Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hardwiring 101 for Women

Evolutionary psychology has been trendy for nearly two decades, finding increasing numbers of human pursuits for which we are supposedly hardwired. Yet it is no coincidence that the field gained in both popularity and influence during a time of retro-conservatism and backlash against feminism.

Increasingly, evolutionary psychologists "find" that our essential nature conforms quite rigidly to a deeply conservative agenda. The religious right should embrace evolutionary psychology as its best and most helpful friend.

Scientists and psychologists in other areas have long questioned the aims and findings of evolutionary psychologists and researchers in related fields. Applying the laws of evolutionary biology to the human psyche has its detractors. Evolutionary psychology is by no means an uncontentious player in the field.

Even so, articles appear again and again, authoritatively telling us ("us" often meaning women) of the newest findings about motherhood and women's roles in society. One such recent article is "Femina Sapiens in the Nursery" by Kay Hymowitz in City Journal (Autumn 2009).

Hymowitz's article is more balanced than many I have seen and brings in reference to neuroscience, primatology, and genetics, but for all its discussion of the complex frontal cortex of women and their rightful place running the state department, Hymowitz leaves the overall impression that women are driven by hormones which are tanatmount to a "maternal instinct." And although she claims that she believes the answer to the question of female identity is a mystery, the article itself leaves far less room for it.

The article's subtitle - "The conflict between parenting and career is hardwired in the female brain" -  doesn't really relay the thrust of Hymowitz's argument. She acknowledges that women have a role to play in society, other than the mothering role, because of the overall development of the frontal cortex in humans generally. Women, like men, have developed the abilities necessary for careers. But a conflict will result because women have an even more primordial hardwiring to be mothers.

Feminists have long questioned the findings of evolutionary psychologists, especially as one of the main areas of investigation has to do with sexuality, mating, and offspring. Hymowitz believes that many findings of evolutionary psychologists will force feminists to admit defeat:.
Especially galling to feminists has been the field of evolutionary psychology, which proposes that evolution has fundamentally shaped human sexual and reproductive behavior—behavior that often seems to conform to the worst stereotypes.

I think that Hymowitz understands neither feminists nor the limits of the data she promotes.

Hymowitz offers two recent stories in the news about mothers who found it difficult to either stop breastfeeding or return to work, leaving a young child. Her first example:
Consider a recent article by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic. Rosin finds that nursing her infant is holding her back from the work she enjoys, despite her plan for a fully egalitarian marriage... She combs through research on the health benefits of breast-feeding for babies and makes a convincing case that they aren’t as strong as experts have insisted. So does she quit nursing? She does not—even though, she admits, “I’m not really sure why.”
Why does Rosin continue? According to Hymowitz, it is because she has mammary glands. Isn't this begging the question? She has mammary glands which allow her to feed her infant, so she continues to use them because she has them!

The other story is by Katie Roiphe who describes an “'addiction to her newborn baby that left her indifferent to work."

Hymowitz ignores much in both stories. First, both Rosin and Roiphe are writers/journalists, and the first rule for a good story is to have conflict. I'm not saying that the stories aren't true, just that they are stories to be published and to compel readers - perhaps not the best examples.

Second, Hymowitz and others who make these arguments ignore the numbers of women who do not feel this conflict, or do not want or have children at all. She also ignores the data regarding women who neglect and/or abuse their children. She assumes the model of the nuclear family also, ignoring other arrangements in which mothers hand off the care of their infants to wet nurses and nannies. She also does not factor in the common social pressure to breastfeed or stay home with young children that many mothers feel, nor does she discuss the fact that many women would be reluctant to be full-time mothers, workers, and homemakers.

Finally, she ignores another compelling argument. While it is true that feminists "consider sexual identity a “social construct,” a human—or, to be more precise, a male—invention," it is not true that they deny that the females of the species carry and give birth to the offspring or have the equipment with which to feed them. Feminists, scientists, philosophers, psychologists, post-modernists, to name a few, do, however, question how much these facts influence identity, sexual or otherwise. So it is not to say that oxytocin has no influence on women, nor is it to deny that oxytocin may be the hormonal name for the "maternal instinct," rather it is to say that this hormone may not shape female behaviour to the extent that some would believe or wish.

The impetus to define women predominantly as mothers has been around for millenia; such a definition serves the patriarchal status quo. It is always interesting to trace the ways in which the claim is argued and supported, changing over centuries as human understanding of what it is to be human changes and as science and technology give us new tools with which to frame the hypothesis.

Women will be mothers; women will love and be connected to their children; women will find it difficult to leave their children and return to work. No argument from me and no judgement about women's choices. Women will also choose not to have children, will choose careers, will have children and regret it, or refuse to breastfeed.

Hymowitz asks "In the struggle for equality between the sexes, it keeps coming down to motherhood, doesn’t it?"  My answer to that is a definite, "No, it doesn't!" My regret is over how many people wish it were so.

Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book is Marriage and Caste in America.

I would like to invite Kay Hymowitz to my soiree.


figleaf said...

And not to put too fine a point on it, once I laid eyes on my infant son (and, later, daughter) I didn't want to go back to work either.

Maybe it runs in the family because when I mentioned it to my father he said he'd felt the same way with each of his children.

The difference, he said, is that whatever he felt he did what he was told and believed he was supposed to do: go back to work, be a breadwinner, and leave the child rearing to my mom.

He also told me, one day, when he was visiting and we were at a playground, that looking around at some of the other dads with their children he felt terribly sad that he hadn't had more time... and that we couldn't know how lucky we were in our generation to get to be a part of the family and not just the supply boat.

So here's the deal on gender and evolutionary psychology: I don't know, maybe they can prove that the incredible bonding I felt, and the bonding my father says he deeply missed, is a different bonding pathway than women have. Maybe so, though I'm more inclined to think any actual, innate difference might just be one of degree.

And who am I to imagine how Hannah Rosin or anyone else feels about their infants? All I can say, though, is that the connection and desire to be there that I felt for my children went right through me, to the point where early on I'd hear his breath in the trees and his sighs when I was sharpening a knife and then all I wanted to do was make a cradle for him in the crook of my arm and hold him.

If evolutionary psychology says no, that can't be innate because of my Y chromosome then, well, fine, so much the harder for them. Because the other explanation for such a powerful, overwhelming bond would be... social or experiential conditioning. Which they'd then have to factor out in their further estimations of selected gender differences.

Cool post, Chris.


ChrisJ said...

Excellent comment and a huge piece of the puzzle that I left out.

I am very touched by your sharing your feelings about your son.

Thank you for commenting.

Anonymous said...

"The impetus to define women predominantly as mothers has been around for millenia; such a definition serves the patriarchal status quo."

Reading this eloquent statement, I thought to myself how boiling down women to their need to support reproduction really discounts the value of what it is to be a person.

I feel a pang of irritation every time some random person remarks that one day I'll meet the right guy and settle into a raising a family - not because I don't want those things, but because the statement insinuates that something is deficient in my life should I remain single.

My favorite response as to why I haven't settled down to have children - I'm too young to have kids!

As always, great post!

ChrisJ said...

Samantha, Maybe you should get your oxytocin checked! ;)

corfubob said...

The impetus to define women predominantly as mothers has been around for millenia; such a definition serves the patriarchal status quo." Do you accept the ambiguity of the word 'define' here? Do you accept that the word 'predominantly' implies other definitions exist but without indicating what kind of proportion (maybe 5%?, 63.072%?) I know you accept that the 'patriarchal status quo has been a greatly movable feast over these millenia, but can you deny that this statement with all its ambiguities also serves the truth? How would I know - ancient hairy git that I am. As a lover of language and truth I despise the use of the word 'define'in conjunction with concepts such as 'woman' 'love', 'life' etc. I also claim that women, even weight-lifters and chess-players, have been, and still are victims of the grossest injustice in this world. As it 'appens, this hairy old git is certainly a very poor example of the typical male stereotype, butI don't ask you to please try to define your terms if your are attempting to argue a point, without trepidation!! I still love you.

ChrisJ said...

You are quite right to point out the imprecision of my language.

I meant "define" in the stipulative or restrictive sense (prescriptive), rather than in the lexical or descriptive sense. Perhaps something like "narrowly defined as only mothers" might have worked better. I can see why you dislike the term "define." It can cut both ways, for good or ill.

You are also right about "predominantly." I mean probably approaching 90% or better - but am reserving something for the exceptions. And if I'm going to be even more precise, I should also say that the milennia in question are post-Socratic (those Olympian females had resources that gave them a bit of an edge! :) ).

Finally, I'm not sure what you mean about patriarchy being a movable feast as a statement serving the truth. I believe that it is true that it has been a moveable feast, but not that it is a necessary truth.

Thank you for engaging with this.

Pearl said...

once we get to systemic level, the container becomes a strainer.

much is constructed. to embrace the constructed doesn't make it inherent. to kneejerk against doesn't prove it unnaturally imposed.

some people are nurturing. it is independent of gender and the variables are too many.

to make it all come down to chemistry makes for something measurable and blood test-able but that doesn't mean even as much as a minority of factors are covered.

even female role as primarily mother is a rescripting or cherry-picking of history from this time and place. it leaves out the many women who did a man's work, or men who were lifetime bachelors, those who lived alone in a community or with a friend.

btw, I'm unclear on what it means to be invited to the soiree. is it excerpts of the person's writing or ruminations around a focus person?

ChrisJ said...

Thanks for the comments, Pearl.

It's becoming less clear about the invite to the soiree. Initially, all posts were about somebody's ideas,article, book, writing and on that basis, I found them interesting to invite to a soiree. The tagline for the blog was "about interesting people I would invite to a soiree." Lately, the blog is evolving to include many other things, so I may give up the invite, just as I have changed the tagline.

Dawn said...

This is provocative and I am not sure how I feel about it. I need to think. I used to be a self proclaimed feminist, now I am not always sure.

ChrisJ said...


Thank you for even taking the time to think about it. I'm guessing that becoming a mother changed some things for you.

I know there are feminists who hate basically everything about men, children, motherhood, etc, but I am not one of them.

In the sixties and seventies, feminism was actually pretty varied and open, and like every other human endeavour, it got too rigid.
Also, part of feminism's bad rap is a media creation which purposively ignores any diversity in feminism in order to paint all of it with the same bad brush.

My point in the post was not at all that motherhood is bad, but that saying we're hardwired for it is problematic as there are so many other considerations.

I don't know if you read the first comment from figleaf, but he's a man and feels the same way as mothers should according to the researchers - which raises a problem.

Anyway, I'm going on - thanks for reading and for commenting on the post.

angelshair said...

Great post!! I wish my english was one level up. Sadly, I think there will always be people that will try to find scientific justification to retrograde statements.
Your post reminded me of a book by Elisabeth Badinter " L'amour en plus" ( I don't know if it has been translated in english), about maternal instinct.

ChrisJ said...

Hi angelshair,

You are so right, scientific and any other justification that might work.

Thanks for commenting; I appreciate it.

ChrisJ said...


Sorry, I deleted your comment by mistake.

But to answer your question, I don't know whether the recent economic downturn has had any effect on the porn industry.

Anonymous said...

crazy idea i know but how do u think credit cruch affected porn?

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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