I am finally reading Cordelia Fine’s ‘Delusions of Gender’, and so far enjoying it very much. She’s done a terrific job at offering a comprehensive review of the literature on the alleged biological grounds for gender differences, in particular by exposing the methodological frailness of many of the studies that claim to have identified these biological grounds. I’m so glad this book is out there; from now on, all we have to do whenever neuro-sexist discourse gets started is just to slam the book on the table.
However, I’m more than halfway, and so far the book has not mentioned the altriciality of the human species as an important factor (it is not one of the indexed terms either). I am a bit surprised, given that I take altriciality to be one of the strongest arguments against the existence of fundamental, biological gender differences in the human species, in particular but not exclusively with respect to parenting. For those of you whose biology classes were too long ago, let me remind you that altriciality, which literally means "requiring nourishment", refers to a pattern of growth and development in organisms which are incapable of moving around on their own soon after hatching or being born. It refers to the need for newborns to be fed and taken care of for a long duration before they are viable individuals on their own (Gould talks a lot about the altriciality of humans in his 'Ontogeny and Phylogeny'). Now, as any parent knows, human babies are pretty helpless little things when they are born; by contrast, a baby chimp has fairly developed motor skills upon being born, comparable to the motor skills of a 12 month-old human infant. When still very young, a baby chimp can hold on to its mother’s body while she moves around minding her usual business; a human mother needs to dedicate at least one arm to holding the baby, which obviously severely limits her movements (that is, until the fabulous invention of the baby sling!).
What does altriciality have to do with gender differences? Naturally, the fact that human babies and children require a lot of nourishment, and for a long time, means that just one caregiver is usually not enough – at the very least, there must be a caregiver for the caregiver, who is just too busy taking care of the baby to take care of him/herself (I’m sure this sounds familiar: at the end of the day with a newborn, you realize that you are still walking around in your PJs, and you wonder where this persistent stomach ache comes from until you realize you haven't had the time to eat during the day). And indeed, in species where altriciality is observed, most notably birds, one often also observes a higher level of paternal involvement with child-rearing with respect to non-altricial species (and also a correlation with monogamous mating patterns, but that’s yet a different and complicated story). Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?
We’ve all heard the story that it is in the best interest of males, in terms of passing on their genetic material, to fool around as much as they can, not caring much about what happens after their initial contribution to the generation of offspring, while it is in the best interest of females to invest themselves in child-rearing so as to make sure that the offspring they do produce reaches the age of reproduction themselves. Bu of course, this little scenario sort of breaks down in cases of extreme altriciality, such as the human species: if it takes at least two to ensure that the offspring reaches the age of reproduction, there is much more of an evolutionary pressure for fathers to be involved in the process. (So, no, it is not true that men can’t help being ‘promiscuous’, whatever that means, as opposed to women). And insofar as altriciality is one of the defining features of humans as a species (recently, it’s even been suggested that altriciality creates the kind of pressure which leads to the development of speech and higher levels of social complexity), it is to be expected that it would also have an important role to play in gender (non-)differences. Indeed, it seems plausible that an important evolutionary pressure on males of the human species is for them to be a lot like the females of other species and of our own, in terms of their involvement with offspring. In other words, an adaptive trait in the human species appears to be the development of male individuals who do actually care profoundly for their offspring, and thus a leveling of gender differences when compared to other species, in particular the non-altricial ones.
If all this makes some sense, it has profound implications for how we conceive of gender roles and of parenting. Some of them are:
- Single parents are heroes – really, they are. Whenever I have a week as a ‘single mom’, as I refer to when my husband is away for work, I ask myself constantly: “How do they do it?”
- Beyond pregnancy and breastfeeding, there is really nothing much that a female parent can do but a male parent cannot. Altriciality made sure that human males have all it takes to be caring parents.
- While it does take at least two, the gender distribution of the team of parents does not matter much: same-sex couples, in particular couples formed by two men, are in principle just as equipped to raise children as heterosexual couples.
- Even the idea of a ‘couple’ is not cast in stone: as argued by e.g. Sarah Hrdy, a distinctive trait of the human species is the typical involvement of more than two individuals (the parents) in raising a child, in particular of grand-parents.
And so, the traditional parenting roles ascribed to men and women emerge yet again as social constructions rather than biological facts; altriciality is just one of the features of human beings that point in this direction.