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« Writing a Book Redux | Main | Surfin' Ignominy »

June 23, 2003

The Evo-Bio of Impressionism, Part I

Michael:

In many posts since we started this blog we’ve predicted that evo-bio would begin to impact how we view our own culture. In a series of posts I’d like to offer a small demonstration of how that might work by discussing the way in which changing relations between the sexes in the 19th century affected Impressionist art.

The French Revolution, in addition to ushering in nearly a century of political turmoil in France, also ushered in a quieter—but perhaps more humanly significant—shift. Starting in the 1790s, French women were the first in the world to deliberately and significantly limit their national birthrate via contraception—and not as a passing response to war, famine, pestilence, etc., but as a permanent part of a new reproductive order. From 1790 to 1850 the average number of children born to French women fell from approximately 5 to 3.5.

The fact this shift occurred is unquestionable; the reasons for it are still debated vigorously. It wasn’t, for example, because of dramatic reductions in infant mortality: those only came as a result of Pasteur’s “microbe revolution” of the 1870s. Other public health changes may have played a role in reducing the perceived need for spare children, such as the gradual lengthening of the average French lifespan during the 18th century—from a truly horrific 25 years in 1700 (life in Louis XIV’s France was nasty, brutish and short) to 35 years in 1800 (still several years less of the average British or American lifespan.)

Political conditions undoubtedly played a role. After the Terror and during the Napoleonic Empire, French society's treatment of sex underwent a “libertarian” interlude; both divorce and prostitution were legalized, while the influence of the Church was greatly reduced. The net result may have been to provide loose enough social conditions to permit the knowledge of contraception to spread and for women to begin to rebel against traditional value systems that relegated them to roles as baby factories.

J. L. David, Cupid and Psyche, 1817

Economic factors also seem to have played a role. France grew economically at only half the rate of Great Britain at the start of the 19th century, and even slower relative to Germany or the U.S. at the century’s end. Without limitations on fertility, living standards for the French middle and upper classes might well have fallen in absolute terms. This may explain why the trend towards restricted fertility seems to have originated within the bourgeoisie.

Economic incentives certainly encouraged the spread of contraception among the peasantry. France was a largely agrarian country with no tradition of primogeniture, and there was a need to reduce number of children born in the countryside so as to prevent farms from being splintered by inheritance, thus causing whole families to slide out of the landowning class. Economic factors also explain why the haute bourgeoisie and wealthy aristocrats were “holdouts” from the trend to restricted fertility; apparently plentiful children became a form of conspicuous consumption for the rich. It also explains the continued high fertility of the urban poor, who—until the advent of child labor laws late in the century—found children to be an economic resource.

Still, as economically sensible as restricted fertility may have been, it seems to have created great tensions in French society, or more precisely, among French middle class men, whose women appear to have been the leaders of this unprecedented reproductive job action.

G. Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864 (Detail)

Peter Gay, in his book “Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle Class Culture 1815-1914” catalogues a few of the cultural signs of this tension:

A sizable menu of anxious responses by Victorian males facing what appeared to them Amazons on the warpath…were defenses in the decades when a few bold feminists advocated the extension of the suffrage to women and made unheard-of-demands for a share in the workplace…It was a time when the brothers Goncourt, prolific writers and diarists, dreamt…dreams of castration: Jules about a man whose nose drops to the ground, Edmond seeing a woman with a vagina dentate…It is striking how the nineteenth century, most conspicuously in its second half, witnessed a revival of ancient legends starring the devouring female—Eve, Delilah, Cleopatra, Messalina, Judith, Salome…The [female] sphinx of antiquity had been a murderous monster that Oedipus had conquered at long last. But in the nineteenth century, writers and painters experimented with reversing the traditional tale by making the Sphinx the victor…In the early 1860s, Gustave Moreau painted a…scene in which the Sphinx claws a virile Oedipus. It was this theme, bellicose woman as triumphant, that had informed Keats’s La belle dame sans merci; Heine’s seductive siren, the Lorelei; Prosper Merimee’s evil gypsy Carmen…; Swinburne’s Lady of Pain, Dolores. In the hands of such artists, modern women were a castrating tribe.”

I think, however, when Mr. Gay cites the cause of this anxiety as the demands of a few bold feminists, he is making a common error. That is, he is seeing the challenge in terms of the impacts of the first tentative demands of feminism on men’s world-view, rather than in the extremely pervasive, sustained and serious challenge facing men’s genes. (Remember, prior to 1870, infant mortality was still quite high, so restricted fertility was a direct threat to a man’s reproductive success.)

As I said before, this was an unprecedented situation in world history. In pre-modern France the same problem—i.e., inadequate financial resources available to support unchecked population growth—had been solved by delayed marriage, and, even more effectively, by part of the population forgoing marriage altogether (thus explaining the significant social role of convents, monasteries and religious orders in medieval France). But at least having successfully demonstrated reproductive fitness by getting rich enough to marry, medieval men could look forward to a period of unchecked access to their spouses’ fertility. Not so in the 19th century.

Recent scientific advancements have detailed how intensive the “battle” between the sexes at the reproductive level can be. Females throughout the animal kingdom, including those from ‘monogamous’ species, have to limit how many resources they put into each individual offspring, so as to stay healthy and to be able to invest in other existing or potential offspring. (They may also want to keep some “spare” reproductive potential available in case the opportunity to mate with a superior male comes along.) Males, on the other hand, invest less time and energy in their offspring and are not exposed to the risks of childbirth, thus tending to favor a “quantity” approach to reproduction (with as many partners as possible) to maximize the spread of their genes. They may also want to keep their mates reproductively “occupied” to minimize opportunities for spousal adultery and thus to minimize the chance of investing resources in other men’s children. (The advent of DNA testing has demonstrated once again that this risk is always greater than recognized by polite society.)

This “battle” goes on even in the womb. To give one example of many, the placenta (the organ nourishing the fetus in the womb) is constructed from genes inherited from fathers. The equivalent gene that is inherited from mothers is turned off. Why? It appears that the placenta isn’t a maternal organ at all, but rather a fetal organ designed to drill into the maternal blood vessels and then release hormones to raise the mother’s blood pressure and blood sugar level. The goal: to maximize the fetus’ nutrition—if necessary, at the expense of the mother’s health. The mother’s body then fights back by raising its insulin levels to conserve food resources. (Perhaps you’ve noticed that the largest babies are those borne by women suffering from pregnancy-related diabetes.) So the notion of a conflict of interest between the sexes is no myth; it gets played out in every pregnancy, even as both sexes ‘cooperate’ to reproduce.

And this ‘conflict of interest between the sexes’ reached epic proportions during the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III. As Alain Plessis notes in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire 1852-1871”:

Throughout the [2nd] Empire, the average annual growth rate [in population] was a bare 0.27 per cent, a progression twice as slow as in the age of Louis Philippe [the 1830s]…This was not due to a decrease in the number of marriages—a figure that remained fairly stable—but to the restriction in the number of births in French families.

To give a point of comparison, Europe’s overall population growth around the year 1900 was roughly 1.5% a year—six times the French rate during the 2nd Empire. Surely such a disparity came to attention of well-educated French bourgeois men.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, the 2nd Empire (1852-1871) was the era in which the New Painters—Manet, Degas, Renoir, Morisot, etc.--arose, some of whom went on to become Impressionists under the Third Republic. If the “reproductive tension” of bourgeois marriages was at its peak under the 2nd Empire, it should be visible in the New Painting. Is this the case?

In a word, yes. And in my next posting, I’ll lay out the evidence.

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at June 23, 2003




Comments

I just love these posts. They are fascinating. I actually always feel I need a few days to digest them. But is calling this "evo bio" intended to mean that the spread of men's genes is just, uh, "in their genes?" Because I do agree with you---I think the fact that men were less invested parents, did not have to endure pregnancy or survive childbirth, had to do with their greater enthusiasm for more offspring. But...that would be behavioral and psychological (conveying a certain rather towering lack of empathy for their mate) rather than evo bio. I mean--if it was just "in their genes" then it wouldn't matter if they had to raise the kids, too---they'd still want to spread their genes around as much as possible. Right?

Posted by: annette on June 23, 2003 7:44 PM



Uh, no. If you're given a certain amount of calories and you expend a lot of them on each kid, you're going to have a different set of incentives than if you expend a very small number of calories on each kid.

And one of the main points of evo-bio is that these genetic incentives work themselves out through instincts and built-in mental biases, not by genetic "remote control." Clearly, the alignment of human conscious thought and genetic "logic" is by no means perfect--I'm guessing the effect of the genes comes out in behavior only in a sort of probablistic fashion.

Nonetheless, human males are not in the same situation as, say, many male animals who do not invest in nurturing their children at all. And remember, the unhappiness of the French men was the result of their inability to be a father to more children, not on their unhappiness with their paternal responsibilities.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 23, 2003 11:04 PM



Well, but it was your own comment, unless I misunderstood, that they didn't invest all that much in their parental responsibilities, so there wasn't all that much to be unhappy about. And that may be why they wanted more children. That the full "consequences" of that, in terms of time and risk, were not theirs.

Posted by: annette on June 24, 2003 1:59 AM



Where did you get that info about the placenta? That's amazing.

Posted by: Xhenxhefil on June 26, 2003 2:15 PM






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