August 15, 2007

Girls Interrupted

I am sure many of you would have heard of Dua Khalil. Dua Khalil was seventeen when her life was brutally interrupted. One day as she walked into her neighborhood in Mosul, Iraq, she was caught, stripped, and stoned to death in front of 1000 cheering, shrieking men from her Yezidi Kurdish community. As the security forces stood by and watched silently, she died while trying to remain alive.

What did Dua Khalil do to deserve such a horrific death at the hands of the blood-thirsty animals, who claimed her as their property, their prey?

Dua Khalil dared to love, and select a Sunni Muslim boy as her mate against the wishes of her Yezidi family and tribe. She was denied the basic right that practically every woman in Western societies have today. The Yezidis would have none of it, though, and would like to remain stuck in the dark ages of Romeo and Juliet. Dua Khalil must accept the mate sanctioned by her father, her brother, or other men of her Yezidi community or die.

It was not like that 40000 to 100000 years ago, according to Andrew Lehman and Marcia Bernsten. Women then chose their mates based on "the power of their poetry, the beauty of their words". Before that the female sexual selection was based on how well the male could do a song and dance. Literally. As Lehman and Bernsten put it,

As a female bird chose the mate with the brighter color red, the early hominid female chose the dancer with grace-filled backstep hitch.

It all changed when the language facility of the hominids underwent a profound transformation. Time was invented, and past, present, and future entered the vocabulary of the species. It was no longer sufficient to live the moment, and analysis of the past and projection into the future became imperative for survival and success.

Language was not in the body anymore. One did not dance it, gesture it, feel it. Language was now something very strange. It was abstract. And it controlled time.

Lehman and Bernsten offer a neurobiological explanation for this change. The shrinking of the corpus callosum — the part that connects the left and the right hemispheres of the brain, the consequent lateralization of the brain, and the pronounced right-handedness suggesting the dominance of left hemisphere, all indicative of a new language facility. Add to these the correlation of higher levels of testosterone with cerebral lateralization, and the stage was set for shifting sexual selection to a new theater.

The Yanomamo of South America

In a culture where male aggressive behavior is highly valued, as in the Yanomamo of South America, female infanticide can be understood as the process that the culture uses to select only those males displaying maximal aggression in social relations. Mothers often kill their female infants. Female/male ratios approach 100:140 at puberty in many tribes (Hawkes, 1981). Male heads of household control who young females will mate with. All females are mated (Chagnon, 1979). Aggression becomes highly reinforced as a male trait when males not succeeding at fulfilling the highly valued cultural criteria of displays of aggression, or not a member of a family with high status as a result of successful use of aggression, do not become mated. Females are at the center of this process of cultural stability and change, in three ways: female infanticide, mate selection (males taking control of this aspect in most cultures), and whether females choose to commit adultery. Only one in ten births in the Yanomamo are a result of extramarital involvements (Chagnon, 1979), a very low number. (By comparison, in England this century, a 20% ratio of extramarital births has been discovered in working class and middle class neighborhoods.)

--- excerpted from Andrew Lehman and Marcia Bernsten, Human Evolution, 2004

Women began to select men for their forethought and their ability to plan and organize effectively to attain their goals, characteristics that were absent in the hominids of the earlier era. Sexual preference for high-t males led to the natural selection of more aggressive men. And, men began to choose women for their low-t, docility, and submissiveness. From "an androgenous, promiscuous dance and song driven culture" — much like that of the bonobos — emerged societies that were patrifocal and polygynous.

Cultures started to idealize war, and aggressive males came to be valued for their courage and valor in the battlefield. Women ceded control over mate selection to their fathers, who chose the mates for them based on their potential for success in the wars. Female infanticide became a means by which the patriarchal societies could decrease the number of men likely to procreate by denying them access to the females, in turn increasing the likelihood that the high-t, aggressive characteristics would be passed on to the next generation.

Based on their theory, Lehman and Bernsten offer a positive prognosis for cultural change, and the cessation of female infanticide, honor killings, and patriarchal mate selection:

Imagine a culture whose boundaries broke down, where infanticide ended, the selection for specific traits within a culture ceased and women had the power to pick procreation partners using whatever criteria they chose. You would end up with a world not unlike the one we, in the West, live in ... No way is being preserved. All ways are open. For the first time culture is undefined and open ended.

I have argued elsewhere that many social ills in India pertaining to women, such as female infanticides, honor killings, forced abortions, and the dowry system, would be eradicated, if and when women reclaim their inalienable right to mate selection. Even casteism and communalism, the twin scourges of India, would cease to exist, if women selected their own mates instead of relegating that power to their parents. My contention was described as a freakonomics like proposition. That was before I read Human Evolution by Andrew Lehman and Martha Bernsten. I can now say that there is nothing freakonomic about my proposition!

  1. Superb post. I have linked this to the only serious line in .

  2. Very interesting. Must get hold of the book.
    Very interesting.

    I believe that mate selection was based on the characteristics that
    assured the preservation and perpetuation of the gene – for example a mate with
    brighter color red had more chances of producing children with similar
    characteristics and hence had better chance of finding a mate and so on...I guess the definition of an eligible mate has changed from the "most aggressive in the tribe" when we stopped being hunters and
    warriors. Now eligibility and attractiveness are based on "the power of their poetry, the beauty of their words" more than ever. Aren't the most well educated girls finding the smoothest talkers romantic and swoon worthy?
    (In a way this is also a survival choice as guys with the gift of gab seem to have a better success rate and are good providers too. But with economic independence they are looking not so much for providers as a partner.)

    I have always shared your view that allowing girls to choose their mates would solve a lot of our social problems. It is the RIGHT thing to do. That is how it is in Nature.
    But I disagree with you in that
    the selection is not just for a procreation partner in the case of humans. We seem to mate for life unlike most species in animal kingdom and mate for pleasure. Perhaps our arranged marriages were intended more to select an appropriate partner for procreation, love be damned. But where a human male and female are selecting their partner for life procreation is probably the last thing on their mind.
    Although I would like to engage you in a more detailed discussion on this, my favorite topic, i don't want to clog up your blogspace.
    You get my general drift I suppose..

  3. wow!!!, came here from usha's space. i am blown away,...the animals who murdered (actually that would be diservice to the animal world, so for want of a more apt discription)and those that watched are an insult to any religion, ....she had the right to make her own choices in life,...that is a sacred right.
    if we are religious, then the choices we make are to be decided between ourselves and our maker, not the assholes who claim to be the upholders of "morality" in society.

  4. wow,..i am blown away. came here from usha's blog. the murdering scum cannot be proponents of any type of religion,..we have freedom of choice within religion,and that choice is our dialogue with the "maker" the so called upholders of social morality are nothing better than murdering scum, who should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  5. Andrew Lehman8/15/2008 9:22 PM

    Killing females, particularly the infant females, is about sexual selection in a patrifocal society. When there are far fewer females than males, the non ideal men find no mates and a patrifocal society can continue without the restrictions of innovation. See


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