Did you know that the biological definition of the “female” of a species is the one which produces relatively few nutrient-rich, low-mobility gametes (sex cells), and the “male” is the one which produces abundant, highly mobile but fragile ones? In human meiosis, the process by which a stem cell divides into gametes, each with only a half set of chromosomes, only one of the ova daughter cells survives of the four, and contains a disproportionate quantity of resources. All four male gametes normally survive in the production of sperm. The way eggs and sperm carry the genetic material of the parent is pretty much identical, except that the egg always carries an X chromosome, and the sperm may carry either X or Y, and which determines the chromosomal sex of the offspring.
In some species, sex switches depending on need. I don’t mean gender roles or behaviors, I mean the ability to produce a different kind of sex cell. Since we are used to thinking of male and female as genetically determined because we know about X and Y-chromosomes in humans, that seems strange, but in those species, sex changes occur if there aren’t enough of one or the other kind of gamete for fertilization to occur (the male gamete finds and fuses with the nutrient-rich female gamete). The fact that this dimorphism is so common across species means it has been successful in many environments too.
Another strategy that is common and therefore must work well in certain conditions is hermaphrodism, where one organism can produce both eggs and sperm, but cross-fertilization is still preferable for the variety of offspring characteristics that result. Variety being a kind of insurance that sets of genes will confer fitness in a variety of conditions. Many plants are hermaphroditic, as are earthworms, ensuring their ability to produce offspring even without contact with the gametes of a different organism, and to combine gametes of any other individual, without any “opposite sex.”
I started thinking about these things when reading a blog I came across which featured a seemingly endless series of posts, back and forth about gender roles, the usual interesting, controversial, socially and culturally constructed viewpoints debated, variously labelled “left,” “conservative,” “moronic,” and so on. There was an utter absence of consideration of biology and biological evolution. All the participants were extremely sharp, sarcastic, opinionated, strong-willed, and funny (except, apparently, for one, who kept being accused of being a troll because he kept posting polite, neutral questions). But all they did was rip apart social norms from previous eras or other societies on the grounds that–this was not spoken but seemed to be implied–they were inherently inferior because we are now enlightened and have a voice and can rise up and right the wrongs… no, that’s not quite it. I think the word that fits perfectly to describe what they objected to was the fact that these norms were primitive. Yes, this is the right word; it means, merely, “closer to the earlier form.” So what our blogger and her commenters were engaged in, in trying to shake off the primitive, was trying to generate evolutionary pressure. Evolutionary pressure often does cause change, a lot or a little, but not always — it can also cause extinction.
If one can use the theory of evolution (change) by natural selection, it should be true that attempts to change social norms only work if new points of view result in higher rates of replication and transmission in the populations in which their views are prevalent, and/or causes other populations with competing (more primitive) views to have a lower reproductive or survival rate. This is both a social (memes) and a biological (genetic) process (social being a subcategory of biological).
Examples of other kinds of social constructs that have been adaptive (read: generating more offspring over the long term and/or out competing other constructs in any given environment): Patriarchical societies where the female steps back to allow a man to go through the door first. Or where man hold the door for women and children. The males getting to sit in the front seats of the car. The idea of the sacredness of virginity. Polygamy, monogamy, matriarchy, monarchy, egalitarianism, infanticide, nuclear families, baptism, literature, mythology, neckties, tattoos, suicide, gender fluidity, and so on. Such traditions result from evolutionary processes such as natural selection, but also a complex mixture of chance, luck, and natural disasters — not all behaviors and social constructs that arise would increase fitness on a level playing field–some are pretty random and persist for random reasons. Evolution doesn’t even lead to anything “superior”–there is no superior in the way we like to think of it–a combination of power over nature, power over inferior races and species, or, as many less “primitive” societies prefer, peace and goodwill, advanced intellect, civilization, and ecological sustainability. Superiority is a relative social idea, while evolutionary fitness, possession of better adaptation, and has to do with replicability under a variety of conditions.
My daughter was commenting today on how strange it was that so many young people seem to think that because gender is a social construct, it must be eradicated. I said that going out to coffee for a chat was also a social construct, so maybe we should eradicate that, too. Social constructs are neutral, as are genetic variations, The proof is in the putting, and we are part of the putters, and can’t get outside the construct in order to objectively judge it. Am I making sense?
Disclaimer: This was an experiment.