On May 29, the topic on the Lou Dobbs Tonight show on the Fox Business Network was a recently released Pew finding that women are now the sole or primary source of income in a record 40 percent of American households with children under 18.
Dobbs labeled women becoming “the breadwinners in this country” one of many “troubling statistics” indicative of “society dissolve[ing] around us.” Much more troubling was the implication from one of his three guests, Erick Erickson, that women as breadwinners was anti-science and violated some natural law. Erickson, a conservative pundit and editor in chief of the blog site redstate.com, put it this way: “Liberals who defend this and say it’s not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society, and other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role.”
Evidently, science and biology were not Erickson’s strong suit at Mercer University, where he attended law school. Otherwise he might care whether the biological facts get in the way. Most animals in nature — about 95 percent — live solitary lives. Among these, it is the female that is almost always the sole provider and single parent, i.e., “the breadwinner.” The female builds the nest, hunts or forages for the food and protects the young. Among the 5 percent of animal species that live in some sort of group — schools, flocks, herds or even monogamous pairs — male involvement in breadwinning is either absent, minor or occasional.
The larger question is why Erickson thinks our culture should mimic nature. Does he really want American social norms to conform to animal ones? If so, he might bone up on what actually goes on out there. Perhaps he’d like to play the Russian Roulette mating game of the male Australian redback spider, who is killed and eaten by the female after copulation — at least 60 percent of the time. What about children eating their mothers? Erickson should check out the European spider, Stegodyphus lineatus, whose offspring devour their mother after hatching from the egg sac. Or certain flatworms that could have inspired the movie “Alien.” If unable to exit the birth canal, the baby worms burst out of the mother’s body by eating her from the inside out. Infanticide is common across the animal kingdom. For example, zebra males will kill the foal sired by another male before mating with foal’s mother.
Perhaps Erickson restricts Nature’s guide for humans to socially monogamous animals. If so, the list is short: a few species of insects, fish, reptiles and mammals, a parasitic worm that lives in Mr. Erickson and most humans and, of course, birds, who are famously the most monogamous, involving about 90 percent of avian species.
Unfortunately for Erickson, “monogamous” Nature also fails to provide his preferred male-dominant/female-complementary role models. Biological research tells us that females in a monogamous animal pair are both the “breadwinners” and sexually independent. Among black bears, one of the few species of solitary mammals (along with orangutans and gibbons), the female drives off the male after mating in order to monopolize and ensure the local food supply for her cubs. Among birds, 30 percent or more of the hatchlings in the nest fail the monogamy paternity test. One genetic study exposed rampant male and female “infidelity” among 180 species of songbirds; only 10 percent of the pairs proved to be truly monogamous, i.e., sexually faithful. Male birds cheat openly and widely, then leave. Females are more selective, then stick around to be the “breadwinner” for the brood.
Erickson need not worry that the Pew study is a gender equality story that violates some imagined natural law. The real story is that the Pew findings are tragically analogous to the brutal poverty of Nature. Of the women breadwinners, 63 percent have to raise their children alone and maintain a household as single mothers earning an average of $23,000 per year. That’s what he should worry about.