Saturday, February 18, 2006


There was a very nice story about writing this blog in our local paper, the Danville Advocate-Messenger.

My wife pointed out to me that the headline, which I had been misreading, is sort of mysterious. It reads "Blog-alholic."

This reminds me of a sign that marked off a special parking space on campus for years. The sign read "Reserved for service vech."

You know what they meant. In fact, you know what they meant so much that you breeze right over what is actually written. But the more you think about it, the more mysterious it gets.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Sociobiology 5: Do Women Select for Patriarchy?

One of the most unsettling suggestions that sociobiology makes about mate selection is that women, in effect, select men who will create patriarchy.

Women try to create and maintain equality in their social network. Deborah Tannen shows the dozens of ways in which women's talk is designed to end up with both speakers on the same level. One of the most common gambits of women's conversation is for the first woman to deprecate herself, and the second to deprecate herself to an equal degree, establishing a bond through their shared troubles.

Men, on the other hand, have dozens of ways to establish who is one-up or one-down, to use Tannen's phrase. Men's organizations are hierarchical. Men's play is designed to produce the most competitive game and end up with clear winners – even if the players don't know one another's names.

In their relations with one another there are ample ways in which men's and women's social styles can cross one another up.

Men who are well-adapted to competing within a hierarchy, and have good prospects of rising within it, have a real skill that will help them succeed in life. They are likely to accumulate just the resources that would be most helpful in supporting a family. Women are more likely to pick men who will be good resource providers. SO, women are likely to choose men adapted to hierarchies.

It is a step, though, from saying that women tend to choose men who succeed in hierarchies, to saying that women choose patriarchy. When men and women talk using their normal styles, men are more likely to end up in the one-up relation with women. This does not come, I think, from men's innate desire to dominate women, but from the clash of their normal communication styles. If she takes a one-down position, expecting him to come down equally, and he takes the one-up position she has offered, because that is normal to his way of interacting, she is left, inadvertently, one-down. And more often than not, if she got there by telling him of her troubles, looking for sympathy, he is a likely to try to solve her problem, to her great frustration.

Willy-nilly, then, men and women may find themselves in hierarchical relations. And men who succeed in hierarchies are more likely to get selected as mates. The next step, though, to patriarchy, I don't see as necessary, even if is a frequent outcome. The hierarchy of men over women is not valuable to men or women for its own sake. I can't see how it makes evolutionary or design sense. There might be some situations when the family/clan/band is living on the edge of survival and therefore the group needs strong and clear hierarchical order. In those situations, I would expect most bands to be led by men. But in the normal family in modern society, I can't see the need or the advantage of a default gendered hierarchy. The normal pattern, as I argued in the discussion of male headship, is that he comes home from competing in a hierarchical world, and usually she does, too, to a household in which she makes almost all of the daily decisions for the family.

SO, I can see how women select for hierarchy in society. I do not think women select for patriarchy in society or at home.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sociobiology 4: The Grandmother Hypothesis

Why human beings have menopause is a puzzle for the sociobiological paradigm. It would seem, on the face of it, that women would be more likely to pass on their genes if they kept having more kids until they died. Yet they stop having the ability to have children decades, in most cases, before they die. It is an axiom of the theory that universal features of human mating and childrearing are not likely to be accidents. There must be a reason for menopause.

The grandmother hypothesis is that women (and their husbands) are more likely to see their line of progeny live and prosper if they stop having new kids, and help their children raise their grandchildren. Menopause is almost unique to human beings. But human beings also take forever to grow up, compared to other primates, and indeed compared to practically all other animals. Chimpanzees, for example, could raise children to sexual maturity, and if calamity should wipe out all the kids, could raise another whole family to sexual maturity. With human beings, though, the time scale for raising a generation is not three years but twenty. So it would make sense, it would be a reproductive advantage, to grandmothers to help raise their grandchildren.

It is also, of course, a huge help to mothers to have help from their mothers. These days we often hear the proverb "it takes a village to raise a child." The single most helpful person in most mothers' villages is her own mother. All three generations benefit in clear material and emotional ways from helpful grandmothers.

The grandmother hypothesis makes real-world sense. It also does what any good scientific theory does – it solves a puzzle generated by the larger paradigm. We can't regard it as proven yet, but I think it is a very promising thesis, and well worth teaching.

Menopause is not a bug; it's a feature.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sociobiology 3: Evolution and Intelligent Design

Sociobiology is sometimes called evolutionary psychology. It is, as the name suggests, an evolutionary theory. The starting point for sociobiology as it affects family life is Darwin's theory of sexual selection.

In teaching sociobiology, I find myself daily on the front line of the alleged war between evolution and intelligent design. So I bring you this dispatch from the front.

Evolution is a theory. It is as well grounded as any scientific theory, but it is a theory, and is in principle falsifiable by a theory that better explains the material evidence. And, like all human knowledge, even if it weren't falsifiable, it could be just plain wrong. But I don't think it is wrong, in the main.

Intelligent design is a theory. It is as well grounded as any theological theory, but it is a theory, and is in principle falsifiable by a better theory that explains the revelational evidence. And, like all human knowledge, even if it weren't falsifiable, it could be just plain wrong. But I don't think it is wrong, in the main.

The intellectual puzzle of sociobiology is to explain why some features of family life which seem to go against reproductive survival – such as menopause – would get selected for. The intellectual puzzle of design theory is to explain why some features of human life which seem to go against the designer's sovereignty – such as free will – would get designed in.

What the theories of evolution and intelligent design have in common is more important than what divides them. Evolution and design both believe that the world we see works the way it does for a reason. The common enemy of both is the belief that existence is random, irrational, and meaningless.

So when in class we are discussing a puzzle of family life, we often come to a point at which the only thing to say is "this exists for a reason. We cannot say for sure whether the reason was part of an initial design, or the result of millions of functional decisions, but we can discern a reason."

And thus the alleged war between evolution and design disappears.

The real war is not between faith and reason. The belief in reason is itself a faith. The real war is between reason and unreason.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sociobiology 2: Love Still Matters to Selfish Genes

I thought it appropriate for Valentine's Day to take up a question that always bothers people about sociobiology: doesn't it ignore the importance of love?

The key problem in picking a mate is "Will it last? Is this the one for life?" This problem is especially important for women, because they bear the greater risk in the relationship.

For sociobiology, this is where love comes in. Love is the single best guarantor of commitment. Break out the hearts and flowers!

Ok, that account seems a little flat. Love is reduced to a means to another end, and a fairly mean means, too. In real life, beyond scientific theory, love is huge, transformative, the most emotionally gripping part of life. Love is what makes life worth living. Marital love is the greatest bond we choose, the great tie of adult life.

So is sociobiology just wrong, or simple-minded, about love? I don't think so. I think sociobiology is very helpful in keeping a just perspective on the place of love in marriage. Love is huge, but marriage is bigger still. Or, put another way, love is half of what marriage is about. The other half, though, is the very material, very risky commitment to tie your fortunes to another person for life and for children. Indeed, children are the main point of marriage for society, and the main source of risk.

On this day of all days we are inclined to think of love as an emotion that adults seek and cultivate with one another for their mutual happiness. This is true – there is no sham in thinking that love does help bring and assure happiness. But it is also important and bracing to remember that marriage as a social institution is a material partnership to support each other and our children. This remains true even if love is at low ebb, and the family carries on by duty, love for the kids, and sheer material necessity. And sticking to marriage in these predictable ebb tides is one of the things that makes love grow again.

So here's to love. And clear-eyed mate selection.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Sociobiology 1: Nature vs. Nurture

I am a sociologist. In the great argument about whether sex roles are more nature or nurture, sociologists are pretty much obliged to believe that gender differences are 1% nature and 99% nurture. It’s practically a union regulation. Part of the reason we believe that sex roles are socially constructed is from scientific evidence. But another part of the reason we believe this is because it gives sociologists more power. If sex roles – and, indeed, all of social life – can be reconstructed, who better to do it than sociologists?

However …

Two things changed my mind. First, I got married and had kids, a boy and girls. My wife and I graduated from the West Point of political correctness. We tried to raise our kids androgynously. It didn’t work. Nature will out, and it did. They are not sexists, but the girls are clearly girls, and the boy is clearly a boy. And in the process of being pregnant and having little babies and getting more and more married, my wife and I discovered that we are female and male in deep and ineluctable ways. Which is fine.

The other thing that changed my mind was studying sociobiology. Sociobiology, also known as evolutionary psychology, argues that many of the regular features of human behavior are deep in the human nature because they conferred an evolutionary advantage, long ago if not still today. The key idea of sociobiology that affects family life is that in mate selection, women do the choosing. This is Darwin's theory of "sexual selection," which accounts for competition among individuals within a species in the same way that his more famous "natural selection" accounts for competition among different species. Women do the choosing in mate selection because they bear much more of the risk from mating.

The basic idea is that women have a long list of what they look for in a husband, with resources and commitment being the two basic categories. Men, on the other hand, have a pretty short list: youth and beauty in any woman; youth, beauty, and fidelity in a wife. (Homosexuals, by the way, use pretty much the same rules.) And at root, mate selection is not about the married couple, but about their children. This fundamental asymmetry in what the sexes want means that courtship is a dance, a back and forth of displaying the necessary attributes for making and raising children well, and committing those necessary attributes for keeps. Men and women are almost like different species in their approach to having children – make many and hope some survive vs. make a few and nurture them carefully.

Marriage is a great cultural achievement that unites these two strategies. All cultures have invented some form of it, because our mammalian biology is at is starkest when we are dealing with the difficulty of caring for infants. There are only a few social strategies that really work, though individual variation in any society is enormous around those basic models.

So where does this leave me on nature vs. nurture? I am trying to hold the line at 50/50.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Work of the Firm vs. the Relationships Within the Firm

Which matters more at work: getting the work done, or the social relationships among the people doing the work? Of course, both are important, and good social relations make for getting the work done with less friction. Still, in all jobs, this conflict exists.

I am not unbiased on this question. In fact, the conflict sometimes exasperates me to the point of threatening my gruntled state.

I think work comes first.

Moreover, I think putting the social relations of the workers first is one of the signs of failing organizations. In fact, this may be one of the main causes of the failure in the first place.

I believe this is what makes bureaucracies maddening so much of the time. For example, the work of serving customers would be better done if there were extra people covering the phones at lunch time, but it would be more pleasant for the workers if they shut down the phones and all had lunch together. Winning organizations will do the former, failing ones, the latter.

Jim Collins, in his superb study Good to Great, found that failing work groups tend to sink to the level of their most anxious member, whereas great work groups follow the leader in better serving the mission of the firm. In failing work groups, the other workers try to assuage the anxious by dropping the requirements of the work that the anxious ones find stressful.

Albert Hirschmann, in his classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, found that committed members of failing organizations will use voice – complaining, pushing, prodding, pleading – until it becomes too frustrating, after which they will tend to exit. As I read this, what the committed members are committed to is the mission, the product, the actual work of the organization. Their frustration comes from the fact that the work is not being done well, but it is multiplied many times by the fact that stated mission of the organization is being displaced by unstated goals which, more often than not, are driven by the convenience (or profit) of the less committed.

This conflict is at the heart of the argument between Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg about whether personal relations, which women tend to value the most, should trump principles, which men tend to value the most, or vice-versa.

What does this have to do with the church, my usual Sunday topic? Churches are run by pastors. Pastors tend to respond to people, sometimes at the expense of the stated principles of the church. I see this constantly in the declining mainline churches, like mine. Growing churches, on the other hand, tend to talk about forming relationships with people in order to serve the higher mission of the church, of spreading the gospel. Declining churches are more likely to treat relationships with people, especially the people already within the congregation, as the mission of the church.