The Heat Death Of The Universe

Back in February the New York Times Magazine published an article about the decline of eros in the modern-day marriage. The story noted what should be an entirely unsurprising fact: where there is less differentiation in gender roles, there tends to be less sex.

We read:

A study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either — at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.

I said above that this was a “surprising” fact. The truth is, though, that until very recently this would have surprised nobody in the world, and it certainly didn’t surprise me. (It did seem to be a bit of a jolt, though, to the author of the article, which is itself completely, depressingly unsurprising.)

I have a friend named Bob Wyman; he was the founder of a startup company I worked for a few years ago. He’s a mighty smart guy. One of Bob’s pet ideas is that we can understand a great many things about the human and social world through the metaphor of thermodynamics. In particular he likes to say that everything that is good in the world tends to reduce entropy, while everything bad increases it. For example, war is bad. This makes sense, in Bob’s view, because wars take highly ordered systems — the social and physical infrastructures of nations — and reduces them to disordered rubble. Meanwhile, wars also kill people — and a living human body is a far more ordered arrangement of the substance of the world than a decomposing corpse. And so on.

It isn’t hard to apply Bob’s idea here. For any system to be capable of producing useful work, there needs to be disequilibrium, a difference in potential. For a mill-race to turn a water-wheel, the water must flow downhill over the wheel. If the water on one side of the wheel is at the same level as on the other — that is, the parts of the system are at equilibrium — then nothing will happen. When the potential gradient inside a flashlight battery reaches zero, the battery is dead.

And so it is in a marriage: when the two poles of that system are at equilibrium, you can’t expect to produce any electricity.

“Love makes the world go round”, the old saying goes. Well, making the world go round takes work. You’ll search in vain for any civilization, anywhere in history or anywhere on Earth, that didn’t understand that the duality of male and female — the eternal, and yes, sacred disequilibrium of yin and yang, of light and darkness, of sky and earth — is what makes that motor run.

Until now, that is.


  1. Bill says

    But Malcolm, after all the ideology of equality of sexes definitely trumps reality.

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Your friend Bob’s theory meshes nicely with Mencius Moldbug’s definition of the left–right political axis [1]:

    First, we need to define left and right. In my opinion, obviously a controversial one, the explanation for this mysterious asymmetric dimension is easy: it is political entropy. Right represents peace, order and security; left represents war, anarchy and crime.

    [1]: From the first installment of the series A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Interesting insights on disequilibrium. Once upon a time, I wrote something vaguely thematically similar regarding environmentalism:

    The planet is not a balanced, harmonious, “self-correcting” system (pace George Carlin, with whom I nonetheless largely agree!); there isn’t much evidence to support such a notion, especially when it comes to large timescales. The planet simply is what it is, and we’re still discovering what that means. People who see the world in terms of the interplay of yin and yang would do well to note that the yin-yang symbol, depicted as a swirl, indicates a constant dynamism, i.e., a universe that’s always a little off-kilter. I’m not sure this should be read as “balance” or “equilibrium,” which are the terms in which many environmentalists view humanity’s current problems. The earth isn’t off-balance: it was never balanced to begin with. That one or another species might become dominant on the surface of the earth is simply how things are; even at this point, it’d be hard to say which form of life is truly the dominant form. I would, in fact, contend that humanity’s probably not it.

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Lex: it does indeed.

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Kevin – exactly right. Self-organizing complexity arises in systems that are characterized by high energy throughput and that are nowhere near equilibrium. Like the Earth.

    From Wikipedia:

    [C]omplex systems evolve far from equilibrium at the edge of chaos. They evolve at a critical state built up by a history of irreversible and unexpected events, which physicist Murray Gell-Mann called “an accumulation of frozen accidents.”

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Mencius Moldbug’s Gentle Introduction and Open Letter to Progressives are also cached here and here.

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Also from the article:

    There were certainly some cultural factors that caused us to choose difference in the past. Until recently, Stephanie Coontz said, “the idea was that you’re only half a person and you can’t be complete unless you get the opposite half. Both men and women were trained to find attractive somebody who did things and had things and were things that they were not.”

    Yes, “until recently”. As in: for the previous 1.2 billion years.

    Posted March 24, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    Thermodynamics, light and darkness, and mill-races are all metaphors which have no intrinsic relationship to marriages or their complexities. There is no reason why a successful marriage would or should operate like flashlight batteries. Nor is there any reason why Mr. Tweedledum and Ms. Tweedledee should be any less likely than Rambo and Olive Oyl (or Pajama Boy and Bella Abzug) to have swinging-from-the-chandeliers sex. Every day, if that’s what they want.

    After the Times article came out, wives wrote in to say that nothing makes them hotter than a man with a mop, and mop-wielding husbands claimed to be getting more ass than Sinatra. If equal sharing of household chores is what a couple wants, there is no a priori reason why schtupping and Swiffers can’t coexist in a marriage. If sharing household chores was an effective cock block, then it’s hard to explain egalitarian cultures such as China. You have to have a lot of screwing to get a billion people. So I don’t think that the article from the Sunday magazine has any more validity than their other recent trend pieces (seen anyone wearing monocles lately?)

    I think your complaint derives from the fear of change which is the sine qua non of conservatism. One is against change when one feels that all change is bad, including putative changes in how (some) men and (some) women decide to order their marriages. The notion that ancient verities of truth and wisdom are being jettisoned by a decaying culture is a subset of the notion that we’re all going to Hell in a hand-basket, as all of Western civilization is on the Dystopia Highway, doing 75. Whether people today are more moral, more kindly, or love their kids more than in those thrilling days of yesteryear is a parlor game which can never be proven one way or another. However, for things which can actually be measured, humanity is in a far, far better place than it ever has been before:

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Right, right, Peter. Nothing to see here. Forward!

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  10. Loki says

    “Fear of change”? You’ve got it exactly backward, One-eye.

    “Traditionalism is the most revolutionary ideology of our times.”
    — Julius Evola

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  11. Ashiata says

    My goodness, OEM: what an extraordinarily shallow, confident response.

    Do you really see nothing beyond the basest, most corporeal principles at work in this world? Do you not see that one can only make all things equal by scraping away all that is essential to the individual, and necessary to each individual’s path to perfection? That what remains is only our lowest, animal commonalities?

    Do you never feel the presence of something higher?

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  12. As was anticipated, our resident gadfly/naysayer pontificates with vulgarities (presumably to garner street cred) on yet another subject for which he claims infallibility. Which, in this instance, begs the question whether this pontiff is currently in a state of marital bliss himself.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  13. the one eyed man says

    Confident? Yes. Shallow? No. I believe that “each individual’s path to perfection” should be decided by those individuals. If two people want to have the marriage that Ozzie and Harriet had: fine. If the husband wants to pack the kids’ lunches and the wife wants to lean in: fine. I believe in freedom and liberty, which enables people to make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives.

    Something higher? There is nothing higher. There is no God, and there never was one. Men are born, then they live, then they die, and then they decompose. That’s just the way things are.

    As Seneca said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  14. Ashiata says

    God? Who mentioned God? The word is so off-putting nowadays.

    Surely even you, with your monocular vision (how interesting that your chosen name declares the inability to perceive depth!), must see that there are laws and principles that guide the workings of the world.

    If you use a thing, then, without understanding its nature, you will have unexpected, and often unwanted, results.

    In our descending cycle, much is now lost that once was understood by all.

    No – forgive me, the word should not be “lost”. “Willfully discarded, in our deepening ignorance” gets closer to the truth.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  15. the one eyed man says

    There are physical “laws and principles that guide the workings of the world.”

    There are certain moral principles which ought to guide the workings of people, such as the categorical imperative, Thou Shalt Not Kill, and so forth.

    None of these are related in the slightest to how married couples choose to divide household tasks.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  16. Ashiata says

    And who said anything about how anyone ought to do their chores?

    There is only this: things proceed according to their nature. When you use a thing, the result will be predictable only to the extent that you understand its nature, and the laws and principles that it is subject to.

    You mentioned the categorical imperative. Its error is in its universality; it assumes that the law that is suitable for one is also proper for another.

    Your name is well chosen.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Excellent, Ashiata. I hadn’t the patience. What you said is spot on.

    Obviously we can reorganize society any way we like: the point is that to the extent that we do so without understanding essential principles of our nature, we will have unintended, and often unwelcome, results.

    People in this literal-minded age forget that traditions are more than mere habits, and that respect for tradition is much, much more than mere fuddy-duddiness, or “fear of change”. Traditions are a book of knowledge, often very deep and hard-won knowledge, about our nature, and about what fosters the well-being of both individuals and societies.

    Most living organisms depend upon an enormous amount of knowledge that is embodied without being explicitly represented in the awareness of the organism. A bird knows just how to build the nest that best suits its nature and its habitat, but it doesn’t represent this knowledge to itself in abstractly articulated terms; it has neither the need nor the ability to do so.

    Humans, and the societies we create, are living organisms too, and the way societies preserve embodied, rather than explicit, knowledge, is through our traditions. By encapsulating it in this way, we make it both easier to access and more resistant to copying errors.

    But now, all of this is forgotten. We only value what is superficial and explicit, and so we imagine that, knowing everything we need to know about our nature, we can reinvent ourselves according to any passing fad or fancy, without fear of unintended consequences.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  18. the one eyed man says

    No, it’s fuddy-duddiness. What the couples in the New York Times article are doing is entirely within the tradition of marriage: they are negotiating the terms of their relationship to have a sustainable and mutually beneficial marriage. The path they are choosing – having the husband assume half of the “feminine” tasks of housecleaning – is entirely their business. Citing the example of men doing dishes as the basis for a jeremiad of woe and foreboding – we’re doomed! we’re doomed! – is too silly to be insisted upon.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    They can do whatever they like, and of course it’s their business. You really don’t understand what we’re saying here.

    That’s OK.

    Posted March 25, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  20. Musey says

    I think I am blocked because i do not have a ‘valid email address’. Just testing

    Posted March 26, 2014 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  21. Musey says

    Well, that worked.

    Ashiata asks whether the OEM ever feels the presence of a higher power and then berates him for mentioning God. Is she/he, too afraid to say the word? Or is it just irony, writ large, so that ordinary people can’t enter the conversation.

    I am also not surprised that working, new age women, who have some power, do not have sex as frequently as those more traditional wives who stay at home and are always available, to please their man. On pain of privation.

    The natural order has been usurped in so many ways. It’s called science, and specific to this conversation, birth control. The reason that men have been in charge since the dinosaurs, is that the women had the babies. That is still the case, but there are choices, which some people don’t like, which upset the accepted order.

    Posted March 26, 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says


    I think that Ashiata probably wanted to keep the focus away from “God” per se, as definitions of “God” would only have become a distraction. The point, as I understood it, was simply to draw attention to higher ordering principles, higher aims, whatever their origin.

    I’m a non-theist myself, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think such principles can exist quite naturally. There are natural laws that the world conforms to, and there’s no reason that our nature, designed by long course of evolution, might not have brought into being principles, and even telos, within us that we increasingly tend to lose sight of. The very idea of “the sacred”, once so central to human experience and aspiration, is now almost gone, and is often mocked as a benighted atavism.

    In Hindu cosmology, we are considered to be in the low part of the Yuga cycle, a time in which humanity loses its perception of, and turns away from, higher influences, and turns toward what is lower and more material. In such an epoch — and I’m no Hindu, but I do think we are living in what is in many ways a descending era of our civilization — we would see democratizing, egalitarian, scientific, and “leveling” impulses coming to the fore; the focus would be more and more on a sort of commonality that is measured by those qualities that are the lowest common denominator of all humans, mostly having to do with their most physical, animal, bodily needs and interests. The “mass man” becomes the sovereign; at the same time the perfection of the person, considered not merely as an equal fraction of the mass, but as a radically differentiated, radically un-equal instance of human potential and a locus for the activation of a sacred telos, is no longer understood, and so completely forgotten — as are the basic principles of our nature, only according to which such harmonious development can proceed.

    Sure, we can do whatever we want. But if we do not understand our nature, and so do not work in harmony with its essential principles, we’ll get surprising or unwanted results. That’s all. If you use a hammer to drive a screw, you’ll of course get some sort of result, but you can do better.

    I believe it is that sort of thing that Ashiata was getting at. Arguing about concepts of “God” would have been a needless digression.

    Posted March 26, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  23. JK says

    those more traditional wives who stay at home and are always available

    I “mused” from time to time what gender characterized Musey.

    No more.

    Posted March 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  24. Musey says

    Thanks Malcolm, I agree with much of what you say. Also, I recognise and admire good people who live life well for it’s own sake, rather than to secure a place in heaven. Believers cannot always take the moral high ground.

    JK, I’m not sure what you mean. Do you always write in riddles?

    Posted March 27, 2014 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  25. JK says

    Yes. More or less.

    Posted March 27, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  26. Musey says

    Well, that’s fine JK, but if you’re hurling insults give it to me straight. I always like to return the favour.

    Posted March 27, 2014 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

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