The Biological Possibilities of He and She

The Biological Possibilities of He and She

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “most of the laws, norms, rights, and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” Throughout human societies, imagined orders and hierarchies define the way that humans interact and relate to one another.  These hierarchies matter in terms of how people understand their role in the world, understand what is good and evil, and understand how they should behave. However, these hierarchies are not necessarily grounded in any scientific fact or objective reality. They are often influenced by chance historical events and myths that societies adopt as they develop. Some myths are helpful for development. Some myths lose their grip and cease to function in a helpful way over time. And other myths never manage to get beyond a fringe group.
Often, the status quo that is produced by chance events and myths become entrenched and defended as natural. Those who stand to benefit from the status quo, and those who do not wish to believe that their lives are driven by myths, will argue that biology, economy, or other seemingly objective sciences inevitably produced the society and culture in which they live. But this is a mistake. We can see that throughout time and space human societies have differed in many important ways. There is far more variation possible than we often recognize. “Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities,” writes Harari. Whatever organization we choose to adopt, for whatever reason we choose to adopt such organization, can be defended as natural. Harari continues, “whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
This can be seen in the ways in which cultures and societies relate to concepts of gender. Biology is often used to define men and women as purely XY and XX, as having male anatomy and female anatomy, and as occupying certain roles that are determined and entirely influenced by biology. But if Harari’s quote from earlier is correct, much of the way we think about masculinity, femininity, and gender is not based in biology, but in human constructs. Perhaps our sex chromosomes and the biological differences that our genes reliably produce (in most individuals) is the basis for the differences we see in how we understand gender, but that doesn’t explain why the picture of manliness changes so much throughout time or why so many people don’t seem to fit with the dominant gender roles of any given period.
Harari contrasts a picture of King Louis XIV of France with a picture of Barack Obama. Both men are in poses of masculine domination, but the pictures could not be more different in how they demonstrate masculinity. King Louis XIV is wearing tights, has a long flowing wig, is dressed in something like a ball gown, and is even wearing make-up and high heeled shoes. President Obama, on the other hand, is wearing a dark relatively fitted suite. He has little jewelry on and the only thing with any shine are his polished black dress shoes. He sits on the desk in the oval office with a confident, yet calm look on his face. The masculinity presented in each photo could hardly be more different.
Our ideas about gender are not set in stone and constantly change and evolve. Technology, global relationships, and the type of labor that is rewarded in society can all influence what is manly, what is feminine, and what is acceptable within both spaces. Throughout history the way masculinity and femininity have been defined has hardly been stable, and has hardly been fair. “Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal,” Harari writes to describe the inequalities that women have faced throughout much of history. There is no reason this inequality  has to exist. It is not truly biologically based, though men and women typically do have predictable biological differences, and there is no reason we have to consider such discrimination natural. The biological possibilities of he and she are greater than what we usually realize and accept.
Sociopolitical Hierarchies and Biology

Sociopolitical Hierarchies and Biology

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari makes the argument that studying biology is insufficient for understanding human society. We cannot understand the complex human societies and different cultures of the world purely by studying the biology of humans. Testing humans on physiological and psychological metrics does provide us with interesting information, but it doesn’t explain exactly why so many differences are seen across cultures and places. It also doesn’t explain why certain hierarchies exist within different cultures across the globe.
To understand complex societies, Harari argues, we have to understand history, context and circumstance, and power relations. By doing so, we can begin to understand the structures within societies that shape the institutions that humans have created, and that ultimately shape the behaviors, opportunities, incentives, and motivations for humans. “Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics,” writes Harari.
The two examples that Harari uses to demonstrate culture and society relative to biology demonstrate how chance historical events created unique circumstances that shaped different institutions that are highly influential within certain societies, but are unrecognizable outside those societies. Brahmins and Shudras are not understood as different races, but as different castes within Indian society, with substantial discrimination between the two groups. Racial discrimination has been a driving factor of American economic and political society. However, caste systems are nearly completely absent in the United States and the racial discrimination in the United States is not present in India. The explanations for the caste system and the racial dynamics are not biologically based, but culturally based – dependent on power and institutions.
Harari writes, “most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.” We see this when we look at recent challenges in the replication of psychological studies. Many of the findings from the field of psychology have come from studies involving college age students in the United States. Such individuals represent a very small segment of humanity. Generalizing from studies involving American college students will give us an inaccurate picture of the world – a picture that is not based on true biology, but on chance cultural factors specific to a unique population. We can easily make the mistake of believing that what we observe, either through a psychological study of American college students or through our own experiences with people in our community, state, or country, reflects a biological reality. However, what we observe is often the result of cultural differences or institutions and power structures that we are not consciously aware of.
Harari explains that this is what has happened with the Indian caste system and American racial dynamics. Cultural factors, chance historical events, and subsequent policies and institutions have created differences among people that we can observe and measure. However those differences are not based in biology. It is a mistake to attribute those differences to something innate in Homo sapiens or to assume that the way things are is the way that things should be. Quite often, our sociopolitical hierarchies have no logical or absolute reason for being the way they are.
hierarchies and unjust discrimination

Hierarchies & Unjust Discrimination

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination.” This idea seems grim, and my first response is to begin thinking about a just utopia that I hope the United States is working toward. The idea that even my idealized utopia would still be based on imagined hierarchies and tacitly accept unjust discrimination is an idea I would want to reject.
However, political science theories such as Social Construction and Narrative Policy Frameworks seem to suggest that Harari is correct. Our understandings of how we relate to others within society is often based more on narrative than something objective. Movie stars may entertain us a lot, but few would argue that their work is truly more important and valuable for the future of humanity than the work of a teacher, but we clearly reward movie starts with much more money and status than teachers. Additionally, our world has limited resources, meaning that we cannot provide everyone with everything they want. We have different concepts for dividing things in an equitable manner, and we often argue over what values are used when making such decisions.
In the United States, children have no political power, because they don’t vote. Veterans are celebrated, but are relatively few in number and similarly lack political power, though they are a powerful rhetorical tool and audience. Business owners are also celebrated while drug users are denigrated. While we say that all men are created equal and strive toward equality among all people, our imagined hierarchies make true equality impossible. We may have good reasons for valuing retirees and small business owners more than drug users and community college students, but at the end of the day, the hierarchies in place are based on a host of social and cultural factors, not entirely on objective differences in merit and value between people. Within complex societies with limited resources, hierarchies seem inevitable, with some people being advantaged and others being discriminated against.
Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins - Joseph Henrich - The WEIRDest People in The World - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins

In Joseph Henrich’s recent book The WEIRDest People in the World he discusses a study he performed where he offered rural tribal people in South America a choice between getting a spice block today, or two spice blocks at a later time. This type of delayed gratitude study is common, but what was uncommon was Henrich’s subject. Most delayed gratification studies are conducted in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies and provide insights about who is going to be successful as an investor, in going to college, or generally in being less impulsive throughout life.
In Henrich’s study, tribal people living with little contact with people from more WEIRD regions of South America were less likely to take more spice blocks tomorrow compared to one spice block today. However, Henrich argues this was not due to an inability to delay gratification, an inability to think about the future, or some sort of personal shortcoming that has left people in rural areas stuck behind people in WEIRD areas. The reason, Henrich argues, that people in rural areas were not willing to delay gratification was that the institutions of their tribes didn’t provide any real incentive for them to do so. The individuals Henrich studied lived in communities where it was expected that surplus resources would be shared back with the larger tribe. The individuals themselves were not delaying their own gratification, they were simply choosing to accept one spice block they could use today, rather than accept a surplus tomorrow that they would be expected to share with the rest of their tribe later.
I like this anecdote because it shows that sometimes we reach wrong conclusions. Sometimes we assume we know what it means for someone to behave a certain way, but we fail to recognize all of the complex incentives and motivations that may be driving the person’s behavior. We often fall back on relatively simple and reductive explanations. The people in rural villages are “backward” because they cannot delay gratification and that is necessary to catch up with WEIRD societies. People in poverty are poor because they are lazy and don’t work. Rich people got to where they are by making smart choices and working hard. Each of these examples is overly simplistic, and possibly wrong. They are also all examples that can be, and have been, used to justify hierarchies that are ultimately based on little more than imagination.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.” Kings in Medieval Europe argued that they were naturally and divinely chosen to lead their peoples. Slave owners in the American Antebellum South argued that they were naturally superior to their slaves. Hitler argued that the Aryan race was naturally superior to all others. The rich today, in basically any country, argue that they are naturally superior (or more deserving of their wealth and fortune) than poor people. But in each case, the hierarchy is imagined. No one wants to admit that they are unfairly at an advantage, that they have more resources, leisure, power, or wealth than others simply by chance or at least partly due to some amount of random luck in success.
As Henrich’s study shows, wealth disparities don’t have to be considered “natural.” In the tribal villages he studied, village elders were the leaders who made decisions regarding resources. There were no individuals or households that had dramatically more resources than anyone else. Households and individuals responded to the incentives of the system accordingly. In the United States, we respect our elders, but don’t place them in leadership positions just because they are old and wise. We have institutions and systems in place that encourage individual accumulation of resources, and we stash our old people in storage in retirement homes – basically the opposite system of the tribe that Henrich studied. The institutions, cultures, and incentives around us matter a lot, and they determine what we find natural. We often ignore those factors, however, when we think about the hierarchies in place within our society, and chose to disavow the fictional origins of our hierarchies and believe that they reflect a natural and unavoidable aspect of humanity.