Saturday, September 22, 2012

On the evolutionary origin of gender roles

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.


Sarah said...

I tend to agree with you that it is a chicken-egg dilemma in large part (with the chickens winning points for every woman who simply isn't that nurturing, or man who craves to be home guiding his children's development or caring for an ill spouse, and the eggs high fiving for every young girl who voluntarily elects to change her doll's diapers). But, to my mind, the less explored - and at least equally important - issue is how we respond to such generalizations. Do we see that women appear, for whatever reason, to excel in nurturance and say 'thank god someone else's doing it'? Or, do we think, society would be a lot better off if we all excelled at looking out for one another, taking care of one another, co-parenting our children with equal care and tenderness? Personally, I don't really want to be less nurturing, I just want it to stop locking me down.

Attisaurus said...

Thank you, Sam, for being open-minded enough to question the traditional Darwinian tenets of biological sexual determinism and mid-19th-century views of sexual selection! Articles such as the one penned by Epstein enrage me to no end. As someone with a background/undergraduate degree in the natural sciences and human biology, it tires me to constantly challenge these outdated social modalities and conceptions of social sexual order based on these unfounded claims of biological determinism (the nurture ethic, for example).

I believe in evolution (obviously). But there is more and more evidence surfacing in nature and in human biology that Darwin failed to get the whole picture. Darwin failed to account for social selection (if interested, google Joan Roughgarden who is a scholar at Stanford/pioneer in this field), for intersex individuals, and basically ignored all his non-heterosexual data in the animal world.

Darwin's theories, although infinitely more informed than creationism/flying spaghetti monsterism, represent but a slice of the pie - and a small slice at that. I urge all of us to be more empowered to challenge these false sexual dichotomies in the way that we interact with and shape this world. We all make our own destiny.

tzey said...
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tzey said...

A lot of people tend to equate femininity and femaleness. To be female is a biological imperative, while femininity reflects certain learned gender roles. I really do believe that they are learned. I can understand that perhaps evolution reinforces the value of these "nurturing" qualities, but this does not give them any sort of moral superiority. 

What happens when a person does not ascribe to these gender roles? I am not a warm nurturing person, which does not mean that I could not care for a child. I am pretty good at logistics and have baby-sat my sister and cousins since I was 8. But I think when most people meet and interact with me they would not describe me as warm or nurturing. I don’t think that this should make me any less female but maybe it does make me less feminine.