We have a cultural concept that assumes a genetic hard-wiring to gender roles and sexual behavior. This cultural assumption is disseminated through popular media, creating a form of ‘pop-evo-psych’. In a 2009 article published in the journal Feminist Media Studies, Amy Hasinoff reported her findings from a textual analysis of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1995-2005.
Hasinoff examined the use of sociobiological theory in Cosmo’s articles. She found that sociobiology was employed repeatedly to enforce gender norms and gender inequality as both natural and inevitable. Hasinoff reports on headlines and captions invoking caveman biology in attempts to excuse men’s bad habits, (pg. 268.)
She concludes that:
“Cosmopolitan uses sociobiology to bypass feminist critiques of [gendered] beauty standards, characterizing challenges to gender norms as at best irrelevant and at worst damaging to women,” (pg. 276.)
The evidence of pop-evo-psych in our everyday life has shown to have oppressive results in regards to gendered sex roles. However, can evolutionary biology be used to free us from such restrictions?
Claims of nature
In the introduction to his essay, “The ‘Nature’ of Sex Differences: Myths of Male and Female,” Charles T. Snowdon (Gowaty, 1997, pg. 276.) writes,
“Variation is the raw material of natural selection. Without the variation produced by mutation, recombination, genetic drift and behavioral plasticity, there would be no need to write or think about evolutionary biology. Diversity, individual variation and change are of greater importance than stasis or consistency… The concept of variation is particularly critical with respect to differences between sexes.”
The basic organizing concepts used by evolutionary biologists to evaluate organisms that reproduce sexually are: sexual selection, anisogamy, lifetime reproductive success and sperm competition (Bateman & Bennet, 2009.) These mechanisms of sexual reproduction are evident in human beings as organisms. But how then do we move from biology to behavior?
Snowdon describes parental investment theory and how the difference in gamete size between males and females is used to validate the modern day binary of mother/father parenting roles as based on the opposing reproduction strategies of women versus men. Because men have small, plentiful, easily made gametes they should be promiscuous while women having a larger gamete in limited supply should be more selective. Both strategies affect how attached each sex is to their offspring. Snowdon cites several sociobiological examples where this theory of differential parental investment leads to standardized expectations of behavior based on sex differences. However, Snowdon’s purpose is to critique the lack of variation represented in this scenario. He is problematizing the assumptions inherent in grouping of all men as this way and all of women as not. Snowdon states that the binary boxes derived from parental investment theory do not do justice to the diversity of behavioral sex roles observed both within and between species,” (pg. 277) He challenges the normative process of sex determination by explaining the affects of multiple variables, both extrinsic and intrinsic (pg. 280).
Taking his points together, we see how variation is ignored in attempts at generalizing this process and how difficult it actually is to determine what is male and what is female biologically. Snowdon concludes that claims about gendered behavior based on anisogamy are incomplete and over simplified. His chapter in the Gowaty text is dedicated to presenting several examples providing exceptions to our expectation about the ‘natural’ roles of males and females in aggression, mating, fidelity and parental care. Snowdon suggests that evolutionary biology can do more to explicate what motivates human behavior through careful biological analysis. Variation embraced as the norm within the discipline will lead to a reduction of patriarchal oppression that sociobiology is accused of supporting.
Evolutionary Biology and Feminism
As evolutionary psychology has shown itself to be a problematic discipline in regards to challenging oppressive gender roles, evolutionary biology can be viewed as it’s molecular based counter argument. Anne Fausto-Sterling positions herself as a feminist biologist in her scathing critique of evolutionary psychology in “Beyond Difference” (2000.) Fausto-Sterling’s chapter in the Alas Darwin anthology cites the lack of data supporting the claims made by evolutionary psychologists:
“It is not unreasonable to ask the hypothesis-builders of evolutionary psychology at least to postulate at what point in human or hominid history they imagine contemporary reproductive behaviors to have first appeared… Data on these points can be gleaned from the archaeological and geological records,” (pg. 214).
Due to their lack of factual data, Fausto-Sterling calls the claims made by evolutionary psychologists nothing more than thought experiments.
Again, we must consider the weight of such unsupported theories on what is normal and natural in human beings. Especially given how these unsubstantiated claims are then disseminated into our society to justify the mistreatment of women by men, to alienate individuals who are gender non-conformists, and to stigmatize those who are not heterosexual. Fausto-Sterling suggests a collaborative approach in developing scientifically sound theories about the evolution of human behavior. She concedes that social scientists are qualified to make these claims, but that evolutionary biologists have standards that can be used to evaluate them. She cites four specific standards of evaluation that must be met before accepting any hypothesis about the evolution of human reproductive behaviors.
Like Snowdon, Fausto-Sterling invokes the primacy of variation in biology. Going back to Darwin, she says, “A key feature of human evolution was the expansion of the trait of developmental flexibility, leading to the ability to adapt behavior to context,’ (pg. 220.) and that “…the logic of natural selection suggests that individuals should vary their reproductive behaviors as a function of the environments in which they find themselves.”
Such a paradigm shift in evolutionary thought makes the idea of set sexual behaviors “non-sensical.” An understanding of the sex/gender systems in place today can be based upon a biological understanding of evolution as opposed to a hyper-hypothesized psychological one.
She is advocating for variation between and within sexes attributed to plasticity to be the norm. The only hard-wiring Fausto-Sterling has found in human beings is the ability for our genetic mechanisms to respond to our environment, (pg. 222.)
Furthermore, she acknowledges the same phenomena that the textual analysis of the Cosmo magazine revealed. Mainly that the discussions of sex differences that one reads in various settlings, including popular media, slips from one category of evolutionary explanation to another making it difficult to assess the strengths of those claims and easy for them to be passed of as common sense, (pg. 223.) She sees evolutionary biology as a source of knowledge to develop alternatives to the male privileging, heteronormative status quo. Fausto-Sterling’s assertion that our response to environmental constraints is more accurate for deriving sex differences which manifest themselves along a continuum.
But, we all know that this science, these theories, are never going to be reflected in a magazine like Cosmo. Why? Because it challenges the patriarchal norms of our society. So if you read Cosmo, realize you’re being inundated with fake science, fake claims of how things are supposed to be. If the stuff you read telling you how your partners are supposed to act before, during and after sex doesn’t sound right to you, trust yourself. You are right and Cosmo is so many different kinds of wrong.