Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Question of Nature

(In the as-if-anyone-cares department: Real Life caught up with me & I had to disappear for a while. Sorry. Also, I'm burned out on writing about music for the moment, so I'll try some other things and see what happens!)

A moderate while ago (a few hundred years or so), there was a general consensus that women were rather worthless 'creatures'. They were unsuited for work, any sort of stress was dangerous to their health, they had 'hysterics', and the best treatment for women who were sick was to remain immobile in be, thus rendering them weaker! That was the Nature of Women. (All this was only applied, of course, to white, affluent women... but that's another topic)

Since then, most people (early feminists, especially) noticed that those ideas were so much crap, and revised them to "Women are weaker physically, but equal mentally - and perhaps more 'moral'". Even more recently - having become certain of the mental part and dropping the moral part - a few optimistic statisticians noticed that female athletes were improving much faster then male athletes, and predicted that women would become physically equal to men by the 21st century.

This proved to be a bit too optimistic. It hasn't happened, and the current general consensus among politically correct people is that women are equal to men in every way (and to speak otherwise is anathema) except athletically. With regard to that, of course, we know that men have more testosterone, so they'll always perform at a higher level. That's the natural way. End of discussion, sorry girls!

But somehow, nobody ever seems to ask why.

The title of the linked article above is "Women athletes will one day out-sprint men", according to 'scientists', despite that the article actually favors the opposite. By 'scientists', then, they mean "people who know how to extrapolate data points", not "experts in women's athletic performance"; thus their foregone conclusion.

As someone who knows how to extrapolate, and who also knows when not to, I have a question: So, men have higher testosterone levels; why is that so? Why shouldn't women have high levels and men lower levels? There's even an animal (the Spotted Hyena) for which this is true. Why is the opposite 'natural' for humans?

The answer, on the face of it, is 'evolutionary pressure'. For most of human history (thanks to short lifespans and other pressures in pre-industrial societies) a woman's ability to pass on her genes was mainly determined by her ability to have more children, and to care for them effectively, not by her physical strength. The two, it seems, are not synonymous.

So! I'll admit that men are physically stronger than women. For that matter, it might be true (assuming these have a genetic component) that men are smarter, or more stable emotionally, or any other measure of human superiority you care to name. I'll admit - not without a fight, but admit - it's possible that men are naturally better than women in every aspect other than child-rearing ability. Perhaps the anti-feminists are correct...

Here's the thing: Being natural doesn't make it right!

To reuse a trite example: Let us say that someone cuts in front of me in line. I might feel an urge to bash their head in. That doesn't make it right. Furthermore - I probably feel less of an urge than my ancestor did 2000 years ago, as random, female, head-bashers don't last long in most societies.

In the same way, we know that there's something wrong with inequality, so why not try to stop it in all forms? Who cares about natural?

Now that the pressure for women to select for child bearing ability has been mostly removed, might not things slowly equalize? It will take thousands of years, perhaps, but it seems possible, even probable. For less obviously sex-linked traits, their evolutionary erasure is certain.

I'm not an expert, though - I've been looking for real genetic studies that examine this, and haven't been able to find anything. (If someone is a geneticist, or geneticist adjacent, leave a comment!) So, I could be missing something important. It does seem very sensible...

In the meantime, why do so many continue to fight about the natural, when 'natural' is so uncertain? We must learn to value all people equally, whether masculine women or feminine men, masculine men or feminine women - not to mention all arbitrary-gender-sphereoid-point arbitrary-sex-identities of all sorts.

'Natural', as it turns out, has no useful meaning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts here...I might point you in the direction of Ann Fausto-Sterling (a biologist from Brown University) who wrote "Sexing the Body."
Some other food for thought:

In the recent case of Caster Semenya, sex testing of women (and only women) was brought into the spotlight once again. Initially Semenya failed her sex test with the apparent presence of a Y gene.

She had internal testes.

Of course this didn't matter; the doctors still ruled her to be a female because it doesn't matter if testosterone floats around in your system -- it's whether or not your body uses it! This is how we get a variation on the masculinity of men and women who seem to show more masculine characteristics (I even have a friend on hormones to neutralize the amount of testosterone her body makes). Since her body never used the testosterone those testes produced they ceased to produce testosterone and instead produced more estrogen (which testes, yes gentlemen, also secrete) givng her a period/breats/higher voice/[insert socially acceptable female trait].

As far as sports is concerned, if you look at the right races you'll see women are gaining ground on men's times, especially in the marathon. Women are getting faster faster than men are getting faster. While they have not caught up yet, it seems to be a possibility. While the top times and scores in events still have a gap, they are outliers, or as my coach used to say, freaks of nature.

Of course it also cannot be ignored that our "tests of strength", speed, and flexibility were culturally determined. Bench press is a popular method to test strength, a test men would very often succeed in without a problem given their testosterone levels. Given women's past cultural restrictions they tend to do better with flexibility, or leaning down to touch your toes (!!!). But change the test and the results might change. For instance, if strength tested by headstand pushups women, with better coordination and flexibility, might be considered the stronger of the two sexes.

And of course, all of these results are put up by people labelled as either male or female. An effeminate man is not allowed to be put in the ranks of women, while a more masculine woman is not allowed to bring down the scores of men. We still assume a dichotomy when comparing men a women, a dichotomy that has a high significance, but also divisive implications.