Evolution of Sexism

Bryant (mycol1@unm.edu)
9 Aug 1996 18:54:12 -0600

Mr. Firl requested that I post a brief review of University of Michigan
psychologist Barbara Smuts' writing on the evolution of patriarchy in
humans and other primates. I'll open with the abstract of her recent
paper, "The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy," [_Human Nature_, 6(1):
1-32] and follow up with some of my thoughts and a review of Clara Jones'
(an animal behavioralist at Rutgers') recent reply to Smuts' paper ["The
Selective Advantage of Patriarchal Restraint," _Human Nature_, 7(1):97-102].


Abstract (Smuts 1995):

This article argues that feminist analyses of patriarchy should be
expanded to address the evolutionary basis of male motivation to control
female sexuality. Evidence from other primates of male sexual coercion
and female resistance to it indicates that the sexual conflicts of
interest that underlie patriarchy predate the emergence of the human
species. Humans, however, exhibit more extensive male dominance and male
control of female sexuality than is shown by most other primates. Six
hypotheses are proposed to explain how, over the course of human
evolution, this unusual degree of gender inequality came about. This
approach emphasizes behavioral flexibility, cross-cultural variability in
the degree of patriarchy, and possibilities for future change.


In point of fact, Smuts didn't deal much with that last bit, "the
possibilities for future change." This is why Clara Jones (ref above)
followed up with a paper exploring how evolved male psychology can be
restrained to better effect gender equity.


Smuts opens her paper with an introduction to the evolutionary view of
inter-sexual conflict, which boils down to the sex with investing the
most in reproduction being a limited resource to the other sex, which
tends toward competition for sexual access to that limited resource.
Hence, men (who invest less in reproduction) tend to compete for women,
and have a much higher variance in reproductive success than do women.
She argues that the instincts and emotions (like male sexual jealousy)
that encourage men to behave in oppressive ways toward women are evolved
psychological adaptations which assured ancestral males differential
reproductive success.

Female resistance to male coercion is compromised by male social networks
and, in humans (Smuts argues) a tendency toward patrilocal settlement
after marriage, forcing women into social situations in which would-be
female social allies are either kin to a wife's oppressors or a
competitor for the oppressors' resources (in polygynous cultures).


Smuts reviews the evidence for male coercion in 'higher' primates and
concludes that those species in which females have the most elaborate
social networks are the species in which male coercion is rarest
(Bonobos) and those in which females are usually isolated are the species
in which rape is most common (Orangs). She touches on gang rape by
dolphins and common chimps as examples of male networks designed to
subjugate female reproductive interests to males', and alludes to a
homologous origin of male social dominance.


These seem somewhat redundant to me, but here they are:

1. Ancestral proto-human females' resistance of male
aggression was reduced by social networks disfavoring female
alliances. (This of course assumes that the human tendency
toward patrilocality was also prevailing in ancestral human

2. Male/male alliances [and psychological adaptations
enhancing participation in them] became more sophisticated
through evolutionary time. [This smacks of group selectionism,
which Smuts embraces, unlike most evolutionists.]

3. Males gained control over resources females need to survive,
increasing the ability of males to coerce and control women.
Only in the human species do females depend upon males to
any appreciable degree for food supply.

4. Male sociopolitical arrangements increased the variance in
male wealth and power and perpetuated family differentials
across generations. Women became increasingly vulnerable to
the whims of the resource-dominating males, and were forced
to provide guarantees of fidelity and paternity reliability
(i.e., to subjugate their freedom of sexuality) in return for these
men's resources.

5. Women's self-interested pursuit of their reproductive
interests, they will promote males' collective control over
(other) women. Thus, women as well as men contribute to
male domination by subjugating the greater (female) good to
their own immediate desires and needs.

6. The evolution of human language allowed males to
consolidate and increase their control over females via gender


Clara Jones' response to Smuts' paper sought to understand how we might
minimize male tendencies toward coercion of women. She, in my opinion,
fails because she boils it down to a question of making it reproductively
costly (reducing men's Darwinian fitness) to coerce. Just because
coercion was selected for in the past does not mean that men are
consciously fitness-seeking creatures. A man doesn't often realize that
jealousy is an evolved strategy for forcing mate fidelity, for instance.
He just knows that he's unhappy when he suspects his mate is being
unfaithful, and proceeds to brutalize her or to intimidate her (many
men fail to realize that shouting is often perceived as a threat of
violence). In the short term, then, Jones' proposal seems to be one of
artificial selection for nice guys--an experiment which would not benefit
women for a long, long time.

(Castrating meanies might reduce domestic violence, though, if testosterone
levels are positively associated with aggressiveness.)


Domestic violence researchers should begin looking for the cues abusive
males are reacting to when they get violent. Violence is not likely
happening in a vacuum--although men who are excessively
insecure may "see" cues of infidelity where there are none. It is
irresponsible to, out of fear of "blaming the victim," ignore the role of
women's behavior in abusive relationships. Men should be punished for
physical violence and sexual harassment, but this has clearly proven
"necessary but not sufficient" in reducing male coercion and achieving
gender equity.

In my opinion, we might profitably take an behavioral ecological
perspective, which involves not just viewing abusers in a social vacuum, but
also the environmental and inter-personal cues which trigger aggressive
instincts. I repeat: Men in no way should be relieved of the burden of
curbing their baser instincts; "I really wanted to" is no defense for
rape!!! (Or cuckoldry.)

Those who insist on historical etiologies for male dominance, based often
on myths of egalitarian cultures past (or even matriarchies!) are
underestimating the level of devotion to change men will have to be
inspired to achieve if we are to reach something approximating gender
equity. We will also likely have to reveal the illogic of
powerfully held religious justifications for male dominance--no easy
task, since these beliefs afford many poor men the only power (short of
physical violence) they feel they possess.

Assurances that women's assaults on men's well being (like cuckoldry)
will be also be punished may make many men more willing to accept
punitive dissuasion of male assaults on women.

[Cuckoldry is the flip side of rape. Although clearly less brutal physically,
it is a subversion of a man's reproductive freedom, wrapping his resources up
in another man's offspring. Women who do not appreciate the special mental
anguish of a cuckolded man might well consider how much more emotionally
painful rape is than mere physical injury--and why. Emotional pain tends
to reflect the severity of a fitness impact, and little impacted
ancestral women's fitness so much as being forced to risk pregnancy by an
unchosen, uninvesting mate.]