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Meaning that sometimes, the responses on this blog fascinate me.

I was talking about hardwiring, and practically everything anybody had to say had to do with social construction, or presumed social construction.

Let’s start with  Robert.  I’m not sure from the ost, but if he’s trying to imly that I was claiming that some moral precepts become “outmoded,” he’s wrong.  In fact, I was claiming exactly the opposite.

To the extent that what we are looking at here is hardwiring, the fact is that the moral precept may remain constant and constantly relevent even if the initial conditions that led to it becoming hardwiring have disappeared.

We can talk all we want about why it was the sexual double standard arose, and its concomittant restriction of the public activities of women, and we can speculate that the advent of DNA and the knowledge professions make it all no longer needed, but if the hardwiring is such that the result of doing away with all this is a birth rate in negative numbers, then our change in moral codes will not (in the long run) lead to progress for anybody.   It will just lead to the death of our society an a world in which the restrictions on women would be much greater than what they might have been if we had kept the basic parameters of the original.

And no, I’m NOT  saying that this is the case.  This is a hypothetical I’m using here.  And, admittedly, mostly because I think it’s the kind of hypothetical that will get people upset.

On the other hand, it’s a hypothetical with a certain real-world kick at the moment.

And I disagree with Lymaree that human societies are infinitely various.  I think the variety is mostly a surface phenomenon.  The underlying codes and assumptions seem to be to be remarkably constant throughout time.

For instance, as satisfying as the supposition may be that the division of labor was about phyiscal strength, or death in childhood, the precept that holds in all literate and most non-literate socieites is not “men will do the heavy labor” but “the jobs men do, whatever they are, will be held in higher esteem than the jobs women do.”

That’s a precept, by the way, that holds true even in the twentieth century West, although it’s modified slightly–here as in all complex socieites–by issues of class.

Although even there, less than you’d think. 

Back in the days when there were still big industrial plants in the US, the men who worked the assembly lines at places like Ford made more money than their wives who taught in the public schools, in spite of the fact that the “prestige” of the woman’s job was supposedly higher.  

Even now, though, a good way to tell if the prestige and remuneration of a profession are going to rise or fall is to figure out if it’s becoming more masculine or more feminine. 

The issue is this:  what can change and make the world better, and what, when changed, only makes the world worse?

The answers to those questions are written in our biology–biology is destiny, in some ways, although not in the exact way the person who first came up with that dictum meant.

The position of women in the 1950s US was better than the position of women is now in Saudi Arabia, or Iran.  The position of women in the twenty-first century US is better than either.  And that’s the good news, as long as that last thing is sustainable.  If it isn’t, then we’ve got a problem.

And it’s a bigger problem than you’d think, and closer to us than you’d think.  There are ordinary, non-Muslim women in many cities in Western Europe now whose lives are more restricted than they would have been in 1950, because they live in neighborhoods where to go out without a veil means to be beaten up or raped by gangs of young men who don’t accept the Western idea that women should have the rights and priveleges of men and who feel completely safe in imposing their own moral codes on the women around them. 

There’s a lot of talk in the US about the cowardice of the governments in these countries, because they often refuse to police this sort of thing or respond to it adequately, but in the end the issue isn’t cowardice but numbers.  Muslim women may be oppressed, beaten down, and subject to something close to slavery and jail, but their birth rates are qunituple those of the Western women around them. 

And demography is destiny, especially in a democracy.

I’m not advocating any particular thing here.  I’m only pointing out that any real investigation of the objective bases of morality would have to look at things like this–at the response of things like birth rates to the structures and assumptions of our socieities–without prejudice, and this is something we adamantly refuse to do.

But the fact that we refuse to do it–and that in refusing to do it we  produce silly “moral philosophy” with little relation to objectivity in any sense–does n ot mean that it can’t be done.

Written by janeh

July 2nd, 2009 at 5:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Sometimes'

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  1. A lot is hardwired, true, but we can’t do much about that. What we can do is try to modify behaviour, hardwired or not. Obviously, it’s going to be a lot easier to modify non-hardwired behaviour – surely the fashion for pink slutty clothing for small girls will die out before the concern about violent male teens or pregnant female teens does. And it doesn’t seem to matter that it still (for a while, anyway) takes two to make a baby, but only one of the parents is the most obvious ‘problem’. Same sex marriage (whatever *that* is, when regular marriage seems to have lost all its function as a rite of passage, changer of legal status, announcement & approval of a sexual relationship marker) is also probably mostly not hardwired – sexual response, including ‘orientation’, may well be mostly hardwired (somewhat modified by experience, in- and post-utero, I’d guess), but how it is controlled and expressed in a given society isn’t.

    It seems to me that we can look at what’s hardwired objectively if we want to badly enough – although it tends to get a bit fuzzy around the edges, as when you get someone with some sexual interest in both sexes living in a society in which everyone marries at 17 and has children vs the same person living in a society in which everyone chooses from a wide range of options re sex, but is expected to be attracted to only one gender.

    But the danger with this is that we will end up trapped in black/white, either/or thinking. All females MUST have a strong maternal instinct and adore any and all infants. All males MUST have a natural tendency to spread progeny as far as possibly without becoming attached to any of them. There’s already a fascination with ‘scientific’ discoveries that this or that is genetically determined and a tendency to draw very unscientific conclusions from it.

    Still, I think a study of what is or is not hardwired would be worth carrying out, even though I think a lot of progress can be made without the confusion and unscientific generalizations likely to arise from the fuzzy bits. After all, there are a wide range of options for ensuring that women have rights and children have caregivers that can be examined.

    There are, of course, the risks of being publicly vilified if you say something unpopular:



    2 Jul 09 at 7:07 am

  2. Okay, let’s talk about “hardwiring” and what it means. If something is hardwired into an organism, it should express in appearance or behavior in every such organism. There can always be variation in the strength or manner of expression of a trait, and there may be downright abberation, but the majority of organisms with a hardwired trait will show that trait in one way or another.

    For example, rattlesnakes rattle when disturbed, to warn predators away. That’s hardwired. They generally don’t rattle when sighting prey, and some may be more or less likely to strike after they rattle, that’s variation. But they all rattle. Those that don’t get trod upon, then killed when they bite someone.

    How much can we actually say is hardwired in humans? Not very much, in my opinion. And certainly not enough to derive a moral code from. “Procreate the species” that’s there. But having the hardwiring to procreate doesn’t mandate monogamy, polygamy, virgin-at-marriage, rape-at-will, old men marrying nubile children, women free to pursue sex with anyone, mandatory incest, or kill-the-parents-when-the-children-are-adult, all of which could exist in a viable culture (not the same culture. Different cultures, but all viable. You know what I mean). Hardwiring cares NOTHING about individual happiness, rights, or survival after procreating age.

    Non-procreating organisms are variation or abberation, or may simply be surplus population. None of this forms a basis for a moral code.

    I suspect “protect small cute things” is hardwired in humans, too. Otherwise children would all be smothered before their first birthday. It explains the hunger of some people for kittens and puppies, but not adult cats or dogs. It also forms a practical basis for raising children to reproducing age themselves, necessary for the procreation thing. However, “protection” itself can mean protect from sabre-tooth tigers, falling off cliffs, or eating poison food…or it can mean protecting from dirty magazines, pedophiles, and the nightly news. Different standards, and once the minimum of survival to breeding age is accomplished, all else is trimmings. Once again, there is no basis for a moral code in the hardwired instruction. Truly it doesn’t matter *to the species* if a child is psychologically damaged, just as long as they can breed.

    There are, in fact, tribes that still practice ritual deflowering of young girls by elder men of the tribe. In other places, these men would be in prison for molestation. So…are the girls in question damaged for life? I doubt it. They’ve been protected, within the definition of *their* society, from reaching adulthood in a dangerous state of virginity. This is the very same urge to protect that is expressed in other cultures by isolating young girls from all males. The hardwiring does not define the expression of the behavior, not in humans.

    What else is hardwired? An affinity for those genetically related to oneself, I think. A prediliction for marrying outside one’s kin group, when possible. As noted, a high seeking of risk among young males. What else do all human groups everywhere do? Unless all human groups do express a trait to one extent or another, it *cannot* by definition, be hardwired.

    Hardwiring has nothing to do with the individual, and everything to do with species survival. Moral systems MUST function at the individual level, and cannot be derived from hardwired traits. Hardwired traits must contribute to species survival, otherwise they would lead to extinction. So we have to ask, how does the varying valuation of male vs female jobs Jane posits above contribute to species survival? Does it at all? If not, then it’s not a hardwired trait, it’s a cultural overlay and it *can* be changed, and probably relatively quickly. If it does contribute, then it may be hardwired and we may be able to change the expression of it, but we’ll never entirely eliminate it or keep it from re-arising in a changing culture.

    I think that’s enough for today. I do have to earn a living. ;)


    2 Jul 09 at 4:20 pm

  3. I think that “hard wired” can be overriden by training. For example, someone once said “A sensible army would run away.”

    But I do wonder how well a society will function if it requires the majority of its people to be continuously overiding their hard-wiring.

    There is a political drive on to have the Australian government guarantee a 13 week maternity leave for all working mothers. I do wonder how many mothers will be happy leaving their babies in creches after 3 months. And I wonder about the development of babies with one care giver per 10 babies rather than a 1 to 1 ratio.

    It strikes me as an exoeriment in social engineering which could have disasterous side effects.


    2 Jul 09 at 6:19 pm

  4. I could hedge, but I don’t quibble as well as I used to. I’ve been through the whole “Big Thinker explains morality, Big Thinker explains the origin of morality, Big Thinker points out the orignal purpose no longer holds, and (surprise!) Big Thinker rolls out new and improved morality” bit so often I anticipated the next step of the dance.

    I agree with some of the comments above. I don’t think we’re hardwired to propagate the species. I think we’re hardwired to have sex and care for the cute. For a hundred thousand years or so, this was sufficient. But now yuppies can have sex while using contraceptives and nurture funny-looking dogs, scratch the itching DNA and not have the trouble and expense of offspring. It is, however, often VERY difficult to sort out DNA from cultureal traits that every culture (until recently) has needed to survive.

    Two hedges on demographics: apart from Total Fertility Rate, a culture can win two other ways. One is by having a sufficiently lowered infant mortality rate, so while it has fewer children born, it has more who live to reproduce. That’s probably no use in the present instance: infant mortility has dropped too low all over, and dying at 45 vs dying at 90 makes little genetic difference.

    But the other way can: genetics is about individual DNA survival. A CULTURE survives by having a next generation regardless of who parented it. Think of the sub-cultures of celebate priests and spinster scholmarms. If the next generation in France speaks French ans thinks of itself as French, the culture of France survives regardless of bloodlines.

    In this regard, the West as a whole does better than any member society, the United States better than the EU, and (so far) none of us well enough. But it’s another way open to close the demographic gap.


    2 Jul 09 at 6:33 pm

  5. Robert, I take you’ve never suffered from Baby Hunger. I’ve toiled in the vineyards of Yuppiedom, and done the sex-and-contraception thing, though my small fluffy child-substitutes were cats. Had no real need for children, didn’t like others’ children much, couldn’t stand the screeching.

    Along about my 30th year, I was hit with a wave of desire for a BABY, MY BABY that was physical. It almost made me sick. How much did I want it? I lost 110 pounds in order to get pregnant. That’s a serious need.

    Trust me, for many people, the desire to procreate and produce descendants of our own DNA in the specific form of a baby IS present. We’re not just chasing sex and missing on the condoms. I suspect that’s hardwired, because observation will tell anyone that life is much simpler and more prosperous without the cost and chaos of raising children!

    On the other hand, your point about cultural vs bloodline continuity is a good one. We hear much out here in S. Cal about how in 50 years it’ll be 60% Hispanic by heritage (or whatever, make up your own statistics). I know and work with, and am friends with, many first, second and third generation Hispanics. Guess what? Just like other immigrant populations in the past, many or most of the 2nd & 3rd generation do not speak their parent’s language, and observe their parent’s culture from a distance. They are thoroughly acculturated.

    I’m guessing that accounting for normal cultural change, California will appear just as much American in 50 years as it does now.


    2 Jul 09 at 11:13 pm

  6. I’ve never had that baby hunger – oh, when I was very young, I assumed I’d have a big family, but there always seemed to be something else I wanted to do first…but I’ve seen it in action. There are women in whom the drive is so strong they will not only lose weight, they’ll have surgery, take powerful drugs which haven’t really had their long-term effects evaluated and focus their entire sex life on their ovulation. A few will kidnap infants or even kidnap and murder pregnant women for their babies, and more will go to extraordinary lengths and expense to adopt, but for some, it’s the biological connection that’s all-important. It’s an extraordinarily strong drive in many women – which is what you’d expect from an evolutionary perspective.

    Some men seem to feel the same connection – and yet, to me as a woman (although one without a very strong maternal instinct), the father-child connection and the fatherly desire for a biological child doesn’t seem to be as strong usually as the mother-child equivalent. I’ve never really understood, for example, how some men can engage in activity that they must know might produce children – and remain completely unperturbed that their biological child might be raised by a prostitute they visited once, or someone they had a one night stand with at the office party.

    And yet, many men are passionately attached to their biological children or desperately want to have a family, and both men and women are capable of loving an adopted, biologically unrelated child as much as a biological one, while some biological parents horribly abuse or kill their children. Oh, the odds are the other way around – I know someone from a family in which an adoption went wrong, and who is convinced as a result that adoption is always a bad idea, and most child abuse is by step-parents or boy/girlfriends of a parent or someone else attached to the household, not the biological parents. But the degree to which people can ignore their drive to reproduce or adapt it to a non-biological child is astonishing.

    I still think that you’re (Lymaree) somewhat overstating the case against hardwired instincts. It’s very difficult to tease these things out because we can be highly motivated by both hardwired instinct and deeply internalized instructions from our parents. I do think that various family structures – monogamous, polygamous etc – can be adaptive in different cultural settings – that is, that they are largely culturally determined. Sex with young people is an issue our culture tends to be very troubled about – but we also tend to define ‘young’ as ‘under 18 (or 16 or 19)’ rather than ‘pre-pubescent’, and I think that’s a mistake. The only cases I know of in which a culture allows sex (by which I don’t mean arranged child marriage with the sex starting later) involving pre-pubescent children are ones which are in a state of total collapse, and which probably have formal (but ignored) prohibitions against it anyway. I’d suspect that not having sex with pre-pubescent children (NOT young adolescents) is hardwired, although I couldn’t prove it. It could be that we have observed over the millenia that very young mothers are more likely to die in childbirth and psychologically traumatized people don’t function well in society, and are unlikely to be able to do a real good job of raising and protecting an infant until or unless they recover from their trauma.


    3 Jul 09 at 5:59 am

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