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Mon, May. 1st, 2017, 02:08 pm
Nonfiction

Peter Temin, The Vanishing Middle Class: Same story I’ve been reading for a while, with a different take framed by a political economy theory usually used to explain the functioning of poor, nondemocratic countries—as we are rapidly approaching in the US. While the US had a large middle class for a long time, it increasingly looks like a lopsided hourglass—20% of the population with good jobs and prospects for the future, and another 80% without, and no real chance of moving up. The top tier has good schools and health care, but works hard to keep the bottom tier in place—low wages for service jobs make the rich richer. Mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement contribute to the bottom tier’s inability to fight back politically or rise individually, unless they have basically twenty years of good luck in which they get a good education and nothing bad happens to them or their immediate family.

Richard J. Evans, The Pursuit of Power: The period roughly covering the nineteenth century in Europe (up to WWI) was the time when Europe pulled away from the rest of the world in wealth, largely by extracting that wealth from the rest of the world through conquest and some trade. Evans covers the history of Britain, France, Germany, and occasional forays into the rest of Europe—including the Russian Empire—with a fashionable transatlantic gloss, noting the ways in which peace on the Continent enabled the European powers to turn outwards and bring war to everyone else.

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire: The Comanches and their clients controlled a huge chunk of the American west for a long time, draining the resources of Spain and then of Mexico/Texas. The empire, in a familiar story, expanded so far that it collapsed from its own successes, especially its successes in killing buffalo and bringing more and more horses into the same territory where they competed with the buffalo for forage. While the Comanches played a significant role in weakening Spain/Mexico to support the US annexation, they then fell victim to that growing power.

Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675: Fractious tribes and fractious Britons clashed, constantly misunderstanding each other, with side orders of massacres, torture and cannibalism used by various tribes to assert dominance over the (temporarily) vanquished. Also, immigrants didn’t like each other much either—it’s funny now, but the folks of Massachusetts really thought the folks of Rhode Island were dangerous perverts. These were rough years, seemingly more full of failure than success, especially when religious/political reform began to make the kind of headway that various dissenting sects thought was impossible back in the home country, leaving the new colonies more rigid than Britain itself and making the inhabitants look like they might have fled out of unwarranted pessimism.

Peter Fritzsche, An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler: Frische looks at how life continued—and didn’t—for those under Nazi control. French non-Jews crafted narratives of survival through cooperation or resistance as they dealt with the food shortages that dominated everyday life; German non-Jews were proud or conflicted or trying hard not to think about it; Polish non-Jews quickly realized that they were deemed completely expendable, though they were also often happy to take over abandoned Jewish property; Jews felt isolated, outside history, deprived of a narrative because a narrative indicates some control over outcomes. Frische emphasizes the ways in which non-Jews’ accounts of ordinary life created a vision in which Frenchness, or Polishness, or Germanness, did not include Jews. Jews left their own records; according to some estimates, one-third of Orthodox Jews lost their faith in the ghettos and camps. Frische recounts one story that told of the trial and execution of G-d, who was ultimately thrown into the gas chamber.

Cordelia Fine, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society: Like her earlier book Delusions of Gender, this is a funny and savvy look at the just-so stories that proponents of fixed gender/sex differences like to tell. If you want facts to fight back against the evo-psych claims about men hunting mammoths in the EEA, this is a good place to look. I liked the point that many differences in the brains of men and women (on average only) may be different ways of reaching the same result, since behavior is a lot more similar than you’d think if you only looked at brain scans.

“I have to say that none of the many mathematicians and scientists I know do their research in a way that brings to mind a caveman chasing a bush pig with a spear, but of course things may be done differently in Glasgow.” She notes that the data underlying a foundational study often used to support the choosy female/promiscuous male narrative appear to show reproductive benefits from female promiscuity, and studies support that for thirty-nine species across the animal kingdom. I loved learning about the buff-breasted sandpiper, where males compete for territory in a way that was traditionally interpreted as winner-takes-all access to groups of females. While the dominant male was observed in 80-100% of matings, DNA analysis revealed that at least 59 different males had fertilized eggs in 47 broods—more males had reproduced than females. “[M]uch had taken place out of sight,” all right. Status also matters a lot to female reproductive success, not just to male—dominant female mammals “get more and higher-quality food, better access to water or nest sites, and … enjoy reduced predation risks.” Ultimately, promiscuity and competition are part of female as well as male reproductive success.

And, she points out, males can be choosy too. Though males produce millions of sperm at a time, “ ‘the antiquated notion that males can produce virtually unlimited numbers of sperm at little cost is demonstrably incorrect.’” Plus, there are other costs to mating, such as the time and energy of courtship. In some species, the males tailor the size of their ejaculate to the quality of their mates. Many males turn down mating opportunities. Also, the promiscuous male has to find mates, and “the theoretical possibility that a male could produce dozens of offspring if he mated with dozens of females is of little consequence if, in reality, there are few females available to fertilize, and competition for them is intense.” One responsive strategy is to invest in paternal care, common in primates. Fine emphasizes that “across species, biological sex is defined by gamete size but this, in turn, doesn’t determine arrangements for mating or parental care.” Even within species, “biological sex doesn’t necessarily inscribe a fixed template for how the important business of reproduction should be achieved.” Not only may different individuals find different strategies successful (like sneaking in behind a dominant male’s back), but resource-rich environments may produce different mating behaviors from constrained ones.

If you do the math, a woman who has sex on average once a week for thirty years and bears nine children will have sex 173 times per child. What does that mean for a man who hopes to be a father? It means he has to hang out, in general. In the EEA, finding a fertile woman was not that easy—“perhaps as many as 80-90 percent of women of reproductive age at any one time would be pregnant, or temporarily infertile because they were breast-feeding.” A man who hoped to have sex with a lot of women would have a hard time finding enough. The chances of pregnancy from a single randomly timed act of intercourse is about three percent (up to nearly nine percent at the right time of the month). To get multiple women pregnant requires lots of sex. But what about research suggesting that women’s scent changes subtly at ovulation, leading men to target better? Well, a large-scale study of married women failed to find more sex during ovulation, and biologists point out that “ ‘[t]he fact that you have to do carefully controlled studies and then look very closely at the data to see a pattern like this (if it even exists) should not be ignored: If human males were primarily attracted to ovulating females and not very interested in non-ovulating females, then that would be easily seen and demonstrated.’”

The estimated maximum number of children for men in the EEA is 12-16, while for women it’s 9-12, though the number is bigger in herder-gardener societies, and even larger in intensive agricultural societies. Fine finds it unsurprising that studies suggest that the vast majority of men and women both prefer sexually exclusive relationships—80 percent of men and 89 percent of women, in one survey. And higher-class men were more likely to prefer marriage with no other sex partners and the least likely to want only casual sex. You may have read about the study about undergraduates being offered sex or a date by an attractive stranger; Fine points out that the response gap may well have been because men didn’t take these “highly implausible sexual invitations” seriously and that a follow-up study involving written descriptions of the scenario left men overall disinclined to accept the invitations. “[M]any men reported that they would be uninterested, on grounds such as ‘Too forward, kind of weird, [gave] me these sense that they have a screw loose,’ and ‘It takes more than one conversation to get in my pants.’”

Though cross-cultural studies tend to show that women care more about a potential male partner’s material resources, “ ‘[g]iven, first, that women in most societies have fewer resources and, second, that women often anticipate dependency on the financial resources of their mates, this is not an observation in obvious need of a deep biological explanation.’” Indeed, in wealthy societies like the US, the importance of a woman’s “financial prospects, education, and intelligence” has risen to men seeking partners, and wealthier and better educated women are more likely to marry than their less wealthy/educated sisters—a reversal of past patterns.

I also loved the quote from John Dupré that “just because much of the underlying technology [of the computer] was developed with military applications in mind doesn’t entail that my computer is constantly on the verge of planning a nuclear attack.” Sexual pleasure, once evolved, can be coopted for other nonreproductive purposes, such as reducing tension. Many human sexual pairings and activities have no reproductive potential, but that doesn’t make them unnatural. Also, as Fine emphasizes, being profoundly shaped by one’s place in human society is natural (and not unchangeable)—one’s economic situation, surrounding social norms, etc. are part of sexuality.

Another important point Fine makes about research suggesting different bell curve distributions for various traits in men and women is that they don’t seem to be particularly well correlated. “Risk-taking” is often thought of as a male trait, but it turns out that this depends rather a lot on the risks offered. There are “insurance-buying gamblers” and “skydiving wallflowers” (it me). Risk-taking isn’t a stable personality trait—even knowing the riskiness of an executive’s personal wealth strategy didn’t predict his behavior in a business investment context. Even a study that deliberately recruited people on their participation in a particular kind of risky behavior (skydiving, smoking, casino gambling, stock trading) didn’t find any correlations between risk-taking in one domain and others. Gamblers were the same as “health-risk-averse gym members” when it came to recreational or investment risks. Yes, there are daredevils, but that’s just math; in a world with billions of people, some will randomly come up risk-takers across categories. Risk-takers tend to have less negative perception of the relevant risks and more positive perception of the relevant benefits, compared to non-risk-takers in the same domain. Entrepreneurs don’t love risk more than non-entrepreneurs; they just have more confidence that everything will turn out fine. It’s also important what we don’t socially count as “risky”—cheerleading is quite dangerous. Women’s risks are not usually noted as such, like the risk that a married woman takes when she quits or scales back her work because she has children. Or, as Louis CK says, when she dates. “The reported gender gap in risk taking would almost certainly narrow if researchers’ questionnaires started to include more items like How likely is it that you would bake an impressive but difficult soufflé for an important dinner party, risk misogynist backlash by writing a feminist opinion piece, or train for a lucrative career in which there’s a high probability of sex-based discrimination and harassment?

Of course, some activities, like unprotected sex or drinking heavily, or negotiating for a higher salary, “may actually be objectively more risky for females.” Also, knowledge and familiarity reduce perceptions of risk; men may be relatively more knowledgeable about/familiar with the kinds of risky activities surveyors ask about, like sports betting. The world in general also seems safer to American white men, whose responses stand out from others’ in questions about environmental, health, technological, and other risks. However, when it comes to the risks to prosperity posed by high tax rates, it was women and minority men’s turn to be sanguine. “ ‘[M]en are more risk tolerant than women only if some unexamined premise about what counts as a ‘risk’ excludes from assessment the sorts of things that scare the pants off of white men (or at least hierarchical, individualistic ones).’” When you look at competitiveness with others, women and men both report similar rates of competing within particular domains, especially with education and work; men competed more than women in sports, while women competed more than men in “looking good,” “neither of which seem key to understanding occupational sex inequality.” Cultural background also affects competitiveness—“Columbian, Han Chinese, and Armenian girls and Beijing women are as competitive as their male counterparts, even in the kinds of tasks in which, in developed Western cultures, greater male competitiveness is the typical finding.”

And culture matters in so many, many ways. I was very depressed to read of the “failure-as-an-asset” effect. “It turns out that presenting men with evidence that they have done poorly at something at which women tend to excel provides a little boost to their self-esteem, because incompetence in low-status femininity helps establish high-status manliness. Remarkably, failure in feminine domains is also perceived as an asset by onlookers.” Giving men failure-as-an-asset feedback “increased their self-reported interest in risky activities, as well as the amount they were prepared to invest in a gamble,” apparently by increasing their identification with being male. Which also sheds a worrisome light on the apparently ever-increasing of gendered products, so men never have to use women’s tissues or pens or whatever.

Brains aren’t blank slates, but what that means depends on culture and environment, not on something set in the EEA. Fine discusses an experiment in which two lines of mice were selectively bred for thirty-nine generations, one for high aggression and one for low, with substantial resulting differences in behavior when raised in isolation. But aggressive mice reared with other mice, not in isolation, were no more aggressive than the gentle line of mice. Similarly, even though female mice typically rear pups, which might tempt us to think that parenting behavior wasn’t part of males’ repertoire because it was never selected for, when males are put in cages with pups but no females, they quickly start “mothering” the pups. Evolution produces individuals who are adaptive and varied, not universal and unchanging, even when there are sex-typical behaviors.

Fine ends with the caution that social constructions are real, and can be very hard to change, even if they’re not wired into our biology (in fact, maybe even because they’re not wired into our biology—our brains are adaptable, and those committed to current structures must at some level know that there’s a lot more wiggle room than they wish). 

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