A thought experiment on gender differences...

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Sometimes the differences are obvious


To understand how and why men and women are different, I want us to do a thought experiment.

Imagine an ancient tribe of early humans roaming somewhere in the horn of Africa foraging and hunting. Sometimes they have to fight other tribes. Sometimes they have to fight lions. Survival of that tribe depends on reproduction. Women need to carry babies to term. Babies need to be raised until they can contribute (sometime between 10-15 years old). Having as many babies as possible is important because there are so many threats. Disease, famine, war, and wild animals will take a sadly large number of your children.

For this thought experiment, I would like to make a strange sort of tribe. This tribe in humanities early development has men and women that are about the same size and temperament. Other than the women's ability to bear children, there are very few biological differences between them. The men and the women are equally able to fight, kill, hunt, and run. Finally, let's suppose the size of our imaginary tribe is twenty adult men and twenty adult women of child bearing age.

Our tribe learns that a neighboring tribe is about to attack. What should they do? They decide that 20 people will be needed to win the war. But who should they send? Anyone at random? Men? Women? Let's explore the options.

If they randomly sent both men and women (20 people random members) and ten people died in a winning war effort, the expected result would be that the dead would include five men and five women. The triumphant tribe would now have 15 men and 15 women. They go about procreating and later that year they have a maximum of 15 cute little babies. Not bad in terms of their hopes for passing on their genes to the future generation.

But can they do better? What if they decided to send just the women. If the women went to fight (remember these are strong women that are able to fight as well as the men), and they also lost ten people, then the maximum number of babies to be born later that year would be just ten. Five less precious bundles of joy to help perpetuate the gene pool than if they just sent everyone. Clearly a worse result than sending 20 at random.

There is a third option, they could send the men only. The men go and fight and ten of them die before they return triumphant. How many babies can they have that year? The answer is 20. This is the best result for the tribe and their hopes of building their future generations.

If this is the best option for survival, we can assume that over many years, early tribes of humans would develop in such a way to optimize this option. The most successful tribes would be the ones with aggressive big males that would enjoy going to war and be physically fit enough to do it well. The women of the successful tribes, would not be so inclined to go fight and would only fight when absolutely necessary (ie the enemy is at the gates and her babies are at risk). The most successful tribes would have big strong aggressive men and motherly and gentle women (who get defensive when their view their little ones at risk).

It all comes down to the fact that the male part of procreation is quite quick. One man can get 20 women pregnant in a few days while a woman can only get pregnant once a year at the most. Sperm is cheap, fertilized eggs are very expensive...

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"It all comes down to the fact that the male part of procreation is quite quick. One man can get 20 women pregnant in a few days while a woman can only get pregnant once a year at the most. Sperm is cheap, fertilized eggs are very expensive." 

And the differences that are driven by cheap sperm and expensive fertilized eggs do not stop with behaviors relating to war. They should affect much of social life. For example, let's consider sexual behavior. A successful tribal woman, who can only procreate once a year at the most, would want to be very very careful about who she had sex with. Sleeping around with anyone interested would not be in her interest or the interest of the tribe. No, she would want to pick a winning man. A man who had plenty of food and who was a good fighter. This would give her and her baby the best chance to continue on to the next generation. In contrast, a successful man would seek to spread his seed far and wide with the hopes of having as many offspring as possible. Being picky is not very important at all when it comes to survival of the tribe. Another example would be from the attitudes toward work. Successful men in this tribe during times of peace would be active in providing food for his wife(s). He would have almost singular focus on making sure that his family had food and protection. While it might be nice for him to be social, it would hardly be necessary to survival. On the other hand, mother's milk is necessary for infants for at least a year after birth (and likely longer). The most successful women (with procreation being the goal) would always have a baby or two around the house and would need to be nursing regularly. Given the need to be present to nurse when babies are hungry, it would make sense that her focus would be on maintaining the house then rather than on hunting and providing.

We could continue with this thought experiment but I will stop there to say that I think this is more than a mere thought experiment. This is clearly how humans developed. It makes perfect sense as to how an ancient tribe could have best organized their society to survive the many dangers that the ancient world provided them. And it makes sense when we look at the men and women of today. Men are still bigger and more aggressive than women. Women are still smaller and less prone to physical confrontation. Men still enjoy sleeping around. Women are still more likely to want to settle down. Men are more likely to pursue difficult jobs that require long hours in the hope of being good providers. Women are more likely to be happy building a nice home.

In short, we are not far from our ancient ancestors. Geneticists say that human genetics have not changed much from our hunter gatherer days.

But does it need to be this way? That is the question that some might ask. Why not change things? We no longer, for example, require men to fight lions or combat neighboring tribes with sticks and stones. We have a safe environment and when wars do need to be fought we have guns and missiles and a nerdy man (or woman) sipping a latte in a Pentagon office can use a drone to wipe out a whole village. Women for their part, thanks to a reduction in infant mortality and a rise in life expectancy, no longer need to have babies like crazy to sustain the human population. 2.1 children per woman keep our population steady. And with modern technology, her reduced physical frame allows her to do many if not most of the things that men can do in the world. So why not reorder society to make it more egalitarian and get away from the old order that was once needed but is no longer needed?

As a society, this is exactly what we have tried to do for at least the past 60 years. Today, any mention of differences between men and women is viewed with an angry eye from most. When mentioned at all, the man in the restaurant looks right and left for overhearing ears before whispering his thoughts. Men and women, according to our culture, must be viewed as equal in almost every respect. Equal in capability. Equal in interest. And equal in achievement. And where inequalities exist, we are told, there lies evidence of systemic oppression or societal bias.

Our movies can no longer have a weak maiden in distress to be saved by the hero. Our TV shows are as likely to show a woman beating up a man as the reverse. Our literature promotes egalitarian adventures where the genders could be swapped out without any affect on the plot.

We as a society are trying to change the differences that have been designed into our genetics that helped that ancient tribe so much with survival.

But if the differences are truly genetic, I would argue these efforts will do much more harm than good. If outlooks toward work, sex, and many other things are inherently dissimilar and if our thought experiment is true, then men and women - from the moment of our birth - are going down different paths with different pleasures, different goals, and different outlooks on life. If all this social engineering we are currently attempting around gender may just be making everyone more miserable rather than everyone more happy. Is it possible - I would argue almost certain - that, due to our biology, a more traditional society makes everyone (men and women alike) more happy.

What if instead of making women feel inferior for not being career minded, we let them do what they want? What if instead of making men feel dumb for being so focused on work, we recognized that there is something genetic going on and give them a bit of encouragement and love?

"Should we really be trying to change genetic preferences using social engineering?"

Happiness is notoriously hard to quantify and define. Science probably should just stop trying to define it. But if can we not all agree that the happiest lives are spent doing what one naturally loves? Can we all agree that freedom (without bureaucrats trying to socially engineer our behavior) gives the highest chance of joy in life? And if genetically, men and women are born differently, should we as a society not respect that? Should we really be trying to change genetic preferences using social engineering? And to what end?

Men and women are different. Respect that and we will all be happier.

[Note: Shout out to Eggs are Expensive, Sperm is Cheap by Greg Krehbiel a little book I read a while ago that helped me understand many of the concepts I discuss above]

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