By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Avoiding extinction: Women and survival

by in Research.

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Graciela Chichilnisky is a Professor of Economics and Statistics at Columbia University in New York, as well as the Director of the Columbia Consortium for Risk Management. The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author of this blog are hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Blouin News or Louise Blouin Media. This blog is part two of a series. 

To avoid extinction we have to develop social survival skills. This seems reasonable and natural – yet the social skills that are needed are not here and are not obvious either. These skills could be quite different from what human societies have achieved such as the individual survival skills that we are familiar with. A simple but somewhat unexpected experimental finding involves colonies of bacteria, which are one of the world’s oldest living species. They have been around for billions of years and have shaped the planet’s geology and atmosphere to suit their needs. Bacteria are champions of survival. They seem to understand that they need appropriate survival skills, and have developed some unexpected skills based on “altruism.” Yet since bacteria are some of the longest lived species in the planet, many times longer lived than relatively recent humanoids, we need to take their skills seriously as a model of survival. Bacterial colonies know how to avoid extinction.

Here is new data: new findings indicate that Escherichia Coli — and indeed most known bacteria colonies — when exposed to a pathogen or stressor such as antibiotics not only evolve to develop resistance, but the evolved members produce specific resistance tools that they do not need in order to share with the rest of the non-evolved members of the colony. In other words, when exposed to stress, mutant bacteria use some of their own energy — altruistically — to create a chemical called “indole” that protects non-mutants from the pathogen. This way the entire group survives. A way to summarize this finding is to say that altruism is an effective survival tool and bacteria — those champions of survival – have developed and mastered altruism for this task.

This finding is quite different from what we believe to be effective survival skills in human colonies or societies. Until now human survival skills have focused on avoiding natural risks and confronting successfully the threats posed by other species that preyed on us, species that are dangerous to us. Altruism is often considered a weakness in human societies; it is considered to be a desirable trait rather than a survival skill. Yet, it is a survival skill. Aggressive and individualistic behavior may have been a useful survival tool until now. The war society that humans have created has become an efficient killing machine. But when things change, as they are changing right now, then what used to be strength can become a weakness. And things have fundamentally changed and they continue to evolve quickly. Indeed physical strength and aggression matter much less today for human survival than intelligence.

Some of the worst risks we face today are caused not by other species that prey on us, but by traits that evolved to succeed against our predators – for example extracting energy and burning fossil fuel to dominate nature and other species. We are now at risk due to the impact of human dominance on the planet. Our success as a species has become the source of our main social risks. Humans are causing some of the worst risks humans face. The situation is somewhat unusual and is new for our species, and it is also new for the planet itself. As the situation changes, the rules we used to follow for survival must change too. Let’s start from basic principles.

Survival is about protecting life not just about inducing death. Life is difficult to define, but we all agree that it is a phenomenon characterized by reproduction. Only those systems that incorporate reproduction are said to be alive. Life forms are able to reproduce. To be alive means to be part of a time series of reproductive activities. Reproduction characterizes life. Destruction does not. Asteroids destroy very effectively, and so do volcanoes. But they are not alive, because they do not reproduce. We humans are alive because we do. But reproduction requires fundamentally altruism rather than dominance and aggression. How so? This is simple. We must donate our energy and even our bodily resources and substance to be able to reproduce, sometimes at the cost of our own. Yet in our male-dominated society, the essence of life is viewed differently. It is viewed as the ability to conquer, dominate and kill. Men think of life skills as those skills that allow them to win the battle for survival. War is an example. Ask any man what characterizes life. He will very likely say “the survival of the fittest” and “dog eats dog.” This is a man’s view of life. This may be because of the evolutionary role that males had originally in human’s societies, a role that is somewhat outdated.

The reality is that humans could not be live and indeed we could not be part of the chain of life, unless we reproduced. Women understand that reproduction means life, and requires altruism. Women donate their physical substance such as eggs, blood and milk – and they do so voluntarily – for the sake of reproduction. This is what reproduction is all about: voluntary donation of one’s substance. All living beings – animals and plants – do the same. They donate their substance voluntarily to the next generation, sometimes at the cost of their own welfare and their own lives. Observe that donating voluntarily one’s own substance, one’s flesh and body fluids, is the very essence of altruism. And that this altruistic donation is the key to the survival of the species.

The great British author and social commentator Jonathan Swift – once suggested, as a ‘humble proposal’ to the problem of poverty in Ireland, that humans should eat their own children. This is not as outlandish a proposal as it may sound at first sight. It helps to illustrate the point I want to make clearly. If the essence of life was the survival of the fittest, then humans would eat their children who are totally powerless at birth – nothing is less fit than new born infants. Their bodies could certainly provide a lot of protein and nutrition to fit adults. The question that we must answer is: why don’t we follow Swift’s humble proposal? Why not eat our own children?

Some societies may have done exactly that – and indeed child abuse, as we know, is a widespread problem in our society. But clearly those societies that systematically ate their children are not here to tell their tale, because if we ate our children, humans would not be around. Our species would not survive. No species who ate its children would survive – it may not even get started as a species. Survival depends crucially on reproduction and this means protecting the weak – the weakest of all – the small children. This is quite different from the blanket policy of survival of the fittest, which are the adult members of the species. Indeed, I venture to say that survival is more than anything about altruism and cooperation, and about the protection of the weakest. It is not about “dog eat dog” — it is not about dominance and survival of the fittest. It is about the nurturing and protection of new generations; it is about voluntary donations, about protection and nurturing of the weakest, sometimes at the expense of our own survival. These are facts of life, facts that women understand well. We could say that men got it all wrong.

Women understand because their evolutionary role is to protect the weakest of all – namely the children at birth. Women are critical to human survival – they are the key to reproduction and they provide voluntarily their substance and energy to give birth and protect the weakest as needed for the survival of the human species. Men miss this important aspect of survival because their evolutionary roles appear to values physical strength more than anything else. This is a role that seems increasingly out of date. We are in a male-dominated world and a male-dominated culture that is focused on violence, economic competition, and wars of choice. It is particular fitting as to understand how, among the changes we need to avoid extinction, we need to assure a changing role for women so the entire ethos of destruction and dominance that permeates our male-dominated society is balanced out by a modicum of altruism and the critical and necessary nurturing and protection of the weakest that is required to avoid extinction.

It is true that there have been changes in the role of women, most of all their rapid entrance in the market for labor in industrial societies. But this change has not been fast enough. Modern societies such as the U.S. have enormous statistics of abuse of women at home and elsewhere, both physical and economic abuse. For example the U.S. has a 30% gender difference in salaries, which does not budge. These are the salaries that are paid to men and women even when comparing men and women with equal training, same age and experience, with everything other than gender being equal. The gender inequality is prevailing, persistent and systematic. In any given society, there is a deep connection statistically between the amount of housework a woman does at home and the difference between male and female salaries in the economy as a whole. These are two different statistics that are apparently unrelated — two indices of abuse – but they are indeed related, because when women are overworked and underpaid at home this leads them to be overworked and underpaid in the marketplace.

Gender inequality in salaries is in reality legally sanctioned – for example the U.S. still does not have an Equal Pay Act. Unequal pay is legal in the U.S. Why? Is there a reason to pay women less than men? If so, what is it? The deepest suspicion created by sexism to explain the persistent unequal situation is based on a rationale of “genetic inferiority” of women. Even a former president of the oldest University in the U.S., Harvard University, Larry Summers, presented this suspicion in public as a plausible hypothesis to explain the 30% difference in salaries between women and men in our economy. Furthermore, when he was subsequently fired by the Harvard University faculty he served he went on to become an economic advisor of President Barack Obama. One wonders whether Mr. Summers would have been selected as an economic advisor of the President of the U.S. – the first black U.S. president — if he had presented in public his suspicions about the genetic inferiority of blacks, rather than the genetic inferiority of women. I venture to say he would not have been selected by President Obama if he had said in public that blacks are genetically inferior. But saying this about women is acceptable, and went through and indeed was rewarded by President Obama with the economic advisory role.

This was an amazing and very discouraging event for some of us, but not for the many U.S. men who secretly or openly believe that women are indeed genetically inferior to men. One cannot but reflect upon he connection of the situation with the excuses that the Nazis presented to themselves to explain the Holocaust – namely, they explained Nazism as based on the genetic inferiority of the Jews. This is how serious is the issue of claiming genetic inferiority of some groups in our society. Raising in public the hypothesis of genetic inferiority of women to explain their economic exploitation is not an innocent remark. It is a way to justify a systematic way in which male-dominated societies perpetrate economic and cultural abuse, violence and brutality against women, pornography, torture of women and rape that represent a form of social control and intimidation, and ultimately a deep social instinct against the altruism, protection of the weak and reproductive health that women bring to society and that is a necessary precondition for the survival of the human species.

Our society’s manifested hate and violence against women is critically connected with the self-destructive aspects of our society – and the problem of avoiding extinction that we face now. Until we change the current male-dominated culture of abuse and its barbaric treatment of women, and until we develop altruism as an efficient survival skill, our society will not be well-prepared to avoid extinction.

– Graciela Chichilnisky

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