Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Innate Psychology of Women


What makes women so goddamn picky about the people they're willing to have sex with, even though it seems eminently reasonable that they should toss it up to anyone who wants it?

A study by Dustin Penn of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology in Austria and Ken Smith of the University of Utah offers some tantalizing hints, so long as you don't mind the fact that it's based on data pertaining to Mormon couples who got married between 1860 and 1895.

When it comes to humans, women are naturally thought to suffer fitness costs from reproduction, given the stresses of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding, but evidence for whether men do has been mixed and controversial....

Penn and Smith found that having more children was linked with decreased survival for both parents, although this effect was more pronounced in women. After age 50 the number of offspring had no effect on the likelihood that fathers would die, but continued to have an impact on the mortality of mothers. This difference in cost between men and women fits with evolutionary explanations for the observation that women tend to be choosier than men when selecting mates.
That's not quite clear, since at least one of the traditional criteria for female "choosiness" (reproductive vim and vigor) seems in this case to result not only in early mortality for the mother, but a poor prognosis for her offspring:
[T]he more offspring parents had, the less likely each child was to survive to reproductive age.
I'd say that the conclusions one can draw about Womanhood from the matrimonial hazards of 19th-century Mormonism are limited at best. Nonetheless, Smith and Penn suggest that their findings "shed light on the evolution of menopause...which humans experience but chimps and many other species do not." (Click here for research on menopause in guppies, and here for information on factors potentially affecting menopause in nonhuman primates, including diet and lifespan).

As you can see, it's all very...rigorous:
"One of the other problems we've been trying to explain in human reproduction is why women all over the world have been having fewer children whenever they get access to contraception or more education," says Dr. Penn.
One might do better to study why women so often tend not to get access to these things, which is really a far more interesting question, and possibly even has some bearing on the problem that's worrying Dr. Penn.

Earlier today, I took issue with Amanda's claim that "animals are not different from us in any major way." This research is a good example of how overlooking little instances of human exceptionalism like culture, law, religion, and education complicates the "objective" study of our throbbing biological urges:
"If women bear a higher cost for reproduction than men, then this might help explain why, when they get control over their reproduction, they would have fewer children."
I find it odd that people are looking for biological theories to explain what happens when women, by some unacknowledged process, "get control over their reproduction." Perhaps we can study the puzzling flight reaction of people whose prison doors are left unlocked, while we're at it.
Intriguingly, an environment in which resources were scarce, such as that faced by preindustrial Mormons, may have placed selective pressures on the innate psychology of women that at least partly explain why birth rates are so low in modern industrialized societies.
Let me put this as politely as I can: I see no obvious reason why resource scarcity among communities in past centuries - communities that had limited access to sex education and contraception, mind you, as well as religious and social injunctions against both - should've created "selective pressures" favoring low birth rates in modern industrialized societies.

But what do I know? My brain is mostly female.

UPDATE: For those who didn't notice, the first sentence of this post was intended as a joke. It's obvious that "the stresses of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding" take a greater toll on women than on men. What's less obvious is the extent to which female choice is actually permitted in a specific culture or community - most readers have heard of arranged and forced marriages, I'm sure - and the extent to which being free to choose one's mate (or let one's genes choose him) affects reproductive costs. Female parental investment sounds a bit more explanatory than it actually is, IMO.

33 comments:

gmanedit said...

"One of the other problems we've been trying to explain in human reproduction is why women all over the world have been having fewer children whenever they get access to contraception or more education"—whoa, back up there. Why is this a problem?

Phila said...

Why is this a problem?

Beats me. I guess it's "counterintuitive" in some way. Or something.

Rmj said...

Why is this a problem?

Obviously because women are cutting off our access to more men, so that we can band together against their insidious refusal to let us reproduce.

Or at least get jiggy with it more often.

echidne said...

Studying Mormon couples? To find out about the "innate psychology of women"? hmm

Interrobang said...

Is there such a thing as the "innate psychology of women"? Aside from psychological problems that arise from organic causes, I'm not aware that there is any such thing as an "innate psychology" of an anything. (The phrase even sounds ridiculous if you regenderise it.)

Jackmormon said...

One thing about 19th-c Mormons, though, is that so much of the data is already collected. Names, dates, everything. It must pose such a temptation for family researchers.

Anonymous said...

Is there such a thing as the "innate psychology of women"?

I don't know. Sounds like something worth researching.

NYMary said...


Or at least get jiggy with it more often.


Choosy mothers get Jiffy.

Anonymous said...

Shorter Phila:

I see no obvious reason why the advantages of two-legged walking among communities in past societies should've created "selective pressures" favoring bipedalism in modern industrialized societies.

These days, who needs legs? I've got four wheels, baby! Let's Roll!

Anonymous said...

You know, this post seems very science-phobic. It is an interesting question to ask whether there are reasons for sexual selectivity among human women, beyond simple assuming that it is a choice. If you're a mechanist, if you believe that humans are essentially thermodynamic machines, then there is a reason for everything they do, a reason that can ultimately be reduced to physiological processes. If you want to speculate about things like a soul, or a self, or other items that I have yet to be convinced exist, than reductionism isn't going to be your cup of tea. But, as it stands, science IS a reductionist enterprise and it is perfectly legitimate to investigate whether there are mechanisms derived from first principles of heredity and competition that generate complex human behavior.

Now, it may be hubris to assume we can untable these factors, and this study certainly doesn't do nearly good enough of a job of trying, but to treat it as this post does, as being an absurd question to ask, is an implicit rejection of the scientific project.

But what do I know? My brain is mostly scientist.

Anonymous said...

The NIH workshop report you link to says:

"In contrast to women, [Non-human primates] go through the natural menopause at ages very close to their average lifespan and thus have a much shorter postmenopausal span."

So when female chimps typically die around the onset of menopause, it's not inaccurate to say that "humans experience [menopause] but chimps and many other species do not."

Please, next time you're tempted to snark about things you don't know much about, study your links more carefully. You might learn something.

Ken Houghton said...

Traditionally, there are three times of life where one is likely to die: at birth (both genders), old age (both gender), in war (male), or in childbirth (female).

Given that one has no control over old age (it can be seen as a goal, since the alternative is worse), and little personal control over whether you survive being born (as an aside, reducing infant mortality rates definitionally will increase the average lifespan; also definitonally, women of childbirthing age have survived their own birth), doesn't it make sense that women would choose to control the one area in which they can extend their life by reducing the number of chances they take that might result in death?

Rmj said...

Now, it may be hubris to assume we can untable these factors, and this study certainly doesn't do nearly good enough of a job of trying, but to treat it as this post does, as being an absurd question to ask, is an implicit rejection of the scientific project.

I'm struggling to find the rejection of scientific reasoning or scientific method in this post. Here, for example:

One of the other problems we've been trying to explain in human reproduction is why women all over the world have been having fewer children whenever they get access to contraception or more education," says Dr. Penn.One might do better to study why women so often tend not to get access to these things, which is really a far more interesting question, and possibly even has some bearing on the problem that's worrying Dr. Penn.

Is the critique wrong? How, pray tell? Is it inherently "anti-science" to critique scientific method as not rigorous enough to produce a valid conclusion? You've just put a lot of scientific journals out of business.

But what do I know? My brain is mostly scientist.

As long as no one is relying on your reasoning....of course, my brain is mostly philosopher, so logic and rhetoric take up a lot of space.

Phila said...

It is an interesting question to ask whether there are reasons for sexual selectivity among human women, beyond simple assuming that it is a choice.

Of course it is. And the question is asked - and answered, for better or worse - all the time. I can take issue with specific theories without making any larger claim about the project itself. Right?

If you want to speculate about things like a soul, or a self, or other items that I have yet to be convinced exist, than reductionism isn't going to be your cup of tea.

Yeah, I do tend to speculate about things like a "self." You've got me pegged there, alrighty. I honestly do not think that every decision made by human beings is driven by biological imperatives. Biological processes, sure; imperatives, not so much.

But, as it stands, science IS a reductionist enterprise and it is perfectly legitimate to investigate

I don't recall saying that science isn't, or shouldn't be, reductionist. Or that it's "illegitimate" to investigate the effects of heredity and competition. But I guess you divined my real opinion through some peculiar ability of your "self."

If that's the argument you want to rebut, perhaps you should devote your attentions to people who've actually made it.

to treat it as this post does, as being an absurd question to ask, is an implicit rejection of the scientific project.

Since you were discerning enough to read this post as "an implicit rejection of the scientific project," I'm confident that you'll pick up right away on this far less ambiguous message: Go fuck yourself.

Rmj said...

Sorry, but the field is so rich, and there's just so much fertilizer piled up.

"In contrast to women, [Non-human primates] go through the natural menopause at ages very close to their average lifespan and thus have a much shorter postmenopausal span."

So when female chimps typically die around the onset of menopause, it's not inaccurate to say that "humans experience [menopause] but chimps and many other species do not."


Huh? So, "chimps and other species (of primates?)" do go through menopause, but just tend to die shortly thereafter? Meaning human females live after menopause because of diet and healthcare improvements chimps (and other species) don't have access to (which is what Phila said)? But chimps (and other species) do experience menopause? They just experience it close to their "natural" lifespan? (which is natural only because of the factors like diet and healthcare, which can be altered)?

So, I'm confused. Do chimps (and other species) experience menopause, or don't they? Is it's occurrence lower because of lifespan, but it still occurs? Or do they not experience it at all? Because the quoted statement from the article doesn't indicate anything other than "the evolution of menopause...which humans experience but chimps and many other species do not," leading one to assume chimps and "other species" do not experience menopause at all, for reasons explainable by evolutionary theory.

But apparently they do, just not for very long.

So, where, again, is the snark? Or, indeed, the error in the post?

(I think I've found Dennett's target audience, btw.)

Anonymous said...

"This difference in cost between men and women fits with evolutionary explanations for the observation that women tend to be choosier than men when selecting mates."

That's not quite clear, since at least one of the traditional criteria for female "choosiness" (reproductive vim and vigor) seems in this case to result not only in early mortality for the mother, but a poor prognosis for her offspring:

[T]he more offspring parents had, the less likely each child was to survive to reproductive age.

The leap from "Vim and Vigor" to having more kids, is perhaps not well justified. Even if it turns out to be true, which seems likely, then the chance of children surving to reproductive age is not the evolutionarily important statistic.

Rather, the number of children who survive to reproductive age is the important measure. This number does not always go down as the number of children goes up.

Phila said...

So when female chimps typically die around the onset of menopause, it's not inaccurate to say that "humans experience [menopause] but chimps and many other species do not."

No, it's not inaccurate. Just somewhat misleading.

Thanks for splitting that hair, all the same.

Rmj said...

Oh, and the problem with being reductionist is not that it reduces illogical or inaccurate answers out of existence, but merely that it excludes them from consideration.

All formal systems of thought do that, of course. As Godel established, any formal system can generate a statement which can only be answered by appeal to a meta-system to that system. So science, as any other philosophy, is inherently limited an incapable of answering questions it can raise (the same is true, of course, of formal logic; which is why it is a useless tool for truth divination, but can tell you whether or not a statement made within the terms of the formal structure is valid or not).

Science can do no more than that: tell you what is valid within the terms it covers. Is it true that human beings are merely thermodynamic machines? Science cannot answer. It may be able to say whether or not that conclusion is valid, as a scientific statement. But it cannot say the statement is true.

And trying to say that it can, is neither materialism or reductionism. It is simply an error in understanding.

Boronx said...

Last anony post was me.

Phila said...

doesn't it make sense that women would choose to control the one area in which they can extend their life by reducing the number of chances they take that might result in death?

In theory, sure. In practice, en masse, and to an extent that necessarily overrides proximate causes? Maybe not so much.

Some women report that they can't actually afford to have kids, financially speaking. Others feel that, in comparison to earlier generations, they can choose not to have children without suffering certain types of censure. I don't think it's "anti-reductionist" to point those aspects of human culture. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Mirele said...

This research is so incredibly wrongheaded for so many reasons.

Using 19th century Mormon women is so wrong on the face of it because it fails to control for one very important factor that *reduced* the number of children born per mother.

That factor was *polygamy* and the reduced access that each woman had to her husband overall when she was in competition with other women (even if they switched off every night as was one practice).

It's already been determined that Mormon women in polygamous marriages had fewer children than their monogamous sisters. It's been a long time since I read the study, so I do not remember the reasons why that was the case. I do know that polygamous women more often than not ended up having to work in ways that their monogamous sisters back East did not, simply because if they didn't, they wouldn't eat. Other polygamous women worked for wages, ran boarding houses and otherwised worked their butts off to keep their families going, because their husbands, unless they were wealthy, could not provide so much support for the family.

Additionally, after the death of Brigham Young in 1877, the US government began a significant campaign to arrest, try, convict and incarcerate polygamous men. Even if they didn't end up in stripes at the prison in Sugar House, men had to stay away from their wives and families for months or even years on end. Conversely, families dispersed to Canada and Mexico to avoid polygamy prosecutions. (It was apparently legal to have one family in Canada, one family in the US and a third in Mexico, and husbands would travel in between.) This polyg hunt went on intensely from 1877 to 1890 and less intensely from 1890 to about 1906, when it slacked off until about 1930. At that time, the Mormon church had so disposed of polygamy that leaders had no problem assisting state authorities in rooting out polygamists and sending them to prison.

All of this led to limited access for wives to their husbands, and as a result, a lower rate of birth (even so, still high compared to the 20th century).

Using Mormon women is so atypical to most (at least) Western womens' experience that it should disqualify this study right out of the gate. I know why they used Mormon women, because the genealogy for these women has been done in a most meticulous fashion. But failing to control for polygamy is just nuts. I don't know *how* you could control for it.

Phila said...

(I think I've found Dennett's target audience, btw.)

[insert smiley face here]

Phila said...

I see no obvious reason why the advantages of two-legged walking among communities in past societies should've created "selective pressures" favoring bipedalism in modern industrialized societies.

First, tell me if you notice any difference between pioneer communities with very limited resources and "modern industrialized societies." Then, tell me how you reconcile the findings here with findings that consistently show higher birth rates in countries with fewer resources.

Sheesh.

Thers said...

Well *I* thought the post is plenty scientific...

Jason said...

I'm not aware that there is any such thing as an "innate psychology" of an anything.

What? Everything with a mind has an innate psychology. What are you talking about?

How do you think you, e.g., know how to speak?

Thumb said...

It is an interesting question to ask whether there are reasons for sexual selectivity among human women, beyond simple assuming that it is a choice.

So, let me see if I have this straight, metaphorically speaking. One group can pound their chests and spray seed in all directions, while the other group is left to "tend the garden" left behind. And they're confused as to why one group puts more thought into "gardening?" Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

"...why women all over the world have been having fewer children whenever they get access to contraception..."

ummmm, because contraception is...ah...um...contraceptive?

"...why women all over the world have been having fewer children whenever they get...more education..."

ummmm, because it opens their lives to more options/possibilities than motherhood?

gads, why do highly educated people so frequently overlook common-sense answers to simple questions?

Gee said...

Studying Mormon couples? To find out about the "innate psychology of women"? hmm

Just so.

The study is plainly skewed if it didn't also take in Mormon triples, quadruples, quintuples and ... what's the noun for "53 people in a marriage"?

Terry C, Gore/Clark 08 said...

"What makes women so goddamn picky about the people they're willing to have sex with, even though it seems eminently reasonable that they should toss it up to anyone who wants it?"


Some of us are choosy. Sue us!

Phila said...

Thanks for the comments!

What seems obvious to me is that it's politically and scientifically dubious to assume that the reproductive behavior well-off women are displaying now is a hangover from the past. There are lots of reasons to consider this...um...premature. Given the number of things that can affect a woman's willingness to be impregnated, it's far from objective to pursue this sort of explanation before, say, cultural ones.

I'd also tentatively question the extent to which Mormons could be described as "preindustral" - especially in the years between 1875 and 1895 - and the claim that their earlier, closely knit communitarian society had nothing that could be described as day care.

And last, I think it'd be reasonably scientific to ask women who aren't having lots of kids why they're not having lots of kids. You know...just to see what they say.

brooksfoe said...

Alternatively, one might try a study focusing on why men are having so many fewer children now that they have access to contraception and internet pornography. Perhaps the community records of a 17th-century Hasidic community in northwestern Rumania would be the best source of data?

walt said...

A request: please don't use Goedel's theorem in these kinds of arguments. It really doesn't say what you think it says, and it causes me close-to-physical pain to see it used in an otherwise sensible argument.

Rmj said...

A request: please don't use Goedel's theorem in these kinds of arguments. It really doesn't say what you think it says, and it causes me close-to-physical pain to see it used in an otherwise sensible argument.

If you mean science is not a formal system in the same way mathematics is, I would agree Godel's theorem is not applicable. I consider, in blog disscussions, however, a metaphor for a far more complex argument that all forms of reason incorporate other fields of understanding, because no one field owns a monopoly on all human knowledge. Using empiricism, Hume established that nothing can be said about any topic worth considering, and therefore philosophy was useless. What he's often accused of establishing, and he didn't, was that we can't talk about anything at all. But as Hume recognized (how can anyone deny it?), no field of human endeavor, even philosophy, encompasses the whole of human experience.

And whenever I encounter someone who thinks science does just that, well.....