Archive for Monday, June 17, 2013

Opinion: Nature loves a female breadwinner

June 17, 2013


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, 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.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University.


Kris Krishtalka 4 years, 7 months ago

Tanzer: No one knows what science or nature Erickson is referring to, apparently not even Erickson himself! And no one on the Lou Dobbs show seemed to care---apparently they don't have fact-checking.

tomatogrower 4 years, 7 months ago

Conservative science is faux science, for example, there was no room on the Ark for the dinosaurs. Dinosaur bones were put there by the devil to make you question your faith, The ice at the poles is not melting. Sea levels are not rising. Rape victims can't get pregnant. The founding fathers lived to be over a hundred years old, so they could end slavery. Your sexuality is chosen by you, not your genetics. There is no homosexuality in other species. Women don't like sex. etc. The bubble is pretty tough to get through.

Richard07 4 years, 7 months ago

If the increasing number of single parent head of households is a good thing (or at least a phenomena not considering) then why are educational level attainment scores stagnant or falling and the overall poverty level increasing? If you are going to try to convince me that single mom households result in high attainment scores and higher family income, good luck.

bevy 4 years, 7 months ago

I don't think this is an either/or situation. The facts are the facts - women provide the majority of support (or all of it) in 40% of households. No one is saying that this necessarily the best way. What we are saying is, it is not unnatural for women to support their families, and it is most definitely not the root of all of society's evils, as Erickson insists. I have been a single mom, and I currently make about 2.5 times my husband's salary. It is far easier with a partner than without. But I did a good job both ways.

The nature comparison has other fallacies as well. No other species that I am aware of requires 18 years to see their offspring reach maturity. No other species' infants remain helpless (or mostly helpless) for as long as ours. Most other species' babies have reached adulthood by the time our babies are learning to walk and talk. For humans, if there are two involved, caring parents, outcomes are generally better. But that doesn't mean moms or dads alone can't be just as successful. We are intelligent, and we adapt.

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