Is Evolutionary Psychology Anti-Feminist and Anti-Progressive?

After finishing a weekly Skype call with my parents last Saturday, I felt uneasy. As we were discussing my plans, they asked me what I wished to do after college. I responded with: “I’m thinking about getting a Ph.D.” The reaction that followed surprised me. “Nonsense,” – my mother said – “you’re a woman, why would you need to go to grad school. Overly educated women don’t make for the best mothers. Plus, that would delay the whole process of starting a family by another four years.” When I tried to switch the subject and discuss my brother’s newly found happiness in the form of a romantic relationship, the backlash from my parents continued. “He’s just young. He doesn’t know what love is; he’s a guy! How can he possibly be ‘head over heels’ for somebody? His infatuation will end soon.” I’d grown used to hearing somewhat sexist comments from my parents over the years, but they had always been presented in a form of a harmless joke and rarely seemed to have any substantial impact on my life. This time, they popped up during discussions that would affect mine and my brother’s future, and these comments did not seem so innocuous anymore.

I thought back to the communities where I grew up. I was born in Vietnam and had spent most of my childhood in Russia. Despite the tremendous differences in these two cultures, they have one prominent similarity. Both fostered communities that can be described as patriarchal. Patriarchy is so deeply integrated into these cultures that the term itself here is poorly defined and often neglected in an attempt to dismiss the phenomenon and drive the public’s attention away from this underlying power system. I wondered what the source of its power was. Perhaps there was a reason my parents had been taught these values from a young age. As I researched the topics surrounding anti-feminist movements, I realized that perhaps evolutionary psychology offers an explanation for the origin of patriarchy and stands in the way of society moving forward by imposing limitations on individuals based on their biological characteristics.

The term “patriarchy” is literally and historically defined as ‘the rule of fathers’. However, many feminists have “extended it [the term] beyond the realm of the family to include the rule of men over women more generally.” It encompasses all systems of male dominance through political, economical and social structures. Some people argue that forms of discrimination against women have decreased in many societies as legal barriers to voting and participation in the labor force have broken down. But forms of gender discrimination remain even after legal barriers are eliminated, which can only be explained by the existence of patriarchy that is sustained by patriarchal ways of thinking. In practice, patriarchal ways of thinking have an effect of assigning women to reproductive and maintenance tasks in the private sphere. In China, for instance, there exists a tradition of separating the society into three genders: male, female and female, Ph.D., referring to the latter as “asexual and not feminine enough”. These women are considered to be a threat to “the country’s very social fabric by putting education before family.”


Ratio of male to female Ph.D. in China

More generally, a patriarchal society implies the following disadvantages for women:

  • The state: women are unlikely to have formal power and representation
  • The household: women are more likely to do the housework and raise the children.
  • Violence: women are more prone to being abused
  • Paid work: women are likely to be paid less
  • Sexuality: women’s sexuality is more likely to be treated negatively
  • Culture: women are more misrepresented in media and popular culture
Cortisol and testosterone increase financial risk taking and may destabilize markets

But how did such ways of thinking come to be? Feminist opponents justify patriarchy because they believe that it has origins in biological factors. When differentiating the sexes, some people emphasize the role of hormones in the development of the brain and behavior. Biological determinism, which looks at humanity from a strictly biological point of view, supports the notion that testosterone – the “male” hormone and estrogen -the “female” hormone, play a huge role in societal expectations towards men and women. For instance, testosterone is known to enhance significantly the risk-taking behavior, which can lead to a higher status in social groups if successful. Views of biological determinism more generally are quite radical: it often denies the existence of free will and therefore completely absolves people of responsibility for their actions.

Another field that provides a biological explanation for gender differentiation in a patriarchal society is evolutionary psychology. Like biological determinism, evolutionary psychology believes that genes are the driving force in the developmental process of the human brain, however unlike biological determinism, it acknowledges environment as a significant contributor to this process. Advocates of evolutionary psychology posit that because of a woman’s inherent biology, she is more fit to perform roles such as anonymous child-rearing at home, rather than high-profile decision-making roles, such as leaders in battles. Evolutionary psychology provides theories that explain some common social patterns: our appreciation of outer beauty, the existence of a sexual division of labor and traditional approaches to mate-selection. It claims that our notion of beauty is defined by the over-arching desire to produce healthy offspring. It implies that there exist only two types of brains: E (empathetic) and S (systemizing), and puts women in the first brain category and men in the second. It suggests that females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males do because of a phenomenon called ‘fitness variance.’

“Fitness variance is the difference between the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in the reproductive game – how much more reproductively successful the winners are compared to the losers.” Since women can only have at most twenty to twenty-five pregnancies (and therefore offspring) in their lifetime, compared to the male ability to produce offspring every fifteen minutes, men have a much higher fitness variance than women do, and so fewer women remain childless for life. Evolutionary psychology takes this fact to predict the competitive nature of men and the nurturing nature of women.

One historical example of evolutionary psychology at work is the society that existed during the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush started with the discovery of gold in Sutter’s Creek in Coloma, California in 1848, which marked a mass exodus to the Golden State. Because of the physical nature of the gold mining profession, the population of California in 1850 was only 8% female, which put men in the dominant position. They Saw The Elephant: Women in the Gold Rush by JoAnn Levy, reports experiences of women during that time.

Women with pickaxes

In California, a woman’s value escalated with her rarity. The initial discrepancy in the gender ratio could be explained by Kanazawa and his theory of evolutionary psychology. According to popular belief, men have historically been a more competitive sex, which explains their willingness to go through the hardships of traveling great distances and doing harsh physical labor to put themselves in a better financial situation. Women, on the other hand, started migrating to California only a short period after the initial boom, which could be considered as a strategic move to finding a husband that had the luck of profiting from the Gold Rush. Any woman who could carry herself respectably was treated with utmost esteem. The services that were considered primarily female (like washing, sewing and cooking) were quickly taken over, even monopolized, by women. Women were also believed to have a civilizing influence on society encouraging the promotion and growth of communities. They displayed acts of benevolence for the poor, attended church and made schools a necessity for their children. It can be easily observed that women who possessed an empathetic brain benefited from being active participants of community-building. Women offered a perspective that a man normally couldn’t, since an average man was too busy looking for personal fortune. Therefore, in the Society of the Gold Rush, the division of genders into type E and type S brains defined by evolutionary psychology was incredibly prominent.

Another example of socio-economic patterns that can be predicted by evolutionary psychology occurred during the Tech Boom. Since the inception of the tech industry, men have dominated this field. In 1993-1999 during the rise of the Tech Boom, the percentage of women occupying technical positions was only around 29.6%. The stats have yet to change drastically, and evolutionary psychology believes that this situation is not surprising. Women that possess empathetic brains wouldn’t be expected to excel at technical jobs, according to evolutionary psychology. The lack of women in the industry has also contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes about the ‘savageness’ of men, which is mirrored in a significant number of sexual harassment and discrimination cases against women.

In recent years, tech has been evolving into a more accessible universal tool to solving problems on a larger scale. It has grown from a field only available to a selected few with a college education. It has evolved from being a field that operates on the scale of a personal computer. Because of that, the demand for people with a humanitarian vision has increased tremendously. This demand can be observed in the shift of types of people who are today’s technological leaders. Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. All of these people share a similar journey. They’ve managed to break out of the stereotypes imposed on them by their profession and transcend into the entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow. They are no longer anti-social, selfish and competitive like evolutionary psychology would like to describe them, and they do not just possess a systemizing brain.

These leaders are also the ones who realize the importance of attracting more women into the tech industry. Mark Zuckerberg had an incredible response to a comment on Facebook that encouraged young ladies to “date the nerd” in hopes of that “nerd” one day becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg. “Even better would be to encourage them to *be* the nerd in their school so they can be the next successful inventors!” Today, the industry understands the importance of having female representatives in their companies since tech has reached every aspect of human life and is influencing women just as much as it is men. There have been several empirical  studies finding that “people with more diverse sources of information generated consistently better ideas.”  With immerging programs like “Girls Who Code” that help young girls get into the technical education and teach them the means of surviving in a currently male-dominated industry, we can expect an increase in the percentage of women in tech. Current success stories include those of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo. “Sandberg is powerful not only as a billionaire executive of one of the most influential companies in the world but also as a voice for female empowerment in the workplace as the author of the 2013 best-selling book Lean In.”

The tech industry is currently undergoing changes in its gender imbalances which indicates that it is starting to disobey the system predicted by the theory of evolutionary psychology. It rejects patriarchy as a driving force of its success and begins to adapt the values of feminism. Feminism is a range of political and social movements and ideologies that aim to establish equal political, social, economic and personal rights for both genders. It refuses to classify women as the sum of their biological capabilities. Feminist theory argues that despite biological predispositions of a certain individual, they should be allowed to determine their worth and control their life in society without prejudicial limitations imposed by their communities. Historically, some have argued that evolutionary psychology has had no political agenda, whereas feminist theory often contains explicitly political agendas. This fact, however, should not undermine the values of feminist theory. Feminists believe that evolutionary psychology emphasizes the differences in genders that justify evil and immoral behavior. Feminism “expressed concern that if gender differences exist and are evolved, then some might claim that gender differences ‘ought’ to exist, and these theories might, therefore, be used to oppress women and interfere with achieving gender equality.” And as the example of the recent changes in tech have shown, gender inequality is quite detrimental to societal progress.

Although proponents of evolutionary psychology tend to have a more objective and less political attitude in their arguments, their assumptions that human biology is not very flexible and lacks complex environmental contingencies are ultimately rejected by feminist theory. Even in older societies like the one existing during the Gold Rush people have managed to disprove the assumption that gender differences directly influence one’s behavior. Some women had competition when it came to the laundry business when Chinese men took advantage of the same opportunities. Other women, inspired by the freedom that the West provided, were able to take more masculine professions and became bullfighters. In the modern world, feminist theory is proven effective in tech. However compelling and objective the analysis of our biological differences provided by evolutionary psychology might be, it is important to remember that we, as humans, are also sociological beings, which means that environment will always be a major contributor to our development. Feminist theory argues that in our current environment gender equality, despite our biological differences between men and women is the best thing humanity can agree upon because that gives each individual an opportunity to learn qualities from either gender and to define themselves instead of being defined by biology.



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