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A valuable corrective to male-centered sociobiology
on August 26, 2009
Sociobiology has historically been centered on males. Consider the classic case of the langur monkey. When an alpha male deposes a rival male and claims his harem the first thing he does is kill the infants. That brings the females into heat sooner and allows him to reproduce sooner. Infanticide is in his rational self-interest (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy was actually the one who figured this out). The implication is that males are in a life and death struggle to become alpha and females just want to breed with the winner. To be sure, traditional sociobiology has some modest correctives for the myth of the "coy female and promiscuous male." In the case of a monogamous species males and females partner up. In that case the alpha males cannot claim a harem of females. But females can still breed with an alpha male by having an adulterous affair. Not every woman can marry an alpha male but she certainly can copulate with one. In fact, cryptic female choice shows that females often stage sperm competitions in their vagina. The strategy is simple: copulate with many males in a short period of time and let the fittest sperm win. Gangbangs clearly falsify the "coy female" model. But even so, they continue to reinforces the same tired narrative: males are locked in a struggle for status while females are only interested in breeding with the winner.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy convincingly shows that females are locked in their own brutal status-seeking competition. Females are bigger and stronger than the males in many species such as mole rats, jackrabbits, marmosets, and bats. Among solitary species these "big mothers" are able to control a larger territory than their smaller and weaker rival females. That means more food for their offspring. Among social animals such as hyenas the alpha females are able to claim a larger share of the group's food for herself and her offspring. The lower status females have to make do with the scraps. In some species the alpha females don't even let the low-status females breed. They are forced to wait for the alpha female to die, at which time they may become the new alpha and gain the power they need to breed.
Hrdy also shows that infanticide isn't just for males. Chimp females do not let rival females hold their babies because they may not get them back alive. Killing a rival's children mean more food and higher status for her own offspring. That's why babies often have stranger anxiety - it is the baby's defense mechanism against infanticide. Babies know perfectly well that they are not safe with strangers. In fact, females have a good reason to kill their own offspring. A popular slogan from sociobiology is that "sperm are cheaper than eggs", which means that procreating takes a smaller investment for males than females. That's what leads to the myth of the coy female and promiscuous male. But a corollary would be that "eggs are cheaper than caring for offspring." It doesn't make evolutionary sense for a female to invest her time and energy caring for a weak, sickly, or disabled infant. Better to kill it and try again. Killing healthy offspring also makes sense if the female doesn't have a high enough social status to secure food for it. Better to cut her losses early than to waste time trying to feed it. In our Judeo-Christian culture we expect mothers to attach immediately to babies but that is actually unnatural in most human cultures. Attachment (and therefore love) is conditional on having a healthy baby and the status needed to care for it.
A lot of people will find these revelations shocking. Hrdy agrees. The traditional picture of sociobiology is that "males do a lot of ugly things to get ahead." Hrdy points out that females do a lot of ugly things to get ahead too. But don't confuse explaining the facts with a moral stand. That is the logical fallacy of the appeal to nature - basing morality on the way the natural world works. The best solution would be to bring about a detente in the status-seeking arms race. In one of the more poignant quotes Hrdy writes: "Sociobiology is not a field known for the encouraging news it offers either sex. Yet its most promising revelation to date has to be that over evolutionary time, lifelong monogamy turns out to be the cure for all sorts of detrimental devices that one sex uses to the exploit the other." Indeed.
This book is pretty dense so I would start with something a bit easier if this is your first exposure to sociobiology. Start with The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David Barash to get an overview of sociobiology. The Triumph of Sociobiology is also good.