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The Retreat of Patriarchy

Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
11 MINS READJun 17, 2015 | 08:00 GMT

By Ian Morris

Since October of last year, Sweden has been pursuing what its foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, calls "a feminist foreign policy." What that means, she told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace in January, is that "striving toward gender equality is not only a goal in itself, but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development and security-policy objectives."

Sweden's new policy has generated a range of responses. Predictably, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates temporarily withdrew their ambassadors from Stockholm, and the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned Wallstrom's remarks. While many in Europe and the United States cheered Sweden's boldness, foreign policy wonks also engaged in patronizing and chauvinistic piggery, which Wallstrom dubbed "the giggling factor." Several Swedish businesses, for their part, were furious over the policy's role in ending lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

This cannot have been an encouraging start for Wallstrom. But a look at the long-term evolutionary perspective on gender equality yields four conclusions that may be somewhat more to her taste. First, contrary to what the skeptics say, feminist foreign policies clearly exist. Second, much like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain (a character who spoke prose for 40 years without knowing it), Western governments have unknowingly pursued feminist foreign policies for the past 200 years. Third, these policies have been among the West's most successful; and fourth, such policies are likely to become even more successful as the 21st century progresses.

The evidence for these conclusions lies in an area that tends to make both feminists and social conservatives uncomfortable: evolutionary biology. Gender relations live at the intersection of sociology and biology and can only be understood through an evolutionary lens, looking back a very long way indeed.

The Origins of Gender Hierarchies

Sexual reproduction is a fairly new idea in the history of life. It evolved about 1.5 billion years ago, before which all life had been reproducing via cloning for more than 2 billion years. Evolutionists get into heated arguments over just why sexual reproduction appeared, but its consequences are clear: Reproduction through the mingling of two organisms' DNA creates much more genetic variation than does cloning. Thus sexual species adapt and evolve much more quickly than asexual ones, as evidenced by our own evolution from chimpanzee-like ancestors to Stratfor employees and subscribers in a mere 7.5 million years.

By definition, sex calls for two genders: females with XX chromosomes, who produce eggs, and males with XY chromosomes, who produce sperm. In all species, males and females have different bodies, incentives and opportunities. Sperm are plentiful and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce and therefore more expensive. (The typical young male human creates about 1,000 sperm per second, while the female human produces one egg per month and must carry an egg for nine more months once it has been fertilized.)

The economics of reproduction would appear to give females the upper hand, allowing them to control males by rationing access to their wombs. In practice, though, sexual negotiations are only part of a larger deal. The hormones needed to manufacture sperm also make males stronger and more aggressive than females, meaning that males are selling not only their sperm but also protection from violence (both their own and that of other males).

Each animal species has solved the challenges of sexual negotiation by evolving toward its own evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), or set of gender relations. For example, the ESS of gorillas, one of our nearest genetic neighbors, is to cluster into groups consisting of a single male that rules a harem of females while other harem-less males violently challenge the alpha male for dominance. By contrast, chimpanzees, which are even more closely related to humans, form sexually promiscuous bands of related males and females, in which the males use a great deal of violence to dominate and compete for access to the females. Bonobos live in similar bands, but their ESS is much less violent than that of chimpanzees, and males and females are much more equal.

Perhaps because we are so brainy that our childrearing must be a drawn-out, complicated process, we humans have evolved over the last 1.8 million years or so toward an ESS of long-term pair-bonding. Many documented societies have had a few men with multiple wives and others with none, but the vast majority of humans have formed pairs that are more or less monogamous.

From Foraging to Farming: The Rise of Patriarchy

Until the invention of farming some 10,000 years ago, every human was a forager who lived by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Twentieth-century anthropologists studying the last remaining forager bands found that male foragers, with their advantages in strength and aggression, nearly always took responsibility for hunting while women gathered most of the plants. Archaeological discoveries (men buried with weapons and women buried with the baskets and tools needed to prepare plant foods) suggest the same was true for prehistoric men and women, too.

Anthropologists also found that while husbands tended to dominate family decision-making and informal group leaders were almost always men, the gender hierarchies of hunter-gatherers were usually quite shallow. Abused wives could simply leave their husbands, and headmen who failed to persuade the band's female members would soon see their authority wither. There were variations, of course: Yanomami men in the 20th-century Brazil-Venezuela borderlands were famously domineering, while !Kung San foragers in the Kalahari Desert were famously egalitarian. But overall, throughout most of our history, human gender hierarchies have been stronger than those of chimpanzees and gorillas.

That all changed with the advent of farming. The domestication of plants and animals allowed humans to greatly increase the amount of food they produced per acre, an abundance that led to an explosion in the global population. Birthrates rose so high that the typical farmwife gave birth to seven babies and spent most of her adult life pregnant or caring for small children. Permanent villages filled the landscapes, and complicated divisions of labor arose to accommodate the needs of agricultural economies.

In nearly every society documented since the invention of farming, categories of labor have been sharply divided between the two genders, with men toiling in fields and workshops while women stayed home. This was no accident: Women were well positioned for domestic work because it could be combined with childcare, while men were well suited for work outside the home, much of which called for brawn.

Unlike the foragers' division of hunting and gathering activities, the farming societies' allocation of work gave men near-total control of wealth creation, which in turn gave men significant economic leverage over their wives, daughters and sisters. A woman's economic dependence didn't end there; her well-being heavily depended upon marrying a man who not only was able-bodied but also had accumulated the capital needed for farming, either through years of saving or by inheritance. Either way, men tended to be ready for marriage around 30 years of age, while the mates they tended to prefer were teenage girls with long childbearing years ahead of them. As the inheritance of material resources came to play a bigger and bigger role in society, paternity became a life-and-death issue, and the strict policing of girls' premarital virginity and wives' fidelity replaced the rather casual sexual attitudes of foragers.

Once again, of course, there were variations among different cultures. Gender hierarchies were less pronounced in ancient Rome than in ancient Greece, for example, and some societies went to the extreme of mutilating girls' genitals to reduce sexual desire and guarantee chastity. But in every known case, farming produced patriarchy and ensured that men dominated politics. Sultans and emperors, surrounded by huge harems and their eunuch protectors, sat atop gender hierarchies that outdid those of the alpha male gorillas.

The Industrial Age: A Return to Gender Equality

The long-established pattern of patriarchy only began to change significantly within the past few hundred years. Starting in northwestern Europe around 1600, the share of people engaged in farming began to fall steadily as a new economic system based on Atlantic trade arose. Europeans found that if they shifted from agriculture to manufacturing, merchants could export goods to West Africa in exchange for slaves, whom they then sold in America to buy sugar, cotton and other desirable commodities. Merchants then sold these products back in England or Holland to buy more manufactured items, cycling through the entire profit-making process again.

The Triangular Trade generated wealth on an unprecedented scale, with enormous consequences. Rising wages allowed European craft workers to eat better and more regularly than their peasant predecessors, and superior nutrition (combined with small advances in public health, hygiene and medicines) drove down infant mortality rates. By 1650, the average Englishwoman had fewer than four live births, which freed up some of her time from childrearing and created room for women to do more non-household labor. As this happened, the Atlantic trade drove up demand for craft workers, the result being that ancient prejudices against female labor outside the home began crumbling. Very slowly, women's economic power began increasing.

The transformation accelerated after 1800 as Europeans learned how to release the energy stored in fossil fuels and use it to power machines. The further energy developed — from coal to oil and from steam to electricity — the less European economies depended on muscular power and the more interchangeable male and female workers became. Some industries, most notably textiles, already preferred female labor in the 19th century, but the equivalence of genders in the workforce didn't truly take off until the 20th century, when soaring industrial productivity made possible a huge labor shift toward the service sector.

When brains, organization and reliability are what matter, women are in no way inferior to men, and the more a society can free women to sell their labor in the market, the more likely it is to prosper. In response to demand, markets began supplying solutions like washing machines, electric irons and countless other "engines of liberation" that steadily reduced the household drudgery competing for women's time. But even more important, prosperity and better food kept driving down infant mortality rates. In 1850s America, 1 baby in every 4 died before its first birthday; by 1970, that figure had fallen to 1 in 50, and by 2014, it had dropped to 1 in 163. Women responded by demanding better contraception and spending even less time bearing and rearing children. Globally, live births fell from an average of 5.0 per woman in 1950 to 2.4 in 2013. These changes only further increased women's economic power and undermined patriarchy. Between 1940 and 1990, the proportion of American women working outside the home doubled. Just 4 percent of American wives out-earned their husbands in 1960, but by 2014 that number had reached 23 percent.

A New Hierarchy for a New Order

Gender hierarchies haven't completely collapsed. Today, 98 percent of self-made billionaires, 93 percent of heads of government and 91 percent of central bank governors are still men, and American women still only earn, on average, 77 percent as much as men. Still, women are legally barred from fewer and fewer professions, women outnumber men on university enrollment sheets, and Sweden has a feminist foreign policy. Patriarchy is not dead, but it is looking distinctly unhealthy.

The long-term outcomes of the war of the sexes have been driven by the most fundamental economic shifts in history, from foraging to farming and farming to fossil fuels. Each age, we might say, got the gender hierarchy it needed.

Patriarchy spread around the world after 10,000 B.C. not because men became bullies and women became victims, but because steep gender hierarchies worked best for agricultural societies and foragers simply could not compete with farmers' populations, wealth and military power. The gender equality of hunter-gatherers nearly went extinct because the hunter-gatherers themselves were almost wiped out.

Patriarchy has been in retreat since A.D. 1800 not because men have become saints and women have found their voices, but because shallow gender hierarchies work best for industrial societies, and farmers simply cannot compete with fossil fuel users' populations, wealth and military power. Only seven countries currently generate more than half their national wealth through agriculture; the gender inequality of farming is going extinct because the farming societies themselves are dwindling.

Thus, history suggests that Margot Wallstrom should both rejoice and despair. On the one hand, as fossil-fuel industries and free markets spread, societies that cling to farming-era inequalities will be unable to compete. The treatment of women among societies ruled by the Taliban, Islamic State and Boko Haram would not have stood out much during the agricultural era, but in the 21st century these groups are simply backward and brutish. Their savage defenders stand athwart the path of history shouting, "Stop!" but the countries that shelter them will not survive the 21st century.

On the other hand, Wallstrom should despair because the truly difficult part of this struggle was over long before anyone thought of promoting themselves as champions of a self-consciously feminist foreign policy. The real heroes of this story are the forces that are all too often miscast as villains: fossil fuels, which created an economy that allowed women to be independent, and globalization, which continues to spread the new economic order worldwide.

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