Buzzwords like “the male gaze” “objectification” “stereotype threat” “structural oppression” “white privilege” etc. are all really just re-hashings of the Evil Eye. We’ve shed the formal structure of religion but not the impulse for mystical thinking.
Today while debating with a friend about whether men or women have it better, it became plain that we were approaching the question from very different perspectives. He looked at men’s higher incomes and over-representation among CEOs and government officials and saw what I’ll call the mystical explanation: male oppression of women. I looked at the same data plus male over-representation among the homeless, mentally ill, suicides, and murder victims, and advocated the scientific explanation: greater male variability.
What do I mean by mystical?
In primitive tribes, an accusation of witchcraft can quickly get you killed. What might inspire an accusation of witchcraft? A sick cow, a sudden death, a snake in a spot where it wasn’t yesterday, a drought, a flood, a twisted ankle–pretty much anything unexpected or unfortunate.
People understand cause and effect. Things happen because other things make them happen. But without a good scientific understanding of the world, the true causes of many events are unfindable, so people turn to mystical explanations. Why does it rain? Because a goddess is weeping. Why do droughts happen? Because someone forgot to make a sacrifice and angered the gods. Why do people get sick and die? Because other people cursed them.
If you’ve never encountered animist or mystical thought before, I recommend starting with some of my previous posts on the subject, which are thoroughly-researched and include lots of quotes from first-hand sources: Animism 1, 2, and 3; Aboriginal Witchcraft, more Australia 1, 2, and 3; mysticism and voodoo 1, 2, and 3. In this post I will be drawing on summaries of these and similar works.
A curse need not be deliberate. Simply being mad at someone or bearing them ill-will might be enough trigger the Evil Eye, curse them, and be forced by angry villagers to undo the curse–however the witchdoctor determines the curse must be undone. (This can be quite expensive.)
In animist thinking, things do not just happen. Things happen for reasons–usually malicious reasons.
In The Life and Adventure of William Buckley, 32 Years a Wanderer amongst the Aborigines, Buckley recounts: “They have an odd idea of death, for they do not suppose that any one dies from natural causes, but from human agencies: such as those to which I have alluded in previous pages of this narrative.”
The death of a companion via snakebite (probably a common occurrence among people who walk barefoot in Australia) triggered a brutal “revenge” killing once it was determined who had cast the curse that motivated the snake:
“The cause of this sudden unprovoked cruelty was not, as usual, about the women, but because the man who had been killed by the bite of the snake belonged to the hostile tribe, and they believed my supposed brother-in-law carried about with him something that had occasioned his death. They have all sorts of fancies of this kind, and it is frequently the case, that they take a man’s kidneys out after death, tie them up in something, and carry them round the neck, as a sort of protection and valuable charm, for either good or evil.”
Buckley’s adoptive Aboriginal family, his sister and brother-in-law, who had been helping him since the tribe saved his life years ago, was killed in this incident.
“I should have been most brutally unfeeling, had I not suffered the deepest mental anguish from the loss of these poor people, who had all along been so kind and good to me. I am not ashamed to say, that for several hours my tears flowed in torrents, and, that for a long time I wept unceasingly. To them, as I have said before, I was as a living dead brother, whose presence and safety was their sole anxiety. Nothing could exceed the kindness these poor natives had shown me, and now they were dead, murdered by the band of savages I saw around me, apparently thirsting for more blood. Of all my sufferings in the wilderness, there was nothing equal to the agony I now endured.” …
“I returned to the scene of the brutal massacre; and finding the ashes and bones of my late friends, I scraped them up together, and covered them over with turf, burying them in the best manner I could, that being the only return I could make for their many kindnesses. I did so in great grief at the recollection of what they had done for me through so many years, and in all my dangers and troubles. ”
An account of Florence Young’s missionary work in the Solomon Islands (which are near Australia) recounts an identical justification for the cycle of violence on the Solomon Islands (which was quite threatening to Florence herself.) Every time someone died of any natural cause, their family went to the local witch doctor, who then used magic to determine who had used evil magic to kill the dead guy, and then the family would go and kill whomever the witch doctor indicated.
The advent of Christianity therefore caused a power struggle between the missionaries and the witch doctors, who were accustomed to being able to extort everyone and trick their followers into killing anyone who pissed them off. (See also Isaac Bacirongo’s account of the witch doctor who extorted his pre-pubescent sister as payment for a spell intended to kill Isaac’s wife–note: Isaac was not the one buying this spell; he likes his wife.)
So why do women make less money than men? Why are they underrepresented among CEOs and Governors and mathematicians? Something about the patriarchy and stereotype threat; something about men being evil.
Frankly, it sounds like men have the Evil Eye. A man thinks “Women are worse at math” and women suddenly become worse at math.
To be fair, my friend had only half the data, and when you have only half the data, the situation for men looks a lot better than the situation for women. But men aren’t only over-represented at the high ends of achievement–they’re also over-represented at the bottom. If patriarchy and stereotypes keep women from getting PhDs in math, why are little boys over-represented in special ed classes? Why are they more likely to be homeless, schizophrenic, commit suicide, or be murdered? Neither patriarchy nor male privilege can explain such phenomena.
Biology supplies us with a totally different explanation: greater male variability.
To review genetics, you have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Most of them are roughly X-shaped, except for the famous Y chromosome.
You have two chromosomes because you received one from each of your parents. Much of what the chromosomes do is redundant–for example, if you have blue eyes, then you received a gene for blue eyes from one parent and one from your other parent. One blue eye gene would be enough to give you blue eyes, but you have two.
Eye color isn’t terribly important, but things like how your immune system responds to threats or how your blood clots are. A rare mutation might make you significantly better or worse at these things, but the fact that you have two (or more) genes controlling each trait means that each very rare mutation tends to be paired with a more common version–lessening its effect.
There is, however, one big exception: the XY pair. Men don’t have a pair of Xs or a pair of Ys; they have one of each. If something is wrong on the X, the Y may have nothing to fix it, and vice versa.
The upshot is that if a man happens to get a gene that makes him extra tall, smart, conscientious, creative, charismatic, etc. somewhere on his X or Y chromosomes, he may not have a corresponding gene on the other chromosome to moderate its effects–and if he has a gene that makes him extra short, dumb, impulsive, dull, or anti-social, he is still unlikely to have a corresponding gene to dull the effect.
Height is an uncontroversial example. Yes, the average man is taller than the average woman, but the spread of male heights is wider than the spread of female heights. More women are clustered around the average female height, while more men are both taller than the average man and shorter than the average man.
The graph to the right shows test scores from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, but it shows the same basic idea: different means with women clustered more closely around average than men.
Whether the greater male variability hypothesis is true or not, it is an explanation that assumes no malice on anyone’s part. No one is maliciously forcing little boys into special ed, nor grown men into homelessness and suicide. The architecture of the XY and XX chromosome pairs is simply part of how humans are constructed.
But notice that you are much more likely to hear the theory that uses mysticism to blame people than the theory that doesn’t. One is tempted to think that some people are just inclined to assume that others are malicious–while ignoring other, more mundane explanations.