Re: Evolution of Sexism

Gerold Firl (
19 Aug 1996 21:40:58 GMT

In article <>, (Len Piotrowski) writes:

|> In article <4utck6$> (Gerold Firl) writes:

|> >The yanomamo offer a pretty good example; I'm taking much of this from
|> >harris, _cows, pigs, wars, and witches_, I think 1973.
|> >The yanomamo are both extremely violent and extremely patriarchal;
|> >women are treated very harshly there. Rape, beatings, and deadly
|> >violence against women are public and commonplace. Female infanticide
|> >is widespread; despite the heavy loss of life among men due to the
|> >constant warfare, the male-female sex ratio is something like 1.5.
|> >A game-theory analysis of social stability shows why universal pacifism
|> >cannot endure; violent societies rapidly colonize and exploit a
|> >peaceful mileau. Under conditions of resource scarcity, this can lead
|> >to increasing escalation; one of the ways a population can improve
|> >their competitive position in a violent environment is by female
|> >infanticide. By skewing their sex ratio in favor of males, they can put
|> >a larger fighting force in the field for a given food supply. This
|> >might make the difference between survival and extinction, but at the
|> >cost of disrupting sexual balance.

|> At great risk of stepping into the direct line of withering Firl Fire, I would
|> like to point out that the social goal of increasing the number of males in a
|> corporate group for the purposes of warfare on neighboring corporate groups
|> is _not_ facilitated as well by a patrilineal structural arrangement as that
|> provided by a matrilineal arrangement, suitably augmented by a corresponding
|> marriage-residence rule. Unmarried children belong to the corporate group in
|> both arrangements, but males obtained through marriage can be made immediately
|> available to the matrilineal group for such real-time crisis like warfare.
|> In the patrilineal situation, too much time would be spent in the investment
|> of raising males to fulfill a similar function, yet suited to a social crisis
|> that was largely more cyclical and dispersed through time, or more endemic,
|> institutionalized, and ritualized within the societies, much like the Yanamamo
|> "warfare" scenario.

It sounds like you are suggesting that a *matrilocal* system would be
optimal for societies involved in serious warfare, since that would allow
full-grown warriors to be rapidly imported as needed. One might go even
further, and suggest that a polyandrous matrilocality would be even
better, since then each female could pack a lunch for multiple warriors,
without any of the time and expense of raising and training them from
infancy. Of course, a key component of such a strategy would be to ensure
that the neighboring cultures, which presumably would include the enemies
against which all this military preparation is targeted, are willing to go
along with it; in such an environment, any custom which resulted in a net
outflux of fighting men would probably either be abandoned or else would
lead to cultural extinction.

I don't see how a matrilineal descent rule would make much of a
difference, in terms of military capacity. Certainly there is an obvious
reason why a matriarchy would be at a disadvantage against a patriarchy in
war; in a matriarchy, the leaders and decision makers would be less
capable warriors than their counterparts in a patriarchy. The descent rule
is another matter however, and seems largely irrelevant. Matrilinear
societies are often patriarchal.

|> >Paternity-reliability is a major issue, but largely internal to the
|> >society, as opposed to the external factor of war and conquest. The
|> >yanomamo probably reflect a social transient, as cultures adjust to
|> >rapidly changing conditions, particularly the destruction of the river
|> >indians by amazonian rubber-tappers in the last century or so.
|> >Paternity-reliability is an ongoing struggle between male and female
|> >which is always present, while extremes of violent patriarchy like the
|> >yanomamo are aberrant fluctuations occupying the chaotic transition
|> >from one state to another.

|> As was noted above, a patrilineal arrangement by it's nature is incapable of
|> reacting rapidly, by mobilizing corporate males, to handle a large crisis.

You mean patrilocal, right?

|> They would be at a relative disadvantage to respond to "rapidly changing
|> conditions" with respect to a matrilineal society. Under crisis conditions,
|> patrilineal corporate groups would indeed tend to suffer greater stress. I
|> wouldn't necessarily claim that this fact alone calls for a "transition"
|> model. Many societies may just disappear under the pressure, or move, or
|> incorporate into a dominating group, or "devolve" into several "simpler"
|> social-ecological relationships.

I described the yanomamo situation as a "transient" for two reasons:

1. Historically, it has existed for only a very short time, roughly a
century or a century and a half. The yanomamo have not had much time (on
the scale of cultural change) to adapt to their new circumstances. Their
numbers have expanded greatly, but their protein-harvesting technologies
are still based on their previous lifestyle as mobile foot-indians. They
have hunted-out the forest near their settlements, but have not yet
learned how to exploit the rivers. I would expect that to change as the
yanomamo adapt to their new riparian environment.

2. I believe that the extreme violence and brutality of yanomamo life is
sufficiently stressful to the participants that they will attempt to steer
their culture towards a more peaceful lifestyle. This is an interesting
example of how human agency can influence cultural evolution; whereas the
escalation of violence took place by degrees as population density eroded
protein supplies through a largely unconscious adaptation, where no
long-term planning on the part of the individuals consciously directed the
culture towards increased violence, the move towards a more peaceful
coexistance would result from conscious decisions about how society should
be. Cultural evolution is largely blind, but there is some room for human
intelligence to choose.

|> >The yanomamo were, until recently, "foot-indians" who lived in the
|> >remote interior by migratory hunting and gathering. They recently moved
|> >to the more productive river banks, subsisting largely on high-yielding
|> >crops of plantains. The subsequent population increase has resulted in
|> >the clearing of the forest game upon which the former yanomamo depended
|> >for protein, but has not yet led to the development of technologies for
|> >exploiting the nearby fish and other river animals. This transition
|> >looks like a miniature version of the transitions to agriculture, to
|> >industrial production, and to the information age, all of which have
|> >precipitated/been precipitated by population crisis and their
|> >concommitant violence.

|> Forest clearing by a corporate group requires the same mobilization of
|> "man-power" as warfare, which is not facilitated as well by patrilineal versus
|> matrilineal group structures. There is no reason, therefore, to assume that a
|> patrilineal structure is necessary to such a development, or for that matter
|> the development of agriculture, industrialization, information, or whatever.

True, it isn't necessary, and now I'm going to take your use of
"patrilineal" to imply "patriarchal", unless you can tell me how the
descent rule comes into play.

The reason I suggested that a patriarchal system would be advantageous
during transitions to new resource-gathering regimes was because of the
relation between population density, carrying capacity, and inter-group
conflict. When populations outstrip the carrying capacity for a particular
level of technology, people move to a new way of life (hunter/gatherer to
agricultural, agricultural to industrial). Such moves are often (always?)
accompanied by turmoil, migration, and strife, placing a premium on
military capability.

|> In fact, there are plenty of examples from ethnography, including the
|> Contact American Southeast, where the obverse is true. No demonstrated
|> significant relationship between violence and social-structure has, to my
|> knowledge, been presented in the literature.

That would be an interesting study. I would predict that a correlation
would be found between patriarchy, violence, and resource competition.

|> >In times of violence, men step up and women fade into the background.
|> >In times of peace, women become more prominent. It might be interesting
|> >to look for cycles of patriarchy and egalitarianism related to
|> >conditions of turmoil/violence/resource scarcity and stability/peace/
|> >abundance.

|> As a general statement, this is likely true in many situations. However,
|> social-structures aren't so easily changed as stepping up to the plate and
|> swinging the bat. In fact, as I tried to suggest above, many
|> social-structural arrangements impede change, whether rapid or long term, even
|> those, like patrilineality, which might intuitively seem at first glance to be
|> the best fit to a particular situation.

True. There is a very interesting analogy to biological evolution, where
the constraints of previous adaptation canalize future evolution. Wings
evolve from arms, feathers evolve from scales; evolution works with what
is already present. Cultures change slowly, on a timescale of generations,
while environments can change much faster than that. That introduces
distortions in the response, non-optimal responses which are the best
availible option, simply because the culture can't change fast enough to
follow a more advantageous course.

In the case of the yanomamo, the local (as opposed to global, using the
language of numerical analysis) optimum in the face of escalating resource
scarcity was to focus on improving military capability. It may be that a
better path would have been to focus on developing more effective ways of
catching fish, and that would undoubtedly have been a long-term attractor
for yanomamo culture. But before the long-term can be taken care of,
people have to look to the short term, and for the yanomamo that means
killing more of the neighbors than they can kill of you, and stealing more
of their women than are stolen from you.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf