Re: Evolution of Sexism

Gerold Firl (
12 Aug 1996 19:50:03 GMT

Bryant - thanks for posting this article. What a breath of fresh air,
after the stale polemics which have polluted this newsgroup lately! Here
is a topic which rightly links anthropology to important contemporary
issues; this should be interesting.

In article <4ugmjk$>, (Bryant) writes:

|> *********************************************************************
|> 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.

I wonder about this. Do humans really show more male dominance than
most other primate species? It's been a while since I looked at
wilson's cross-species comparison of primate social systems, but the
hamadryas baboon and hanuman langur come to mind as obvious examples of
species where male dominance is more pronounced, and more brutal, than
what is found among humans.

Perhaps a more interesting question looks at the *range* of human
social strategies, which vary all over the map from savagely
patriarchal (in islamic sudan or ch'ing dynasty china, for example) to
strongly egalitarian (as in modern iceland or mbuti pygmy). Perhaps an
ecological analysis of human cultural adaptations could be related to
the strategies evolved by different species to find some correlation,
some commonalities underlying a parallel evolution?

|> 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.

It seems to me that smuts takes far too political a view of these
evolutionary processes. She links the presence of female social
networks to the lack of male coercion, but I don't see that as a causal
relationship. I would argue that both male coercion and female social
networks are outgrowths of more fundamental ecological realities... I
don't have a clear idea of how to express exactly how right now, so I'll
leave that for later.

|> 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
|> populations).

Again, she mistakes symptoms for cause here. Bonobos use non-violent
means for resolving social conflicts, and in that environment female
social networks are powerful and effective. In a mileau where violence
is relatively more common, such networks are just not very useful.

|> 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.]

Smuts definately errs in the area of group selectionism, though it's
not clear to me how hypothesis 2 relates to group selection. Hypothesis
5 makes her imbalance in perspective more obvious.

|> 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.

This is an important point, and one where smuts focusses more clearly
on one of the primary variables: resource-gathering and retention. In
ecological terms, do you want to be a predator? A member of the herd?
A scavenger? Maybe even a parasite - humans play all these roles within
the body-politic.

As societies become more differentiated, and social roles become more
specialized, there is a huge impact on female fitness (probability of
propagating ones genes into the next generations) derived from position
in the social heirarchy. The wife of a prosperous burgher or aristocrat
has a much better chance of reproducing succesfully than does a
night-soil porter, regardless of her social network. The tradeoff made
by women between freedom of sexuality and heirarchal security looks
like a very rational bargain. I tend to view the gender roles of
different societies as being more in the nature of mutually beneficial
for men and women, rather than as an exploitative arrangement (except
in certain transitory circumstances).

|> 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.

This looks very silly. The idea that individual women are members of
some kind of pan-female interest group is a political idea, which
simply doesn't operate in biological evolution. Smuts is examining the
biological basis of human patriarchy, and is thus in the realm of
darwinian evolution; since women have just as many sons as daughters,
their fitness isn't changed by the sexual balance of power throughout

I think the degree of patriarchy and violence within a society is
determined mostly by relations with neighboring cultures. Under certain
conditions of competition for resources between neighboring cultures,
an escalating "arms-race" will ratchet-up the degree of violent
patriarchy; it's not a matter of keeping the wife down, but of keeping
up with the military capability of the joneses.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf