Thursday, March 09, 2017

Gender as Moloch?

Recently, my Less Wrong meetup group (affiliated with the "community blog dedicated to cultivating the arts of human rationality") used as a discussion prompt Scott Alexander's "Meditations on Moloch." That essay uses a section of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" -- in which the demon Moloch serves as a personification of industrial capitalism -- as the takeoff point for a consideration of  how competition between agents to maximize some single value results in the inevitable ultimate sacrifice of all other values.

It occurs to me now that the same kind of analysis might be applied to the social system of gender. Notwithstanding variation between cultures, a similar sexual division of labor can be seen in all human societies, and many before me have cogently argued that this division reflects the interest, over evolutionary time, of each community in maximizing its reproductive fitness by putting priority on protecting females as the limiting factor of reproduction, and on a willingness to sacrifice the relatively overabundant males to this end.

This can be seen as an example of Scott Alexander's generalization of Moloch: the end result of the competition for communal reproductive fitness is, averaged over all societies, a wash with respect to their relative position, but a reduction of their absolute well-being in the sense that everyone's options are limited by the gender role to which they're assigned based on their sex.

One weakness I see in Alexander's essay is that he doesn't reckon with the way evolutionary competition has favored the growth of cooperation; the rise of eukaryotes, then multicellular organisms, then ever-higher levels of social organization as ways one aggregate of replicators (genes/memes) gains an advantage over others. In fact the beginning of consciousness, whereby our ancestors transitioned from experiencing mere pain, to suffering, is what makes it possible for us to conceive and coordinate strategies to overcome it, ultimately by evolving a unitary consciousness transcending internecine competition, as previously occurred on lower biological levels.

In the same way, we can imagine that the conscious awareness we are now starting to develop, of gender as a system that developed unconsciously in conditions of intercommunal competition, will allow us to collectively decide to transcend it through a cooperative project to that end -- that is, if we consciously decide to do so. I hope this essay may serve as part of that process.

A friend to whom I sent the above objected that sex roles have been around for a long time and so we should expect to have genetically adapted to them. I replied as follows:

I'm not claiming there's no organic basis for sex differences in behavior. But since memes can evolve much faster than genes -- and especially since we've been through a bottleneck or two -- I posit that we've developed socially/legally enforced norms that are often more extreme and rigid than is comfortable for many individuals. Now that we're in a period of relative abundance and safety, and especially with the much freer and more abundant flow of information apprising people of the existence of more than one way of life, people acquire growing consciousness of the ways gender roles act as fetters on their individual aspirations, and start acting individually and collectively to break out of those fetters. I think that's precisely why we now see men's and women's rights movements.

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