Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Right to Abort: an argument for feminist evolutionary selection

In this course, we often discuss the toxic impact of sex-selective abortions (particularly the vastly disproportionate termination of female fetuses before term) in countries around the world. This practice stubbornly adheres to essentialism and sexual-difference models of the gender construct, and is often regarded as the Achilles Heel of third-wave feminism.

Unsurprisingly, in countries like China (with its notorious one-child policy) and India, widespread abortion of female fetuses will result in massive disproportionate populations of single adult men with nonexistent marriage prospects. Without historical marital abatement of male aggression and violence, scholars fear that these countries will become plagued by civil unrest and widespread chaos. Accordingly, research shows that recently-immigrated women whose countries of origin are hotspots for sex-selective abortions continue the sexist practice even after arriving in the Western world, although the practice tends to die within two to three generations.
In contrast, some feminist activists refuse to condemn sex-selective abortions, for reasons that educator/activist Jane Cawthorne effectively outlines here: 
"[T]here is no 'feminist dilemma' over it: Our bottom line has to be to let the woman decide. Always.
“The whole line of thinking that some abortions are done for reasons that are more valid than others, because someone was raped, for example, is problematic. Any woman can choose an abortion for any reason, and she doesn’t have to tell us what it is. It’s none of our business.”
This school of thought asserts that prohibiting sex-selective abortions would only address the symptoms of the larger disease of misogyny and female subjugation. Many activists believe that ending the practice requires not restricting the options available to pregnant women, but increasing educational and economic opportunities for women. Ms. Cawthorne’s stance is analogous to that of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, which in 2011 fought against a legislative Tory motion seeking to condemn sex-selective abortions.

Alas, this post goes beyond the existing third-wave feminist rhetoric that abortion is a fundamental human right –- because it is so inevitably tied to female autonomy and the right of self-determination. Access to affordable, legal, and safe abortion procedures is the keystone of feminist liberation. Additionally, it just may be the next phase of human evolution.

I posit that feminist selection is an emerging schema of human evolution, not only as a sociocultural paradigm, but also an example of human behavior shaping our genetic future. In the same way that maternal behavior during pregnancy (for instance, prolonged starvation and high stress) shapes a fetus’ genetic expression of traits (for proclivity to diabetes and heightened anxiety response, respectively), collective female choice in which men may become fathers shapes the future gene pool of humanity. If all rape and domestic violence survivors around the world had access to affordable and safe abortions, and social attitudes and stigma around termination became more compassionate, more women would terminate these unwanted fetuses. Men who forcibly induced intercourse and pregnancy would no longer easily enter the gene pool in each successive generation. To most, rape would no longer be acceptable “as a method of conception.” Even in a lesser extreme, abortion rights could hinder the reproductive success of future absentee fathers and Lothario heartbreakers. In effect, free and legal access to safe abortions is the ultimate tool against patriarchy and the masculine dominance structure.

Inevitably, this argument contradicts everything Darwinian natural selection has instilled in our brains since middle school: sexual selection is the name of the game, and the highest number of viable offspring makes you the champion. Under the traditional Darwinian paradigm, all males (regardless of species) are aggressive and spend their days sexually pursuing as many females as they can possibly impregnate. In turn, in Darwin’s world, females are coy and passive and carefully select only a few males (typically with the most ostentatious physical sexual characteristics and highest social standing) as mates. Thankfully, feminism gives humanity slightly more credit for our massive new brains than this reptilian-brain-driven malarkey. In fact, feminism has been the main antidote (other than, you know, science and data points) for refuting the severely detrimental effects of Darwinian theories. For one, Darwin wholly disregarded instances of homosexuality in the natural world and discounted these behaviors as “decoy” actions to distract other males from mating with a desirable female.

In contrast, in the dawn of this beautiful new fourteenth baktun where abortions may soon be free and safe and bountiful, we have arrived at the era of feminist selection. Instead of male gametes winning the evolutionary game by being the most aggressive, most violent, or by having the brightest chin feathers, women now calibrate male evolutionary success by choosing to procreate with men who are emotionally supportive, or intelligent, or who possess a host of desirable traits. Empowered with the ability to abort the offspring of sexually violent aggressors or men who cannot sustain lasting relationships, women will now cognitively decide the course of human history. Feminist selection protects women’s best interests, and, in turn, the best interests of their offspring -– at the expense of male sexual aggression.

For those of you who hesitate before discarding centuries of Darwinian status-quo, know that there is scientific basis in alternatives to Darwin’s sexual selection. In fact, some scholars assert that Darwin observed the world with his hand over one eye, and carried many of his era’s Victorian ideals of sexual roles into his observations in The Galapagos.

Joan Roughgarden, one of the most stunning and inspiring professors I encountered at Stanford, is such a scholar. Dr. Roughgarden, author of 8 books and almost 200 articles, is an iconoclast biologist who originally challenged sexual selection in her book titled Evolution’s Rainbow. She provided many examples in the animal world from her own fieldwork where animals do not follow traditional sex roles, and also documented the homosexual behaviors of many species –- including high-order primate species like bonobos. In her later title The Genial Gene, Dr. Roughgarden created the social-selection theory as an alternative to the disproven Darwinian paradigm. The book lists 26 phenomena unexplainable under current sexual-selection theories, and puts forth social selection as the real process by which animals pass on their genes in the world. According to Roughgarden, “sexual selection theory derives from a view of natural behavior predicated on the selfish-gene concept, competition, and deception, whereas the social-selection theory derives from teamwork, honesty, and genetic equality.”

Anyone interested in the errors of Darwinian evolution models should watch the following TED talk by Dr. Roughgarden in 2011: 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Her standards, high standards: Reinforcement of negative stereotypes as a collective threat

Liz and Jenna share their mutual disgust of Abby Flynn.

Abby, I’m trying to help you.
Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what’s the difference between me using my sexuality and you using those glasses to look smart?
. . . .

God, Abby, you can’t be that desperate for male attention.
You know what, Liz? I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.
Except it is because you represent my show and you represent my gender in this business and you embarrass me.
Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.

30 Rock, Episode 516: “TGS Hates Women”

Women, some would say, are infinitely harsher on their own sex. That is, we are more critical of other women than we are of men, we hold them to higher standards, and impose upon them exacting expectations. Whether that’s universally true, I don’t know. But I do wonder whether it should be.

The phenomenon by which members of stereotyped groups dissociate themselves from fellow underperforming members is referred to in social psychology as a reaction to a “collective threat.” That is, where one group member believes his or her peer might reinforce a negative group stereotype, that member engages in various self-protective strategies. She might, for instance, denigrate her fellow member to distance the member from the group, physically distance herself from the member, or cognitively distinguish herself from the group by downplaying her own social identity… Each to the detriment of the defending member as well as the threat? Perhaps, but this is what we do. We associate or dissociate and include or exclude based on our assessment of the risk -- the collective threat to our group identity.

This problem is painfully evident with respect to female public figures. In terms of disappointment, the first who comes to my mind is Sarah Palin. Without rehashing many of the points previously made about Ms. Palin on this blog, and without delving into any sort of political discussion, I will say this: from 2007 to 2008, where I saw great potential, I felt even greater loss. When I first heard John McCain had selected a female running mate, I knew that so many of my conservative friends and relatives might have the chance to relate to a woman in power -- to understand that women could don suits and be likeable and strong and brilliant and carry integrity and reason into the White House. Such unadulterated hope developed in my mind for women on both sides of the aisle, but thence from the dark Mama Grizzly emerged and slowly tore my political feminine ideal to shreds. I, in turn, shifted further to the political left and further from my rural roots. She, I made clear to myself and to anyone who gave me an ear, did not represent me. Quite simply, she disappointed me.

But am I to blame for constructing and adhering to my own essentialist view and rejecting a nonconforming member of my ideal group? Might my conservative counterpart have precisely the same feelings toward Hillary Clinton and be equally [un]justified in her reaction? It certainly seems to me that when any group is underrepresented in a given field or faces any sort of social or economic obstacle to success, members of that group must necessarily work harder than members of, say, a more privileged class to achieve the same -- or at least a roughly equivalent -- prosperity. My question then, of course, is whether our reactions to collective threats are justified. That is, is it right for a woman to be disappointed in the “underperformance” of another woman because of the way the latter’s behavior reflects on the female sex, generally? If so, then at what point do heightened expectations become counterproductive to support systems that those same women ostensibly seek to provide? And how can any single woman rightfully say that her own essentialist view of her sex is superior to others and is the standard to which her peers should conform?

The struggle is ongoing. As we seek to achieve both individual success and group equality, it seems we must self-impose relatively high standards. The challenge, though, will be to prevent those standards from creating schisms within the group itself.