Why Did Almost All Questions on Quora Make My Head Explode? (Part One)

Over on Slate, there is an article that was cross-posted from an answer to this question on Quora’s Feminism category: “Why did almost all societies believe that women were inferior to men?” Quora is basically like a glorified Yahoo! Answers, and it is premised on the idea that people can pose questions and random other people “with first-hand experience” will answer those questions. This means that Quora is “your best source for knowledge,” so you know this answer will, like, totally be the bestest answer <RuPaul>in herstory</RuPaul>.

The person who wrote the answer to this absurd question is Dan Holliday. According to his profile, he is qualified to answer this question because he’s…a gaytheist? There are no listed credentials or work or study history listed on his profile. I’m also going to assume that Dan does not have first-hand experiences with misogyny in almost all societies. So much for the premise of Quora! *sad trombone*

I recently wrote about essentialism in neuroscience and pointed out how studies like the one I lambasted in that post contribute to the ongoing mythologizing of a universal human nature in Euroamerican societies. Dan Holliday’s post is yet another example of trying to pass off the myth of an essential human nature as grounded in our evolutionary and historical past without any empirical evidence to support the claim. His answer is a completely uninformed and ignorant diatribe that depends on some bad reasoning, has no basis in the ethnographic record, and is an appeal to cultural beliefs.

Before I address Dan’s answer, I want to begin by examining the question: “Why did almost all societies believe that women were inferior to men?” This question makes so many assumptions that it’s hard to know where to begin. I guess I’ll start here: where is the evidence that “almost all societies” have believed that? I doubt the person who asked the question is even aware of how many extant and extinct human societies there are (something it would be extremely difficult to estimate).

It is impossible to know whether or not all or even most societies have believed that women were inferior to men because the vast majority of human existence has been pre-historic (meaning lacking written records). Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens appeared approximately 150 – 200 thousand years ago, and the earliest written records that might tell us anything about gender norms and relations did not appear until approximately 5,000 years ago. Of course, we can look at material culture artifacts from earlier than that, but there is the problem of interpreting symbolism into artifacts when we have no contemporaneous historical records to corroborate our interpretations. Thus, those interpretations are inevitably filtered through our own cultural lenses, which include our understandings of gender and our deep-seated love of the myth of human nature.

And this is how the myth of human nature makes its insidious entrance into this discussion. The thing about culture is that we are so habituated by it that it feels natural. In this way, it becomes really easy to rationalize our ways of thinking and seeing the world as based in our biological, genetic, and evolutionary past. You can see it in the comments on the Slate article, where, for example, this person draws conclusions about human societies based on the social structure of chimpanzees.

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 2.35.49 PM

Ah, yes. Chimps are pre-humans! Aside from the fact that this comment portrays an obvious misunderstanding of evolution, humans and chimps share a common ancestor approximately 6 – 7 million years ago. Chimps have still been evolving since that time, adapting to various ecological pressures. Further, there is a severe lack of chimp fossils to tell us much about chimp evolutionary history, so we are not really quite sure how much and in what ways they’ve changed over time.

Regardless, chimps are inevitably used as a proxy for human ancestors (welcome to primatological anthropology!) and therefore human nature. Of course, this comment and the kind of thinking it exhibits that pegs male dominance in our evolutionary past ignores the existence of bonobos, who behave quite differently than chimps, living in peaceful, matriarchal groups. But, you know, cherry picking is easier.

Another problem with the question stems from the inference that the existence of differences in sex and/or gender roles in a society is inherently misogynist. But a glance at the ethnographic record clearly shows that this is not the case, and at the very least that it is more complex than a simple “women are inferior than men” mentality.

I’ll give just one example, but there are many others. Kirk and Karen Endicott have found that the Batek people of Malaysia live in gender egalitarian societies and do not place much emphasis on gendered division of labor. Although Batek men tend to do the hunting and Batek women tend to do the gathering, these activities are not gender-restricted and one is not valued more than the other. Further, women serve in leadership roles in Batek society, which flies in the face of the premise of the question because if Batek people believed that women were inferior, they would not be able to lead their groups. No one would want to follow them!

So, if I were going to answer this question, I would point out that it is a bad question because it makes unfounded and faulty assumptions about the sociocultural histories and norms of humans.

But that doesn’t stop Dan Holliday!

Tune in tomorrow, as I deconstruct Dan’s answer using the awesome and mysterious powers of critical thought!

Featured image is “Bonobo Baby” by Jean Kern.


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. If you based your conclusions about rabbits on your research on guinea pigs you’d be laughed out of the room. With humans somehow looking at different species instead of our own seems to be the Thing to Do!

  2. Funny thing is, even the chimp thing is both, a) a myth, and b) inaccurate, since chimps are not our closest relative. Bonobo don’t have the same levels of aggression. Chimps.. only show such when under stress, which, ironically, the “chimp expert”, who we got most of our data from actually created, by a) providing a free, but limited, resource, which encouraged both competition within groups, and multiple groups of chimps to come closer together, thus “inducing” the conditions that led to all the violence. Since then, its been found that, without stressing factors, and excessive competition, they tend to be far less aggressive (but, still more so that bonobo, who are much more laid back). Beyond that, female are also aggressive to other females, and to males as well, but bonobo usually handle conflict with sex, not violence.

    And, in one of the funnier studies, they set up a food drop, sort of similar to what was done with chimps before, but added in the element of needing “tokens” to get the food out. The females immediately started hoarding the tokens, and given them out to the males, for, lets say… a certain trade of services. lol

    But, translating most of the stuff from chimps, and bonobo, to humans, with complex culture, is a nightmare. But, at least when it comes to isolatable attributes, the results seem to be, as one psychologist put it, “There may be differences, but they seem to disappear when you place men and women in the same conditions, with the same assumptions.” Just, culture, and assumptions, confound the results, and bury them in noise. Like the study showing that Asian women will do as well, or better, than men, if you point out, before a test, that, “Asians tend to do well at math.”, but poorer, on similar math problems, when told, “Women tend to do poorer than men.”, even when its the same class of math problems, and the same woman. All the myths, default assumptions, etc. screw us over, even to the point of altering, without us even knowing it, what we *ourselves* see about our own ability to do things that are in the “wrong category” of skills, according to those self same myths and assumptions.

    1. kagehi: “And, in one of the funnier studies, they set up a food drop, sort of similar to what was done with chimps before, but added in the element of needing “tokens” to get the food out. The females immediately started hoarding the tokens, and given them out to the males, for, lets say… a certain trade of services. lol”

      – do you have link or any reference for this one? thanks

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