Anyone who cared to peruse the links to the left around the Biotunes site would know that I have a particular fondness of ants. In fact, I consider them to be the pinnacle of evolution. Yep, newsflash for all you “evolution-must-mean-progress- because-look-at-humans” types out there – humans ain’t at the tip.
Why are ants so ubiquitous and speciose, and probably found in more habitats on earth than any other family of organisms? (I made up that last part but it could easily be true – anyone out there know?) One good guess is eusociality. Most animal species are solitary, but some are social. There are several different levels of sociality, but the most evolutionarily derived form is eusociality, which means there is a complete division of labor among individuals in a colony. Henry Ford had it right – the most efficient way to produce something is through specialization of tasks necessary to reach the goal. In ants, the queen’s only job is to lay eggs. The workers specialize on various tasks such as nest cleaning, larva rearing, foraging and protection of the nest. Many humans like to fool themselves that they are good multitaskers, but our brains say otherwise. Even we are more efficient when we focus on one task. But we aren’t as efficient at producing more humans as ants are at producing more ants.
Although humans are not eusocial, we are social, and a lot of what we do is going to be affected by the basic biological need to fit in socially – no man is an island. What is interesting to me is that we are in a current fad in which everyone wants to use gender as a construct to explain general social behavior. Probably that’s because we seem to have hit a brick ceiling in terms of women’s progress in various professions, and there seem to be a lot of people dying to explain it in terms of gender genetics (e.g., the infamous Larry Summers). But what if all these beloved “differences” between men and women were explained by sociality?
In every species, solitary and social, males and females obviously have different reproductive roles. But societies are more complex. In many mammal societies there are alpha (reproductive) males and females with other individuals filling other roles. Humans are even less social than that, because generally everyone has the chance to reproduce. Also in general, those that conform to cultural norms are more likely to reproduce. (Hence my argument in the last post that any genes associated with autism are likely to be spreading, because many people who do not conform to societal norms have found a way to make a pile of money, and therefore become more attractive as mates.) If you look at human cultures around the world, there are some things we have in common – music, language, stuff like that. But I think you could ask any anthropologist and find out that cultural norms are all over the place. For example, there are matriarchal societies, albeit less common than patriarchal (body size probably has an influence there – individuals are certainly limited in some ways by their biology). There are societies in which men dress up in fancy clothing, and women wear something dull. So it actually wouldn’t make any sense for specific behavioral roles to be encoded in our genes.
What does make sense for social creatures such as ourselves is to absorb the rules for behavior in our culture early on in our development. I am forever astounded by the studies (or interpretations of studies) that claim that human male and female behavior is different genetically because they tested 2-year-olds. I have a 17-month-old who learns several new words a day. Every day of her life, she has heard the use of the pronouns “he” and “she” to refer to the different genders. Through the interactions of not only parents but any other adults or kids with her, she is told that she is a “she.” What is a “she”? That is an idea she adds data to every day. It has something to do with clothes, something to do with speech, something to do with hair, something to do with body shape, etc. This is part of how she develops an idea of how she is supposed to fit in to her culture. I don’t care how many studies are done on toddlers, I am convinced that kids from day 1 are developing an image of how someone like them fits into society. This is image is changing all the time, of course, because there is always new data to fit into their constructed idea of role and behavior.
So that’s why I will always roll my eyes when some parent tells me that of course it’s all genetic because their daughter loves dolls and their son loves trucks, and they never tell them what to play with, the kids just choose…