Saturday, June 19, 2021

Why are there so many male characters in folktales? Ross Douthat suggests an answer.

Some years ago I was asked to review a collection of articles in the nascent field of Darwinist literary criticism, Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005). I was not impressed, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.

In one article, Gottschall took aim at “feminist fairy tale studies”, which postulated that “an analysis of a culturally diverse sample [of fairy tales] will reveal diverse gender patterns”. Gottschall conducted such a study and using 658 tales from 48 culture areas and discovered:

... first, that fairy tales everywhere — Europe, Western Europe, North America (aboriginal peoples), South America (aboriginal peoples), East Eurasia, Africa, and the Insular Pacific — had more male than female main characters (Table 1, p. 212). In all regions, male protagonists were more active than female, with Europe having the highest percentage of active females (Table 2, p. 214). Similarly, female attractiveness was emphasized all over, while male attractiveness received considerably less attention (Table 3, p. 216); marriage was a dominant theme in all areas (Table 4, p. 217); and old women were universally stigmatized, with older women more likely to be antagonists (Table 5, p. 218).

That is to say gender treatment seems pretty much the same across cultures. It would seem that the feminists are wrong. While I took issue with Gottschall’s larger point about the overwhelming biological determination of fairy tale content, the argument is subtle, involving a somewhat different piece of cross-cultural evidence, and is, in any event, irrelevant to my current inquiry.

Later in the review I pointed out that, far from being a new finding, Gottschall’s result had been anticipated in a cross-cultural literature he did not cite:

Naroll has a chapter on “Men and Women” in The Moral Animal that reviews a wide variety of cross-cultural work indicating that “it’s a man’s world” — to quote the self-styled hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown. In particular, Naroll cites a 1976 cross-cultural study by Divale and Harris (cf. Harris, 1977, pp. 55-66) — which I have not read — showing, among other things, “that in myth and ritual, men have an edge over women. Though goddesses are many, there are even more gods. Though heroines are many, there are even more heroes” (Naroll, 1983, pp. 318-319).

Given the apparently universal asymmetry between males and females in folktales, one would like to know why that is.

Ross Douthat has a post at Reactions, “Mom Genes and Father’s Day”, that suggests an answer to that question: male biology is such that culture must devote more effort to breaking males to (marital) harness than female, hence more attention is given to them in myths and folktales. Thus Douthat tells us:

... the deeper you go into the biological substrates of motherhood and fatherhood, the easier it is to come back up with a dark or cynical view of the masculine role in human reproduction. That’s because the central mammalian adaptations, internal gestation and the breastfeeding that gives “mammals” their name, are good for safeguarding the next generation and establishing an intense mother-child bond — but for paternal involvement, not so much.

“90 percent of bird species equitably split child-rearing duties with their mates,” my wife notes, “as if someone had stuck a chore chart on the refrigerator … Our backyard is home to a pair of hawks, and I often gaze up at their biparental nest in silent salute.” [...] But only 5 percent of mammal species feature any infant care from dads at all. In this sense, the grimmest feminist account of human patriarchy’s exploitation has nothing on the natural order for most mammals, where males literally use females as vessels to extend their genetic legacy and then walk or crawl or prance away.

Humans are different, exceptional among mammals, we fall in love and marry and raise families together — but we live with that exploitative legacy nonetheless, often without even noticing its power. Before reading Mom Genes, for instance, I thought of the placenta (to the extent that I thought about it at all) much the way I thought about the uterus: As part of the female reproductive system, something women generate to help nourish and protect their unborn child. But not so: The placenta is an organ of the fetus, with the same DNA, but unlike the fetus its creation isn’t a fifty-fifty proposition; instead it’s “imprinted” by the father’s genes, becoming effectively a paternal outpost inside the mother’s body.

It’s a long way from the paternal substrate of placental genetics to folktales, but it is nonetheless suggestive.

But it gets better. Noting that “our testosterone levels drop when the baby arrives, priming us for a role in infant care” Douthat continues:

But this priming, crucially, only happens if the man has already made the fateful choice to stick around, to be a father and not just a placenta-planter. Likewise some kind of paternal instinct, a male version of the “core pro-baby motive” that’s instilled by the maternal transformation, can be coaxed out of men, but it depends “on the amount of exposure that a man has to the mother of his child, and later, to the child itself.” If “new moms are hormonally primed to seek out experience with infants … new dads must have those experiences in order to get their hormones rolling.” The mere existence of a pregnancy and a child transforms a woman, but it takes active fathering to transform a man.

That choice to be transformed, and the sacrifices it entails, is good for us in many ways; obviously I think it’s the best choice a man can make. But in strict Darwinian terms it isn’t necessary, and while every human society places some sort of pressure on dads to be involved and stick around, there’s a lot of variation in the form that involvement, from de facto matriarchy to polygamy, and most societies have evolved ways to protect kids even in situations where the father doesn’t play a particularly active role.

Now we’re in the realm of behavior, a realm one can imagine being affected by folktales. But obviously we still need an argument that 1) the content of these male-dominated folk tales is acculturates males in the required way (Gottschall’s finding about the thematic dominance of marriage is suggestive), and 2) that there is a causal link between those tales and actual behavior.

I’m not prepared either to provide such a arguments here, nor to link to them. But if someone wants to look into it, I’d be interested in what you find.


  1. I read the full article. Found the physician's discussion curious: he sets the entire act of fertilization to embryo as a fight, and from there continues to work the trope. Something about this staging of the fight scene drama in its cellular reckoning impresses me as the smell of a rat somewhere.

    1. Yeah, sometime unskilled writers get carried away by their tropes.

    2. Unfortunately, this lack of skill has an unfortunate effect (in this case) on the students, patients. Can limit their own responses. Douthat doesn't challenge this either; it is too valuable as it is to his view of the man staking out his paternity. Actually, this could become a much more nuanced and challenging discussion about the human struggle of recognizing the change from embryo to fetus.