The Battle of the Sexes

Posted: July 10, 2009 in General
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While reading Richard Dawkins’s acclaimed book, The Selfish Gene, I came across a chapter that was of particular interest to me, and it revolved around the battle of the sexes.  In the past, I have entered into many discussions about the great “male versus female” debate, and in almost all of them, the thread focused solely on the cultural impacts, causes and derivatives; almost little or no emphasis was placed on the possible genetic explanations as to why male behavioural patterns differ from female ones.  Dawkins’s book tackled that problem and produced several interesting (and perhaps controversial) views.  Before I go into detail, it must be noted that Dawkins wrote about gender disparities across the species, and not just on conflicts within the homo-sapien sphere.

The fundamental distinction between a male and a female has nothing to do with the possession of a penis, or the ability to produce milk.  Those attributes are only applicable to mammals; what about reptiles or plants for that matter?  Therefore, the one universal feature that can be used to distinguish gender is the sex cells (aka gametes).  Males (be it mammals, reptilians, or plants) all have small sex cells while the females have relatively large ones.  All deviations (according to Dawkins) are stemmed from this one basic difference.  [In certain organisms such as fungi, gender differentiations do not occur.  The book deals with them in more detail but they will be ignored for the purpose of this discussion.]

In Dawkins’s book, he sees sexual partnership as “a relationship of mutual mistrust and mutual exploitation”.  When the sperm and the egg fuse, they both contribute 50% of their genes to the new being.  However, the egg contributes far more in terms of food reserves than the sperm, whose sole purpose is to transport its genes to the egg as fast as possible.  At the moment of conception, the father has invested less than his share of resources, and this is where female exploitation begins (Dawkins, 2006:142).  Further more, we are all, in essence, “selfish machines”.  We want to see our own genes survive and propagate down the generations.  One way of achieving this is to scout out and mate with a partner who has strong genes; another way is to simply mate with as many partners as possible.  Because male gametes are small and mobile, coupled with the fact that they invest very little resources in the new individual, males are thus incentivised to “spread their seeds”.   Females on the other hand are more committed to each child from the moment of conception because of what they have already invested.  They are also expected to invest more throughout the development of their children.  So in mammals for example, the female incubates the foetus in her body, and produce the milk, and bears the responsibility of protection.  In Dawkins’s own words, “If any abandoning is going to be done, it is likely to be the father who abandons the mother rather than the other way round”.  Of course, in many species (especially in humans), the fathers do work hard and remain faithful, but nevertheless, there exists an evolutionary pressure on them to invest less in each child and to have more children by different partners.

But all this seem to break down in the face of cultural (and legal) influences.  Human behaviours tend to deviate from the “norm”.  Fathers can no longer desert completely as many of them are still forced to pay alimony after their separation from their (ex)wives.  Fathers therefore contribute more indirectly in forms of material resources.  However, this is not to say that the role of genetics is obsolete.  It just means that (maybe) we are more influenced by cultural circumstances than by anything else.  Will this then affect future evolutionary trends?  The book does not say.  (Or maybe it does, but I haven’t reached that part yet.)

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