Stronger, Better Educated Females — A Silver Bullet For Humanity’s Current Demons?

Stronger, Better Educated Females — A Silver Bullet for Humanity’s Current Demons?

Years ago, I ran across E.O. Wilson’s wonderful essay “The Bottleneck” (see…). Since then, from time to time, I have wondered whether we have available to us a more powerful social medicine than female education and empowerment. I have not found one so far, and was reminded of this yesterday while watching Isabel Allende’s powerfully entertaining TED presentation (see

What do you think about this? And to be clear, I am talking about the biggest issues we confront — issues related to the sustainability of life on this planet; the ecological issues related to that; and the way in which our essentially tribal mentality makes it increasingly difficult to get along in our increasingly cozy and interdependent world. And, since I still can’t read or hear anything that seems significant to me without running it through my “religious filter”, let me ask how you read the tea leaves in this regard re. the world’s many literalist religious faiths, including my favorite, Mormonism? These depend to a large measure on patriarchal social structures. Would the education and empowerment of women, in and of itself, gradually bring down the curtain on this aspect of human history? And I don’t mean the kind of female education that occurs in places like Brigham Young University. While that is better than nothing, it carefully inculcates the beehive mentality, thus bifurcating minds as they become more conscious, and perpetuating the patriarchal attitudes that offer far greater opportunity for individuation to men than women, while holding both well below the levels available to them in other more individualistically oriented social groups.

As I listened to Allende, I was touched (as I have been often in the past) by the realization that my Mormon difficulties are trivial when considered in light of the plight of females and children throughout most of the world. I feel fortunate to born as, where and when I was, and to hence have a real opportunity to create a better work for my children and grandchildren. This is not the case for a large percentage of today’s humanity. When I write, as I’m doing now, it is still largely an attempt to pound ideas that I consider to be important enough into my thick skull that they will influence my behavior.

For those who have not run across the ideas Wilson sets out in his essay (and are not inclined to plough through it and the related literature) a few of the key insights are as follows.

As women become more financially secure and better educated, they choose to restrict the number of children they have. This has only become apparent during the past several decades, and was a profound relief to population scientists, since many of them were concerned during the middle of the last century that as women in the West became more wealthy, children might be regarded as a luxury good, and therefore family sizes would increase. This would accelerate what was already seen as looming disaster. As noted above, the contrary occurred.

The evolutionary explanation offered for this phenomenon was that throughout most of human history there has been a shortage of human capital, and the larger the family the more workers were available. In light of our historically immense mortality rates, this made it more likely that enough children would survive, and thrive, to care for the mother during her decline years.

Nature forced mother to play an unwitting numbers game. She had to hedge her offspring bets in order to maximize the probability of her own survival. This meant that the weaker of the brood would not have access to the resources necessary for even a reasonable chance of survival, and few if any would have the opportunity to optimally develop their individual talents. Nature is, after all, red in tooth and claw. Mothers never have been capable of seeing their situation in this way. Our subconscious systematically suppresses troubling insight of this type, in the same way that it generally prevents people from seeing the worst problems with their worldview.

I think it was Wilson who also noted that the mother’s life expectancy declined (and still declines) with each child after the first. I am going from memory here, so forgive me if I do not have this precisely right. Historically, this downside appeared to be more than offset by the advantages of having a larger potential pool of providers, as noted above. As the environment within which we live became more secure, this trade-off no longer made sense.

Accordingly, as women become better educated and therefore more aware of their environment, and have more assets under their control, they choose to have fewer children. This allows them to lavish greater attention and resources on those children, thus increasing the probability that each child would survive and thrive. It also allows women to spend more of their time and energy on personal and social issues that do not directly relate to their own offspring. That is, women were given the opportunity to individuate.

I note that what I have just described is, in part, the transition from a collectivist (or hive) worldview to an individualistic worldview. That is, throughout most of human history (and still in the less conscious parts of human society), women devoted more of their life energy to the betterment of the group than tends to be the case in more individualistic societies, which tend to be found in the democratic West. Groups like the Mormons, Muslims and fundamentalist Christians are anomalies in that context.

This is what having children is about at its most foundational level. In general, the more children the group produces, the better its long-term prospects. This factor has been noted as a primary competitive factor with regard to both Mormonism and the Muslim faith.

That is, at a time when birthrates throughout most of the world are declining, they are there not declining as quickly (and in some places, not at all) within the two populations I just mentioned. If you play the numbers out over a hundred years, you find a world dominated by the Muslim faith, with Mormons on the basis of birthrate alone, accounting for a far larger percentage of Christianity than they do now. These mathematics, however, require that Muslim and Mormon women continue to dedicate themselves much more to raising the children that will strengthen the social organisms to which they belong than would be the case were they “regular” members of modern democratic societies.

This concept sheds interesting light on the emphasis of the beehive mentality within certain social groups. Women are maneuvered in this regard into a position whereby they will unconsciously continue to sacrifice their individuality, and that of their children, on their community altar. The use of birth control is suppressed. The act of giving birth is lionized. The traditional, subservient role of the mother is placed on a pedestal, at least in some symbolic ways.

This reminds me of one of the female mantras within the fundamentalist Mormon community — “Keep sweet!”. That is, remain pliant, subservient, obedient — “Sweet!”. Within the Mormon community, the term “spiritual” when applied to women has a similar meaning. Men are counselled to seek “spiritual” lives who will, if necessary “drag the family into the Celestial Kingdom”. Once this image of the ideal wife has been accepted, female behavior within the social group is easy to predict.

The relationship between dragging, anchors, inability to move, downward motion, and death by asphyxiation seems to be lost on the people who use these metaphors.

So again, what kind of difference would it make within particular social groups, and the world as a whole, if women became less pliant, more powerful, and more self-determined?

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