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Paul Seabright, The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present

Paul Frijters
p. 265-268
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Paul Seabright, The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, 256 pages, ISBN: 9781400841608

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Crédits : Princeton University Press

1In this entertaining pop-science book, Paul Seabright takes us through the current state of play on the question of differential access to economic resources between men and women. His basic story is that in the hunter gatherer period, women were more vulnerable because they bore the children and were stuck with them through long child-rearing, meaning that the men would have had more bargaining power since they could wander off to hunt protein and they could threaten women and their children more effectively with violence. So the men by and large got to call the shots, though not to the extent possible in the agricultural era where women could effectively be imprisoned and taken completely for granted. In the modern era, Paul argues, this male advantage has disappeared with contraception that frees women from the fear of pregnancy following sex, and with the nation state having taken over the business of protecting women. Now it is women who hold the scarce resource, their wombs, and the advantage of men in hunting (work) is no longer that large or important given the roughly equal levels of talent amongst women who can thus hunt themselves. This leads Paul Seabright to say that the future looks bright for the prospects of equality of control over economic resources, though he would like some state intervention to help us get there more quickly.

2In between this central, and familiar, story line, Paul Seabright makes the economic case for sexual advertising, i.e. as a rationally understood signal of the quality of ones DNA. He makes the case that any innate differences in the sexes will have been the outcome of the interactions during the 6 million years we split off from other primates, and that we hence should not mistake the social codes and norms we live under today from being anything more than an unintended by-product of proclivities fashioned for a much longer hunter-gatherer era. He makes the case that there is little difference in observed talent between men and women, and humorously tackles the various misconceptions doing the rounds on gender wars.

3My favorite joke in this book is Seabright’s observation that philandering politicians, like Bill Clinton, make perfectly fine statesmen quite independent of their marital infidelity and that there is no reason to be uptight about it. I might add that politicians who pursue power in order to appeal to young women are exactly what you want to see in a democratic system: these politicians would probably bargain anything for the position of chief DNA-selector, including promising and enacting any legislation that the population wants. The societal bargain—political status that comes with consenting desirable young women in return for optimal policies—seems pretty ideal. It is hard to think of a better motivational structure for politicians that one can really trust in and it is easy to think of worse. You can hence see that Paul has lived in France long enough to look with bemusement at the prudity in the US, his country of origin! You can see that influence also in his policy proposals at the end—that we should force employers to have a minimal ratio of women on their candidate-shortlists for jobs, a big-government solution that fits his current domicile but that strikes me as a tad naïve as I expect its only real effect will be more government jobs and no change in hiring behaviour.

4Joking at cultural differences aside, this is an enjoyable read, for both the general public and the intellectuals. What makes it a good book for intellectuals is that Paul does not pander to the audience as he almost unerringly chooses the most likely explanation from those on offer and argues his case no matter what he suspects the audience wants to hear. So go out and buy it!

5What makes the book a little lightweight are a few loose ends and the lack of clear new storylines in this book. Paul Seabright is wondering through a vast forest of observations, spotting little paths everywhere and picking the ones that look to go in the right direction, now and then discarding leaves along the way, but he clears no new paths nor does he put up new signposts.

6One loose end is the business of advertising, which he describes as a highly rational form of signaling of the form “by wasting bodily energy on these huge boobs you can tell I am probably also more fertile”. The logic works up to a point, but misses the whole branch of advertising that works by group and imaginative association, where products and people are made to seem attractive by the context in which they appear. Think of grandfathers being persuaded to buy a shaving cream that is used by a handsome young actor on television : it is not reasonable to assume that the grandfather knows how much the actor gets paid and hence how good the product must be to afford this kind of advertising waste. Much more likely, the grandfather likes to think of himself as associated with youth when buying the shaving cream. Or, yet more likely, that the grandmother who actually buys the cream is doing so because she likes the association! Hence, the connection between the basic associative memory system of the brain (involving imagined outcomes as well as real ones) and advertising for products and people is missed in this book, which is inevitable if one sticks to a rational economic man line in which associations with imagined but nevertheless impossible fantasies do not exist, but is a hindrance when trying to take advertising seriously. Given that we currently seem to be ‘out of evolutionary equilibrium’, it is not reasonable to say that such associative advertising too must be evolutionary fit in any sense, and hence the rational economic man explanation for it does not apply.

7A more important loose end is that of groups and attachments. One of the main observations Paul Seabright makes when trying to explain the glass ceiling preventing women from rising to the top is that in modern companies and organizations, men are more likely to be at the top as they flit more often from group to group than women. He attributes this greater dynamism in male networks to ‘weaker ties’ amongst men and gives it an evolutionary rationale (women can’t run away from their babies!).

8What Seabright fails to realize is that his own story of hunter gatherer societies would predict the exact opposite from weak ties amongst men in interactions with other adults: as he notes, it is more normal in the hunter-gatherer societies we know for the females to be exchanged between bands and for the men to form a cohesive group of protectors. Hence, from an evolutionary perspective, it is the men that seemingly form the life-long bonds with other men and the women whose loyalty must adapt as they go from group to group. Worse, given that it is more likely that the hunter gatherer groups included brothers than sisters, there is more of an evolutionary reason to have truly strong bonds between the men in these groups as they would be helping their own DNA when defending their brothers, a reason unlikely to hold for the females. Moreover, given that with women there is a relatively simple way to ensure bonding with particular individuals, i.e. the child that is carried for 9 months and whose birth can hence be made to coincide with hormonal changes that promote emotional attachment, but that same is not true for men, the ability of men to engage in strong bonds must have some more abstract basis (such as a joint group ideal) which would also come into play in our modern societies.

9Paul Seabright misses all this when discussing big businesses and networking: he fails to see businesses as made up of overlapping groups, as he falls in to the trap of seeing them as unitary profit-maximizing entities, which makes him see the inability to promote more able women as an anomaly. This means he fails to recognize that start-up companies are overwhelmingly set up and run by individual men and small groups of men; and that most large companies go bankrupt within decades as groups of insider men take them over and suck the business dry of any rents. All this is highly relevant for the observed differences between men and women as it re-casts the problem as one of group behavior: the behavior that would be optimal for an unconstrained individual is not optimal for a group member. But Paul Seabright’s failure to see groups and the process of emotional bonding within them leaves him without the theoretical tools to absorb such information, making him return ‘by default’ to the first-year economics fantasy that companies are essentially rational and should thus only reward productivity lest they go bankrupt. This failure also makes him unable to see the potential emotional and group benefits of such things as idealized ‘gender roles’ and idealized group morality, which makes him dismiss both in his conclusions rather than wonder what the evolutionary basis for ideals and group roles is.

10The final loose end is that, in his conclusions, Paul Seabright falls into the trap of taking it as self-evident that we would be better off in modern economies if we made full use of all the productive talents of everyone, men and women. This despite the fact that he acknowledges the research that claims that women were in fact at least as happy as men when they had less economic power, and the research that claims that there is little happiness benefit to society as a whole of spending even more time and resources on getting richer beyond a certain point. As he himself argues, the whole quest for even greater economic wealth is arguably a cock-fight, not just between men, or even between households, but also between countries. Hence the concluding chapter is disappointingly short on accepting the consequences of his own observations as to the main effect of all this signaling effort for our societies: wasted effort all round that we should not be trying to increase further by reducing the barriers to such time-wasting. A super-income tax just for men would be more in line with what Paul Seabright is actually observing and arguing: something to discourage the wasted effort amongst men at the top whilst not hindering the women who want to join the cock-fight.

11In short, an entertaining read with a refreshingly open look at the recent state of play in anthropology and gender wage differentials, but lacking in real bite. I see this as an in between book where Paul Seabright is working through the literature forests but hasn’t yet settled on a clear path. I believe he is in the right forest but I hope he puts up some useful new signpost to show others the path forward in his next book.

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Référence papier

Paul Frijters, « Paul Seabright, The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present », Œconomia, 4-2 | 2014, 265-268.

Référence électronique

Paul Frijters, « Paul Seabright, The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present », Œconomia [En ligne], 4-2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL :

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Paul Frijters

University of Queensland,

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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