Patriarchy = evolutionary advantage?

Gah. This is the kind of “scholarship” that makes me want to spit. Phillip Longman has a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Policy called “The Return of Patriarchy” in which he appears to argue that only those societies operating along patriarchal lines can survive and flourish. “Jigga-who?” you may be asking, and indeed, it’s not what I’d call an intuitive argument – at least not unless you’re a sexist twit – but wait: you haven’t grasped the jist of it. See, the reason why patriarchy is necessary for the survival of the species is that it’s the only social model (according to Longman) that encourages high rates of reproduction. Because once the womens gets a taste of self-determination and agency, you can kiss the childbearing and rearing goodbye!

Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy.

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents’ investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.

Boy. Well, that sure is a downer for a Monday morning. So, once again we can see that the decline of civilization is women’s fault. We’re just not reproducing enough, or … not investing in our children enough? … or … something, and so we’ll soon be taken over by those societies who “get” that strength lies in numbers. Patriarchal, conservative numbers.

The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of their parents.

“No genetic legacy.” Um. I thought, like, enlightenment and progressive politics was more, you know, nurture than nature, no? I mean, there’s no guarantee that my progeny will be liberal just because I am. Ima have to work a little harder than that, right? And as far as the “emotional and psychological” influence goes, gee, I’d love to see a little actual evidence on that one, Phil. From where I’m sitting it seems like the progressive baby-boomers have had a pretty fucking HUGE emotional and psychological influence on the culture. And isn’t that, in fact, what has Longman worried? I mean, if they haven’t had the influence then how come I’m not safely ensconced, barefoot, in the kitchen? You can’t claim little influence from the generation on the one hand and then blame it for declining reproductive rates on the other.

But the piece really gets going when Longman starts describing how patriarchy functions (emphasis mine):

Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of “illegitimate” children. One measure of the degree to which patriarchy has diminished in advanced societies is the growing acceptance of out-of-wedlock births, which have now become the norm in Scandinavian countries, for example.

Under patriarchy, “bastards” and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers’ name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, “legitimate” children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers’ family, and not to their mothers’, which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children until they produce at least one son.

Well. Here we go! Now, first, we have the claim that fathers will only “take an interest” in a child that bears his own name. Mr. Longman, I believe you have your cause and effect reversed. It’s certainly the case that under patriarchy, the “ownership” of the child becomes extremely important. Mr. Longman, however, seems to think that the ownership issue is a given. He acknowledges that it has no basis in biology (gee, thanks!), but indicates that only the knowledge of legitimacy and ownership can give men the powerful emotional drive they apparently need to keep reproducing. (How the women feel about it is clearly of no consequence. I guess we don’t need an incentive to reproduce until we’ve been tainted by the subversive notions of feminism.) I’m sorry, but there’s no there there. It’s too easy to find examples of social organization where this isn’t the case. And if what we’re interested in here is sheer numbers, wouldn’t the advantage lie with the social organizing principle that led to care and attention being lavished on all children, regardless of parenthood?

But wait: there’s more to patriarchy than just stigmatizing “illegitimate” children! If you act now, we’ll include a side of female repression absolutely free!!!!

Another key to patriarchy’s evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives. […]

Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, “Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation.” Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options—be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children—has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.

Right. So he’s not “endorsing the strategy” (and he does a pretty careful job of not overtly endorsing most of the crap he’s spewing), and yet … the whole tone of the article makes it clear that Longman doesn’t really see any other ways of “reducing demographic decline.” Rhetorically, he’s very clever – note the introduction of a “feminist” quote! See, he’s totally taking all sides into account! But what we’re left with is the notion that a society which values women as anything other than reproductive vessels is doomed to extinction.

What bothers me most about “scholarship” like this is how dishonest it is about its precepts. Longman clearly wants to present himself as a thoughtful, rational, historically informed commentator on an important cultural trend. But dig into the structure of his arguments a little, and you’ll find that it’s predicated on the following notions:

1) Only under patriarchy will fathers take a vested interest in their offspring,

2) Only under patriarchy will mothers (be forced to) reproduce enough to ensure the survival of the species,

3) Only under patriarchy will those flighty women (be forced to) care enough about their offspring to invest the time and energy necessary to create quality future citizens, and

4) Socio-political perspectives are genetically transferred: conservatives always have conservative children and progressives always have progressives, or near enough to always as makes no difference.

Called out like this, the absurdities of the argument, I think, become clear. Patriarchy may be good at reproducing itself, but it’s not because of some “evolutionary advantage” – or, at least, Longman hasn’t made the case for that. And we haven’t even gotten into the moral questions Longman is begging. (I mean, even if he were right, what are the implications? Incentives for progressives to start humping like rabbits? Just say “fuck it” and enjoy your enlightened existence while you still can?) If the only way a culture or species can survive is through patriarchy, then, frankly, maybe survival ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Put that in your Freudian pipe and smoke it.

Comments are closed.