Saturday, April 06, 2013


One of my pet peeves is the abuse of the term 'hypergamy', which seems to be spreading like a parasite. A recent offender is James Taranto in the WSJ:

Why? People who go to Princeton or another elite university have a revealed preference for education and intellectual development. Because the female sex drive is hypergamous, Princeton women, as Patton asserts, will be attracted to men who are their cognitive or educational equals or superiors. Beyond the confines of the Ivy League such men certainly exist, but we are far less thick on the ground.

There are actually two senses of the term 'hypergamy' that are in use and whose conflation is making the problem worse. One of these senses is anthropological, and it is reasonably well-defined, useful, and established by evidence. Hypergamy in this sense is about marriage practices in the context of a society, and is the same thing we usually are talking about loosely and colloquially when we say that someone 'married up'. It does not have much to do with sex at all; many of the most clearly hypergamous societies are societies in which arranged marriages are standard: the usual hypergamous norm in such cases consists of parents marrying their daughters to the sons of families that have a higher social status than their own. You will notice immediately that it indicates a normative custom that is part of the structure of a society; it is the society that determines what counts as higher status and lower status, it is the social expectations and institutions that constitute its normative character. It is a genuine causal explanation; by saying that a society is hypergamous, one is saying that there is a fairly well-defined way of determining status in that society and that marriages tend to be status-asymmetric. In general by convention, we assume (where there is no other indication) that 'hypergamy' means that women marry into higher-status families, and 'hypogamy' means that women marry into lower-status families. (There are societies structured either way; and, for that matter, there are societies that where one group's norm will be hypergamous and another's hypogamous.) Societies structured on hypergamy for women tend to be somewhat more common than the reverse. The account of hypergamy is consistent, however, with the possibility of marriage tending to be hypergamous in both directions. All this requires is some standard or expectation by which one may compare the two directions; and this is, in fact, an extremely common situation, since many societies apportion status to men and women in different ways, so the expectation can be for a woman to end up marrying a man of higher status, as defined for men, and of a woman to end up marrying a woman of higher status, as defined for women. For instance, to take a toy example, a society may be structured in such a way that wealth is status for a man and breeding or education for a woman, and the marriage customs tend to drive men to try to marry women better-educated than they are while women try to marry men wealthier than they are. Hypergamy is the norm for both men and women in this society.

It does seem to be true that societies that are hypergamous for women are much more common than societies that are hypogamous; and that a large portion of societies tend to have stronger hypergamous expectations for women than they do for men. Hypergamy in the anthropological sense is capable of extremely diverse manifestations; there is no one way in which people are hypergamous, because (1) marriage customs vary from society to society; and (2) what counts as higher and lower status has to be defined relative to a given society. This ends up being extremely important when this sense is confused with the second sense, which comes from evolutionary psychology.

I said above that the anthropological sense was reasonably well-defined, useful for explanation, and established by evidence. It is also the literal sense of the term. The e-psych sense, on the other hand, is a metaphor that has never been fixed properly, is highly speculative, and whose explanatory usefulness is highly controversial. It applies, as Taranto's example above indicates, to sex, and thus is detachable from any particular custom. It would have to be biological in nature, it could not be relativized to a society, and would have to be descriptive of unconscious biological tendencies resulting from sexual selection rather than widely recognized social norms, many of which can be formed and disrupted on time scales much smaller than could possibly be useful for an explanation appealing to sexual selection. But this means immediately that we seem to be in the realm of occult causes, unless we can give a clear, precise definition of the 'hyper'. But this is not really forthcoming; the 'higher status mate' is defined in terms of any number of things like 'physical attractiveness', 'health' and 'intelligence', the last of which can be signaled by any of any infinite number of different cues, not always consistent with each other.

Without precision -- which it never really gets -- the e-psych sense runs the obvious danger of collapsing into a tautology. To say that women are hypergamous, for instance, is not obviously different from saying that women tend to mate with the kind of men that women tend to mate with, unless we give some precise meaning to "kind of men" (i.e., status) that is not selected out by seeing what kinds of men women like to mate with. This can be done on a very small scale, point by point. The best and least problematic work of this sort is also the kind of research that returns results everyone knows: both men and women, for instance, tend to prefer mates who are symmetrical in shape and facial form; minor asymmetries like scars, however, tend to have no effect if they do not change the overall symmetry of the face and frame; and although I don't know if there has been any study, one could well imagine a study showing that men, or women, or both, showed a preference for mates with a more symmetrical human form than themselves, and thus a "hypergamous preference" etc. But notice that we are here relativizing, too, not talking about a general hypergamy concept; we're just identifying a feature that is statistically connected to sexual partnering. This is as far as you can get at present on science that is not obviously bad: not hypergamy, but a loose collection of tendencies that could be labeled, if one wanted, with the metaphor "hypergamy". Likewise, the fact that we're really just dealing with statistical associations means that any attempt to use these hypergamy claims as explanations of anything (rather than, say, byproducts or effects) is highly problematic. This is all quite clear if you actually read Buss and the literature critiquing his work.

When someone says, "The female sex drive is hypergamous," they cannot possibly be using it in the well-established anthropological sense. But the way in which Taranto uses it as an explanation requires that it have the kind of causal structure that is possessed by the anthropological sense, and it is (at most optimistic assessment) unclear and controversial whether the evolutionary-psychological sense even has a genuine causal structure at all, and its status as rising above tautology (the female sex drive tends toward things that females find more, rather than less, sexually attractive) is unclear. Now, tautologies are not necessarily useless in explanation, but they don't themselves explain anything; at most they provide limiting constraints. The actual structure of Taranto's explanation, without some precise account of sexual hypergamy, which doesn't exist, is really:

Women at elite schools show, by being at elite schools, that they think education and intellectual development important. Because women tend to have sex with the kind of men women tend to have sexual preferences for, women at elite schools will tend to be attracted to men who are their cognitive equals or superiors.

Saying that this is a complete non sequitur does not quite convey how moronic it is. The revealed preference of women at elite schools is for education at elite schools; it has no necessary connection with their sexual preferences, and if it did, it would have to be established on empirical evidence, not assumed. Likewise, in the reverse direction, we have no way, as long as hypergamy is left undefined, of saying that the kind of revealed preference involved in attending an elite school is itself the kind of thing that could link up with the biological tendencies that would have to make up "the female sex drive". Cognitive equality and superiority is also left undefined, and without a precise definition, there is no way to say how it links up to any supposed female hypergamy. This is a non-explanation masquerading as an explanation.

Incidentally, I can't get over the "we" in the last sentence. First person is completely gratuitous here, so it means that Taranto is going out of his way to classify himself as the "cognitive or educational equal or superior" of the women he's talking about, which is (1) so irrelevant even if true that one wonders what sort of person would even say such a thing; (2) certainly not true on the educational side, since Taranto does not have a top-tier education; and (3) seems a somewhat hasty assumption on the cognitive side without letting us know how cognitive equality, much less superiority, is determined (and in context it could not just be any kind of cognitive scale, but one that could have an effect on the female sex drive!).


  1. This is the sort of post that makes me want to cackle with delight when I see it come up in your feed.

  2. I think you are pretty much completely missing the point, which is that female sex drive is in fact strongly linked to social status. (Whether "hypergamy" is a good label to use for this linkage is a separate question, though it doesn't strike me as any more problematic than all sorts of other technical-jargon-gone-mainstream).

    A philosopher is likely to see this as rather circular, kind of like someone being famous for being famous. But Taranto's perfectly reasonable point, on a charitable reading, is to propose that women who become habituated to the company of very high status men (like the kind at elite universities) are going to quite literally find the vast majority of men - men who are not as high status - unattractive. This is analogous to the notion that men who become habituated to pornography become conditioned to find most real women unattractive. Going to an elite school is, specifically as a sex-drive formative experience women, the equivalent of a man immersing himself in pornography for a similar period of time.

    Now, I'm not sure that either of those are particularly well-established anthropologically, in the sense that lots of social science literature can be cited to back them up. And I'm not even sure that either one is true: does porn really cause men to find real women less attractive?

    But they aren't crazy or stupid or tautological ideas, and most social beliefs held by most people most of the time don't come with social science bibliographies.

  3. branemrys1:14 PM

    No, that was the point I saw; and, again, it's a non-explanation, and because he's giving it an explanatory role, not a reasonable point at all. Reasonable points have to reasonably be capable of doing what they are put forward to do. Your own re-phrasing of it in terms of habituation simply highlights the problem again, although, thankfully, without the pseudo-intellectual nonsense of 'hypergamy'.

    The explanatory role that this is being asked to perform here is questionably coherent at best, involving the arbitrary mixing of social and biological explanation functions; sex drive is quite literally just a biological tendency to sex given genetics, hormones, stress levels, and the like. Identifying social status, however, (unlike identifying pornography) is an extremely complex cognitive activity, arguably one of the most complicated every-day evaluations human beings do. There is no known biological way for "female sex drive" to be "strongly linked to social status"; the only thing that seems to be able to do the work here, in other words, is female social tendency to regard something as status-conferring, which (1) is capable of massive changes in relatively short periods of time; and (2) has to be relativized to conditions rather than treated as a general feature.

    And this doesn't even get into the issues concerned with what ends up counting as the right kind of education, cognitive ability, etc. Most social beliefs held by most people most of the time don't need social science bibliographies precisely because they don't use scientific terms and are simply used to classify rather than explain. Some explanation along these lines is possible; it is very limited. But Taranto's 'explanation' -- or the 'explanation' of anyone who argues like him -- yes, crazy, stupid, tautological.

  4. Zippy6:02 PM

    As far as I can tell, you are simply denying the hypothesis that sex drive in human females is strongly linked to the social status of men. But your denial of the hypothesis doesn't make it the contemptible thing you say it is.

  5. branemrys6:17 PM

    No, that is precisely not what I am doing. It would be pointless to deny the "hypothesis" that sex drive in women is strongly linked to male social status; it's not even remotely specific enough for one to say what it would mean in terms of evidence, and if we approach it the other way, in terms of what evidence we actually have currently available, we don't have any that could make sense of using a claim with its structure as an explanation. As I noted, the problem is in the incoherence involved in Taranto's sort of pompous and pretentious use of non-explanations as if they were explanations.

  6. Zippy9:52 PM

    it's not even remotely specific enough for one to say what it would mean in terms of evidence

    Obviously you are dug in on the point, which makes productive discussion unlikely. But I don't have a problem understanding it as a definite enough concept.

  7. branemrys1:46 AM

    'Dug in' is not the right phrase: 'have presented reasons Zippy doesn't bother at all to address while dismissing the position' would be considerably more accurate. When I've given reasons why it is not specific enough to do the work attributed to it, and why it appears to require attributing explanatory roles to claims not structurally capable of performing them, there is no possibility of a rational response consisting only of "Well, I don't have that problem, so there."

  8. Zippy4:02 PM

    Do you find the sports page just as meaningless?

    Look, I'd respect your position if you argued against the substance of Taranto's point. But you aren't doing that here. As far as I can tell you are treating it as something it is not - a sociology paper - and declaring it meaningless on that basis. Heck, you admit yourself that this particular subject makes you emotional.

  9. branemrys6:52 PM

    This isn't complicated, Zippy. Here is the structure of the discussion so far:

    Post: Taranto is treating the hypergamy claim as having an explanatory structure it clearly cannot have.

    Zippy: This misses the point because Taranto's claim can be 'charitably interpreted' as simply being that female sex-drive is strongly linked to social status.

    Response 1: No, that was the point I thought he was making. The point of my argument is that Taranto is attributing an explanatory role to a position that doesn't seem to have the structure required to fulfill it.

    Zippy 2: In other words, you reject the hypothesis that female sex drive is strongly linked to social status.

    Comment 2: No, it would be pointless to say any such thing; the claim is not specific enough to be able to reject or not. My point is that arguments like Taranto's treat as explanatory a position that doesn't seem to be able to explain in the way they would require.

    Zippy: I don't have any problem with its lack of specificity. This is clearly not going to be a productive discussion.

    Comment 3: Nothing you've said has actually addressed my point.

    Zippy 3: You're just missing Taranto's point!

    Notice that in none of your comments have you actually addressed the argument: when I keep pointing out that the problem is treating a non-explanation as if it were an explanation, you keep changing to a completely different topic and that, except for your original comment. This can easily be confirmed by reading back through your comments. You claimed I got Taranto's point wrong, that his point was X; I agreed that that was what he meant, but pointed out what I had pointed out in the post, which was that it could not do what it has to do in his argument. You then claimed that I was denying X; and I said that I was not, because it was not specific enough to deny or accept, but that it could not do what Taranto needs it to do in his argument. You then still did not address the point. I pointed that out. And then you come back again, and still don't address the point.

    I've already addressed the sports page issue above; you are confusing classification, which sports fans and critics do regularly, and explanation, which they don't do much, and usually only in very limited ways. This is because sports fans and critics, unlike Taranto, know what they are talking about, and don't think that slinging sports lingo makes something non-explanatory into an explanation.

    Given your repeated mischaracterization of my argument and your last two comments, I can only be amused that you think it at all plausible that the problem here is that I am too emotional about the subject.

  10. branemrys9:47 AM

    Well, given that you seem to conflate classification and explanation, and seem to allow just about anything to qualify as an explanation, regardless of whether it actually identifies causes or reasons,I wouldn't be surprised at that at all.


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