On Evolutionary Psychology, Feminism, Patriarchy
The topic of evolutionary psychology has come up, a couple times, when I hang out with feminists. Now, I generally consider myself to be a feminist, but the fact is that not everyone who thinks they’re a feminist is one; I will err on the side of caution here, and leave the decision as to whether I get to be in the club up to the people that have the most significant vested interest.
In any case, I want to take a minute and talk about evolutionary psychology, its relationship to the patriarchy, and why biological determinism is stupid.
First, some terms. Evolutionary psychology is the science of figuring out the reasons for certain patterns of human behavior based on how those patterns might have, at some time or another, provided an evolutionary edge to a civilization, community, tribe, or individual. I am a big believer in evolutionary psychology.
Biological determinism is the belief that human beings have a set of hard-wired, biological instructions (instincts, we might call them), that we must follow–either because we can’t help it, or because we’ll be sad and unhappy if we don’t. I generally think biological determinism is just an excuse to be a dickhead. (See Roissy.)
Now, as I said before, I do believe that evolutionary psychology has a lot of merit, because I don’t think that things happen for no reason. Human beings are capable of a lot of shitty things–things like racism, sexism, classism, &c.–and I don’t think those things are accidental. As shitty as they are, I’m willing to bet that there was some time and some place where those characteristics were really useful for survival.
Consider racism, for example: it’s generally hard to convince a group of people to make war on another group of people. But, the ability to murder the shit out of competing tribes is–at the most primitive level–an evolutionary advantage. So, a biologically or socially-inculcated fear or disdain for people that are different from you makes war a little easier to handle.
We see behaviors like this reflected in our close animal relatives: take a look at the humble chimpanzee, who routinely forms war parties that go out and eat his neighbors’ babies.
So, let’s talk about patriarchy. Yesterday, a friend of mine made a post, asking why peacock behaviors differ from human behaviors: in peacock society, the males are brightly colored and prance around, trying to attract a mate, while in human society, it’s the women who are expected to be brightly-colored and prancy. And, throughout many species (especially birds) females are camoflauged, while the males are brightly-colored and have to earn the attention of the females.
I said that the key difference between human beings and animals is economics, which was me kind of leaping into the middle of my theories on human social evolution, and consequently I had to keep explaining myself both backwards and forwards, in a manner that I can only assume was exponentially more confusing. I’m going to try again, but from the beginning.
What my friend was probably not aware of is that, in fact, peahens do not prefer peacocks with bigger feathers at all. Since I am a big old materialist, I believe that everything is a product of something, and so I’m going to put forth another scenario: the point of peacock feathers is not to attract the attention of the peahen, but to attract the attention of leopards.
A species’ survival rate is dependent on its capacity to breed, which is directly related to the number of females in a group. Consequently, survival behaviors that protect females from predators are evolutionarily useful: if a leopard shows up at the…uh…peacock grounds, I guess…the males all shriek and run with their big bright feathers, while the females hide under bushes and are camoflauged. The leopard is way more likely to get a male, which is good: males, in this scenario, are pretty expendable. If both sexes were brightly colored, the leopard would be just as likely to get a female, which would put that particular species at a breeding disadvantage.
Behaviors that are intended to protect females of the species are fairly common, actually: buffalo and cattle, when threatened, form up in a circle with the females and the children at the center. Dolphins do the same thing. Gorillas leave the fighting and posturing to the big male silverbacks. Almost all birds have brightly-colored males and dun-colored females. I’m not sure if elephants do this: they don’t actually have any natural predators, so they certainly don’t need to, but they didn’t always have no natural predators, and so the instinct might have stuck around. Lions, of course, don’t at all–their big manes are meant to call out other males, where they fight each other for breeding rights of the females. This isn’t a question of female choice, really, as the females are just stuck with whatever male turns out to have been stronger.
Anyway, human beings probably have this, too. A primitive group of australopithecenes that, when in danger, protects its females and its young is probably more likely to survive the Old Days, when leopards and tigers were eating the crap out of everyone, than a group that didn’t.
How does this turn into patriarchy, though? That’s where economics comes in. Economics is a product of two things: communication and forecast. That is, you need to be able to communicate effectively to make economic transactions, and you need to be able to predict that something else may be more valuable in the future than whatever it is that you have now. Human beings are the best at these two things, which explains why our economics is so complicated.
But, anyway, here’s the scenario: Australopithecus has a native instinct to protect females at times of danger. Maybe even just in general: maybe the males go out and take the risks and forage, because who cares if we lose a few males, right? Whatever. Australopithecus evolves into Homo sapiens (eventually) and discovers a new power: communication. This brings with it the attendant possibility of social behavior.
Social behavior is way, way more valuable than instinctive or biological behavior, because it evolves much, much faster, and doesn’t need to evolve randomly (or with death): if you have a bad idea you can just stop thinking it, and then you can figure out the good idea first, before you start to spread it around.
The earliest social behaviors reinforce biological instincts, because your regular instincts aren’t specific enough or adaptable enough, or what have you. So, the instinct to protect women passes from the biological to the social, and spreads the way all social insincts do: like a virus. Everyone gets thoroughly infected with it.
At the same time that this is happening, we’re evolving economics. This means that we start evaluating things that we have, things that we control, according to what we can get for them. We are commodifying things.
Then what happens? The social instincts, because they’re more mutable than biological ones, enable men to move from an understanding that they’re supposed to protect women from tigers to a belief that they control the women that they’re supposed to protect. This is easy because of how unspecific the biological urge for protection is.
Now, since protecting females at early stages of civilization still provides some advantage–early agrarian communities fought kind of a lot, and as civilization advanced, they fought even more–there’s no pressure to remove the social instincts for control over women. It is, to a degree, working. So civilization gets built up on top of this “women are property” idea, which is primarily a learned behavior, not a biological one, and that means that when either groups or individuals try and reform it (Spartan women, for example), they’ve got too much crap to dig through in order to make an effective change.
I’m figuring that this worked for a while primarily because of how poorly-distributed education was. In almost all civilizations up until about three hundred years ago, education was confined to an elite group of literate people. Since it was built around only a few people knowing a lot of things, keeping large parts of the population (whether because of their gender, race, religion, &c.) subjugated didn’t pose any significant problems.
But with the widespread capacity for education, keeping segments of the population down becomes both disadvantageous and morally repugnant. Our civilization is now built not on the ability to do physical labor, but our ability to do intellectual labor–so, the more educated people we have, the better. And the better people are educated, the less willing they are to be second-class citizens.
Okay, so, what does this mean? Does it mean that feminism is unnatural? Yes, kind of. Does it mean that feminism goes against thousands of years of civilization? Yes, kind of. So what?
First of all, there’s this crazy idea that some people have that “nature” is one big holistic, harmonious thing, and you’re either with it, in which case you’re good, or you’re against it, in which case you’re bad. This is crazy. Nature is made up of thousands and thousands of warring elements that are always trying to fight each other for supremacy. Maybe there’s a natural instinct to protect women, whatever. We have a natural susceptibility to polio, too, does that make polio vaccines unnatural? Of course not, because our ability to make polio vaccines is also the result of natural characteristics.
Likewise, our ability to develop psychological and social behaviors that countermand biological instincts are also natural, as is our ability to rewrite pre-existing social behaviors. We’re supposed to find better ways to conduct ourselves than instinct. We’re supposed to replace old-fashioned behaviors with new ones. That’s why we’re able to do it.
The history of civilization has been the history of the unnatural. Nature is slow, random, imprecise–leaving decisions about how to conduct society up to nature is foolishness. The idea that because cavemen did something in a certain way is only pertinent if we want to live like cavemen. I do not. I like pants, and the computer, and beer.
I also like feminism; maybe it’s not the way monkeys behave naturally, I don’t care. Monkeys do all kinds of stupid shit. But in 2029 when that asteroid clips Earth’s orbit, and we realize that we’ve only got seven years before it crashes into us and wipes out all life on the planet, it’s not the fucking monkeys who are going to figure out a way to deflect it.