Foreign Policy
July 12, 2022

The Misapplication of Evolution to Discredit Feminism

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Whenever the topic of feminism is brought up, there is always that one person who discredits the movement by bringing up the biological differences between males and females. In the past twenty years, the rise of research in evolutionary psychology has repeatedly been used to try and “debunk” the feminist issue of gender norms. Thus, two schools of thought have emerged: the first of which is used by feminists who claim that society has more of an impact on gender norms than biology— hence the need for feminism—, and the second of which is used by those who view feminism as meaningless and claim that biology shapes existing gender norms rather than society. To quantify the split between these two schools of thought, Pew Research Center conducted a survey on perceptions of gender differences. The results indicate that there is roughly an even split in American adults on whether they think society or biology determines gender norms such as expression of feelings, personal interests, approach to parenting, and capabilities in the workplace (Cited 1). However, the belief that biology makes up society’s gender norms is a dangerous concept that is used to justify the existence of oppression faced by women around the world. Therefore, it is necessary to debunk the shallow understanding of evolutionary psychology that leads to the justification of gender norms.

First, it is important to understand what exactly modern academia claims about evolutionary psychology. In his book, Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality, Kingsley Browne disputes the very premise of evolutionary arguments. His reasoning lies in the split in roles in prehistoric societies. Since humans used to live in physically demanding societies, roles had to be divided between men and women when it came to bread-winning and raising children.  Since men were biologically stronger, the role of breadwinning fell upon them. Since women were biologically capable of having children and since female fertility rates were higher in prehistoric days, the role of child-raising fell on them. Using evolution as the template, evolutionary psychologists such as Browne argue that these gender role differences evolved into different biological natures for men and women. Therefore, the argument for those who believe in the biological standpoint is to argue that fighting gender norms is to contradict the biological natures of men and women (Cited 2). However, such an argument can be debunked on multiple fronts upon further analysis. The simple evolutionary explanation does not account for the large variety in gender norms observed throughout human history, and does not reflect the conditions of modern society. 

Let’s start off with examining the complexities of simple evolutionary theory: if such a theory was applicable, then it would mean that human societies across the world would have strictly followed similar gender norms. However, the role of the environment has historically had significant impacts on gender norms. This pattern can be observed in the development of human relations. Susan Hurley, in her analysis on prehistoric human interactions based on environment, sought to explain how gender norms differ based on human condition (Cited 3). She explained how, when human societies were economically and socially stratified, which usually occurred in agricultural societies, humans had polygamous relations (powerful men took on multiple wives). In polygamous relationships, women sacrifice paternal involvement in children for a better social status due to their lack of social mobility. However, when living in economically and socially egalitarian societies, humans had monogamous relationships. This meant that women looked for more paternal involvement from men, since there was no benefit to marrying a man with multiple wives in an already economically and socially equal society. In summary, Hurley’s main point is that human condition seems to be a much larger driver of gender norms than biology. Those who use evolutionary theory fail to understand this, and attribute too much to biology and too little to the environment. Historically speaking, when women had to sacrifice paternal involvement for better social and economic status, they did. However, when that sacrifice was unnecessary, they favored paternal involvement. 

So, let us now examine the current conditions of human society. In developed nations, we have moved away from tasks that depend on physical labor. Now, the emphasis is based on intelligence. Using lessons from past human societies, if women are able to have paternal involvement in children, they will take it. The problem is that the gender norms that are pushed by society reflect the nature of human relations during the agricultural time period. Again, during this time, the emphasis on physical strength meant that women had to sacrifice paternal involvement. We, as a society, are only two or three centuries away from the agricultural and industrial revolutions that allowed us to move into civilizations that could offer work without physical restraints. Most world religions and ideologies, however, were developed during the time when women couldn't gain their own economic and social status, and remain embedded in the gender norms of modern day society. However, human condition has changed; past gender norms are simply not applicable anymore. This is where the feminist argument for gender equality comes in. If human condition no longer requires the existence of gender norms, then they should not be forced into our society. Evolution is simply the byproduct of human environment. If that environment changes, then so does the course of evolution. 

To summarize, the argument pushed by those who oppose feminism with evolutionary psychology argues that, since historically, women raised children, the existence of gender norms is critical to society. However, research into past human relations shows that paternal involvement in children is largely dictated by the conditions faced by women at the time. In modern day society, women live in an environment in which they are not physically limited from working, allowing them to determine their own social and economic status. Agricultural-era gender norms are no longer applicable to society. Now, while this paper did not focus on biological factors, existing research does show mild differences in the male and female brains as a result of evolution. However, they do not discredit the argument made, as they are not valid justifications for imposing gender norms upon women. If a woman is biologically inclined to be a traditional housewife, that is her individual decision. But, if biological inclination exists, then there should be no need for socially imposed gender roles. Since women now live in a world that allows them opportunity, they should not be restrained from achieving their full potential by society’s debilitating customs. This is the feminist argument.