Gene Expression

Why patriarchy?

i-a6b5ab95e77ae7cbb33f4aaad096ffb4-samurai.jpgIn the annals of they had to do “research”?, Researchers identify ‘male warrior effect’“:

In experiments with 300 university men and women students, Van Vugt and his team gave the volunteers small sums of money which they could either keep or invest in a common fund that would be doubled and equally divided. None of the students knew what the others were doing.

Both sexes cooperated in investing in the fund. But when the groups were told they were competing against other universities, the males were more eager to invest rather than keep their money while the number of women contributing remained the same.

Competition between males, and groups of males, is a feature of many species. The relatively mild sexual dimorphism between human males and females in regards to size suggests that we are not a polygynous species like gorillas, though our lack of symmetry in size (like gibbons) suggests that male reproductive variance is greater than female reproductive variance (born out by comparisons of mtDNA vs. Y lineages).

Over the past few years I’ve mooted a theory for the hyper-patriarchy that is often prevelant in “civilized” cultures: my hypothesis that male social organizations scale better than female social organizations. In No Two Alike Judith Rich Harris states:

During middle childhood-what Freud called the “latency period”-girls and boys spontaneously separate into single-sex groups. As developmentalists have observed, boys’ groups tend to be larger (girls often split up into pairs or trios) and more hierarchical, or at least more overtly hierarchical. Boys appear to be more concerned about competition and status and their play is rougher….

Harris also points out that status within a male pecking order is more stable and less variant than in a female pecking orders in teenage cliques.

My conjecture is that perhaps as humans shifted from a modal hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle, and population size increased along with residential sedentarism and the growth of pan-village institutions, male social organizations began to outflank female social organizations. In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language behavorial ethologist Robin Dunbar hypothesized that our social cognitive faculties can intuitively hande up to 200 individuals. Dunbar offered that this was likely the maximum size of social units prior to the agricultural revolution. For whatever reason males tend to be less subtle in their social manipulations and aptitudes than females (e.g., less able to recognize nuance in facial expression), and I suspect that whatever size advantage males had could be compensated by female fluency with the details of these social networks. But as clans became part of massive tribes, nations and confederacies these intuitive social skills were at a disadvantage, and more “male” strategies of formalized rules and heuristics came into play.

As mass societies arose 10,000 years ago, finally bearing fruit in Sumer, the precursor to civilization as such, a scaffolding of institutional religions, rules and regulations arose, and I believe that all these benefited male peer groups. Even though heuristics and codes of conduct of males are clumsier and less flexibile than the intuitive social intelligence which was more a suit of female social groups, the latter by their nature could not scale beyond the clan or village, and so heuristics and codes of conduct became the framework for mass society and these are waters that males are more equipped to navigate.

But this also sheds light on the trend away from patriarchy in modern Western societies: I believe that the relative weakening of institutions, religious, ritualistic and legal, and the development of technologies which extend human social intelligence, have enabled the reemergence of female cultural styles to some level of parity with the male modality. This is also applies to the “hunter-gatherer way” in the generality, I believe that individualistic Western society is in many ways more natural than “traditional” cultures, whether it be Victorian, Islamic or Chinese. The reason that Western culture is alluring is precisely because it appeals to the human in us, our need for freedom, choice and self-actualization. Scaffolding of institutional expectations which arose during the era of pre-modern mass society constrain humans into particular behavorial tracks which are not favored by our own biases. If liberal democracy and individualist republicanism are to triumph at the “End of History” I believe it is because these forms of socio-political organization resemble the intimacy, freedom and participatory nature of hunter-gatherer society.


  1. #1 John Emerson
    September 9, 2006

    “I believe that individualistic Western society is in many ways more natural than “traditional” cultures”.

    Tread with care.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, it’s an interesting idea.

  2. #2 razib
    September 9, 2006

    it’s an interesting idea.

    i’ve been promoting this implicitly since march of 2004.

    say more from your angle though….

  3. #3 Corkscrew
    September 9, 2006

    Interesting hypothesis. However, I’m somewhat surprised to hear that there’s less hyper-patriarchality in tribal societies. Is this based on data, or merely an educated guess?

    I always figured it was just a matter of men being more warlike (for which there are, of course, good evolutionary reasons), leading to them ruling the roost in tightly-knit tribes. After all, what are the nonwarriors going to do about it? That tends to feed back even among the non-warriors due to the differences in social behaviour that you mentioned.

    It’s only recently (last few hundred years) that military force has ceased to be the approach of first resort (Bush aside). This theoretically allows for parity between men and women, but the vicious circle created by the domination of male social behaviours continues until something happens to break it. That trigger was the WWII co-opting of women to work in industry. It gave women the chance they needed to break the male stereotype.

    Once the possibility of breaking the stereotype was generally acknowledged, the effects quickly spread through most of the societies where parity was possible. The exceptions were societies where widespread militarisation was either still in place (i.e. many Arab countries) or only recently discarded (i.e. Japan, with its Samurai class).

    So, in this model, the causative force of male domination is the “might makes right” effect of a biologically-driven male military stereotype, plus some inertia once the domination is established. The main difference with your model is the question of whether small tribes are comparatively male-dominated – is there an anthropologist in the house?

  4. #4 Corkscrew
    September 9, 2006

    Sorry, my brain’s in standby – of course guys are more warlike, that’s the point of your entire essay. Please mentally strip out all the parts of my post that state the bleedin’ obvious.

  5. #5 razib
    September 9, 2006

    However, I’m somewhat surprised to hear that there’s less hyper-patriarchality in tribal societies.

    yes, i believe so, that’s my reading of the ethnological literature. it is perhaps more precise to say “small scale” and “pre-ideological.” after all, the house of saud and arabian culture is highly tribal and segemented, but it is perhaps the modern apotheosis of patriarchy. this is not to say that life among hunter-gatherers is one of gender equality or egalitarianism, i do believe that there might be power imbalances, tensions, and inevitable separation of tasks, my contention is that the magnitude of these differences is far less in small scale societies, and that an male autocrat has far less power of life or death in these societies. the extreme seculsion, control and exclusion of human social intercourse of “elite” women in cultivated societies like periclean athens, islamic arabia or mandarin china is a manifestation of what i’m talking about. it is always more “barbarian” people, or their primitive ancestors, who gave women more freedom of choice and action. the republican romans for example were less sophisticated than the greeks, but their women, in imitation of the barbarian etruscans, ate and socialized with their menfolk. similarly arabian women prior to islam had more power and choice, some being renowned poets, or business women like khadija the wife of the prophet. in ancient sumeria and egypt you see that women have property rights (in egyptian there was an aspect of matrilineaty), but this becomes less prominent as civilization grows and matures.

    my point is not that men have an innate need to rule, simply that the winner-take-all dynamics of mass society and its emphasis on impersonal rules and regulations benefited a particular type of male psychology. there was no hunter-gatherer genghis. the point i’m making is not deterministic, there were irenes’, hatshepsuts and elizabeths, but they were the exceptions not the rules.

  6. #6 Corkscrew
    September 9, 2006

    Good stuff, sounds like you’re onto something. Any thoughts on Sparta? ISTR it had pretty strong womens’ rights despite being very male-hierarchy dominated. Possibly a throwback of some kind? Or just an anomaly?

  7. #7 razib
    September 9, 2006

    re: sparta,

    1) please note that i’m making an assertion of expectation based on an overall trendline. there’s a lot of variance. but if you want to me to be precise i think one could do a regression which would predict pretty well the level of patriarchy as a fuction of society-size.

    2) re: sparta, it was male dominated, but not necessarily by the standards of societies of its size & time & place. in other words, there has never been a matriarchy, by the time a society gets complex and large enough than “archy” is possible men rule. examples like the iroquois confederacy are not real examples because women, especially older women, had a powerful voice and veto, but that did no mean that they ruled men in the manner than men rule women in exclusive patriarchies. many societies are matrilineal, where power passes from uncle to maternal nephew, but none of them matriarchal where women control power to the exclusion of men by virtue of being women.

    3) to some extent sparta can be made to fit into the model i’m proposing insofar as it was a “simple” society without luxuries and sophistication. in contrast periclean athens was a society of grand “civilized” attainment. but i think the fit is weak insofar as sparta was a socially engineered society, not a natural one, i think it is rather an exception of outlier, not part of any trend.

  8. #8 Corkscrew
    September 9, 2006

    OK, far as I can tell from my position of sod-all expertise, your thesis is very strong on the historical stuff. Not 100% sure about the reason for it breaking up, though – after all, Athens was also very individualistic and socially varied.

    It occurs to me that there’s a cost associated with domination of one gender – from a modern perspective, it’s a waste of valuable resources. However, until recently, women spent much of their life dealing with offspring, necessitated by the high infant mortality rate, which would have wiped out most of the opportunity cost. Could the critical factor have been the medical advances that removed this problem?

  9. #9 Agnostic
    September 9, 2006

    You’re mostly talking about personality differences b/w men & women. These are the most pronounced in Individualist cultures, and are much less so in Collectivist cultures. Cite:
    That’s in the GNXP forum under “costa sex diff” or something like that. The relative lack of sex differences in personality among Collectivist people happens whether they’re not very advanced (s-S Africa) or very advanced (Japan), so I don’t think it’s just “large-scale civilization” that makes the sexes so different.

    It’s probably something like “degree of division of labor,” forcing individuals to specialize more than where roles are less variable. I don’t mean this on a facultative level, like if Swedish men stayed home to raise kids while mom worked, that would eliminate or reverse sex differences — obviously if this holds for long enough, it selects for more hetereogeneity of personality traits as previously out-of-luck types can now find their little niche.

    If this increasing specialization has to operate on existing variation, it follows that this will amplify initial differences, however slight or otherwise, and women & men will be driven farther apart, though perhaps up to a limit.

    So, while I have no educated observations on real-world trends (as I don’t socialize much), I’d guess that our modern society, which has become even more specialized than before, will maintain or amplify sex differences. It’s so specialized that, for example, hardcore computer geeks can earn a living and never have to interact w/ anyone, certainly not w/ girls who might force them to “grow up” and not act so male-typical.

    As degree of socialization / altruism / cooperation / etc. is already a big sex diff (measured by Eysenck’s Psychoticism or a combination of the Big Five’s Conscientiousness & Agreeableness), and ditto for sociability (though to a lesser extant than the above), our society is allowing more guys to become unsocialized, uncooperative loners.

    These guys already stand little chance of getting a girl, and the increased facility in shifting one’s location allows girls not to settle / lower standards if they don’t want to, so the competition is even stiffer. So, they give up on the girl hunt, the only potential constraint on their overly male behavior. Porn is an acceptable substitute for them, so even less reason to change! I dunno, we’ll have to see how long this goes on, but if forced to bet, I’d say we’ll see even greater sex differentiation, which may not be the same as less “patriarchality” (as these guys aren’t exactly the alpha-male type — more like delta-males, to paraphrase Kathy Griffin’s name for herself as a D-List star).

  10. #10 Agnostic
    September 9, 2006

    I should add that I feel qualified to describe the behavior of said males, as I’m posting this longwinded crap on Saturday fucking night. xD

  11. #11 Agnostic
    September 9, 2006

    Sorry, should read that greater sex differentiation won’t necessarily mean *greater* patriarchality. I.e., women could force romantically successful men to behave more like women, at the same time as the sexes drift farther apart. Indeed, that’s what’s went on w/ the whole stay-at-home-Dad movement in Sweden.

  12. #12 John Emerson
    September 10, 2006

    Razib, all I meant is that the phrase “more natural” is a pretty loaded, booby-trapped way of making your point. I think that you do have a very interesting point.

    There is a convergence going on of ev psych, econ, the world system, and the American way of life, but these kinds of convergences can be messy.

  13. #13 Gerda Hartman
    September 15, 2006

    I was actually attending Van Vugts’lecture last friday. This is the speakers website url:

    The focus of his talk was about sexdifferences in in/outgroup behavior.

  14. #14 David Merrington
    September 4, 2007

    Cf Jon Emmerson’s comment (9 September 2006). I have for some time been thinking that the standard ‘Individualism’, as in ‘Western vs Traditional cultures/individualism vs collectivism’, could just as well be spelt out for what it is — i.e., ‘Competitive individualism’. Perhaps this would give it the incisive edge that would strenghen its meaning and position in comparative discussions, and shake off the assumption of effeteness that is often loaded into such comparisons. Surely ‘Individualism’, in any social context, would always imply competition — rather more visceral and closer to ‘natural’ (as suggested by John Emmerson).