Evolutionary psychology, or evo psych, is one of the explanations I run across most often when discussing gender online. As in this thread, proponents of evo psych will argue that gender differences are not socially created, but are innate and reflect very basic qualities of men and women. Instead of arguing – as some religious explanations do – that men and women were created with different roles in mind, evolutionary psychology proposes that human life is governed by traits which are hundreds of thousands of years old, and reflect the life our distant ancestors lived. Men working outside the home, women staying put and having babies; men being sexually aggressive, women being passive and submissive; men having higher intellectual and competitive drives, women being nurturing and empathetic: these are the lines along which evo psych usually lays down gender differences.
They are accounted for by the idea that they were efficient characteristics in the dim past, when the world was more obviously hostile minute by minute, and both society and technology were much less developed. Evo psych often imagines a form of gender social contract, in the nasty brutish and short days of our ancestors, when men agreed to protect women and women agreed to bear and nurture children. Or that we simply evolved like that, with characteristics being distributed between genders in ways which would allow the greatest number of children to survive.
This account of human life and origins is used to justify all sorts of situations in the present day. Men’s greater earning power, men’s dominance of politics and the arts, men’s access to pornography, men’s over-representation in the violent crime statistics, men’s control of religious institutions: all are explained by the fact that men and women evolved differently. There is no point, according to this account, in attempting to solve such problems. They may be an “inconvenience” in the modern world, but they represent deeply-encoded aspects of the human species, and we must respect them. Attempting to tinker with society, by greater levels of equality, is flying in the face of history and science, and will only bring disaster. We need to accept that our lives, and the society we inhabit, have been fixed in particular patterns long ago.
In its more popular manifestations – and not being a scientist, I’m afraid I only meet it in these versions – this is often elaborated as a historical argument. Gender equality has only been a concern for the last few minutes of human history, relatively speaking. If we look back at medieval life, we can see women still adhering to this naturally-given model of gender, by choosing men who were strong, rugged, dominant and able to protect them from animals or other men. It frequently goes further than this, and the nineteenth century is advanced as the cut-off point. Women knew to defer to men, and keep out of politics and industry, following their evolutionary characteristics as wives and mothers. Or the 1950s, where women were wise in staying at homes and raising children, knowing to leave military and scientific life to their husbands and sons.
A number of causes are offered as “what went wrong” with this model, or rather, what knocked nature off course. The contraceptive pill is sometimes blamed for statistically freeing women from the risks of unwanted pregnancy and decoupling the dangers of childbirth from every sexual experience. The Industrial Revolution occasionally appears as the event which broke the connection between manual labour and material success. The rising living standards of the West make it unnecessary for women to rely on men for comfortable lives. And, one of the favourites: Government Socialism (in any guise from Soviet Communism to medical insurance) acts as a surrogate “alpha male”, and forces men to support women with whom they have no sexual relationship and over whom they exert no control. All of these pop up as explanations as to why the natural scheme of male dominance and female submission has been disrupted in modern life.
Evo psych is, as feminists often point out, vulnerable to a historical critique. For a theory which is so invested in historical explanation, which locates so much of the meaning of our lives in the past, its proponents are curiously cavalier about actual history. The historical basis for an argument is almost always “in the past”, or “imagine you’re a medieval peasant”. Again, I may only be meeting the most simplistic and simplified version of the argument, but I have never seen an argument about gender which was based on evolutionary psychology and which drew on the resources of historical scholarship. Or which even recognised its own claims to a break with other forms of historiography.
I have certainly never seen a presentation of the evo psych explanation which could deal with – for example – the fact that the “man goes out to work, woman stays at home” model appears to have expanded considerably in the middle classes after the Industrial Revolution. Or could provide an explanation for the way in which female preachers and religious leaders increased during the English Revolution, when there was no effective state to force men to act as their surrogate husband. Or could explain how evolutionary psychology can account for the drastic variations in gender roles and notions of gender across history and across different cultures.
This is not to say that evolutionary psychology cannot provide a historical challenge to feminism. The fact that such a challenge has never been effectively posed doesn’t mean it is impossible. Even in the absence of a coherent historical account of gender and labour, evo psych can make a powerful mythical argument. (By myth I don’t mean something which is total nonsense, but a narrative or set of symbols which a group uses to explain features of its world and its situation.) Stripped of its claims to historical specificity, the evo psych myth looks curiously like some of the basis of feminism.
Our society is deeply troubled, it claims, and a lot of this can be traced to the way it treats men and women. There has been a drastic mistake in the way those people have been encouraged to interact with each other, which is causing misery, pain, social damage and damagingly inauthentic lives. Only at this point does evo psych diverge from feminism, by arguing that the problem lies in the lack of recognition that men and women are dramatically different in most respects, and society can only be fixed by installing men as the leaders in various spheres.
However, I don’t think this mythical version can retain the core of evolutionary psychology as an account of the world and its problems. I suspect few people who find evo psych a convincing way of explaining gender would agree to such a radical reframing of the theory, which strips out the scientific and historical basis of their views. It is those very elements which proponents always seem most keen to advance, presenting themselves as non-ideological devotees of scientific facts, in contrast to the unrealistic “faith” espoused by feminists. Evo psych’s historical elements may have more of the “once upon a time” to it than real historiography, but I don’t think it can be demythologised without removing its basis for being better than any other account of gender in modern society. I doubt many who espouse evolutionary psychology would thank me for the attempt to present it in mythical terms.
At its heart seems to be a claim about historical conditions and historical time. Even if the point at which men and women’s supposedly immutable natures were fixed is lost in the mists of prehistory, the points at which they ceased to act according to them must have taken place in locatable historical time. That is one of the strongest reasons why evo psych appears to me to be a distinctively historical hypothesis. Even allowing its mythical origins (which, after all, underpin a certain amount of other political thinking casually used in public, such as the idea of a social contract), it must be argued in specific time. The errors and their solution must be a historical issue.
Thus there are some simple questions which feminism can ask evolutionary psychology, and which I have never heard answered. They all boil down to “where did we go wrong?” If evo psych suggests that “in the past” people lived in accordance with their natures, and this has ceased to be the case, where should we return to? After all, it is rarely argued that evo psych is a revolutionary and radical account of gender issues, which would need to reorganise society entirely and produce a new settlement on gender which had never been seen before. It is not an apocalyptic faith. It is essentially conservative, or rather reactionary, claiming that all we need to do is readjust back to the life lived in the past. So feminism can ask: where in the past? If society is living in a state of tension because it has strayed from the natural underpinnings of gender roles, how far have we gone astray? How far do we need to return in order to feel the tension slacken and to find our natural place?
Is it to the 1990s, where rape within marriage became a crime under English law? (I’ll restrict my examples to British society, because I know much less about other history.) Is it to the 1940s, where more middle class women became involved in industrial work, due to the pressures of another World War? Is it to 1928, where the Representation of the People Act (Equal Franchise) gave women over 21 the vote? To 1870, when the Married Women’s Property Act awarded them the right to actually own anything they had earned or inherited, instead of it being the legal property of their husband? These are relatively bureaucratic examples, which did not affect all women, but we have already got back nearly a hundred and fifty years.
We could easily go back further, and ask whether the female preachers of the 1640s were where the rot set in. Or whether it started in the thirteen century, when the Paston letters show a young woman whose parents are not able to prevent her from marrying her social inferior. Can British society have been out of joint for eight centuries? Feminism believes it can have been, but feminism does not argue that there was once a state of natural roles and behaviours which men and women fell away from within historical time. And if natural gender has been dislocated for eight hundred years, how on earth does evolutionary psychology suggest we should go about reconstructing the society of the twelfth century? Or should we be trying to recreate how women acted in 1869, before most of them could have money or belongings after their marriage?
“Where it went wrong” is surely a central tenet of the evolutionary psychology explanation, but one which its proponents seem entirely unable to explain. Their rhetoric offers a simple, comforting return to clearly-defined roles and ways of life, but this doesn’t square with the terms of their analysis. History awkwardly intervenes between the cave-dwellers and the picket fence, muddying the easy identification between “what some of us would like” and “what’s always been the case”. Perhaps surprisingly, it is feminism that has embraced the historical aspects of its analysis, and drawn inspiration and nuance from the study of the past, whilst evo psych remains unable to explain where it all went wrong.