explanation. Discussing insects with many facts, Wilson would say nothing about humans. Speaking about humans with few facts, he used insect behavior to make critical points (Washburn 1978:60). The theory explained the behavior of nonhuman primates and other animals. The application to humans clearly needed more work. Relating zoological definitions of power to definitions of power developed for humans is problematic: Human notions of social power rarely consider the currency of reproduction (Smuts 1995:24).
Second, applying the model to humans highlighted a problem obvious to demographers. The theory ignored the worldwide decline in human fertility. Though the abrupt change in the association between wealth and fertility requires explanation (see Kaplan and Lancaster 2000:317; 2003), there is no evolutionary rationale for the demographic transition (Luttberg, Borgerhoff, Mangel 2000:364). A major challenge facing sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and human behavioral ecology is the extent to which these areas can explain the changes in human sexual behavior over the past 200 years, especially the decline to extremely low levels of fertility (Hobcraft 2003:340). As Cavalli-Sforza (2000:205) recently noted, cultural development has slowed biological evolution. The effect of natural selection on fertility and mortality has been the greatest evolutionary factor in human biology, but modern medicine has so reduced prereproductive mortality that demographic growth must be sharply curtailed to prevent serious overpopulation.
A large body of data demonstrates that the demographic transition turned the effect of wealth on fertility upside down, for the rich generally got richer and the poor got children. One problem in producing an explanation is that the shorthand used to describe copulation does not accurately state why an animal engages in sexual activity. The language of sociobiology implies that individuals copulate for the sake of fitness. Sociobiologists agree, however, that no animal knows in any cognitive sense why it behaves as it does. Natural selection in the course of evolution simply results in an animal’s behaving as if it wanted offspring (Konner 1982:268). An impartial observer of copulation in nonhuman mammals might conclude that the purpose of the behavior is to attain sexual satisfaction. Offspring are a byproduct. In humans, the byproduct may be welcome or unwelcome.
A related problem is that sociobiologists often discuss Darwinian selection as if only individual characteristics determine reproductive success. This view ignores the environment, which Darwin made the critical determinant of selection (Potts 1996:227). Animals copulate in pursuit of sexual satisfaction in a particular environment. For most animals, it tends to be a given, but not for humans, who can rapidly change their environment in a brief period of time, as happened during the industrial revolution. Urban living, education, and a cornucopial proliferation of material goods gave most humans an incentive to restrict the number of children they wanted to rear. Because young adults evolved from a mammal species are equipped with a strong sexual urge, they often experience a desire to copulate. They may on occasion hope to demonstrate their fitness but, apparently, more often, not. Henry Ford’s career exemplifies an unintended effect of environmental change on human behavior. Ford invented the assembly line and paid workers good wages to enable them to buy cars, which gave adolescents a home away from home. Booming car sales induced chemists to improve rubber tires, and improved rubber technology led to a better condom. (Like college diplomas, the Roman originals had been made of sheepskin.) An unexpected consequence of assembly line production gave American adolescents the privacy and means to separate procreation and recreation.
Third, the sociobiological account of the differing sexual strategies of human males and females, often stated in language with sexist overtones, highlighted the difficulties inherent in using the sexual strategies of other mammals to explain human behavior. Like their nonhuman counterparts, human males have zillions of sperm while females have far fewer eggs. Male strategy calls for a man to deposit his sperm in as many females as he can. By contrast, a woman should be choosy, picking a man who might stick around and help feed the kiddies. The sociobiological literature usually describes her mien while waiting around for Mr. Right as “coy.” However, were males choosy about mates, would they be called coy or judicious (Cronin 1991:248)?
Applied to humans, sociobiology seemed akin to a postsexual revolution version of Victorian sexism (Small 1993:91). Thus, when sociologist Pierre van den Berghe (1978:197) introduced sociobiology to colleagues, he assured them that the theory supported the conventional wisdom on family sex roles: It is natural for papa to wear the pants. Moreover, the castrating female is no myth: A woman can threaten a man to the point of sexual dysfunction should she assume the dominant role.
Sociobiologists have generally characterized female sexuality as less intense and less oriented toward variety than male sexuality. Yet, were female sexuality so limited, men would not need to try so hard to control it. Women can gain benefits from mating with multiple partners. Evidence from primates and relatively unconstrained women reveals an assertive female sexuality excited by variety (Smuts 1996:255).
Fourth, perhaps to help subsume the social sciences under sociobiology, Wilson introduced a concept intended to give these disciplines a firm scientific foundation. In Genes, Mind, and Culture, Lumsden and Wilson (1981:99, 368) proposed a concept they called the culturgen to explain cultural evolution, parallel to the part played by the gene in biological evolution. Akin to the meme and an analog of the gene, the culturgen is an idea, tune, or catch phrase that propagates itself by leaping from brain to brain, the means of cultural transmission in a process parallel to biological evolution according to Dawkins (1976:192). The gene made biology a science by showing how natural selection actually worked. The culturgen could do the same for social science.
But it was not to be. The so-called evolution of culture, unlike biological evolution, is not based on random selection of units (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981:357, 70; see also Ingold 1986). The mode of transmission clearly differentiates genetic from cultural evolution. Memes and culturgens would have meaning only if categories were discontinuous, as are atoms, genes, and DNA. Cultural transmission has never been analyzed in any depth (Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza 1995:224). Despite a recent attempt to show how culture and biological evolution are related (Richerson and Boyd 2005), the key problem remains.
A theory of cultural transmission based on individualistic psychology omits too many causal factors to be a functional analog of the gene in genetic evolution. Functionalist theories of sociology and anthropology that often explicitly claimed to be Darwinian have been notoriously vague about the mechanisms by which the higher-level good prevailed over individual selfishness (Cronin 1991:370). Cultural “mutations” may result from random events and thus be similar to genetic mutations, but cultural changes are more often intentional or directed to a specific goal, while biological mutations are blind to their potential benefit (Cavalli-Sforza 2000:176). Among our kind, armed conflict, social stratification, and ideology deeply affect cultural outcomes. In a given conflict, who will be the masters, who, the slaves? And why? Untangling causality in human affairs is more complicated than some sociobiologists seem to think.
In the opinion of the twentieth century’s greatest biologist, the misconception that Spencer’s evolutionism is like Darwin’s has been a great handicap to both anthropology and sociology (Mayr 1982:494). Cultural evolution implies parallels with natural evolution that do not exist. “Cultural change” (Gould 1996:219) or “Spencerian selection” (Turner 1995:16) might be more accurate.
In retrospect, it is fair to observe that the male models of human evolution in the 1960s played a large role in motivating feminists and sympathizers to produce a body of work that showed in detail why one-sex models of human origins were inadequate. The theories of human nature promulgated in the 1960s and 1970s attempted to demonstrate that biology made male dominance inevitable. A consequence was that the rising numbers of women students in anthropology graduate departments had to suffer through “mortifying” years of hearing about man the hunter and the political superiorities of men in groups (Hrdy 1990:35). The models of early man produced by anthropologists and primatologists were embedded in a masculinist ideology, and they appeared just when women’s struggle for inclusion in academia was sensitizing graduate students to the personal and political costs of claims that cast doubt on women’s capacity to operate as well as men did outside the home. As Zuk (2002: 201) said later, it is not the science of biology that harms women; it is the human misuse of that science.
Probably the best known male model of human origins was that of man the hunter, which dominated scholarly and popular writing in the 1960s. Some authors claimed that primate males were biologically designed to dominate the group life of their species. All human life, intellect, and emotions were said to have evolved from the adaptation to hunting that also hardwired predatory aggression into male nature (Washburn and Lancaster 1968:292).
In the 1970s, scholars of both sexes challenged the model. As it turned out, man the hunter (see Chapter 2) had a short shelf life. By the 1980s primatologists (many of them women by then) were laying him gently to rest (see Fedigan 1986). No conclusive proof demonstrated that dominance was highly heritable or that dominant male primates sired the most infants (Fedigan 1992:280). The rank order of most mammals can be determined simply by weighing individuals, save for monkeys and apes, whose rank ordering often does not correlate with their physical power (Byrne 1995:199).
The scholars who heard the news of the hunter’s demise included few students of gender, for most of them had already given up on biology. Lopreato and Crippen (1999) have reported that the current feminist literature agrees that biology cannot explain cultural sex differences even in part. The claim was overstated, for it excluded work like that of Rossi (1983) and Collins, Chafetz, Blumberg, Coltrane, and Turner (1993), but not by much.
From a sociological perspective, an obvious place to begin a search for data on the behaviors and beliefs that characterize preliterate societies was in cultural and archeological anthropology, especially in studies that focused on the ecology and technology of food production. Sociologist Gerhard Lenski’s (1966, 1970) theory of social stratification, based on an ecological-subsistence perspective, covered a wide range of societies. It was the first to make data in anthropology accessible to other social scientists (Mosley and Wallerstein 1978). The theory drew extensively on the research of cultural anthropologists, but they did not often cite it. The largest body of research in cultural anthropology depended on the concept of culture to explain societal variation though a number of anthropologists had long focused on the effects of environment and subsistence, especially among foragers (Heider 1972; Kelly 1995:6).
Early on, Franz Boas had introduced the concept of culture to combat intellectual and political racism. Racism rose to an historical high worldwide in the nineteenth century owing to the confluence of three disparate factors: the idea of the survival of the fittest (a bastardized version of Darwinist thought), the superiority of Northwest European military hardware, and the physical characteristics (evolved to permit climatic adaptation) that made different groups identifiable (van den Berghe 1967). Observers could readily identify a variety of “natives” from European invaders. The conquerors invented a ready explanation to justify their behavior: The natives were subhuman.
After emerging among military ...