Evolutionary Feminism

Sexual Selection:
A Tale of Male Bias and Feminist Denial

Griet Vandermassen
Ghent University

Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications Ltd from Griet Vandermassen, Sexual Selection: A Tale of Male Bias and Feminist Denial. This paper was first published in European Journal of Women's Studies, 11(1), 2004, 9-26, by Sage Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Sage Publications Ltd, 2004.

ABSTRACT:Today the modern Darwinian theory of evolution is the unifying theory within the biological sciences. A consideration of its implications for feminism is, however, impossible without a critical evaluation of its history of male bias. The aim of this article is therefore threefold. First, to explain what sexual selection entails. Second, to discuss male bias in and feminist reactions to Darwinian theory in general and sexual selection theory in particular. Third, to demonstrate that it would be a loss for feminism to keep rejecting an evolutionary framework if we want to understand the roots of gender difference. This article is informed by a Darwinian feminist perspective.

KEY WORDS evolutionary biology - feminism - gender difference -history of science

… the sexes in each species of beings compared upon the same plane, from the lowest to the highest, are always true equivalents - equals but not identicals in development and in relative amounts of all normal force. This is an hypothesis which must be decided upon the simple basis of fact. (Blackwell, 1976[1875]:11)

There can be little doubt that Charles Darwin's theorizing on the sexes was constrained by his Victorian world view. As Antoinette Blackwell, the first (evolutionist) woman to publish a critique of Darwin's view of the sexes argued, the precise relationship between the sexes should be decided upon the basis of fact, not upon the basis of social prejudice or ideology. It took, however, more than a century for Blackwell's hypothesis to be seriously tested. It is, then, not entirely without reason that many feminists have judged an evolutionary account of the psychosexual differences between men and women to be sexist. But although this negative reaction may be understandable, I want to show that feminism throws away a valuable tool for understanding sexism in denouncing an evolutionary approach to the human mind.


Feminist critiques of Darwinian theory have focused mainly on the aspect of sexual selection, but some feminists have gone further by pointing to the congruence between Darwinian theory, with its focus on competition, and the capitalist values of upper-class Victorian England (Bleier, 1985; Haraway, 1991; Hubbard, 1997; Rose 2000; Rosser, 1992; Segal, 1999). The crucial point is, however, whether evolution by selection can provide a scientific explanation for the phenomena it purports to explain, irrespective of Darwin's sources of inspiration. And it can. The fundamental processes underlying it have been observed many times in the laboratory and in the field, and have never been countered by a single study or finding. The theory has those characteristics that scientists seek in a scientific theory: it organizes known facts about organic life, it leads to new predictions, and it provides guidance to important domains of scientific enquiry (Buss, 1999). Evolution by natural selection is a firmly established scientific theory, which cannot in the least be undermined by linking it to capitalism or to other value systems.

A comparable strategy of discrediting Darwinism is equating Darwinian theory with social Darwinism (Bleier, 1985). The difference between the two, however, is huge. Darwinian theory is a scientific theory which tries to explain how the natural world works. Social Darwinism is an ideological doctrine which tries to justify social inequality, and has less to do with Darwinian theory than some people seem to think. Its leading theorist, Herbert Spencer, proclaimed that progress is inherent in evolution, something which Darwin did not agree with. Spencer believed that competition between organisms causes adaptations, which are subsequently inherited by the organism's offspring. The core of his ideas was Lamarckian, not Darwinian, so strictly speaking the term 'social Darwinism' is not correct (Braeckman, 2001). Better would be 'social Spencerism'. Social Darwinists held that social inequalities between the sexes, or between classes or ethnic groups, represent the operation of natural selection and therefore should not be tampered with, since this would impede the progress of the species (Hrdy, 1999a).


Darwin was prejudiced, however, in his view of women and female animals in general, as his theory of sexual selection makes clear. In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1998[1871]), he defined sexual selection as selection caused by the reproductive competition between members of the same sex and species. As he observed, in most species with sexual reproduction, members of one sex, usually the males, compete between themselves for mating access to the other sex. They do this by way of threats, combats and weapons such as antlers and strong muscles, but also by showing off with beautiful colours, elaborate songs, or specific behaviours. Darwin posited sexual selection as a way to account for many conspicuous physical and behavioural traits in males. These traits are so energy demanding and so likely to make the animal vulnerable to predators, that natural selection would have normally selected them away in an early evolutionary stage. According to Darwin, the reason this did not happen is female choosiness: male ornamentation and competition for females evolved because females prefer to mate with the strongest and best-ornamented males. Female choice thus influences the course of evolution: the chosen males will have a greater reproductive success relative to the unsuccessful ones. Over evolutionary time, their traits will spread through the population (Darwin, 1998[1871]). The 'prize' of the winners in the sexual contest is thus not survival, but leaving more offspring.

Although Darwin's view of females was quite narrow, the agency that he conferred to them, however slight it may have been when compared to current theorizing on sexual selection, was in fact revolutionary at the time. His evolutionist contemporaries could not accept it, since females were assumed to be passive in the mating process (Buss, 1994; Cronin, 1994; Gowaty, 1992). Reaction against the theory went so far that after Darwin's death it was almost completely forgotten. Only in the 1970s would scientists gradually come to accept the profound importance of female choice in the animal world, and only in the 1980s would they begin to document within our own species the active strategies that women pursue in choosing and competing for mates (Buss, 1994; Hrdy, 1999a; Miller, 2001). Although it has taken some time, current evolutionary theorizing has finally become fairly gender balanced. Female choice has become much more active, and female choice and male-male behavioural contests are seen as just two of the mechanisms of sexual selection. Male choice of mates, female-female competition, forced copulation and aggressive conditioning of female behaviour are among the other ones (Buss, 1994, 2000; Cronin, 1994; Geary, 1999; Gowaty, 1992, 1997; Hrdy, 1997, 1999a, 1999b; Mesnick, 1997; Miller, 2001; Shields and Shields, 1983; Smuts, 1995, 1996; Thornhill and Palmer, 2000; Thornhill and Thornhill, 1983).
Although Darwin attributed a far more important evolutionary role to females than evolutionary biologists would do for almost a century after him, he clearly did not succeed in separating his scientific attitude from his social prejudices:

… the male is the more active member in the courtship of the sexes. The female, on the other hand, with the rarest exceptions, is less eager than the male…. she is coy, and may often be seen endeavouring for a long time to escape from the male…. the female, though comparatively passive, generally exerts some choice and accepts one male in preference to others…. The exertion of some choice on the part of the female seems a law almost as general as the eagerness of the male. (Darwin, 1998: 229-230)

Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius. (Darwin, 1898: 576-577)

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman - whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. (Darwin, 1898: 584)

There is a contradiction at the heart of Darwin's view of females: they exert a sexual choice and are passive at the same time. He seemed caught between the Victorian wisdom about women and his own observations. Darwinian feminists differ in their interpretation of this inconsistency (Gowaty, 1992; Hrdy, 1997; Liesen, 1995). I tend to concur with Patricia Gowaty, who thinks that to Darwin female choice was as important as male-male competition. Pondering the neglect of female preferences after Darwin's death, she adds: 'I consider the long-standing theoretical primacy of male-male competition to be one of the most potentially misleading notions in evolutionary biology' (Gowaty, 1992: 229).

Even today the term 'coy' has not entirely disappeared from evolutionary writings. What is inappropriate about it? For one thing, it is plainly wrong. During the past three decades, research has revealed that the females of most species are anything but passive or sexually coy. Through their mate choices, they direct the course of evolutionary change - at least to the extent that their choice is not thwarted by males (Birkhead, 2000; Fedigan, 1997; Gowaty, 1997; Hrdy 1997, 1999a, 1999b; Mesnick, 1997; Smuts, 1995, 1996). A primary causal factor in this greater attention to female interests and strategies was the rise of women in the field of animal behaviour. Because of them, new questions were being asked and new answers given.

Yet the females of most sexually reproducing species are more discriminating than males about mating. There is a huge difference, however, between 'coy' and 'discriminating': the former is not a value-neutral term. It is laden with sex-linked cultural meanings and as such does not belong within a scientific vocabulary. As Helena Cronin notes:

I can't resist wondering what words would be used if the sex-roles were reversed. Would a (male) investor or business executive be called coy for not rushing headlong into the first option? If males were choosy about mates, would they be 'coy' - or discriminating, judicious, responsible, prudent, discerning? (And, by the way, would females be 'eager' - or would they be wanton, frivolous, wayward, brazen?) (Cronin, 1994: 248)


Antoinette Blackwell was the first woman to publish a critique of The Descent of Man, four years after its publication. Darwin, she argued in The Sexes Throughout Nature (1976[1875]), had not given enough attention to the role of females in natural and sexual selection. As she writes: 'With great wealth of detail, he [Darwin] has illustrated his theory of how the male has probably acquired additional masculine characters; but he seems never to have thought of looking to see whether or not the females had developed equivalent feminine characters' (Blackwell, 1976:16). She knows that, as a woman, she will be considered presumptuous for criticizing evolutionary theory, but she sees no alternative:

Only a woman can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint; and there are none but beginners among us in this class of investigations. However great the disadvantages under which we are placed, these will never be lessened by waiting. (Blackwell, 1976:22)

Blackwell thus identifies Darwin's limited perspective as a male observer as one of the main problems of the theory of sexual selection. For all male secondary sexual characteristics that Darwin describes, there are equally important corresponding traits in females, she stresses. The net effect of the complementations leads to sexual equality. Her view of the sexes was, as was Darwin's, influenced by Victorian values, but it was less superficial than his when it came to women. The precise character of these complementary characteristics is advanced more as a hypothesis. As she says, 'The facts need careful investigation' (Blackwell, 1976:128). Blackwell thus writes in a scientific spirit, thinking logically, weighing the evidence. Although part of her ideas turn out to be ill-founded, such as her Lamarckian-Spencerian belief in the progress of evolution, her reasoning was methodologically sound. It is a great pity, therefore, that her critique was not heard and that, as Hrdy (1999a:13) writes, 'Her contribution to evolutionary biology can be summed up with one phrase: the road not taken.' This turning point left a chasm between feminism and evolutionary biology still not bridged.

In evolution, Blackwell finds a basis for demanding more freedom for women:

Evolution has given and is still giving to woman an increasing complexity of development which cannot find a legitimate field for the exercise of all its powers within the household. There is a broader, not a higher, life outside, which she is compelled to enter, taking some share also in its responsibilities. (Blackwell, 1976:135)

As Blackwell was probably the first to show, evolutionary knowledge can be used in a liberating way, to argue for social equality between the sexes. As to the question of the relationship between evolutionary knowledge and politics, I want to stress that no direct inference can be made from facts to values, from nature to ethics and politics. It seems, however, that in order to make efficient political decisions, knowledge of human nature, that is, of human needs and propensities, is indispensable. Indeed, a political ideology is always implicitly or explicitly informed by a view of human nature, even if that view holds that it is the nature of humans to have no nature. There is thus an indirect link between human nature and politics.

Reading feminist accounts of Blackwell's critique, however, one is struck - again - by the authors' inability to distinguish between the scientific and the ideological character of a theory. Sue Rosser mentions Blackwell, Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin himself, as persons raising doubts about some key points of the theory of sexual selection. 'Why, then, one wonders, did Darwin insist on the theory so much?', she asks, concluding that it must have been for ideological reasons:

In order to make the differentiation between males and females as strong as possible, the theory of sexual selection is needed. The theory is the agent of differentiation, that which assures an ever-increasing separation between the sexes and their operation in two quite distinct realms that only touch for the purpose of procreation. (Rosser, 1992:58)

Would Rosser from the resistance against female choice also infer that Darwin insisted on it only for ideological reasons? It is a strange kind of logic to conclude that, because a scientist has troubles with some aspects of his theory, he should reject it, and that if he does not do so, this means that the whole theory is an ideological construct.

Anne Fausto-Sterling's (1997) account is a comparable one. She describes with admiration Blackwell's chiding of Darwin, and especially her conclusion that evolution dictates that men should prepare the food. Subsequently she cites Eliza Gamble, another Victorian female writer who criticized Darwin. In her book The Evolution of Woman: An Inquiry into the Dogma of her Inferiority to Man (1893), Gamble argued that evolution proved female superiority. Fausto-Sterling detects traces of Victorian values in Gamble's work, but for the rest she does not seem to have any trouble with the kind of inferences Blackwell and Gamble make on the basis of evolutionary theory. Although she definitely condemns any sociobiological approach to humans ('the entire process strikes me as misguided at best, socially pernicious at worst', [Fausto-Sterling,1997:48]), not one word of criticism is uttered when women use the theory to their own purposes. She calls it 'tactics' (Fausto-Sterling,1997:46).

One wonders how this kind of inconsistency within feminist theorizing can ever be constructive. If a theory is bad science, why not make it better science, instead of rejecting the whole of it as an ideological construct, but still making use of it when it suits one down to the ground?

Special note: Due to copyright restrictions, the author was only given permission to publish 50% of the paper on the internet, and as such, you will not be able to read Ms. Vandermassen's comments addressing Darwinian Feminism, the conclusion, and the citations. For a reprint, please address Ms. Vandermassen directly at the University of Gent. Her email address is: griet.vandermassen@UGent.be

You may also be interested in Ms. Vandermassen's other paper presented on Evolution's Voyage in June of 2003: Evaluating Some Feminist Accounts of Gender

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