The Woman Racket is a singularly odd book. The subtitle proposes to present "the new science explaining how the sexes relate at work, at play and in society", but the science presented isn't all that new, nor is much science presented. Author Steve Moxon hit the scene a few years ago when he exposed a scandal in the British Home Office that led to the resignation of the immigration minister. However, as the story goes, he was only in the Home Office to study its human resources policy, on the way to writing the present book -- ten years in the making, so it's said. Proving his thesis, however -- as I'm sure you'll concede -- would surely take at least that long, for he intends to argue that men are the ones truly disadvantaged in our world, while women are the privileged.
The book is organized so that the argument is presented and supported in the first five chapters, and then specific gender issues, such as discrimination in health care, pay equity, suffrage, domestic violence, sex crime and child custody are examined in subsequent chapters. Presumably the program is to apply the theory to the issues, but we'll have to see how that goes later. I will be focusing mainly on the argument here.
The supposed basis of Moxon's claims is the theory of evolutionary psychology. At the heart of the matter is the origin of, not sex, but the sexes. Why do we have sex differentiation at all? As Moxon tells the story, it was thought that the advantage over asexual reproduction conferred by sexual reproduction lies in the mixing of genetic material and the diluting of replication errors caused in cell division. But while this might work for individual offspring, the dilution allows the preservation of errors in the genome as a whole, and over time leads to their accumulation. So what advantage accounts for the run-away evolutionary success of sexual reproduction?
Moxon claims that the answer lies in a consequence of sexual reproduction: gamete dimorphism. Somewhere along the way, the burden of carrying the cytoplasm to grow a new zygote shifted onto one gamete, leaving the other gamete to merely carry genetic material. There you have the difference between sperm and ova. As a result, ova are larger, fewer and more expensive (in evolutionary terms), while sperm are small, plentiful and cheap. This fact tells Moxon that female gametes are a 'limiting factor', being less available for reproduction, while male gametes are subject to greater selection pressure, due to the fact that there are many of them, and most are thereby expendable. If genetic defects such as replication errors could be kept away from the female's precious, infrequent chance at reproduction, and instead loaded onto the male's overabundance of chances, then the greater selection pressure acting on the male could be exploited to eliminate them. Thus Moxon introduces the theory of a 'male genetic quarantine': that males function to expose problematic genetic material to natural selection.
Although up to this point he seemed to imply that the 'dodgy' genes actually end up on male sex chromosomes, Moxon now suggests the mechanism might actually work by somehow expressing defects more in males or by exposing them more to natural selection. Greater expression might occur in males due to the 'Y' chromosome and control of expression by dominant and recessive traits paired in alleles. The XX in female sex chromosomes makes expression of the dominant traits more likely, while the XY allows the recessive traits to be more frequently expressed, since the Y has less genetic material to pair off with the X. Hence, the full range of traits is more likely to be expressed in males. At this point, it is possible to subject them to greater selection pressure by driving males into behavior that will test out the worth of their genetic material: competition for position in a dominance hierarchy. Females then select males by hierarchical status, thus selecting the more worthy genetic material. This process, Moxon claims, will not only serve to limit the reproduction of defects, but will also encourage the preservation of favorable traits (those that allow the male to rise in the hierarchy).
Somehow all of this leads to Moxon's thesis that women are really the privileged ones in society and men, the disadvantaged: this is the 'woman racket' on which he is blowing the whistle, thus reprising his role from The Great Immigration Scandal. First off, he dismisses the myth of male dominance over women:
"Men supposedly exercise some sort of 'power' over women. But it is never properly explained what exactly this 'power' is. It alternates between being either some essence of man, or something that is not inherent in men but instead is to do with a historical invention of what men are, or supposedly should be. The latter is the idea that somehow masculinity is not natural, but results from contamination by a cultural virus, and to such an extent that men have become the embodiment of it. The opposing and simultaneously-held position is that masculinity is natural. The point is that these two mutually-contradictory views have to be held together, because masculinity can hardly be universally inculcated in men by society if the basis of it is not in man in the first place." (34)
One can only assume that economic, legal and physical force are not 'proper' explanations of power, whatever that means. And what exactly obliges one to hold both essentialist and social construction views simultaneously?
Oh well, never mind this collection of non sequiturs, the comments that follow begin to explain Moxon's views on female privilege. Female 'power' comes from being the 'limiting factor' in reproduction, but apart from this, power in the natural world derives from the dominance hierarchy. This however exists only intra-sexually, between men, and never between the sexes, so there can be no male power over women. The dominance hierarchy is about males competing for mating privileges with females, and hence it makes no sense for females to compete for a position in the hierarchy, and since females have only to be fertile (which requires only being young and beautiful), it makes no sense for females to compete among themselves to prove their vigor. But here's the rub. A consequence of the dominance hierarchy is that the vast bulk of males end up as low-status losers, put upon by other males and put down by females, and are therefore the most disadvantaged in society. Females, as the choosers in inter-sex relations, have evolved a 'cheater detection' mechanism to protect their genetic investments, and use it to police the male dominance hierarchy and ensure that low-status males cannot successfully pass for high-status. As a result, this functions to put and keep low-status males down, manifested as a 'folk prejudice' against low-status. Moxon here adduces the fact that lower status persons are regarded with a good deal more distrust than higher status persons, though this does little to support the view that this folk prejudice is uniquely, or even mostly, directed against males.
We are not quite yet at female privilege though. Moxon goes on to define power as self-actualization, and self-actualization as ability to reproduce oneself. Females, he claims, have a virtual guarantee of reproduction, being the limiting factor, and the characteristics that attract males, youth and beauty, are simply gravy on top of this. These attributes cannot be taken away from their holders, being endemic to their persons, and so limit how far a female's social 'rank' can fall. By contrast, males can descend the dominance hierarchy all the way to persona non grata-hood. In this situation, 'privilege' is simply being born female. Were this not injury enough for the lowly male, females are able to exploit their position as reproductive limiting factor to direct male competitive behavior to their own advantage. One principal device for doing this is female complaint, which implies that the male is not of sufficient rank and someone of better status could be found, thus obliging males to keep on their toes to please females. Finally, feminism in this picture is simply female complaint writ large, a conspiracy of the elite to preserve female privilege by duping us into the opposite view. Who would have suspected such Nietzschean cunning?
This account is bolstered by a couple more claims. One, Moxon claims that sex segregation is so obviously entrenched in human behavior that it cannot but be genetically determined, and serves to establish separate spheres for the exercise of the sexes' characteristic behaviors, competition and hierarchy for males, networking for females. These separate spheres support the claim that males and females do not compete on the same ground. Further, this separation reflects divergences in ability between the sexes. The 'genetic quarantine' theory, Moxon claims, should lead us to expect that males, as testers of genetic innovation, will be over-represented among both geniuses and morons, while females tend to be solidly mediocre. The principal illustration here is the singer-songwriter phenomenon, where given the current glut of female performers, he supposes we should find female excellence. One might suspect some subjective assessment here, but Moxon dismisses as mediocre most of the female singer-songwriters of recent history, with the exception of Joni Mitchell, thus 'demonstrating' his claim. This seems intended to support the claim that the male drive for status accounts for differences in success in various fields, though one might wonder by what criteria Moxon identifies social status such that it also turns out to be genetic excellence. Do those on top in our world really reflect the best nature has to offer?
By now, doubtless, some of us are simply beside ourselves: what about the possibility that most of this reflects social factors? Moxon unabashedly defends a reductive approach: "All science ... is reductive." (viii) So we are informed. At one point, Moxon articulates what seems to be a principle of his approach, stating "What goes for the gametes also goes for the adults they produce." (23, his italics) In case this is unclear (as opposed to being incredible), he later adds this tidbit: "Society is only the representation of human social psychology, after all." (34) After all, indeed -- and human social psychology is only a product of human reproductive biology, on this argument. One might think this a rather spare basis for rejecting an important approach to some very complex matters, so if these assertions fail to convince, he offers the following reductio:
"Social conditioning is useless as an explanation because it just begs the question: what is it about the person doing the social conditioning that makes him try to instil what it is he is trying to instil. If, as the theory must insist, it too has been socially conditioned, then it begs the same question about the person who had in turn socially conditioned the social conditioner ... and so on, ad infinitum. Ultimately there has to be a real reason ... ." (57)
A neat QED if ever there was one. And to think of the social scientists who could have spared their efforts.
This is the substance of Moxon's argument ... at least, I think so. Honestly, it is somewhat hard to tell: it may be that whatever sense this makes is a product of my 'reading in'. For throughout the chapters presenting the science behind his views, Moxon employs colloquial and metaphoric expression, including at key points of his argument, as well as extensively using an intentional idiom (effectively presenting evolution as purposeful), making it difficult to tell what mechanism he thinks is operating. Also, in the discussion of gamete dimorphism, it is often ambiguous whether by 'male' or 'female', he is referring to gametes or individuals, though perhaps the principle identifying individuals with their gametes is meant to clear that up -- presumably they are interchangeable. This, combined with his references to 'higher' and 'lower' animals (a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary theory), do not build much confidence in the soundness of Moxon's grasp of the scientific matters he is recounting. True, he claims to be 'dumbing-down' his material, but given the quality of the material so 'dumbed-down', one might well fear the original was not very 'smarted-up' to begin with. The book as a whole is rife with non sequitur and jaw-dropping claims of the must-be-seen-to-be-believed order (to believe they are in print, that is).
But the oddest thing about the book occurs in the issue-focused chapters. As I suggested, we might expect that having outlined a bold new theory, Moxon would be showing it to advantage in a productive application to specific topics. Perversely, the 'gametes are destiny' theory is quietly dropped for most of the rest of the book. Rather, in the chapter on suffrage, for example, the discussion is entirely of the history of various suffrage movements and the political and legal changes that took place from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century as suffrage was generally extended. His argument here is that when you consider that suffrage historically was not exactly general among men, and female suffrage in some countries closely followed male suffrage but was not grounded in similar qualifying requirements, lack of female suffrage does not seem the most glaring case of oppression. The other chapters on sexual assault, pornography, bias in healthcare, and pay equity similarly invoke concern over specific (mostly British) legal and political regimes, statistical misrepresentation of the issues and biased social mores. In other words, having dismissed the relevance social factors, he proceeds to base his analysis of these issues on factors that, at least on the surface, seem 'social'.
Now, I suppose the way we are meant to take the argument of the issues chapters is that having revealed behavioral structures based in the evolution of the sexes, he is now illustrating these structures at work in society, to clinch his case. Be that as it may, this approach is rather unconvincing, for the reason that it would seem to transgress an important difference between being able to 'see' one thing as another and something's actually falling under a given general law. For example, big bang cosmology may well 'look like' theological creatio ex nihilo, but this appearance ends soon as you consider explanatory power, whether you can make predictions, how the mechanism is to be understood and how well either theory integrates with the rest of our scientific theories. There is, after all, a difference between analogy and causality. Moxon's case in the later chapters is at best analogical and provides no analysis that could support the causal claims he seems to intend. This certainly should be a major problem. Scientific theories depend on detailed description of the mechanisms that bring things about, but a theory that doesn't provide even a hypothetical mechanism isn't scientific at all. It's not good enough that one thinks one can see similar patterns in society and in the functioning of gametes, since it is all too easy to see what one wishes.
On top of this, there are myriad concerns with the details of the science he invokes. For instance, the notion that the different 'costs' of gamete production lead to differences in reproductive behavior has been questioned and, I think, debunked. Even if a dominance hierarchy functioned in sexual selection, how could a single hierarchy select traits with very different kinds of excellence, such as intelligence and physical strength? And how could this theory account for society valuing one over the other at different times? Further, given that women of widely different degrees of attractiveness and nubility seem to have little trouble conceiving, isn't it overly simplistic to connect beauty and youth with fertility? And as to Moxon's view that reproductive chances might somehow be constrained by status, shouldn't we think it odd that the lowest status members of society also tend to over-reproduce? Finally, perhaps we should just be skeptical of the notion that anything in evolutionary genetics corresponds to hierarchies of social status. Maybe there are no upper- and lower-class genes at all.
One other major criticism of the book as a whole must be the utter lack of any serious effort to address criticism or alternative views, apart from quick-and-dirty dismissal, of which I have given a couple of examples. Rather, Moxon treats debatable claims as if they were simply received wisdom, and offers simplistic solutions to some very thorny scientific controversies. Moxon simply ignores, and possibly doesn't understand, the gaps in his account of matters, the most glaring example of which is his treatment of the topic of power. As indicated above, he defines power as tendentiously toward his own views as he pleases, so that by fiat, it turns out that men do not have power over women, and then ignores all the ways in which men really do have power over women. A measure of scientific competence is surely an appreciation for the demands of theory choice, exhibited in balanced treatment of dissenting views. No such nuance appears here. Before this book can even approach being worth the trouble, it requires extensive work ensuring some degree of balance.
The irony is that if, as Moxon seems to suggest of the music industry, the publishing industry, and society as a whole, functioned to naturally select the best, his own book would not be in print. But alas, society seems to produce as much spurious development as it does adaptive traits, assuming anyone really can say what connection there is between the biological processes of evolution and social structure. More's the pity, views like Moxon's just may be more 'successful' than accurate representations of evolutionary theory. (Well, he's right about Joni Mitchell, at least.)
© 2008 George Williamson
George Williamson, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK
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