From some of the early West’s great tragedies -the Donner Party disaster and the deaths of settlers stranded in the Rockies - anthropology professor Donald Grayson is building a sometimes startling picture of gender differences, of which sex does better in desperate times.
And the quick answer is: women.
In the long, terrible siege of the Donner Party in the Sierra, twice as many males died as females. In a second case, a group of Mormon emigrants stranded by a Rocky Mountain snowstorm in 1856, the death ratio was three males for every female.
But it isn’t just the quick hit that interests Grayson, at the University of Washington in Seattle. He doesn’t think, for instance, that the statistics prove that women make better pioneers. Rather, he thinks the numbers hold clues to the biology that may underlie our respective strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m an archaeologist, first, and I really started thinking about this out on some digs,” he said.
“If we had a problem, clearly the men were best at short-term aggression. If a vehicle got stuck, they’d push it out and the women would watch. But if we got stuck a long time, the men got bitchier and bitchier. And then it was the women who held things together.”
How would that translate, Grayson began to wonder, in an extended crisis: for instance, the George Donner Party, trapped in the snowbound Sierra, in the winter of 1846-47. By the end of six months, 42 people - almost half the original group of 90 - had died in the mountains.
His analysis showed that females were protected by some straightforward biology. First, it’s easier for them to stay warm. They naturally have a higher body fat ratio, an average 27 percent compared with 14 percent. Since fat tends to accumulate directly under the skin, it makes a great insulator.
Second, females are, on average, smaller. Overall, human males tend to be about 17 percent larger. In times of starvation, smaller can be a major advantage - it takes less energy to maintain a slighter body. But it’s actually with the issue of size, that the picture gets more complicated.
Partly because they are larger-framed and have bigger muscles, men tend to do the heavy work. As Grayson noted, male archaeologists were the ones shoving the stuck vehicle. In the case of the Donner Party, the men were doing most of the heavy labor.
“So you have women who are naturally better buffered against these conditions, partly because of their reproductive biology,” Grayson said. “And you have men out there doing the energy-consuming stuff.”
But Grayson suspects there were also other factors working against men in this case.
“Men are the risk-takers,” he said. “No matter where you look, across human societies, risk-taking is higher in males. That’s biological; it’s partly based in reproduction. Women are going to take care of children, take fewer risks.”
That viewpoint is echoed by another researcher who has studied the Donner Party - Stephen McCurdy, an associate professor of occupational medicine at the University of California, Davis.
“Grayson was first on the block with this, and I think he’s right,” McCurdy said. “The fundamental issues seem to be biological. And women are less likely to do dangerous, stupid things.”
McCurdy pointed out that the Donner Party foundered, in part, because of a decision to veer off the usual route through the Sierra, hoping for a shortcut. “They were trying to save time, using an unknown route,” he said.
“But, speaking personally, I can’t imagine any woman, who had her children with her, choosing an unknown, risky route. I don’t want to knock my own sex, but that’s a male decision.”
xxxx The female advantage Biology. Women are smaller, requiring less energy, and have a higher ratio of body fat, which keep them warm. And men, even though they need more energy, also do the heavy work, further depleting themselves. Psychology. Men are more often risktakers, putting themselves in harm’s way. Women may have children and seek to avoid risk. As one expert put it, women are less likely “to do dangerous, stupid things.”