Tag Archives: Ongka

The “Big Man”: Male linguistic deficit and female linguistic superiority

It is hard for a person who thinks about, knows a little about, evolution to reconcile the seeming contradiction that females should be smarter than males, particularly in the language arts, knowing what we know about brain development in mammals. This is because, while there are great writers and speech makers among women, there are more men famous in these area. We can reasonably assume that the greater number of famous male authors and famous male speeches through Western history is due to bias imposed by the patriarchy. We know this because the numbers have shifted to something much more like equality in recent decades. But it is still hard to see how, if women are expected to be better than men on average in using words, that this supposed biological fact does not show itself somewhere, or somehow.

It is easier for a person who studies behavioral biology to get this. Colnsider Big Men in cultures that have formal Big Men. There are of course big men (small b, small m) in all soceities, in some way, but the role of a man as a Big Man is especially clear in societes that have a word for it, and a social and political position so defined. One of the great and classic ethnographic examples Ongka, a New Guinea big man from a tradition region, the star of a documentary called Ongka’s Big Moka. Ongka is a Big Man, a leader among men, seen as the Big Man for a large community which is in bellicose relationship with neighboring groups. In the documentary, Ongka devises an attack on his neighbors, in which he will attempt to defeat their Big Man. The attack requires the accumulation of a huge store of valuable goods, which includes Australian cash, a Land Rover, many bushels of Yams, and large numbers of rare forest bird feathers and domestic pigs. During the course of accumulating this wealth, Oka talks, and talks, talks. Ongka incessantly shows up ina aprt of the villafge, and talks about how he is the Big Man, and how he with the help of the villagers will defeat the neighboring Big Man1. Ongka shows up, gives his speech, and leaves with some pigs to add to his larder, and some yams, which will be used to feed the pigs. He may get a feather or two. And, over the months of time during which this happening, the polygenous Ongka adds a wife or two a well.

Eventually Ongka is ready to defeat his neighbor, and a ceremony is arranged. The two men face off. This is not a symmetrical battle, this is Ongka on the offense, and the man he is going after absorbs the attack, survives or loses, but has the option of attcking back at a later time. Ongka gives the biggest and baddest speech of them all, but the speech is not to ask for help, but to accompany what has been laid out. The feathers, pigs, yams, money, and Land Rover have all been arranged to look quite impressive. No marketing rep at Target could do a better job at making the goods look so good. This is the a largest Moka (that is what the ceremony is called) anyone can remember. Ongka’s Bit Moka has defeated his enemy, and Ongka tells him so in the last chapter of this round of his Big Man narrative.

This may look like a man being great at what men are great at, giving speeches that get him goods, mates, fame, and power. That would be the more naive or amateur evolutionary view of the thing. But if we add one level of theoretical sophistication to the model, we might see that this is actualy a man being good at what men are handicapped at. Linguistic skill is more easily come by in women than in men. Traditionally, remedial reading programs are frequented by boys, not girls. Typically, UN simultaneous translators are more often women than men. In many societies, women move at marriage between groups, and in places where language areas are small and heterogeneously mixed up, many young girls are expected to quickly learn, if not already have, high proficiency with a language that was not her birth language.2 In mammals, all males are females that have become masculinized to varying degrees in development, and in the brain, this masculinization can not be done by adding structure, function, or features, but only by literally wiping out brain tissue. It is thought that this process goes a bit farther in some boys, ultimately causing modest language related deficits. The details and degree to which this happens is not well understood, but it is generally agreed that it happens. Baby girls have better hearing discrimination of language phonemes than do boys. Average starting age for linguistic (verbal and reading) milestones are earlier for girls than boys. And so on.

So from a behavioral biological point of view, Ongka is handicapped, and is overcoming his handicap by being very very good at a behavior in which men tend to be limited relative to women. There is a great deal of theory and study surrounding the “handicap principle” (look up Zahavi’s Handicap Principle). If he can do that mentally, he must be an exceptional male, at the high end of the bell curve for the men in his society. No wonder he gets the extra yams.

I know I’ve been a little disdainful in this essay of amateur evolutionary thinkers. Let me be clear: I love amateur evolutionary thinkers. The non-specialists who take on evolutionary biology as an interest are in many areas more important, and their activities more impactful, than actual evolutionary biologists when it comes to preserving and sometimes even saving science from religiously or politically driven attacks. That is very much appreciated. The average actual biologist is a lab rat or a field drone, collecting data, running it through the peer review process, usually ignoring and maybe being unaware of the “war on science” carried out by the right win in congress, right wing parents in vulnerable school districts, and all those yahoos on the Internet. If it weren’t for the non-scientists who happen to love science, we would be doomed. But at the same time, people want to know the details, understand the nuances, and enjoy learning more things about the thing you know about already. So that’s what this is.

Here’s Ongka’s Big Moka:

  1. To be accurate and clear, I don’t actually know what Ongka is saying in these speeches, it is not clear in the documentary, but I’d like to find out.  ↩︎
  2. She and most others in her society probably already had familiarly with most or all of the languages spoken in the region, but it is only women that have to rely for their own social comfort or even safety to become proficient at their new family’s primary language and dialect.  ↩︎