Out of Control

A couple of nights ago, BBC Two Horizon aired a show called “Out of Control,” which challenges the existence of free will (an increasingly important topic among philosophers and scientists).The synopsis is as follows:

We all like to think we are in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion. Surprising experiments are revealing that what you think you do and what you actually do can be very different. Your unconscious mind is often calling the shots, influencing the decisions you make, from what you eat to who you fall in love with. If you think you are really in control of your life, you may have to think again.

David Butcher of the Radio Times gives his own  summary, which highlights the innately deterministic processes of our brains.

There’s a lovely scene in this Horizon where the director gives each of the brain scientists he interviews a marker pen and a sketch pad. Then he asks each of them to show on paper how much of what the brain does is conscious, and how much unconscious, in their view. They vary: one shades in a tiny square, which he says is the conscious brain’s contribution; another shades off about a tenth of the page. But they all agree that, like an iceberg, the great majority of our brain activity lies below the surface. The sense we are consciously in control is an illusion – and the programme goes on to illustrate this with wonderful experiments involving golf, knitting and chasing toy helicopters. People assume they are in control of their lives, deciding what they want and when they want it – but scientists now claim this is simply an illusion. Experiments reveal that what a person does and what they think can be very different, with the unconscious mind often influencing the decisions they make, from what they eat to who they fall in love with. Horizon reveals to what extent people really do control their own destiny.

Whether you agree with the assertion or not, I think this is a vital discussion worth watching (I for one am undecided but lean towards determinism). The existence of free will is perhaps one of the oldest debates, and it’s starting to gain a lot of traction following our advancements in genetics, neuroscience, and social psychology.  

Click here to see the episode, which will remain posted for the remaining week (those of you reading this afterward should search it on Google of YouTube). I’m not sure how accessible the link is, since some of my friends were having difficulty seeing the video. But give it a shot and share your feedback.

Pity for Evil

But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography.

Some of the most tragic biographies I’ve ever read are those of criminals and tyrants. Sometimes, the perpetrators of evil deserve as much sympathy as their victims.

I used to a social experiment in which I’d tell people the story of a nameless figure who often times abused, mistreated, sickly, and in constant suffering throughout their early lives. My listeners would react with sympathy until they found out that such a figure turned out to be Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

This isn’t to say these men weren’t monsters. I’m not apologizing for the tremendous horror and agony they wrought upon the world. I’m merely contemplating what sort of factors lead some individuals to become senselessly evil on that level (or any level, for that matter). Evil doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. What sort of things corrupt people in this way?

Usually, the evil-minded are either the product of lifelong trauma – such as poverty, abuse, social oppression, and lack of familial support – or the consequence of genetic and psychological factors that are beyond their control (think of psychopaths).

This leads me to wonder how different history would be if Hitler or Stalin were born into loving families within stable societies, without any mental problems. How many criminals would have been upstanding members of society was it not for an accident of birth placing them in awful conditions.

Indeed, evil actions are rarely intentional in the way most people imagine. That is to say, no one ever believes that what they do is wrong. Humans have a way of rationalizing or self-justifying every action, regardless of how clearly heinous it may seem to everyone else

Some people grew up in a world that was always cruel, so why not behave accordingly? Others never had a chance to understand certain moral and ethical concepts, so how are they to know right from wrong? And many have poorly understood behavioral problems that they cannot help.

In any case, evil for its own sake is a myth, and the few individuals who have ever claimed to do bad things for no good reason are mentally abnormal to begin with.

I sometimes ponder how would’ve turned out if I was born and raised in more negative circumstances. What if I was regularly abused? What if I never knew love, or never received moral and ethical guidance? What if all I ever experienced was hardship, hatred, and apathy? What if I was born with the same neurological abnormalities that lead some people to lack empathy or self-control? Would I have ended up as the person I am now?

It’s highly doubtful; although that’s not to say everyone who experiences these things is guaranteed to be immoral and dysfunctional. We have no choice but to work with the cards we are dealt. We’re mostly shaped by forces beyond our control – the culture, society, time period, and socioeconomic level we are born and raised into at random. All we can do is adapt, and even then, some people are better equipped psychosocially than others.

This leads me to wonder: to what degree can we blame immoral people for their actions? If they never had anyone to guide them properly, or were born with a biologically embedded inability to reason or feel, are they really at fault for what they turn out to be? If their minds were warped by deterministic influences, can they really be said to have any control over their fate?

If so, to what extent – what’s the subsequent solution to the problem of evil, and how do we treat the delinquents of our society? Regardless of evil’s origins, or what solutions (if any) there may be to address it, I think we can agree that the greatest tragedy of evil is that exists in the first place, and that otherwise decent people fall into it for any number of reasons. Will it always be a scourge of the human condition forever? Is it an intractable part of human nature, if there is such a thing.

As always, thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.


Do Genes Determine Mood?

Studies within the last two or three decades have shed light on the pre-determined factors that make us who we are. Though still hotly debated (and perhaps too often overstated) there is increasing evidence that our personality and behavior are influenced, in varying degrees, by our biology. Alterations to our brain chemistry or hormones, whether deliberately or as the result of certain genes, cause subsequent changes to our mood, cognitive ability, and even morality. As unsettling as it may be for many people, it’s possible that a good part of who we are may be genetically predisposed by the vagaries of biology – a complete accident of birth beyond our control.

The Economist had some time ago published an article on this subject, dealing specifically with the most sought after (and perhaps elusive) of all human emotions: happiness. Feeling good is obviously something any normal person would want, and everyone is concerned with living a good and content life. But figuring out what makes us happy, and how to attain it, has been one of the oldest subjects of debate and literature. With the current economic and political problems that are befalling us, and a growing sense of cynicism and anxiety about the future, concerns about living a stress-free and enjoyable life are understandably widespread.

So imagine the implications of discovering that happiness, if not other emotions, has more to do with your genes than with any existential or spiritual search. Consider the following study detailed below:

[The fact that] personality, along with intelligence, is at least partly heritable is becoming increasingly clear; so, presumably, the tendency to be happy or miserable is, to some extent, passed on through DNA. To try to establish just what that extent is, a group of scientists from University College, London; Harvard Medical School; the University of California, San Diego; and the University of Zurich examined over 1,000 pairs of twins from a huge study on the health of American adolescents. In “Genes, Economics and Happiness”, a working paper from the University of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, they conclude that about a third of the variation in people’s happiness is heritable.That is along the lines of, though a little lower than, previous estimates on the subject.
 
But while twin studies are useful for establishing the extent to which a characteristic is heritable, they do not finger the particular genes at work. One of the researchers, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, of University College, London, and the London School of Economics, has tried to do just that, by picking a popular suspect—the gene that encodes the serotonin-transporter protein, a molecule that shuffles a brain messenger called serotonin through cell membranes—and examining how variants of that gene affect levels of happiness.
 
Serotonin is involved in mood regulation. Serotonin transporters are crucial to this job. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants—long and short. The long one produces more transporter-protein molecules than the short one. People have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. So some have two short alleles, some have two long ones, and the rest have one of each.
 
The adolescents in Dr De Neve’s study were asked to grade themselves from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. Dr De Neve found that those with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied; those with two long alleles were 17% more likely.
 
Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but there still seems to be a strong enough link between these alleles and one’s mood to merit further inspection. Imagine if we could trace other feelings to certain genetic markers as well. Could anger, recklessness, or greed, among other emotions, also be attributed to certain biological factors? What about more severe examples like psychosis? What does all this say about the way we treat certain behavioral or mental problems, both medically and as far as societal attitudes to them?
 
Imagine altering our genetic code in some way could be the key to solving these kinds of problems. Rather than consult a psychotherapist or take some sort of medication, you’d see a specialist in gene therapy instead. Perhaps even mild cases of the blues could be addressed through some sort of genetic tweaking. Granted, I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but it doesn’t hurt to discuss the possibilities, however unlikely they may currently seem.
 
In any case, these scenarios are only the beginning. There is another implication from this study that could be even more contentious:
Where the story could become controversial is when the ethnic origins of the volunteers are taken into account. All were Americans, but they were asked to classify themselves by race as well. On average, the Asian Americans in the sample had 0.69 long genes, the black Americans had 1.47 and the white Americans had 1.12.
 
That result sits comfortably with other studies showing that, on average, Asian countries report lower levels of happiness than their GDP per head would suggest. African countries, however, are all over the place, happiness-wise. But that is not surprising, either. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent, because that is where humanity evolved (Asians, Europeans, Aboriginal Australians and Amerindians are all descended from a few adventurers who left Africa about 60,000 years ago). Black Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves carried away from a few places in West Africa, cannot possibly be representative of the whole continent.
 
That some populations have more of the long version of the serotonin-transporter gene has been noticed before, though the association has previously been made at a national, rather than a racial, level. In a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, published in 2009, Joan Chiao and Katherine Blizinsky of Northwestern University, in Illinois, found a positive correlation between higher levels of the short version of the gene and mood disorders (China and Japan have lots of both) and with collectivist political systems. Their hypothesis is that cultures prone to anxiety tend towards systems that emphasise social harmony and away from ones that emphasise individuals’ independence of each other.
 
Obviously, as with most such findings, more work will have to be done to replicate and validate the conclusions. But the suggestions this discovery makes are vast: not only is everyone’s behavior influenced by genes to a significant level, but so are entire societies and political systems by extension. The way we form our communities, govern ourselves, or go about engaging in economic activity can be informed, in part, by the genetic dispositions of the majority of the population. Does that mean that certain nations, like individuals, are destined for certain paths of development? Such a genetically determined fatalism would be understandably concerning and divisive.
 
As near as we can tell, it would also be an exaggeration. Thus far, most studies have shown that genes, while significant influencers, are not the only determinants of who we are. Being born with a certain genetic predisposition isn’t always destiny. But it’s still something worth keeping in mind. There’s no doubt there will be a lot of debate about this, but there’s one thing that isn’t likely to be disputed:
This latter study may be a few steps too far along the road to genetic determinism for some people. But there is growing interest in the study of happiness, not just among geneticists but also among economists and policymakers dissatisfied with current ways of measuring humanity’s achievements. Future work in this field will be read avidly in those circles.
You can read the actual report of Dr. Neve’s study here. As always, share your thoughts or illuminations below.
 

The Science and Philosophy of Free Will

Among scientific, theological, and philosophical circles, the issue of free will - what is it, does it exist, is there any reason to believe it does or doesn’t, etc – has become an increasingly hot topic. And why wouldn’t it be? Whether or not we have any real capacity to make free choice in our lives without external constraints matters a lot. It probably always will, given human nature and our various goals, desires, beliefs, and other higher-thinking that leads us to want to act and exert control in the world (albeit it often terrible ways).

The Center for Inquiry, a think tank primarily concerned with skepticism and secular humanism, held a conference last month between philosophers and scientists on this very topic. It’s an hour-and- a-half long, but its a very engaging discussion almost the whole way through (though its easy to get a bit overwhelmed by all the implications of the arguments put forth). This really gets at the heart of how complex and variable the idea of free will can be. Even the semantics of it is often an issue of contentious (how do you define free will? what constitutes it?).

Just for your information, here is the info and introduction:

Are advances in the scientific understanding of the human mind shaping our conception of free will? If so, how? Are the cognitive sciences revealing that free will does not exist, or are they merely shedding light on the inner workings of agency? And do the answers to these questions have implications for moral responsibility?

On Nov. 6, 2011, the Center for Inquiry-New York City explored these and related questions by presenting a panel discussion featuring:

* Hakwan Lau, Columbia University.
* Alfred Mele, Florida State University.
* Jesse Prinz, City University of New York.
* Adina Roskies, Dartmouth College.
* Massimo Pigliucci, City University of New York.

This event was held at the Auditorium on Broadway. It was the second in our “Science and Philosophy” series. The first event focused on consciousness.

For more:
http://www.centerforinquiry.net/nyc

There is so much I’d love to say on this topic, although I’m sadly too pressed for time to give it the attention and detail it merits. I will say that I lean more towards determinism, although I’m ultimately agnostic about such a vast and metaphysical issue. I also find it difficult to imagine we’ll ever be able to settle for any one answer, especially given the abstract nature of the whole discussion (as far as the average person is concerned).

In any case, Jerry Coyne, over at his blog Why Evolution is True, posted about the same video, complete with some engaging questions of his own to consider. Since he largely did my job for me, I’ll just share his reflections.

1.  What do we mean by free will?  So many people who discuss free will don’t begin by defining what they mean by it. That’s a problem, for instance, with Roskies’s paper.  Although she notes that the term could mean many things, she repeatedly argues that the findings of neuroscience do not “undermine the existence or efficacy of the will” nor contradict “traditional views” of free will, without saying what she means by “free will.” My own definition is that if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise.  (I exclude different “choices” based on things like quantum indeterminacy.)

2.  Is there a mind/brain duality?  To me, and to many people, the “classical” notion of free will involves us being able, at a given point of time, to choose freely between alternatives, and that “choice” could not rest on any random indeterminicies of physics (e.g. quantum behavior of electrons).  Pigliucci asserts, correctly, that “nobody any longer seriously defends a notion of free will that relies on dualism or, a fortiori, even more metaphysically suspect concepts like souls.”

That’s all well and good, but I don’t think that message has trickled down to the layperson, especially to those of the faithful who think we have a soul.  A soul, of course, must be a nonmaterial entity, since it survives our physical bodies, and so could be the vehicle for free will.  More of us expound the message out that neuroscience gives no evidence for a soul. Sam, whom Pigliucci scorns, has been especially good at promulgating the “no-soul” data.

But if there’s no mind/brain duality, then our will must reside solely in the physical substance of our brain, and that raises the next issue:

3.  Are our decisions completely determined by the laws of physics? I don’t see how the answer to this can be anything but “yes,” barring those decisions that could be affected by true indeterminacies, like those involved in quantum mechanics. (I think the data now show that there really are true indeterminacies in physics—things with no deterministic “cause”. One of these, for example, appears to be when a specific radioactive atom decays.)

But some physicists, Sean Carroll among them, don’t think that this kind of indeterminacy affects our behavior, and thus can’t affect even the appearance of choice.  And even if it could—even if, say, the movement of a specific electron really could affect a decision—that isn’t what we think of as part of a “free choice.” (Further, even if there are true quantum indeterminacies, the fact that arrays of particles adhere to well-defined probability distributions may rule out any effect of indeterminacy on our behavior.) Massimo recognizes this.  But he’s not convinced that determinism holds even on the macro level, and in his latest post declares himself “agnostic” on determinism.

Massimo’s “A handy dandy guide for the skeptic of determinism” lists several reasons why he isn’t convinced that the laws of physics on the macro scale are deterministic. I strongly disagree with his take on this, but since I’ve discussed the issue with Sean Carroll, who knows a lot more about this than do I, and because Sean promises to post on physical determinism very soon, I’ll leave the physics stuff to him.  But I can’t resist noting that Massimo uses the newest post to take yet another swipe at me and Sam Harris, as well as at Alex Rosenberg.  Pigliuccci simply can’t help flaunting his credentials by impugning ours; as he says:

I got so sick of the smug attitudes that Rosenberg, Coyne, Harris and others derive from their acceptance of determinism — obviously without having looked much into the issue — that I delved into the topic a bit more in depth myself. As a result, I’ve become agnostic about determinism, and I highly recommend the same position to anyone seriously interested in these topics (as opposed to anyone using his bad understanding of physics and philosophy to score rhetorical points).

Oh, Massimo, I much regret that the laws of physics have made you such a pompous fellow.

As for Pigliucci’s physics and philosophy on this issue, I disagree that “if you believe in laws of nature you do need to come up with an account of their ontology.” Nope, all we have to show is that those rules hold ubiquitously, universally, and enable us to make predictions that work. (His argument here resembles that of theologians who impugn science because we can’t explain the usefulness of science without God.)  We don’t need to come up with any stinking ontology to accept strict physical determinism at the macro scale.

And I don’t understand this argument of Pigliucci at all:

And one final point: particularly when it comes to discussions of free will, we keep hearing that the latter is impossible because in a deterministic universe the past determines the future. But as Hoefer points out (and he has expanded on this in a 2002 paper: Hoefer, C., “Freedom From the Inside Out,” in Time, Reality and Experience, C. Callender (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 201–222), the “laws” of physics treat time as symmetrical, which means that the present and the future “fix” the past just in the same way in which the past “fixes” the present and the future. No particular area of the time axis has priority over the others. Chew on that for a while.

Maybe I am unsophisticted, but I don’t see how time symmetry has any bearing on whether the future is determined by the past and present.

4.  Is our future behavior completely predictable from the present and past?  This question differs from that above because even a completely deterministic system may not be predictable.  We can never have perfect knowledge of all conditions, and, as advocates of chaos theory (a deterministic theory) know, even tiny differences in initial conditions—differences that may be too small for us to measure—can produce radically different outcomes.  Therefore, even if determinism reigns (and, if it does, there’s no free will under my definition), that doesn’t mean that we can predict our future behavios from what we know now.  But it does mean that there is only one set of behaviors that we can evince in the future: that is, we can never do other than what we do.

5.  Does free will require that we be conscious of having made a decision? In light of the results of studies by Libet and Soon et al. that decisions appear to be made long before we’re conscious of having made them, we need to discuss the relationship of consciousness to free will. This is one area that seems ripe for a confab between philosophers and neuroscientists. I would claim that in many cases yes, we must be conscious.  When you choose a flavor of ice cream at the ice cream counter, if that decision can be predicted an hour in advance, when you first decide to go to  the shop, I would argue that that choice is not “free,” at least in the conventional sense.  Certainly the predictability of decisions made under experimental conditions undermines our traditional notions of free will (Roskies argues otherwise), and philosophers have to take that into account.  Pigliucci and several panel members appear to wave this problem away, saying that free will can involve unconscious“choice”, but I don’t think the problem is so easily dismissed.

6.  If our choices are determined, or at best are subject to the deterministic and indeterministic principles of physics, how can our will be “free”?  This is the big problem that compatibilist philosophers are dealing with, and I won’t reprise their many arguments here.  Pigliucci offers one solution (he appears to be a compatibilist, that is, someone who thinks that free will is compatible with physical determinism):

Many philosophers have located freedom of the will in the ability to choose freely [note: this doesn’t mean “a-causally”] which intentions to form.

That’s a solution I don’t understand, for I don’t know what he means by “choose freely” if the choice is completely caused by physical conditions. What does “free” mean then?  By “choose freely,” Pigliucci mean “the appearance of having chosen freely”?

I have read a lot of compatibilist philosophy, and none of it has convinced me. It all sounds too much like rationalization of what people want to believe a priori.  I am a big fan of Dan Dennett, for instance, but I’m not on board with the solution he offers in Freedom Evolves.  One can, of course, redefine free will so that we have it despite complete physical determinism, but that seems to me a cop-out.  Better to get rid of the term than redefine it in a way that doesn’t comport with how regular people conceive of it, or how it’s been used historically.  That would be like redefining “God” as “the laws of physics”—it completely finesses long-standing discussions of the problem.

7.  If our choices are completely determined by our genes and environments, according to the laws of physics, are we morally responsible for our actions? Again, this is too big an area to cover, and depends on what one means by “moral responsibility”.  My own view is that holding people “responsible” for their acts, whether good or ill, is something that we need to do to preserve an orderly society. (I’m not sure we should consider this a form of “moral” responsibility.) But we should certainly inform our system of justice, punishment, and reward in light of what neuroscience tells us.  We already do this, to some extent—mentally ill criminals are treated differently from “normal” criminals—but we need to do more.

It’s my contention that, in light of the physical determinism of behavior, there’s no substantive difference between someone who kills because they have a brain tumor that makes them aggressive (e.g., Charles Whitman), and someone who kills because a rival is invading their drug business.  We need to reconceive our judicial system in light of what science tells us about how the mind works. And that’s why discussing the bearing of neuroscience and philosophy on free will is far more important than our usual academic discourse.

As Coyne alluded to towards the end, the implications of a deterministic world would be vast. We’d have to change the way we view crime, criminal behavior, and socioeconomic ills. Our notions of individual responsibility and accountability would be completely moot. Our entire economic and political system would likely need to be discarded, as free choice forms the foundations of democracy and capitalism. For these reasons alone, I could see why many would rather avoid the topic in the first place, much less try to wrap their heads around its vast consequent paradigm shift.

The Plow: Origin of Sexism?

You read that correctly. There have been all sorts of theories as to why discrimination towards women seems so pervasive and near-universal, and from where it comes from to begin with. But a crude farming tool is by far the most interesting and unexpected origin. As the Economist – my most cherished and regularly read source – recently reported, a team of economists, of all people, set out to prove that the adoption of the plow coincided with a change of attitudes towards women that persists to this day.

Specifically, a move towards large-scale and labor-intensive agriculture – defined by the adoption of the heavy plow – created an economic system in which one’s physical strength and endurance became a major basis for productivity, and they key to society’s survival. Men were naturally more adept in this new function, and from this crucial role they would subsequently come to dominate other aspects of society, namely in politics, religion, and other economic ventures.

Indeed, pre-history – the era before the widespread advent of agriculture – is strongly associated with matriarchy. The worship and reverence of females, mothers, and other symbols of womanhood, such as fertility, was widespread across many different civilizations. Religions and mythologies dating from this era tended to be female-dominated, and it wasn’t unusual for women to be found in all sorts of leadership roles too (though we shouldn’t risk overstating the universality of all this).

None of this is new however. As the Economist article quickly establishes, this theory was proposed decades ago:

FERNAND BRAUDEL, a renowned French historian, once described a remarkable transformation in the society of ancient Mesopotamia. Sometime before the end of the fifth millennium BC, he wrote, the fertile region between the Tigris and the Euphrates went from being one that worshipped “all-powerful mother goddesses” to one where it was “the male gods and priests who were predominant in Sumer and Babylon.” The cause of this move from matriarchy, Mr Braudel argued, was neither a change in law nor a wholesale reorganisation of politics. Rather, it was a fundamental change in the technology the Mesopotamians used to produce food: the adoption of the plough.

The plough was heavier than the tools formerly used by farmers. By demanding significantly more upper-body strength than hoes did, it gave men an advantage over women. According to Mr Braudel, women in ancient Mesopotamia had previously been in charge of the fields and gardens where cereals were grown. With the advent of the plough, however, farming became the work of men.

What’s interesting about this recent study is that it tests Braudel’s premise by looking over all sorts of economic, ethnographic, and historical data, deriving a pattern which shows a strong correlation between plow-intensive agricultural societies and patriarchy (the original paper is available here). The sort of societies that used the plow were in turn contingent upon geography and climate, since certain areas and forms of weather were conducive to certain crops. Thus, famously male-dominated Middle-Eastern and South Asian civilizations emerged as an accident of location: they emerged in areas where only labor-intensiveness crops could form, and this cultivation would in turn lead to their persistent patriarchal mindsets.

The academics point out that the decision to choose—or abstain from—plough cultivation has a lot to do with the type of farmland and climate. Broadly speaking, ploughs are most useful for crops that require large tracts of land to be tilled in a short span of time, perhaps because the climate favours a grain with a relatively short growing season. Crops like wheat, teff, barley and rye are well-suited for plough-based farming; others, including sorghum, millet, roots and tubers, benefit less from the use of the plough. The economists were able to use measures of agro-climatic conditions to predict which parts of the world would adopt the plough. The data show that ethnic groups whose ancestors would have been expected to pick ploughs based on climatic conditions have sharply differentiated economic roles for the sexes even today. So it seems reasonable to argue that its use drove attitudes rather than the other way around.

This presents yet another strong argument for determinism, and the notion that many of our sociological, psychological, and cultural developments – both individually and collectively – are shaped by factors outside our control. Granted, this in no way justifies stances like sexism, nor does it suggest that these things are intractable. Humanity is constantly progressing in it’s outlook, and transcending it’s constraints. We live in a post-industrial world increasingly less dependent upon physical prowess as a factor for survival – the so-called “knowledge” economy theoretically gives men and women an equal edge in terms of their contributions and roles in society (traditional mores and maternal roles  notwithstanding).

Of course, there is a casual dilemma in all this, as is typical of correlative demonstrations. Did the adoption of the plow lead to sexist attitudes towards women? Or did societies that already had this attitude end up adopting the plow? Many have suggested that the discovery of and utilization of metals had a big part to play. As humans refined their ever-present penchant for warfare, martial prowess – even more defined by strength, stamina, and endurance – became the key for the survival of a given community.

It seems that as advanced civilizations began to form, attitudes towards females started to change in response to new needs and priorities. Physical strength was crucial not just for agriculture, as just discussed, but for the building of great structures, the sailing of seafaring ships, and the conducting of warfare. This made men naturally dominant in many sectors of society, while relegating women to the role of reproduction and child raising (which made them more impractical for the various new roles emerging in advancing societies). Ironically, as human societies civilized and progressed, the treatment of women went backwards comparatively.

Whatever the conclusion, if any, I’m once again left marveled by our constant effort to understand ourselves and our enigmatic nature. Such interesting studies and propositions provide much needed reflection and discussion.