Do Women Want to be Oppressed?

Evolutionary psychology seeks to understand our behavior in light of the fact that we are products of natural selection. In principle, the field can give us deep insights into ourselves. In practice, it often reinforces insidious prejudices.

Take, for example, the claim that sexual selection can account for psychological differences between males and females. Darwin proposed sexual selection to explain puzzles like the tail of the peacock, which from a practical point of view seems to diminish fitness. Darwin hypothesized that females have chosen to mate with, or selected, peacocks with large tails, thus propagating this trait.

In his 2000 book The Mating Mind, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests that sexual selection can help explain why males dominate women in many realms of culture. He writes:

Men write more books. Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men post more e-mail to Internet discussion groups … The ocean of male language that confronts modern women in bookstores, television, newspapers, classrooms, parliaments, and businesses does not necessarily come from a male conspiracy to deny women their voice. It may come from an evolutionary history of sexual selection in which the male motivation to talk was vital to their reproduction.

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham presents a similar argument in his 1996 book Demonic Males. Wrangham asserts that male aggression and even group aggression, or war, are innate tendencies that we share with chimpanzees, our closest relatives. Females have selected these “demonic” traits, according to Wrangham. He writes:

Many women would prefer it otherwise, but in the real world, the tough guy finds himself besieged with female admirers, while the self-effacing friend sadly clutches his glass of Chablis at the fern bar alone… Women don’t ask for abuse. Women don’t like many specific acts of demonic males. But paradoxically, many women do regularly find attractive the cluster of qualities and behaviors—successful aggression, dominance and displays of dominance—associated with male demonism.

Miller and Wrangham insist that they are trying to understand the roots of patriarchy, not to excuse it. But there are a couple of problems with the sexual-selection theory of male dominance. First, the theory is poorly supported by anthropological evidence. Studies suggest that our pre-civilization ancestors, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers, were relatively peaceful and egalitarian.

In her 2009 book Mothers and Others anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes that “hunter-gatherers almost everywhere are known for being fiercely egalitarian and going to great lengths to downplay competition.” Hrdy speculates that the emergence of war at the end of the Pleistocene era diminished the status of women and boosted that of males, especially those who excelled at fighting. War and patriarchy, in other words, are relatively recent cultural developments.

In his new book Behave, anthropologist Robert Sapolsky concurs that war “seems to have been rare until most humans abandoned the [nomadic hunter-gatherer] lifestyle.” Sapolsky asserts that culture rather than biology might contribute to modern differences in male and female performance. He cites a 2008 paper in Science, “Culture, Gender and Math,” which found that “the gender gap in math scores disappears in countries with a more gender-equal culture.”

Another problem with the sexual-selection theory of male dominance is that it suggests women have been complicit in their own oppression. Women are bullied into submission by loud-mouthed, domineering men because, historically, women have “selected” men who are loud-mouthed and domineering, thus propagating these traits. This claim is a form of victim-blaming, which feeds the male fantasy that women want to be dominated.

Proponents of biological theories of sexual inequality accuse their critics of being “blank slaters,” who deny any innate psychological tendencies between the sexes. This is a straw man. I accept that innate differences exist. But I fear that biological theorizing about these tendencies, in a world in which sexism and racism are alive and well, does more harm than good. It empowers sexists and racists, and that is the last thing we need.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his Scientific American blog, “Cross-check.”