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It’s only natural

The biological differences between men and women are no threat to feminism, says Helena Cronin

February 6, 2001
5 min read

I recently heard a member of a girls’ street gang boasting about their macho initiation ceremony. Recruits have to choose between being beaten up or having sex with a male gang member. Imagine making that same offer to male initiates. Sex not as a reward but as a penalty? Laughable.

Meanwhile, a study of American college students showed a parallel result. Asked by a stranger for a date, 50 per cent of both women and men agreed. But asked ‘Have sex with me tonight?’, not one woman agreed, whereas men shot to 75 per cent. Before you reach for your ‘social construction of gender’ theory – don’t. Such disparate female-male values reflect a difference in our evolved psychologies, honed by natural selection for over two million years. Evolution made mens’ and women’s minds as unalike as it made our bodies. And it’s time feminists and leftists started taking the implications seriously.

Consider the largest, most wide-ranging survey ever made of male-female psychological differences, covering 37 cultures on six continents, totalling over 10,000 people – urban and rural, old and young, educated and illiterate. Universally, it was found, women desire older husbands; nowhere do men desire older wives. Universally, men value female virginity more than women value men’s. Universally, male sexual jealousy focuses more on sexual than emotional infidelity, female jealousy vice versa. There are cultural differences – virginity counts for a lot in Iran but for very little in Sweden. But everywhere there was a male-female difference and always in the same direction. These were precisely the differences that Darwinian theory predicted. Here are human universals, an underlying human psychology, showing up even across huge cultural, economic, social and political differences.

Why are there sex differences? Give a man 50 wives and he could have 50 times more children. But a woman with 50 husbands? Generation after generation, down evolutionary time, natural selection has favoured men – but not women – who have out-competed their rivals for access to mates. We are all the descendants of such competitive males – and of less competitive females.

In cartoons, that competition amounts to cave-men biffing their rivals and dragging off the girl by her hair. But natural selection has favoured more subtle means – in particular, males showing females that they’ve got the resources to bring up our species’ highly dependent offspring. Nowadays, a Rolex or designer trainers can settle that. But resource accumulation became possible only when agriculture was invented, about 10,000 years ago. For 99 per cent of our evolutionary history we have been gatherer-hunters. In that environment, in which we evolved and to which our psychology is fine-tuned to this day, social resources were what mattered. Men not socially skilled? Don’t believe it. They are masters at status-seeking; face-saving; assessing reputation; detecting slights; retaliating against insults; and engaging in ethological ‘display’ – escalated showing-off. As part of this package, they are more persistent than females, more disposed to take risks and more promiscuous. Construe competition that way and you can see how a psychology built for divergent mating strategies might ramify throughout our evolved minds, pervading male and female psychologies. The divergence doesn’t stop at how fast you’ll jump into bed. It influences who commits murder, who causes road accidents and who is a computer nerd.

All this is well-established science, painstakingly modelled and tested. And yet feminist orthodoxy persists in denying any evolutionary basis to sex differences (obvious bits apart). The word ‘biology’ induces acute panic attacks, fears of ‘genetic determinism’, ‘reductionism’, ‘sexism’ and the like. Well, let me through; I’m a Darwinian. Perhaps I can help.

Genetic determinism? Genes can do their work single-mindedly, and we’re thankful for it every time a perfectly-formed baby is born. But genes can also promote flexibility and variety. Innate rules – intricate, highly specific and universal – enable us to speak a human language. But a vast diversity of languages is generated from those same rules in different environments. That’s how genes work for human behaviour: universal rules – our psychology; flexible outcomes – our behaviour. The rules laid down in our brains are designed to help us respond appropriately to whatever environment we find ourselves in.

Reductionism? Does this mean ‘reducing’ to genes? We’ve just seen that evolutionary explanations are about evolved psychologies in particular environments. Or does it mean ‘reducing’ human behaviour to the laws of science? Is this an objection to the awe-inspiring quest to plumb the mysteries of our universal human nature?

Sexism? This assumes that differences are necessarily invidious and that women will necessarily emerge as ‘inferior’. Feminists should know better.

Science simply tells it like it is; it doesn’t dictate goals. But how can we promote a fairer world – from social and legal policy to personal relationships – unless we understand differences, unless we let truth, not ignorance, be our guide?

Helena Cronin is the author of The Ant and the Peacock (Cambridge University Press). She runs a programme called Darwin@LSE

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