Single-Mindedness: Towards a New Understanding of Singlehood

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Dr Kinneret Lahad, a senior lecturer in the Women and Gender Studies program at Tel Aviv University, discusses her book A Table for One: Re-Scheduling Singlehood and Time, proposing a welcome addition to the established feminist scholarship on family structures.

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This season of the Tel Aviv Review is made possible by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which promotes humanistic, democratic, and liberal values in the social discourse in Israel.


1 comment on “Single-Mindedness: Towards a New Understanding of Singlehood

  1. Greg Pollock says:

    When speaking of evolution, I think it essential to keep the notion of polymorphism in view. The male/female phenomenon is a stark example. Classic sex ratio logic (what proportion of sons vs daughters should you make as a parent) encapsulates the core logic: Suppose you can choose the sex of your (one) offspring, and you know the entire population of mates your offspring encounters will be female. If you care about having grandchildren (care about your genetic trajectory), then you will make a son. Alternatively, if that population will be all male, you will make a daughter, for otherwise in either case your genetic line dies out. This logic can be applied to populations biased toward one sex–make the other sex as offspring, for mating opportunities thereby increase. Assuming sons and daughters are equally costly to make, you end up with a 1:1 sex ratio (if, say, males are more likely to die before reproducing, you will bias a bit toward having a son). What is core here is that the reproductive value of neither sex exists in isolation from the other; this is called frequency dependence, where the frequency of one morph (as sex is an example, male morph or female) is inversely related to the value of other morphs–as a morph becomes common, its evolutionary rival morphs increase in value.

    The principle has wide generality. Too many bosses increases the value of workers. Too many white males in social sciences increases the value of other types bringing in different life histories and stories; too many women there increases the value of bringing in men. Evolution does not mean uniformity, but old biological explanations supposed so–so blacks were inherently inferior, best suited for slavery.

    Even if I accept your guest’s view of cultural dominance over old style biology, biology will not go away. For as long as one accepts that humans did evolve, a pure cultural dominance view must admit that culture evolved, which means that what we see as culture, in some way, is not entirely plastic. How culture acts long term still has old style biological parameters. But this is not a normative statement. It says that if you try to force variance too far the variance will snap back. An oft used example comes from early Israeli socialist Kibbutz. One tried to rear children blindly during the day, mother’s interacting equally with all when their service time came around; yet mothers found ways to siphon off more time for their own. Was the prior cultural overlay too strong for ideology to erase, or are mother’s wired to want to interact with their own more than other children? Homosexuality seems a counter argument to all this, and it is a focal problem for evolution. There is no reason to believe the frequency of homosexuality has declined throughout recorded history. If it is genetic, shouldn’t we see that? There are various approaches to the problem which I defer. My point is that being an evolutionist is not to deny potential incompatibilities with the theory; Darwin, back in the 1870’s, saw sterile social insect workers as a potential disconfirmation of his whole approach, today largely solved via kin selection.

    I think feminism mistakenly tilts to the view that critique and will can change culture toward some asserted best case. Better would be to say that what we take as a norm has an exhibited variance about it; this variance may have many causes, some of which actually making a rare type quite fit either in a reproductive or social sense. For example, I think there will always be a bias toward stay at home moms relative to dads, but this is not to say that stay at home dads are abnormal or aberrant–only that generally the morph is of lesser frequency for reasons of selection. Another example: the male phenomenon evolves as a parasite on female parental care (we’re talking micro-organisms here, give me a break), so potential multiple mating by males will outstrip that of females in most species, for that’s why males evolved in the first place. There are cases of exact equality, pure monogamy (termites, for example), and even some with a reversal, males providing care and becoming choosy (in birds, fish, and insects), but these cases are understood within the context of ecology, not as liberations from evolution.

    In the human case, men are in variance more promiscuous than females, but this is not to say there are not promiscuous females, for variance is not about a single individual. I would subject feminism to the same scrutiny it subjects biology to. There is much to be gained by questioning (I believe “interrogating” is a favorite word) cultural overlays, but feminism is also a cultural overlay. Culture itself evolves and is somehow coupled with biology. Core to any argument is persistence in the face of other forms. Feminist proposals are just one of many forms.

    As final note, human (unmarried and/or non-reproductive) singletons are naturally suspect because, being less overlain with social relations, they appear less predictable (ah, the present “lone wolf” of terrorism). Cultures love to predict, so singletons are suppressed. For example, in many work environments these days being married is a plus, for the spouse is seen as a stabilizing factor, just as having a mortgage can be, for steady income flow increases in perceived value for the employer, thereby increasing probable reliability. Reasons for suppressing singletons will vary within and across cultures. Isolate women my age were once thought possible witches. Isolate men my age, perverts. Alas, witches as such are gone, but perverts will ever be with us.

    I appreciated the nod to the single man in the discussion. With gay liberation some of that has changed, but far from all.

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