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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paul Seabright and the contemporary mystification of competition

Competition is an all-explainer word - and as such, a contemporary myth. One throws it about as if we knew all about it. And we throw it about as if, knowing all about it, we know all about the world. We don't. The less we know, the more we throw it about - which is the way with myths. The more we know, the less inclined we are to throw it about without at least introducing a little explanatory curtain music.

In theTLS last week, Paul Seabright, in a review of Melvin Konner's Women after All,  threw it about to make a semi-claim about the social dimension of human sexual evolution. Here are the two grafs that concern me.

“Konner has two distinct stories to tell, and the one that occupies most of his pages is well told: it concerns what we now know about how biology shapes the difference between males and females, in many non-human species as well as in our own. It is no longer tenable (and has not been for some time) to think that biology determines only the anatomy of male–female differences while culture determines all the differences in behaviour. Human behaviour is massively variable and responsive to cultural influences, and virtually all observed types of behavioural trait have been found in at least some men and in at least some women. But there are still some traits, good and bad, that are more characteristic of men than of women, and vice versa.
Some such differences in traits (such as the greater male predisposition to violence) are present across most or all cultures, even when the magnitude of the difference is responsive to particular environmental and cultural circumstances. Some (such as a greater male preference for competitive environments and a tendency to perform better under the stimulus of competition) appear to hold in some contexts but not in others, yet are rarely found in reverse. For some, too, we know a little about the correlation of the trait with some physiological characteristics, such as testosterone levels. For others (such as the greater tendency of women’s scores on various tests of competence to be affected by what is called “stereotype threat” – a sensitivity of performance to cues about what is considered normal or expected for their gender), we still have frankly no idea.”

I’m interested in the meaning of the sentence in the second graf, of course. It seems so hedged that it ends up in a clause that makes the entire thing obscure. “Some (such as a greater male preference for competitive environments and a tendency to perform better under the stimulus of competition) appear to hold in some contexts but not in others, yet are rarely found in reverse.”
 What, exactly, does this mean? Certainly in natural history, competition within a species between males would mostly reference reproduction. Males compete to mate with females to produce more ‘vehicles’, as Dawson would have it, to carry their genes. Compete, here, seems to be consonant with competition within an idealized capitalist system. As we know, Darwin actualy took his competition model partly from Linnaeus, whose metaphor of the economy of nature referred not to the market, but to the court – to, specifically, competition for positions. There were places, awarded by the sovereign, that courtiers competed for. If you like, natural selection is at the crossroads between the Linnaen competition for place of the pre-capitalist system, and the Smithean competition for market share of the capitalist system.
This in itself should point to the fact that the greater propensity of males to create and flourish under the “stimulus of competition” is, on the surface, a contemporary truism, but when unpacked as a statement about human natural history, seems to beg the question of what is meant by competition and how it is a stimulus at all. Does flourish here mean that males devise competitive systems in order to mate with more females? And if this is so, why does it seem to be the case that the competitions end up having much more to do with positioning in the socius for most of the history that we know (which has rarely involved the love matches we now assume as the norm) than with biological reproduction?
Seabright could be saying, I suppose, that the competitive stimulus is perverted from its original framework.
Even here, though, it is not clear to me how this story of  competition – which is, remember, a functional relationship  - is supposed to work when applied generally to human societies and male and female difference. The phrase makes the individualist methodological assumption, but doesn’t press it too much, because once it is pressed it becomes pretty ridiculous. At least since the dawn of agriculture, most human beings have lived in families or clans and been ruled by these families or clans, at least as far as reproduction is concerned. These clans might compete under the image of the limited good – to use a phrase I am fond of – but I am not sure why women aren’t as much a part of this competition as men, or why they are supposed not to flourish under it. Nor why the relation between men and women isn’t competitive as well, in these circumstances – why does Seabright tacitly suppose gender leagues?
Sociobiologists have an unfortunate tendency to use any random ethological observation to make their points – but as the seventies song said, I don’t like spiders and snakes and that ain’t what it takes to love me. Humans are primates, primates are social animals, and we should go for our pertinent ethological data there, if anywhere. But just confining ourselves to human societies for the moment, I don’t see a big argument here for a., the idea that competitive systems are all fundamentally varieties of some primitive competitive relationship, or b, that the kind of competitions we find in the last fifty years, say, in business tell us anything about the natural history of human beings. 
Seabright sticks with his league play idea even as he shows that the complications of it make it fundamentally unrealistic, and in doing so, alludes (like the economist he is) to some tossed off bit of crackerbarrel wisdom by a wealthy fuck:
This in turn leads to a different kind of competition among males for access to these females than that among females for access to the males. Males are usually more persistent in their endeavours, and females more selective in response to male persistence. Males are usually more interested in the quantity of mating opportunities and females more interested in their quality. Each sex depends for its fitness on the ability to overcome the bottleneck created by the availability of the other, but the bottlenecks are different, and only exceptionally should we expect to see similar mating strategies evolve in the two sexes of any species.
These points are well known to biologists, but one of the fundamental insights of sexual selection (one congenial, of course, to Freudian psychoanalysis) is just how many apparently diverse behavioural traits are in effect mating strategies, directly or indirectly. This is no less true in our own species than in others, and that awareness creates endless opportunities for both science and speculation. One of the entrepreneurs quoted by Konner puts it bluntly: “Fundamentally, what drives most human behavior is basically foreplay”. The remark is revealing, though, less for what it says than for what it leaves out, namely afterplay. Human beings are a species whose social life is shaped uniquely in the animal kingdom by the massive investments we make in raising children. So much of our behaviour is about coping with the consequences of mating rather than just about making mating more likely to happen. It is probably a characteristically male trait to forget that.”

The last sentence would have been incomprehensible in the 18th century, for instance, when the reproductive investment was the center of the family in many, many ways. It is a characteristically 2000s trait among the glib krewe of tell all-ers to forget that.


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