A study of the Mosuo women, known for their matriarchy, suggests that gender roles can influence our health outcomes.
- An isolated ethnic group in China maintains a matriarchal society, much to the benefit of their health.
- The Mosuo women were not only healthier than women living under patriarchy, but were healthier than the men too.
- The findings support the idea that having a degree of autonomy and resource control is good for your health
The Kingdom of Women<p> The <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/08/portraits-of-chinese-Mosuo-matriarchs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mosuo</a> people are an ethnic group that lives in the Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, next door to Tibet. Long isolated from other parts of China—and insulated against the occasional upheavals that impacted other cultures—they continue to maintain cultural institutions commonly described as matriarchal or matrilineal. </p><p>Children take the name of their mother's family, who they live with all their lives. Households are run by matriarchs, often the grandmother, and inheritance goes from mother to <a href="https://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2005/07/introduction_tolinks.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">daughter</a>. The matriarch makes all major household decisions, including financial ones, and women do work often doled out to men in other cultures. <br> <br> They are also known to practice a unique form of marriage known as a "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosuo" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">walking marriage</a>." In this system, a couple decides to carry on a relationship by mutual consent. They do not live together, remaining in the homes of their respective families. The man, instead, "walks" over to the woman's house for romantic rendezvous. Men have to return home by sunrise. </p><p> The relationship is carried on for as long as both parties want but carries no social or economic obligations. It is ended at any time with little difficulty. Many people often confuse this with <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/11/26/501012446/the-place-in-china-where-the-women-lead" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">promiscuity</a>, but most anthropologists report it as a kind of serial monogamy, and many relationships that take this form are long term. Any children resulting from these marriages are raised by the mother's family, though the father may play a role as agreed upon by all involved. Typically, the child's uncles will play the role of father figure. </p><p> It is worth noting that men do have some power in this society; they are in charge of all things death-related, including funerals and the killing of animals. They also have some political <a href="http://public.gettysburg.edu/~dperry/Class%20Readings%20Scanned%20Documents/Intro/Yuan.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">power</a>, though women often have most of it. <br> <br> Cases like these are common among matriarchal societies, with men retaining some measure of control over their lives even if they aren't at the top often unknown to women in patriarchal societies. A variety of sources indicate that the men in this society, who are well aware of the alternatives, are often content with their situation. Mosuo villages with patrilineal traditions also exist.</p><p>Even with these caveats, it is fair to say that the women of the Mosuo are highly autonomous and have a long history of personal freedom beyond that which is known to women in many other cultures. </p>
Medical considerations of matriarchy<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5PMxxtUq5dc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Most of you will know that women tend to outlive men. Fewer of you will know that women tend to have higher morbidity than men do in spite of this. </p><p> Two manifestations of this are that women tend to have higher blood pressure than men after reaching post-reproductive age and that women of all ages tend to experience more inflammation than men. Both of these are important markers of long-term health and are commonly associated with other serious conditions. </p><p> While these issues have often been calked up to biology, a team of researchers led by Adam Reynolds of the University of New Mexico set out to see if they also existed in Mosuo society. The team recorded health measures in Mosuo individuals living in either a matrilineal or patrilineal society and compared them using statistical methods. The <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/11/10/2014403117" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">findings</a> have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.<br> <br> Levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker that can indicate the presence of inflammation, were measured in the blood of 371 Mosuo participants. A mere 3.6 percent of the women living in the matriarchal areas were found to suffer from high inflammation levels unrelated to other conditions. In the patrilineal communities, the prevalence of chronic inflammation in women was 8.3 percent.<br> <br> Blood pressure tests showed similar results after nearly a thousand people were tested. Of the women living in matrilineal areas, only 25.6 percent had hypertension. A third of women in the comparison areas had the condition.</p><p>In a surprising find, not only did the Mosuo women living in the areas where they have control over their lives enjoy lower rates of these conditions than other women, they are healthier than their men as well. Mosuo men living in the matriarchal areas tested for high levels of CRP at double the rate of the women. They also had more hypertension, though the rate was only a slightly higher 27.8 percent.<br> <br> Now, the men don't suddenly all have high blood pressure because they don't run everything. They have high blood pressure at a rate of only one percent higher than those from the patrilineal culture. If there is an adverse health effect for them caused by living in a matriarchal society, it isn't much of one. </p>
It turns out autonomy might be good for you<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KmZoXQ0noDA" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Speaking to <a href="https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/mosuo-matriarchy-womens-health-gender-roles" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Inverse</a>, senior author Siobhán Mary Mattison explained their interpretation of the findings:<br> <br> "Women in these matrilineal communities have a great deal of autonomy in decision-making and excellent social support. Given that women tend to be at greater risk of chronic disease worldwide, the fact that they actually do better than men in this realm of health is telling." <br> <br> The other authors of the study agree. They conclude that:</p><p> "Our data provide partial support for the hypothesis that the effect of matriliny on women's health is associated with increased autonomy and resource control... While patriliny has been linked to reduced autonomy and resource access for women, we demonstrate that these inequalities can have tangible biological effects that contribute to gender disparities in health."<br> <br> They further note that being head of the household is inversely associated with elevated CRP levels, suggesting that autonomy grants a "protective" effect against inflammation. Lastly, they suggest that the impact of culture, resource control, and autonomy on health all be given further study to capitalize on these findings. </p><p> These interpretations would be in line with other findings that suggest racism, which similarly limits human autonomy, is terrible for people's health. The stresses of racism are linked to babies with low birth weight, heart <a href="https://www.npr.org/2017/10/28/560444290/racism-is-literally-bad-for-your-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disease</a>, and poorer health <a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/racism-is-literally-bad-for-our-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">outcomes</a>. </p><p> While a study on a single, small, isolated group of people isn't going to be the final word on the subject, it does point towards the idea that our health is impacted by our culture and the limitations it puts on us. As we consider ways to improve the world and better understand ourselves, this study and the example of the Mosuo more generally, must be remembered. </p>
Turns out gender assumptions have been going on for quite some time.
- A recent archaeological dig in the Peruvian mountains uncovered evidence of ancient female big-game hunters.
- This adds to a growing consensus that women played a much bigger role in hunting than previously assumed.
- Gender assumptions are a constant throughout history, with culture often playing a more important role than biology.
Credit: Randall Haas, University of California, Davis
Why Female Gladiators Were Polarizing Figures in Ancient Rome<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c4f5a67f268f643208d401a9224efce9"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/565gLzKgRvM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Extrapolating from the most recent dataset, Haas estimates that between 30-50 percent of big-game hunters were women. This doesn't imply that it's a global phenomenon, although female warriors were <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/women-warriors-hunter-gatherers-battles-mongolia" target="_blank">recently identified</a> in California, dating back roughly 5,000 years. Likewise, women warriors were <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/female-game-hunters-ancient-americas" target="_blank">discovered</a> in Mongolia 1,500 years ago and <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/skeleton-ignites-debate-over-whether-women-were-viking-warriors" target="_blank">in Scandinavia</a> about a millennium ago.</p><p>Researchers say these findings challenge our understanding of gender identities. Modern analysis can discover the biological sex of these individuals, though we cannot make assumptions about the role of men and women by current standards. As University of Miami archaeologist, Pamela Geller <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/11/prehistoric-female-hunter-discovery-upends-gender-role-assumptions/" target="_blank">says</a>, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With few exceptions, the researchers who study hunting and gathering groups—regardless of which continent they work on—presume that a sexual division of labor was universal and rigid. And because it is commonsensical, they then have a hard time explaining why female-bodied individuals also bear the skeletal markers of hunting or have hunting tool kits as grave goods."</p><p>There's always the possibility that hunting tools were ritualistically buried alongside varied members of the tribe, including women. Yet we also have to remember that there were no supermarkets on the savanna. Tribal life was an all-hands-on-deck affair. Female hunters should surprise us no more than stay-at-home dads today. Societies are fluid dependent on circumstances, and the ancient world provided challenges we can only dream of today. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His new book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
The color of toys has a much deeper effect on children than some parents may realize.
- The idea that blue is for boys and pink is for girls plays out in gender reveals and in the toy aisle, but where does it come from and what limits is it potentially placing on children?
- Lisa Selin Davis traces the gendering of toys and other objects back to the 1920s and explains how, over time, these marketing strategies were falsely conflated with biological traits.
- The "pink-blue divide" affects boys and girls on a psychological level. For example, psychologists discovered that when girls exit their intense 'pink princess' phase between ages 3-6 and move into a tomboy 'I hate pink' phase at age 6-8 "that is actually a moment of girls realizing that what's marked as feminine is devalued and so they're distancing themselves from it to prop themselves up higher on the ladder," says Selin Davis.
Are there innate differences between female and male brains?
People have searched for sex differences in human brains since at least the 19th century, when scientist Samuel George Morton poured seeds and lead shot into human skulls to measure their volumes.
A new study on brain differences between sexes sparks a persistent question.
- A new study found brain volume differences between men and women.
- The research focuses on regional grey matter volume, a contentious measurement in neuroscience.
- Without environmental conditions being considered, how trustworthy is our emphasis on biology?
Men vs. women: Why we’re imagining equality all wrong | Heather Heying | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd7ac9538bd187ab6f36bec7877b849f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/nzqxjx5pgJI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This new research not only found sex differences in terms of regional grey matter volume (GMV), but also tied those differences to sex chromosomes. Specifically, after discovering neuroanatomical sex differences, the team found "that sex differences in regional GMV are aligned with functional systems for face processing."</p><p>This sparked the question of the validity of using grey matter to measure social and physical functioning, as this <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/a-study-finds-sex-differences-in-the-brain-does-it-matter/" target="_blank">deep dive</a> in Wired details. Raznahan's research found larger volumes of grey matter in men than women, though previous research has found women are better than men at facial recognition. </p><p>Grey matter is often used as evidence of stronger neurological connections. The default example is the famous <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/97/8/4398" target="_blank">London taxi driver study</a>, which found that drivers, who have to memorize the entirety of the city to pass a rigorous test, have larger GMV in the brain's posterior hippocampi (spatial memory and navigation) than non-taxi drivers. This line of argument has also been <a href="https://psychcentral.com/news/2015/01/24/meditation-shown-to-alter-gray-matter-in-brain/80342.html#:~:text=Meditating%20for%20just%20eight%20weeks,Massachusetts%20General%20Hospital%20(MGH)." target="_blank">used by meditation researchers</a>, who have extrapolated from GMV volume to argue that meditation helps increase memory and empathy while decreasing stress. </p><p>Back to correlation and causation. Taxi drivers must study street maps for years; mediation is a specific discipline that has measurable effects on the nervous system (beyond grey matter). In both cases, the subjects have changed their relationship to their environment, thus hinting at correlation. If anything, you can argue environmental changes <em>cause</em> changes in GMV. </p><p>Raznahan's study is looking at genetic differences, yet environment still plays a role. The data was pulled from the U.S. and UK, predominantly white, wealthy countries. Comparing that data to other sets in African or Asian countries, for example, could result in a Bell Curve-type controversy—gender studies are already controversial enough. How then do you study biology when everything is polarized? </p>
Dozens of women and men attend a rally and march in Washington Square Park for International Women's Day on March 8, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images<p>One political party in America grows angry any time a connection between income disparity and ethnicity is made. We seem unable to move beyond this political wedge, especially since it fires up the base, yet it holds the key to freeing scientists to take a holistic approach. You can't <em>only</em> look at changes in brain function when contemplating social differences. But you can investigate such differences if you're trying to understand brain disorders—the focus of Raznahan's work.</p><p>The gender question might always be with us. In 2014, Fallon Fox, a transgender MMA fighter, <a href="https://www.bjjee.com/articles/transgender-mma-fighter-who-broke-female-opponents-skull-are-we-getting-too-politically-correct-with-reality/" target="_blank">broke Tamikka Brents's skull</a> during a match. Brents later said she had "never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night." There are real biological differences between men and women. Arguing against that is antithetical to good science. </p><p>Neuroscience will remain a sticky topic for some time, however. The methods for measuring blood flow and brain volume are, as Davis suggests above, more art than science. Until better measuring sticks are developed for understanding brain functionality, the field will be more speculative than declarative. That's okay: scientists need to fail in order to grow. In a time when even minor failures result in ostracism, however, that's a tough line to walk. </p><p>Environment always matters. Humans are the products of the spaces they inhabit. Genetic disorders aside, our chemistry is linked to our environment. When neuroscience is able to utilize brain scans in conjunction with sociology, real progress will be possible. Until then, controversies will abound, even where they should be none. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>