I’d very much like to be done with deconstruction of the silliest and most basic conventional lies, and get on with advancing our understanding of human interaction and where it can go. It feels very much like looking forward to sharing the wonders of nature on a remote hike, but having to explain in detail why hiking boots and locating the trailhead are the only sane way to get there.
So be patient with your humble host, please, as he tries to navigate some heresies that are cause to be outcast from polite, and chronically unhappy, society.
A Root Heresy
There are several beliefs that are at once blindingly obvious to everyone and absolutely blasphemous to utter – at least in some circumstances. (A truth being alright in one situation but not in another indicts not the truth but the listener.) Our first and most important heterodoxy is so simple and true that maxims exist to celebrate it, such as Vive la différence! – Long live the difference! – used, as far as I can tell, exclusively to refer to the marvelous, delicious difference between the sexes.
Yes, there it is, Heresy #1: Men and women are different.
Well, of course they are, the reasonable immediately conclude. Ah, you don’t know the trouble that rages in the mind of those trained against themselves! Different in what way? In what ways? How far does the difference extend? What are the ramifications? What are the approved ways of reacting to the implications? What am I supposed to think if no one tells me what to think?
Instead of trying to divine what the puppeteers of political correctness want us to do (at this moment, anyway, as they are notorious for changing their definition of acceptability at random), and trying to assemble a theory based on what we want the outcome to be, let’s go at it from the beginning rather than from the end. It may be that a lot of the trouble out there is completely unnecessary, no? We can run faster and farther if we don’t hobble ourselves.
Let’s go back to the beginning, to root levels that existed before society in any normal sense even existed: Let’s look at how you’re made.
Evolutionary psychology is an area of study that looks at universal human traits and behaviors from a functional point of view. In other words, when almost everyone across history is made or behaves in a particular way, there is likely some reason for it that makes sense on a species level even if it makes no sense in a given situation or society. These functions and structures are literally built in to us, giving us mechanisms and behaviors which are often startlingly subtle or annoyingly stubborn, and which interact with a person’s given circumstance in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways.
By “unpredictable” I don’t mean random, but rather that a complex system’s result can be hard to guess beforehand, there being so many variables. A lot of people in the same situation (same set of variables) will show very definite trends, meaning that the principles are fairly reliable even if the chain of effects is hard to follow.
Note: Probablistic, Not Deterministic
This is also a good time to point out, though I have before and will again, that people have much more in common than not, and the apparently huge differences in such things as personal taste pale in comparison to the similarities that are taken for granted. Plus, given the same circumstances, a lot of those supposed differences of preference narrow to very nearly nothing. Usually we call that “culture.” In any case, what we’re dealing with here is probabilistic, not deterministic. It determines the odds of something happening, not whether it always will or won’t. Taking one for the other is often a deliberate rhetorical dodge, and when honest indicates a fine poker opponent for Giovanni, who could always use help paying his mortgage. So don’t get silly with this, capisce?
Another Note: Sex, Not Gender
Speaking of silly, we will not be using the word “gender” in these discussions, because we are discussing sex. Gender is a grammar issue, and confusing the two has never been helpful. At best, it can be used in this context as describing what you do with your sex, which isn’t part of this article. As one who has had to learn languages, your host has a respect for words and what they are for, and prefers not to complicate already muddy matters with intentionally misused words.
So, let’s look at biology. Almost every cell in your body knows what sex you are. The XY or XX pairing is pretty definitive (barring the microscopic number of people who are variant from that normalcy, who are fascinating but too exceptional to include in an already lengthy discussion). You are a man or a woman. That’s it. Very unusual hormone levels, natural or otherwise, can alter some of this fact’s effects, but it remains the underlying determinant. The differences begin before birth and are enormously amplified at puberty. Obviously, there are visual differences. These are caused by underlying differences: a man’s muscles, bones, hormones, eyes, digestive tract, brain, pretty much everything, it’s all built physically differently from a woman’s. It isn’t just the procreative bits, though they are the most obvious difference, and (less obviously) they effect how the rest works.
And why would they not? The main function of species is to continue. Let us consider the ancient humans of, say, 35,000 years ago. Though several times the distance back from earliest recorded history, it’s really short in evolutionary timescales, and their caveman adaptations are still with us. Generational survival was increased by big, tool-devising brains, long-term care of offspring, and ability to cooperate. More immediate to a given individual is the ability to identify noteworthy traits in potential mates, allies, and enemies. Preference for those traits means that they’ll be passed along to the next generation, and adaptations arise from these selections.
That all combines to a tendency for sexual dimorphism, meaning that male and female individuals are easily identified as one or the other by basic visual cues, which is very common for mammals and birds, and a sign of highly adapted species.
Chromosome differences (XX vs. XY) are what cue these sex-specific adaptations and carry their relative importance – their emphasis – through generations, which is pretty obvious: a woman with broad hips will likely have a daughter with the same, though her son’s will be little effected. The son would have little use for an adaptation that helps him give birth, but a different hip joint structure helps his ability to run and fight. A population whose height gives them survival advantage will continue tall or even grow, given enough nutrition during formative years. Those that learn to value various attributes will self-select for them by the aforementioned ability to identify them in mates. Science continues to increase the number and breadth of what is known to be passed along genetically, including things like a tendency to be amiable. (Remember: probabilistic.) Every dog breeder knows this, of course, and it would be insane to think it applies only to one species, though self-selection is rather less well-controlled than a breeding program, making human adaptations on the haphazard side.
So what is the upshot? We have, hardwired in our brains, a knack for identifying good procreative and survival attributes, and it’s so ingrained that the biology urges us toward mating with them whether or not offspring are likely, desired, or even possible. The cave-people inside us assume a dangerous world, and keep an eye out for any advantage for their genetic heritage. Not that the primitive hominid thinks of it that way – it’s just that they are the offspring of those who keep an eye to their offspring’s survival, and that natural selection runs deep. And not that the modern human thinks of it that way – it’s just that the selected priority to make successful offspring is still with us, an unrecognized background to our thoughts, so pervasive that we use it without realizing its meaning, or fight it without admitting we fight our true selves.
The cave-man and -woman watches for markers of genetic stability and long-term survivability in a mate. Additionally, the caveman looks for a mate who will nurture and care for their children, and the cavewoman looks for a mate who will protect the family and provide resources for them. This, in a social animal like humans, leads to a preference for a mate with higher status, usually both the cause and result of higher reproductive fitness, or at least its secondary traits.
The constellation of cues that signal reproductive fitness – both biological and social – for male humans is so universal and understood that most languages have a word for it. In English, the word is “masculine.” And of course the same for female humans is “feminine.”
At this point, of course, we’re pretty nearly to the conscious level of thought of modern humans.
This is also the point at which the reason for my insistence on words meaning what they mean, and not some whim-based variation, should become clear. For all the arguing and denial and messing about with what these very simple yet profound words mean – masculine and feminine – the essential truth of them is understood by anyone not trained to think the sky is some random color, and is why a proposition such as Heresy #1, obvious as the blueness of the sky, takes so long to explain. The obvious turns out to encompass an awful lot.
But this is the root level of why men and women are different in so many perplexing ways: in any situation but a relatively tame society – which comes and goes, even over the few thousand years it has existed at all – those differences help us survive.
The Twin Heresy
So what are we to do about this? Surely it’s not only passé but actually wrong to think differently from each other at this point! How can we root it out if it is part of our biological functioning? We can’t brainwash everyone forever!
The thing to do about it is… well, not nothing. I won’t go that far. But trying to destroy it will only destroy you, and the good (civilization, for one thing) that has come from it. And you won’t have any fun either trying to make it happen or living in whatever its success might look like. Because here’s the truth:
Heresy #2: It’s ok.
It’s far too much to go into even in an oversized article like this one, but there are benefits to men and women being different that are ancient, if not quite cro-magnon, and many which are very subtle even to modern minds. We’ll cover them a piece at a time, because most of it is a lot of fun to explore, and very, very useful.
If you’re still grumpy about the idea at this point, let me simply advise: If you can’t beat them, join them. And I promise you, you can’t beat your hardwiring. You can only improve it, which is a very different and far finer goal.
You see, people want the sexes to be functionally different or identical as convenient to a given situation, and that situation can turn from one sentence to the next. It’s bewildering that such cognitive dissonance doesn’t cause nerve damage. On the other hand, understanding that people are largely the same, with some fairly reliable tendencies toward certain differences (remember: probabilistic, not deterministic!), this can bring you to a place of understanding and even compassion for others.
For example, men see dancing as a sexier activity for women than women do for men, and the reverse is true for writing music. Would there be any point denigrating the opposite sex for their general preference, or would it be more useful to consider why this is the case? The cave-person in you understands it. With some thought, your modern self can see why as well.
At this point the vive la différence! crew is wondering what the big deal is. I promise that this is all relevant – and all too relevant – to untangling some of the mess modern people have wound themselves into. Sometimes knowing why the sky is blue is handy in understanding other lighting issues.