Monday, July 09, 2007

Antepartum Patriarchy

An interesting report in PNAS, also summarized in Nature, is not about the gender biases built into our culture but about the endocrine machinery that influences childbearing outcomes. Those outcomes have such dreadful weight in a society that prizes and promotes fecundity. It is we cultured apes who tend to lay these outcomes heavily at the feet of nurture and behavior. Very briefly, for the ultra lazy who won't even read the Nature explanation: extensive birth and marriage records, from a period and place where no modern reproductive choices or mores held any sway, have shown that females with a fraternal [that is male] twin were only getting married and if married only having kids at about 2/3 the rate of the women who had no in-utero testosterone exposure. The researchers went to some length to eliminate the likeliest sources that could skew such statistics. That is just an observation. What to make of it?

One can raise a lot of eyebrows and ire by offering mechanistic biology, dumb and billions of years amassing its complexities, as an explanation for any consequential difference in mating success. 50 pages into Louann Brizendine's book "The Female Brain" [which, plodding reader that I am, I will eventually review] it has become believable to me that hormones alone can account for much behavior by rewiring that spaghetti bowl of neurons that is the seat of behavior. I insist that if you pay any attention at all to this post, you go read at least the abstract of the paper. I will tease you with the most controversial claim about the findings:
...Nor are our results explained by after-birth social factors (females growing up with similarly aged brothers) because females born with a male co-twin have reduced success even when their co-twin dies shortly after birth and are raised as singletons after birth. Our findings suggest that hormonal interactions between opposite-sex fetuses known to influence female morphology and behavior can also have negative effects on daughter fecundity and, hence, maternal fitness, and bear significant implications for adaptive sex allocation in mammals.
When you consider the social pressure, the weight of convention and community expectations around marriage and having children, and you put that together with the crap shoot called conception which produces the people on whom these expectations weigh, it is a wonder we don't have more feminists, ... or more suicides.

When some one figures out a way to get clean and meaningful data about which in-utero effects alter male behavior [Anthony Bogaert has tracked down one phenomenon but there are perhaps others] so that we don't have a lot of whining "but you didn't study my situation", maybe we could all just lighten up on what people are "supposed" to do with their lives, reproductively speaking.

2 comments:

JoAnne said...

If you are going to read the Brizendine book, be sure to read this too:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003586.html

GreenSmile said...

Thanks for the pointer. It looks intersting and I will read it. I got a hint from commenter Memosyne [sp?] at P'gon that Brizenidine had her detractors. I am about half way through it and I have been a bit disappointed so far. Memosyne never got back to me with the rebutting works so I appreciate the lead.

now halfway through the posts but th e links will take a while. "neuroscience to cloud people's minds.... HA! compare to chris of Mixing Memory:
http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2006/06/taking_sax_and_brooks_to_task.php

[chris also has a nice post on the misuse of ev. psych. that would be useful commentary on the thread at P'gon.]