Evolutionary Feminism

Chivalry is not Dead
Jennifer Goehring

The most compelling reason for studying evolutionary psychology is its capacity for providing insight on the extent to which modern human societies attempt to regulate (by either suppression or encouragement) instinctual and innate behaviors that are rooted in adaptation to our ancestral environment.  Most importantly, this insight provides us with the means to determine whether we are fight a losing battle in our attempt to regulate such behaviors, and the foresight to determine whether creating these pressures threatens to undermine the delicate balance into which we have steeled as a flourishing species.  To what extent can we realistically expect to thwart our instinctual nature?

Don't get me wrong, I am certainly not trying to suggest that we are slaves to our biology, and that we should therefore refrain from trying to weed out innate tendencies that we find maladaptive in our modern environment.  More often than not, though, we lack the evolutionary understanding to embark on such a journey successfully.  The fact that humans in modern society exhibit behaviors that evolved over our long evolutionary history should force us to conclude that a mere decade of social pressure and policy  to the contrary will never succeed in extinguishing those behaviors.

The first and primary goal of evolutionary psychology is to gain understanding of these behaviors, to determine from where they came and why we've held onto them for so long.  At this point, the field has flourished long enough to have generated a plethora of fascinating and comprehensive conclusions into these matters; theories on everything from monogamy to competitive corporate hierarchies.  We are ready, however, to take it one step further.  Now that we have gained this critical insight, we can begin to explore the delicate and complex process of influencing the future of our evolution as a society.  Merely understanding the evolutionary roots of, say, human mating strategies, is not enough.  We must delve into a discussion of the finer points of our realistic modern prescription for these behaviors.   As humans, we have quite a history of notable "eras" in which we decide, collectively, that a certain behavior is unacceptable, and attempt to eradicate it.   Have we ever really succeeded?  If not, why not?  To what extent can we expect consistent resistance to attempts to change these behaviors?  Why do we seem to bounce back and forth between extremes?  How might we have suffered in the past as a result of creating taboos and expectations too strict for humans to successfully navigate?

The prospect of seeking and finding answers to these questions thrills me.  I am sure it is my enthusiasm in this regard which prompted Mr. Spriggs to bring me on board in the first place.  My specific area of interest, so far, is the task of understanding not only the adaptiveness of certain modern behaviors, but the adaptiveness of actually prescribing new parameters for such behaviors.  A basic understanding of evolutionary psychology has endowed me with the ability to observe some of our modern social trends in a new and fascinating light.  It has forced me to ask questions I had never before considered asking, and provided me with answers that, unfortunately, complicate the process of predicting the success of trends in prescriptive social policies.

So, what, do you ask, does this have to do with chivalry?

Last week, a male friend and co-worker of mine told me something that I've been thinking about ever since, and that prompted me to write this article.   We were talking one night after work, and he said, "You know, Jen, every night we work together, I ask you if you need me to help you with anything, and you always tell me no.  You tell me to sit down and have a drink and relax.  But yesterday, you had a box to carry out to your car, one that you were quite capable of carrying, but I offered to carry it out for you and you let me.  I just wanted you to know, that was so cool that you let me do that.  It might be a silly little ritual, but it makes men feel important, and these days most women would take the offer as an insult."

This got me thinking.  How did we come to this point, where we have so drastically shunned such behavior?  How did we come to turn it into a taboo after hundreds of thousands of years?  More importantly, why?  And, perhaps most importantly, is it really a good thing for us?  Are we too wrapped up in rewriting human sexuality and gender roles that we've failed to consider whether or not we should?

Delicately interwoven into the fabric of our identity as men or women is a set of generally universal principles guiding how we think, how we behave, and how we feel.  These principles evolved to help us follow the path that will most likely lead to reproductive success.  We obviously differ as individuals, but theorists in evolutionary psychology have realized that there are many of these tendencies that exist across time and cultures, and must therefore be the result of something more permanent than mere cultural influence.  Theories of sexual selection have finally managed to circumvent the boundaries that historically kept them from being applied to humans, as we are finally accepting that we could not possibly have succeeded in escaping the evolutionary forces that guide the life process of every other living being on the planet.  So, we're reaching a new understanding.  That's the good news.

The bad news is, this new science provides us with insight that we will occasionally prefer to ignore.  It tells us things about our nature that might make us ashamed, or defensive, or feeling suddenly unable to shower such absolute praise upon the pride we've always boasted in the strength of our collective free will.   When we have tried so hard to instill and nurture a standard of monogamy, we don't want to hear how our genes decided long ago that it was actually in our reproductive best interest to resist such blather.  (Only one mammal in ten is monogamous).  When we have tried so hard to eliminate superficial standards of human attraction and tried to better love one another for "the person we are inside," we don't want to hear how genes that shape our sexual preferences in order to ensure reproductive success guide men to value youth and beauty and women to value resource potential.

So, we resist.  We stand up and proudly claim that we have no intention of remaining at the whim of an evolved biology that refuses to acknowledge the new and amazing standards we attempt to set for ourselves.  To some extent, it has served us well.  We have manage to recognize the wonder of altruism, to practice altruistic behaviors well beyond their original reproductive-fitness-related goal of protecting immediate family members who share our genes, and witness altruism practiced between complete strangers.  Such behavior, however our attempts to thwart our own nature, are met with less success.  This is usually the case when we try to make sweeping changes too quickly, after which we are left to ponder in hopeless anguish as to why they failed.

The seemingly radical turn that feminism has taken of late will end up being yet another historical account of how we have failed in this regard.  It has started to mess with vastly complex and delicate gender-related facets of identity which will prove inadequate for the task of eliminating gender inequality.

There are obvious reasons why the feminist movement evolved to take on this daunting task in the first place.  There were legitimate reasons why women objected to the ways in which gender stereotypes created a grossly unjust situation for women in our society.  It is absolutely unacceptable that, due to the dynamics of gender-role definition, women were considered inferior, second-class citizens with less desert of basic rights than men.  The problem is, in our effort to eliminate these standards, we failed to consider to what extent they would be necessary.  Arguably, mainstream acceptance of gendered behaviors such as chivalry can lend themselves to the basic, internalized tendency to assume that "different" means "inferior," but we should be able to get beyond this.  We should be able to circumvent the oppression of women without eliminating the differences that exist between the sexes.

Now, from training in Women's Studies, I could outline for you in great detail how we ended up with this ideology that tells women to be offended by male attempts at chivalry; that a man holding a door for her or pulling out a chair for her somehow speaks to his belief that she is unable to care for herself, is very delicate, and that he must step in on her behalf.  We began by merely taking offense at gender-based claims of female inability to do certain tasks, which, at the time, was quite an appropriate reaction, especially since these "tasks" usually brought the biggest rewards and were unfairly reserved for men.  But then we started reacting with the same offense to everything else, everything that contained even a trace of gender-based distinction at all.  And this is where we began to fail.  As long as women throughout the world continue (even subconsciously) to acknowledge the importance men place on appearance, they will continue to take steps to "dress" themselves up whether it be through big gold hoops through the nose or $50 and an hour's worth of cosmetics application.  Likewise, as long as men continue to subconsciously understand the traits that females seek in a mate, they will continue to strive to possess and demonstrate them.  These things are such an integral part of our nature, we cannot even fathom their elimination.  Now, when feminism comes along and suddenly decides that women don't want (or need) to be "cared for," all of the things that males throughout our evolution have practiced suddenly become taboo.  It is suddenly disrespectful for a man to suggest, through words or actions, that he wishes to be a woman's protector and provider.  Historically, succeeding in these demonstrations is what gave him cause to feel proud, and important, and happy with these smallest of achievements.  This new behavioral gender "standard" has stripped him of these things, and it was something I hadn't thought to consider until my friend pointed it out to me.

So, come on, ladies, do we really need to be this threatened by such simple, natural, harmless demonstrations?  Must we allow so much of our feelings of self-worth to rest upon this?  If we keep going at this rate, we're going to eradicate every trait among our men that has historically attracted us to them.  Not that we aren't replacing them with other, more abstract concerns, but let me tell you, we've got to relax a bit.  Enjoy the little things.

The next time around, let the guy carry the heavy box.  Trust me, he'll appreciate it more than you know.

Origin: December 3, 1998
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