Evolutionary Psychology & Feminism: We Must Seek Common Ground

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I am an author, describing myself as a ‘Darwinian Feminist’. I draw on recent developments from within the burgeoning field of evolutionary biology, in order to better inform my understanding of how inequalities amongst men and women evolved during our developmental past. During recent conversations, a number of women have expressed to me their interest in the findings of evolutionary psychologists. However, these same women have shared their concern relating to whether or not evolutionary psychology is compatible with feminist ideologies. As a self-described ‘Darwinian Feminist’ this matter is also of central importance to me. Within an academic context, feminist ideas have traditionally found a home within the field of sociology and the related social sciences. It is therefore important, for the purposes of our discussion, to understand the history of sociology as a discipline. It’s also important to understand how it diverged from the fields of psychology and the natural sciences.

Émile Durkheim

The field of Sociology developed during the latter part of the 19th century. At the time, social analysis was the forte of psychologists. These academics sought to better understand the mind of the individual. However, Émile Durkheim, a 19th century social theorist, believed that the influence of society deserved to be studied in its own right. He felt that the study of individual motivation was inadequate, perhaps even irrelevant, in terms of accounting for many social phenomena. With this in mind, in 1895 Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology. Since its conception, sociologists have questioned the extent to which the study of ‘individuals’ can help us to better understand our wider culture. This concern has remained an outstanding point of contention between the fields of psychology and sociology. And as feminist theory continued to evolve, it found a natural home within the sociological stream. Let’s take a look at some central ideas within feminism and see why they aligned so well with a sociological paradigm.

Continued Divergence

Two central concepts within the feminist narrative are patriarchy and patriarchal ideology. Patriarchy: A social system in which the primary levers of power in society (for example leadership, privilege, moral narrative and ownership of property), are controlled by men. Patriarchal Ideology: A patriarchal narrative, built on the idea that men and women are biologically different. Within this ideology, the resulting divergences in character, behaviour and ability, are purported to make men better suited to certain key roles than women. 2nd wave feminism in particular, began to place an emphasis on the importance of patriarchal ideology. Feminist theorists contended that patriarchal ideology has been used to justify the maintenance of the unequal distribution of privileged roles (between men and women). This emphasis on patriarchal ideology is of central importance to our discussion. But we need to unpack this idea a little further. We need to understand why a biological, scientific paradigm causes a problem for feminists who emphasise patriarchal ideology.

‘Different’ does not mean ‘Superior’

It must be emphasised that there are two separate ideas presupposed within the concept of patriarchal ideology. 1) Patriarchal ideology emphasises that there are biological differences between men and women, which affect the behaviour of the two sexes. 2) The second idea is that these differences are purported to result in women being biologically inferior to men, with regard to important skills and capabilities. However, it should be emphasised that patriarchal control cannot be imputed simply on the basis of the 1st assumption: namely that there are biological differences between men and women (which affect behaviour). This is because, in theory, biological differences could actually result in women being more capable than men with regard to important skills and capabilities. Feminist theorist Mary Daly has in fact argued that women are more capable than men in relation to certain key skills. So if patriarchal ideology is key to the maintenance of patriarchy, then it’s power does not rely on the contention that men and women are different. It’s power lies in the assertion that women are biologically inferior to men, not simply that they are different. However, the mainstream feminist narrative has tended to view any attempt to posit biological differences between women and men (if these differences are purported to affect behaviour), as serving to support the idea that women are biologically inferior to men. But it must be pointed out that the second assumption (inferiority) is not a requirement of the first assumption (difference).

From where does patriarchy derive it’s power?

There is no need for those of us who believe in the existence of patriarchy, to assume that belief in biological differences is what enables this system to persist. Differences do not equate to inferiority. One can believe that men and women are biologically different, without believing that one sex is inferior. But patriarchal ideology has been central to much of the feminist narrative in recent decades. Feminists have rightly striven to denounce the patriarchal lie that women are biologically inferior to men. But many feminists have gone a step further. Many have asserted that any suggestion that biology contributes to character differences between men and women, reinforces the lie that the patriarchy has created in order to maintain its power. And this narrative has been eagerly embraced within the Durkheimian, sociological tradition, due to its insistence that biology does not play an important role in the development of culture or personality. Sociologists continue to maintain that biology is not important in relation to the development of culture. And this assertion has increasingly driven a wedge between the Durkheimian social sciences and disciplines affiliating with the field of biology. Durkheim’s contention may have begun as an emphasis on the influence of culture over biology. However, over time, this emphasis has developed into a full-blown denial that biology plays a part in the development of personality or culture at all. Evolutionary psychologists attempt to draw on ideas formed within the field of biology (specifically evolutionary theory) as they attempt to better understand the origins of human behaviour. But the social sciences (those built on the foundation of Durkheimian premises), seek to distance themselves from the idea that biology has an influence on personality or culture. Hence the tension between those operating within the sociological stream, and evolutionary psychologists.

What are the central tenets of feminism?

If, as feminists, our aim is to undo of the power of patriarchy, then there is no need for us to adhere to the Durkeimian premise: namely that biology is unimportant when considering culture. In fact, forcing would-be feminists to do so, has the potential to ostracise those who feel uncomfortable with this assertion. (Indeed, ‘difference feminists’, such as Carol Gilligan and the aforementioned Mary Daly were keen to highlight the merits of traits distinctly exhibited by women – emphasising ideas that would sit well within a biological paradigm.) One can develop a feminist narrative within the scientific/psychological paradigm, or the Durkheimian paradigm. Or even better, one has the option of drawing on both. One can, on the one hand, seek to understand how biology influences personality. And alongside this endeavour, one can also draw on sociological observations concerning how society communicates and upholds cultural traditions. As feminists, we have to decide: what are our central tenets? One of the most important will surely be exposing and undoing of the control of patriarchy. However, is remaining true to the Durkheimian principle – that biology is not important in the development of culture – also of such importance? This was Durkheim’s central tenet. And his adherence to it constitutes the reason why he distanced himself from the field of psychology and the natural sciences. But does it need to be ours? And should this contention be central to the concerns of feminism?

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