Evolutionary Feminism


The Evolutionary Perspective of Women, Sex, and
Monogamy:
Setting the Record Straight
by
Jennifer Goehring

All Right, All right.  I read the March 8, 99 Time magazine cover story by Barbara Ehrenrieich accusing the biosciences of siring what they so rudely call the "prostitution theory of evolutionary psychology."  I also read Natalie Angier's February 21, '99 article from the New York Times magazine section, basically attacking evolutionary theory on the same basis, but with a few more detailed arguments explaining why she finds the field so objectionable.  And for all of you who don't expect me to respond, you don't know me very well.

It seems that the current feminist anti-evolution rampage has decided to hone-in on a small, unrepresentative percentage of ideas regarding female roles and innate tendencies.  This would be the journalistic version of "selective hearing."    I find it profoundly disturbing that those who profess accurate reporting could represent evolutionary theory in such a manner.  I also found myself quite confused by the fact that I could glean an entirely different cross-section of gender-related theories from the science journals that I have read as opposed to so-called facts reported by these two recent arrivals at the doorstep of evolutionary knowledge.   Both seem to have a disturbingly inaccurate idea of the picture that evolutionary psychology paints of women.  I can't help but feel compelled to set the record straight.

Allow me to elaborate.  Whether she likes it or not, Angier, in her New York Times piece, appears to be agreeing with evolutionary psychology more than she is attacking it.  (Mr. Spriggs has graciously placed a space on his web site for you to read Ms. Angier's piece, which is copyrighted by The New York Times, 1999 -- just click this link: Angier ).   In a nutshell, she seems disturbed by the "evolutionary theory" that women were responsible for instituting monogamy through their innate desires for allowing males to provide them with resources if the males would commit to the equivalent of marriage.  First of all, this is by no means the position of evolutionary psychology.  It might have originally been the simplest, most logical theory to pursue within the biosciences, but this was years ago, when the field was still young. (The official birth date of evolutionary psychology is 1989). Particularly through studies of our closest primate relatives, we have long since begun exploring the likelihood that the female was, in fact, quite prone to seeking multiple partners, and benefited from such an arrangement for a variety of reasons.  Although I can understand a feminist taking personal offense at the suggestion that females have innately suppressed libidos, I must insist that evolutionary psychology is not the one making this suggestion.

Can anyone forget that just a few years ago the "rules girls" were giving advice that playing hard to get was the best way to land Mr. Right?  And, in just the past few weeks, a new book by the so-called new moralist, Wendy Shalit, is causing a firestorm of protest by suggesting in her book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, that if we females would just return to the days of modesty when to be pursued by men meant that you were wined and dined and talked to, (and that if you did end up in bed, it meant that you were most certainly going to be wed shortly) we could return to our glory days when women ruled the home and inner circle.  This is nothing new.    We women are geniuses at crossing our legs and making the male beg for a chance at the pleasures within.  Hey, these are a females suggesting these things, Ms. Angier; not right-wing religious nuts who want women to "graciously submit" to the will of their husbands.

At the end of her article, Angier explores the likely possibility that it might have, in fact, been men who would have most benefited from the arrangement of marriage, because it gave them sole reproductive right to one female, and just as likely a chance to sire offspring as the previous "playboy" strategy.  Before her article was published, I was working on a piece that hoped to bring together the wealth of information on the subject of gendered mating strategies that I had gathered from countless sources.    When I finally read her piece, I was quite surprised to see that she wrote about many of the same things that I have written myself.  Unfortunately, she was attempting to use them to discredit evolutionary psychology; or at the very least, suggest that the field must be incompatible with the agenda of women seeking to create equality for their gender.  Alas, Ms. Angier, evolutionary psychology has not turned its back on women, or the women's movement.  It seems more likely to be the other way around.    I'm just hoping that it's because no one has taken the time yet to learn enough about the field.

In fact, researchers in evolutionary psychology have been busy drafting up some quite revolutionary ideas regarding gendered mating strategies.  For women in particular, they have helped to steer us in a completely different direction in our understanding of female sexuality.  When researchers first began this exploration years ago, with nerve enough to challenge our so cherishly-held notions of romantic love for the sake of science, the image of the prude, sexless female was, unfortunately, the dominant school of thought.  It was this ear that gave us the since-held prevailing notion that women were biologically and evolutionarily determined to be interested only in sex for the purpose of securing a permanent mate, and a mate at that who could provide her with enough resources to care for her home and children.  It asserted that women were not geared to enjoy sex for its own sake, contrasted with men, whose natural instincts were to spread his genes as far and wide as possible and actually resist a monogamous setup like marriage.

Since then, however, we have graduated to a much more insightful and comprehensive approach to understanding human pairing.  Even our biology gives us persuasive evidence for the theory that humans, or females in particular, were not "naturally" monogamous creatures in our evolutionary past.  Baker and Bellis' studies of sperm competition reveal that, among many species of animal, the larger the male testes in proportion to the rest of his body size, the more his biology is boosting his sperm to compete within the reproductive tract of a female that likely mated with other males recently.  The male chimp, for example, has particularly large testes compared to his relatively small body size, and consistent with the theory, female chimps are quite promiscuous.  A single male gorilla, by contrast, tends to dominate (without much exception) the reproductive availability of a group of females, without much chance for the females to wander from the group and mate with other intruding males.    Likewise, the male gorilla's testicles are small compared to his relatively large body size.  If he mates with a female, it is likely that his is the only sperm within her reproductive tract at that time.

Bellis and Baker have gone so far as to study this theory's possible application to humans, and observe that human males fall somewhere in between chimps and gorillas in the likelihood of the practice of sperm competition, due to the size of their reproductive organs.   They argue that, had human females been "naturally" prone to strong sexual conservatism, there would be no such physical evidence.  In studying the sexual relationships between modern men and women, it has been found that after a brief (3-day) separation of both members of a monogamous couple, the man's sperm count is significantly higher during intercourse upon their reunion, which is not the case if they remain together and merely abstain from sex during that time.  This is strong evidence for sperm competition theory; that something within men instinctively knows that his female companion had the opportunity to mate and become pregnant by another male, and that his sperm must work overtime to overpower whatever sperm may still remain within her reproductive tract.  This, as the theory goes, requires that females must have also demonstrated multiple-mate strategies for a significant portion of our evolutionary past.   (Mark A. Bellis & R. Robin Baker, Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity, Chapman and Hall, 1995)

It has also been found that, among many species of animal, there exists a tendency among females to first secure a long-term mate, and then engage in secret, short-term flings with another male, particularly during ovulation. (David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, Basic Books, 1994).   Researchers think that this demonstrates one particularly adaptive (for the females) mating strategy; one which was previously hidden under the guise of "monogamy."  It allows the female to secure the long-term mate that can provide her and her offspring with a stable home, but then bear offspring by a male that could provide superior genes for the continuation of her family.  Upon the seemingly universal observation that human females, across time and culture, report straying from their long-term mate in significant numbers during ovulation (her fertile period), it has been suggested that humans, too, could be demonstrating behavior similar to this pattern.

In addition to this evidence, it has recently been suggested that the male strategy of mating with as many females as possible might not have been in his best reproductive interest, as we had previously thought.  In fact, because female ovulation is hidden and he is unable to determine whether the interlude could even result in offspring, even if he is able to mate with many short-term partners, his chances of siring offspring from them are extremely low.  For this reason, we have begun to pursue the possibility that things like marriage might have evolved out of the preference, and need, of males to secure the reproductive benefit of a single female, and even perform social ceremonies of recognition to discourage other males from intruding on his territory.  Not that we can discard our previous understanding of how strongly women can benefit from securing a permanent mate-- clearly, it is indisputable that human offspring require much care and attention, for a very long period of time, compared to most other animals.  But these ideas do suggest that we have misunderstood the critical role that women alone must have had in developing a system like marriage.   Especially during an era in which feminism has so successfully pointed out how such an institution can be, in many way, to women's detriment.

Barbara Ehreneich, author of the March 8, 1999 Time magazine cover story, accuses evolutionary psychology of using biology to "...claim women as its slave, promoting what amounts to a prostitution theory of human evolution: Since males have always been free to roam around, following their bliss, the big challenge for the prehistoric female was to land a male hunter and keep him around in a kind of meat-for-sex arrangement."  Clearly, our most recent exploration of female sexuality and mating strategies is leading us away from this interpretation, and a new trends in the field are giving no suggestion that women are slaves to this kind of system, at least any more than men are.

I've always considered myself a feminist.  I have a healthy self-concept and I'm educated.  And the studies and theories that I have been gleaning from the journals Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective, and Evolution and Human Behavior have in no way put me on the offensive; they do not raise warning flags, they do not hint that I am in any way the "inferior" sex.  I am also able to interpret the information the way it was intended: individuals will still be individuals, no matter what "trends" we recognize in each gender as a whole.    Besides this, what we read about our evolutionary past, or even the traces of it that may exist in us today, will by no means determine for us the direction we will head in our future. Our unique capacity for critical thinking gives us what no other animal has -- the opportunity to influence the future of our own civilization.    Shedding our historical fear of the acknowledgment that we are, in fact, still animals, will only help us to achieve this goal.  We must not be afraid to understand who we are -- it is the only thing that will allow us to become who we want to be.   The truth will set us free.

As a woman living in this age, I find that rather liberating.                                                                April, 1999

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