Why Did Almost All Answers on Quora Make My Head Explode? (Part Two)

Yesterday, I wrote about an absurd question which was answered on Quora and cross-posted to Slate, increasing the internet’s exposure to faulty, mythical beliefs about human nature by probably at least a bazillion-fold. Today, I’m going to deconstruct the answer to that question provided by one Dan Holliday. Bear with me, because it’s a lot of bullshit to unpack, and I’m about to fisk the hell out of it.

He starts off with this whopper of a claim:

All modern societies evolved out of agrarian societies.

The major problem with this statement is the use of the word “modern.” The way I read this statement is that modern is a synonym for “contemporary” or “extant.” It is possible that Dan is using this word to refer to modernity, but therein lies the problem with this word: It allows room for equivocation. This is why I use the word “contemporary” if I mean it in the sense of currently existing or up-to-date, and I use the word “Euroamerican” (which is essentially what he means based on context) if I am referring to “Western” societies that are heavily influenced by historical events in European cultures, particularly the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

The implication of the word “modern” in this context is that those peoples who exist around the world in societies that are non-industrial, perhaps foraging or horticultural societies, are somehow stuck in the past, relics of our own past histories. But they’re not; they’re living in the present, and they arrived there via their own historical and cultural processes. The teleological view of social evolution, called unilineal evolution, that hides within Dan’s answer has long been abandoned by social scientists, but it still crops up in popular discourse all the time. And like the invocation of chimps as proxies for human nature, it’s annoyingly persistent.

Dan continues:

Before the Industrial Revolution, the male endurance value and physical strength translated directly to political power.

Citation. Fucking. Needed. I’m not even sure what “the male endurance value” is. But this is an evidence-less and essentialized understanding of what it means to be male, which is being used to set up Dan’s argument. This also completely ignores the existence of young males who were physically weak yet still had political power, as well as women who had political power. Could it be that political power was gained not through the physical strength and “endurance value” of those who wielded it, but because of the cultural beliefs people held about the order of the universe?

Men fought in wars, hunted beasts, erected buildings, and plowed fields PRECISELY because they possessed the physical stamina to do so at a far greater degree than females.

Notice the switch that Dan makes here from talking about sex (males) to talking about gender (men). This is a common way that gender essentialists to work their magic, by implying that bodies are the ground upon which gender is built. But this is wrong; rather, bodies are a necessary but insufficient trait for gender. Bodies do not determine gender roles, culture does. This is basic second-wave feminism, see Gayle Rubin. Male bodies do not necessarily lead to men’s gender roles; female bodies do not necessarily lead to women’s gender roles. Again, this is evident in historical and ethnographic work, such as the ethnohistorical records of the Native American berdache.

Besides this essentialist slight of hand, Dan’s claim is also empirically false. Women have fought in wars, hunted beasts, erected buildings, and plowed fields throughout history and under various positive and negative conditions. He provides no evidence and instead depends upon a circular, essentialist assertion to make this claim: “Men’s gender roles (fighting, hunting, building, plowing) emerge out of increased strength and stamina; increase strength and stamina led to men’s gender roles (fighting, hunting, building, plowing).” While this is apparently true, it is an argument made from assertion and not from empirical evidence.

I also question this notion that males have greater physical stamina than females because, I mean, have you seen what childbirth is like?

Dan goes on to say that history is important—yes, I agree—and that things happen to humans for “VERY good reasons.” Well, I think we are good at making up reasons when we look back, but a lot of shit that happens in human societies is not the result of planning or agency but is, in fact, just random crap that occurs. You see, Dan wants us to know that:

Back before the Industrial Revolution, human fertility was the highest premium factor in existence. People lived to have babies, and babies were the most important thing men and women brought into the world. The female role in reproduction—shall we say—involves a lot more time, effort, and pain (and before recently, a hell of a lot of death).

Again, citation needed. Let’s break this down. Before the late 18th Century, human fertility was the highest premium factor (what does that mean?) in existence—where and to whom? It is not as if there was one global society with one shared culture until the Industrial Revolution where all people were completely and utterly focused on heterosexual reproduction. “People lived to have babies”? Which people? Who?

Some scholars, such as Henry Abelove, have argued that, in fact, the premium value on heterosexual reproduction did not emerge until the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism really began to take hold and European societies began to value production, efficiency, and time in different ways than they had before. Plus, although birth-spacing intervals vary across contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, they generally have longer birth-spacing intervals than industrial societies. This is obvious if you think about it: foragers are mobile, so they cannot easily carry around multiple children. It is easier for them to move about if the children can walk; thus, they generally wait 3-4 years between births. This isn’t as much of an issue in more sedentary (agricultural or industrial) societies, and in those societies there is actually a higher need for more labor, thus birth spacing tends to be shorter.

The role of the birthing parent in reproduction certainly does require time, effort, and pain—and, dare I say, strength and stamina, which Dan explicitly attributes to males. They’re also not made completely weak and incapable by pregnancy—pregnant people can certainly continue contributing to their sociocultural groups in myriad ways. Further, birthing parents are not always everywhere the primary caregivers for children once they’re born. For example, the Batek, a group I cited in yesterday’s article, participate in alloparenting, with multiple members of the group other than the biological parents participating in the parenting and raising of children.

But don’t let the facts stop you, Dan!

Every moment women spent pregnant (which was a LOT of time) was time that she would have been taken away from power-playing.


Image of Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation with his arm extended and a look of annoyance on his face. The caption at the top of the image reads, "wtf is this shit?"

This was for a very good reason, reasons that no longer exist (and a reality we now live in that we take for granted).

Oh, I bet this is gonna be good!

More than half of all human beings died before their second birthday.

Say it with me! Citation needed!

Yeah, I’m pretty sure the problems of short life expectancy and infant mortality still exist and are not at all taken for granted in many parts of the world. But don’t let ethnocentrism stop you, Danny boy! What else you got?

Life was largely physically challenging, oftentimes painful, and disease was relatively rampant. Life wasn’t quite as short as most people make it out to be (mean life expectancy was around 38 years because of child mortality, but only another 10 years is added once we factor in those who make it to their teens, meaning that life expectancy hovered around 48—still awfully short).

This is all very vague and lacks any citations of concrete data. Life expectancy varies wildly across societies for a variety of reasons. Throwing out general numbers meant to cover THE ENTIRETY OF HUMAN HISTORY is just plain stupid.

No one is arguing that advances in medicine and health care haven’t had a major impact upon life expectancy and infant mortality. That’s pretty clear. The issue is that these vague claims are extremely myopic and ethnocentric, making the assumption that this is true for all human populations, which is just simply not true.

So, to put it plainly, women had a place in society that wasn’t just dictated by male prejudice (while it certainly existed); it was dictated by the needs of society. Gestating was (and is) a very time-consuming affair.

This is what we call a functionalist (or structural-functionalist) argument in the social sciences. Essentially, it strips patriarchy of sociocultural historical contexts and instead claims patriarchy and male dominance is a function of the way “society” is structured. Note that it does not allow room for variety and diversity in sociocultural practices or structures and instead posits that all societies are structured in such a way as to ensure heterosexual reproduction.

There are, of course, many problems with functionalist approaches to explaining sociocultural phenomena. For starters, as I’ve already mentioned, it sanitizes them of their historical and cultural contexts. It makes something like human reproduction look like a simple biological process that happens the same way across time and space. It makes it look like all gender relations are based on a heterosexual reproductive norm—in other words, it is heteronormative. It also makes culture look static and unchanging, as if these structures are the same, have been the same, and will always be the same for all human societies at all times in all places.

Again, a cursory glance at the ethnographic record will remedy this faulty notion.

Rearing children could not be done in day-care centers or public facilities. There were no public schools, no social safety nets, no labor laws: All that existed was family and church/temple/mosque (and religious organizations weren’t in the business of providing much in the way of social safety nets).

As I already stated, rearing children was often done by multiple people. This perspective that Dan has taken seems to think that the heterosexual, monogamous, reproductive nuclear family is at the center of all sociocultural life. But when you live in a society that practices polygyny, for example, you do not need day care. Social safety nets were not needed before state-level societies emerged because the family and other local institutions served that role. And to say that religious organizations do not have a history of providing social safety nets is patently false and misleading. The Salvation Army, for example, was founded in the mid-1800s as a religious-based social safety net. And it wasn’t until the New Deal that Americans-in-need were provided a social safety net by the government.

Women were needed at home because the lack of sophistication in society basically relegated most men and women into the roles that they had: men = physical power / social manager and women = home power / child-bearer.

This is basically the same argument that feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner tried to make back in 1972. The argument essentially goes like this: females are closer to nature because of their reproductive lives, which tie them down and keep reminding them of their utterly embodied existence, while males are closer to culture because they are not tied down by their reproductive lives and are free to go out into the public sphere and create and reproduce culture. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s what Dan is arguing here.

Fortunately, Ortner has re-considered and revised her previous arguments based on many of the critiques of her position. Further, feminist anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo has claimed exactly the opposite of what Dan claims in the quote above. Rosaldo tells us that (emphasis mine):

My alternative is to insist that sexual asymmetry is a political and social fact, much less concerned with individual resources and skills than with relationships and claims that guide the ways that people act and shape their understandings. Thus, it appears to me that if we are to grasp just what it is that women lack or men enjoy—and with what sorts of consequences—what we require are not accounts of how it all began, but theoretical perspectives…which analyze the relationships of women and men as aspects of a wider social context. If men, in making marriages, appear to be the actors who create the social world, our task is neither to accept this fact as adequate in sociological terms nor to attempt, by stressing female action, to deny it. Instead, we must begin to analyze the social processes that give appearances like these their sense, to ask just how it comes about—in a world where people of both sexes make choices that count—that men come to be seen as the creators of collective good and the preeminent force in local politics. Finally, I would suggest, if these become the questions that guide our research, we will discover answers not in biological constraints or in morphology of functionally differentiated spheres, but rather in specific social facts—forms of relationship and thought—concerning inequality and hierarchy.

In other words, gender roles are not biological givens but socioculturally emergent phenomena within particular historical contexts. Contra both the initial question and Dan’s absurdly ignorant answer.

That’s enough for today! Tune in tomorrow for my third and final post on this topic, where I will finish unpacking and fisking the final three paragraphs of this horrific blight on Slate’s reputation.

Featured image is of Weh-Wa, a Zuni berdache.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

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  1. I am struck by his assumption that when pregnant, being pregnant is apparently the only thing a woman can do. Which comes as a surprise to me, having been pregnant quite a few times and having successfully left the house and gone places and done shit.

  2. Women are differentially more vulnerable during pregnancy than men, but each and every human is completely helpless and completely vulnerable during infancy. Infants can’t feed or defend themselves against anything.

    There is another article on Slate that should also be looked at, the one on Microsoft.


    What would a “survival of the fittest” employee ranking do with people in a tribe? Kill off the “weakest” ones? The weakest one are always the infants.

    There is no infant that could win a fight with a toddler, no toddler that could win a fight with a teenager, no teenager that could win a fight with the Patriarch of the tribe when the Patriarch wields the social power of the Patriarchy.

    This is the fatal flaw of social Darwinism. The adult male Patriarch is powerful because he wields the social power of the tribe, not because he has superior genes or is otherwise appointed by God. This is where the truism “never wound a king” comes from. The king has social power due to his position. If he is not removed from that position of power, he will use that power to survive, and kill who ever wounds him.

    The characteristics of an adult depend on the development pattern that genotype has gone through. Compel that genotype to develop under conditions of poverty and abuse, and you will get a phenotype with a stunted body and brain. If the Patriarch controls allocations of resources, the Patriarch will control who ends up with non-stunted bodies and brains. You can substitute any source of social power or privilege. Right now that is mostly money. That is why the GOP is fighting tooth-and-nail to kill food stamps, ObamaCare, education and other safety nets for the poor.

    1. The adult male Patriarch is powerful because he wields the social power of the tribe, not because he has superior genes or is otherwise appointed by God.


      The characteristics of an adult depend on the development pattern that genotype has gone through. Compel that genotype to develop under conditions of poverty and abuse, and you will get a phenotype with a stunted body and brain.

      That is not false, but it oversimplifies things. I do not like the implication that everything depends upon the genome. There are social conditions that affect how people live in the world that are not imprinted upon the genome. That’s a pretty big claim that you’d need to back up empirically. For example, do different sects of a religion develop different genotypes? Those are different characteristics of adults. Does a Baptist have some sort of special genotype that a Lutheran does not? It’s not all about the genotype, you know. I guess I would word it differently–the development pattern of a genotype can influence the characteristics of an adult. This leaves things a bit more open and is not biologically reductionist. The way you have it worded now makes it seem like cultural traits depend upon genotype.

      1. I am saying that the phenotype depends on the development path, not on the genome. The idea that emergent properties of a phenotype (intelligence for example) depends on the genome and not so much on development is completely wrong. There is no genome that bad luck can’t screw up. Mostly that is all due to luck and has very little to do with genes. Even if it did have to do with genes, which genes you get also depends on luck. Which genes your parents got depends on luck.

    2. This is the fatal flaw of social Darwinism.

      I really wish there was some, and I mean any, way to get people to stop using the term. Darwin would probably have, had some dimwit called this sort of thinking by that name in his day, been the first in line to call them a complete idiot. It *assumes* that “adaptation” and “fitness” can’t include protection of weaker members, for the benefit of the whole. Why? Because every fool that uses the term thinks “Survival of the Fittest” means, “Strongest, most powerful, best skilled, etc., etc.” Sometimes though, it means, “Not being noticed.”, or, “Being small enough to fit into places the big bad predator can’t.”, or any number of other things. It can also include, “Protecting the weak, since the strong place themselves at higher risks, and may not live long enough to breed.” None of which, idiotically, other than the blatantly misunderstood version, is ever described as “Darwinism”, social or otherwise. But then, the same sort of fools that claim “Social Darwinism” isn’t a total and complete gibberish concept, which is never the less fully embraced by lots of other fools, are, even now, apparently, praising the Obamacare “healthcare exchanges”, like the one in Kentucky, while claiming that it is a “good replacement” for the very law that created it. Why understand wtf you are talking about, if you can just use a word to mean some mess of horrible ideas (which have nothing to do with the ideas of the person that created it, or what is really going on), right? :headdesk:

  3. There’s another problem with functionalism than the ones you mention, one that I would argue is even more serious. Specifically, functionalism does not merely explain the way society is organized, but =justifies= it. Functionalism is normative, not just descriptive. This is not accidental, of course – the objective of a functionalist view is to observe the structures of privilege and disadvantage already present and say that this is the way things are, and also the way things =should= be.

    A sort of proto-functionalism was common in the antebellum American South, and promulgated to defend the institution of slavery. Functionalism proper was common in early Industrial Revolution America and parts of Europe, and promulgated to defend the crushing poverty created by unregulated capitalism. It’s an example of working backwards, starting with the answer (already-privileged persons) already believed and coming up with an argument to arrive at that specific answer.

      1. The largest component of “fitness” for the genes of any individual are how well those genes “fit together” with the genes of the other members of the species so as to produce fertile and viable offspring. If the genes don’t “fit together”, then the phenotype that develops is not fertile and viable, as in species that are not cross-fertile. That is how speciatiion occurs, groups of organisms experience genetic drift until they are not mutually fertile because their genes don’t “fit together” to produce fertile and viable offspring.

        In humans, virtually all of the important emergent properties depend to a gigantic amount on the details of epigenetic programming in utero, which depends a great deal on maternal nutritional status. That is why when women are allowed to control their fertility, they have fewer children and take better care of them. One or two healthy children is a better reproductive “bet” than half a dozen starved, and scrawny ones.

        1. I’m assuming you meant this in response to kagehi’s comment and not to skeith’s comment on functionalism.

          Anyway, I’ve never heard of survival of the fittest to mean what you just explained. I’ve always heard that it is supposed to mean individuals/groups that are best adapted to their environment. Interesting take on the phrase.

          In humans, virtually all of the important emergent properties depend to a gigantic amount on the details of epigenetic programming in utero, which depends a great deal on maternal nutritional status.

          Citation needed. Sorry, this is way too broad of a statement with way too many ambiguous terms. “Virtually,” “important,” “emergent properties,” “gigantic amount”–you need to define these sorts of things. Further, there are other things that can affect the epigenome of a fetus besides the nutritional status of the mother, such as disease and hormone levels to name a couple.

          That is why when women are allowed to control their fertility

          This phrasing bothers me. Allowed by whom? Maybe it’s better to just say when women have control of their own reproduction without implying that it must always be granted to them.

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