Thursday, October 22, 2009

These Are Not the Eternal Verities of Biology - Part I

I don't read Psychology Today, as a rule --- it strikes me as very much psych-lite, and there are lots of much better neuroscience, psychology and social-science blogs around the Internet --- but Echidne does, and has lately been bemoaning the fact that so few people are criticizing their science reporting, especially on matters of gender differences, where the reigning theoretical framework seems to be a particularly rigid, virulently anti-feminist strain of evolutionary psychology.

The primary exponent of this doctrine on that site is Satoshi Kanazawa, a Reader in Management at the London School of Economics and Polical Science who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Arizona.

This educational background, you might guess, does not lend Dr. Kanazawa much credibility as an authority on human evolutionary history, genetics, sexual selection, or early hominid reproductive strategies and social behavior.

I'll come back to that in a later post; what I'd like to focus on now is Kanazawa's treatment of a subject that does lend itself to sociological explanation: effects of culture on observed sex differences in wealth, prestige, happiness and mating behavior.

Oddly, when presented with a topic that so clearly invites a sociologist's patient untangling of all its component threads of cultural, historical and economic factors, Kanazawa seems to forget all about sociology.

Instead, in a post titled, incredibly, "Why Modern Feminism Is Illogical, Unnecessary and Evil," he clings stubbornly to "biologically meaningful measures of welfare" --- i.e., longevity and number of descendants --- to argue that, since women live longer than men, and more women than men have at least one child at some time in their lives, women are clearly thriving at men's expense!
The fact that men and women are fundamentally different and want different things makes it difficult to compare their welfare directly, to assess which sex is better off; for example, the fact that women make less money than men cannot by itself be evidence that women are worse off than men, any more than the fact that men own fewer pairs of shoes than women cannot be evidence that men are worse off than women. However, in the only two biologically meaningful measures of welfare -- longevity and reproductive success -- women are and have always been slightly better off than men. In every human society, women live longer than men, and more women attain some measure of reproductive success; many more men end their lives as total reproductive losers, having left no genetic offspring.
As Echidne points out, women's current near-universal advantage in life expectancy is a fairly recent development.

The 1999 Working Paper of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research has this to say about how sex differences in life expectancy have shifted around through the centuries:
Today, women have a mortality advantage at almost all ages in developed countries. But this has not always been the case. Paleo-demographers are now establishing evidence that there may have been no life expectancy difference between males and females prior to the development of agriculture. Following the development of agriculture, females may have then suffered higher mortality than males. It has not yet been established whether this female disadvantage was brought about by a heavy work burden, high fertility, the microbiological environment or other factors (Boldster and Paine, 1995). The oldest records on mortality are from England and Wales, and from Sweden. The data reconstructed for England and Wales show that from the early 17th to the 20th century male and female mortality differed only little. In general males had a slight advantage in the 17th and 18th centuries, but females enjoyed lower mortality during some periods.
The authors trace the emergence of a consistent gap between the average male and female life expectancies to the reduction or elimination of two major causes of early death in women: death in childbirth and death from illness or parasitic infestation during youth. While germs don't discriminate by sex, girls were likelier than boys to die of such illnesses as tuberculosis, scarlet fever, smallpox, measles, and the like because girls were more likely to be malnourished, and thus less able to fight off an infection.
Both countries [i.e., France and Denmark] exhibit a female disadvantage [in mortality rates] in early life between the ages of 5 and 15. This disadvantage, which was found in most European populations, was present from 1800 until it disappeared in the 1920s and 1930s. Data on causes of death show that infectious and parasitic diseases account for very high female mortality at these ages, tuberculosis being the main killer. The frailty of young girls from 5 to 15 with regard to tuberculosis has been attributed to hereditary factors, as well as living, working and housing conditions. This excess mortality for girls was the result of the sexual discrimination that characterised Western societies in the 19th century. Various factors played a role here, such as nutrition, housing and hygiene, access to education and medical assistance, and working conditions (Tabutin and Willems 1996).
This article goes into a lot of detail about the tuberculosis epidemic in late-nineteenth-century Ireland, which the article's authors think displayed typically sex-skewed patterns of mortality:
Tuberculosis was a serious problem in Ireland during the surveyed period. The tuberculosis epidemic was rising in the 1880's and 1890's and culminated in 1904. ... The high mortality rates were falling very slowly in the following decades and in the 1940's they were still higher than in many European countries. The reduction of overall mortality rates to European levels coincides with the reduction of tuberculosis mortality.

Mostly youth and young adults were infected by tuberculosis (Jones, 2001). During puberty mostly females died of TB, in older age groups the death rates of TB were more equal between genders. It was more probable for poor people to have TB and urbanisation brought a higher TB rate, men being more affected.
The true reasons for the high mortality from tuberculosis and the particular susceptibility of women may have been the same as for excess female mortality [in general]: poverty, urbanisation and malnutrition. In 1871 50% of the female workers in the linen factories of Belfast were aged between 15 and 25 years and hard work and unhealthy environment led to higher mortality rates. Many of them worked at home; the bad housing conditions in urban areas made it easy for the bacillus to spread to women and their daughters who were staying with their mothers while men and their sons worked in the fields. The women who were weakened from the bad living conditions and malnutrition contracted tuberculosis that their body otherwise may have resisted.
Though most, if not all, poor people living in Ireland at that time suffered malnutrition, women and girls got the worst of it, as they continue to do in poorer parts of the world today:
Traditionally, women in Ireland had almost no rights. Girls and women had to have their meals after men and sons had eaten ... . School education was denied to more girls than boys, as women were regarded as not capable [of making] use of the acquired knowledge.
Why am I bringing all this stuff up?

I'm trying to show that, contrary to what Dr. Kanazawa seems to think, sexism really does hurt women in tangible, "biologically meaningful" ways. It kills them, in infancy (girl babies, especially in societies where women have few or no employment prospects and a woman's family is expected to supply a dowry when she marries, are at a greater risk than boy babies are of being murdered by their parents), in childhood (again, when there's not enough food to go around, it's the women and girls who do without, which makes the girls frailer and less able to recover from ordinary childhood illnesses) and during reproductive years (when women don't have the option to terminate a risky pregnancy, or to choose when or if they bear children, they are likelier to die, or be seriously injured, during childbirth).

Furthermore, there's evidence that some of the kinds of cultural changes feminists generally favor --- particularly, changes that would reduce women's economic dependence on men, like making education and employment more accessible to women --- actually enhance infant girls' survival prospects.

Here's an explanation of how that works, taken from V. B. Tulasidhar's 1993 article in Health Transition Review, on "Maternal education, female labour force participation and child mortality: evidence from the Indian census":

Mother's education affects child survival in two main ways: through better child-care practices and higher standards of hygiene at home, and more rational and greater use of preventive and curative medical services (Mosley and Chen 1984; Cleland and van Ginneken 1988). ... It is also argued that education gives greater independence to the mother which will help her [m]ake child-health-promoting decisions without any hindrance (Caldwell 1986). ... Educated mothers are also found to have superior knowledge of diseases and they seek timely treatment more often (see Cleland and van Ginneken 1988). However, some studies deny superior health-care knowledge on the part of educated mothers, particularly among those with lower levels of education (Caldwell, Reddy and Caldwell 1983; Lindenbaum, Chakraborty and Elias 1985). To sum up, the available evidence indicates a strong and independent association between mother's education and child health, but the exact mechanisms through which it operates are not yet clear.


The relationship between female labour force participation and child mortality is even more complex. On the one hand, labour force participation can have an adverse impact on child health as the child will not get full attention from its mother and may even forgo the benefits of breastfeeding. This will probably happen in those families where because of poverty the mother must participate in the labour market soon after delivery. On the other hand, the mother's work force participation will enhance the family income which will in turn have a positive impact on child nutrition and health. Thus, the eventual outcome of female labour force participation on child mortality depends on the relative influence of these two routes of causation.


Besides female education, three important factors are identified to explain excess female mortality (Bardhan 1988; Basu 1989; Das Gupta 1990). They are, first, cultural preference for male children; secondly, low social status of women; and thirdly, low female labour requirements in areas where rice is not grown. Among these three, the last hypothesis, propounded by Bardhan (1988), is intuitively the most appealing. The underlying factor in the hypothesis is the low economic value of women and hence female children in areas where the labour force participation rates of women are low. It appears that the other two factors (low social status and cultural preference) stem partly from the low economic value of women.

A much more recent (2007) paper by World Bank development economist Shwetlena Sabarwal, written while she was a graduate student in economics at the University of Minnesota, sheds some more light on the relationship between mothers' education levels and daughters' chances of surviving childhood.

Sabarwal tries to account separately for the two things she sees education doing for women, which is informing them and empowering them, and measure the effect of each on child mortality and excess female mortality.

In this analysis, it is proposed that mother's education can affect child health outcomes in three ways: a) autonomy effects of education, b) information effects of education and c) other direct effects of education. Once the autonomy and information effects are isolated from the other direct education effects, some interesting results emerge. First, we see that mother's education influences child health primarily through direct education and information effects and mother's autonomy does not have much predictive power in this relationship. In the excessive female child mortality regression however, women's autonomy has a negative and significant influence. The fact that the female autonomy variable is not significant in the child mortality regression in India runs counter to theoretical literature that emphasizes the education-autonomy link as a major pathway through which maternal schooling influences child mortality. Instead, it is the information effects that stand out as being highly significant, indicating that effective information dissemination is a crucial channel for reducing child mortality.

These results also show that mother's education affects child mortality on the one hand and excessive female child mortality on the other hand in very different ways. Women's autonomy is an important pathway through which mother's education can improve relative survival probabilities of girls. This has important policy implications in that instead of simply relying on female education[,] attempts should be made to enhance female autonomy in a broader sense.

This is a really long, dense post, that in its specifics seems to leap randomly all over time, space, and culture, but throughout it I've been trying to demonstrate, both clearly and thoroughly, that feminism really does help women. My thesis here has been the opposite of Kanazawa's: rather than leave women unhappy, stressed-out and childless, feminism has improved women's health and well-being, and their children's --- especially daughters' --- chances for survival.

1 comment:

Anemone said...

Kanazawa is a troll (and maybe someone should make a formal complaint to PT?), but this is an amazing post. Yay for you. Thanks for doing the work.

Yes, of course, mortality rates for females are high in less developed cultures. I knew that childbirth used to kill a lot of women, but somehow thought that that evened things out rather than swinging the bias the other way, even though I've read some of what you've posted here, and that there may be only 7 females for every 10 males in some primitive tribes. It didn't really register the way what you've written does.