Can Feminism + Evolutionary Psychology= <3 ?

I am a feminist. I have been since elementary school, or before, because of my wonderful mother. Feminism is one of the lenses through which I filter reality, sometimes consciously, but usually unconsciously.

When I first learned about Evolutionary Psychology (EP) from my boyfriend Luke, who, at the time we met, was planning on attending grad school to study in the field, it made sense. EP applies the theory of evolution to human psychology, positing that genetic adaptations influence and, indeed, can usually explain the way modern humans think and act, given their environment. When Luke first shared this with me, I was like, well, duh. Of course, our biology affects the way we think and act.

Being a feminist (and, it may be argued, a woman), I was particularly interested in learning from him about the implications of this research on gender-relation issues. He explained to me Sexual Selection Theory, which is a huge, and relatively complex, area of EP. At the risk of oversimplification, I will try to explain it here.

This theory suggests that men and women choose sexual partners based on a biological impulse to further their genetic material. This means women, with limited ova and the biological requirement to care for young for a significant period of time after conception, usually look for men with high status who will invest resources into their offspring. Men, with a relatively unlimited amount of sperm and no biological requirement to care for young, choose between two types of mate selection: 1) having sex with as many fertile women as possible, investing no resources or 2) investing resources into one partner, selecting for fertility and perceived faithfulness. Of course, the research shows that this selection is much more nuanced than my three sentence explanation and that people rationalize their selection in a variety of ways, not always matching these explanations.

When I first heard this, it fit with how I understood patriarchy. First, women are at much higher risk in sexual encounters, because biologically much more is demanded from them in the gestation, birth, and, usually, childhood of their offspring. Second, women’s bodies can become sexual commodities to men (baby-making machines), for which they compete. Third, because of biological (hormonal) mechanisms related to child-bearing, men can usually physically overpower women.

This looks like a recipe for female oppression to me….

And then, this fall, a year after my initial conversations with Luke, I began to lurk on the feminist sector of the internet. I noticed that most feminists hated EP, often referred to it as “that Evo Psych BS.” However, the EP these women were rejecting, appeared different from the EP, Luke had explained to me. Actually, it seemed to me that these women knew little about EP and the little they did know they misunderstood.

At the same time, I began to bring a feminist critique on culture to my discussions with Luke. At first he rejected these thoughts out of hand, seemingly surprised that associated with those kind of feminists, the kind that actually say something or do something about feminism, as opposed to simply agreeing that women deserve equal rights. He admitted that he was predisposed against feminism, in part because of EP.*

Apparently, the two narratives are at war and actually, it kind of makes sense. Many feminists are trying to deconstruct gender differences. EPs are trying to describe and explain them.

Feminism: Women should be allowed the same privileges as men. Gender differences are minimal to non-existent.

EP: Actually, minimal though they may be, they definitely exist.

Feminism: You guys (mostly white and male, and all Western) aren’t women, so how can you know and how can you discount what we’re saying? You are upholding an unacceptable status quo, don’t you see?

EP: Are you dumb? This is science, not ideology.

This imaginary dialogue features the most fundamental of their differences, but the list goes on and on.

It’s just, the two make so much sense when understood together, I think. I really wish they would listen to one another. That perhaps EP should invest time in nurturing a core of women scholars investigating the field from a deliberately female perspective. (And perhaps some non-Westerners, as well, but that’s another essay.) That perhaps feminism should listen and learn about EP explanations of behavior, without discounting them offhand because maybe this narrative could help us break down the persistent walls of oppression binding us.

The leading EP scholars do not claim genetic determinism. Just because our biological impulses, when measured aggregately, appear to promote patriarchy (in a such an environment as we find ourselves today), does not that this is “good.” It also does not mean that it is unchangeable. Most EPs agree that what makes humans unique from other animals is their ability to override innate genetic impulses.

*Luke and I, while no closer to consensus, continue to discuss feminism and its implications for us on a regular basis. He is much more receptive to my feminist thoughts and opinions than he was at first. I am trying to be open to his perspective. It’s difficult, but we’ll make it.


Feminism FAQ from Feminism 101

What is Evolutionary Psychology?

Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society Launches (I found the comments helpful.)


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