“You’re going against 40,000 years of evolution”
“This innate toughness that men have is crucial to our survival.”
These points, and many others along the same lines, were made by Mr. Gavin McInnes, author of “How To Be a Man” in a recent discussion of masculinity on the Huffington Post. His argument is based on a suite of assumptions common in our culture. It often forms the basis of misogynist arguments against feminism. Basically:
1. Evolution has made men naturally more “aggressive and tough”, and women naturally more “compassionate and domestic”.
2. Therefore in the modern world, as in past societies, men are the natural breadwinners, and women the natural caretakers of the home/children.
3. Going against these gender norms, as feminism has done in the last few decades, is going against nature, and disrespectful of the importance of childcare!
According to Mr. McInnes, women who work outside the home are “forced to pretend to be men. They’re feigning this toughness. They’re miserable.” You’ll hear a lot of people agreeing with this line of reasoning. But is it scientifically based? Short answer: No. Not at all. Mr. McInnes’ knowledge of science (at least, displayed these rants) is embarrassingly feeble. I work at the intersection of anthropology, genetics, and evolution, so I’m going to critique this argument with evidence from these fields. (I encourage you to also check out these other critiques , although Jezebel’s was basically just “HAAAAAAAAAAAA!”).
First of all, a bit of terminology. Sex and gender are used interchangeably by many, but they’re not actually the same thing. “Sex” refers to the genetically/developmentally determined biological categories “male” and “female” (XY vs. XX). “Gender” refers to cultural perception of the sexes and their roles (“masculine” vs. “feminine”). In our culture, sex and gender are pretty intricately entangled, but that’s not the only way it works. Gender is conceptualized differently by different cultures. While our society has long viewed gender as binary (albeit with people outside the traditional categories, who self-identify as “genderqueer”), many cultures, both in the present and in the past have more than two genders. What we’ll be discussing here is the extent to which the Western binary gender system is based on biological adaptations for the two sexes that make it “natural” for each to engage in different kinds of activities.
(Aside: I have a serious pet peeve with the whole “natural is better” argument to begin with. It’s actually a logical fallacy, known as the “appeal to nature,” and it’s used to push all sorts of idiotic pseudoscience. Think about it: Giardia is “natural”, but that doesn’t mean drinking water containing it is better than drinking filtered water. Always be suspicious if someone uses this argument. )
There are obviously physiological differences between men and women. Nobody is denying that. Next time you’re people watching, notice the variation in size among men and women. Observe the extremes—notice how women tend to occupy the “very smallest” category and men the “very largest” category–but also the overlap where some women are larger than some men. This is true of strength as well. For example, with a 300# deadlift PR, I fall somewhat above the mean in female strength and size. Even so, the average man (if he’s trained in powerlifting technique) will be able to lift much more than me. But there will also be a small percentage of men who are weaker then me. Strength and size are examples of continuous traits—those that aren’t neatly divided into discrete categories in a population (like whether or not you can roll your tongue). Also, they’re not dependent strictly on genetic factors; my strength is derived not only from some genetic component, but also from years of training and eating a certain way. It’s not a simple case of “gene X causes Y quantity of strength”, nor will every woman with an identical training history to me have identical results (some will be weaker, some stronger). For many traits, therefore, the “nature vs. nurture” idea is a really misleading oversimplification. I want you to do your best to banish that dichotomy from your brains forever.
So, there are definitely physical differences between men and women, many of them overlap, and many of them are the result of intricate interactions between genes and environment. But are there also essential psychological/behavioral differences between the two genders? That’s a huge field of research, and it’s not so straightforward. Let’s focus on what Mr. McInnes cites as the key difference between men and women: aggression.
The thinking goes that men have aggressive tendencies that are genetically determined, evolutionarily selected for, and therefore result in adaptations for certain types of behaviors (hunting, fighting, working in the public sphere). The problem with the conventional wisdom here is that aggression is a set of behavioral characteristics, not a strictly genetic trait. As with size or strength, you can’t point to a single gene or genes that separate the aggressive from the non-aggressive. There are a few genes tentatively associated with aggressive behavior, but it’s not a simple phenomenon of “this genetic variant causes this person to be aggressive.” Remember this: genes code for proteins, not behaviors.
Furthermore, it’s not so clear that men have evolved to exhibit more aggressive behavior than women. In his fantastic book “Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You”, bioanthropologist Dr. Agustín Fuentes reviews the published research on human aggression and gender. After a detailed breakdown of differences in aggressive behavior between men and women, he concludes that
“…aggressive behaviors and violence are not central parts of male as opposed to female behavior. But the overall picture regarding aggressive behavior and the sexes is not particularly clear. There is no behavioral evidence that being aggressive is evolutionarily more likely for males than females, and while males appear to be more aggressive in some contexts, females are in others. Males are more likely to be aggressive than females in same-sex aggression, and there are differences in outcomes than females in same-sex aggression due to male body size.” (p137)
Here is an example of behavioral overlap with regard to aggression (disclosure: my little sister is in this video).
Behaviors such as aggression are the result of many complex factors, including culture, gene expression, environmental influences, and individual choices. And the current scientific literature simply does not show “a clear suite of evolved differences in behavior between the sexes.” (Fuentes p203)
For another excellent explanation of why invoking evolution as a simple causal explanation for gender role differences is problematic, I encourage you to read
this piece by evolutionary biologist PZ Myers:
“I think a better answer is that there are evolved human traits that are shared among every individual in the population without regard to sex, and that culture acts as the repressor/enabler of particular attributes in particular individuals. That ought to be the default assumption, with exceptions requiring exceptional evidence beyond just reading the cultural codes. Change the culture, and all those fully human abilities can be expressed in everyone, not just the ones permitted by convention.”
So what about those cultural gender differences? All cultures, past and present, have segregated activities by gender, right? In fact, no. Claiming that women have always, “naturally”, done certain activities is based on a very selective (mis-) reading of the archaeological record. I think the archaeologist Dr. K Anne Pyburn summarizes it nicely in the first chapter of her book “Ungendering Civilization”:
“The naturalized link between beauty, child-rearing, “private space” and womanhood is sacred to western culture, and affects all the cultures participating in the modern world system. Needless to say these are folk models, but they continue to inform not only public opinion, but also scholarly research in a number of fields. Despite the fact that a number of feminist investigations have disproved the reality of such proscriptions in the present day and recent past, a surprising number of intellectuals, including a number of feminist scholars themselves, continue to believe that the division of labor, which either subordinates women, or at least separates the economic, social, and political spheres of women and men, is an historical if not biological fact. Ultimately, the belief that all early civilizations independently developed the same division of labor has been an unexamined support for essentialist arguments about the role of women and men in the rise and functioning of the modern world (Tringham 1991).”
In other words, starting with a preconception of how gender roles should be influences the kinds of questions that are asked in anthropological research, and the kinds of evidence that is gathered to answer these questions. If you are convinced a priori that only men did certain activities in past societies, (such as making cave paintings, or using spears, you might completely miss the fact that women were doing them, too.
Those kinds of interpretations have been going on for a regrettably long time, but fortunately these days the field of anthropology is somewhat more aware of these biases. And this kind of awareness has revealed so many examples of women in past cultures NOT behaving according to the Western “domestic” ideal that, as Dr. Pyburn noted in an email to me, we now know “McInnes’ idea of nature is realized in very few societies around the world (past or present).”
Now critics of my arguments will certainly cite evolutionary psychologists who claim that evolution shaped men for certain activities and women for others. It’s scientifically proven, they’ll say, that women like to shop because it’s similar to gathering food–a naturally feminine activity. Of course women like the color pink because that reminds them of the berries their great-(x10) grandmothers had to find.
Does this sound stupid? It should. This type of “just-so” storytelling by evolutionary psychologists is roundly criticized by the general scientific community. It’s awfully easy to make up explanations for observed phenomena after the fact. Anyone can do this. For example, here’s a suggestion offered by Dr. Pyburn:
“Complex societies arise from warfare, not because of the organization that grows up in support of a standing army as has been argued, but because – like the Vikings – the men left to fight and the women stayed behind and developed a complex political organization while they were out of the way…”
Why is this story not every bit as plausible as any other alternative?
If you’re reading these and find yourself asking “But where is the evidence for this explanation?” you’ve caught on. Stories are fun, but they’re still stories. Demand evidence.
Mr. McInnes falls into this trap when he literally offers his “gut” explanation in one sentence, and criticizes anecdotal evidence in the next. Unfortunately for him, his attempt to validate his notions of gender roles by an appeal to nature falls apart when his claims are carefully scrutinized with scientific data.
Truthfully, many of us whose lives don’t fit neatly into the worker/homemaker dichotomy can attest to feeling fulfilled. I’m certainly very happy in mine, where I work professionally as a scientist, and train as an amateur fighter in my free time.
But according to Mr. McInnes, I’m probably faking it.
11/3/13 EDITED TO ADD: I wanted to update this post after I read this article describing the exact kind of interpretation that I’ve been talking about. A very cool Etruscan tomb dating to 620-610 BEC was recently discovered, containing the skeletons of two individuals and their accoutrements. One of these individuals, buried with a spear, was identified as a “warrior prince”. The other, buried with jewelry, was identified as “his wife.” However, when the sex of the skeletons was determined, it was discovered that the “prince” was a female, and “his wife” was a male. Oops! But it wasn’t enough that the archaeologists had gendered the skeletons solely on the basis of their burial goods. Even after discovering that the “prince” with a spear was actually a high-status female, they scrambled to explain why some of her burial goods actually were symbolic, while others were things that she used. Guess which things were “symbolic”? Obviously the “male” objects (i.e. the spear)! And which were “possessions”? The “female” objects (i.e. a sewing kit)!
You should go read Dr. Judith Weingarten’s entire post for a terrific discussion of this. She concludes with:
“‘It’s not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance’ says Prof. Mandolesi, and that is certainly true. Is this tomb unique? Or are we looking into a mirror of our own making? Until recently, sex determination was mostly based on gendering grave goods rather than any scientific bone analysis. If every corpse buried with weapons was sexed as male, willy-nilly there can be no females in the sample. Spear = male? The jury on Etruscan princesses is still out. But taking the spear out of her hands and embroidering a story with needles in the pyxis will not necessarily bring a true verdict.”