Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gender Roles in Cultural Evolution
or Why Hillary Should be President

by David Simkin, Ph.D.


Ja is a hunter-gatherer living 12,000 years ago in the East African savanna. He often passes a patch of wild growing berries on his journeys to gather food. He begins to identify berries that are sweeter than others and selectively eats them. These berries have evolved alongside mammals who unknowingly spread their seeds.  This happens because the digestive juices of the mammal stomach kick starts the germination process and once passed through the digestive track they find themselves deposited in excellent fertilizer.

Over the years Ja finds these berries - and the sweeter ones at that - growing around his living locations. Ja shares this bounty with members of his family. He begins to be known for these berries and gains greater status in his tribe as a result.  More years pass and Ja begins the rudimentary stages of domestication of these berries. He passes this knowledge on to his offspring. Over many generations this hunter-gatherer society evolves into an agricultural society.

This practical application of knowledge, a technology, allows for more constant and varied food sources, greater health, increased brain size, more people living per acre of the land and the establishment of villages and governments. This village grows in size and eventually the members of this tribe begin to have frequent contact with members of other tribes. Initially these contacts do not end well as the tribes come into conflict. Some of these tribes merge as a result of  conflicts but sharing of culture is slow to develop.

One of Ja’s descendants, now living in a village, comes upon a stranger from another village and prepares to kill him as that is the common practice. Ha, the female he has had children with, stops him and encouraged a nonviolent encounter. The stranger is allowed to live and returns to his village with a slightly changed attitude toward the neighboring tribe. Eventually the tribes peacefully coexist and subsequently merge. The tribes evolve into a chiefdom and eventually a kingdom.

While this process is happening at many scales with numerous technologies, many people have correlated great leaps in our cultural evolution to particularly powerful technologies including Language, Writing, Printing and Electronic Communication. My thesis is that these technologies do have a critical role in Cultural Evolution but it is a cycle of shifting influence in the society from men to women that ignited cultural evolution and explains these leaps.

1. The Process of Cultural Evolution

In terms of the example above, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers says: "Hunting and gathering was humanity's first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history.” Hunting and gathering as well as agriculture which replaced it are technologies as defined earlier in that they are practical applications of knowledge. As such, and critical to this discussion, they are passed to the next generation by non biological means and tend to increase the fitness of the societies that adopt them.

Historically, it takes some time for a technology to mature enough and be adopted by enough members for the society to afford this advantage. It took a long time for domestication of plants used for food to surpass hunting and gathering as a source for nutrition and fuel cultural growth.

What sustains a technology during this period? Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, pointed to the innate human desire for higher status as the sustaining force.

Once the technology does afford an advantage, the group using that technology grows in absolute numbers and density. This was a critical moment in cultural evolution. At this point the culture was shared among closely related individuals.  The coalescing of villages into chiefdoms represents sharing among relatively unrelated individuals. Technology, passed by non genetic means, had the potential to push evolution to a rate not possible with biological evolution and it is this moment that unlocks that potential. Robert Wright again points out that one of the critical steps in human cultural evolution was the decision to not kill someone because you don’t know them. The emergence of the tendency to bring people together, to negotiate, to harmonize is the moment when cultural evolution proceeding by non biological means ignited the exponential evolution of the species.

2. Gender Roles in Cultural Evolution and Leaps

The process of cultural evolution conveyed so far places critical importance on two innate tendencies: the human desire for higher status and harmonizing. It is argued here that the desire for higher status is a male trait and the tendency for harmonizing is a female trait. In the string of miraculous accidents that led to the evolution of modern culture, perhaps the most miraculous or most important was the marriage of these two tendencies.

Whether this sexual dimorphism is a natural outcome of the roles dictated by circumstances such as childbearing or a true accident is not the focus of the current discussion. It is not a new argument that male secondary sex characteristics such as the robin’s red breast or the peacock’s plumage are a direct result of the male role in procreation - that status is an important aspect in the male getting mates. Similar arguments on the female side support harmonizing as the best strategy for seeing that a child that a female must invest so much into is sustained till it can procreate.

If I can be so bold as to put this in terms of the view of Robert Wright in his book Nonzero, it is through women that we developed reciprocal altruism. Looking through his game theory lens, I would assert that men excel at zero-sum interactions and women excel at non-zero-sum interactions. Consider Wright’s example of the Shoshone Indians of western North America. They spent most of the year as isolated families but occasionally loosely joined other families in pursuit of non-zero-sum gains. They would come together to hunt jackrabbits and it was a technology, a rabbit net, that motivated this variation from their usual structure. The endeavor required many people to herd the rabbits into the net that was several hundred feet long and then club them. By working together each participant would net more rabbits than they could hunting individually, a classic non-zero-sum gain.

This is a model of how cultures moved towards greater interdependence and complexity. My spin is to cast this as an example of a technology priming the pump for cultural evolution, status sustaining the technology, and women are the source of  the latent behavior of cooperation that emerges. Mae Parry, in a chapter on Utah's Native Americans ( describes how Shoshone women loved to socialize and regularly went in groups to gather seeds. It is asserted here that in this society and in general it is women who model cooperative behavior that propels culture ahead.

The first tenant of the thesis presented here is that the marriage of these tendencies, the desire for higher status and harmonizing, born out of biological evolution, ignited explosive cultural evolution and continues to exert a great force on our cultural evolution. We next look at some of the ongoing effects.

Marshall McLuhan emphasized the importance of communication technologies in
shaping society. In The Gutenberg Galaxy he points to the invention of moveable type as critical in shaping western culture since then. In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin correlates energy regimes with these communication technologies to explain even longer term trends in society. My variation associates critical communication technologies with significant leaps in culture as follows:

  • Language. One to one communication, corresponds with the development of Mythology - an important step in the species seeing the world as rule base, something other than random.
  • Writing.  One to few communications, corresponds with the development of  Religion - Now there was a way to communicate with these forces through an intermediary.
  • Print. One to many communications, corresponds with the Rationalism Enlightenment (First Industrial Revolution of the first 17th century) - the individual could communicate with these forces without an intermediary.
  • Electronic Communication. Many to many communications, corresponds with the Information Revolution (Second Industrial Revolution), individuals are communicating directly with each other. The fermenting leap we are experiencing now.

The second tenant of the thesis is that the great leaps that correspond to communication technologies are a result of the dramatic changes they effected in the society, particularly on the influence of women which promoted the coalescence of different cultures.

Early technologies simply freed women from the labor intensive chores providing more time to exert an influence on the society. If you want to educate a generation then educate the women since they educate the next generation. This played out over many generations is a powerful force for changing culture. Technologies also improved the economic status of women and made them more independent of males. An example around the advent of the phone is the switchboards for connecting phone calls that were used before switches were invented. These switchboards were often operated by women and in fact were often placed in their bedrooms so they could connect calls 24/7. Note that this is a form of a distributed on-demand workforce that brings economic advancement to an underserved population, an early Uber.

Returning again to Wright’s game theory perspective, he argues that as complexity in human society increases, the ability to reap non-zero-sum gains increases. With the current assertion that women excel in non-zero-sum activities this increasing complexity also points to the increasing importance of women for our cultural evolution.

The third tenant of the thesis is that the gap between these technology emerging and women gaining sufficient influence leaves us with a society that is dominated by the desire for higher status without the benefit of harmonizing and this has led to some of our greatest missteps as a culture.

Example: The Crusades
Whether you view the rise of religion as a result of the technologies of written language and pre-movable type printing or view religion as a technology itself, religion was and is dominated by men and institutionalizes the subordination of women. The Crusades are a direct result of status seeking without the tempering effect of harmonizing. Religion itself has never been the agent in great leaps of cultural evolution and never will be as long as women hold a subservient role. Even a modern leader like Pope Francis who recognizes the issue falls back on ancient views of the role of women in the church. (Apparently because Jesus did not have any women among the apostles.) Religion will continue to rely on the male dominant and older technologies like war to unite.

While I admire the logic against religion of a thinker like Christopher Hitchens or the list of the negative effects of religion from Sam Harris, these will not turn the tide. Working for a greater role of women in this institution would bear greater results.

Example: Nazi Germany
The Nazi regime came to power in the early days of  electronic communication. Hitler used early advances in electronic communication (amplification, audio recording, radio, movies) for his "Persuasive Method" which is credited with much of his success in leading a large society in unspeakable directions (see Central to this method was treating the German people as a group rather than as individuals. Electronic communication made this possible to a degree not previously seen. Like religion, the Nazi regime was very repressive for women. As we have argued this was fertile ground for the domination by aggressive methods. War is similar to other technologies in that it coalesces societies and fuels cultural evolution. However no great leaps correspond to wars.

Luckily the gap between these technologies emerging and women gaining sufficient influence is getting smaller. This is due in part to the speed in which information spreads due to these technologies themselves. I will have more to say about this in a moment but this in itself leaves society less dependent on the male trait of status seeking to maintain the technology till its benefit is realized. Another factor is that newer technologies are more empowering for women. Early technologies, for example a club, disproportionately favored males with greater fitness. However, more recent technologies do not show this gender bias to the same degree. As a modern example consider the advancement of cloud services. Women can now innovate, lease infrastructure service, and be up and functional with an innovative product idea without leaving their home. The economic advantage and opportunity for leadership enabled by these technologies is leveling the playing field.

This speed at which new technologies benefit the society, the raising of the ceiling for the influence women can exert on the society and the reduction in the time it takes for women to reach this level leads to a conclusion that missteps will become less frequent and conflict will continue to decrease. The ferment we see in the world now is the result of male dominated institutions exploiting the distributed communications of these new technologies. The uniting of these factions will not come from religion or war but from a peaceful coalescence of countries led by women. The next leap in culture will likely coincide with this move from country to planet and it will proceed when more leadership roles are held by women.

3. Homogenizing of Culture

The first large conclusion is that the next leap in cultural evolution will solidify as women gain more influence to promote effective coalescence of groups. Another path is to reduce the differences between these groups. As these powerful technologies exert their influence many have lamented the homogenizing of culture. While I feel this pain visiting a retail mall in Paris I submit that the benefits to the society far outweigh the loss. We need to encourage the mixing of cultures, races, etc., and this may require letting go of some of our most cherished definers of who we are.

Whether we promote homogenization or see it as an inevitable outcome of cultural evolution one must ask what is the implications for cultural evolution moving forward. Genetic diversity is the raw material of biological evolution and more importantly the safety net against radical changes in the environment leading to species extinction. Where will the diversity come from in cultural evolution.

Newer communication technologies tend to increase the number of people that share information and the speed at which information spreads in the society. A look back at the nature of communication characteristic of each of the key communication technologies reveals this trend towards more highly networked communications:

  • Language. One to one communication.
  • Writing.  One to few communications.
  • Print. One to many communications.
  • Electronic Communication. Many to many communications.

It is this highly networked communications that brings diversity. The internet is filled with examples. Ideas that would have once disappeared, quickly get a following because of the speed that they can reach other people. This has been seen as a negative consequence of the internet - where fringe ideas take hold when they would not have before or the "snarky" nature of the internet. It is seen as a key enabler of the new form of distributed enemies we now see in the war against terrorism. However, it is also the new melting pot, this one of ideas. As with all these forces they can lead to bad or good consequences. The point is that highly networked nature of information flow will lead to the variability that cultural evolution thirsts for.

So a summary of the process of cultural evolution is as follows:
  • Technology, the practical application of knowledge, can be passed on by non biological means and thus gave birth to cultural evolution.
  • Technologies are able to mature to a point where they afford greater fitness to a society due to the innate human desire for higher status - a male trait.
  • The critical step in cultural evolution was when more unrelated individuals were brought together as tribes coalesced with each other and eventually into stratified tribal societies led by chieftains [Chiefdom]). This was made possible due to the female tendency to harmonization.
  • While there are many ways these societies coalesce (e.g. War, gradual domination, etc.) their cultures merge and grow most effectively when women reach a greater influence in the culture as they foster these harmonizing methods.
  • The great leaps in cultural evolution occur when key communication technologies arise and coincide with an increase in the influence of women in the society.
  • The gap between the technology emerging and women gaining sufficient influence in the society is marked by cultural missteps before the eventual leap.
  • This gap has been shortening over time and cultural leaps are becoming more frequent.
  • The homogenizing of culture also will accelerate cultural evolution.
  • The speed of information flow will provide the variability that feeds cultural evolution.

A Leap in the culture of a positive nature is not inevitable.  The greatest risk is the gap between when these powerful communication technologies first emerge and the rise in influence of women in the society.  Modeling this process can provide clues as to how we can minimize the risks, optimize the benefits, and hasten the leap...

It also suggests Hillary should be president.

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