Female hardihood:
Many years ago I was sleeping in a little farmhouse in Sweden when my host awoke me to whisper that it was the hour of the pheasant.  Four of us tiptoed up the stairs to sit in a little gabled window and look down into the back yard, where a lamp had been left on.  Pheasants apparently punch a strict time clock.

Sure enough, on schedule a female thrust her head from the undergrowth and looked around the yard.  Seeing all clear, she moved carefully into the open and began to peck at food that had been left out.  Two or three other females now sauntered casually from cover and began to feed as well.  Our host whispered that the male should come out soon.  Sure enough, the head of a bird darted out of cover and immediately vanished again.  Two more furtive peeks and he kept his head up long enough for a frantic survey and then immediately sped to where the females were dining.  He was a splendid creature, as male pheasants tend to be.  His plumage was rich, colorful and glossy.  He began gobbling food with great haste, barging into the females if they happened to get in the way.  We in the window were delighted.

But I was not impressed with the male.  He seemed to sum up much of what I thought of my fellow male humans; we tend to be brutal, self centered, frantic and cowardly.  I pointed this out more or less and the others assured me that it was not his fault.  Females were protected from hunters but males were always in danger.  If I thought the bird really understood that, my respect for him would increase. 

Women, except when they are in the process of controlling a man in which case there are no rules, have always seemed to me to be patient, well organized, matter of fact, iron willed and carbon fiber composite nerved.  I may have a skewed opinion since the only woman I ever knew well was my mother, and that is more or less a thumbnail sketch of her.  Oh yes, wonderfully affectionate.  I should include that.

But now another childhood delusion has been shattered.  A study has been done comparing the response of male and female rats to stress.  (Stressed Out Females, C. L. NATURE vol. 465 no. 7301 June 24, 2010 page 988 reviewing an article Mol. Psychiatry doi:110.1038/mp.2010.66(2010)) 

It turns out that women are more often impaired by stress, for instance getting depressed, than are men.  If that was all I had been told, I would have said that a woman’s sense of stress is related to her sense that she is not doing what she needs to be doing.  And what she needs to be doing is bringing up children in a nurturing environment that also happens to be a small enough social pool for long term survival.  So her life is complex, necessitating maintaining suitable relationships with both her immediate family and the others in the community.  Then there are certain physiological demands placed on any fertile woman.  I am sure that there are other things they have never told me about.  And of course in the modern world her task is impossible.  Communities have been ripped up, scattered, regrouped and then scattered again.  She may not even know her family out to fifth or sixth cousin.  From the standpoint of evolution, that is disastrous.  It won’t work in the long run.  Of course she gets depressed.

For men it’s simpler.  The women decide which of us runs each of us, and he only has to do what he’s told.  No regrets there.

Of course that all presupposes lifelong monogamy, but as I have pointed out before, that is what evolution has dictated. 

So I would have said.  But now these rogues have stressed male and female rats and found that there was chemical evidence of more stress related chemistry in females than in males even if they weren’t stressed.  The stress only made things worse.

I hate finding out I was wrong.  So let’s see if I can wiggle out of that one.  Maybe the female rats are stressed for the same reason that women are.  They have more or less the same need of a suitable nurturing and stable environment with their kindred, which of course is not what they find routinely in a lab. 


Or maybe they are, yes, for biochemical reasons more susceptible to stress and deserve more credit for how they handle it.

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