Thus Spake Zuska

Cooking: A Primitive Protection Racket

Bloggingheads.tv has John Horgan interviewing Richard Wrangham of Harvard on a variety of topics related to his new book Catching Fire. The part of interest to me – and to our ongoing discussion on patriarchyrelates to cooking as a “primitive protection racket” in which men agree to protect women’s food supply in return for being fed so they can just hang out and do manly shit. It’s a fascinating discussion, if you can get past Horgan giggling in sheepish delight every time Wrangham points out what a shitty deal patriarchy is for women.

Interestingly, this section of the interview is advertised as “ancient connections between food and sex” but it would more properly be described as “ancient connections between food and the sexual division of labor”. I guess “sex” is more sexy and sells better than “sexual division of labor”. Because Wrangham clearly points out that the sexual division of labor that involves women cooking and feeding men is NOT related to who’s having sex with whom.

He also clearly makes the point that this sexual division of labor is not a result of our biology, but a consequence of a choice of a particular set of social relations – one of which, in modern industrial societies, we have chosen in many ways to undo. Single men are able to feed themselves, if only by ordering pizza, and married men often do the cooking these days.

Incidentally, the mini-review of Wrangham’s book on Amazon illustrates why the term “mankind” is not an appropriate substitute for “humankind”:

By making food more digestible and easier to extract energy from, Wrangham reasons, cooking enabled hominids’ jaws, teeth and guts to shrink, freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains. It also gave rise to pair bonding and table manners, and liberated mankind from the drudgery of chewing (while chaining womankind to the stove).

The second sentence is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It sounds sort of nice on first glance with that oppositional mankind and womankind. Until you realize that those who were liberated from the drudgery of chewing were, well, everyone, women as well as men. The sentence sounds like it’s working to say men got liberated from x while women got chained to y by the move to cooking, but that’s not what happened. Humans got liberated from x, while simultaneously, a subset of humans, women, got chained to y. Using the term humankind would make it clearer that women simultaneously benefited from and were harmed by the move to cooked food. Using mankind as a substitute for humankind attempts to work both meanings into this sentence. First, the fuller and true meaning, that humans benefited from something that also harmed a subset of humans. Second, the less true oppositional meaning that men (only) gained and women were harmed. That second oppositional meaning also serves to reinforce the notion that mankind really means men and that women are a special (lesser) case of mankind – a subtextual meaning that the use of the word humankind in this instance would not convey.

Comments

  1. #1 Pen
    June 24, 2009

    It must be terribly hard to collect evidence of the fact that prehistoric women did the cooking, rather than the men or everyone at once. I’m quite impressed. Note that this is not like agriculture where (I have read) female skeletons show signs of wear that suggest they spent a lot of time grinding grain, and male skeletons less so.

    Do prehistoric female skeletons have more burn marks on their skeletons or something?

  2. #2 abb3w
    June 24, 2009

    From the little anthropology I know, I suspect the real difference in such roles and associated protection racket that developed results from contrasts of the hunter-versus-gatherer approach.

    I also suspect detailing my reasoning would be unlikely to win me friends here.

  3. #3 Kate
    June 24, 2009

    Nice point, Zuska. Wrangham’s work is often sensationalized and made to appear even more reductionist than it actually is, and I like how you used language to parse the meaning out a little better.

  4. #4 Kate
    June 24, 2009

    And abb3w, pregnancy and lactation probably explain more than hunting and gathering.

  5. #5 daedalus2u
    June 25, 2009

    I think I remember reading about the remains of Inuit women, who had a substantial load of soot in their lungs which was attributed to cooking. Extremely careful archeological excavation of ancient remains might be able to show lung carbon differences because black carbon is resistant to microbial degradation. 14C should be able to demonstrate the approximate age of that carbon. Remains found in caves are probably too contaminated with soot from fires used for light to be useful.

  6. #6 abb3w
    June 25, 2009

    Kate: And abb3w, pregnancy and lactation probably explain more than hunting and gathering.

    I’m less convinced on lactation, but pregnancy (or men’s lack of it) is the root of it all, absolutely. However, I was thinking specifically of pregnancy’s impact on the logistics of hunting versus gathering. What the heck; I never was good at winning friends anyway.

    Gathering of food plants makes up the baseload on early diet, and is low-risk (if you can learn to tell tell raspberries from poison ivy), but may be nutrient deficient. Hunting provides higher caliber supplemental calories, at higher risk to those doing the hunting; much higher risk if the game animals are large.

    Specializing in one or the other allows developing greater expertise. Presuming men and women are equally competent innate hunters, they are equally likely to get killed off hunting; however, the loss of a woman (between menarche and menopause) has an inexorable impact on birth rate; while one man and two women can produce children as fast (within a few percent) as two men and two women, two men and one woman are (few percent) half as fast. Ergo, cultural survival advantage goes to tribes where men specialize in hunting, and women in gathering.

    The protection racket is proceeded by light prostitution; the women favor the better hunters over the lesser. They also have an advantage in obtaining an effectively permanent arrangement with a man consistently better at providing larger survival margins if the woman can negotiate it (dawn of marriage) even if that arrangement isn’t exclusive (dawn of polygyny). but since there’s some element of luck as well as skill it was advantageous for the women to retain some flexibility about that (dawn of cheating), or to have multiple “permanent” relationships (polyandry).

    The “protection racket” crops up when some hunting bastard realizes that he can use his 1337 skilz from killing animals in other ways, such as getting long pig and associated incidentals from the next tribe (the dawn of resource wars), and a little intimidation of lesser hunters and skilled gatherers for a few more calories when he’s less lucky (the dawn of patriarchal monarchy and taxation) This may also be why polygyny was more common than polyandry.

    The arrival of urbanization/agriculture shifted the nature of hunting/gathering and associated social structures. Monogamy becomes a bit more useful, since having large concentrations of young males with zero prospect of getting laid is not good for social stability. A mix of polyandry and polygyny might also be viable, but having “sugar daddy” arrangements is more beneficial to a society’s growth than “sugar momma” arrangements, and bigger society means bigger battalions and thus the favor of the gods. Those societies which banned polyandry seemed to have historically gotten advantage relative to their neighbors, possibly as side effect of removing the prospect of a comfortable (but genetically risky) sugar boy position and motivating him to work harder at getting laid. Male infanticide might also increase stability, but there’s more benefit to society to send them off to try expanding territory by killing the men in the next city over. (Dawn of war of “we can, so there”.) Slavery develops as by-product of such war, since a live (but perhaps castrated) male worker may be more useful than a corpse once eating the body is too likely to vector too many nasty diseases. Concubinage and subjugation of women follows similarly, since it’s of significant advantage for the overall society to reward the successful soldier, even when the change in attitudes is marginally detrimental to the sub-society of local females.

    The modern industrial age shifted hunting/gathering, the balance of forces, and associated social structures further; time doubtless will shift it further yet.

    Of course, this is all just a nice narrative, without strong analysis of actual data.

  7. #7 Zuska
    June 26, 2009

    Ah, a Just-So story. Amazing how they always seem to reinforce our current beliefs and prejudices obtained from our existing patriarchal social arrangements.

  8. #8 abb3w
    June 26, 2009

    Zuska: Amazing how they always seem to reinforce our current beliefs and prejudices obtained from our existing patriarchal social arrangements.

    I do not think I would agree with what you appear to mean by “reinforce” in this context. The narrative description doesn’t say this is “good”, and especially doesn’t say things should stay this way, just this may have contributed to what happened. In fact, I specifically noted time doubtless will shift it further yet. I expect the approach of the resource horizon and the downsides to exponential population growth, for example, will fundamentally undermine the advantage to constantly increasing numbers. Similarly, the differences in risks for obtaining one’s subsistence using the modern replacements for hunting and gathering may favor radically altering the balance of gender roles… or at least, “radically” in a historical time frame; a few decades, perhaps.

    There may be better explanations for how existing social arrangements became patriarchal to the extent that they are; especially considering the above sketch was done without numerical data. If you are aware of such data significantly contradicting this sketch, pointing them out might be helpful.

    On the other hand, science is also essentially a “just so story”; or rather, science in the sense of the body of knowledge referred to by that term. The anthropological practice and philosophical discipline (both also commonly referred to as “science”) consists of coming up with candidate “stories” (that describe what is and not what isn’t), and deciding which one is most probably correct.

    As philosophical discipline, Engineering consists of selecting goals, coming up with choices that might result in those goals, and evaluating which choices make the goal most likely to be achieved, using the best available “just so” story from science(knowledge) until science(discipline/practice) comes up with a more likely “just so” story. In anthropological practice, engineering also often crosses over to doing science(discipline/practice) for a while in search of a more accurate “just so” story, since that choice may help identify other choices which will improve the chances of achieving the goal. It also will sometimes simplify “just so stories” to an approximation that is more mathematically tractable, but still relies on the underlying “just so story” thereby.

    My point behind all this? If you are trying to do social engineering and chose to outright reject a “just so story” for any reason other than having an alternative that is more probable, then what limited history I am aware from other fields of engineering leads me to infer that this social engineering effort will be more likely to fail.

    That does not leave me happy.

  9. #9 Zuska
    June 26, 2009

    I am not entirely sure that you are working with the most commonly understood definition of “just so” story.

  10. #10 abb3w
    June 27, 2009

    Zuska: I am not entirely sure that you are working with the most commonly understood definition of “just so” story.

    Quoth Wikipedia, Essentially, the key difference between a “just so story” and a scientific hypothesis is that the latter can be proven wrong, while the former cannot. Or from the rude, “It’s not science, shut up.”

    More exactly, however, I would say “proven wrong” is an oversimplification of “proven to be not most probably correct”; and more loosely, is overnarrowing from “tested”. In Popper’s terminology, it’s a difference between reliance on Falsification alone, and the combination of Falsification and Simplicity. While (largely due to Popper) current anthropological practitioners of Science emphasize Falsification for demarcation, both Science as anthropological practice and Science as philosophical discipline include both tools in testing.

    And in this sense, there’s a bit more fuzziness in demarcation.

    Structural mechanics can both describe “the bridge fell” and “the bridge did not fall”; and if there’s no longer any way to find out whether the steel used 0.5% or 1% carbon content, it may not be falsifiable for the particular evidence. However, since it can say “the design would have fallen at 0.5%, and not fallen at 1%; we posit that 0.5% was used, which is consistent with the observed falling of the bridge”, it’s Simpler than saying “the design would have fallen if undermined by a passing troupe of fairies, and not fallen if not undermined by a passing troupe of fairies; we posit that a troupe of fairies passed, which is consistent with the observed falling of the bridge”, due to (roughly speaking) the more baroque addition.

    There are also cases where it may not be economically or otherwise practical to obtain further data to support or refute by experiment. Producing large numbers of feral children and a few locations for long-term social isolation and covert monitoring thereof would allow testing for the above social evolution, but would be not only be ludicrously expensive, but ethically monstrous. In such cases, the “just so story” nature even a scientific hypothesis partakes will increase. This is especially the case for dealing with historical evidence and hypotheses in sociology, but modern particle physics such as “string theory” is getting painted into a similar corner (although more finance than ethics). It’s not a clear demarcation, but a continuum — at least from my vantage as an amateur with an interest in the history/philosophy of science/engineering who routinely talks with professionals in that field, but as yet remains on the sidelines.

    However, when data set size effectively cannot be increased experimentally (or even once it has been), “less Simple” (formally defined) remains “not the most probably correct”, and thus makes even “Just So Stories” testable.

    Do you want to get into the math underlying this?

  11. #11 abb3w
    June 28, 2009

    zayıflama: I am aware from other fields of engineering leads me to infer that this social engineering effort will be more likely to fail.

    More likely than not? Yes. Sociological Engineering isn’t a very well-developed field yet, despite the assortment of “professionals” out there. I suspect the root is that far too few such are willing to adjust their measure of the competing hypotheses no matter the new evidence produced from the experimental engineering attempts. However, by “more likely to fail”, I was referring to comparing efforts made rejecting validity of a described mechanism without having a more probable alternative, versus accepting validity of a described mechanism (until said more probable alternative is produced).

    Also note that by “described mechanism” I refer not to the current conditions themselves (which would indeed be an attempt to “reinforce our current beliefs and prejudices obtained from our existing patriarchal social arrangements”), but to the forces which led to the current conditions’ existence.

  12. #12 Zuska
    June 28, 2009

    I think zayiflama is a spammer. I’ll be deleting that comment.

  13. #13 Helen Huntingdon
    June 28, 2009

    Erm, abb3w lost me at the notion that women came up with marriage. That strikes me as highly unlikely.

    And the fantasy that men would do *all* the hunting is just that, a fantasy. When hunting is a critical part of the food supply, women hunt. Always have. Waiting around for some dude to provide is a safe bet you’re going to have to do without.

    I can think of documented cases I’ve read of where women for periods of their lives did not hunt meat they needed but left it up to a husband, but there was never any doubt the women in question would hunt for themselves if the husband didn’t come home.

  14. #14 abb3w
    June 29, 2009

    Helen Huntington: Erm, abb3w lost me at the notion that women came up with marriage.

    Marriage is a sufficiently complicated social technology that saying “came up with” seems inaccurate. I was suggesting that they would benefit from the “effectively permanent” aspect of “brings the hunt here first”. On the other hand, the good-but-not-spectacular hunter would benefit from the consistent calorie baseload provided by a skilled gatherer; and most ecologies wouldn’t sustain having hunters spectacular enough to maintain an all-carnivore diet, so there would generally be a lot more of those around. I suppose the question is why an “effectively permanent” partnership would be a product of the specialization; perhaps that’s more a dispute resolution mechanism?

    Helen Huntington: And the fantasy that men would do *all* the hunting is just that, a fantasy.

    Agreed; similarly, women doing all the gathering. “Specialization” is not the same as “exclusive”. However, while lion is reportedly very tasty, I don’t know of cultures where young women were encouraged to kill one.

    Helen Huntington: Waiting around for some dude to provide is a safe bet you’re going to have to do without.

    I noted both that the bulk of the calories in a hunter-gatherer culture are usually from gathering, so the incompetent/lazy hunter would seem more likely to be the one left seriously having to do without.

    Helen Huntington: I can think of documented cases I’ve read of where women for periods of their lives did not hunt meat they needed but left it up to a husband, but there was never any doubt the women in question would hunt for themselves if the husband didn’t come home.

    Again, specialization and exclusivity are different things, and this starts in the pre-agriculture era/societies prior to the impact of later technologies.

  15. #15 Lab Cat
    June 29, 2009

    I am currently reading “Cooking with Fire” and was going to email you about Wrangham’s continual use of “Man-the-Hunter” hypothesis as I thought this was out of date. And very irritating.

    The book is disappointing. I think the hypothesis could be a good one, but Wrangham does not appear to understand evolution or chemistry very well. For example, his section on what cooking does to food, in particular when he writes about the Maillard reaction, totally sucks, but then I probably the only person to notice.

  16. #16 abb3w
    June 29, 2009

    abb3w: And in this sense, there’s a bit more fuzziness in demarcation.

    Picking up my Popper this evening, it opened by chance to a page suggesting this is not a new idea: My thesis is that what we call ‘science’ is differentiated from the older myths not by being something distinct from a myth, but by being accompanied by a second-order tradition — that of critically discussing the myth. Before, there was only the first-order tradition. A definite story was handed on. Now there was still, of course, a story to be handed on, but with it went something like a silent accompanying text of a second-order character: “I hand it on to you, but tell me what you think of it. Think it over. Perhaps you can give us a different story.” Presumably, therefore, these days this vantage is about as uncontroversial an anthropological observation as the rest of his work.

    (Google turned up here a blog post on both the quote and feminism, which I note only because it seemed both easily found and epic in stupidity. Please don’t mistake me for holding THAT position.)

  17. #17 ambivalent academic
    June 30, 2009

    Wow, that abb3w d00d is so not getting it.

    Zuska – thanks so much for hosting this series…I’ve been away from the intertubes for a while and am still playing catch up on previous posts, so I hope to have more to contribute in the future.

    In light of the “Just-So Stories”, have you read Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “The Woman Who Never Evolved”? It’s a really well done smack-down of patriarchy-reinforcing evo-psych bullshit that gets spewed by, well, just about everybody, as written by a well-known and very accomplished primatologist. (Geez, people are going to start thinking that I’m spamming ScienceBlogs with this book review, but every time I hear this kind of “men evolved to be assholes, and it’s in women’s best evolutionary interest to remain barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen” crap I just want to pull out this book and beat people over the fracking head with it.)

  18. #18 Zuska
    July 1, 2009

    Heh heh…some things definitely do bear repeating…sadly.

  19. #19 abb3w
    July 3, 2009

    The idea of evolution gave rise to the idea of Social Darwinism; much of the patriarchy-reinforcing evo-psych likely falls into the same category of sloppy reasoning. However, this does not mean that all evo-psych reasoning is inherently sloppy, even if such reasoning that suggests patriarchy is reasonably the probable state for primitive human societies.

    BTW, the title is “The Woman That Never Evolved”. The local library has a copy; thank you for the recommendation.

  20. #20 abb3w
    July 6, 2009

    ambivalent academic: In light of the “Just-So Stories”, have you read Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “The Woman Who Never Evolved”?

    Hrdy’s book looks like she will probably help provide me some useful insight to the nature and extent of my oversimplification (starting by page 6). However, given the trivially dismissive reception my remarks received, I would also recommend others here (re)reading it. Quoting from the (1999 edition) preface: “For those men and women who might wish to change the rules of this engagement, passionate responses without hardheaded analysis may be cathartic, but they are a luxury we can scarcely afford.”

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