Re: Evolution of Sexism

Bryant (
13 Aug 1996 12:24:26 -0600

In article <4uo1tb$>,
Gerold Firl <> wrote:

>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.

My first reaction is to suggest that you're under-estimating the
brutality human males often inflict on women, but your point's well
taken. I *think* that Smuts means to say that human male dominance is
better organized and multi-facited than other primates' "sexism."
Certainly, we've less proclivity to rape than, say, Orang males.

>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
That's just what a lot of behavioral ecologists are doing, these
days. Including the new, small school of evolutionary feminists. Tara
Armijo-Prewitt, whose study of female genital mutilation (a severe form of
male dominance, but a subtle one, too, because the women's lineages are doing
it, not husbands), is nearing submission of her paper, showing that
resource base and social stratification predict severity of mutilation
practices. (She's in the Galapagos at the moment, so cannot join our

>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.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on it, once they're articulated. Yes, she
does tend to draw sweeping, causal political generalities from
correlations. I still haven't figured this scientist out, yet. She has
some strange proclivities, and seems a tad more career-promoting than
many academics. (I can't believe she takes group selectionism seriously,
for instance, but note that she's getting a lot of popular press
attention for saying she does.)

>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.

It would be interesting to see if any field studies note male attempts to
coerce (rape) female bonobos being rebuffed by female alliances. That
would support her contention.

>|> 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.

I may have read too much into that, because I know her sympathies for
group selectionism. Cooperation, if reciprocal, poses no great challenge
to the individual/genic-selection model of modern neo-Darwinism, as you know.

>|> 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 definitely working from within a feminist framework, remember.
Really, you and she are saying the same thing, but you're not worrying
about placing it in a politically friendly syntax.