Gender IS Strategy

In principle, the social organisation of any species is reducible to the net result of the sexual strategies by which the individuals of that species endeavour to reproduce themselves. Or, more accurately, reducible to the net result of the sexual strategies themselves, considered as algorithms and transiently expressed in those individuals. If we argue that humans may also pursue psychological satisfactions whose relationship to reproductive fitness is indirect and unreliable, well then, the same is true of all the other animals.

Throughout the animal kingdom, creatures engage in behaviour that may appear cute to us, the only animal with the power to verbalise bullshit; in reality, however, this behaviour is a deadly struggle of mutual mistrust and mutual exploitation. The behaviour is called pair-bonding. Each animal attempts to force the other to invest resources in common offspring, while itself attempting to be a free-rider. The one that does the most work has lost the game.

A favourite rhetorical trope of the feminists is that “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”. Never mind the historical fact that earlier generations of female emancipationists considered that free abortion served only the agenda of irresponsible males; what is interesting here is that no one ever asks what it would actually mean for a man to be pregnant. By which I mean pregnant properly, rather than Hollywood goofs like Schwarzenegger having a foetus transplanted into his thigh. Surely “woman” is merely shorthand for “the one that gets pregnant”? The trope can only be translated, therefore, as, “If the sex that got pregnant was in charge of religion, then abortion would be a sacrament”, which is fair enough. And yet the original formulation contrives to suggest that there exists a “malehood” that is something quite separate from “being the sex that doesn’t get pregnant”. Such an approach is consistent with the methods of a movement that thinks the physical world is socially constructed and preserves this innocence by calling for a resolute ignorance of the biological sciences.

Mammalian sexual reproduction is essentially parasitic, in that the females do all the work. Even in birds and reptiles, the business of making the egg requires a huge energy investment. There are several strategies to deal with this: a successful film has shown us how the female emperor penguin has to fatten up again and so leaves her partner to hatch the offspring. For some strange reason, equal billing as family-values allegory has yet to be achieved by films showing how the black widow spider recycles her mate into extra calories to make her eggs. Other creatures again avoid all this grief by arranging for their ova to be fertilised in the water. But there is always one sexual differentiation, to which there are no exceptions; namely asymmetrically sized gametes. Freeloading therefore begins in the gonads, since producing an ovum represents much more work on the part of the female body than producing a spermatozoon does on the part of the male. Although both gametes contain DNA, one of them is nothing but a genetic information package with a propulsive tail; the sperm have so to speak thrown everything overboard so as to be meaner, leaner and faster than the sperm behind. Meanwhile, the other gamete contains a huge nutrient package for subsequent development, everything needed by the new organism apart from the shuffling of genes contributed by the male. “Female” is thus shorthand for “the one with the larger gamete, whose cytoplasm the smaller gamete parasitises”.

Let us imagine creatures in which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, reproduction required meiosis and two individuals. Let us imagine further that the nutrient and support package was initially divided between the individuals. 50:50. In this thought-experiment, never mind who does the incubation, as we won’t get that far. What biologists call “disruptive selection” would act on gamete sizes to discourage any kind of compromise short of complete bimodality. In such a situation the first individual to stiff its partner by cutting back on its own support package would have a competitive advantage, in that it would expend less energy and its gametes would be more mobile. An arms race would ensue. If all the individuals followed suit and dumped the nutrition, however, there would be no viable embryos at all and the creatures would go extinct. Ergo, no such species can exist.

So, if equal division is inherently unstable, and total competition is species suicide, what stable outcome is there? Answer: two sexes, one competing to provide the best nutrition package and the other competing to get there first. (There are other reasons for sperm to junk everything except the DNA package, to do with avoiding conflict between cytoplasmic genes, not introducing cellular parasites into the egg, and a balance of power between male-killer and female-killer genes; it is all quite bizarre.) Given such specialisation, one gamete, in winning the competition to fertilise the other, also wins control of the other gamete’s resources or parental investment. This is the way it has to be. Although it would not be impossible for the fertilised ovum to be transferred for incubation to the body of the creature that made the lean, mean gametes, such an operation would consume resources; and pointless expenditure of energy tends to be penalised by selective pressures. We only know one species that does this, the sea-horse. The most economical solution is for the one that produced the big fat gamete to retain possession. There is, however, one huge advantage to being the parental sex, which otherwise seems like the victim of a rip-off: you are courted rather than having to do the courting, and because you compete less, you live longer.

Unfortunately for separatist-feminist fantasies, parthenogenesis simply doesn’t work in mammals. The placenta is formed with the help of the genes carried in sperm. This is because, from the point of view of the female body, the foetus is a dangerous parasite, which at worst will kill her and at best will drain her resources. Pregnancy thus represents a collision between the reproduction and the survival imperatives. A female body is designed to survive, but in order to fulfil the other, reproductive, imperative, it needs to be coerced or fooled into harbouring this foreign and inimical guest. This manoeuvre is the job of the paternal genes in the sperm; from the father’s point of view, of course, her impregnation has no downside. Thus the true “partnership” between the sexes – complex layers of exploitation and manipulation.

Much the same happens at a higher level: if one sex specialises slightly more in competing for mates and the other in caring for offspring – both effective, though different, strategies for reproductive success – then the divergence becomes self-reinforcing. A small asymmetry, this time in the behaviour of the entire organism, is amplified by the operation of natural selection until the behaviour is quite drastically different. Thus is created male and female; not only is “exploitation” built into the game from the cellular level, but – given the basic notion of producing variation by shuffling of genes – it cannot possibly be otherwise. To abolish sexual exploitation, therefore, we must abolish all life on earth.

Posted on April 16, 2009 at 09:52 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, "Love" Contra Social Stability

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