Gender equality vs evolutionary psychology

Don’t believe people when they tell you that differences between men and women are biologically fixed.

This idea, that our brains are wired in a certain way and we can’t do anything about it, is often justified by using evolutionary psychology. This then ends up producing ‘just so’ stories, similar to Rudyard Kipling’s fables, like how the elephant got its trunk because a crocodile pulled on it.

It’s often traditional or conservative attitudes that are explained in this way, like the notion that women are worse at maths because male hunters developed better navigation and visualisation skills. Whereas the alternative view is that any measured differences in aptitude are caused by social factors.

She's a perfectly nice lady from a beautiful city, and there's no reason to be mean just because she thinks a quarterback is a river in Egypt.
Savannah ancestry (xkcd.com)

The thing is, you can actually test whether something like this is cultural or innate by comparing different countries. When you do, you find that the more gender equality there is in a society, the fewer differences there are in male and female performances in things like maths or engineering.

Now, the actual mechanism for that is not clear: research by Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary, from the Universities of Leeds and Missouri respectively, seems to suggest that it’s not due to stereotyping (Stoet G & Geary DC 2012, “Can stereotype threat explain the gender gap in mathematics performance and achievement?”, Review of General Psychology, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 93-102, doi: 10.1037/a0026617). But whatever the reason, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a fixed biological trait.

Another example is the old idea that men prefer young, fertile partners and women prefer wealthy men, and that our prehistoric ancestors evolved these differences because of their particular lifestyle: where the men were the providers and women stayed at home and raised children.

A recent study looked at this question by surveying people from 31 countries about their choice of mate. That is, they asked them whether criteria like financial prospects or cooking skills are important. They then ranked the countries using the Global Gender Gap Index, developed by the World Economic Forum (Zentner M & Mitura K 2012, “Stepping out of the caveman’s shadow: nations’ gender gap predicts degree of sex differentiation in mate preferences”, Psychological Science, published online 29 August 2012, doi:10.1177/0956797612441004).

They found a clear trend that in countries where there was good gender equality there were also fewer differences in mating preferences (Australia, in case you’re interested, came about the middle of the pack in both the Global Gender Gap Index and the equality of mating choices).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that evolutionary influences are totally irrelevant. As one of the authors, Marcel Zentner, said:

“Indeed, the capacity to change behaviours and attitudes relatively quickly in response to societal changes may itself be driven by an evolutionary program that rewards flexibility over rigidity.”

But really, you’d have to say that it strongly suggests that the evolutionary psychologists are wrong, and that differences between men and women aren’t biologically hard-wired into our brains.

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2 thoughts on “Gender equality vs evolutionary psychology

  1. I would like to add something to this. Evolutionary psychologists do not claim that all gender differences are biologically fixed; instead, they use our understanding of our past of millions of years to explain some of the well-documented gender differences. That said, evolutionary psychologists acknowledge the important interaction between biology and the environment people live in. I think it is fair to say that most researchers, including evolutionary psychologists accept that both biology and the environment (including the society we live in) play an important role in how men and women differ.

    1. Certainly, there is always an interaction between biology and environment. The concern is that hypotheses for the biological evolution of stereotypes are often then used to justify reinforcing those stereotypes, like not teaching maths to women, or men saying they’re biologically programmed to expect their partner to do the housework. But when the basic assumption is questionable – and the evidence seems to show culture is more important – then those conclusions become even more invalid.

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