The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Debora Spar. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Debora Spar. Debora is professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and senior associate dean of Harvard Business School online. Her current research focuses on issues of gender and technology, and the interplay between technological change and broader social structures. She previously served as the president of Barnard College and is president and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Jim: Welcome, Debora!
Debora: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Jim: Yeah, this should be good. Today, we’re going to talk about her new book, Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape our Human Destiny. Very interesting topic. And actually, it goes deeper than machines. More about technologies more generally and how technologies interact with culture and in fact serve as a catalyst to pull culture forward in response to technology and, of course, probably works the other way around too. In fact, your first big transition, the one you talked about, has very little to do with machines, maybe a little bit. And that’s the adoption of agriculture and settled life. So let’s start with talking about foragers, what we transition from, and their transition to agriculture.
Debora: Yeah. So, it’s very funny today in the 21st century to think about agriculture as a technology. But what I argue in the book and what many people before me have argued is that really the world’s first great technological revolution was the agricultural revolution. We humans lived for hundreds and thousands of years as hunters and gatherers, and our technology was limited to very crude things like baskets to carry food and maybe some kind of basic axe to pit things.
Debora: But around 6000 BC, people don’t know exactly when, but roughly around that time, humankind invented agriculture. We figured out how to grow food rather than just find food. And that changed kind of everything we know about how we live as humans. And so, I go all the way back to that revolution to try and draw the patterns and see how we changed as people in societies as a result of that technological revolution. And then I hope to take those learnings and apply them to the current day to say, huh, what’s going to change as we go through a new revolution right now?
Jim: Indeed. So what was life like for the foragers?
Debora: Well, of course, we don’t know exactly. But based on the archaeological record and the anthropological record, we know that people were nomads, they moved. There was no settled agriculture and there were no settled homes. You moved with the food you could find. You moved with the seasons. And we suspect strongly that people lived in tribes, that there weren’t things like the nuclear family as we think of it today.
Debora: But instead the organizing principle was roughly 20 to 30 people who spent their lives together. We know, of course, that women bore the children and took primary responsibility for caring the children. But children were really raised by the village, by the tribe. And it doesn’t appear that there was anything like monogamous marriage as we think of it right now. It wasn’t even clear that men knew who their biological children were because, of course, the whole process of childbirth and certainly conception was quite mysterious.
Debora: And if you look at sort of modern day hunting gathering tribes, of which there are still some in existence, that’s how they live. And women in these tribes generally contribute at least 50% of the calories which, of course, in sort of more modern terms means that women were equal to men in terms of their economic contributions to the tribe.
Jim: Though there were gender divisions of labor, that simple minded hunter and gatherer, but hunters versus gatherers, of course, it wasn’t as simple as that.
Debora: That’s right. Now, there’s a general sense that women were collecting the proverbial, nuts and berries. They were picking up the smaller food, collecting fruit, and men were doing the larger game hunting. Although there’s, just last month, there was some discovery that suggested that women may have also participated in the large game hunt. But putting that aside for a second, yeah, it does seem more that women were the gatherers, men were the hunters. But if you look at the diets of these people, again, both the anthropological and archeological, it seems that the bulk of calories were actually provided by the fruits and the nuts. And the large game, of course, was where.
Jim: Of course, that vary tremendously by location.
Jim: I did just a little bit of research on that question for this show. And one of the things I discovered was that they’ve found that the division of labor tended to be stronger where the environment was less rich, where it was harder to make a living. The gender division was larger. And also, interestingly, I don’t know why, by latitude. The farther north you were, the more likely there was to be a starker division of labor.
Debora: Yeah, and that makes sense. Because if you think about what life would have been like in a very fertile part of the world, there were a lot of things that grew easily. There were figs on the trees and there were shellfish that could be easily captured. But if you think about what life was like on the Siberian tundra, there wasn’t a lot of food growing there. And so you would have to be hunting the local woolly mammoth. And that that, of course, was a job that just demanded an awful lot of physical strength and also being farther away from the tribe for longer periods of time. So it makes sense that you’d have a starker division of labor there along gender lines.
Jim: The other interesting thing about forager bands, which has really come to the fore over the last 20 years, is they weren’t necessarily tight kinship groups, something like nuclear families or temporarily bonded men and women in a passel of children moved between bands fairly regularly, for all kinds of reasons. They got in arguments with people, they got kicked out, they got lost while they’re on their way from point A to point B.
Jim: And when the archaeologist looked at the relatedness, now that we can do DNA studies on bones and such, the course they were more related than randomly but they were not nearly as related as happened later in history when very rigid kinship groups formed, especially once we were settled on the land. And that had some interesting impact probably on how things like mating and family evolved.
Debora: Right. And we don’t know at least. I have not seen the research. But it seems that there may have been some sense, even if people didn’t understand the underlying biology, that you couldn’t keep producing babies within one small group of humans, that the children were healthier if people also had babies outside of the small band. So, yeah, there was mixing in between these groups. We don’t know exactly how the networks formed. But one thing I think we do know is that the tribe, the band, was the dominant form of social organization. And so, what we think of as traditional, the small nuclear family, in historical terms, isn’t traditional at all. It’s very, very modern.
Jim: And the other thing I would try to reinforce for people here is the concept if in the state of nature of a solitary human makes no sense at all. I mean, you would basically die quickly.
Debora: Yeah, that’s been a metaphor for a long time, useful metaphor perhaps, but a metaphor nevertheless.
Jim: Yeah, guys like Rousseau and Hobbes, and their theories of the state of nature of everybody being solitary and then coming together and making a social contract. It didn’t happen that way, people.
Debora: No. In fact, it’s funny that you mentioned that I’m teaching a class today at Harvard Business School on capitalism in the state, and we are actually exploring different conceptions of the state of nature. So it’s still relevant in some strange ways.
Jim: I think it’s actually very important for people to really understand a little bit about what the forager world was like, because as you pointed out, that’s how we live for, oh, probably 95% of our existence as Homo sapiens.
Debora: Exactly, exactly.
Jim: So, settled agriculture, it was invented somewhere probably in the Middle East. What changed there?
Debora: Well, kind of everything. And that’s one of the points I really try and stress in this book is moving from the hunting, gathering, foraging culture to the agricultural culture, may have been the single largest change that humans have gone through because everything changes as a result. So, people settle down. They’re not moving anymore. As Marx and Lenin pointed out, one of the first things that happens as a result of this is you need to develop private property. Because when you’re hunting and gathering, you don’t have a lot of stuff. In fact, you don’t want a lot of stuff because you have to carry it with you. So people had no possessions. Very, very minor few.
Debora: But once you move to agriculture, you need what I always just casually referred to as stuff. You need storage bins, you need places to store your seeds, you need implements to farm, you need to hold on to the crops that you grow because they don’t grow all times of the year, you need dwellings. And so, you develop private property and then you start to develop towns and villages, governments occur as a result. You don’t need governments when you’re moving with a band of 20 or 30 people. But once you’re settled with property that has to be protected, you need governments, you need state.
Debora: War emerges as a result of settled agriculture. Slavery emerges as a result of settled agriculture. And crucially, for my argument, marriage emerges or certainly much more permanent unions become the dominant social structure rather than these much more sort of passing, amorphous relationships that predominated in the earlier period. So kind of everything changes. And I’m really focus not so much on the government piece of this but on what happens to change in terms of the family structure?
Jim: Yeah, then as you talk about and as other people before you’ve talked about, the idea that there’s now property worth worrying about and passing on to the next generation. I recently did my once every 10 years reading the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, plus I always read Joshua, as I say, no point in hearing the joke without getting the punchline, right.
Debora: I’ll have to try that.
Jim: And just a huge amount of concern about the property and the family and making sure the property stays in the family. Those damn Canaanites don’t get on the property and all that stuff. And a huge, huge motivation for people of those years. And actually the Israelites weren’t actually dirt farmers so much as they were herders, right? And huge, huge sense of ownership of the land. And then with that came, my property, my cow, my slaves and then, unfortunately, my women.
Debora: Yes, I’m always careful not to use the Old Testament completely as a historical source but it’s fascinating to look at it as at least a quasi-historical source. Because if you read the Old Testament with the lens I’m bringing to it, you really see it as an exercise in genealogy, and to some extent, in real estate. It’s very clear in laying out so and so was the son of so and so. It’s laying out who is whose child, particularly who was whose son. And that was crucial at the moment in history in which the Bible emerged because you are seeing kind of the later stages of the agricultural revolution when people have property.
Debora: They have their cows and their goats and their sheep, they want to pass them to their children, particularly their sons, and that’s where women become so important. Whereas, in the older world, in the world of the hunters and gatherers, women were valuable as producers of food. Once you move to the agricultural world, women’s value becomes primarily that of producers of children. Because once you have land and once you rely on that land for your food source, you need labor.
Debora: And in 4000 BC, the only way to get labor was either by stealing it which was slavery or by producing it which is childbirth. And so women had to be protected because they were the ones who produced the children. And the way the history evolved, and perhaps it could have gone the other way but it didn’t, is that the men of the tribe controlled the women because they needed to ensure that the women produced children and critically that the men knew who those children belong to.
Jim: Yeah. That’s when the concept of virginity and sexual fidelity, et cetera, really became the organizing system. I mean, again, going back to the Old Testament, all those Leviticus injunctions against fooling around. I mean, you’re talking about death penalties.
Debora: No, absolutely. And, again, it seems horrible and barbaric to our ears today. And it was. But this was a crucial part of the social structure that men had to know who their children were. And the only way to do that was for a man to marry a woman who had been certified as a virgin and to ensure that she never had sex with anyone else again. And with apologies, that’s really what the marriage ceremony is about.
Debora: I mean, even if you go to a traditional marriage today, you hear echoes of that. It’s the father who gives his daughter away. I mean, we still use those words. He is, in the older form, testifying that she’s a virgin thus the origins of the white wedding. And the woman is pledging fidelity to her husband with the hopes that they shall be fruitful and multiply. So this is essentially a production agreement. And we have, in more contemporary terms, we’ve dressed it up with a lot of romance. But that at its origins, the marriage ceremony is a production arrangement attached to a real estate deal.
Jim: A good way to cook it down, loses a little bit of the romance there.
Debora: And I say this, I always have to caveat is, I say this as someone who’s been very happily married for 33 years. So this is not designed as an indictment of marriage. It’s just kind of if you look at the history, this is where it came from.
Jim: And this June, it’ll be 40 years for my wife and I.
Debora: Mazel tov!
Jim: It is possible, people. One point you make and you’ve alluded to but the children not only became much more valuable in the agricultural world, but children were problematic in the forager world. You had to carry them. You had to typically breastfed them for a long time.
Debora: Yeah. And apologies, I didn’t check this piece of data before we got on this podcast. But there’ve been studies done of how many miles women walked carrying children while they were foraging and it’s some horrifying number, like 50,000 miles over the course of five years of a child’s life. I mean, this was hard labor, putting the actual birth labor aside, that after you gave birth to a child, a woman had to carry that child with her for years and years and miles and miles.
Debora: And women as a result had very few children. And this is where, again, the archaeological record is pretty clear that women in the foraging era, in the pre-Neolithic era only had two or three children because that was all their bodies could handle. You couldn’t have two toddlers simultaneously. They would die or the woman would die.
Debora: And so it’s really once you move to settled agriculture, that that’s the point at which children become valuable rather than burdensome, again, in purely economic terms. And you start to see fertility rates for women soar.
Jim: And then you mentioned this, there does appear to be war at the forager level. There still some argument about different schools of archaeologists and anthropologists. War really came to the fore though with settled agriculture. It really came to the fore of a settled agriculture. We can even see it in the genetic records. For instance, the Vikings where they came to grab land. They also came with their genetics. And you find that North of England, for instance, there’s a lot of Viking heritage that came in through the male line, not the female line.
Jim: And the same is true, if you go back further, the spread of the agriculturalists from the Middle East into Europe. There’s a predominance of the male lines that were injected into the local populations. And so, there was basically a combination of a war for land and women, come in grab the land, kill the men, keep the women.
Debora: Right. No, women were the spoils of war, women and children. Children because they were labor force and women because they produce the labor force. Again, seems cruel and harsh to say that but it’s what the historical record suggests. Women and children were valuable purely in economic terms.
Jim: And then we also find a lot, particularly in the cultures that came from the Middle East but also further east, strong kinship relationship. We talked earlier about the forager bands had some relationships on them but it wasn’t nearly a stark as, say, a classic Middle Eastern village where everybody marries their first cousins for generation after generation.
Debora: Yeah. And, again, that has so much to do with property and particularly property and land. Because, again, when you go back to the hunters and gatherers, nobody owns any land. Once you’ve, not only own land, but you rely on that land, you’re going to starve without crops, right? This was still a barely above subsistence, existence, for the vast majority of humankind. And so you desperately need that land. You need that land to survive, to produce for the future.
Debora: And so, you kind of have to be warlike because you’re going to steal the other guy’s land if yours isn’t productive. And if your land is stolen, you’re going to go to war to protect it or to try and get some back. I’m not sure, that people became more aggressive once we moved to settled agriculture. It’s that settled agriculture kind of gives you things that you now have to protect and that leads to war.
Jim: You can protect and you can steal, right, the two go together. If no one’s trying to steal, you don’t need to protect so that the two unfortunately kind of coevolve each other culturally. Another interesting thing from that era is in the agricultural revolution and on forward for several thousand years, polygyny became very common, essentially ubiquitous.
Debora: Yeah. And it, again, it sort of makes sense in economic terms that if men’s wealth was related to how many children they had and how much labor those children could provide to farm the lands, a man’s going to go and have as many children as possible and because any woman can only produce so many children, the more wives he has, the more children he has. And so, you get these historical figures who may be somewhat allegorical, but King David had hundreds of children.
Debora: Various other medieval rulers had harems which were, at some point, a small number of people became wealthy enough that children became a sign of wealth rather than actual laborers. But you counted a person’s wealth, a man’s wealth by how many children and cattles he had. Children, cows and wives I should say.
Jim: Back to the theme of how technology, in some ways, forms this, you talked a little bit about the distinction between the plow and the hoe.
Debora: Yeah. So, this is some really interesting research that my [inaudible 00:20:10] colleague, Alberto Alesina, did over a large chunk of his life, was looking at the difference between cultures that developed hoe-based agriculture and those that developed plow-based agriculture. Plow, it tends to give you higher yields. It’s more sophisticated technology. But also it correlates very heavily with more gender divided societies.
Debora: So to make a lot of complicated research super straightforward, once societies develop the plow, they tend to treat women worse. Women have less power in societies with the plow than they did in societies that never developed the plow and sort of stuck with the simpler hoe-based agriculture. And you can see that particularly in Africa, where the plow was only developed in sort of certain pockets of the continent.
Jim: It’s also worth noting that the plow is an old world phenomenon. The plow didn’t exist in the new world.
Debora: No, that’s right. I mean, I don’t want to take the argument too far but it’s quite interesting. If you look at the Native American populations, where many people now sort of cite as examples of female empowerment and matriarchies, those were societies that didn’t develop the plow. They never had plow-based agriculture.
Jim: Yeah. But I think this comes into this theme, the theme that I extracted. I hope it’s the theme you put in your book, which is this interesting loop between the evolution of technology and the evolution of culture.
Debora: Yes, absolutely. In fact, that’s really the central loop of the book. And I don’t want to be completely technologically deterministic, although I’m largely technologically deterministic. I think many aspects of culture, how we form our families, how we form our governments, how often we go to war, they’re not baked in our human psyches so much as they are response to the technology that prevails at any moment in time. So as our technology changes, it’s not overnight. There’s certainly no instantaneous switch. But as technology changes, and particularly when technology goes through these seismic revolutionary shifts, our culture changes as a response.
Jim: I want to go back to another topic we talked about briefly and go into a little bit more detail, which is this ferocious emphasis on female virginity and sexual fidelity, which is an interesting cultural adaptation that in some sense is partially in conflict with and somewhat in congruence with our underlying biological nature. If you think about it from a game theoretic perspective, males want to impregnate as many women as possible, right? They just talked to a 19-year-old boy, right?
Jim: While women want, one, the best quality mates, and two, a mate that will be a reliable provider. And as you point out in the book and is the less well known than it should be is there’s always many cryptic liaisons. Even today, 5 to 10% of married fathers aren’t the actual biological father. There’s always this interesting arms race between biological imperative and cultural structures.
Debora: It’s a core asymmetry that’s probably part biological, part cultural, and I’m sort of adding intent technology as, if you will, an intermediating variable. But if we go back to your 19-year-old male and we presume as most people do that, that men are biologically programmed in some way to want to produce as many children as possible, it makes sense for them to have sex with as many women as possible. It also makes sense in the period that we’re talking about, the early Neolithic Revolution, for them to want to control the sexual practices of the women whom they are impregnating. So it’s fine for men to have sex with as many women as possible.
Debora: What they’re also interested in though is making sure that those women don’t have sex with anybody else. And that’s where you see as you describe this sort of ferocious adoption of virginity to the point where in most of these sort of Early Middle Eastern cultures, if a woman was caught having sex with a man other than her husband, she was stoned, she was killed, she was kicked out of the band. But this was a crime akin to death, whereas, for men, there was presumption that men could and should have sex with large numbers of women.
Jim: Yeah. And, of course, some of that exists today with the honor killings in the Mideast.
Debora: Yeah. I mean, you’re still seeing vestiges of these older cultures for sure.
Jim: And, of course, if you run the math, all this is incompatible. And, of course, the result was a fairly substantial cadre of what we’d call today, sex workers.
Debora: Yes. And those were, again, so far as we can tell from the historical record, prostitution was truly the oldest profession. There was a lot of sex workers in these ancient cultures. And it makes sense given what I’ve described. And that you can also see it a little bit running through the Old Testament in which ancient days in the foraging days, it appears that most of the goddesses that people worshipped were female, they were sort of fertility goddesses.
Debora: But once you move into the Old Testament period, I mean, you can see it in Genesis, the Israelites are told to give up their false idols and those false idols were the goddesses. Some of whom were sort of represented by the temple goddesses which also overlapped with prostitutes. So there’s this real separation of women into categories that there are the wives who are virtuous, virgins until marriage. And then there’s other women who cannot be worshipped and are treated as prostitutes. So you really see that that separation.
Debora: And without getting too far ahead of ourselves that if you sort of fast forward all the way to the Victorian period, you get this sort of creation of this, the virtuous wife. The virtuous wife is she who was a mother who takes care of her husband and that’s her only role, and everyone else is a whore at some level.
Jim: And this influence of the patriarchal family, the ferocious emphasis on virginity, et cetera, reached one of its peaks with Roman paterfamilias. Can you tell us a little bit about that role?
Debora: Yeah. So now we’re sort of moving forward in time to a culture that is more familiar to most people because we’ve all studied it in fourth grade or somewhere. But in that social structure, the man was the head of the household, the paterfamilias. He was the dominant citizen. Athenian and then subsequently Roman democracy were sort of based around this figure. He could have multiple wives. He could also have multiple sexual partners who had some sort of formal characterization but they were not wives. They were some sort of lesser women in the household but they could be part of the household as were the slaves.
Debora: It’s something, if you will, very much in between the Ancient tribe and the modern nuclear family. You have a household structure, it’s led by a man, but it has a number of people and sort of various other categories, and in many cases including male sexual partners of the paterfamilia as well.
Jim: And, of course, the thing that was quite made, why I say it’s kind of the pinnacle, is that paterfamilias in law and custom had the right of life or death over everybody in his household.
Debora: That’s right. And, again, you can see vestiges of that in some of our contemporary culture though that’s certainly no longer the law. You can see it’s almost a joke or a stereotype now. I am the head of the household. I am the patriarch. But back in Roman times, the patriarch did have, as you say, the full power over everybody in that household.
Jim: Now, I wanted to push back on one thing you said, which was that the Romans allowed multiple wives. Actually, they didn’t, at least not all at one time. In fact, I believe it’s one of the more important evolutions in this realm is that started with the Greeks. The Greeks may have been the first peoples in the world who, at least, legally did monogamy. And that was picked up by the Romans. Even the emperors themselves, while they had many girlfriends, concubines, boyfriends, et cetera, they all adhered to the law of only one actual legitimate wife at a time.
Debora: Yes, you’re right. And thank you for that. You are right. There’s a single legal wife but there are other women. And I’m sorry, I’m forgetting there was a Roman term for women who were part of the household, sexual partners, but they were not technically the wife.
Jim: Though, of course, if we read our Roman history, we see that people were divorcing each other in a rather high rate. And in the later days, even the women could divorce the men but only one at a time. And that turns out to be somewhat important, if only and you talk about this later in the context of dating apps and things, and that is the issue of fairness of access to sex.
Jim: It’s thought that one of the reasons or, who knows it was the reason but one of the effects of the Greek and Roman one spouse at a time rules that it provided more egalitarian access to sex, more people having children and literally skin in the game. And there’s one theory that that is perhaps one of the main drivers for the superior Greek and Roman military capability because the soldiers were people who literally had skin in the game as opposed to people who’d been shut out of access to sex.
Debora: Right. There’s one other really important piece and this shows up later in the book when I talk about some of the reproductive technologies. We started to develop the idea of bastards. So, the children of the legal wife or the man’s legitimate children, everybody else was a bastard. And that turns out, again, in quasi Marxist terms, to be very useful in terms of protecting property. And you see this in the British system get carried sort of to an extreme around primogenitor.
Debora: If you want to have a conservative system, conservative with a small C, of preserving property rights, primogenitor makes it really clear who gets to inherit the property and who does not. And so you see the early days of that in the Roman system where only the children of the legal wife have inheritance rights.
Jim: And it’s interesting because when you think about it from a biological and game theoretical perspectives, not entirely clear that it had to go that way, right, because your illegitimate children have the same genetic heritage as your legitimate children.
Debora: Right. But as an organizing principle, it’s simpler, right? I mean, there’s some who have theorized, I don’t know if it’s true or not. But there’s a theory that says that the British who really, again, sort of brought this to its peak, they saw this system of primogenitor as not only preserving property in the hands of a relatively small elite, but also creating a class of sort of, if you will, biologically sort of strong people who could become the merchants and the sailors and the military man because they had to because they weren’t going to inherit the family property.
Jim: Yup, indeed. And that fact, many of the warrior leaders were the second sons, et cetera.
Debora: I mean, and you see it bizarrely still in the British monarchy, right? There’s an heir in despair. Only one person gets the inheritance and everybody else kind of has to come up with other stuff to do.
Jim: Yeah. What a weird structure that is. It’s interesting here in Virginia, one of the very first laws Virginia legislature passed after independence was banning primogenitor.
Debora: Yeah, and that’s interesting, yeah.
Jim: Yeah. Now, it is interesting at a county where we live in which is very remote and has its own folk ways. Here, they have a variation on that, which is that typically one kid gets the farm but the other kids get a mortgage back from that kid. That’s why I was saying kind of these trajectories got locked in as frozen accidents but it didn’t have to be that way. This other model has worked here for a couple hundred years.
Jim: Unlike other areas of the Appalachian south, the farms are still good size, big enough to make a living on, because there’s this culture not enforced by law of one kid gets the farm and the rest get a mortgage as opposed to lots of other places in Appalachia where they just keep subdividing the land, subdividing the land until there’s 34 people living on an acre each in a trailer park, right?
Debora: Yeah. No, you can see, I mean, how these things make sense or at least they made sense given the historical moment in time, particularly when you’re talking about societies as I imagined rural Virginia was until quite recently and may still be where wealth is farmland. Wealth is not money in the bank, its land.
Jim: Yeah. Even today. I would say the bulk of people’s wealth is in land. One other bit before we move on a little bit is you alluded to it in passing, again, is how there was a gradual retreat from the role of women as more or less equal producers away from that over time as the agricultural revolution proceeded.
Debora: Yeah. I’m sure this happened over thousands of years. But looking back at it, it’s really kind of a black and white shift where women were, as we talked about earlier, producing more than 50% of the calories or at least around 50% of the calories too. If you think about the Roman wife we were just describing, she wasn’t producing anything but children, right, that became the predominant role for women. And when I talk about this research, particularly to women’s audiences, I always get the question and it’s a good question, that at some level it’s counterintuitive, right?
Debora: If women are producing the single most important asset, which is children, how come they didn’t get the power? And you could have imagined that going the other way, but it didn’t. I mean, people can point to one or two sort of tiny, obscure tribes where it did go the other way but in every other society we know. As they went through the agricultural revolution, women lost power. Men became the producers, men became the economic breadwinners, men had the legal control over the women. And it emerges out of this change that surrounded the agricultural revolution.
Jim: May have had something to do with war that war became so critical in the agricultural period and men are better at war than women.
Debora: No. Or they got stuck with that task, right, because women had to bear the children.
Jim: Or maybe women were smarter.
Debora: Yeah, yeah. But you definitely, I think, explain exactly why is hard but you can’t deny that that’s just the way the power was rearranged as groups went through this change.
Jim: Indeed. Well, let’s now step ahead in time to what you choose as the next big step but it’s interesting you did choose that. And I tend to do the same thing which is fossil fuels and steam power. Of course, truly, and you alluded to it, we have to put that in a little bit broader context of just the adoption of fossil fuels and steam. And then that broader context in the West, at least, we had the adoption of real science and the roots of modern finance particularly with the establishment of the Bank of England in the 17th Century.
Jim: Of course, there was a smaller water powered technological revolution in the 17th Century and early 18th Century. But fossil fuels did change everything. And the steam engine is a good exclamation point for this inflection in history. So what happened with fossil fuels and steam?
Debora: Yeah. So, let me just go back to the first part of what you just said. So, there for sure was important, albeit slow technological change throughout the long Middle Ages and then sort of picking up around the Renaissance. So, yeah, we developed windmills and water power, we started to figure out banking and the power of compound interest. So it wasn’t like the steam engine sort of happened overnight but I chose the development of the steam engine as sort of the real exclamation point, if you will, that catalyze the Industrial Revolution, because once you get the steam engine, the pace of change just explodes.
Debora: And, of course, none of us have lived through it but you can really start to imagine what this felt like. Whereas, the agricultural revolution, it was long and it was slowly and we can only guess at what it felt like. But you can imagine a person living in rural England, who would have been born in 1740. They lived a particular way of life that was exactly or very similar to their grandparents and the grandparents before them. And then all of a sudden, and literally in the period of less than a decade, they saw change. They saw railroads, they saw factories, they saw their world change.
Debora: And what I’m fascinated with, although I didn’t write about it so much is, I think it was during this period of time and the early days in the Industrial Revolution, that the whole idea of the future becomes a thing. Like, up until that point, you don’t even really see people talking about the future because the future is just not going to be all that different from the past. But the Industrial Revolution changes that. And then, of course, there’s a whole chain of events starting in the factories of England that kind of change everything about the world as we now know it.
Jim: Indeed. Yeah, the idea of progress. One could say it was invented about that time and we think of it as part of the enlightenment in particular. But, again, all this happened in the late 17th through the end of 18th Century. Now the system that existed, let’s use England because that seems to make… it simplifies the story even though we ought to be careful to realize that it isn’t the whole story. Prior to the steam engine and factories, there was the putting out system of manufacturers.
Debora: Yeah. And that was a system in which people living in their own homes did small pieces of work. They gathered wool from the sheep. They turned the wool into thread. There were all different pieces of the text that what we now think of as the textile production process that were really, to use the contemporary word outsourced, and a small merchant would go around and collect the wool and would use it to sell to somebody else, would make clothes from it, but it was a very small scale and crucially homebased system.
Debora: And that I find it so funny to talk about this now as we’re all working from home. But this was in prior days, everyone worked at home. Where the change comes from is once you build a factory which, again, we think of as sort of a constant in sort of our economic lives, but it wasn’t. Factories were created. Once you had the machinery that could only go in a factory then what happens is that some members of society and some members of each family start to leave the home and work in a factory for somebody else with a time whistle and all of the trappings that go around being a wage laborer.
Jim: Yeah, that’s as key that under the putting-out system, people combine working on these things, making thread if that happens to be their piece and there are weaving, et cetera. But they also worked on the family farm or farm laborer or other organic parts of essentially the family enterprise.
Debora: That’s right. There were no boundaries between home and work. And if you go even to these sort of historical villages that exist today, you see it. The loom was in the corner of the living area next to the hearth, and you stirred the soup, and then you worked on the loom. But there really were no boundaries between your work life and your home life, they were the same thing. And then, again, in the course of a single person’s life, the factories emerge, and the entire pace and structure and notion of work changes fundamentally.
Jim: And you point out, which is interesting a lot of people miss, is that the initial factories were actually populated mostly by the same women and children that were doing the putting-out.
Debora: That’s right. And they were sort of seen as being fit for that work because this may have just been an excuse but their fingers were small, the factories at the early days were sort of local so people could walk to the factories, work a full day. And in particular, they were sort of the folks who, if you will, were excess laborers in the family. So these were not the mothers, these were young women. Women before they became mothers, children as young as… got their horrible stories of six years old. But they were young people, largely women, who were working in the early factories, and then that shifts as we go into the latter stages of the revolution.
Jim: And that was an era where essentially, most of the people that worked in the factories were these women, younger women in particular and children, but some older women too, is I think the data comes out. But then we started to see some changes. The Inclosure Act in, I just looked it up, the Key Inclosure Act in England was 1773, where common lands were people who were landless could nonetheless make a living with agriculture, started to be taken back by the feudal lords, et cetera. And so, people who had made a living on low end subsistence farming were basically forced out of that role.
Debora: Exactly. And you start to get and, again, I think there’s some scary echoes to what we’re seeing in our own country right now. You start to get excess labor. You get people who were subsistence farmers, laborers on these farms and they can’t do that anymore. They’ve been kicked off the land, agriculture itself was going through another, if you will, sort of mini revolution.
Debora: So agriculture was becoming more productive. You start to get steam engines on the plows. So you didn’t need as many people to produce enough food for a country. And so you start to get a lot of men without jobs at the moment when the factory economy is really picking up. And so you have this sort of whole demographic of now unemployed, hungry men who want those factory jobs and need those factory jobs.
Jim: Again, cultural evolution and it couldn’t perhaps go on a different way. Man could have done something else. I’m not quite sure what.
Debora: And that was the problem.
Jim: Yeah. What is that other thing, right? It could have been massive warfare or something, right? But that was pulled into the Industrial Revolution and then we ended up with the beginnings by the middle of the 19th Century and pretty firmly established by the end the model of the husband as wage earner and the wife as the person that stays home and takes care of the home.
Debora: Exactly. And this was not just a cultural shift, it was a legal shift as well. Particularly, and you can trace it pretty easily in the US and in the UK, that men actually organized to demand that they get the factory jobs and you get legislation. And like many legislation, it has multiple motives. You start to get the child protection legislation which, of course is, very sympathetic legislation. Nobody wants a seven-year-old kid working in a factory. Nobody wants a 14-year-old girl having her finger snapped off by these mechanized looms.
Debora: A lot of the legislation that was couched in the language of being protective of women and children also serve to preserve those jobs for men. And you can see that strand running through the legislation. So by the end of the 19th Century and particularly in the US and the UK, the factory jobs are reserved for men, only men can have those jobs. And then, of course, that’s where I think the culture then responds to that. You start to get these cultural tropes that define men is the breadwinner. He who works, the one who goes off in the morning and needs to be taken care of when he comes home.
Debora: And then the counterpoint to that is the little woman. The wife who does stay home and takes care of her man. And no longer is out in the family farms, the family farms disappeared. And instead the wife is taking care of the home and the hearth. And then sort of the last piece of this is, even though it was messy and murky and horrible for many people, people did get richer. This was a time of expanding prosperity. And so, people’s houses get larger. They have more stuff. They have more things to take care of. And so, the job of taking care of the home becomes a full time job for women.
Jim: And, yeah, this sort of late Victorian, early Edwardian period, the idea of the housewife, the hausfrau became as powerful cultural norm. You have a quote, I’m not sure who were it from, but all those qualities could not be found in the world outside, gentleness and piety, submissiveness and fragility, chasteness and devotion. That was the cultural invention. And as we know from our walk through history, this is brand new basically in late 19th Century England and Western Europe.
Debora: That’s exactly right. And you see it, you mentioned it, the hausfrau in Germany is this sort of the celebration of the bourgeois household. And in the UK, she was frequently referred to as the domestic goddess. And there’s this fascinating little subculture of books, these household management books that emerged around this time, that really treated householdry as a profession. How do you maintain the perfect linen closet? And you read them now and it feels like very early stage sort of Martha Stewart but that was new. And it was created and it was a cultural response. I’m arguing and others have argued, it was a cultural response to this now increasingly entrenched division of labor.
Debora: So, whereas, in the Middle Ages, as we were talking earlier, both the man and the wife worked on the family homestead. Now, you have a very different social norm, where the men leave the house to go to work and the women stay home and tend to that house. And I should underscore here that this was the bourgeois sort of elite conception. There were lots of women who were still working. They were the housemaids for the wealthier women. They were still in the factories. They were out scrambling to make money however they could. But even though those women existed in fairly large numbers, the ideal woman, the ideal family, what became the revered as the norm was the housewife.
Jim: The men, you mentioned it, alluded to and I think make it a little bit more clear. People don’t tend to remember. Let’s say, in 1925, a third of the American workforce was in domestic service. Most middle class people actually had a cook or a maid or a driver. It’s kind of surprising and that’s kind of faded from our cultural memory. And that essentially allowed particularly the more affluent people to be this perfect housewife without having to spend, what was the number you came up with, 65 hours a week of drudgery.
Debora: On the laundry, yeah, exactly.
Jim: Which now gets us to our next technological evolution. And I love that you pointed this out. I’ve thought about it a little bit. But you really made it an interesting story, that the revolution of home automation was a wedge that changed a lot of things.
Debora: Yes. I’m trying to restore the lowly washing machine to its rightful place in history. But the washing… we all giggle, right. But the washing machine was a revolutionary technology along with the refrigerator and the freezer. Because women, at the turn of the 20th Century, spent 60, 70, 80 hours a week just taking care of the house and the household. I mean, my husband was born in Greece and his mother spent the early years of her life, she didn’t have a stove. You took your bread to an oven in the village.
Debora: All of the laundry had to be washed by hand, which those of us who complained about the modern laundry, you should just pause for a second and think about what it took in 1910 and 1915. You had to boil the water. You had to clean these ginormous pots. You had to make your own soap. I mean, it was exhausting. And when the washing machine comes along, it suddenly gives women back hours and hours and hours of their week, somewhat less dramatically, but same was true for refrigerators.
Debora: We forget what life was like when you couldn’t refrigerate food. There’s a reason people pickled things. It wasn’t just because they like the taste of pickles. It preserved the food. You had to make pickles and you had to preserve your green beans and you had to make jam because that was how you took care and fed your family. And, again, refrigeration changes all of that. And if you look, there’s some wonderful economists who’ve done these time analyses. And if you look at roughly between the period, well, let’s call it 1910 until 1950, by the time most houses in the US did have these basic appliances, women got back sort of 30 hours, 40 hours in their week in terms of the pure tasks that they had to do.
Jim: Yeah. And, again, it continued. I mean, think about by 1950, you probably had a refrigerator and a stove but you probably didn’t have a dishwasher or you certainly didn’t have a microwave and probably had a sewing machine but might well still have been a treadle. I know my grandmother still had a treadle sewing machine in 1965 and she used it. But even a treadle sewing machine was a giant step up from having to fix all the family clothes with a needle and thread. So, it was a continuing revolution which ended up freeing up, I think you figured 40 hours a week for the Hausfrau by, say, the late ’60s.
Debora: Right, which is not coincidentally when you start seeing huge numbers of women going into the workforce. And some of that was feminism and changing norms. And we can talk about like, the pill obviously was a huge part of this. But part of it was the washing machine.
Jim: Yup, indeed. And I think you’ve highlighted that more than I’ve ever seen anybody highlight it before. And I think that is actually extremely interesting. And I would encourage people that are interested in thinking through how we got to our world where women are now close to equal in rights and are striving towards that and how important those home automation things which were also interesting to realize.
Jim: I remember in our own family as I’m just old enough and I grew up where we had a wringer washing machine, I was all very little kid. And then we got a fully automated one, we didn’t have a dryer, still use clothes lines. And then eventually we got a dryer and then things slowly, and I didn’t get a dishwasher until I was a teenager. And so it was just incremental freeing up and seeing my mother become more and more engaged in the outside world. It was really an important thing.
Jim: Before we go to the pill on the real explosion, let’s talk about something else that you’d mentioned which is not as well remembered as it could be because it’s so ingrained into how we think, at least here in the West. And that’s the car and sexual opening up.
Debora: Yeah. So, I mean, I’m sure most people know that the car was a massive technological change. Cars gave people mobility. They built the suburbs, they changed the nature of sort of our geography and our working lives. But they also gave freedom to a lot of people who didn’t have it before. And so one of the sort of vignettes I tell in the book is prior to the advent of the car, if a young man and young woman wanted to date, the young man usually came a-calling. And the date was he found some way to get over to the woman’s house and they sat outside on the family’s porch or in the parlor. And they didn’t have a lot of privacy. Getting away was not an easy thing.
Debora: But once you have cars and cars, if you go back to that era, once the Ford created the Model T kind of, cars exploded. The spread of the car is not quite akin to the spread of the iPhone but it’s pretty darn close in sort of demographic terms. So once that young man can come a-calling in his car and he can pick the young woman up, they leave. They escaped the prying eyes of the family. And they can go do whatever the heck they want in that car. Now, clearly, there was a huge fear of pregnancy. But it gave young people freedom.
Debora: And if you go back and you read sort of newspaper articles from the teens in the ’20s, you can see the horror that the older generation have. What are all these young people doing in the cars, and they were. They were making out and petting and having sex. And once you got cars with roofs on top of them, once you got lovers lanes and highway ends, I don’t think it’s coincidental that the roaring ’20s were facilitated by the spread of the car in the 19-teens. So it’s an interesting little piece of our technological history.
Jim: Yeah, I made a note to myself that no coincidence, the flappers occurred in the ’20s, the first really liberated women [inaudible 00:54:41]. There’ve been, of course, liberated women here and there historically, some of the great ones. But there were millions in the ’20s and the cars got to been part of that.
Debora: Right. You couldn’t have had those speakeasies without cars in which to get to the speakeasies, right? So, the car was really facilitating that movement.
Jim: And so, again, these are both good examples of sort of the macro theme of the coevolution of culture and technology. The culture draws technology forth and then it also provides a way to change culture and then the new culture couples with other technologies and off it goes. I was just pondering it a little bit when I was reading the book and it actually maybe answered a question I’ve always had, interestingly, the car.
Jim: When I was a lad when I turned 16, and what was that have been, 19 bada, bada, bada, 68. And in those days, you got the car, you got your driver’s license as soon as you possibly could, right? I got mine two days after my birthday only because my birthday was on Saturday, right. And it was just ferocious libido, quite literally, to have a car. And part of the reason was that that freedom, that ability to date in a realistic way, not these little stylized dates that were arranged with the parents, all that sort of crap. And then one thing led to another, as you say.
Jim: But now, today, I would say starting around 2000, so a lot less of that libido in the young male for the driver’s license and the car, they just had the aha that, well, think about the coevolution, women went back to work so the house was vacant in the afternoon, hmm, and so it’s hot, just doing very simple agent based modeling. I suspect you’d see the libido for driver’s license, which is sort of expensive, insurance car. I remember, insurance costs a lot, I had to go get a job so I could afford insurance when I was 16.
Jim: And there’s a lot of negatives to owning and operating a car. And if you have an alternative method, like the family home where everybody’s at work, at least at the margin and we know everything happens at the margin, the libido for the car goes down.
Debora: Yeah. No, I think that’s right. And that’s also probably a case of where these loops come into play. So, by the 1980s, let’s say, that social mores have also changed to the point where the parents think, I was a parent in the 1990s, like it was totally fine with my kids having friends over in their bedrooms, the social mores had changed. And in large part and this goes back to the pill that the fear of pregnancy was no longer this kind of incredible weight over the heads of both young men and young women, not to mention their parents.
Jim: Yeah, let’s go to that now, the pill, that’s the next big one in your tail. And you had an interesting history of how it happened to come about when it did.
Debora: Yeah. And just to underscore, as with the washing machine, I think so often, we don’t think of washing machines or contraception as technology because we think of technology as being machines. And that’s the word I used in my title too. But the pill is absolutely a technology. And it was arguably and I would argue, one of the most important technologies of the 20th Century because it changed, not only the means of production, but crucially the means of reproduction.
Debora: And there’s a long and complicated history, women and to some smaller numbers of men have been trying to come up with contraceptives for thousands of years. And they’ve always or they’ve gone through long periods of time where particularly religious authorities just kind of slapped him down and that the religious opposition to contraception became particularly strong during the Victorian period when it’s corresponded with this adoration again of the domestic goddess, the good woman, the virtuous woman.
Debora: In the sort of mid-20th Century, particularly as people also got more interested in understanding infertility, there was increased understanding of what actually enables conception, and what can get in the way of conception. And it’s allowed the early work on the pill, allowed the early research, came from a sort of deeply conflicted Catholic scientist who was working on fertility. But in the course of trying to figure out how to help women get pregnant, he also stumbled on the sort of endocrinological causes of infertility, but also the flip of that which was how you could prevent conception.
Debora: But the actual sort of commercial impetus for the pill came from the largesse of one woman who was an heiress or she had married into a family fortune, but tragically, her husband suffered from schizophrenia, and very bad schizophrenia. And she desperately didn’t want to become pregnant because she didn’t want to run the risk of passing the schizophrenia on to any offspring. So she used her husband’s money after he died to fund research into contraception. And she was very smart and I think quite lucky. She threw money at a gentleman named Gregory Pincus who was sort of an obscure researcher who had been kind of kicked out of mainstream scientific research.
Debora: But he was working on this research and she funded him. And he came up with the precursor to the pill quite quickly. It was then picked up by a larger scale manufacturer. And the pill became, it wasn’t called pill just then but it became known as the pill very quickly, became the single most successful pharmaceutical product ever introduced. Which is particularly fascinating because everybody was sort of lying about what it was. So doctors were not prescribing contraception, they were giving married women something to ease the pains of their period or they called it all kinds of different things rather than what it was, which was contraception.
Jim: I would say by 1968, when I sort of got out into the world and in that age, people pretty much were pretty clear what the pill was about, right?
Debora: Yeah. And that was within five years of its development. I mean, the speed at which the pill was widely adopted is unprecedented.
Jim: Yeah, that job I got to pay for my car insurance was actually a delivery boy for the local drugstore. And about shocking how many of our prescriptions were birth control pills. I had no idea.
Debora: And you saw this up close and personal.
Jim: Without a doubt, number one, right.
Debora: And it’s easy to sort of look back at that moment and giggle. But it was huge, not just for teenagers who wanted to have sex but for women who just couldn’t afford physically or emotionally and financially to have any more children. A lot of them were married women who didn’t want to have children yet or wanted to start their career. So, this was life changing for women, and for the men in their lives as well.
Jim: Yeah, huge, particularly for the women. I grew up in a working class community where lots of women had 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 kids, right? And I don’t imagine very many of them actually wanted that many kids, right? And the ability to control one’s fertility was gigantic. I think you hit on it that this pill plus the related sexual liberation was the biggest thing for the 20th Century.
Jim: I’d say this all the time that when we look back a thousand years at the 20th Century, it won’t be World War II, it won’t be nuclear weapons, it won’t be going to the moon and it won’t be the internet, that is the number one thing, it’ll be the beginning of real women’s liberation, around 1975 when finally got real power and momentum as a cultural phenomenon that basically overturned 10,000 years of history of the patriarchy. And these things all flow to it.
Debora: And without being too grandiose, I think it’s even bigger than that. Because it’s not just women’s liberation or shifts in sort of the power dimensions between men and women, it’s really changing reproduction. The most basic thing about humans is that we reproduce, that’s what we do as species. And we have reproduced the same way forever.
Debora: But starting with the pill and combining that with advances in reproductive technologies, we are now reproducing in different ways. And we’re in the early phases of that. But that’s perhaps the biggest technological change that as species we will go through. Because that’s the most basic thing we do. And if you compare changes and reproduction to the internet, what’s Twitter compared to IVF?
Jim: That’s my next topic actually, is the next set of evolutions of technology and the interaction with mating and life and reproduction is kind of the combination of IVR first and then frozen eggs, sperm banks, et cetera. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Debora: So I do think, as I just said, that the reproductive revolution is one of the most important of this moment in time. And it’s a very new revolution, has several chapters. But really the sort of the first breakthrough was realizing that you could use artificial insemination to enable a woman to become pregnant. Now, folks do that all the time these days. We don’t even think about it as a technology.
Debora: But that was a really big deal when people first figured out how to do this. The idea that you could impregnate a woman through means other than sex, again, just pause on that for a second. We’ve been producing sexually forever. But now if you can get a woman pregnant without sex, that is a huge change in really the nature of our humanity. But artificial insemination just mechanically is pretty easy. It doesn’t involve an awful lot of technology.
Jim: Baster, turkey baster, right?
Debora: Yeah, I know. I know. It is what it is. But the big technological shift that comes after that, of course, is the creation of in vitro fertilization. Again, that’s less than a generation ago. But this kind of captured the imagination and the horror of the world, the idea that you could take an egg and a sperm outside the human body, mate them, but then actually mated in a test tube despite the… people are referring to it as test tube babies, mate them in a petri dish, put the resulting embryo back into a woman’s body and wait nine months and you get a perfectly healthy, perfectly normal baby. This was revolutionary.
Debora: At the time IVF first was announced with the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby, people went nuts. This was seen as interference with mother nature, playing God, the creation of robo babies. People were aghast until about two or three years later, they weren’t anymore. And now people really, most people regardless of religion, think nothing of turning to IVF if they want to have children and are unable to create them the old fashioned way. Something like 3 to 4% of all babies in the United States are born now through IVF.
Debora: If you look at places like Israel and Scandinavia where there’s more public support in terms of just financial health care support, the numbers are about 6 or 7%. And in my humble prediction, they’re only going to grow. And so, increasingly, we’re going to see people turning to IVF, not just because they’ve tried sex for years and it’s not working but because IVF is actually more predictable.
Debora: If you combine IVF with what’s called preimplantation genetic testing, you can also select embryos such that they won’t carry particular genetic mutations, somewhat scarier, so that they will have certain genetic characteristics like gender or hair color. P people are much more likely to select for gender than for hair color. But just keep moving down this slippery slope here and you start to move into a world where we think of reproducing non-sexually as a more and more commonplace option.
Jim: Indeed. And there are some struck me significant questions. As we talked about the genetic screening at the vitro fertilization, essentially, we’re talking about bottom-up eugenics, right? The prejudices we have in our society are going to be amplified by this capability. We see something very analogous to that necessarily using same technology with the amazing amount of differential abortions between males and females in places like India and China. Who knows, we may see curly, dark hair go away.
Debora: God, I hope not, as someone who has curly dark hair.
Jim: One could see the cultural prejudice for straight blonde hair. You run that number over 200 years and seven generations of children. I have some concerns about that.
Debora: So let me push back on a lot of what you just said. So, first of all, I’m very careful about using the word eugenics. The original eugenics movement was a horrible, horrible thing. It was horrible as it was started in the United States and obviously way worse as it was picked up and adopted by the Nazis. Nobody wants to go to eugenics. And I don’t think what we’re seeing now is eugenics of any sort. I think it raises some serious questions but I think these are questions that we can understand through research and then we can address through regulation, much as the United States doesn’t like regulation.
Debora: But if you look, and we actually have a lot of data here and particularly data around artificial insemination because that’s the part of this market that’s been around, and it is a market. That’s the part of this market that’s been around the longest. And if you look at what people choose when they’re buying sperm, and that’s what they do, in fact, they don’t overwhelmingly choose for blond hair, blue eyes. What they choose, again, I say this as someone with curly dark hair, is they choose for characteristics that look more or less like the child they would have produced through sexual means.
Debora: So most people with curly dark hair, in fact, don’t choose blond, blue-eyed donors. They may choose somebody who looks like they have better behaved curly dark hair. Almost everybody chooses taller rather than shorter. But if you have a single person or a couple and they tend to be, let’s say, they’re very small, they don’t select super tall donors. So when I look at the data, I’ve been able to see from how people choose both sperm donors and egg donors, I bizarrely become optimistic. Because I see people choosing the characteristics that they have and that are shared with those they love, rather than some kind of Teutonic ideal.
Debora: No, I think we have to watch out for it. For sure, we need to look at gender, whether we’re getting massive gender asymmetries. But, again, if you look at the history and it’s harder to get data in the US, because we don’t hold on to all this data, but it doesn’t appear that we’re getting overwhelming numbers of people choosing boy children over girl children. In fact, a lot of what we’re getting is couples or individuals who had a couple of boys and they really want a girl or vice versa. But you’re not seeing anything yet that makes me at least super scared.
Jim: That’s encouraging, though I wonder per your theme of the loop, this technology now exists and will get continually better. How will that the ability to choose one’s offspring, particularly if you’re a fluent, driver culture? Will it be on the superficials like hair or eye color? Or will it be on personality? Will it be on IQ or the rich start getting smarter because they can. Will it be on talent? And all those things that will become possible over the next few years.
Debora: But the first thing we’re seeing, and we are starting to see this, large scale data, people are choosing against disease. So, we are seeing the number of children born with Down syndrome is plummeting. The number of children born with Tay-Sachs is plummeting. And I know that Down syndrome is an interesting piece in The Atlantic recently. Down syndrome is complicated and controversial. And people worry about, if we manage to wipe out Down syndrome, will that cause there to be more discrimination against people who do have Down syndrome. So I think that’s a real issue.
Debora: But Tay-Sachs is kind of the cleanest case. Tay-Sachs, as most people know, is an inherited disease that inevitably kills the child before the age of five. I don’t see anything wrong with getting rid of Tay-Sachs in the population, I just don’t. And so, insofar as people are using this to not have children with Tay-Sachs, to not have children with cystic fibrosis, I can only see that as a good thing. There’s a very interesting example and this example is a couple years old now so it may have changed.
Debora: But last time I looked, the United Kingdom in this sort of very British way has a very good regulatory system, where every time there’s an advance in these technologies. They kind of sit down and they look at it and they sent it out for public appeal and they sort of consider what to do. And they did one of these considerations around the BRCA gene. So the BRCA gene is a gene that predisposes women with it to breast cancer. It’s not going to kill them, it gives them a higher likelihood of developing breast cancer, which may or may not kill them over the course of their life.
Debora: The British had to decide whether to allow people to screen for BRCA through genetic testing. They decided to allow it and then nobody used it. Because it turned out that parents, would-be parents, weren’t comfortable, screening against something that might or might not prove dangerous. So I have more comfort in how people use these technologies. Again, do we worry about rich people screening for intelligence? Absolutely.
Debora: But I actually worry more about rich people using their status to get their kids into Ivy League schools or rich people cheating on the SATs or rich people hiring tutors that poor people can’t. I mean, we already have these deep seated asymmetries and that’s a much more efficient way than trying to guess what genes will make your kid more intelligent because we’re not even close to figuring those out, yeah.
Jim: Yeah, that’s awful. That’s awful. Now, another one that I sort of thought of as a negative and you basically confessed to a Marxist Lens for some of your analysis, is surrogacy, which is obviously on the rise with the use of these new technologies. From a Marxian perspective, it’s hard to think of anything more exploitive and alienating than being a surrogate mother.
Debora: Yeah. So, in my opinion, surrogacy is the one where I have the most problems. Because you can, and feminists and Marxists, they kind of disagree amongst themselves on the question of surrogacy. There is a famous Marxist feminist named Shulamith Firestone who actually saw reproductive technologies including surrogacy as what would free women because it gives women complete control over their bodies, whether to sort of use them for birth labor or sell them for birth labor. And yet, there’s probably more Marxist feminists who would agree with your point that this is just the worst exploitation possible.
Debora: I think there are ways under which surrogacy can be okay. For gay men hoping to have a child, surrogacy is one of the few options open to them. And I think those men should have the option of being able to give birth or participate in the birth of their child. But I would want to only enable or allow surrogacy in ways that were fully protective of the rights and the health of the surrogate. And we don’t have that right now.
Debora: So, I would rather see a situation in which we sort of allow for surrogacy but we make sure that the woman has health taken care of, insurances covering her medical issues, and that the legal environment around surrogacy is very clean. Right now, it’s totally murky. And so you get these horrible cases of the contracting parents deciding they don’t want the child and the surrogate is left with this baby or the surrogate decides she wants to keep the child and you fight. So, at the moment, it’s just a mess.
Jim: There’s some good that comes from it. One of my friends, a gay man, a couple years ago had a baby entirely by… he didn’t even have a partner at the time. The sperm, no actually, I guess it was his own sperm. But, yeah, egg bank and then a surrogate and all that, and the lovely, lovely improvement in his life by having this lovely baby. And it was really wonderful that this could happen in our time and it couldn’t have happened before. But, as you point out, there’s definitely a lot of room for abuse and maybe we can think hard about this as a society.
Jim: Now, let’s move on to the next intersection of technology and how we live love and work which is online dating. People say that the AIs are going to take over, I like to point out, well, the AIs are already telling us who to date. The AIs are already diverting our evolutionary history. How about that, people?
Debora: That’s right. The AIs have replaced the Yenta’s. Yeah, I find it so ironic. So I finished this book, obviously, finished writing it before COVID hit. But some of this stuff is brought into such relief by COVID. So online dating is the only way to date right now, so far as I know. So, anyone who’s dating right now is dating online. So if we were already on the trajectory where Tinder and Bumble and all of these were going to become the dominant forms of meeting people, we just accelerated that trend massively.
Debora: And I’m always cautious when they talk about this topic, being a woman of a certain age, I don’t want to fall into the trap of sort of looking at the younger generation and saying, tsk, tsk, tsk, they should do things the way my generation did things. Because I don’t think these technologies are necessarily bad, I don’t think they’re bad at all, but I do think they have some risks. And I think we need to talk about the risks and think about what the implications are likely to be. And you alluded to one of the risks earlier. I think there’s sort of two things I worry about with the increased use of these technologies.
Debora: The first is that, we don’t yet fully understand how the human brain works when it’s surrounded by choice. So back in the battle days, when you and I were growing up, your dating possibilities were limited to the people in your high school and then your college or your church group. But it was a finite group of people, you knew most of them. And so, you could pick and choose but it wasn’t infinite.
Debora: Now, particularly if you’re in a large urban area, you can go on your phone and you can go through thousands of options. And there will be another thousand tomorrow and a thousand after that, maybe not a thousand for everybody. But it’s what feels like a virtually infinite number of choices. And we know from psychological research into other kinds of choice that people get overwhelmed by choice. And the research I say in the book has to do with jam.
Debora: When you go into the store, if there’s a table setup and there’s four different kinds of jam being offered, you’ll stop and you’ll taste and you’ll probably walk away buying one form of jam. But if that same table has 14 kinds of jam, you just walk by, it’s just too much. You don’t want to try 14 kinds of jam. We’re starting to see that with online dating, that because there’s so much choice, particularly for people who are deemed attractive on these apps, it’s much harder for people to commit.
Debora: And there’s lots and lots of anecdotes where people are sitting in the bar when we could still go to bars and they’re on an actual date with an actual human being. But while they’re on that date, they’re scrolling through their phone to see who else better is out there. And that scares me.
Debora: The other risk out there is that we do know that these apps work very asymmetrically. They’re not designed to do it, it’s just what happens, is that some people are deemed attractive and some people are deemed unattractive. And so, whereas, in the old days of the village, yenta, everybody ultimately got matched up, and everybody got married off and had sex. And they may not have been in love and they may not have had great sex but they had access to a relationship and to sex.
Debora: On the dating apps, some people get left out, largely men who are deemed unattractive. And those men now don’t have access to relationships or sex and at the fringe of society, they become the incels. And I don’t want to be overly sympathetic to incels because they’re not very sympathetic bunch. But I think that the fact that we have a growing portion of our society that has been cut out of romantic and sexual relationships, is something to worry about.
Jim: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up and you did in the book, but it’s one of the things that at least conceptually and from what I… constantly reading these articles about online dating and even though most people don’t confront that, that seems to be a trend that particularly for men, it’s very asymmetrical and kind of contrary to the innovation of the Greeks and the Romans where they insisted on one mate per person, at least legally, with the result that most men had some skin in the game.
Jim: What happens in a society where you go to where, I’m a deer hunter, for instance? And so I know a fair amount about the life cycle of deer where most of the deer are fathered by a tiny percentage of the males, 16% of the males impregnate essentially all of the deer each year. And what happens if we go that far but probably won’t, but even if it’s 30%. If 30% of men, particularly young men when there could be violent and dangerous are basically out of the mating game. But that could be a prescription for explosion.
Debora: No, I think that’s right. And I think it’s an important, albeit uncomfortable argument to make. Sometimes particularly older people looking at the dating apps, they sort of worry that, oh, my gosh, people are having sex all the time. Well, that’s not the problem. The problem is, in fact, the reverse. And if you combine it with one of the other chapters in the book, with the deindustrialization of what was once the industrial world, there’s an overlap.
Debora: So, one of the things that really defines sadly, attractiveness for men is wealth. Women don’t want to date unemployed men. And we are potentially looking at a situation in the not distant future where we have large numbers of men who don’t have jobs, who don’t have prospects of jobs, who partly as a result don’t have the prospect of a sexual or romantic relationship. This is a prescription for disaster. Because societally, lonely, unemployed men are not what you want to have in a country. They revert to fascism, they revert to nationalism, they revert to violence. And that really worries me a lot.
Jim: As you say, unanticipated consequence. Of course, this happens again and again on the internet. I helped build the pre-internet and then the internet itself. And we thought we were doing good work for everybody, more choice, better civics, better democracy, right? But don’t always work out that way. But one of the things we have found is that as you get transparency in markets, you end up with bigger winners and more losers. And these dating ones, particularly these highly visual ones like, what’s that, Tinder where people swipe left, swipe right. I’ve never actually seen the damn thing. But I could imagine that being hypertrophic in the area of asymmetry.
Debora: It is. It really prioritizes for men, wealth, good looks and height. Whereas, sadly, it’s not all that surprising. It turns out end up talking the heterosexual relationships here. When men are on Tinder looking for women, they’re not very discriminating.
Jim: Now, there’s a [inaudible 01:24:41].
Debora: Women are more discriminating, and they swipe right far less frequently. But that does mean that for men who are deemed unattractive, there’s just no one swiping right on them. And they’d be get left out.
Jim: Anecdotally, apparently, that’s pretty long tale. You read the articles in Atlantic magazine and stuff seemingly fairly reasonable looking guys. Say, hey, I was in Tinder in two weeks and got one swipe right. And you could imagine the real winners, have as much as they want basically. And culturally, it’s dangerous, but also genetically, it may be dangerous, right? If it turns out that the parenting, this also applies to sperm banks, right? That if we start to highly concentrate our genetic heritage, particularly on the male side where it’s easier and less expensive on the female, though, of course, now with egg banks, it’s possible on the female side, too, we’re skewing our genetic future in a very major way.
Debora: Yeah. And, I mean, just to be somewhat cautious here. At the moment, the numbers are still so low that it’s not going to have any effect on population genetics, but over time, it will. And as more and more people start to turn to these technologies rather than producing children the old fashioned way, that’s the point at which you start to really worry about, gosh. What happens if we become like the deer and 60% of the men are fathering 100% of the children, that’s something to worry about?
Jim: Well, I think we’re going to wrap it up here. We have lots of other interesting topics in the book including one I didn’t know about called in vitro gametogenesis where you can have a baby with multiple parents. And then [inaudible 01:26:23] is not bullshit. It’s real, right?
Debora: Yes. Not yet possible, but emerging.
Jim: And some very interesting things about gender reassignment, particularly the Netherlands protocol, the growth of non-binary in terms of gender identification, lots of really other interesting things in the book. I wish we’ve had time to get to them. But we can only do so much in 90 minutes. So, Debora, I’d like to thank you for a really wonderful session and a great book. I should mention to the folks that the book is relatively short and very nicely written. It’s very accessible. So anyone that has any interest in these topics, I would strongly encourage them to buy the book. Give me the title again.
Debora: Thanks very much. The book is called Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape our Human Destiny.
Jim: All right. Thank you, Debora. This was great.
Debora: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.