Friday, September 28, 2012

Selection

I'm smart. I'm ambitious. I want to do something with my life besides baby-making.

Why?

Who knows; who cares. Nature, nurture, some combination of the two.

And yet, at this point in my life, what am I doing?

Making babies.

Yeah, I'm doing other stuff to. I'm still working on my dissertation, I've got a church calling and a book group and photography and writing and...

Nothing even remotely like a career.

Given how busy my kids keep me, that's not a problem at the moment. Trying to have both really stressed me out and I didn't enjoy my life when I was trying to 'balance' family and a job. Being a part-time scientist and most-time mom suits me better than I would have imagined a decade ago.

I'm on a listserv for academic geoscientist women and there's a pretty consistent discussion of ways women undermine themselves, including being more passive, less confident, less ambitious, and worse at self-promotion than the men around them. The down side of those feminine characteristics isn't limited to geoscience, of course; in pretty much any field possessing traditional feminine characteristics puts you at the bottom of the heap. Maybe not so much in social situations, though even there getting ahead requires aggression, confidence, and more stereotypically male attributes.

Today, while I probably should have been washing out diapers or something I was instead contemplating the impact of natural selection on female personality. Both personalities, really, but focusing on females. I'm sure I'm far from the first person to think these thoughts, so if this is ludicrously obvious to you, go ahead and ignore me. Setting aside sexual selection (since I'm going to claim that's a different can of worms), it seems like feminine traits would have led to women staying closer to home, focusing on gathering/agriculture (as that came into prominence), and on creating social bonds with other women in their community. This conservative tendency could have benefited the children of the more timid women since with at least one parent sticking around, totally dedicated to their upbringing, they would have been more likely to survive. We do have to make this assumption, but it seems likely that timid women would focus on the sure bets that are, in the end, what get women and their children through the tough early years and into adolescence. If you really want your children to survive, you put your head down and collect as many roots and grubs as it takes to keep them fed. The children of those conscientious mothers would be more likely to survive and the trait of conscientiousness, at least for women, would be preferentially passed along.

Looking at the female society I inhabit, such timidity isn't as detrimental as it is in the larger world. Sure, ambition and gregariousness do make some women into 'queen bees,' but not being a queen bee doesn't leave one high and dry. On the other hand, being less conscientious, less reliable, and more prone to pursuing ones own interests at expense of others (which I would argue are often byproducts of stereotypical male behavior) are highly detrimental socially among women in a way I just don't think they are among men.

Which is all to get around to the thought, what if women pushed their own evolution toward the communal, timid, but conscientious people we at least stereotypically are? I can't think of a real way to test it, or a real way it would help me, but it's an interesting thought. These traits that are so detrimental to me in my modern career as the byproducts of evolution, and not just sexual selection: as the byproduct of shaping by other women and by the situation of child-rearing.

Not sure what to feel about this thought.

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