In his article Gender Is For Nouns, Richard Epstein argues that women’s “nurturing instincts” are “a set of attitudinal adaptions” that promote survival. Because women have these attitudes, they will derive more pleasure from nurturing activities. This will lead to specialization between men and women. And ultimately to domesticity.
These “nurturing instincts” evolved because women have chest-mounted baby food, which made them better suited to care for children while men went out “to explore, to fight, and to hunt.”
The central problem with this idea is falsifiability. It is a plausible sounding story, but there is really no way to test it. We can’t go back in time and talk to our early human ancestors. And innate brain differences don’t leave marks on fossils. These types of stories are so common in evolutionary psychology that they have a name: just-so stories.
Furthermore, for almost any behavior, an equally plausible social explanation can be given. For example, Catharine MacKinnon would argue that “attitudinal differences” are the product of men’s feet being on women’s throats. This is a very Nietzschean explanation. Just like Neitzsche’s slave morality, women’s “attitudinal differences” are the product of oppression. “Nurturing instincts” are not a biological adaptation, but a social one.
However, there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked: can we trust evolution?
In his book The Emotional Construction of Morals, Jesse Prinz argues that an evolutionary origin does not grant moral norms any special privilege. His reasoning applies with equal force to Epstein’s argument.
First, “evolution does not optimize. It does not produce traits that are best, but only traits that are good enough…sufficiently efficacious for mating and raising offspring.” (Prinz, p. 258.) Epstein’s evolutionary domesticity may be a good solution to feeding babies in the wild, but it is not necessarily the best solution. Just like the human eye is imperfect, domesticity is imperfect.
Second, “biological fitness is not always advantageous to us as individuals. Biological fitness is most fundamentally defined in terms of genetic fitness: that which allows our genes to replicate. What’s good for our genes is not necessarily good for us.” (Prinz, p. 258.) For example, if killing your parents increases your own chance of survival, it is good for your parents’ genes (since you have their genes, too), but not good for your parents. (Ibid.)
Similarly, by having women focus all of their energy on their children, they almost certainly increase the fitness of their own genes. But this says nothing about the well-being of the caretaker as an individual.
Third, “even if evolved traits increased fitness in the past, they may not be advantageous now: what was fit for our ancestors is not necessarily fit for us. As skeptics have pointed out, evolution tends to provide norms that are quite parochial.” (Prinz, p. 258.) As Epstein himself puts it – while failing to grasp its significance – “modern women operate in settings far different from those of their ancient mothers.” Domesticity may have been a half-decent solution back when chest-mounted baby food was the only game in town. But breast pumps and baby formula have changed that. And so has a little thing called industrialization.
In short, if Epstein is correct, and domesticity is the product of evolution, it may be no better for us than junk food.