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Women and Children First

February 20, 2008
Women and children first
by Grant Brown
When the Titanic hit an iceberg in dead-calm waters in the north Atlantic, there was time but not nearly enough life boats to rescue everyone. Spaces were rationed according to the perceived value of the passengers. Those with first-class berths were more likely to have been saved than passengers from steerage. This pattern of rescue reflects the classism of British society at the time.

But classist distinctions were far from the most significant that went into the rationing process. The first priority was given to children, who are dear to everyone. Along with children went women, their natural care-givers. Because the mentality of the age was to lump women and children together, first, women from steerage were more likely to survive the sinking of the Titanic than men from first class. A few men were allowed onto life boats only because they were needed to row them to safety. Men who forced their way onto life boats to save their own lives were universally deemed cowards.

The sinking of the Titanic illustrates powerfully how gender expectations that favour women go almost unnoticed–or if noticed, approved–even in our equality-conscious age. If a contemporary statistic is needed to support this claim, consider that 97.4 per cent of occupational deaths occur to men. This is not an employment opportunity that anyone seems eager to equalize. A century after the Titanic, we still instinctively lump women and children together, first, in almost every social policy or program where gender is a relevant variable.

Feminism has enjoyed remarkable success, in an historically short period of time, reshaping society to eliminate the disadvantages suffered by women under traditional gender norms. This success has been possible only because feminism preys on a powerful, natural inclination of deference to women that is bred into both men and women alike. If women feel passionately about wanting something, it just isn’t manly or prudent for men, individually or collectively, to deny it to them. In the ideological battle of the sexes, it is of the first importance to understand the origins and power of this innate inclination of deference to women.

A general principle of evolutionary biology is that competition is greatest for "limiting resources"–those things whose availability is highly correlated with population size in a given setting. When it comes to reproduction, females are the limiting resource. This is because males have an effectively unlimited capacity to reproduce, whereas females can produce only about one child per year. Because one male can do the reproductive work of tens, or hundreds, or thousands, males are, genetically and psychologically speaking, more expendable.

In the competition for mating opportunities, therefore, males tend to compete much more ferociously with each other than women do. In some species, competition for mating opportunities rises to extraordinary heights and may be the sole purpose of male existence. Male bison and sea lions, for example, engage in a series of vicious fights, often to the death, resulting in a single male victor monopolizing the entire herd of females. The benefit of "harem-building" to the females of these species is that it increases the odds that their offspring will possess the genes that produced the outstanding reproductive success of the winning male. Why settle for second best?

Males often compete for mating opportunities in ways other than physical contests. Where parental investment in child-rearing is very significant, for example, females will be attracted to males who are able to provide the kinds of resources needed to raise the young. Parental investment is extremely important in humans, due to our very lengthy period of dependent childhood. (This elongated learning period is a result the evolution of human brain power.) Thus women tend to be attracted to men who are physically powerful, intelligent, wealthy, or belonging to a powerful and wealthy family.

Although these gender expectations were shaped in the fogs of human pre-history, there can be little doubt that their influence remains strong today. Young men know, instinctively, that their chances in the mating game increase dramatically the better able they are to project an image of power, intelligence, determination, and self-sacrifice. Of these attributes, the most important is self-sacrifice, since without the willingness to share the fruits of his power, intelligence and determination, a man is of little or no use to a woman. Men who are unwilling or unable to transfer resources to women are ridiculed, vilified, and discarded–or at least considered selfish and immature. Happily single men who play the field are mere "playboys," suffering from the "Peter Pan syndrome."

What works against men in the contemporary battle of the sexes is their innate chivalry. One of the most common remarks I get from men when I criticize the manipulative excesses of feminism is along these lines: "I agree with just about everything you said, but I would never say it myself. There would be [professional or personal] repercussions."

In this respect, we have not evolved so much from our simian relatives. As primatologist Frans de Waal has observed, nine times out of ten the silverback gorilla will give members of his harem what they want–a banana, a warm patch in the sun, etc. This is because his position as alpha-male depends on the support of his harem, without which he is quickly deposed by a rival who is more able or willing to transfer these benefits. In human society, as we shall see in future columns, the alpha males–e.g. politicians, judges–also aim instinctively for female approval in the policies they advance and the decisions they make.

Dr. Grant Brown is a lawyer who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University.

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