Friday, 27 March 2015

On hipster beards and gender essentialism

The background: someone posted this Herald article, entitled “Hipster beards are just a way to get women – study”, on a feminist Facebook group that I follow. The first comment on it read “I would love to know what Daniel Copeland thinks of this.” I started to answer, and then found it was getting long enough to be a blog post, and hey, I haven’t got a blog post yet this week, so...

Well, since I’ve been asked for my opinion – the first thing I notice is the title. I used to work at a magazine, and I know what editors do to titles. “This will get people to click the link” always trumps “This actually has something to do with the content” (let alone “This summarizes the content non-misleadingly”, which seldom gets a look-in).

So it’s an evolutionary psychology study. There’s a solid core of good theory under evo psych, but there’s also a lot of poorly-evidenced studies around, especially in areas relating to gender. (Evo psych examines a much broader range of topics than just gender, but you’d never know it from the media coverage.) The science reporting in this instance is so bad that I can’t tell for sure whether this study is one of the good ones or one of the bad ones; my money’s on the latter. See, evo psych has a communication problem (quite apart from the number of poorly-evidenced studies it seems to generate). Actually, most biological sciences run into this problem at some point, but they’re particularly egregious in evo psych.

Reality is basically a complicated Venn diagram, with thousands of partly-overlapping sets. Sometimes they overlap much more, or sometimes much less, than you would predict simply from how many members they have. So, for instance, let’s say we look at the four sets labelled “people born with vaginas”; “people born with penises”; “people who identify as female”; and “people who identify as male”. Each one of these circles represents 49-point-something percent of humans. Now, from that data alone, an open-minded observer would predict that given any two of those sets, nearly a quarter of all humans will fall into both – so a whisker under 25% would have been born with penises and identify as female, for instance.

In fact, of course, less than 1% of people born with penises identify as female. Such a discrepancy cries out for an explanation. Any such explanation must at least touch on the fact that identifying as female is not a winning strategy for getting other people pregnant, which is the way people with penises reproduce. This is in turn because, again, the sets labelled “people mostly attracted to people who identify as females” and “people who can get pregnant” overlap far less than one would predict if membership of those sets were distributed randomly – this time the proportion is around 10%. Any genes involved in causing a person to identify as female will therefore have a hard time getting replicated if they also, at the same time, build bodies with penises. Genes which nudge the gender-identification developmental pathway towards “male” when they happen to find themselves in a body with a penis will be much more common.

That’s reality, though. That’s not how human perception works. I hope my readers have had good enough mathematical education to realize that, since “people born with penises” number approximately 3.5 billion, “less than 1% of people born with penises” means “less than 35 million”, which is not a very difficult number to be less than (it’s nearly nine times the total number of New Zealanders of any genital configuration). What I am being painstakingly careful not to do here is what the human mind instinctively does when confronted with sets with either very big or very small overlaps. The human mind does not instinctively work in Venn diagrams and statistics, or we wouldn’t need to spend so much effort on them. Reality may be set-based; the human mind is object-oriented. Which is a piece of IT jargon, but to give you an idea of what it means, look at what I’ve done in the preceding three sentences – talking about “the human mind”, singular, as if there were just one of them, instead of saying “some very large proportion of human minds, and for all I know 100%, but I haven’t actually checked...”

Object-oriented software is a massive saving on data processing. Without getting too technical, “objects” include a lot of things which are directly represented on the screen, like the scroll-bar and the “Close” button, as well as more obscure and abstract data-structures. Actually, the scroll-bar and the “Close” button aren’t great examples because each window has just one of each. Better would be the tabs along the top of your internet browser: you can have dozens or even hundreds of them, but the computer only has to store one copy of the instructions for what they do when you click on them. Now, your brain has to do a similar thing in order to predict what the thousands of objects in your world will do when you interact with them. You know without checking that if you shove a chair with your hands it won’t disperse in the breeze, hold fast to the floor, or attack you – each of which, certain other things in your world might plausibly do. Your brain has at some point generated a Chair object whose data fields include .matterPhase:'solid', .movable:TRUE, and .aggression:0. (To be slightly more technical, it will have “inherited” those properties from its “parent” object class Furniture, which in turn has inherited them from the parent class InanimateObject.)

You can see how this might cause a problem, if you ever found an object which fell into the narrow sliver on the Venn diagram inside the set “things that look like chairs” but outside the set “things that cannot shove back”. This is unlikely, because chairs are made by people, and since people have object-oriented minds they generally make their artefacts to fit neatly into object-oriented categories. And that, folks, is why I do not think gender is a “social construct”. If it were, it would fit neatly into a simple binary. It doesn’t.

There are thousands of criteria you could use to divide humans into sets. A great many of them align together into two piles, which correlate pretty closely with the genitals and gender identities and what-not else already mentioned. So (for instance) if someone fits into the set “people who grow beards unless they shave”, then it’s a safe bet they’ll fit into the set “people who can comfortably sing more than an octave below middle C”. Our mental Person category has a .gender data-field summarizing all these sets. Which most of the time is a tremendous convenience. But “safe bet” is not the same thing as “absolute certainty”.

Where the physical sciences deal with entities that are crisp and clear and definable, the biological ones are constantly having to cope with fuzzy-edged or messily-overlapping sets. When you’re trying to communicate your findings to the public, there comes a point where you have to stop burbling about “correlations” and “statistical significance” and make bald, object-oriented statements like “Mammals have four legs” (object class Mammal {legs:4}) – and hope your readers don’t conclude that there can be no such thing as a whale. Why there is such a close correlation between being a mammal and having four legs is a legitimate question, and it might have a very good answer, but that still wouldn’t prove the non-existence of whales. This is where evo psych in the popular media gets into trouble.

Nearly every aspect of human health is touched by gender somehow – more women than men get osteoporosis, more men than women are colour-blind, to pick two examples that came up in lectures today – and it would be surprising if the brain was unaffected. Very often we can come up with plausible, testable hypotheses to explain why a particular phenomenon is gender-related: the mutation which causes colour-blindness lies on the X chromosome, so people with two X chromosomes only have the condition if they inherit it from both parents. Why does having two X chromosomes usually go with being female? We can find explanations for that sort of thing, too. Ultimately it comes down to evolution. (The details are too fascinating for me to risk sidetracking myself with them here.) But it would be ridiculous to say that a man can’t get osteoporosis, or that someone who’s colour-blind therefore isn’t a real woman, and yet evo psych articles in magazines and newspapers routinely repeat equivalent absurdities and worse.

I’d love to know why human males grow big beards, and also why our voices are so much deeper than any other primate. Sexual selection – that ancestral human females typically found both features more attractive and therefore males who had them tended to have more offspring – is a reasonable starting hypothesis. A starting hypothesis. Without some kind of data it doesn’t get out the gate. If the study cited has data on mate preferences in humans, the Herald article doesn’t mention it.

It’s possible, of course, that the commenter asked my opinion not because of my interest in evo psych but because I have a large beard of my own, clearly visible in my Facebook photo. I suppose my lived experience might be relevant – lived experience is one kind of observation – but I’m only one data point, and cannot settle evolutionary questions. My beard is one of three male features of my body sharing the top spot for “thing I would be most distressed to lose”, along with my bass singing-voice. Beards grow back, of course, but it would take months to reach its proper size. I wouldn’t call it a “hipster” beard, though; I started growing it nineteen years ago, over a decade before hipsters became a thing.

Um... it occurs to me that I basically just said “I had a hipster beard before it was cool.”

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