Evolutionary Feminism

Evaluating Some Feminist Accounts of Gender
by Griet Vandermassen
June 2003

Many feminists trivialize the role of biological factors in their discussion of gender, attributing psychological and behavioral differences between the sexes almost exclusively to factors such as differential socialization, different life experiences, and discrimination. In addressing this issue I believe that feminists as well as evolutionary psychologists should be taken to task. We should not only ask why a large number of feminists seem to regard their neglect of the growing body of evidence from the biological and evolutionary sciences as perfectly legitimate. We should also ask what feminist insights can teach us and take seriously feminist concerns about the potential sociopolitical impact of current scientific developments. A look at the history of science tells us, after all, that as it comes to the study of living beings, scientists sometimes unwittingly slip societal prejudices into their work.

The demise of sexual selection theory during most of the twentieth century, for instance, had to do in part with male biologists' difficulty envisioning the females of a species as choosing and being sexually assertive (Cronin 1991). Even Robert Trivers, whose seminal article on parental investment (1972) was of critical importance in reinstating female choice, did not escape the male-oriented perspective of his times. In building upon Angus Bateman's fruitfly experiments of the 1940s, he chose, after all, to focus only on the one half of the experiments that fitted his preconceptions about sexually eager males and reluctant females (Birkhead 2000). It led Trivers (1972) to propose mixed reproductive strategies for males but not for females. The latter remained the sexually reluctant sex, until women biologists started uncovering female promiscuity and sexual eagerness in a wide variety of species (e.g., Hrdy 1981).

Recent examples of theoretical frameworks limiting what is seen can be given as well (Lawton et al. 1997) and may be an intrinsic part of science. Hence it is too easy to dismiss the feminist refusal to take evolutionary propositions about gender difference at face value as mere antiscience. Although it sometimes is antiscience, there is more to the picture. Evolutionists should be more prepared to admit to the ways in which gender bias has in the past worked to distort the content of evolutionary biology and might in unrecognized ways still work to that effect today, despite the current eagerness to embrace female-oriented theoretical perspectives.

Three Feminist Authors

I will not single out the strategies to discredit evolutionary psychology here; others have laid out the typical flaws in feminist critiques (e.g., Campbell 2002). Nor will I attack social constructivism, because I believe that it has something to offer and that evolutionists should not close their minds to its potentially interesting insights and suggestions.

During the past few decades, feminists have looked into the ways in which gender bias has historically permeated the social and life sciences. Sometimes their critiques are far-fetched and unfounded (e.g., Beldecos et al. 1989); sometimes their work is just good standard science, uncovering and correcting the neglect of female interests (e.g., Hrdy 1981; Small 1993). Most often ideology and justified arguments are closely interwoven.

In the work of developmental biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, for instance, serious research, uninformed claims, and political paranoia take turns, depending on the subject. Scientifically, her critiques of sociobiology and evolutionary pychology (Fausto-Sterling 1992, 1997, 2000a) can, I think, safely be ignored. They consist almost solely of political imputations, misunderstandings, selective reading, and misrepresentations, and are characterized by a lack of knowledge of the main principles of evolutionary biology and of the theoretical developments of the 1990s. To give just one example: she does not seem to understand the tremendous importance of the ultimate-proximate distinction in evolutionary biology. She considers it a trick, "clever, because it is totally unassailable" (Fausto-Sterling 1992:193). Because she is regarded as an authority in the field, however, many feminists feel perfectly happy putting their trust in her work and hence denouncing evolutionary accounts of gender as obviously flawed and politically inspired.

Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body (2000) is a more subtle work, providing an account of the 20th century scientific study of sex, gender, and sexuality. Her focus is on intersexuality and hormonal research, and she unfolds her views of gender development. The book is well-researched and presents the relevant data even-handedly (Bancroft, in press). One of its main and most controversial tenets, which I want to discuss here, is that maleness and femaleness are not natural categories, but that labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision. In Fausto-Sterling's view only our beliefs about gender can define our sex, not science, although we may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision.

In reaching this conclusion she relies heavily on the 1.7 % frequency estimate of intersex conditions that she has found by leafing through the medical literature. As pointed out by Leonard Sax (2002), however, her definition of what counts as intersex is too broad. Clinically, intersex conditions are those in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female. Fausto-Sterling defines as intersex all those individuals who deviate from, as she calls it, "the Platonic ideal of physical dimorphism at the chromosomal, genital, gonadal, or hormonal levels" (as cited in Sax 2002:175).( Misleadingly, all the case histories that she presents in her book are instances of true intersexuality.) When the clinical definition is applied, the prevalence of intersex drops to a mere 0.018 %, which is almost 100 times lower than Fausto-Sterling's estimate. She has artificially inflated the prevalence of intersex conditions in light of her politics: she wants to propagate a flexible gender system.

This may strike some as a typical example of social-constructivist propaganda, not worth bothering about. Her unabashedly political approach to scientific knowledge has indeed led her to distort the evidence. There is more to it, however. The value of her argument does not hinge on the precise percentage of intersexual births - even a 1.7 % figure would not make a dichotomy into a continuum. The essential point is that some individuals are born somewhere in between female and male. Fausto-Sterling's plea for considering them normal sexual variations or even different sexes (Fausto-Sterling 1993) need not be considered outrageous. First, because there are several common ways of defining normality, all of which have their problems (Mealey 2000). Second and foremost, because the existence of sexual variations is consistent with a Darwinian point of view. Evolution is, after all, as much about variation as it is about the mainstreaming of the most successful phenotypes into the next generations. Static concepts like a "Platonic ideal" belong to a pre-Darwinian world view. Hence, ironically, Fausto-Sterling's political agenda might benefit from applying an evolutionary framework to considerations of sex and gender - a framework which she vehemently rejects (Fausto-Sterling 1992, 1995, 1997, 2000a). Labeling harmless conditions such as intersex as pathological is indeed, as she contends, an expression of social preferences. So is the precise interpretation of male and female bodies, which to some extent differs through time and space. Whereas a muscular build in females might have been considered masculine once, for instance, this is no longer the case today (Bordo 1990). On the other hand, I see no benefit in denying, as she does, that we are essentially a dimorphic species, as long as it is acknowledged that there can be variations on the basic theme. We might even decide to call these variations a third sex.

Fausto-Sterling's account of the social construction of bodily sex illustrates the point I want to make about social-constructivist theories. If approached with the willingness to look beyond the biophobia, there are valuable perspectives to be found. Ridiculing feminist social constructivism only conveys the false message that an evolutionary perspective hardly allows for socialization influences or for ways of contesting gender roles and other societal expectations.

Fausto-Sterling allows a role for biology in defending developmental systems theory (DST), which stresses an interactionist framework in which all levels of nature/nurture, from nerve cells to interpersonal interactions, co-produce one another. In this framework, however, talking about innate predispositions is regarded as dichotomous and genetically determinist, because according to DST there is no underlying program. The genome has no privileged role in development (Fausto-Sterling 2000b; Gray 1997). In this way a potentially limitless flexibility of behavior seems to become possible. DST cannot account, however, for the many universal patterns of human behavior and the universal differences between male and female minds (Brown 1991; Buss 1989); nor can it explain that the brains of girls and boys are already wired differently at birth (Kimura 1999). That Fausto-Sterling's preference for DST has more to do with dogmatism than with a scientific spirit is shown by her refusal to go into the argument that the expression of very unpopular sexualities, such as transsexualism, despite strong contrary social pressure points toward the existence of prenatally determined dispositions. Her dismissing reaction is that this form of interactionism "calls for a large dose of body and only a little sprinkling of environment" (2000b:259). According to her, we learn to "do gender" through our interactions with others.

Getting her to accept evolutionary propositions about gender difference will be difficult if not impossible, since she considers biological claims about social difference "scientifically invalid" (Fausto-Sterling 1997:58), her high standards about these claims dictated by her political beliefs.

The British psychologist Lynne Segal is another feminist whose scientific standards are clearly influenced by her political goals. Her book Why Feminism? (2000) reveals an erudite writer, who has read a great deal more on sociobiology and evolutionary psychology than Fausto-Sterling has. In spite of this, her rejection of the field is definite. The main reason seems to be her tendency, noticeable throughout the book, to evaluate the worth of theories on the basis of their political use to feminists instead of on the question whether they are scientifically valid or not. She is not even consistent here. Her critique of postmodernism as endorsing a relativity and indeterminacy which works to undermine political projects, mutes when its propositions come in handy: postmodernists have shown us, she says, that to search for the universal causes of human actions is to engage in "the most oppressive and foolhardy form of metaphysics" (Segal 2000:78). Her absolute certainty that the goal of evolutionists is "conceptual containment of potentially unlimited shifts in gender beliefs and practices" (Segal 2000:78) makes her susceptible to all kinds of misinterpretation. Still she might be closer to an evolutionary approach than Fausto-Sterling, since her socialist framework induces her to look for the structural causes of the oppression of women.

Science writer Natalie Angier, on the other hand, is genuinely in favor of a biological approach of gender. Genes, hormones, and even adaptive strategies figure prominently in her book Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999). Her willingness to consider evolution stops, however, as soon as it comes to what she considers to be evolutionary psychology. Angier does not seem to realize that the feminist Darwinians whose work she relies on for her critiques of evolutionary psychology, such as Sarah Hrdy and Barbara Smuts, are important contributors to the evolutionary psychological paradigm. Her condemnation of the discipline seems to be based upon a selection of outdated theories. Like Fausto-Sterling, she wrongly assumes that the image of the prude and sexless female still prevails. And although like Fausto-Sterling her interpretation of scientific theories is sometimes very political, she does not seem dogmatic. Reading some recent literature might make her see to her surprise that she is, in effect, a defender of the field. That's why I think evolutionary psychologists should not be too hard on her, because we might lose a potentail ally.

My conclusion is that, although clearly much goes wrong within feminist theorizing, not all feminist authors should be lumped together, and that despair is not always warranted. An open-minded approach might make the judgement of even the most hostile critics more lenient, as a recent email exchange between Lynne Segal and Simon Baron-Cohen in The Guardian demonstrates.
Second, I believe that evolutionary psychology's proposition of complementarity can only gain credibility if it attests more to its willingness to integrate proximate explanations of behavior. Anne Campbell (2002), David Geary (1998), and Linda Mealey (2000) are among the few authors who show us what an integrated approach to the study of gender difference might look like.
Third, explaining how all charges against evolutionary psychology are theoretically wrong-headed will not suffice. We do not live in a theoretical world, but in a world in which scientific theories almost inevitably end up embroiled in politics. This need not be negative. Indeed, a main point made by evolutionary psychologists is that for our social policies to be effective they should be based on scientific insights into human nature. This implies, however, that refutations of the naturalistic fallacy should be more subtle. There is no direct going from 'is' to 'ought', but there is clearly an indirect link. If the average psychologies of women and men are not the same, getting equal occupational representation, if we should want that, will require unequal treatment, for instance. Acknowledging this kind of indirect implication might not put the critics at ease, but at least evolutionary psychology will stop sending contradictory messages. Evolutionists always stress, and rightly so, that one should distinguish between facts and values, and that ideological concerns should not get in the way of gaining scientific knowledge. On the other hand, however, they do not hesitate to make social policy suggestions (e.g., Thornhill and Palmer 2000), or to point out how scientific insights might be used to attain our moral and ideological goals (e.g., Pinker 2002). It is not surprising that critics interpret this inconsistency as a sign of hidden agendas.


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Copyright, Griet Vandermassen, 2003

Ms. Vandermassen has been a reporter and writer for De Morgen, a newspaper in Belgium for 5 years and has
interviewed Daniel Dennett, Robert Wright, and Paul Kurtz. She holds masters degrees in English and in philosophy and is a doctoral candidate in both and is a member of the research staff in the English Department at the University of Ghent. She is studying the tense relationship between feminism(s) and Darwian perspectives in psychology. To quote Ms. Vandermassen: "I hope that my work will contribute to a spectaculur proliferation of Darwinian ideas within feminism, as well as to a greater appreciation of feminist theories and perspectives within evolutionary psychology."