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Feminism And Biology – Strange Bedfellows

famiA specter is haunting feminism-the specter of Darwinism. Biological learning has undermined the feminist mantra that disproportionate male representation in the highest-ranking positions of corporate and political life is evidence of patriarchy, or even of discrimination. Instead, biological theory and research suggest that patterns of representation are a natural outgrowth of the fact that men, on average, are more aggressive than women, more concerned with status, and more inclined to take risks, while women, again on average, are more nurturing and empathetic.

The feminists’ first response to the rise of this inconvenient biology was to deny its relevance. Yet this is no longer possible, when even popular magazines routinely discuss the biological basis of human behavior, as in the notorious Time headline, “Infidelity: It May Be in Our Genes.” This spring will see the publication of no fewer than three books that try a different tack-offering biological evidence of female traits that are more to the liking of feminists. New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has already outlined part of her book in that paper’s Sunday magazine, and Barbara Ehrenreich has offered a preview of them all in another Time story, breathlessly titled “The Real Truth About the Female.”

Feminist biology is mostly wishful thinking. As Kingsley Browne of Wayne State University points out in his excellent new work, Divided Labours, women, like females of other species, are more invested in children because eggs are a scarcer resource than sperm and the female contribution to the creation of a child is far more time consuming. On this theory, one would predict that women would be more selective than men in their partners, as they have more to lose in the event of a wrong choice. They would also be more supportive of their offspring.

Men and other male animals, by contrast, have no such limits on their reproductive opportunities. One would therefore predict that they would be more aggressive and undertake more risks to acquire mates and resources; they, after all, can more easily translate these mating opportunities and resources into limitless progeny. Consistent with these predictions, polygyny (an arrangement wherein one man lives with many women) has been common throughout history, whereas polyandry (one woman, many men) has been extremely rare.

hpBecause of their different reproductive strategies, men and women have evolved different hormonal processes that generate different dispositions. Testosterone and other hormones that trigger the development of male physical characteristics also organize personality traits. We know this in part because these traits appear in an unusual degree among girls who, because of a genetic defect, are exposed in utero to these hormones. Psychological studies also suggest that men and women have different predispositions from the beginning. Even before children understand that trucks are associated with boys and dolls associated with girls, girls tend to like dolls and other toys that lend themselves to nurturing and empathy, while boys reach for the Tonka Trucks.

Against the combined weight of this evidence (and this is a mere sample of what Browne and others have collected) the new feminists have embarrassingly little to offer. As evidence of female aggressiveness, Ehrenreich cites studies that claim primitive women gathered as much as 70 percent of their tribes’ plant food. But evolutionary biologists have never said that women were not important contributors to the food supply. Indeed, if our female ancestors concentrated on gathering plant food while men engaged in the more dangerous enterprise of hunting, it suggests precisely that men and women evolved temperamental differences. Ehrenreich also speculates that the aid of post-menopausal grandmothers may have made it unnecessary for primitive women to bond in pairs with men, hence debunking the idea of female dependence. But the notion that in an era of early death and debilitating disease elderly women could have performed defense and other necessary tasks better than young men seems laughable.

Natalie Angier, in turn, tries to poke holes in traditional evolutionary biology by focusing more on mating than on work. She observes that female primates often choose to couple with members outside their troops-supposedly evidence of female promiscuity. But evolutionary biology never predicted that women would lack a strategic mating sense. Indeed, being extremely careful about choosing a mate might sometimes require searching widely for Mr. Right. Angier is correct that a sexually adventurous strategy may make sense for some women in some circumstances, but this does not show that on average they will act as promiscuously as men. The new feminist biology misses the mark again and again because it fails to appreciate that evolutionary biology suggests only median differences between the sexes in temperament and preferences.

Angier seems particularly affronted by the claim that men prefer young, attractive women while women prefer older men with plentiful resources; the idea is that youth assures men of women’s fertility, and resources assure women of men’s investment in their children’s future. Studies from widely dispersed nations at different levels of development all contain this same finding. In response, feminists argue that this is true only because women under patriarchy depend on men for resources. The studies, however, show that rich and accomplished women want even richer and more accomplished men. Angier counters that high-earning women need male riches only because their own riches are insecure. But while she notes that women on average earn less than men (a point consistent with biological differences in priorities and temperament), she provides no evidence whatsoever that the income or riches of women are indeed less secure.

Feminist biology fails not only as science: It doesn’t support much of feminism’s current political agenda. Both Angier and Ehrenreich argue that their findings show that women are flexible and have a variety of interests. But it is the liberty at the heart of modern conservatism that sustains the social niches that accommodate this variety. In a free society, each woman is able to choose a profession that is suited to her particular talents and temperament. The market encourages companies to hire the most productive worker, regardless of gender. Similarly, in a society with limited government, women who want to spend more time with their children can do so and those who do not can marry or hire others who will take care of them.

Of course, these choices necessarily involve trade-offs in time and money, but that is a consequence not of patriarchy but of mortality and scarcity. Yet many feminists favor quotas and a comparable-worth pay system, initiatives to allow the government rather than the market to determine the value of performance. They also lobby for government funding of child care, in effect a tax on women (and men) who want to care for their children themselves. Thus their program is one that tends to foster uniformity rather than variety.

Which brings us right back to evolutionary biology. Biologists now recognize that one of the strongest primate tendencies is the drive to form coalitions that can seize the social surplus for their own benefit. The feminist political program shows that women of similar preferences can organize for those ends as effectively as any other interest group. It is a kind of equality, to be sure, but not one worth celebrating-and certainly not the one feminist biologists had in mind.

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