I love this quote from the XKCD blog:
The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics.
Many scientists try very hard to de-emphasize this complexity, trying to reduce “human nature” down to parts and genes and behaviors that can be explained by evolutionary mechanisms, by hormones, by genetics. It’s not nature vs. nurture and it’s not just male and female, it’s nature and nurture and infinite variations along a culturally and biologically mediated gender continuum. By trying to explain differences between male and female in terms of natural selection, we more often end up showing how our society has nurtured us to think about different gender roles than anything about evolution.
This is particularly true in the case of sexual selection, originally introduced by Darwin in The Descent of Man in 1871. In the book, Darwin writes about many animal species that have particularly noticeable differences between males and females and theorizes how competition for mates could lead to such differences. He also drops in the casual sexism of the time, unable to separate the rigid structures controlling men and women in Victorian England from his research on animal mating:
It accords in a striking manner with this view of the modificition and re-inforcement of many of our mental faculties by sexual selection, that, firstly, they notoriously undergo a considerable change at puberty, and secondly, that eunuchs remain throughout life inferior in these same qualities. Thus, man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes prevails with mammals; otherwise, it is probably that man would have become as superior in mental endow man to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.
-Descent of Man, page 565
The “scientific” question of whether or not women are actually stupider than men, while increasingly socially and politically unacceptable, is by no means closed. Articles are still being written about how women are “naturally” inferior to men intellectually, and how this relates to our ancestral conditions hunting and gathering. Even when not discussing human evolution and inborn intelligence, studies of animal sexuality continually are framed in terms of traditional gender roles (the coy, choosy female; the aggressive, studly male) while species or individuals that don’t fit this narrative are ignored. Science news stories about duck rape become hugely popular because we apologize for rape as a “natural” event caused by the male evolutionary need to spread their seed widely. Biases and prejudices become natural, women’s bodies are explained as in terms of men’s desires, in our culture, in our media, and too often in our science.
More recently, the work of evolutionary biologists like Joan Roughgarden, who see the tremendous diversity in human and animal genders and sexualities not as something that has to be explained away to fit the dogma of the gender binary and sexual selection, but as the “natural” order of things (there’s that word again), have started to gain acceptance in the academic and popular press. I recently read her most recent book, The Genial Gene (on recommendation from BoingBoing), and found it to be a fascinating alternate vision of the evolution of sex. Competition between the sexes is no longer at the center of natural selection, replaced by social forces in families and communities of animals. Her theory of social selection fills many of the gaps in theories of sexual selection, from the existence of homosexuality, transexuality and other intermediate genders and sexualities to the mathematical impossibility of females being able to calculate genetic superiority in nearly identical males and the lack of a correlation between secondary sex characteristics and fitness.
The book is a fascinating look at the technical aspects of evolutionary theory but in my opinion, her focus on “fact” and “truth” ends up hurting her extremely important and valid argument. Throughout the book she emphasizes that it does not matter whether we think a theory is morally or socially wrong, only what is true scientifically:
This book [does not] historically deconstruct Darwin or Spencer by situating them in their Victorian culture, nor does it provide a feminist-theoretic critique of the wealth and prestige attending those privileged to define the criteria for normalcy. And this book does not declaim social-Darwinist political theories or agendas. This book is different…One may find metaphors like “the selfish gene” and “the battle of the sexes” appealing or repugnant. Regardless of what we would like the truth to be, the issue before us is whether such metaphors correctly characterize biological nature.
As someone who loves feminist-theoritic critique I was a little disappointed that she didn’t get into that argument, and as someone who also loves marxist-theoretic critique I was disappointed that her social selection theory was grounded to a significant extent in capitalist economic structures of game theory and “rational” decision making for maximum individual utility. Social factors, cooperation, and altruism are being increasingly seen as important drivers of evolution, even at a molecular level. It is easy for us to map molecular or animal behaviors onto human social structures as explanations, but the real “truth” is probably something very far from it and much more complicated.
There is still so much we don’t know about how evolution has shaped our genes, our cells, our bodies, and our societies. It is hugely important that we recognize where our social mores can seep into our scientific thinking and perpetuate cycles of repression of those who don’t fit the “natural” norm or making it difficult for women to speak their mind about social and scientific issues that affect us all for fear of being labelled ignorant of reality, intellectually weak, or–god-forbid–“cute.”