Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 674:
GENDER AND SCIENCE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 674.

Today, another view of gender and science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The behavior of animal species scatters between two extremes. They are Tournament Species and Pair-Bonding Species.

Tournament species males breed during annual tournaments. They compete fiercely with each other. Aggressive males produce many offspring. The gentle ones produce few. The males are larger than the females. Females do all the parenting.

Pair-bonding species live in better balance. Male and female share parenting. They're close to the same size. They're monogamous. One male produces roughly as many offspring as the next.

No species is purely one or the other. Fish aren't great pair bonders. Still, the male often does more of the parenting.

So, what about us? Are we a tournament or a pair-bonding species? At first blush you'd say we pair bond. But something else comes out of the ancient legends. Listen as the Bakhtiari nomads of northwestern Iran tell about their progenitor:

And the father of our people, the hill-man, Bakhtyar, came out of the fastness of the southern mountains in ancient times. His seed were as numerous as the rocks on the mountains, and his people prospered.
The sons of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob were no less numerous. That's the mark of a champion among tournament males. As for pair bonding: Jacob loved Rachel but was polygamous nonetheless.

Anthropologists sort through a thousand human cultures. They find 83 percent accept polygamy. Most use a double standard in sexual restrictions. Only half a percent practice polyandry.

Julian Jaynes sheds an odd light on all this in his remarkable book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He reads our oldest writings and finds a great transition around 1200 BC. He believes we formed our modern analytical self-consciousness then.

You might question Jaynes's details. But the cultures that spawned us surely had a new analytical mind after 1200 BC. They gave us philosophy, science, and an aggressive new technology.

Those cultures were also very masculine. Look at the ancient Israelites, the Assyrians, the Hellenic Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings. They all had strong tournament species features.

For 3000 years since then, we've strutted like peacocks. We've kept double standards. We've engaged other males in rituals of combat to show our superiority. That's been as true in science as it's been in war. We built the catapult. We built the bomb. Still, we call ourselves a pair-bonding species.

No doubt that's because, at some deep-seated level, we wish we really were. And maybe, someday, we shall be.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Konner, M., Why the Reckless Survive, and Other Secrets of Nature. New York: Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 5-9.

Bronowski, J., The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973, Chapter 2, "The Harvest of the Seasons." (This deals with the Bakhtiari. It's also available on videotape and film.)

Jaynes, J., The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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