Evolution Is Gender-Neutral
While Darwin has been criticized as sexist, evolutionary theory is egalitarian.
Posted November 28, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Evolutionary theory is predicated on gender equality because parents have an equal genetic contribution to children. It is the only academic theory that treats men and women equally.
Evolutionary Biology Is Egalitarian
Each person receives 23 chromosomes from their mother and 23 chromosomes from their father. This means that each gender has the same investment in offspring.
It might be argued that females are more important than males because the X-chromosome from mothers has more functional genetic information. Moreover, mothers contribute their RNA to offspring because it is present—outside the nucleus of a fertilized egg.
Females often contribute a great deal more to the nurture and care of the offspring, particularly among mammals. Yet, parents invest the same amount in females as in males, whether before or after birth. (This generalization is known as Fisher's Principle, and it is logically robust.)
In some cases, males invest more in offspring than females do. Among sea horses, it is the male who becomes pregnant and carries the offspring inside his body. In phalaropes, a marsh bird, the males inhabit the territory of a dominant female, incubate her eggs, and care for the chicks.
While evolutionary biology is thus gender-neutral, the same can hardly be said of the humanities. Whether it is history, sociology, economics, anthropology, or psychology, all suffer from a disciplinary bias against women.
History, Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and Economics Has Undervalued Women
History describes an unending contest between male tyrants where women rarely receive a mention, any more than individual serfs, soldiers, or slaves. Those women who are featured tend to be female tyrants in the mold of Catherine the Great of Russia or Elizabeth I of England.
In the male-dominated historical period, ordinary women were generally unseen and unheard.
It is hardly surprising that female contributions to archaeology are understudied. It now seems likely that women produced many of the pots, cave paintings, and statues that are used to study complex societies of the past and that they domesticated plants.
Psychology has not done much better. Freud is credited with the myopic theory that women were wannabe men afflicted with penis envy. He also perpetuated chauvinist myths about the gender origins of anxiety, hysteria, and depression.
Economics fared no better in its treatment of the work of women. In the past, women's household work was free. As far as economists were concerned, since it was not paid, it did not have any market value and was ignored.
Anthropologists studied how members of subsistence societies spent their time. They found that women worked longer hours than men and did most of the childcare.
How does one account for that sort of inequality? Sociology stepped in with news that women were oppressed and discriminated against. None of these disciplines offers a plausible account of female subjugation, much less a recipe for improvement. Yet, gender inequality is not inevitable and did not always exist.
Politics and Right-Wing Authoritarian Contempt for Women
The earliest European farmers developed a status system based on land ownership. Women married away from their families of origin and did not own land(1). Whereas women in simple hunter-gatherer societies expressed their freedom, particularly with respect to extramarital relationships, they lost that freedom in agricultural societies. In effect, they became possessions of their husbands, a view that was formalized in English Common Law.
In agricultural societies, women produced large families and were continually pregnant or breastfeeding. The needs of their children often trapped them in unsatisfactory marriages where they had little autonomy or economic power.
The widespread use of effective contraception beginning around the middle of the 20th century meant that single women gained sexual freedom and that married women could remain in the labor force.
These trends are opposed by right-wing individuals and political leaders(3). Policies from abortion bans to banning books on sexuality may be interpreted as an attempt to control women's bodies and put them back into reproductive and household work.
Gender equality and the sexual freedom of women were features of simple subsistence societies that defined our past as a species(2). This egalitarian way of life vanished with the emergence of social inequality in more complex societies.
Solution: Go With Democracy and Evolution
Male-dominated theocracies deprived women of personal liberty until autonomy was restored by reproductive freedom and economic independence(3, 4). These advances were achieved during the 20th century in developed countries.
Of course, this system prevails in less developed countries.
In democratic countries, women can vote to preserve gender equality and personal autonomy. If that mechanism fails, they might as well be living in Afghanistan, and we sometimes veer in that direction in the U.S.
1 Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale, C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., et al. (2012). Community differentiation and kinship among Europe'a first farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(24), 9326-9330. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113710100
2 Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The life and words of a !Kung woman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3 Garcia, H. A. (2000). Sex, Power and partisanship: How evolutionary science makes sense of our political divide. Lanham MD: Prometheus/Rowman and Littlefield.
4 Barber, N. (2022). The restless species: Causes and environmental consequences of human adaptive success. Portland ME: Callaghan Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Restless-Species-Environmental-Adaptive-Success/…