When evolutionary science is used to justify sexism

Looking to the unimaginably distant past to explain very modern problems.

Looking to the unimaginably distant past to explain very modern problems. Photo: Stocksy

Evolutionary psychology strikes again! Everyone's favourite* soft science field, in its determination to trace all the complexities, perplexities and contradictions of present-day human behaviour back to our cave men ancestors, is now being used to 'explain' domestic violence.

Masculinity writer Steve Biddulph claimed in a recent Fairfax Media op-ed that shame is 'hardwired' in male biology, and that sexism and racism arise from social conditions that trigger this shame. "We evolved to co-operate, but also to compete," Biddulph mansplains.

"Since belonging was essential to survival, the risk of exclusion was a terrifying one. The result of this is that shame – being humiliated or devalued – evolved in males into an almost life-threateningly negative emotion, one which men or boys would do anything to avoid. If you want to maximise the chances that a man will hurt or kill you, then shame him."

First, why do fans of evolutionary psychology always seem to talk about evolution in the past tense? We didn't stop evolving sometime around the Stone Age. It's a continuous process, and it's dishonest to pretend that cultural and social changes in the last several millennia haven't had some influence on how we are evolving now.


That said, I agree with Biddulph that violence and discrimination breeds more violence. As we know, many child abusers, for instance, were themselves abused as children, which, if anything, shows how susceptible we are to external, rather than solely biological, influences.

But what I really object to is this argument: If you want to maximise the chances that a man will hurt or kill you, then shame him. Clearly, men need to learn to manage shame in more responsible ways.

Critics have been complaining about this kind of determinism in evolutionary psychology for years now. Tracing all of our (mis)behaviour back to our distant ancestors, they say, exonerates human behaviour today (if men evolved to be domineering, then why fight nature?).

Evolutionary psychologists address this criticism by claiming they only get the results and are not responsible for how people interpret them. "Adaptive", they say, does not mean "justifiable".

That may be so but that doesn't explain why researchers themselves use evolutionary psychology to confirm already existing cultural biases, particularly those pertaining to gender differences.

For example, we all know that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, right? Let's ignore for a moment that this gender colour code has been around for less than 100 years and see what evolutionary psychology has to say about it. Sure enough, a 2007 study traced this relatively recent cultural phenomenon back to- surprise, surprise- our hunter-gatherer forebears.

From a sample of just 208 participants, researchers concluded that women have an innate preference for the colour pink that, naturally, "dates back to human's hunter-gather days when women were the primary gatherers and would have benefited from the ability to home in on ripe, red fruits".

Missing from this very scientific explanation is not only the possibility that women just may gravitate towards pink because it has been thrust on them since the moment they were born, but also that 100 years ago, the opposite was true. The Ladies Home Journal attempted to settle the matter once and for all 1918:

"Pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Then there is the implicit racism underpinning the study. The same researchers found that Chinese men had a preference for the pink and red hues, not surprising since red is considered a lucky colour in that culture. It takes a certain amount of ethnocentrism to assume that it is the colour preferences of Westerners that can be explained in evolutionary terms.

That's not the only time evolutionary psychology has attributed modern-day cultural preferences solely to evolution. A few years ago, a popular doco called The Gender Equality Paradox, by Norwegian comedian Harald Eia, made the rounds on social media, igniting many an argument between critical theorists and evolutionary psychology fanboys.

Eia wanted to discover why, despite Norway's reputation for legal equality, do women still gravitate to nursing rather than male-dominated STEM fields, and why do men still stay away in droves?

After scowling at gender theorists and nodding enthusiastically at evolutionary psychologists, Eia concluded the answer must be hardwired innate preferences, because women are 'nurturers' and men are 'analytical'.

Apparently, it didn't occur to Eia that there are factors besides legal opportunity driving people's choices. The doors may have opened to women in STEM and to men in nursing but, even in the enlightened Nordic countries, that hasn't stopped women from being discriminated against, nor has it eradicated negative stereotypes associated with the nursing profession.

Namely, it's still seen as 'women's work'.

Even equal opportunity, as vital as it is, cannot immediately undo centuries of stereotypes and stigmatisation. Indeed, as other scientific studies indicate, our social attitudes often lag behind our laws. And yet, as Steve Biddulph's column demonstrates, we remain intent on looking to the unimaginably distant past to explain very modern problems.

But, perhaps not for much longer. This year, researchers at University College London discovered that our cavemen ancestors were likely more egalitarian than we have given them credit for. Drawing on data from contemporary hunter-gather tribes that found men and women have equal influence in major decisions affecting the group, researchers concluded that it was actually gender equality that conferred an evolutionary advantage.

"There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated," Mark Dyble, one of the anthropologists involved in the study told The Guardian. "We'd argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged."

It's not as fun as blaming cave men, but surely the time has come to admit that there is something in our current culture that fosters and perpetuates male violence against women.

*Not everyone's favourite.