Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Feminism, The Bible, and Female Reproductive Strategy

My response to a friend asking about feminism and the Bible:
I don't agree that the Bible was written with the conscious purpose of suppressing women. That is, I don't think the guys who wrote it said beforehand: "gee, women aren't suppressed enough, let's write a book and do the job right." I think the Old and New Testaments were written by men who desperately needed to believe that there was something supernaturally special about the Jewish people and Jesus, respectively. It just so happens that these men never stopped to question their culture's treatment of women. So I don't think the Bible represented a turning point in the status of women.
I do agree that a key aspect of conventional morality in Judeo-Christian and Moslem society is the suppression of women. The most important aspect of this suppression is making sure that women are not free to have sex outside of a contractual arrangement whereby the father of any resulting child has to support it.
But who is really suppressed the most under this system? Recall that the ideal reproductive strategy of females is to invest a lot of resources (egg, pregnancy, child-rearing) in a few offspring, while trying to persuade a male to also invest his resources (food-gathering, etc.) in those offspring. By contrast, the ideal reproductive strategy of males is to invest few resources (sperm) in as many offspring as possible, while avoiding any obligation to invest in raising those offspring. In many species, the alpha males are free to have children with as many females as possible, but this is not the case under traditional Western morality. The fact is, traditional Western morality enforces the ideal female reproductive strategy, and bans the ideal male reproductive strategy. (For example, female reproductive fantasies -- romance novels -- are considered acceptable by society, but male reproductive fantasies -- pornography -- are considered unacceptable.) Unfortunately for women, the ban is enforced by restrictions ON WOMEN instead of on men, because parents of daughters have more incentive to protect their child's chastity than do parents of sons.
Western society is not alone in favoring the female reproductive strategy; pair-bonding (and restrictions on daughters) is the norm in most populations of Homo sapiens. I see Christian morality is just our version of the enforcement mechanism; Asian and African societies have equally effective mechanisms that don't involve the Bible at all. So I'm a feminist, but that isn't the reason why I'm not a Christian. I choose not to be a Christian simply because I don't think there is any credible evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was divine.
It is ironic that while the feminist movement of the last few decades has won more individual (and particularly sexual) freedom for women, women have paid a price. Feminism results in getting more women to participate in the male strategy of women having sex outside of marriage, and the result has been more single mothers and more poverty for women due to easy divorce. My hope is that these effects will be temporary, only affecting women who were caught off-guard by the changing rules of the game. I hope future generations of women will have the economic and reproductive self-determination necessary to enjoy their new-found freedoms.
Yes, the Eden story is bass-ackwards. The biological fact is that women are the default gender, and males serve a very limited purpose. The current thinking is that the males (i.e. sexual reproduction) only exists because asexual reproduction can't keep ahead of parasites like viruses. In asexual reproduction, the cloned daughters are so much like the mothers that viruses have a very easy biomolecular lock to pick, because the combination can only change across generations if there is a mutation. The purpose of males seems to be to spin the combination, so that each generation parasites have to start from scratch in trying to pass themselves off as 'self' cells to not get attacked by the immune system.
I highly recommend a book called _The Redundant Male_, which is where I read about this. It goes on to show how, since males have so little purpose in many species except to be chosen by females to spin the combination to the immune system, runaway sexual selection has resulted in some pretty odd male traits like bright colors, long tail feathers, and big antlers. The selection is considered 'runaway' because females want their sons to be attractive to future females, so they choose males with a trait that they consider by some arbitrary criterion to be attractive. The result is a runaway exaggeration of that trait.
As you can see, my perspective on these issues is quite zoological. But I think science is the best basis for feminism because it is objective, and can't be accused of self-bias.
[I wrote the above in 1995, and I don't see anything I disagree with eleven years later.]

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