In Praise of Sexual Dimorphism

Because I am basically a serious (Read: boring) person, I tend to gravitate to serious (Again: boring) forms of diversion. Things that would drive others to drink or commit acts of mayhem out of sheer desperation I find fascinating. For example, my reading list is heavy with scholarly histories, essays, and philosophical ruminations on obscure topics. I enjoy discussing the fine points of science, technology, business, and current events with anyone who will engage. I also like documentaries. Correction, I love documentaries. I recall as a small child observing how the living room would clear clear out whenever the one and only television channel our town had happened to be showing a documentary. I didn’t know what a documentary was, probably would have stumbled over its pronunciation, but I knew right away that liked it. It told a story, not a fable, about real people and real events. If you paid attention, you might even learn a bit about how the world worked. How could you not like such a thing?

Fast-forward to the age of Netflix. Best use of $7.99 per month, ever. Pretty much every television show, sans commercials, lots of movies. And hundreds and hundreds of documentaries on every conceivable subject. Nerd heaven. A few days ago, I was watching a documentary about the history of submarines. It covered technical issues, the evolution of tactics and technologies, terminology, and so forth. There were lots of explanatory graphics and historical footage. It even dealt with the changing nature of submariner crews. The Norwegian Navy, which uses some American-designed subs, very generously advised the production, providing footage of real operations plus interviews with crew members. There were some interesting revelations. For example, Norwegian submarine crews typically include at least a few females. There was an interview with one of them. Obviously an able and articulate lass, she proceeded to point out that females were a logical addition to the crews because they were just as capable as the men, and had the same skill set, the same aptitudes, the same physical abilities and strength.

Come again?

Every now and again someone says something so unexpected that it just kind of lets the air out of the room. In such a situation your first reaction, quite naturally, is to think: Did I hear that right? I was so taken aback by what the young lady had said that I rolled the video back to hear it one more time, to make sure I had not gotten it wrong. Well, technically I read it again because she was speaking Norwegian, in which I am a little rusty, and her words appeared as English subtitles. Sure enough, I had not been mistaken.

Now I’m no expert, but it seems to me that there is plenty of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that human males and females are, in fact, pretty damned different. Not even in Norway, well-known for its blandly egalitarian society, could you credibly claim that they are the same. We are so very different, it seems fair to say, that at a casual glance a visitor from another planet might even guess that we belonged to different species. And at some level, most of us understand this.

But under pressure from various interest groups, we have allowed the idea to take root that males and females are the same. Not merely equal before the law, nor enjoying equal opportunity, but physically, mentally, emotionally, culturally, attitudinally the same.

Why anyone would think this even for a moment is completely beyond me. It defies logic and experience. It defies common sense. It is rebutted each and every day in a thousand different ways. More importantly, this line of thinking makes no sense biologically, the ultimate arbiter of what is and what is not. Throughout the animal kingdom–and this includes class mammalia, of which our species is a member–sexual dimorphism is the rule, not the exception. To suppose perfect equivalence between human males and females isn’t just fuzzy thinking, it is illogical.

No matter how much some wish that it were otherwise, human males and females are most emphatically not the same, and never have been. To pretend otherwise is utopian blather and a recipe for extreme dysfunction. It follows inevitably that any two things that are so very different cannot logically be said to be “equal,” either. To say so is literally nonsense, akin to saying that a hammer and a pair of pliers are equal.

Let’s start with the really obvious. In this country the average male stands about 5 feet 10. The average woman comes in nearly 6 inches shorter at about 5 foot 4. On average males weigh about 40 percent more than females and have about 45 percent more muscles mass by weight. Females, on average, have less than 50 percent the upper body strength and 60-70 percent the lower body strength of males. These physical parameters apply, scaled up or down, across every race and nationality that has been measured.

Beyond the physical, the differences between males and females are numerous, deep, and enduring. These differences do not materialize overnight, nor are they the end result of “objectification,” whatever that is. The differences  are detectable even at the cellular level, and manifest in the very earliest stages of gestation. The divergence continues as development progresses.

Males and female fetuses differ sharply, on average, in their response to stimuli, sleeping and waking patterns, and overall level of activity. This pattern continues into infancy and beyond. Male infants and toddlers, for example, express both joy and frustration to a much greater degree than females. Male infants and toddlers are drawn to things that buzz and whir and gyrate, while females are captivated by human faces. Later on, boys will show a pronounced attraction to puzzles and activities that challenge, both physically and mentally, while girls will be drawn to things and activities that foster interaction. This pattern continues for a lifetime.

The U.S. Army, having a vested interest in the matter, has has amassed abundant data detailing the physical differences between males and females. Herein lie a few of their findings. Draw your own conclusions.

The U.S. Navy, having bowed to pressure to include females in its crews, has also conducted its own assessments. Here are the results of a study regarding the performance of male and female navy personnel in tests of damage control, i.e. saving the ship after it has been damaged in an attack.

These results, derived from very realistic drills, indicate that in the real world, such as when an actual ship gets hit by an actual cruise missile, that Norwegian submariner has it all wrong; males and females very much differ in what they can and cannot do. The conclusion is inescapable: Every male crew member replaced by a female measurably degrades the ability of the crew to respond in an emergency. And as a consequence, when the shit hits the fan for real, people will die, for real. But as they burn alive, writhing in unspeakable agony, they and their loved ones can at least derive comfort from the knowledge that they have advanced the cause of gender equity.

You may have noticed that males have tended to dominate the historical record. It is certainly arguable that this is due at least in part to the fact that history has been written mostly by men, who tend to favor traditional historiography, in which big events get all the ink. Following this model, history reads as an endless procession of headlines: wars, revolutions, epic battles, technological breakthroughs, political struggles, mass movements, and so on, with males as the principal protagonists. Some reject this depiction. The counter-argument runs: History isn’t the headlines, it’s the margin notes, the little, ordinary, everyday stuff that happens all the time. Or to put it another way, history isn’t the river, it’s what happens on the banks. This may, in fact, be so. But if you look at it that way you’d have to agree that history makes a mighty boring read.

You may also have noticed that certain endeavors are top-heavy with one sex or another. For fairly obvious reasons, males dominate the professions that demand strength or aggression, such as the building trades, the military, and professional sports. But for less obvious reasons males also dominate the “hard” sciences, engineering, mathematics, technology, most medical specialties, and the upper ranks of almost every field of business. By contrast, females overwhelmingly dominate the “caring” professions such as nursing and teaching, social work, and the “soft” sciences, such as sociology and biology. These sharp disparities stubbornly persist despite sustained efforts by academia and government to overturn them in the form of quotas, affirmative action, and modified standards.

Furthermore, virtually all the great minds of history are male. For every Marie Curie, there are a hundred male counterparts. Every composer, every inventor, every philosopher, every mathematician, almost every artist of note for the last 500 years has been male. Nobel prize winners in the hard sciences outnumber females fifty to one. There has never been a female winner of the Fields Medal, the “Nobel Prize of mathematics.” There has never been a female chess champion in open competition. Males rule the cerebral universe.

Now it is at least theoretically possible that women self-exclude from the hard sciences, mathematics, and engineering because they find them unappealing. Being on average more sociable, they might prefer to work with people rather than with abstractions. And being generally less egoistic than males, it may be that females may have little need to flaunt their superiority.

Or perhaps the answer can be found in statistics, which reveal the following: Prior to puberty, males and females compare reasonably well in objective tests of intelligence. But this relative parity vanishes after puberty. By age 22, males have an average IQ a minimum of several points higher than adult females. And at the higher levels–three, four, five standard deviations to the right of the mean–the disparity is even more pronounced. In fact, males absolutely dominate. At an IQ of 130, two standard deviations above the mean, there are twice as many males as females. At an IQ of 160, four standard deviations out and the frontier of truly high-order intelligence, there are around 30 males for every female. At the very highest levels of measured intelligence the proportion of females is so small as to be statistically insignificant. This pattern has consistently recurred through more a century of testing, despite efforts to make the process more “fair.” Silicon Valley, a paragon of intellectual meritocracy if there ever was one, bears out this pattern. Amid a sea of male faces are a smattering of female ones.*

Why this is so is debatable. But that it is so is not. One interpretation of this pattern is that females are simply more normal. It is fairly obvious that males exhibit far more extremes in general than females. There are far more male geniuses, but also more psychopaths and deviants, more substance abusers and addicts, more misfits and oddballs, more risky and destructive patterns of behavior. There may be no female Albert Einstein, but neither is there a female Ted Bundy.

A logical person might conclude that a pattern so entrenched, so sharply defined, and so resistant to change, cannot possibly be artificial; it must reflect natural differences between the sexes. And it would follow that if this is the case, our efforts to budge the needle on certain forms of gender imbalance will likely not be terribly successful. You might conclude, for example, that women will never be drawn in great numbers to classic STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) because these disciplines are, in general, a poor fit for their innate skills and inclinations.

Which is precisely the sort of thinking that will get you drawn and quartered, metaphorically speaking, by the gender warriors, who will have you know that it is the “Patriarchy,” whatever that is, that is alone responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Destroy the Patriarchy, so the argument goes, and prefect gender balance will everywhere naturally follow.

Or in an alternate version, females will be once again restored to their rightful place as the dominant gender. People of this philosophical persuasion are fond of reminding us that once upon a time, long ago, humans the world over lived in harmony with nature, in blissfully matriarchal societies, ruled over by wise and just goddess-queens. That is until one dark day the duplicitous, conniving, power-hungry males rose up and overthrew the established order. And the Earth has been a hellhole ever since.

In geology, there is a saying: “The present is the key to the past.” In other words, to understand what happened a long time ago, you need only look at what is happening today because the physical processes are the same. This principle has applications beyond geology. For example, if in our modern era if you wished to get some idea how those ancient matriarchies worked, you would find a modern example and study it. Problem is, you could scour the entire planet and not find even a single culture of any significant size that is a true matriarchy. And the present being the key to the past, it is only logical to assume that it has probably always been thus.

The why of this is a whole other area of discussion. But as long as we’re on the subject, let’s take a stab at it. The following are generalities. Obviously, there are many individual exceptions.

To begin with, males are competitive by nature. The group behavior of males is illustrative of this point. Get a group of males together and the jousting will commence immediately. It is through competition that males figure out who is who: Who are the leaders, who are the followers, who are the thinkers, who are the entertainers, who are the innovators, who are the grunts. Once established, the roles are instinctively clear to everyone, and the group will act accordingly. The roles are not necessarily static; individuals frequently move up or down in rank based on their performance. Decision-making tends to be top-down, based on facts, executed promptly.

Groups focus the male animating energy. Male groups are less about personalities than about results. A well-tuned group of males is a study in productive fellowship. Think NASA during its golden years. Think Hoover Dam. Think Manhattan Project.

Furthermore, males crave freedom. They are more comfortable with risk. They are more adventurous, physically and intellectually. They want to see what’s over the next hill, around the next bend in the river. They enjoy solving problems. They want to see what happens when x encounters y. They tend to be restless and to dislike routine. Males are the exploring, innovating, hell-raising sex.

Females, by contrast, are much more cooperative by nature. Females crave security. They are not, by and large, adventurous, and tend to be naturally risk-averse. They are more likely to see challenges as disruptions rather than opportunities. Female groups, such as they are, make decisions by consensus, hence slowly. Females are more social, more empathetic, and more likely to act based on feelings rather than facts. They have a larger emotional range than males, feeling both joy and anger more keenly and frequently. Females prefer continuity, predictability, order, and are, in general, much more comfortable with routine. They keep the home fires burning. They are the nesting, nurturing, caretaking sex.

So males, individually and as groups, simply out-compete females, who by and large couldn’t care less.

Again, these are observations about central tendencies; many individual exceptions exist. Snuff that torch and put the pitchfork away.

Now you might look at this arrangement and think that it makes perfectly good sense on many levels. It especially makes sense from a biological standpoint because nature, as a rule, very much favors clarity over ambiguity. With this arrangement there is balance, division of labor, a diversified portfolio, if you will, of traits and proclivities, which in sum comprise an sound evolutionary strategy. It might occur to you that together, human males and females actually make a pretty good team.

With any luck you did not say this out loud, though, because if you had you would shortly be set upon by a howling mob of enraged gender warriors and torn to pieces, such is the emotional investment certain people have in this issue. Anyone who dares to suggest publicly the simply outrageous idea that, well, maybe males are just naturally better at certain things than females, and vice versa, is likely to face a storm of criticism of a very personal nature.

There is a certain type of person–the type, perhaps, who values diversity over competence–who vociferously supports absolute equity in the workplace, whether it makes sense or not. If 50.27 percent of the population is female then, by god, exactly the same percentage of test pilots, brigadier generals, astrophysicists, and hedge fund managers should be as well. And any downward deviation, however slight, is proof of the malign influence of the Patriarchy, which must be corrected. Oddly, and I am sure this is an oversight, no workplace-equity activist ever seems overly concerned that nearly 100 percent of sanitation workers, roughnecks, coal miners, and ditch diggers are male, though.

Why anyone would ever expect the world to actually work like this is completely baffling to me. I can only conclude that people who think that it should imagine that there is some sort of Fairness Doctrine governing human behavior, and that this Doctrine somehow overrides all biological and physical realities. In their minds there must always be perfect equivalence between males and females in all endeavors because any other scenario would be unjust, and therefore unthinkable. After all, nature supports equal outcomes, right?

Yet despite all the talk about gender “equity,” you get the keen sense that those who are pushing it the hardest see the sexes as anything but equal. In certain circles, those who bear the y-chromosome are derided at every opportunity by harridans with agendas, who endlessly, enthusiastically defame the masculine gender despite understanding it every bit as well as a chimpanzee understands the Bernoulli Effect. Men, we are informed, are incompetent and uncouth beasts who do little worthwhile, unfairly hog the credit, and just sort of skate through life, milking their “male privilege”  for everything it is worth. Some take an even dimmer view of the masculine gender.

Aside from ignoring completely the overwhelming historical contribution of males to science, technology, mathematics, engineering, medicine, music, literature, philosophy, culture, and, well, pretty much everything, these viewpoints also overlook the reality that for the average male, life is hardly a walk in the park.

It is, in fact, a much more dangerous world for a man than for a woman. In every society measured so far, women outlive men. In eight of the ten most common causes of death, men suffer significantly higher mortality rates. Males are about 3.5 times more likely to be autistic, about 1.4 times as likely to suffer from schizophrenia, four times as likely to be murdered, and three times as likely to commit suicide. Males are thirteen times as likely to die in workplace accidents as females. Prostate cancer kills twice as many men as breast cancer kills women, yet breast cancer research receives twice as much funding per case. Males are 18 percent more likely to die before their first birthday. Nature herself acknowledges the naturally higher attrition among males by seeing to it that 105 males are conceived for every 100 females.

Furthermore, in times of war it is the males that are drafted and put in harm’s way. In life-or-death situations the rule is women and children first; men are on their own. Men are ten times as likely to be incarcerated as women. Men receive sentences an average of 63 percent longer than women for the the same crime. In most places in these United States, a woman can send a man to jail or keep him from his children with an unsubstantiated allegation. In any legal conflict with a male, a female can expect to enjoy the presumption of innocence.

Combine this with a feminized education system  that basically regards boys as a nuisance, higher rates of enrollment and graduation by women in college, and higher average starting salaries for women, and the picture for males looks bleak indeed. If this is male privilege then you can have it.

And now, of course, you have the gender warriors pushing not just for equality of opportunity, but mandated equality of outcome, in every field, everywhere, backed by the force of law. Oh happy day.

Here’s an idea: Let’s give everyone a fair chance to be what they want to be, with no preconceived ideas about who’s going to be good at what. Let’s bend over backward, even, to be fair by giving historically underrepresented groups a helpful nudge. If they succeed, great. But if they don’t, let’s not pretend that it’s the result of objectification, cultural conditioning, or some kind of malignant conspiracy. Let’s allow the chips to fall where they may and live with it.

Do not think for even one second that any of the forgoing is intended to disparage the female gender. I am fortunate to have many lovely, capable women in my life, and am thankful for this. But as a society, we do ourselves injury when we foolishly pretend that things are a certain way, when in fact they are not. The wise person, having dug himself into a hole, stops digging.

The French, an ancient people who know a thing or to about the ways of humankind, have a saying: Vive la difference.

Maybe they are on to something.




*Obviously, this picture was taken at Microsoft HQ, but it’s the functional equivalent of Silicon Valley.

An Open Letter to Lisa G.

Dear Lisa:

I just became aware of your negative review of Computer Medic on Yelp. Thank you, I think, for your feedback.

It is neither necessary nor appropriate to respond to every critique, but you have made some pretty damaging claims that more or less demand a rebuttal. This will follow shortly.

In my original version of this post I referred to you by your full name. I did so in order to re-establish some balance. Perhaps I’m old school, but it just seems like there is something wrong with a system that allows people to fling hateful and destructive little verbal missiles anonymously, hence with zero personal accountability. It’s crass, rather cowardly, and absurdly unfair.  But at the urging of those whose judgement I trust, I returned you to anonymity. People, I was reminded, can be very unreasonable.

Note that the vast majority of my reviews are strongly positive. Many mention how nicely and thoughtfully they were treated. This is no accident. Every single one of these positive reviews was honestly earned. The fact that you had a different experience should tell you something.

I quite agree with you that it did not go very well, but as a wise man once said, it takes two to tango. Your one-sided account completely glosses over your starring role in this drama.

You see, whether you realize it or not, you set the tone for our transaction by taking a hard line from the very first moment. You were, for no discernible reason, curt to the point of rude. You were pushy and demanding. You interrupted me repeatedly. Your tone of voice and mannerisms conveyed condescension. It was as though you were trying to establish that you were the boss and we were the hired help. I remember thinking “Wow!” and feeling like a scolded child. It occurred to me that you might be one of those women who thinks all men are dolts, and treats them accordingly. No kidding, it really was that bad.

I am a respected and trusted professional with years of experience in a pretty tough business, and have an excellent reputation earned the old-fashioned way. It is not too much to ask that you treat me with a little common courtesy.

But let’s put that aside for a moment.

By chance, you happened to have an unusual problem that required some time to figure out. Ninety-plus percent of the time, a laptop exhibiting the behavior in question has a failed LCD panel. Maybe 5 percent of the time that behavior it is caused by a faulty  video cable, and another two or three percent by some other faulty component. The remaining 1 or 2 percent of the time the behavior is caused by a faulty mainboard. Your case, as it turns out, was of the last type. But to reach that conclusion required testing. Lots of testing. We were very thorough. You clearly do not realize how much effort we expended.

At some point we informed you that you the only way to fix the laptop would be to replace the mainboard. The problem is, this repair would have cost you more than the laptop was worth, and so we recommended against it, as we almost always do in such cases. Ethically, we cannot ask you to pay more for a repair than the computer is worth. We offered you options, but you rejected them. I also got the distinct impression you did not believe me.

You said that we blew deadlines, but they were deadlines imposed by you that would have been difficult to meet even under the best of circumstances.  For example, you called less than 48 hours after dropping off the computer, unreasonably expecting it to be done, and were obviously very annoyed that it wasn’t.

I am sorry that the affair dragged on for as long as it did, but the diagnosis took longer than expected, we hit a snag with one of our suppliers, and after you rejected our proposed solutions, we had no choice but to table the repair and await your decision as to what to do. You apparently did not realize this. After not hearing from you for weeks, we concluded you had abandoned the laptop.

I never argued with you. That would have been pointless. I merely told you, with increasing assertiveness, the realities we were facing. At one point I was, I admit, short with you, but only after you were surly with me.

Neither did I hang up on you. That would have been childish. The incident you refer to was a misunderstanding. I honestly thought that our conversation was over. Right before the phone clicked off I heard your voice again and realized that I had made a mistake. You called back moments later, as I was retrieving your number to call you back. I sincerely apologized and that should have been the end of it. You know this too, yet you dishonestly bring it up in order to score cheap points.

Note that you were not charged a penny, even though we expended time and money trying to solve your problem. Your computer was returned to you in the shape it was received, minus a little unavoidable wear from dismantling and reassembly. So you lost nothing but time. However, it was in every way possible a loss for me. So who got the worse end of that deal?

Could this have been handled better? Yes. Could you have behaved better? Also yes.

Sometimes people just get off on the wrong foot. And sometimes things just go wrong. Perhaps that is the case here. If you would like to clear the slate and start over, I would be happy to meet you halfway.


Scott Snell

City of Austin Sticks it to Small Business Again

I was sitting at my desk not too long ago, front door open to catch the breeze, when I noticed a car pull up outside, bearing the label “Corix Utility Services.” A mousy little man emerged from the car holding a leaflet. He wore a strange expression, seemed to have trouble expressing himself, and had nervous, darting eyes. I was instantly reminded of Andy Kauffman’s Foreign Man character, all weirdly inappropriate expressions and evasive manners. Foreign Man stands at full arm’s length and hands me one of those blue little hangers they leave on your door when they are about to cut off your electricity. Then he turns on his heel and departs about as fast as his skinny little legs can carry him.

This kind of surprised me, because to the best of my knowledge I was current on the bill. So I went to the Austin Energy website and logged into my account to find a most unwelcome surprise: a huge bill, larger than I had ever before received. After picking myself up off the floor, I took a closer look at this bill. In addition to the hefty monthly electricity charge, inflated by recent rate hikes and a slew of new and opaquely named fees, was a nearly $1000 upcharge covering 8 months of bills. This series of bill had been recalculated, apparently, on a higher rate plan than had previously applied. Retroactively. And the recalculated balance was due. Right now. Nice.

Convinced that there must have been some kind of billing mistake, I called the main number for the City of Austin Utilities, and after working through the menu of options to reach a representative for commercial accounts, was informed that “due to the high call volume” there would be a formidably long wait time. I guessed that I wasn’t the only one to get an unpleasant surprise that day.

After about forty minutes, the hold music abruptly gave way to a young female voice: “City of Austin, this is [so-and-so] may I help you.” Restraining my irritation, I briefly recapped the problem and stated my case that there must have been some kind of mistake in the bill. Without a moment’s hesitation, the young lady patiently explained, for what must have been the hundredth time that day, exactly what had happened. As it turns out, the City of Austin had revisited its formula for calculating electric rates for high-demand periods, and by this revised formula, it was determined that they had undercharged their commercial accounts for many months running. Hence the upcharge. Hence the cutoff notice.

I asked the young lady for details, but her explanation was so incomprehensibly dense and laden with jargon that she might as well  have been speaking Mandarin. It became clear that I was wasting my time; the upcharge was not going away. In a synthetically conciliatory tone of voice, the young lady said that she could break the upcharge up into a few equal chunks, payable with each of the next few billing cycles, but that would be the best she could do.

Let this sink in for a moment. Using some subjective formula that only they understood, the City of Austin determined they hadn’t charged commercial customers enough. And their method of correcting their mistake was to sock said customers with a large, retroactively applied fee, due immediately.

Now imagine that you have a business that provides some kind of recurrent service, lawn care for example, for which your customers are billed monthly. Imagine further that you decided to charge every single one of your customers at a higher rate, retroactively, for three-quarters of a year’s worth of services because you made a decision that you had not previously charged them enough. How do you think those customers might respond? The answer is obvious: Those customers would pretty quickly become former customers, and rightly so. And they might also have a few choice words for you as they bade you farewell.

You and I know this, so it would never, ever occur to us to do such a thing. This is the thinking of normal, sensible persons. But Austin Energy, being both a bureaucracy and a monopoly, does not see it this way. It has no problem punishing you or I with an inflated bill, payable immediately, at the same time that it rewards itself with a brand-new headquarters at a cost of over 60 million dollars. This facility, intended to replace the perfectly adequate one it has now, is so lavishly overdone that it has been described as a municipal “Taj Mahal.” Note to Austin Energy management: This is not a compliment.

You might wonder: How could anyone be that tone deaf? And in so doing you underestimate the boundless capacity of the overlord class to behave with unalloyed arrogance. Austin Energy thinks this way because it can. There is no downside whatsoever to self-serving and predatory behavior when your customers have no choice.

A monopoly is not necessarily a problem until it decides to act like one. Austin Energy, the heart and soul of a city government that worships money above all else, ran the numbers and decided that it was time to act like a monopoly because there was no good reason not to.

This is more than a routine irritation. It is symbolic of the runaway greed that is consuming our city. It is one more turn of the screw, maybe that final one turn too many that makes what was once unthinkable suddenly thinkable. Maybe it’s time to give up, to accept that the town I once loved and proudly called home is dead and gone. Maybe, after nearly fifty years, it’s time to shake the dust of this town from my feet and start over somewhere else.