Cats and Gender

Once again, slipped up and clicked some bait, and watched a little video about some wild cats found in a Russian barn. (1) Turns out they were not the little feral kittens the barn’s owner first thought they were, but were rather Pallas’s cats, a fairly rare and people-avoiding wild species. Flatter faces, shorter, rounder ears, stockier build – and a very anti-social attitude, as far as hanging out with people go.

The kittens were really small when discovered. Soft-hearted animal shelter people took them in and found some lactating housecats to nurse them. They grew, after the manner of their kind.

After only a month, the little hellcats were looking to kill things – they wanted meat, not milk. So they were fed meat. The only person who could safely approach them was the staff member who had cared for them since they’d been brought in. Anyone else who got close enough got scratched and bitten.

Image result for russian wild cat
Picture credit. Note the ‘I would kill and eat you if I could’ expression on its face, an expression only found on domesticated cats maybe 50% of their waking hours.

Two of them caught some feline disease and died young.  The other two grew to near full size. This is where the story gets weird, at least to me: by now, some biologists are involved. They throw radio collars on the two young cats and let them loose in the wild.

OK – so here’s the nature/nurture thing: clearly, it is the nature of cats such as these to live far from people and hunt food in the wild. So far, so good. But as sophisticated, intelligent mammals, their raw instincts – hunt and kill food – are shaped into a useful form by their mothers. They have the claws and teeth; they have the instincts to use them – but on what, in this particular environment? How do you find prey? How do you stalk and kill it? Not prey in general, but what’s available in your neck of the woods? They won’t know this unless their mother shows them – a behavior found in many different species of cat.

Lions, tigers, jaguars on down to tiny little cats each get taught not how to hunt in general, but how to hunt what’s available to be hunted. Lions learn to cooperate; tigers how to go it alone. Some jaguars hunt mostly capybaras; others mostly caiman. Some hunt turtles. Some mix it all up – depends on what’s available in your neighborhood. It’s a much different approach, hunting caiman – stalk, swim, ambush or spring, avoid getting killed yourself – than turtles (the shells of which jaguar teeth can pierce – yikes!).  Some prides of lions hunt warthogs and zebras, some hunt baby elephants; some ambush hunt near watering holes, some out on the plains; some mix it up, some stick to a specialty. All learn the basics from mom.

For sophisticated animals like cats, many key instincts are general, and need a lot of formation in the particular context the animals find themselves in to be useful. Mom takes care of that while raising them. She is infinitely qualified, as she has obviously survived to breeding age in exactly that environment.

After a few weeks, the starving wildcats were so thin that their radio collars fell off.  The biologists were nonetheless able to find them (see a problem here?) and bring them in and nurse them back to health. The little clickbait video ended by saying the new plan was to wait until a more opportune time, when prey was most plentiful, and to try the release again.

I’m going: why don’t you just shoot them, then? The possibility that they’ll successfully compete with the other cats and predators in their environment so that they survive the 18 -24 months or so that wild cats tend to live is pretty slim; that they will in turn know enough to avoid their own predators is likewise slim. Better to put them in a zoo or at least keep them caged and fed. They’re almost certainly not going to make it in the wild.

This got me to thinking about human beings, who, on the merely material level, are the most sophisticated and intelligent animals on the planet, current politics notwithstanding. We have a much more complicated set of skills to learn than cats, so complicated that we need around 15 years of childhood to learn them. Like cats, we learn largely from our mothers, at least in infancy, then, as the environments in which we hope to live in long enough to reproduce contain many people in many complex and varied relationships, we need years of Dad and uncles and aunts and siblings and friends and neighbors and cousins and so on to get the hang of surviving in the particular environment we find ourselves in. 

We tend to think in terms of simpler creatures having very strong instincts – wasps do the complex things they do without ever first seeing another wasp do them – and more sophisticated creatures that need to learn things as having weaker and fewer instincts. This is wrong. People, the most sophisticated animals of all, are the most natural and the have the strongest instincts. We are driven to do things as much as any wasp, it’s just that there are more and more sophisticated things we need to do. Our instincts are many, strong and subtle.

Mike Flynn, in a fascinating discussion of the War of 1812 with special attention paid to stalwart heroism of the Hammontree branch of his wife’s ancestors, dwells briefly upon the fault line that ran through the Creek Indians at the time. Those who would adopt and adapt to ways of the white man found themselves opposed to those who would cling to the ways of their ancestors:

The schism within the Creeks is a familiar one. There are muslims today who wish to embrace modern ways, while the Salafi (as their name implies) wish to return to a storied original life of the Prophet and his Companions. The ancient Jews, confronted with classical civilization, likewise split into traditionalists and Hellenizers; as did similarly the Japanese when confronted with the West. Everywhere we find those who want to emulate the Other and those who want to emulate a turtle and exclude them. One finds a certain amount of sympathy and even admiration for both the liberals and the conservatives; understanding for both the collaborators and the resistance; a hope for the future and a reverence for the past.

I mention this here as a illustration of what human instincts have to deal with. There are no schisms among cats or wasps. Wasps have not evolved to adapt, as far as we can tell (2) – daughters do not question their mother’s course of laying eggs in a live caterpillar – if it was good enough for mom, it’s good enough for daughters. Cats have evolved to adapt, at least insofar as many species clearly have spread to different areas over time, and thus may find themselves faced with needing to hunt different prey to survive. A cat’s instincts are flexible enough to allow the kids to learn from mom, who may have moved out of the territory she was raised in, to hunt what’s available here and now. If the kittens’ instincts were as inflexible as the wasps’ appear to be, they might insist on hunting the prey available where mom came from, not where she and they are now. This would be bad.

Humans adapt all the time. We talk about culture shock as if it’s a new thing. As Flynn illustrates above, we humans are constantly balancing a desire for the security of tradition with a need to adapt to new conditions. Often, the choice to stick to traditions is an illusion – things are going to change whether we like it or not. Similarly, what we think we’re embracing when we choose the Future(tm) is most often not, exactly, what we get. Not only did the conservatives among the Creek loose their past, but the liberals didn’t get the Future they had hoped for either.

So it goes.

Back to baby humans: there are no cultures where it is utterly indifferent whether one is a man, a woman or some claimed other option. Instead, existing societies show their children by example what it means to be a man or a woman. There are no other options. Adults may have a larger or smaller variety of roles reserved for their sex, with larger or smaller areas of overlap, but there simply do not exist any cultures where it is simply irrelevant in all cases whether an individual is a man or a woman.

That a culture needs mothers and fathers to survive should be bleedingly obvious, so obvious that it takes years of specialized indoctrination training to miss it. Here, I’m using culture in the meaningful sense of something that survives over generations. To call something a culture when it has not in practice nor cannot in theory survive from generation to generation except parasitically to a real culture is Newspeak.

A human child has very powerful instincts. Since people considered naturally are tribal – are some mix of herd and pack animals unique to humans – among our most basic instincts must be the desire to fit in. A child’s need to be a part of his tribe is not a general, theoretical fitting in, but rather highly specific: what role among those I see before me will I fill when I’m big? All parents are familiar with how children will imitate adults in their play. In our culture, having boys play at male roles and girls play at female roles was a happy given, with more or less benign indulgence, for the most part, given to kids who wanted to play at the other sex’s roles, at least when they are young. (3)

The point here is that nobody grows up alone, nobody has free pick of any and all possible existing or potential roles in a culture any more than he has free pick among any and all present or theoretical languages. As Chesterton points out, all art starts with drawing a line somewhere. To become anything definite, one must accept definitions. The poor soul who wishes to pretend to be unlimited potential will eventually become a very ill-defined actuality.

The other day, was having a chat with a young woman, a professional early in her career. We were talking about family, and she mentioned that, while many of her friends had children and she hoped to have children herself some day, she was going to put it off for a while. I was struck by the lack of any mention of husbands or marriage in this discussion. I shouldn’t have been, upon reflection. In this corner of the world, few children grow up as part of an intact, extended family, where there is not only a mother and father but many married men and women among the uncles and aunts and relatives and friends, where the big family events are marriages and child births and deaths, where strong relationships not of our choosing make up the foundation and joy of our lives.

This whole Newspeak gender infatuation is what one would expect if all family relationships are destroyed and all judgements (however reasonable and evident) about who does what are viewed as acts of violence and oppression.

What about the children? They are not blank slates, but their very real individual personalities include the instinct to belong, to find a role for oneself within the community, whose smallest unit is not the individual, but the extended family. Belonging to a culture means and always has meant belonging to an extended family. Roles within an extended family are flexible but not infinitely so. Lines are drawn as part of the art of living well.

Now we have collections of individuals playing at being families and raising children who feel that any act of definition is an act of violence and oppression. Any suggestion that a girl might want to grow to be a woman or a boy might want to grow to be a man is met with scorn, to the point where any assertion that people come in two flavors, men and women, is greeted as shocking heresy. The price for this reckless disregard for reality is first paid by the children, who come to face their adolescent sexual desires with no guidance or foundation and no role models. What am I? If this is left an open question on the fundamental sexual level, only misery can result. This is an observation, not a theory.

Kids don’t have one consistent set of parents (one of each, thank you); there is no extended family full of married people in their lives. Kids have gone to few if any weddings; fewer christenings. I know people who will not visit grandma in the nursing home, and won’t go to a funeral because it’s too depressing and what difference does it make?

We are raising a generation – actually, we’re on our third in a row, now – who, like those Pallas’s kittens, are being released in a world for which nothing in their lives has prepared them. The kittens merely die; these feral children can bring down the house on their and our heads.

This battle is framed up as forward-looking people embracing the future, and hide-bound traditionalists with their heads in the sand. That the world is changing no one will deny; that it can be changed into anything we want without disastrous consequences is the real question. Just as it is insane to imagine a new thing called gender and pit it against the reality of sex, it is hubris to imagine we can simply dictate the future, can create a culture anybody would want to live in simply by willing it so. It is not conservative to insist words have meanings – it’s simple sanity. If words don’t have meaning, then we are not having this (or any other) conversation, and all that’s left is the shooting.

Newspeak debases language in order to prevent thought. Using gender for concepts outside the study of languages is classic Newspeak, intended to prevent even thinking about the reality of men and women. Everything good is that way because it is something in particular. To be human is to be a man or a woman. (4) To find this oppressive is to side with the fallen angels, who found being what they were made to be, however glorious, nonetheless intolerable.

  1. There needs to be a new admonition beaten into the heads of all young men, something like: ‘maintain custody of your mouse’.
  2. I hedge a little here, as wasps have spread at least as far as cats, and so have adapted to different prey and conditions as well. The difference is that individual cats of the same species often have vastly different hunting behaviors, while among wasps such variety seems to require (or result in?) speciation – within a species, one doesn’t see that much variety. But my knowledge of wasps here is slight and superficial – I may be completely wrong – is there an entomologist in the house?
  3. What I mean: a boy toddler playing at nursing a doll is most likely going to get a minimal reaction from mom and dad, unless he makes a big show of it. Pressure may get worse as he gets older. In a similar way, my own mother was very athletic and always wanted to play sports with the boys. She was indulged when little. Eventually, as the boys got bigger, she started coming home with bruises and sprained ankles, which earned her mother’s ire. She was forbidden to play sports with the boys. She did anyway, for a while, taking care to breeze into the house as if nothing was the matter, saving the tears and hiding the sprains and bruises until she was alone. Eventually, she moved out to California – and rode horses and skied. When she was pregnant with her first child, she gave it all up. She had assumed her role. I don’t think she considered it a tragedy – it was just what one did.
  4.  Yes, I know of the rare cases in which, genetically, a person might not be clearly male or female. I’m also aware of people born without legs. Doesn’t mean walking is a social construct.



Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

19 thoughts on “Cats and Gender”

  1. A girl I knew from high school went off on Facebook because a man told her – as a compliment, mind – that she would one day make a good housewife.

    This was, of course, extremely insulting and sexist. I have no doubt this same person would also say that being a housewife is a choice, not inferior, there’s nothing actually wrong with it if you want to do it, etc., etc…

    But when push came to shove, you can rest assured, SHE would not be confined to be a mere *housewife*. How degrading.

    1. One of the teachers at school was aghast that a girl expressed the desire to get married and have a bunch of kids. I was saddened not so much by the teacher’s mindless feminism as by my knowledge that the girl had come from a horribly messed-up home, and was basically dreaming she could have what she didn’t have as a child.

      1. We were required to state our life goals in high school, as one of those “set a goal because successful people have a goal when they’re 14” things.

        I tried several different ways to state “I want to be a MOM.”
        That wasn’t OK. I had to pick a GOAL.
        I can’t even remember if I ended up writing “teacher” or “librarian” or what…..

        But I got the message: I wasn’t fit to be a wife.
        I wasn’t fit to be a mother.

        Shocked the heck out of me when my husband proposed anyways. 😀
        Shocked me even more that I ended up having a “bunch” of kids, not the Mandatory One or One Of Each…because I rather like my husband. And my kids. And I want there to be more folks like them.

      2. In fact, the girl is uncommonly sane. Most people who come from a messed up home repeat the mistakes of their parents. And perhaps she did; I hope not.

        But at least she was rational enough to recognize that there *was* a superior option, and the aghast teacher you mention was doing a wicked thing by trying to crush that dream.

      3. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t more like city kids reading National Velvet and deciding they want a horse. They admire something admirable, but they have no idea what it involves.

        One of the things we have always done is keep our house open to all these kids, so that they can get some experience of a functioning family. This particular girl vanished from our lives after she graduated high school. We’d text and call once in while, especially our daughters who were friends with her, and, like with everyone else in her family, get very intermittent and non-committal responses – when she deigned to respond at all. It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen her. Tragic, but not surprising.

      4. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t more like city kids reading National Velvet and deciding they want a horse. They admire something admirable, but they have no idea what it involves.

        Indeed – but even the admiration of something admirable is a start. One who wants a horse because they love animals and think the country looks like a good place to live is superior to one who grows up in the city and disdains rural folk as backwards hicks.

        This is why your actions on this front are admirable, by the way. It’s probably the best way forward for such kids.

      5. Thanks. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time – started out as having our kids’ friends over, but then my wife and I noticed the desperate need for some normalcy in the lives of these kids, and tried to make sure they felt welcome any time. Some of our older kids’ friends still do drop by.

  2. I once saw an amazing documentary in school (It happens, sometimes!) about the reintroduction of tigers into Africa.

    They took two tigers – they had names, but let’s call them Adam and Eve, since I can’t remember them – were going to be released on a big nature preserve. Well and good.

    But they handled it very differently than the geniuses you mention in this article. They actually spent several months *training* the tigers how to be wild. It was fascinating. They literally had to teach them how to hunt, how to be aggressive, how to avoid danger.

    It was also a little terrifying, too, because the handlers were brave, brave men. They stressed how important it was that, until they left, they had to be the ones who allowed the tigers to eat, or else the tigers would usurp them as leaders. So there were times where they were literally in a tug of war with a tiger for food!

    Ultimately it ended with Adam and Eve being released and tracked; I think they did well at first. The experiment was still ongoing. I don’t know how it turned out. I hope well.

    But their approach was VERY different.

    1. (Googling it now, it seems the documentary I watched was probably about one of two things – one being the introduction of a hybridized form of tiger into Africa, something criticized because of limited conservation value, and the other about “re-wilding” Chinese tigers so they can be released back into the wild in China again eventually. Interesting either way!)

    2. Big cats are very intelligent, so this might work. Also, if they introduced them into an area with no other big cats, that’s a plus, as they would not lose a turf war and they have no other real predators. There are no doubt any number of larger predators who would happily eat a Pallas’ cat. Tigers, not so much. So, it might work.

      Only one problem: tigers are not native to Africa – sure it wasn’t either lions, or the place was Asia somewhere?

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