Evolutionary Biology and Feminism
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There has been an ongoing uneasy relationship between evolutionary biology and feminism(s) due to highly differing perspectives about objectivity in science, issues of sex differences, and the role of biology versus social and cultural construction.
The tension between evolutionary biology and feminism(s) is palpable when it comes to understanding and explaining human behavior. At times, there seems to be no space for integrating the two perspectives: for example, Birke (2017) discusses how biological sex (i.e., anatomically female or male) and more generally the “ghost of biology” still remains problematic for feminist thought. Typically, feminists often view evolutionary based research as anti-feminist, reductionist, and neglecting the inclusion of social and cultural influences. This tension has been documented for at least four decades by a range of scholars (Fausto-Sterling 1997; Fedigan 1986; Fisher et al. in press, 2013; Gowaty 1997; Hager 1997; Heywood 2013; Hrdy 1981; Kelly 2014; Nier and Campbell 2013).
One important consideration is that there is no unitary, integrated theory that can be accurately called feminism, as there exist many different variants and perspectives. Thus, there is no central, general theory that holds feminist views together (Eagly and Wood 2011); even the terms “feminist” and “theory” are debated within the feminist community (see Radtke 2017, for a review). The very heart of third-wave feminism is the reliance on multiple perspectives/multivocality and an intersectional approach leading to inclusivity and nonjudgment, rather than synthesis with theoretical justification that leads to “differences” (Snyder 2008). This issue aside, gender construction, sex, and human-focused research are considered to be comfort zones for exploring feminist issues (Åsberg and Birke 2010).
Those using an evolutionary perspective tend to ground their work in the scientific method and evolutionary theory. They form inquiries using past research that they perceive as inherently objective (i.e., value free), rather than subjective. In contrast, those working in feminist areas question this very objectivity (see Hankinson Nelson 2017) and have indicated the numerous ways bias enters the scientific method, as well as the fact that research has real-world social and political effects (Fisher et al. 2013). One example is simply the language used in biology and medical texts to explain human fertilization: the ovum is described as passive while the sperm is described as active (for this and other examples, see Hankinson Nelson 2017). Fisher et al. (in press) document that the key arguments used by feminists pertain to the analysis of evolutionary scholars when biological, social, cultural influences collide to shape human sexuality and how the latter generalize their findings.
One particular source of disagreement rests on evolutionary scholars’ reliance on parental investment theory. Parental investment theory (Trivers 1972) leads to conclusions of sexual inequalities, such as women’s obligatory investment in pregnancy and children, women’s proportionately lower reproductive variance than men’s reproductive variance, and women’s higher choosiness in mate selection as compared to men. Such conclusions are not necessarily accurate or as applicable to primates as they are to other animals (see Gowaty 2013; Heywood 2013; Hrdy 1986). Feminists argue that this approach to human sexuality reinforces sexual double standards, while simultaneously neglecting any action or thinking that would reduce or remove social inequalities and injustices, especially directed at women and minority populations. Further, feminist scholars often see research on sex differences enforcing heteronormativity/heterosexualism, propagating and supporting stereotypical and ethnocentric beauty standards for women, and rationalizing or normalizing harmful behaviors of men towards women (e.g., speculation about the adaptive function of rape [Thornhill and Palmer 2001], family conflict [Daly and Wilson 1999], or domestic violence [Wilson and Daly 1998]).
The role of social constructionism in feminist scholarship also prohibits a strong integration with evolutionary viewpoints and is the cornerstone of much feminist writing (e.g., Heywood 2013). Social constructionism generally refers to “the belief that rather than our living in a readily knowable ‘out there’ reality, we dwell in a world that is socially constructed, constructed by our experiences with others, and validated consensually and communally” (Barkow 2006, p. 24). According to typical feminist scholars, evolutionary theorizing rests on a foundation of biological essentialism and biological determinism and rejects social and cultural factors (e.g., Eagly and Wood 2011). This divide may be artificial, given as Barkow (2006) reviews: we are a culture-bearing species, meaning we rely on socially transmitted information for our survival and reproduction. Any argument in favor of social construction demands that humans are able to socially transmit and receive information, and evolutionary perspectives show that this capacity has itself has evolved. The human brain has changed over time to adapt to increasingly complex social environments, and we need to be able to acquire and then use information about our local environmental (i.e., geographic, social, familial, cultural) conditions. This information leads to successful responses within these environments, which means that humans possess evolved mechanisms that permit – and even rely on – social construction. Social construction is not against biological explanations of behavior but instead is synergistic; both are constrained by our evolved brains and bodies. Indeed, our only option is to agree with the assertion by Janicki and Krebs (1998, p. 202): “purely biological models will not be able to supply a full account of human behavior without reference to cultural process.”
There have been numerous attempts to integrate evolutionary perspectives with feminist scholarship. These attempts generally are aimed at arriving to a more holistic comprehension of humans, particularly in terms of sex and gender. Relatively recent developments in evolutionary theory, from the modern synthesis to the extended synthesis of evolutionary biology, show noteworthy potential for integrating feminist and evolutionary approaches to the study of gender, sex, and sexuality in behavioral sciences (see Garcia and Heywood 2016). These types of developments showcase social environments are as significant a consideration as material biology and highlight how they are co-constitutive such that one responds to the other, typically in heritable ways. Similar frameworks in behavioral ecology, cultural evolution, and gene-culture co-evolution have been created and view biological species in a social environmental context. We note that, like Campbell (2006), acknowledging the importance of culture in shaping human factors such as gender/sex is not asserting that there is an absence of biological influences to consider.
There have been decades worth of biologists who are feminists (e.g., Haraway 1978), as well as those working within feminist evolutionary biology (e.g., Fausto-Sterling et al. 1997; Smuts 1995). There is notable interest in the area, as seen by the formation of the Feminist Evolutionary Perspectives Society in 2009 (Sokol-Chang and Fisher 2013). There are now special issues of peer-reviewed journals have been devoted to the topic, as well as entire books and edited volumes, including several feminist rebuttals (see Fisher et al. in press, for a review).
In summary, evolutionary theory has existed for well over a century, and feminist responses to it emerged shortly after. Additionally, feminisms have long studied the effect of culture, which in turn is created by evolved minds. However, both disciplines have historically failed to see where integration was obvious, necessary, or beneficial. While strides have been made, we argue that there remains much work to be done. This work needs to come from both fields. We previously noted that incorporating feminist views within evolutionary perspectives has made inroads, but there is resistance for the reverse transaction. These impediments must be identified, reviewed, and eliminated.
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