Monday, 1 June 2015

How evolutionary psychology supports feminism

Yes, I know, that title could just about be my tag-line. Most of my blog these days seems to be about how various evo-psych concepts actually have feminist, rather than anti-feminist, implications. So I thought I’d gather it all together in one place for convenience of reference. (Indeed, parts of this post are directly copypasted from older ones.) Evolutionary biology is one of my persistent fascinations, and I really don’t like seeing misogynists using it as ammunition against social justice for women. Which is how it gets used a lot. Basically, if you get a guy on the internet mansplaining to you how oppression is due to biology and you should just accept it, please feel most free to link to this post.

Speaking of mansplainers, before I get into specifics: there’s a widespread double standard where, if something specific to women’s minds has a biological component, this means that women are irrational and their needs should be ignored, but if something specific to men’s minds has a biological component, this means that men can’t change and their needs should be pandered to. I’m making this explicit so you know that anyone trying to score that sort of point from what I say in this post is being deliberately dishonest, not just thoughtlessly inconsistent.

There’s another kind of dishonest quote-mining I’d like to forestall, too. Natural selection works on gene pools, that is populations of interbreeding individuals. “Women evolved to have trait X”, for instance, is a shorthand for “On average, women who had trait X had more surviving children than women who did not, and therefore trait X became more common in women of the next generation.” This does not mean to say that women who happen not to have trait X are therefore somehow not women, or not “proper” women, or any such nonsense. If you want to argue that, go do it on my previous post. Further, just because something is “natural” as in biological, that doesn’t mean it’s either desirable or unfixable. Actually, that’ll do for the first couple of points.

Our natural impulses are designed to benefit our genes, not us. Genes build bodies around themselves. Sometimes the effect a particular gene has on its body, or on the behaviour of its body, results in an increased proportion of bodies with that gene in the next generation. That’s evolution. It doesn’t mean that the body it has built will necessarily be safe, free, or happy. If the gene creates conditions which make more copies of it than of its competitors in the short term, but in the long term drive the whole population to extinction, then extinction it is. There are no safeguards. As for happiness, we Christian and post-Christian Westerners gravitate to the idea that we earn that by fulfilling the Purpose our Maker gave us – by this logic, following the drives our genes equip us with. But look at it from the Maker’s point of view. You’ve made a self-motivated machine to perform some particular task as many times as possible. Do you reward it with a sense of satisfaction the first time it does its job? No, better to give it a sense of dissatisfaction and a craving to do it again and again. There is no reason to suppose that obeying genetic imperatives will make us happy.
Therefore, just because certain gendered behaviours may be “human nature”, that doesn’t make them good. It’s unfortunately quite plausible that men have evolved to be sexually exploitative, in the sense that sexually exploitative men through the ages have got a lot of women pregnant and so passed their genes on to a disproportionate percentage of the population. Does that mean sexual exploitation should be accepted as natural and therefore healthy? Consider: in the same sense and for pretty much the same reason, men have also probably evolved to be violent. Does that make violence natural and healthy? To ask the question is to answer it – no, that’s absurd. The claimed biological justification for sexual exploitation is equally absurd. Likewise, it’s moderately plausible that many women have finer-tuned instincts for infant care than most men, but empirically the difference is small enough that it will frequently be outweighed by practical or equitable considerations. Finer-tuned instincts or no, there is certainly no biological basis for the claim that women will be happier stuck at home looking after the children.

Human emotions are not blind impulses but strategic responses to circumstances. It doesn’t feel that way, of course, but that turns out to be part of the strategy. Think of two boy-racers playing chicken by driving head-on towards each other at full speed. The first to swerve loses, but if neither swerves, both die. How do you force a win? You pull your steering-wheel off and throw it out the window. Because we can’t voluntarily control our emotions, they act as guarantors of our threats and promises. But we can, in fact, modulate our emotions by mentally reframing the situations that they are responses to. The same insult, for instance, will arouse very different feelings depending on whether you frame it as an assault on your social standing or as an indication of the insulter’s immaturity. Generally, the drives which evoke powerful emotions are precisely those whose expression we can control, if we choose to – that’s why they have to try to shout our self-control down. Our genuinely unstoppable drives are felt as prosaic bodily sensations, like the need to breathe or urinate.
Therefore, just because certain gendered behaviours may be “human nature”, that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with them. Our violent urges can be, and progressively have been, reined in by cultural norms which render particular behaviours unacceptable. Most of us instinctively feel respect and concern for our kin and allies. This concern is not automatically extended to the whole of humanity, but given the right beliefs and values it can be. Men may have evolved to exploit women sexually, but they can – and should, and must be held responsible if they don’t – bypass that evolved propensity by committing themselves to framing women as fellow human beings. That means respecting women’s sexual choices (both the “yes” and the “no”), and it means not judging women’s personal worth by their attractiveness. Guys, that feeling of sexual urgency where you’ve got to do such-and-such with so-and-so or you’ll die... that feeling is lying to you. You won’t die. You won’t even suffer any kind of pain. That urgency can enhance the pleasure of consensual sex but it does not carry a scruple of moral weight.

The human female reproductive system ceases to function decades before the rest of the body does. From an evolutionary perspective, that’s very odd. Maintaining any bodily system so it doesn’t age costs a certain amount of energy, protein, water, etc. Our genes don’t commit resources to anything beyond the point where it’s useful. That’s why we can die of failures in any of our different body systems; they all wear down at about the same rate. There’d be no point for the genes to commit resources to keeping our hearts running for ninety years, for instance, if our livers were going to burn out at sixty. Of course we don’t need our reproductive systems working to keep us alive, but our genes do. Hypothetically they should stop caring about us as soon as we can no longer pass them on. Sure enough, most animals, including our closest relatives, keep reproducing until shortly before they die. In humans, however, the system that tends to be the last one to turn out the lights is the brain. Alzheimer’s and dementia were very rare before people began routinely living into their eighties.
Therefore, women evolved to be more than just mothers. Elderly ancestral humans must somehow have been using their brains to help their younger relatives to survive and reproduce, even after they themselves had stopped reproducing. Women in particular must have been doing something important enough to make it worth phasing out reproduction rather than risk dying in childbirth – something humans are especially prone to thanks to our kinked upright-walking pelvises and large infant heads. In the days before writing, older people’s memories would have been the primary place to store knowledge, and that’s presumably a big part of the answer. But women generally are still fairly strong and active when they experience menopause, so their productive skills likely also tipped the scales. Of course we’ve already seen that what we evolved for doesn’t matter morally; what I’m doing now is closing the door to the common misogynist claim that women can’t reach male heights of intellect or creativity because those faculties were never needed for motherhood.

Female reproductive success depends largely on mating with the right male at the right time. Especially among mammals, motherhood is more risky and more costly than fatherhood by several orders of magnitude. A female mammal can only have a limited number of offspring in her life. She needs to make sure their genes are as good as they can be, which means choosing the best possible male to be the father. And even with the best possible male, she needs to make sure she can afford the bodily resources and time to sustain the offspring through gestation, birth, and breastfeeding. In short, she needs to be in control of when, where, and with whom she mates. Getting pregnant to the wrong male, or at the wrong time or place, is disastrous for her genetic prospects. To avoid any confusion, this is not about needing a strong husband to protect her or provide her offspring with food. Most mammal mothers get along just fine with no male hanging around them at all. It’s a question of the genetic quality she’s investing in.
Therefore, rape is an atrocity against women. I expect my female readers are boggling at the idea that anyone even needs to be told this, but many guys simply don’t understand what’s so terrible about somebody having sex with you when you didn’t want them to. Our genes haven’t designed us to feel blissful fulfillment if we do what they want, but they have designed us to feel fear and pain if we put them at risk, and rape is one of the the worst things that can happen to a woman’s genes. (Men who have been raped feel the pain, but men who haven’t don’t generally feel the fear.) Guys, if you want to understand how women feel about rape, imagine someone thumping you in the balls so hard you can’t have sex for a year. Got that? Now imagine that one in every twenty women likes to do that to guys, but you can’t tell which ones. Now imagine that society will forgive them and blame you because that sort of accusation ruins careers. Now imagine testicle-crushing jokes in comedy and sexualized scrotum-smashing scenes in TV dramas. Now imagine that women wave hammers and staplers suggestively at you in the street and expect you to thank them for the compliment...

The stronger our desires, the less fussy we are about their fulfillment. The relevant research here was done on chickens, but the researcher also analysed psychology studies on humans and found the same mathematical pattern there. When pecking at small objects, chickens prefer blue to red and red to green. So chickens given all three colours peck only blue objects? And chickens given red and green objects peck only the red ones? No. It turns out to depend on the chicken’s drive to peck – whether it gets over what the researcher called a drive threshold. A chicken with a low drive will peck at blue objects if there are any and not peck at all if there aren’t. A chicken with a middling drive will peck at blue and red objects indiscriminately, but not green objects. An extremely peckish chicken will peck at objects of any colour. Human drives work similarly. Mild appetite seeks one specific thing, say chocolate or salted peanuts; serious hunger will go for stale cheese and wilting lettuce. And it’s the same for many other desires and preferences. The researcher here, by the way, was Richard Dawkins. Yes, that Richard Dawkins.
Therefore, sexual predation has nothing to do with the victim’s “immodest” or “slutty” dress or behaviour. Let’s suppose that most sexual assaults are motivated by sex desire, albeit an objectifying form of sex desire to which attractive people are merely pieces of equipment for creating pleasurable sensations. You might then think that you could improve your chances of being avoiding assault, at least assault committed by strangers, by learning the common preferences of sexual predators and presenting yourself in a way they don’t find attractive. But anyone who’s prepared to assault people they don’t know in public places (whether by leaping out from bushes, as the cliché has it, or by manipulating conversations in bars or at parties until they’re alone with their victims) presumably does it when their sex drive is high enough that they feel it’s worth the risk. Well, if their sex drive is that high, then it’s also going to be above the threshold of caring what a potential victim is wearing.

Men systematically overestimate women’s sexual interest in them. At least, men who are attracted to women do. I still haven’t heard of any experiments being run for same-gender attractions. Psychologists showed people photographs of other people and asked them to look for subtle indications of how the people pictured were feeling. In fact, the photographs had been chosen specifically for their totally neutral expressions. Women looking at the photos showed no bias in their assessments. Men persistently claimed that the women in the photos were feeling sexual arousal, and the more attractive the woman the stronger the illusion. Genes are deplorably amoral, and a male’s genes stand to lose more if he misses a come-on that is there than if he hallucinates one that isn’t. An analogy might be the visual illusion called “looming”: objects coming straight at your face look like they’re moving faster than they really are, because ducking too late is so much more costly than ducking too soon – hence why children just starting to play sports are so “scared of the ball”.
Therefore, women cannot be held responsible for “giving men ideas”. Men in male-dominated cultures through the ages, including several Bible writers, have preached against wanton women seeking to ensnare men with their sinful lusts. Conservative Christians echo them to this day. Male freethinkers seek to “liberate” women from the societal dogmas which they’re convinced are all that stand between themselves and a 24/7 orgy. Sigmund Freud’s theory of sex desire as the mainspring of the mind was based on the observation that his young female patients harboured sexual fantasies about their fathers which they all, one after another, transferred to him. All these observations are biased and worthless. There is literally nothing a woman can do to avoid “giving men ideas”. On the other hand, men are perfectly capable of correcting for the misperception. Millions of people have self-motivatedly trained themselves to overcome the “looming” illusion in order to catch or hit flying balls; the “She wants me” illusion is no different. All you have to do, when you find yourself thinking “She wants me,” is to tell yourself “No she doesn’t.”

Males treat mating opportunities as a scarce resource. A male can spread his genes prolifically by impregnating several females at once, but he has to beat the other males to them first. Females too may gain some benefits by mating with multiple partners, but not this particular massive, straightforward, nigh-guaranteed benefit. Competition for resources often leads to violence, and this is no exception. However, when two individuals of the same species face off, both have an interest in avoiding violence if possible. Most species have evolved methods of settling disputes without it. Such methods commonly include territoriality (the individual who got there first is deemed to win) and dominance (the larger or scarier individual is deemed to win). In humans, there are a couple of complications. Men invest far more time and effort in their children than almost any other male mammal, although they still don’t put their bodily safety on the line as women do. And humans form coalitions to advance their interests, violently resisting incursions by outsiders.
Therefore, patriarchy is real. Men tend to try to claim women for themselves as sexual possessions. Except in times of starvation, most violence between men is ultimately an attempt to secure women for themselves, either directly or by seizing resources or status that can be used to acquire women. That includes violence between groups of men, i.e. war. This is why racist rhetoric always comes down sooner or later to a concern about Their men violating Our women. Most of society’s traditional institutions derive from male peace accords over property rights in women and resources. But women’s sexual choices may breach male institutions, so the institutions include controls on those choices. As each man tries to get women to put out for himself and to prevent them from putting out for other men, contradictory cultural norms emerge around women’s sexuality. Human kinship groups revolve around marriage, which in most societies means a man’s sexual access to a woman is publicly understood to be exclusive (and in some vice versa, but seldom consistently). This is the feminist concept of patriarchy to a T, and all of it follows from evolutionary psychology.

I don’t suppose guys who’ve been using evo psych to make their sexism feel scientific will let this go without demanding some sources. Most of the biology and psychology above comes from the works of Steven Pinker, especially How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature. The bits about menopause come from Jared Diamond’s Why is Sex Fun? and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature. The part about drive thresholds comes from Richard Dawkins’ autobiography An Appetite for Wonder, because Richard Dawkins is the kind of guy who discusses science in his autobiography. The “She wants me” illusion is discussed by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius in their book The Rational Animal. The feminist concepts, I know about largely through online conversations, particularly those on the Dunedin Feminist Discussion Group on Facebook. The connections between the science and the politics are mostly just me applying basic logic to the facts. Anyway, I hope this post comes in useful to somebody stuck in that kind of debate. I’d like to think I’ll actually change some minds as well, but I know more psychology than to hold out much hope for that.

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