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Evolutionary psychology: an affront to feminism?

By Anne Campbell


Getting ready for work the other morning, I was diverted from pouring my coffee by the television news. A comet was about to pass near the sun and might, if it survived, become visible on earth. The professor of astrophysics who had been brought on to explain the details was engaging, enthusiastic, and clear. She was a woman. I wondered how many school girls had heard her and been inspired. Fifty years ago, the idea of a woman gaining recognition in such an arcane area of science would have been astounding. I set off to work with a smile on my face.

If feminism is the belief that nobody should be denied opportunities because of their sex, then feminism belongs to all of us — and that includes evolutionary psychologists. Based on a profound, even wilful, misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, we have been the target of hostility from ‘gender studies’ feminists who have accused us of trying to keep women in their place. Evolutionary theory, they argue, implies an ‘essential’ (read biological) difference between the sexes. Although they cannot deny differences in reproductive organs, they refuse to accept that there are any differences above the pelvis. They maintain this convenient view despite surely realising that testosterone crosses the blood brain barrier, that female foetuses exposed to overdose of this hormone in utero develop male-typical interest, and that neuroimaging studies confirm structural and functional differences in brain organisation in men and women.

Those psychological differences between men and women that have a genetic basis arise from the process of sexual selection: differential reproduction within a sex that means that some genes are copied into more bodies (bodies that survive and go on to reproduce) than others. In ancestral times, any quality that made a woman better at this than other women would have been selected.

Which qualities has ‘sexual selection’ over the millenia given to women?

Recent years have seen a considerable interest in mate competition. A male’s reproductive success (in polygynous sexually reproducing species) depends on how many females he can inseminate. Females tend to be thin on the ground because for a substantial portion of their lives they are pregnant or lactating and therefore unavailable for procreative sex. This ratchets up the level of male competition resulting in some big winners who father dozens (even hundreds) of offspring and losers who are squeezed out completely. Males can become winners by intimidating other males (leading to a wealth of research on male-male aggression) or by charming females. In humans, this had led to a lot of interest in female choice. Why are some men so successful and so desirable to women? We have come a long way since Darwin’s contemporaries refused to take the role of female choice seriously. But we are in the main a monogamous (or serially monogamous) species and this adds a further wrinkle. It creates two-way sexual selection. Women as well as men have to compete for a long-term mate. The rather low criteria that men impose for a casual sexual partner become more demanding when they are making a lifelong commitment. Men (more than women) favour beauty, health, youth, and fidelity and in response women compete to develop and advertise these qualities.

But there are some important qualities on which men and women agree. They want a partner who is kind, understanding, stable, and intelligent. In short, sexual selection for intelligence has been as strong for women as for men. It comes as no surprise therefore that there are no sex differences in intelligence. Of course, there has been a rise in intelligence over evolutionary time since we parted company with our chimpanzee cousins (and that rise has accelerated in the last fifty years) but men and women have risen together. The second string of a woman’s reproductive success lies beyond her choice of partner with the survival and quality of her children. Back in the Pleistocene, this was a demanding job with up to 50% of babies failing to survive to adulthood. Famine, drought, predators, accidents, and illness took their toll. Mothers needed to be clever — at problem-solving, anticipating danger, avoiding toxins, forming alliances, mind reading — to get keep their children alive. At the same time, women’s work of foraging provided half of the calories consumed by them and their children.

Work is not new to women. In our evolutionary past and for most of our more recent history, women (unless they were royals or aristocrats) have worked. And women like men have been selected for their intelligence. Feminism has opened opportunities for women to enjoy and use that intelligence in a public forum. Gender equality liberates women’s abilities and makes them visible to society. What reasonable person would object to that? Certainly not evolutionary psychologists. Encouraging women to achieve their potential does not entail making them the exception to the most powerful theory in the life sciences — the theory of evolution.

Anne Campbell is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University. Her most recent publication is A Mind of Her Own: The evolutionary psychology of women. After completing her D.Phil. on female delinquency at Oxford University, she worked in the United States for eleven years studying girl gang members and violent crime. Since then, she has taken an evolutionary approach to understanding sex differences in aggression, focusing on the psychological mechanisms that mediate behavioural differences between men and women. She has published five books, and won the Distinguished Publication Award from Association for Women in Psychology. She has written over 90 academic articles on topics such as female crime, intimate partner violence, one night stands, competition, gender development, impulsivity, fear, hormonal effects, and mental representations of aggression.

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Image credits: In the future, the evolution make all women beautiful. By small jaws and beautiful voices. jordens Undergang (La fin du monde) of Flammarion, Camille. Image by Merwart 1911. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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3 Responses to “Evolutionary psychology: an affront to feminism?”
  1. Douglas Wilder says:

    An excellent article that makes me want to read the book. It seems to me that evolutionary psychology generally explains (or postulates) why things are the way they seem to be in the realm of human behavior and — importantly — does not dictate that those things can not change. After all, it’s evolution…

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