Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Feminists Are Going to Go Extinct!

This is the conclusion I must draw from the press release about an evolutionary study by one Lonnie Aarssen:

Basic principles of biology rather than women's newfound economic independence can explain why fewer of them are getting married and having children, and why the trend may only be temporary, says a Queen's researcher.

"Only in recent times have women acquired significant control over their own fertility, and many are preferring not to be saddled with the burden of raising children," says Lonnie Aarssen, a Biology professor who specializes in reproductive ecology. "The question is whether this is just a result of economic factors and socio-cultural conditioning, as most analysts claim, or whether the choices that women are making about parenthood are influenced by genetic inheritance from maternal ancestors that were dominated by paternal ancestors."

In a paper published in the current issue of Oikos – an international journal of ecology – Dr. Aarssen suggests that because of inherited inclinations, many women when empowered by financial independence are driven to pursue leisure and other personal goals that distract from parenthood.

"The drive to leave a legacy through offspring can be side-tracked by an attraction to legacy through other things like career, fame, and fortune – distractions that, until recently, were only widely available to men".

Dr. Aarssen speculates that the now widespread incidence of childlessness in developed countries will subside, not because of cultural evolution but because of biological evolution.

The women who leave the most descendants will be those with an intrinsic drive for motherhood. The ones who would rather forego parenthood in order to have a career, lavish vacations and leisurely lifestyles will of course leave no descendants at all. Over time those genetic traits that influence women away from motherhood will necessarily be 'bred out.'

Take that, you selfish and horrible feminist. The future belongs to women who specialize in fertility and leave leisure and lavish vacations to their menfolks. I wonder what research Lonnie did to establish that it is the lavish vacations that makes women choose childlessness and not, say, the unavailability of affordable daycare?

Note that our Lonnie "suggests" and "speculates". No actual biology is involved in any of this, though he does go on for a while about the olden times when men were able to force women to have children through polygamy and marital rape and such strategies.

A very good criticism of Lonnie's paper can be found at this blog. A snippet:

My understanding of genetics is that when someone talks of "Genetic influences" (Especially in terms of sociobiology). I want to know which "genes" are involved, that is what region of DNA, what the structure of it is with regards things like coding regions, products of coding regions, base richness, promotor regions, mutational differences expressed in the sequence data. And how the product of that gene interacts with the rest of the genome, and also how the products of other genes interact with the gene itself. This level of detail may or may not shed light on complex human social trends, but simple Mendellian genetics with a Darwinian emphasis on natural selection do not cut it, it is that simple.

Dr. Aarssen says:

"Although many human behavioural domains are of course a product of sociocultural/economic context or 'the environment', many of them are also inevitably a product of genes/alleles inherited from ancestors
According to the central tenet of evolution theory, many of the traits that are common today within any species (human or otherwise) are the same traits that were also common in those predecessors that left the most descendants,
particularly with regard to traits that promote offspring production directly. The most obvious of these traits are associated in one way or another with attraction to sex, or 'sex drive', but equally important are traits associated in one way or another with
promoting the survival/well-being of the offspring that issue as a product of sex drive."

Well what would these genes/alleles be? I could make an educated guess, sex hormones are often steroids, so you need a gene to code for peptides that make up the enzymes to convert cholesterol to these steroids, then you need the genes to code for the peptides that make up the receptors of these steroids, you then need peptide hormones you need the genes to code for them directly, then you need the genes to produce the peptides that make up the proteins to regulate the expressions of these genes via various mechanisms. Before you know it there are so many genes involved and so many variants of these genes, you cannot rely on Darwinian natural selection alone to explain all this. Mendellian genetics gives you clues as to which genes are most likely to express. But putting it bluntly. If Dr Aarssen is saying these genetic influences are involved, I would like to know in more precise detail how they are involved.

The model presented in the Darwinian framework gets further undermined when you consider that genes could often have multiple functions. A gene does not work in some cases and you could get 20 proteins that have in them a peptide chain from that gene.

Having established that to some extent the discussion with regards the actual biology is lacking. That is it would need further investigation to serve as viable evidence to support the conclusions. What is being said?

Dr Aarssen states:

"The drive to leave a legacy has presented a unique challenge for males throughout most of human history: men could never be completely certain of their paternity
Women have always known exactly how many offspring they produced, but
men could never know for sure. Hence, a man could never truly escape from the agony of doubt about whether the children that he was investing all of his
resources in, and leaving an inheritance for, were really his"

This passage is actually very interesting because what it describes is past evolution. In fact it is a very good description of the social structure of a troop of apes for example, Take Dr. Aarssens' press statement

"In this way future generations of women will inherit a stronger genetic predisposition for mating and having children as a priority in their lives."

It seems evident that Dr. Aarssen is asserting that the mating rituals of apes, (Let's be truthful here) are going to re-assert themselves. Many of the press statements talk of the "mom gene" (Assertion a female behavior) but the paper talks more about male dominated social hierarchies. Of course the "politically correct" social commentator will point out that this is sexism, especially when reading the following.

"This was fairly obviously attainable through traits that promoted the subjugation of females, especially dominant control over their fertility and sexual activity, and through behaviours that promoted the acquisition of multiple sexual partners and the generation of dynasties, involving polygyny, concubines, mistresses, and rape including spousal rape The fitness benefit from these 'legacy drive' pursuits i.e. leaving many descendants would also, of course, have been promoted in males by a strong sex drive."

But this all seems to miss the point, Dr Aarssen is in effect saying that we have the social structures of evolutionary written into our genes. To some extent I would agree, but humans in general have evolved different strategies, You see what Dr Aarssen is presenting is an evolutionary paradox. You see the territorialism, the aggressive assertion of breeding rights and so on do manifest in human, the result would probably well be things like warfare. And this is not a vague statement either, warfare has been developed into a strategic art. There have been many books written about it. Go back to the animal kingdom and you will find that meerkats of all things are experts at it. And the whole thing is driven as Dr. Aarssen would agree, by mating and breeding rights, and the control of genetic legacy (There is a well publicized project that has studied this, which ended up with TV shows and spin offs). The point is I have yet to see a meerkat, or an ape or any mammal besides human beings gain the ability to sequence their own genome.

If you read that carefully you will notice that Lonnie doesn't actually have any genetic evidence at all for his arguments, and that the arguments are really not about a mommy gene but about male dominance in human societies.
Original link to Aarssen's press release from Bouphonia
. It also has more on the genetics story.