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Patterns of patriarchy
Patriarchy is both common and varied.
Patriarchy, as a social form, is the presumption that authority is male. The more strongly a society operates on the presumption that authority is male, the more patriarchal it is.
Patriarchy is very common in human societies: even relatively gender-egalitarian1 societies tend to be somewhat patriarchal. Patriarchy is also highly varied in its manifestations and intensity. One can get wide variance even within the same civilisation: Sparta was far more gender-egalitarian than Athens, for example.
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Conversely, we have never found evidence of a matriarchal society. Matriarchal families, sure. Myths about a matriarchal past, yes. Actual matriarchal societies? No.
To understand the patterns of patriarchy, we have to grapple with both how common and how highly varied it has been.
It is not hard to assemble a list of factors that affected the status of women:
Whether polyandry was allowed (implying higher status).
Whether polygyny was allowed (implying lower status).
Whether women were armed and how commonly: armed women implied higher status.
What the average age of women was at first marriage: the older, the higher the implied status.
The degree to which they owned or managed assets: the more they did, the higher the implied status.
The degree to which women contributed to subsistence.
How the dominant religion operated: including whether there were women of high religious status.
In literate cultures, how likely were women to be literate, how likely were they to be educated?
That we can assemble such a list of factors indicates how much the level of patriarchy was a response to various conditions, including ecological conditions. For instance, a low population-density society where the men were likely to be away implied armed women (to defend hearth and home). We see this in steppe societies and in Germanic and Celtic Europe.
A single-spouse-only society where the men were likely to be away (Sparta, Rome, Christian Europe) led to women managing assets. Far more so than in polygynous societies, as putting one of the wives competing for the prospects for their children in charge in the husband’s absence was something of a recipe for disaster.
Patriarchy is both a recurrent, and a variant, response to the circumstances societies found themselves in.
This varied commonness begins from the fundamental structuring feature of human societies: the transferring of risks away from childrearing and resources to childrearing. This fundamental structuring feature of human societies is due to our very biologically expensive children, who are remarkably helpless infants, and can take the best part of two decades (or more) to achieve independent adulthood. (In subsistence societies, such adulthood meant becoming a net calorie provider/producer.)
Prestige, dominance, …
That transfer of risks was from women with children in tow to (mainly) men. This made it much easier for men to accrue prestige, to display public competence and successful risk-taking, than women. As prestige is one of our fundamental currencies of cooperation, a key access to status and authority is therefore inherently inclined to be male-dominated.
This provides a simple explanation for the lack of matriarchies. If a key path to status and authority is male-dominated across all human societies (and it is), matriarchy, the presumption that authority is female, is blocked from emerging.
Even if there are, for instance, female hunters and female warriors. For, given the demands of human child-rearing, such women will simply not be typical of women in their society. So, while their existence may well be a factor in their society being more gender-egalitarian, that does not stop the society being patriarchal, it is just likely to make it less so.
Of the other forms of status, dominance and propriety, that women are the physically weaker sex, and are likely to have bubs in tow, means that dominance is also likely to be male-dominated.
The twist here is that foraging societies typically put a great deal of effort in suppressing dominance behaviour. For dominance is corrosive of the cooperation that foraging societies need to survive.
There is a very strong argument that what makes Homo sapiens, Homo sapiens was the systematic killing of alpha males by teams of beta males. Which would make us the ape that murdered its way to niceness, by systematically killing off males high in reactive aggression. (Using proactive aggression to do so: we are the equal most proactively aggressive primate, along with chimpanzees.)
We are the only surviving species of our genus and the version with the most gracile features. We are good at coordinating proactive aggression. We came to need robust facial bone structures to protect against blows rather less than we needed to be able to communicate emotion. The better to engage in, or deflect, such aggression and cooperate more generally.
Homo sapien females are both more gracile than males, and systematically physically weaker. Given our highly cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies transferring risks away from childrearing and resources to it, a much better lineage-persistence investment, for the female expression of genes, were signs of, and capacity for, fertility, plus increased ability to communicate emotion, rather than investing in lots of lean upper body mass or more robust facial bone structures
Once we start getting chiefdoms and states, dominance starts to re-assert itself, but via hierarchies, and teams, far more than individual prowess.
Teams, cliques and ritual societies
That male dominance was suppressed by teams of males, and then returns via hierarchies that mobilised male teams, points to another reason for the prevalence of patriarchy. Men and boys typically build teams, women and girls typically construct cliques.
The value of male teams for hunting and protection meant that human societies have again and again invested considerable effort in building and sustaining male teams.
In patrilineal societies, where women marry-in, it could be very important for the men to have male-only spaces to organise warfare against the male kin of their women-folk without alerting said women-folk. A perennial advantage of (overwhelmingly patrilineal kin-group) pastoralists over farmers was that pastoralist societies, having to defend mobile assets (animal herds), put a lot more effort into creating effective male teams.
In matrilineal societies, where the men marry-in, effort had to be put into organising male teams among men who did not grow up together and were not directly related. With the problem of not having their women folk warn their (married out) male kin.
The recurrent solution was to construct male-only ritual societies. These often enforced the exclusion of women from the male-only spaces quite viciously: it was literally a life-and-death issue. The existence of such societies, spaces and punishments obviously entrenched (and enforced) the presumption that authority was male.
Until recently, all state societies were patriarchal. To have a state requires application of coercive force using teams and hierarchies. As such teams and hierarchies were typically male, the authority therefrom was presumptively male.
The propensity to build teams, to build connections based on functional roles, to quickly generate team-functional hierarchies, has made men far more the solidarity sex than women. This obviously tends to advantage men’s capacity to generate, dominate, even monopolise, various forms of authority.
Women, as the physically weaker sex, recurrently with bubs in tow, tend to invest much more in emotionally-intense connections, which are therefore inclined to be unstable and do not scale-up well. Women are much less likely to have lower status friends than men are. Lower-status women are not likely to be worth the emotional investment but lower-status men may well be useful on your team.
While women are likely to be more perceptive about other people’s emotions than men (they have more reasons to be wary, so to pay closer attention) they are also more likely to be self-deceptive about their own aggression than men.
Physical aggression is likely to be more effective, with less risk, via overt signalling. Such aggression is generally not a good option for the physically weaker sex with bubs in tow. (That this is a strategic consideration is indicated by women being equally likely to engage in physical aggression against children as men are.)
Women tend to go for reputational or relational aggression, which works better if not paraded as aggression, including to the perpetrator. The consequent shunning and shaming behaviour, and blindness to female aggression, can be quite destructive for cooperation-at-scale, both among women and in wider society. Suppression of nagging and back-biting gossip — as disruptive of social cohesion — is a feature of subsistence, and near-subsistence, societies.
… and propriety
The third type of status is propriety. As it is about protective norm-conformity, women tend to be quite invested in propriety, often in convergence with religious authorities.
This was particularly so in Christianity, due to the Church endorsing single-spouse marriage; female consent for marriage; female testamentary rights; anathematising illegitimacy; and blocking adoption. The last two protected wives' children against claims by mistresses' children, including having their daughters supplanted as heirs. Mistresses are what you have in societies that do not recognise concubines.
The Church’s undermining of kin-groups also tended to benefit women, making them more able to control property and the requirement for their consent to marriage more likely to be operative. Kin-groups have often treated women’s wombs as strategic resources to be deployed in the service of the kin-group.
While families could, and did, do that in Christian Europe, lack of kin groups means that there was more capacity for female consent to matter. A sign of this was the relatively high average first age of marriage for women, at least north and west of the Hajnal line, plus the large number of women who did not get married at all.
Propriety is also a mechanism for female social leverage, including against other females. It rarely generates any presumption of female authority.
Propriety had limited ability to mobilise female aggression in face-to-face societies where women had vulnerable bubs in tow. Propriety also has considerable capacity to generate gossip traps that can encourage social stagnation.
The rise of social media has provided women with a mechanism of aggressive social leverage that does scale-up via network effects. A particularly dramatic example of female propriety trumping male prestige was Shirtgate, when a scientist who had overseen a very technically difficult project was publicly humiliated over his shirt.
There is clearly a real danger that this will push societies back into the gossip trap. That women are significantly more likely to support restrictions on speech than men, and that education has become increasingly feminised, has become a major factor in the decay of freedom of speech and thought.
A sign of how much patriarchy is a pattern of social adaptations — rather than some original male sin — is how readily it was abandoned by men as circumstances changed.
Yes, C19th Western society was patriarchal. Only men had the vote. The Married Women’s Property Act (1882) overturned highly patriarchal property laws.
Yet Western societies were starting from a way less patriarchal place than Islam, Brahmin or Confucian civilisations. One sign of this was the West producing women’s movements.
A striking contrast was provided in the C19th American West, which was marked by shortage of women. In US society proper (Christian, single-spouse marriage, no kin-groups) the result was elevated status of women. Women were able to use their relative scarcity as social leverage: married women had high status and even women of negotiable affection had considerable ability to acquire property.
There was also a shortage of women in the Chinese communities (polygynous, with kin-groups and kin-group substitutes). Chinese women were regularly forced into concubinage or Tong-controlled prostitution. They were much less able to take advantage of their relative scarcity due to living within communities from a much more patriarchal civilisation.
A civilisation that between 22IBC and 1911 produced a single sovereign empress of a unified China. Meanwhile, Japan had eight empresses regnant and Russia had four ruling Empresses in a single century: Catherine I (r.1725-27); Anna (r.1730-1740); Elizabeth (r.1741-1762); Catherine II (r.1762-1796).
As modern technological advancement changed the constraints and opportunities facing people, social strategies (and social norms) adapted. This includes by men.
Every single legal advance by women was voted for by male legislators. The women’s movement advanced by persuading men: something various feminists seem to systematically overlook.
If one takes the view that patriarchy is just a system of oppression, this history makes no sense. If, however, one takes the view that patriarchy is both common and varied because it represents various adaptations to circumstances — that it is constructed and maintained by social strategies adopted to deal with the operative constraints and opportunities — then this history makes perfect sense.
So, we can explain the patterns of patriarchy as a series of adaptations. As a series of interacting social strategies that respond to various sets of opportunities and constraints and that shift as those opportunities and constraints shift.
This is social phenomena as emergent from biology. The analytical point of emergent phenomena is that they have genuine causal power.
Nevertheless, it is an analysis grounded in biology; grounded in the notion that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The analysis is of biological beings, using their evolved capacities, to engage in various life-strategies from which we get further emergent social phenomena, including institutions.
But a great deal of commentary on patriarchy uses very different set of analytical frameworks, based on the following sequence of thinkers and ideas.
Rousseau: man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. A vision of constraint-as-oppression, the ur-statement of modern progressivism.
Kant: there is the observed world (phenomena) and things-in-themselves (noumena). We don’t have access to the “true” reality, which opens the way to the gnostic disposition and to disconnecting language from truth.
Hegel: the higher knowledge, the higher science, the higher logic, is understanding the dialectical process of the world becoming-as-it-ought-to-be. (Which is Hermeticism.)
Marx: we are imprisoned in an society dominated by an oppressing force (the bourgeoisie). By praxis (knowing action) we can participate in the dialectical process of the world becoming-as-it-ought-to-be, liberating our creative nature. (Which is the gnostic disposition married to a materialist version of Hegel’s Hermeticism.)
Horkheimer: Critical theory is justified by its commitment to the (imagined) future and its comprehensive understanding of the evolving dynamics of existing society. It critiques (and corrodes) existing society but what that future will be cannot be known until it is realised.
Simone de Beauvoir: One is not born but becomes a woman. Women are the second sex as they are pushed into social roles constructed by men, by the patriarchy. An oppressive force that socially imprisons women. Activism can liberate women to be as they choose to be.
Foucault: social action comes down to various forms of power, with authority within societies having carceral (i.e. socially-imprisoning) power.
The Marxist dialectical oppressor-oppressed template keeps getting updated because it provides a ready framework to motivate and coordinate. Different groups get the creating-a-social-prison demiurgic social power Marx gives to the bourgeoisie: men and patriarchy by feminism; white folk by Critical Race Theory; the cis-heteronormative by Queer Theory; and so on.
What all these ideas have in common, what is a deep feature of this whole genus of ideologies, is that this is all pre-Darwinian.
In the case of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, they all died before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. In the case of Marx, On the Origin of Species was published when he was 41. He’d established all his key ideas before On The Origin of Species was published and his post-1859 writings did not incorporate Darwin’s insights in any serious sense.
Later thinkers, such as Horkheimer, de Beauvoir and Foucault, may have been born decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (1871), yet they are still pre-Darwinian in their thinking, because they entirely failed to incorporate the evolutionary perspective.
Moreover, this stream of analysis has to remain pre-Darwinian because of its metaphysics of the future.
Evolutionary biology does not give human beings the metaphysical role that this genus of thought requires. It does not make us central to nature. It does not justify any sense of special knowledge of reality. It does not imply (in fact, flatly contradicts) the level of human cognitive plasticity required. It provides no basis for believing that the level of social harmony that glorifies their imagined future is any way plausible, or even biologically possible.
To embrace the evolutionary lens is to abandon the key presumptions of this entire stream of thought. It is no accident that Post-Enlightenment Progressivism generates assaults on the nature of science itself (as white, patriarchal, cis-heteronormative, etc.). Nor that this ire is particularly concentrated on evolutionary biology and its application to Homo sapiens.
Radical feminists have been front and centre in this assault, although gender-critical feminists have discovered that this stream of thought’s underlying logic casts them as defenders of the constraining status quo. They are now reaping — in the trans assault on women’s freedom of association — what they sowed in their endorsement of blank slate notions of human nature and their assault on male freedom of association.
A pattern has developed where feminists use the label patriarchy to blame men for anything that makes them unhappy. This includes refusing to take responsibility for any concomitant obligations — such as suppressing negative traits common among women — that emerge from social positions that they take to be their due but not their responsibility.
Another sign of women not being the social solidarity sex.
What is sought is an outcome without unwelcome constraints, of fully realised autonomy. What evolutionary biology teaches us is that various constraints, including all sorts of awkward human variabilities, are built in.
This unrealisable ambition leads to deep resentment of what is labelled patriarchy. Men allegedly have autonomy that women lack. Patriarchy becomes a thing assigned a role and form by Theory, rather than something we can understood with analytical tools available to us.
Such autonomy — freed of all annoying constraints — is a deeply anti-Darwinian ambition. We have evolved cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies — both physiologically and cognitively — to deal with constraints.
Cooperation increases possibilities but it also requires constraints on autonomy. This means only societies of ordered liberty can create such levels of social freedom as Homo sapiens can attain.
So, those who embrace the above strain of thought are not, in any useful sense, committed to building a successful future. That would require accepting the reality of our evolved nature and capacities. Instead, what one gets is rageful social corrosion, a shrieking critique of everything that leads nowhere productive.
This makes things worse without the better somehow magically arising out of the corrosion.
Human societies are built out of interactive life-strategies, as our evolved capacities react to the constraints and opportunities that we encounter. Patriarchy is a regularly, and varied, emergent feature thereof. It is not a necessary feature of the human condition. Aiming to do better is fine.
Trying to do so while wilfully refusing to accept the reality that everything social is emergent from the biological — while nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution — is destructive nonsense. As is treating half the human race as oppressors whose interests and concerns are not to be given equal weight in evolving societies better structured for human flourishing.
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Sex is biology; sex roles are the behavioural manifestation of sex; gender is the cultural manifestation of sex. If someone starts rabbiting on about “biological essentialism” as an analytical sin, they are spouting nonsense. Every time you go to the doctor, or engage in a medical procedure, you are engaging in “biological essentialism”.