Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism Wars

I have finally managed to update my google reader subscriptions by adding RSS of some of my favorite journals, and I have to say this move already yields its results. This time I chanced upon an article about an issue that I was systematically encountering, but since I consider it rather a political topic, it always ended up right bellow the radar of my interest. It is about the (I think it’s fair to call it tense) relations between feminism and evolutionary psychology1.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the presence of Gender studies department at our university. From my point of view it either investigates aspects of what it means to be men and women in different societies, which makes it a relevant (but still a) part of sociology so it is redundant to create a separate department for this single issue, or it is a politically motivated activist project, in which case it certainly can be a club or a student organization, but I do not think it should be recognized as a scientific discipline, the same way as theology. I come from the Czech Republic so I think I am in a good position to say that it is not a good idea to have politically oriented schools, because it always creates a conflict of interest between political preferences and presenting independent research results. I, however, need to stress out yet once more that I am not against university providing a platform for such endeavors (gender studies circle/club), but I am against gender studies using university’s authority and credentials in public discourse (we do not have departments of scientific Marxism…well…not any more). One more word of introduction: as a secular humanist I certainly see feminism as one of the cornerstones of my ethical-political worldview.

Back to the article at hand (you can read the abstract here). Author starts on by defining two fundamentally different concepts of feminism – equity and gender feminism. Both, equity and gender feminisms are basically sociopolitical views that state that men an women are equal. The difference comes in the claims about human nature. Gender feminism states that if there are any psychological differences between men and women, then they have to be caused by nothing else but cultural differences. Equity feminism does not make any such claims.

Alright, I am far from saying that any detectable inter-sexual psychological difference is caused by some inborn module. Clearly, an experience with certain kinds of activities in certain sensitive phases of ontogenesis can result in even irreversible sexual differences that are not inborn. However, even if we look only at bodily differences, we can see that many biological systems (immune, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, muscular, and so on and so forth) are tuned different way in men and women. To talk more in evolutionary psychological terms, there are clearly differences in sexual strategies, factors of attractiveness, parental investment, paternal uncertainty etc. that create sex-specific adaptive problems that should result in sex-specific adaptations. Here, Kuhle points to the fact that in order to save the main tenet of underlying psychological uniformity, gender feminists have to create some sort of Cartesian dualism between all what is clearly different, and the desired sex-neutral tabula rasa of psychological nature. Needless to say, such dualism is hardly tenable when faced with evidence, and leads to the above-described conflict of interests.

Kuhle concludes his argumentative article by discussion of why would anyone subscribe to gender feminism. The main reason seems to be that evolutionary psychological research of sex-differences is viewed as threatening for the feminist political aims. This paranoia is based on the false assumption that what has evolved cannot be changed (the myth of immutability) and that what has evolved is right (naturalistic fallacy). It is important to understand that evolutionary psychological research cannot be used to justify or legitimize any social norm. It can only offer some insight in the origin of such norm or phenomenon. It is up to us how we want to use this insight.

I think the whole issue can be summarized and (in my opinion) resolved in the following question:

Wouldn’t it be better to understand sex differences that are underlying some social norms so we can more effectively change those norms towards our political/ethical ideal, rather than to deny the differences so we can falsely legitimize our political aims, and thus be blind to the obstacles on the way to achieve them?

Oh, and do not forget to check out The Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society web.

References:

Kuhle, B. X. (2011). Evolutionary psychology is compatible with equity feminism, but not with gender feminism: A reply to Eagly and Wood. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(1), 39-43.

http://www.maryannefisher.com/feps/founders/

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1 I want to announce that I am currently working on a longer piece about evolutionary psychology in general so stay tuned.

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