Sunday, August 17, 2008

Abuse of evolution

This article in the Washington Post discusses several studies on the different investing behaviors of men and women. Overall, women are more risk-averse, choosing to keep more of their wealth in more secure assets. Men also tend to trade more frequently, sometimes to the point of "overtrading." In the long run, that can actually lead to lower returns.

All of this is very interesting, but the reasons why these gender differences exist is far more exciting to me. There are several conjectures, but the one that grated especially hard was the one from Emily Chiang, an investment advisor, who thinks that "evolutionary psychology" is responsible for the gap:

"Men are hunters, she said. "Women are more like gatherers."

Okay, people. While the "man hunt, woman gather/cook/take care of babies" concept dominates high-school science textbooks, evolutionary science can't make definitive statements about early human division of labor. Fossil evidence is interpreted through the lens of modern society - today's standards are unwittingly applied to the past. Ethnographic analogues - modern-day hunter-gatherers - are practically nonexistent; but research done in the 50s and 60s suggests that a) division of labor varies between societies and b) in some cases, men and women shared many "gendered" tasks.

Relying on "caveman" stereotypes sells modern humans short. We're far more complicated than that.

1 comment:

Carrie Arnold said...

When I was taking one of my science writing grad classes, my instructor (who was on staff at Time for 20 years) said that the caveman archetype is one of the most powerful in science writing. It's true- I find human evolution fascinating.

And we have a very man-drags-woman-by-her-hair view of it all. Flinstones, much?

Have you read "Woman: An Intimate Geography" by Natalie Angier? She's a staff writer for the NY Times and it's redefining the views of the evolution of the female body.