Sunday, 2 October 2016

Why women are better than men

Once upon a time, people say, you could tell the plain truth about things and be admired for it. Now they make you shut up and call you, as it might be, racist, sexist, or homophobic. I’ve had my quarrels with these people before and I expect I will again. But today I share their experience. I have a truth to tell which will offend people because it upsets the illusion that we are all equal. Here it is:

Women are better than men.

This is not hyperbole, rhetorical or otherwise. Nor is it a joke, though I confess myself slightly amused to imagine the offended huffing and puffing it will cause among some who pride themselves on being immune to offended huffing and puffing. It is, I admit, a generalization; but it is, I insist, a valid generalization.

Consider, as a parallel, the statement “Women are shorter than men.” That’s a generalization, but a valid one. It doesn’t mean that women can walk upright under toilet stall doors while men frequently get their hair tangled in power lines. It doesn’t even mean that the tallest woman is shorter than the shortest man. You can’t falsify it by picking Gwendoline Christie as your exemplar of women and Peter Dinklage as your exemplar of men. No-one denies that the distributions overlap – that many men are shorter than many women. But you still know perfectly well that women, in general, are shorter than men, in general.

Likewise, I’m not claiming that all women are saints and all men are serial killers. I’m not claiming that the worst woman in the world is better than the best man. I am claiming that women, in general, are of better moral character than men, in general. This claim being a generalization, you can’t falsify it by picking, say, Ann Coulter as your woman versus William Kamkwamba as your man. And in case you didn’t believe me the first time, this is neither a hyperbole nor a joke. So you’re going to want some evidence, aren’t you?

Let’s start with the obvious. 192 people committed “homicide and related offences” in New Zealand, and got into the police database, in the twelve months ending in July 2016; 161 of them, that is 83.9%, were male. 23,193 people committed “acts intended to cause injury” but nothing worse (the data records only the “most serious offence in the period” for each offender); 17,274, i.e. 74.5%, were male. I’m guessing that the police consider “acts intended to cause injury” to be more serious than “sexual assault and related offences” and that’s why only 1875 people had the latter recorded as their most serious offence; but out of those 1875, 1815 were male. That’s 96.8%.

If these figures reflect the real frequencies even roughly, then – of a randomly chosen male and non-male person in New Zealand – the male is three times as likely to injure you, five times as likely to kill you, and thirty times as likely to rape you. These are arrest figures, not conviction figures; I suspect that if you dropped out those who were later acquitted of assault or homicide on the grounds of self-defence, males would be yet more over-represented. Now imagine if there was any other condition besides maleness that came with that level of violence. We’d probably be debating whether it was kinder to lock those people up for life or to cure them of the condition without their consent. We absolutely wouldn’t shrug off the statistics with an “Oh well, psychopaths will be psychopaths.”

That was criminal violence in New Zealand last year, but the same pattern holds true for all kinds of violence across the globe and throughout history. It is men who start wars, men who fight in wars, men who torture prisoners, men who advocate and men who carry out capital punishment of criminals. In each case you can find some women doing the same thing, but always in smaller numbers. Even in the Sarmatian culture that seems to have inspired the Greek legend of the Amazons, only 20% of the warrior burials are women. The one exception to the rule is infanticide, and I’d bet good money it would stop being an exception if you corrected for the fact that women spend more time with children. Men are more violent than women. Generalizations don’t get more indisputable than that.

Boys fight more than girls from toddlerhood onward. That makes it unlikely that the difference is due to cultural factors, because cultural behaviours as a rule develop gradually through childhood. I’ve only ever once left the land of my birth, but the trend was obvious within my first twenty-four hours in Tokyo. Japanese adults comport themselves very differently from New Zealand adults; Japanese teenagers are a bit more like New Zealand teenagers; children are closer again; and toddlers are exactly the same animal in both countries. Any behaviour that’s apparent in toddlers is probably going to be part of our built-in human repertoire, not something added by culture.

It’s often said that the way boys fight is not as bad as the way girls snub each other. This is nonsensical on the face of it, since the fighting causes injury and the snubbing doesn’t, but there’s usually an elaboration to the effect that once the fight is over the boys will shrug it off and be friends again, whereas “female drama” can drag on for ages. Well, take it from a bullied kid: the boys will be friends again if and only if both parties are able and willing to hit back. Weakness and meekness alike guarantee permanent punching-bag status. I don’t think it’s a matter of boys forgiving each other more easily than girls. I think it’s that boys settle conflicts through dominance whereas girls try to actually resolve the issues, and dominance, being the Dark Side, is “easier, quicker, more seductive”.

Women are widely believed to talk more than men. There are songs about it and everything. Now, stereotypes do often contain elements of truth (albeit distorted, wrenched out of context, and poisoned with wishful or fearful thinking), because people are not absolute fools. Women speaking to women do talk a little bit more than men speaking to men. In mixed-gender groups, however, men dominate, and constantly talk over the women. And they have no idea they’re doing it. I once walked down Mt Cargill, Dunedin’s highest hill, behind two men agreeing with each other – non-stop, all the two-hour way from the radio mast to the Bethune’s Gully carpark – that men were better companions for bush-walks because women kept talking to you and spoiling the serenity.

The current overarching gender stereotype is that women are empathic but over-emotional; men are aggressive, but at least they’re rational. A century ago this stereotype in more blatant form bolstered the argument that women shouldn’t vote, because they’re too sweet and good and pure to sully with the manly grime of politics. If you’re worried, that is not going to be my conclusion. No-one should be excluded from democracy on account of their gender, but if you were going to do that it would make more sense to exclude men. In this case, about half the stereotype is true. Studies on empathy consistently find that women do it better than men. And men are certainly more aggressive. What’s untrue is the “men are more rational” part. As far as I can tell, the real gender divide is: Men praise reason, women practise it. (Men then call it patronizing names like “feminine intuition”.)

Culture can reduce underlying biological distinctions (as when men shave their beards off) or it can accentuate them, and in this instance English-speaking cultures tend to accentuate them – perhaps a shade more in North America than here. I gather that in the US white women face disapproval from their peers if they express anger or speak up for their own needs, whereas for all the raging sexism in New Zealand culture there is a certain streak of admiration for “gutsy sheilas”. Maybe that’s why New Zealand granted women the vote so much earlier. When women are held to unreachable standards and men are not, naturally men come out better.

In one of Aesop’s fables, a porcupine moves in with a family of moles for winter warmth. This suits the porcupine, but not the moles, because the porcupine fills up the burrow and keeps poking them with his spines. One study asked school-children to find a solution. Boys tended towards the answer “The porcupine has to leave”; girls more often came up with things like “Wrap the porcupine in a towel” or “They should work together to widen the burrow.” The latter approach is clearly more empathic and nurturing and all that – but it’s also more rational. It seeks to increase total utility rather than merely transfer it from one party to another. In economic terms, it’s “efficient”. The male-typical approach is inefficient because it leaves the porcupine’s shelter problem unsolved.

Studies have failed to show any significant difference between women’s and men’s powers of reasoning. But men must be considered less rational on another account. We are prone to a specific yet pervasive delusion. One Tumblr user summed it up neatly:

40+-year-old men who seriously believe the young girls working at stores and restaurants are actually flirting with them just because the girls smile and are friendly are the most disgusting and terrifying things on this planet.

She soon added

I keep getting messages from men over the age of 40 who were upset by this post and I’d like to sincerely thank them for proving my point so effortlessly.

I’m a year and a half off 40 yet, but I know exactly what she’s talking about. Part of my brain is convinced, whenever an attractive young woman catches my eye in passing, that she’s hot for me. I think I can claim that, in my case, I discovered that this delusion was a delusion without causing more harm than making a number of social interactions awkward and embarrassing. Well, it turns out it’s not just me. Evolutionary psychologists showed some study participants a bunch of photos and asked them to guess, from facial “microexpressions”, what the people in the photos were feeling – photos that had in fact been chosen specifically because they showed no expression at all. The male participants all intuited that the women in the photos, especially the beautiful young women, were attracted to the photographer. The female participants judged the situation correctly.

I’m using the word “delusion” here in its technical psychiatric sense, by the way. As my own neurodivergence is not schizophrenia-related, the nearest thing to it I’ve experienced otherwise was when I took a course of omeprazole for my gastric health. I remember at one point lying in bed unable to get up because I knew that as soon as I did, I would slip, turn a full somersault in midair, bash my skull in on the bedside shelf, and die. Somehow I believed that with utter certainty while at the same time seeing exactly how absurd it was. But that delusion went away when I finished the omeprazole. Not so with the “She Wants Me” delusion, as I call it when I remind myself it exists, which I have to do several times a week.

Oh, and guys? No, she does not want a photograph of your penis. Not unless she has specifically, and without prompting, asked for one. Yes, it turns out most guys who do this genuinely think women want to see them (no NSFW images at that link), since after all they themselves eagerly seek equivalently explicit pictures of women’s bodies. Here’s a tip, guys. There are plenty of dick pic websites out there, and plenty of people viewing them in private for pleasure, but the proportion of viewers who are female is similar to the proportion of contributors who are female. If it’s appreciation you want, try sending it to one of your male friends.

All of which raises an obvious if uncomfortable question. If women are just as smart as men, why are men in charge? The quick and easy answer is that men have more muscular strength. However – perhaps fortunately for humanity, but unfortunately for this answer – political power seldom depends on muscular strength. You don’t become a king or a pope or even a general by beating up all your rivals. You probably do pay other people to do that for you; but how do you convince those people to beat up your rivals instead of beating you up and taking for themselves whatever you’re promising to pay them with? You have to be inspiring and persuasive. Shouldn’t women be at least as good at that as men?

The traditional Western answer, going back to antiquity, was that women were cruel, capricious, and amoral, and hence like slaves and animals divinely ordained to be subservient to free men. Around the 18th century there came a sea-change: women were virtuous, but innocent and vulnerable and dependent on male guidance. This latter belief still has many more adherents than those of us who move mainly in progressive circles would credit – Google why are there so few women in STEM fields some time. (STEM is “Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics”, in case you haven’t met this acronym before.)

Online “debates” on this topic tend to read like a transcript of a howler monkey territorial display, and I think it’s good form to argue against the best case one’s opponents can put up, not the worst, which is why I’m not going within smelling distance of any self-styled “SJW slayer” on YouTube or Reddit. The best I’ve found is a 1990 article titled The Intellectual Capacity of Women by the Australian conservative philosopher David Stove (1927–1994).

The intellectual capacity of women, Stove says, is generally less than that of men. His essay, like this post, opens with a discussion of generalizations and why individual counter-examples can’t refute them – he’s not claiming there are no intelligent women, merely that there are fewer intelligent women than intelligent men. Then he buckles down to argument. If you toss a coin a million times, and it comes up heads 53% of the time, it might still be a balanced coin, but the rational inference is that it isn’t. Billions of humans have existed in thousands of societies in the history of the Earth, and in every society, Stove says, there have been more male leaders, thinkers, and artists than female ones. The rational inference is that men generally have more of what it takes to be a leader, a thinker, or an artist than women do.

You can’t go on forever saying “The game’s not fair,” when the game has been played ten billion times, under a billion different circumstances; at least, if you are rational you cannot, unless you are prepared to say in just what way it is not fair. Exactly where, then, is the variety in our historical sample deficient? Just what is that factor, common to all or most past history, which has interfered with the exercise of the intellectual capacity of women?

As Stove was more thoughtful than his online heirs, this is not a rhetorical question. And it punctures a favourite, but I fear misguided, counter-argument of the “equality-theorists” as he calls us – that he has failed to rule out “culture” as an explanation. The evidential bar for “ruling out culture” is typically set so high as to make it inconceivable; apparently being on the right side is no guarantee against shooting oneself in the foot. (“You have failed to do something inconceivable” is not an especially damning criticism.) Stove’s question, however, strikes deeper. If men have dominated art, scholarship, and politics all over the world throughout history, that must mean we’re looking for something common to the species, not something that varies from one culture to the next.

Stove anticipates the obvious answer: women get pregnant and breastfeed, men don’t, and so women are stuck looking after the children. That, Stove says, actually supports his side of the debate. In biology, resources are always scarce – energy, water, protein. Living things don’t lavish them on organs or faculties that aren’t useful for their survival. So if women’s time and energy is taken up with childcare, then they’re unlikely to have developed abilities that aren’t useful for childcare. Stove goes on to argue that of all the basic activities necessary to a foraging lifestyle, childcare is the one that requires the least intelligence. But perhaps, Stove allows, we should compare the intellectual performance of childless women with that of men, and see whether they come out equal.

But the suggestion is bound to arise that the burden of actual reproduction-and-nurture is sufficient to account for the observed inferior intellectual performance of women. If this were so it would undoubtedly save the equality-theory. But it simply does not seem to be so. Women university students, although hardly any of them have given birth, are uniformly present in smaller numbers (proportionately) than men, at any above-average level of intellectual performance. At least, this is the case in any branch of university work which is very intellectually demanding.

Look, all I said was that he was the best I’ve found, OK? I don’t know which disciplines Stove considers “very intellectually demanding”. I do know that this is not the case in the classes I attend for my work. Women are present in rather smaller numbers than men in my finance lectures, but much larger numbers in pharmacy, dentistry, and physiology. And – no offence to the finance student who I know reads this blog – the latter are more intellectually demanding. Not that my personal observations prove anything in themselves, but then neither do Stove’s. You’d never guess he was a philosopher of science from his reasoning:

Here is something which would not convince me of the equality-theory: reports by psychologists or educationists of tests, conducted within recent years, on (for example) the comparative mathematical ability of boys and girls. Such reports would not only not convince me: I do not believe that any attention at all should be paid to them... My main reason is a quite general principle: that a person’s testimony should carry no weight or little weight with you, if you are sure or nearly sure that his testimony would have been the same whatever had actually happened... Well, everyone can be pretty sure that, if educationists or psychologists report nowadays on a test of mathematical ability between boys and girls, say, they will report the girls as doing at least as well as the boys, whether they really did or not. If the tests seem to show markedly superior mathematical ability in the boys, the experimenters will not only withhold publication of the results, but will almost certainly themselves believe that their experiment must have been defective in some way.

Conspiracy theories are not the same as scientific scepticism. If the whole world seems to be suffering a delusion, there are two possible reasons why. One is that they have all been captured by an ideology; the other is that you’re the one who’s wrong. Science is the best tool we currently have (with, granted, still plenty of room for improvement) for disarming ideology, and the way it works is by not letting people forget about the second possibility, which is what Stove has done here. I’ll trust peer-reviewed studies, I think, over one guy’s general impressions of world history.

So far from all psychologists and educationists being “equality-theorists”, not even all feminists are. “Difference feminism” claims that women and men have different ways of knowing, women’s being empathic-intuitive and men’s rational-intellectual. You don’t meet difference feminism very often these days but you did in 1990, and Stove has no excuse for not taking it into account. Difference-feminist psychologists and educationists would not have suppressed results showing that boys were markedly better at maths than girls – if such results had existed to be suppressed.

All the same, Stove’s biological hypothesis is coherent enough to be worth arguing against. To begin with, caring for a small information-hungry human is not as intellectually undemanding as he supposes. Did Stove never spend an hour with an inquisitive three-year-old? Also, in no foraging culture do women do nothing but look after children all day. Gathering an omnivorous diet in the wilderness without getting poisoned requires a keen memory for botany and geography. Back in the Pleistocene there were still lots of animals that ate humans, and predators typically single out infants; evading them while weighed down with your baby and your water-skin and your food-basket must have taken razor-sharp ingenuity.

Stove claims humans spend more time on their offspring than any other animal; he’s forgotten to multiply the amount of care per offspring, which is indeed very large, by the number of offspring per parent, which is very small. In fact human women spend less of their lifespan reproducing than most animals. Other female primates invariably die before or shortly after menopause, because all their other organs age at the same rate as their reproductive system. Usually, once a body can no longer make more copies of its genes, the genes have already stopped investing in maintaining it – but not if it’s human and female. And the explanation has everything to do with women’s intellectual powers.

Some kinds of knowledge are only useful once every few decades. A hurricane might destroy the trees on your island and wipe out your food supply, and you might have to depend on plants that you don’t usually eat. How does a non-literate society keep track of which non-food plants are poisonous and which are merely bitter? By keeping a few old people around who remember the last hurricane, that’s how. And women live longer than men. Granted that only a minority of Pleistocene women lived to see menopause, apparently that minority’s brains were important enough to their younger kin’s survival that their genes shut down reproduction early rather than risk them dying in childbirth at sixty.

But now I’m coming on too strong. After all, Stove’s hypothesis is intended to explain why women haven’t historically produced the same intellectual output that men have. If I answer with a hypothesis that predicts that they should have produced the same intellectual output, I have gone astray. I need something that explains why men have always successfully pushed into the front, despite the demonstrable fact that women are their equals in brainpower. If old women are such repositories of wisdom, how is it they at best hold positions of informal power in traditional societies? Why is the formal leadership always left to the men?

Stove’s own essay (in my opinion) holds the key, though he doesn’t realize it because – as is more evident in some of his other writings than this one – he hasn’t got a clue about evolution. The rule of resource conservation is the foundation of his hypothesis, but he concedes that there exist exceptions to it:

Although “Just right” is the general rule in nature, it is not the invariable rule. Since species are sometimes extinguished, their capacities are not always up to their tasks. And on the other side there are, or appear to be, excessive endowments, and capacities of a degree quite beyond what is needed to enable the species to keep up with the Joneses. A famous example of excessive endowments is the peacock’s tail: Darwin tells us it gave him nightmares, as well it might. But human intellectual capacity is itself another striking example. Humans do indeed need some intellectual superiority over other animals, precisely because... they have no natural weapons, no body-covering, no uncommon strength, stamina, or speed. But why have humans got so much intellectual capacity? What biological need was there for the intellectual capacity, I will not say of a Hume or a Darwin, but even of the average philosopher?

Most animals need to mate as well as survive. Or rather, their genes need them to mate in order to survive. For females, who put a lot of bodily resources into each offspring, the limiting constraint on reproductive success is the quality of the foreign genes they’re investing in. For males, who don’t, it’s the number of fertilizations they can achieve. Females therefore keep a sharp eye out for any sign that a male might not be up to the mark. Males try to signal that they are up to the mark. But to be believable, the signal has to be costly. For peacocks, that means growing a long, cumbersome, conspicuous tail. For weaverbirds, it means spending hours building an elaborate roofed nest instead of feeding. I’m mentioning these two in particular because I think they each cast light on human intelligence.

A weaverbird’s nest is a useful thing in its own right. It’s much safer from snakes and hawks and things than your typical open-top bird’s nest. This likely accounts for the success of the weaverbird group: there are 200-odd species in huge, dense flocks across Africa and southwest Asia. So you have to wonder why all birds don’t build their nests that way. The answer seems to be that the added safety isn’t quite worth the work involved and meals forgone – but for the fact that female weaverbirds require a high standard of any nest before mating with the male who built it and proceeding to lay eggs in it. The nest is a courtship display, a costly signal of its maker’s worth as a mate.

Intelligence is likewise a useful thing in its own right. It helps you find food, build shelter, avoid predators. It helps you resolve disputes with your neighbours. It makes you worth following, which you can then game to get your own way and become king. It’s the reason we humans have taken over the planet while our fellow great apes are all endangered in the wild. And so you have to wonder why they haven’t evolved it as well – not to mention parrots, crows, elephants, or sea-otters, all of which are sociable, good at manipulating objects, and brainy by animal standards. The answer is that our bloated brains suck up protein and energy (we’ve sacrificed a lot of digestive function and upper body strength to them) and make childbirth dangerous for both mother and infant. What offsets these costs for humans but not other species?

You see where I’m going here, and perhaps you’re thinking I’m about to walk into a self-laid trap of Wile E. Coyote proportions. Females don’t do male courtship displays. If intelligence is a male courtship display, doesn’t that imply that women aren’t as smart as men? Peahens are camouflage-brown and don’t have long shiny tails. Well, no, because they don’t need them. What they do need is a discerning eye for colour, symmetry, and reflectance. A female who’s fooled into mating with a substandard male will waste her reproductive capacity on offspring that won’t survive, so females evolve to be critical of male advertisements. If the value advertised is intelligence, what faculty do you need in order to judge it? Why, an equal intelligence of your own.

But notice what gender difference this hypothesis does predict. If intelligence is a ticket to sex, males will treat it as a competition. They’ll take every opportunity to show off how smart they are, and they’ll try and make other males look stupid. Females will be unimpressed by the posturing and pontificating; the whole point of a male courtship display is that it’s hard to meet female standards. They’ll take interest in males who demonstrate their intelligence in meaningful ways. Men will praise reason, women will practise it. For an empirical test of this hypothesis, try any internet forum. Men’s habit of presenting our knowledge at length to uninterested women is so characteristic that it’s recently had a verb coined all to itself: “to mansplain”.

This is a good time to notice that Stove never tells us what he actually means by “intellectual performance”. It’s not as if we have thousands of years’ worth of standardized testing results to look at. I presume he’s talking about philosophy, law, history, art, literature, and so on. How much of this “performance” is superfluous guff cranked out by men solely to outdo each other? How much of it owes its existence to some guy trying to get into some woman’s pants? A recent paper in Science shows these questions are highly relevant to STEM gender representation. The philosopher Rebecca Goldstein summarizes it as follows:

There are STEM fields – for example, neuroscience and molecular biology – that have achieved 50% parity in the number of PhDs earned by men and women in the US, and there are non-STEM fields – for example, music theory and composition (15.8%) and philosophy (31.4%) – where the gender gap rivals such STEM fields as physics (18.0%), computer science (18.6%) and mathematics (28.6%)... The more that success within a field was seen as a function of sheer intellectual firepower, with words such as “gifted” and “genius” not uncommon, the fewer the women. [This effect] cut cleanly across the STEM / non-STEM divide.

Since “You’re a genius” has a nicer ring to it than “You’re a hard worker”, it’s no leap to imagine that male competition in such fields will be more driven, i.e. they’ll fill up with posers and egotists. Some women will still put up with the nuisance to achieve their goals, but many will find other career options more appealing. That’s my bet on the main cause of gender imbalance in STEM.

But what about political power? It’s one thing to opt out of pissing contests, but when livelihoods hang on the outcome, shouldn’t the more compassionate gender stay in the game if only to make sure the little folk don’t get hurt? And since they’re also the more rational gender, shouldn’t they then win the game a lot more often than they historically have?

Unfortunately, rationality can be a liability when the stakes are high. If one party to a dispute is willing to hurt innocent people if he don’t get his way, and the other is not, her only option is to concede the contest; unless of course she has some way to smuggle the innocents out the back door before he can get at them, but that’s more common in movies than real life. Consequently, the people least qualified to exercise power – the ruthless, the greedy, the stupidly over-confident – are simultaneously the ones most adept at seizing it. Men are in charge because women are better than them.

Gender is a topic rife with double standards. One of them is: if something specific to women turns out to have a biological basis, it proves women are irrational and their needs should be ignored; if something specific to men turns out to have a biological basis, it proves men can’t change and their needs should be pandered to. This is nonsense. I’ve said it before, but for those who came in late, biological is not the same as inevitable. Men can be better if we want to. It’s just there are so many who don’t want to.

For people with conditions that cause delusional mental states, the best predictor of a healthy outcome is what psychiatrists call insight – the awareness that one has a delusional condition and that one’s perceptions may not align with reality. Maleness being a condition that causes the “She Wants Me” delusion, I imagine the same applies. Male readers, whenever you can just tell from a young stranger’s smile that she’s attracted to you – it’s far more likely that you’re hallucinating. Don’t push it.

Some more general tips for men who want to be as good as women. I don’t say they’re infallible and they’re certainly not exhaustive, but they work for me when I use them. When I don’t, things are not so good.

  • Notice how often women get out of your way and let you go first. It’s much more than you think. Get out of their way and let them go first instead.
  • But don’t then expect gratitude, sexually-tinged or otherwise. You may get a smile and an “Oh, thank you.” Be content with that.
  • Try extra hard to be rational when you feel angry. This is not the same as insulting other people for not being rational.
  • If you really want a rational discussion with someone you disagree with, start by showing you take their concerns seriously.
  • Women are not obliged to be attractive to you.
  • If you find you’re not taking what a woman says seriously, imagine a man saying the same thing. If you find that makes a big difference, take her seriously.
  • You deserve more respect if you don’t lash out, blow up, or take stupid risks to prove your manhood.
  • Women deserve respect regardless of what they wear or what they look like.
  • There are a lot of dangerous men around. Women who don’t know you can’t know you’re not one of them.

If you’re offended at the idea that men are better than women, the best thing you can do is be a counter-example. I will take any insults or screams of incoherent rage directed my way as confirmation of the thesis of this post.

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