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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram