From the City Journal, Kay Hymowitz has a lengthy, but provocative, essay on the species of human–women–that cannot seem to overcome their “nature.” It is worth contemplation: are women and men hardwired differently? Let’s take the opening:
In the struggle for equality between the sexes, it keeps coming down to motherhood, doesn’t it? Consider a recent article by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic. Rosin finds that nursing her infant is holding her back from the work she enjoys, despite her plan for a fully egalitarian marriage. “We were raised to expect that co-parenting was an attainable goal,” she laments, yet breast-feeding ties her, and not her husband, to their baby. She combs through research on the health benefits of breast-feeding for babies and makes a convincing case that they aren’t as strong as experts have insisted. So does she quit nursing? She does not—even though, she admits, “I’m not really sure why.”
Rosin is a thoughtful writer, which makes her bewilderment all the more puzzling. She is, after all, a mammal, a member of a species that evolved mammary glands; doesn’t it seem likely that this might have some impact on her experience of life? Of course, she is hardly alone in avoiding this conclusion. Evolutionary science has been nearly as vexing a subject for feminists as for rural Texas school boards. Feminists consider sexual identity a “social construct,” a human—or, to be more precise, a male—invention. Evolutionary scientists, on the other hand, believe that we have inborn physical and psychological traits that result from millennia of adaptations to our natural environment. Where feminists see society, evolutionists see nature.
Rosin is certainly a thoughtful writer, but is Hymowitz onto something? Combining evolutionary theory, and hence our natural tendencies, the author is claiming that try as we may, humans cannot overcome some things–not with education, not with science even! In this instance, try as women may, their brain is forbidding them from feeling fulfilled but impelling them to be mothers. One part of the brain is affected by chemicals particular to the sex, another part of the brain is adept at abstract thought. Our brains are at war with themselves (but the brain can also control some of these impulses):
But you could call it problematic, as new mothers like Rosin and Roiphe are rediscovering. The contemporary woman is in a bind. Her brain (crudely put, her hypothalamus) is at war with her brain (equally crudely, her frontal cortex). She wants two things at once, and they are often contradictory. Complicating her life further, the frontal cortex of her own children will take forever—some say over 20 years—to develop fully. That means that she faces many more years with dependent offspring than females of other species who can’t write briefs or paint canvases, yet have nothing else to do with their time. It’s unfair!
And here’s another bitter pill for women: more complex societies like our own require a more highly developed frontal cortex. To thrive in today’s complex economy, children have to undergo many years of intensive training. The final irony for Femina sapiens is that she may well find herself sacrificing some potential achievements to raise the child who goes on to invent a device that makes life richer for future generations of women.
If human society can sometimes reconfigure biology—by curing polio and increasing athletic stamina, for example—could it reconfigure sexual selection so that fathers and mothers made equal investments in their young children? We don’t have much evidence for thinking so. Until the mid-1990s, Swedish parents got nine months of leave after the birth of a child, and in theory, either mothers or fathers could use it; in practice, it might as well have been called maternal leave. Frustrated that so few fathers took advantage of the policy, the Swedish government changed the way it worked: fathers would now get a month of leave (or two, as of 2002) that they weren’t allowed to transfer to their wives. The results were just as evolutionary psychologists would predict. By 2004, only 20 percent of fathers were taking the two months. By contrast, a large majority of mothers made full use of their leave. Iceland launched a similar effort to equalize parental investment; fathers there are doing more, but nowhere near as much as mothers.
This does not mean there is no role for government in all this (should government give mothers (fathers?) time off for child rearing? Nor does it mean that females will not continue to evolve in Darwinistic grandeur. But, it does mean, if Hymowitz is correct, that we are stuck with what we are stuck with.