Break the Bias

Disclaimer: This article is neither interesting nor appropriate for younger readers. It is about some of the current social evils though there are no graphic details.

Posted on March 08, 2022

Each culture has its version of the origin of the two sexes. The majority of the human population believes in a story that man was created by God and woman was created from the man's rib, so she belonged to him. The man was called Adam, from which the Hindi word aadmi is derived. The ancient Indians had multiple stories about the origin of man and woman and were quite creative and complex. The most popular of these suggests that the first man, Manu, gave birth to Ila. Ila could change the gender from male to female periodically, and in the female form, she could produce offspring. Ila's sons had to rule the world as Ila was ineligible to be a ruler because Ila was not (always) a man. The English word mad traces back to the Indian name Manu. Ironically, the Hindi word aadmi traces its origin to a western name and the English word man to an eastern name. This irony is by no means a coincidence. Hindi has many Persian and Arabic origin words, and English shares a distant ancestor with Sanskrit. Sadly, my language, Telugu, rarely uses the original Telugu words for man and woman in favor of their Sanskrit equivalents. Sanskrit has a significant influence on Telugu people both in terms of vocabulary and (religious) influence. If there was ever a different story in Telugu, it is lost now.

However, I recall a story as told by my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother was born into a socially and financially backward family. She was a beautiful lady who grew up in a patriarchy. She was so shy that she would speak only from the kitchen. I rarely conversed with her for more than a few minutes every time I met her. But once, we all cornered her to tell us a story. In her story, the mother goddess creates a man and asks him to marry her. The man refuses as she is his mother. She creates another man, and the same thing is repeated. The mother goddess then makes the third man and asks him the same question. But the third man agrees to marry her if she gifts him the power of creation and her destructive third eye. Once the man gets his third eye, he burns the goddess into ashes and then divides the ashes into three parts and creates three women for him and his two brothers.

Below is my own account of the same story retold using evolutionary theory. The story is still evolving.

Scientists are still not sure about the definition of life, but they are convinced that reproduction is one of the fundamental characteristics. In the initial stages, reproduction was primarily done by cloning. Mutations produced different species and became a threat to one another. As I write this, we are going through the worst pandemic humans have ever come across, simply because humans are not immune to the Coronavirus. If we were all clones to each other, then it would have been far more devastating. Hence, diversity is and was necessary to survive the threats from everything. Mutations produced variety in species, but it was a slow mechanism. The evolutionary answer to this dilemma was sexual reproduction. Based on the census of all species, extinct or otherwise, the vast majority of them have two genders, with one productive gender and the other unproductive, only to provide a variety of genetic material.

It is not apparent why the two-gender solution is an optimal choice among all the possibilities. Many species still produce through cloning (zebra sharks), and some others can produce without their male counterparts when the need arises (Komodo dragons). And there are species in which every member is productive by exchanging genetic material for the needed diversity. Furthermore, the two-gender solution looks pretty costly. A simple calculation tells us that a mother producing ten (clone) daughters can produce a hundred granddaughters. However, if a mother has five daughters and five (unproductive) sons, she will have only fifty grandchildren and twenty-five (productive) granddaughters. The difference will be drastic with more number of generations. Then, how did sexual production with two genders become most popular? Scientists are still working on a clear answer to this question.

If males are there only to provide genetic diversity, then the difference between physical characteristics between males and females seems unnecessary. The answer to this mysterious question baffled even Darwin, and he proposed something called sexual selection. Sexual selection is an evolutionary mechanism or a trait in which each member of species chooses its mate based on its preference for specific characteristics. Considering that females produce offspring, females of the species often make this choice. Recall all the national geographic and other such programs where the males go to lengths to impress females. In others, males fight to succeed in the mating competition. Scientists theorize that if lions developed more giant manes or peacocks with their elaborate tails, it is because of the individual female choice. The female choice of its mate is as primal as one can imagine.

The story of human genders is even more fascinating. Walking upright may have given the humans their needed advantage in the evolutionary process, but it was costly in other ways. The modified anatomy (of women) resulted in complicated childbirth. To pass through the birth canal, human children need flexibility, and therefore they are born with a more significant number of weaker bones. To the best of my knowledge, human children are the only children that require several months before they are mobile on their own. All this meant that human females became highly dependent on their mates. Human males are not only the providers of genetic variation but also the protectors of their childrearing mates. Ironically, a combination of evolutionary factors and female choice of mates resulted in a physically bigger and stronger male counterpart. This is reminiscent of my great-grandmother's story where the mother goddess voluntarily gifts her powers to the man.

The (female) choice of mate remains a fundamental right and mechanism in our evolutionary story. Even in the last couple of centuries, there are many examples to observe the effect of this choice. On all the Pacific islands discovered by the Europeans, most male chromosomes belonged to Europeans and the female chromosomes to the local islanders. Scientists read this as the female choice for the European mates and their descendants.

I often wondered why most societies consider murder a lesser crime than rape. Killing each other has always been part of human history and, in most cases, justified. However, female consent makes all the difference for an act to be called a crime or otherwise when it comes to mating. Female choice is, after all, an evolutionary force.

Arranged marriages (without the bride's consent), dowry, bride-price, and many other customs may have evolved for different societal reasons but are equally unacceptable when viewed against the above fundamental force of nature. The extreme versions of these show up as honor-killing or female infanticide. Even in the twenty-first century, the interview panels, consisting of eminent professors from premier institutes, take the responsibility of ensuring a wife's salary is less than that of her husband when both of them apply for the same designation. It does not matter if the wife had completed her Ph.D. a few years before her husband. It is supposed to preserve harmony at home. It is not uncommon to see an old bachelor in the applicants, and it is never an issue, but if it is an old spinster, suddenly it becomes a question of her personality.

I am not a fool to believe that there will be absolute equality between the genders. Why should there be? Males are here to provide genetic variation and protect productive gender needs. However, the reality is right opposite. Our inheritance laws have come a long way but remain unfair. With a deceased husband and children, a female inheritance will go to her husband's heirs. We also reached a long way in introducing laws against gender bias. We made it illegal to know the gender of a fetus to avoid female foeticide only to see an increase in female infanticide. We introduce laws against sexual harassment only to see (otherwise) well-meaning men discriminate against women out of fear of lawsuits.

The 2022 International Women's Day theme is "Break the Bias." I hope we rethink our own biases and be part of the movement. Mother goddess has voluntarily given her third eye to the man, and she has been struggling to regain her power. Whether it is the right to vote, work, inheritance, or other things have all been long struggles. And the success is still limited to only a few societies. The list of issues regarding gender inequality is too depressing and far too long. On this International Women's day, let us note that the day is not about celebrating feminity or motherhood but is a focal point in the women's rights movement.