Why the Feminist Aversion to Biology Is Misguided

A basic assumption of contemporary feminist thought holds that gender is, if not entirely, at least largely a social construct. Viewed from this perspective, sex differences in attitude, personality, and behaviour are attributed primarily or even completely to environmental and cultural factors. While many social scientists knowingly or unwittingly endorse this position, within feminism, it has become something of a dogma. References to evolutionary psychology (i.e., an evolutionary perspective) within the feminist literature are about as rare as hen’s teeth. If biological explanations of human behaviour are mentioned at all, it is typically to lambaste them for being narrowly reductionist, biologically deterministic, or politically dangerous.

The hostility of many feminists towards biological explanations of human nature (i.e., bio-aversion) has various aspects and complex causes. It partially stems from a deep suspicion of science. Studies show that distrust of science increases proportionately with how strongly people identify as feminist.

The hostility of many feminists towards biological explanations of human nature (i.e., bio-aversion) has various aspects and complex causes. It partially stems from a deep suspicion of science. Studies show that distrust of science increases proportionately with how strongly people identify as feminist.[1] In fairness, the feminist aversion to biological explanations of gender is also rooted in what feminists saw as traditional androcentrism in science.

Putting Politics over Science

Among the widely different causes of bio-aversion, politics stands above the rest. Gender researchers often make no secret of the strategic nature of their commitment to the view of gender and sexuality as nothing but social constructs. If sex differences are only constructs, they can in principle be completely deconstructed, allowing for the formation of gender flexible or even genderless human individuals. A case in point is a Dutch introductory text in gender studies that focuses on the deconstruction of gender, sexuality, identity, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and notions such as rationality and objectivity. According to the editors, “this approach makes visible the instability of concepts, terms, language, and meaning in general, thus opening new perspectives on change.”[2] Quite unsurprisingly, androgynous and transgender identities are just about the only particularities not sorely in need of deconstruction, since the former supposedly managed to successfully integrate the characteristics and values of different genders, while the latter is said to have effectively escaped the abominable male-female gender binary. In the words of American psychologist Francine Deutsch, this approach “implies that if gender is constructed, then it can be deconstructed. Gendered institutions can be changed, and the social interactions that support them can be undone.”[3]

Along the same lines, Asia Eaton and Suzanna Rose scanned the ten most popular introductory psychology textbooks in the United States for explanations of gender and sex differences, giving a thumbs up to those that focus on socio-cultural approaches rather than biological and evolutionary ones.[4] According to the authors, biological and evolutionary frameworks present gender and sex differences as fixed and innate, thwarting efforts at social change aimed at gender equality. Norwegian researcher Åsa Carlson is firmly of the opinion that feminist theory needs a constructivist account of biological sex that explains why “most females are women and most males are men”, since otherwise being cisgender (individuals whose biological birth sex matches their experienced gender identity) and heterosexual will always remain the norm.[5] It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Arguing in favour of explanations of gender-related behaviour from a biological point of view, neuropsychologists Sheri Berenbaum, Judith Blakemore, and Adriene Beltz find themselves deeply concerned about feminist bio-aversion. They analysed over four thousand articles published between 1975 and 2009 in the influential academic journal Sex Roles. As little as twenty-five dealt with biological perspectives, a paltry nine of which sympathetically. The remaining sixteen articles dismissed biological findings, presented them incorrectly, or purposely suppressed inconvenient evidence. Other articles addressing biology did so only to deny its potential as an explanatory factor. Berenbaum and her colleagues do not mince words: in gender studies not only do the vast majority of researchers have no interest in biology whatsoever, they seem to actively resist it.[6]

Norwegian researcher Åsa Carlson is firmly of the opinion that feminist theory needs a constructivist account of biological sex that explains why “most females are women and most males are men”, since otherwise being cisgender (individuals whose biological birth sex matches their experienced gender identity) and heterosexual will always remain the norm.

As research suggests, the same hostility to the life sciences and biological approaches prevails in European gender studies. Spurred by her encounters with a “deep and widespread taboo and insularity among gender sociologists”, Swedish sociologist Charlotta Stern conducted a small but telling literature survey, assessing the impact of Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Presenting an impressive overall account of scientific understanding of human nature, the book received tremendous attention in both the popular press and academic circles. If gender researchers failed to address its many challenges – at birth the human mind is not a tabula rasa, and gender goes far beyond genitals and chromosomes – it could only be because they simply chose to ignore them. In Stern’s own words, her findings were “consistent with an image of gender sociology as a subfield that has insulated its sacred beliefs from important scientific challenges.”[7]

Another Swedish study by Therese Söderlund and Guy Madison compared publications of researchers in gender studies with those of scholars in closely related social sciences disciplines. In general, gender studies publications had larger numbers of biased and normative statements. The more pronounced the gender perspective, the stronger the preference for external, non-biological explanations of human behaviour. In conclusion, the authors recommend that “gender scholars and other interested parties consider and examine whether Gender studies might be prey to selective accounts of reality on the basis of ideological preferences.”[8] By its very nature, any ideological bias will inevitably curtail the range of conceivable explanations, steer the reading of data in specific directions and favour methods likely to deliver desired outcomes, gravely compromising the quest for truth and science-based knowledge. Söderlund and Madison’s warning that “it would be unfortunate for the area of Gender studies if these issues ultimately would challenge the scientific value of the field” should be heard and heeded by each and every gender researcher. More often than not, however, the warning appears to fall on deaf ears.

Sad to say, in Belgium and at my Flemish alma mater, the gender studies field generally suffers from the same defects. On its website, the Ghent University’s Centre for Research on Culture and Gender’s research specifications leave little to the imagination:

Gender is seen as a cultural construction in relation to other identity dynamics such as ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and nationality. Gender is not only considered as an analytical category and as a social means of categorization and regulation, but as a culturally variable construction as well. (Consulted on 17 April 2020)

Both the website and information brochure of the Inter University Master of Arts Program in Gender and Diversity, jointly organized by all five Flemish universities and first launched in the academic year 2014-15, promote and stress the social constructivist guiding principles of the courses on offer. By their own account, “keen interest in the program Gender and Diversity shows that many students are in need of critical knowledge and analytical skills that provide insight into emancipation and inequality, liable to be converted into attitudes and competences to move things forward.”

In fact, the underlying view of humankind is badly misguided. Like members of any other sexually reproducing species, human beings share an evolved nature that is sexually differentiated, at least in certain ways and to certain degrees.

In fact, the underlying view of humankind is badly misguided. Like members of any other sexually reproducing species, human beings share an evolved nature that is sexually differentiated, at least in certain ways and to certain degrees. Because the principle of human equality is a moral position rather than an empirical hypothesis, the reality of naturally evolved sex differences does not in any way justify gender discrimination or inequality of opportunity. Gender and Diversity graduates, however, may have been deluded into thinking that to acknowledge biological differences must have unwelcome inherent moral and political implications. Otherwise, why would it be so severely frowned upon?

The feminist aversion to biology not only manifests in how biological information is either ignored or filtered, it also is demonstrated in how scientific research into biologically rooted sex differences is consistently misconstrued as ideologically suspect. According to Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers in their book Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs: “it was no coincidence that just as women successfully moved into the workforce in enormous numbers and challenged traditional male-female stereotypes, theories emerged that defined men and women on the basis of those very stereotypes. It is not lost on us that these rigid gender stereotypes have emerged with particular force as women have been gaining real power.”

As far as feminist psychologists Joan Chrisler and Mindy Erchull are concerned, biological explanations of gender differences “can be seen as part of a backlash against the gains of the Women’s Movement.”[9] In a similar vein, Jeanne Marecek and her colleagues argue that “contemporary repertoires of gender serve both to maintain the boundaries and distinctions between men and women and to keep women subordinated to men. They often naturalize or conceal unequal power relations, injustice, and even violent coercion.”[10] Obviously, this rather daft claim flies in the face of the fact that in all known cultures biological sex is and has always been by far the most common and straightforward criterion to classify people. We do it automatically.[11] After all, for any sexually reproducing organism, being able to easily identify members of the opposite sex with at least some degree of accuracy is surely of the utmost importance. 

Some feminists argue that the differences between the sexes are so trivial that they are best completely ignored. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, for instance, considers further investigation into cognitive sex differences to be futile.[12] In her opinion, compared to the variation within the sexes, these differences are so small as to fade into nothingness, so why pay any attention to them? To the late neuropsychologist Doreen Kimura, an expert in the relationship between sex and cognition, the answer is self-evident: because they are there. Furthermore, examining the underlying mechanisms of behavioural and cognitive sex differences, such as brain structures or hormone levels, may lead to a better understanding of the health of both genders.[13]

So why exactly do some feminists and gender theoreticians urge us not to approach gender differences like all other differences? Several reasons are advanced. To begin with, acknowledging the existence of naturally evolved rather than socially constructed differences is not in line with the feminist ideal of a society without structural gender differences. Furthermore, they believe admitting a biological role will lead to political abuse and stereotyping, ultimately impeding the personal development of girls and boys. Neuropsychologist Diane Halpern, a leading authority in research on cognitive sex differences, shows some sympathy for the last two concerns. The only alternative, however, is pretending that sex differences do not exist which won’t take us anywhere:

Ignorance is not an antidote for prejudice. A scientific approach to the questions about cognitive sex differences is the only way to sort fact from fiction. Ignorance does not counter stereotypes or dispel myths. If there was no research on sex differences we would never know that females earn much less than males or that males are much more likely to be diagnosed with certain mental disorders. High quality research is the only way that we can determine whether and when females and males are likely to differ. It is the only way that we can reject false stereotypes and understand legitimate differences.[14]

Where and when did it all go wrong? What caused feminism to give precedence to ideology over empirical evidence and the pursuit of reliable, science-based knowledge? Reviewing some concurrent historical developments may help to shed some light on this rather disconcerting conundrum.

An Early Parting of the Ways

By the turn of the 19th century, both psychology and sociology had established themselves as separate sciences. French philosopher Auguste Comte, founder of sociology, was fully in favour of a biological approach to the study of human society. He died in September 1857, just over two years before Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was released. American psychologist William James was familiar with Darwin’s work and invoked evolutionary theory to explain certain behaviours and mental features like consciousness or emotions as psychological adaptations. After what looked like a promising start, Darwinism soon lost its initial appeal. The lack of understanding of how selected traits were passed from one generation to the next led many scientists to turn their backs to the principle of natural selection and its relevance to the study of human behaviour and society. Even after genetics and natural selection were scientifically documented by the early part of the 20th century, sociologists and psychologists leaned away from biology toward social constructivism for many reasons, not the last of which was the negative connotations associated with social Darwinism. Perceived as both scientifically dubious and politically contaminated, evolutionary theory was damned in the eyes of most social scientists.

In a similar vein, Jeanne Marecek and her colleagues argue that “contemporary repertoires of gender serve both to maintain the boundaries and distinctions between men and women and to keep women subordinated to men. They often naturalize or conceal unequal power relations, injustice, and even violent coercion.”

In the end, another French architect of sociology shaped the future course of sociological research. Émile Durkheim argued that social phenomena constitute an autonomous system and can only be explained by other social phenomena. This soon became the basic assumption of the social sciences. Leading early anthropologist Franz Boas never denied the possibility of a universally shared human nature, but his students and followers radically espoused cultural determinism. Excluding psychological processes and behaviour from the realm of biology, the social sciences largely withdrew from the ongoing process of scientific integration, crystallizing ever since the Renaissance.[15]

The Rise and Fall of Behaviourism

In the second decade of the 20th century, behaviourism became the dominant paradigm of scientific, non-psychoanalytic psychology, particularly in the United States. For nearly half a century, the behaviourist movement brought evolutionary thinking in psychology to a virtual standstill. Its birth is commonly traced back to the publication of John Watson’s seminal 1913 paper Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It. Watson rejected any explanation of behaviour that relied on mental states, consciousness, and other not directly observable causes which he considered to be purely subjective and inherently unquantifiable. He therefore proposed that psychologists should confine themselves to the study of observable actual behaviour in response to external stimuli. According to Watson, B.F. Skinner, and other behaviourists, an organism’s actions are not driven by internal factors, but triggered and conditioned by stimuli from the external world. In their view, a general ability to learn by association, reward, and punishment was the only innate property of the human and animal mind. All creatures, be they male or female, were viewed as almost infinitely malleable by the external world via their lifetime experiences.   

In 1959, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky produced a scathing review of Verbal Behaviour, Skinner’s 1957 book on language acquisition. The critique was the first to expose some of the most glaring weaknesses of behaviourist approaches to learning. According to Chomsky, a general ability to learn cannot possibly explain first language acquisition in children. The stunning speed and ease with which young children learn to speak their mother tongue, effortlessly mastering even the most complex rules of grammar and syntax, plainly points to the existence of innate brain mechanisms dedicated to language acquisition.

Evidence against the behaviourists began to mount. In 1971, experiments conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated that, for comfort and protection, baby rhesus monkeys raised in isolation consistently ran and clung to non-feeding surrogate mothers made of soft terry towelling rather than to feeding ones made of welded wire mesh. External factors and stimuli like reward and punishment were clearly not the only determinants of an infants’ behaviour. Along with Harlow’s work, similar experiments heralded the decline and eventual downfall of behaviourism.

Paradise Lost, Found, and Lost Again

On the face of it, the astounding variation across cultures encountered by early 20th-century anthropologists seemed to confirm the behaviourist notion that humans have no innate nature whatsoever. Cultural diversity certainly suggested that the human mind was indeed a blank slate, an amorphous lump of clay that could be moulded and shaped into just about any form. Consequently, all behaviour and psychological phenomena had to be socially or culturally constructed.

Born in 1901, Margaret Mead grew up to become one of the most famous and influential anthropologists of her day. She studied under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict at Columbia University. In the eyes of most Boasians, politics and anthropology were inextricably linked. If only they could find a tribe or culture blissfully unacquainted with competition, greed, envy, rape, and murder! It would confirm what they had suspected and emphatically claimed all along: that virtually all the evils and problems of their own society derived from capitalism, Western values, and Western sexual morality. In her 1928 bestseller Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead purported to have discovered just such a society. On one of the Samoan Islands, she had reportedly encountered a people free from stress, rivalry, puberty issues, and sexual jealousy. “Romantic love as it occurs in our civilization, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy and undeviating fidelity, does not occur in Samoa”, she related to a captivated readership. As she saw it, the relaxed and casual nature of Samoan society ensued largely from growing up in extended, flexible families that neither encouraged nor romanticized strong affection. Supposedly, this “lack of deep feeling which the Samoans have conventionalized” lay at the basis of a community and emotional life almost free from friction and inhibition.

In Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, first published in 1935, Mead portrayed the reportedly completely different gender roles in three Papua New Guinean tribes. Among the Chambri, a people then known as the Tchambuli, Mead claimed women were the dominant sex. The men, she asserted, were subordinate and emotionally dependent. They wore make-up, painted, and danced. Among the Arapesh, men and women were said to be equally pleasant, kind-hearted, and peaceable. Conversely, among the Mundugumor, Mead found both sexes to be equally aggressive. According to her, these findings confirmed the reality of gender differences as predominantly or even purely cultural constructs: “The material suggests that we may say that many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.”

In Ruth Benedict’s equally influential 1934 book Patterns of Culture, Mead’s erstwhile teacher, lover, and fellow Boasian also argued that the evidence from history and anthropology supported the view that personality and behaviour are shaped by local culture rather than universal biological determinants.

Subsequent research revealed that many of the original accounts and descriptions of exotic cultures were inspired by prejudice and wishful thinking. As it runed out, the facial decoration of Chambri men had little to do with effeminacy but distinguished them as warriors who had slain a foe in personal combat. Women were banned from painting totem poles and from dancing at their inauguration ceremonies. Rather than  gentle protype peaceniks, Arapesh men proved to be good old-fashioned head-hunters who jealously kep their women in check. So much for female dominance or equality.

According to New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman observed and studied several Samoan tribes over the course of 40 years. Samoan society was in fact extremely authoritarian, hierarchical, patriarchal, and violent, with higher murder and rape rates than the United States. Furthermore, among Samoan men, sexual jealousy was rife and fierce. In both Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth(1983) and The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead(1999), Freeman suggested that Mead had been bamboozled by her own convictions and fooled by her indigenous informants. She also had very little command of the language and never consulted the records about life on Samoa available at the time.

Altogether, Freeman spent some six years living among the Samoans. By contrast, Mead’s nine-month stay was mostly spent at the comfortable home of an American family in charge of a naval dispensary. Chief among her sources of information on the sexual behaviour of Samoan youngsters was a bunch of mischievous adolescent girls who later confessed they had been taking her for a ride. In short, Mead’s work dramatically failed to meet even the most basic scientific standards.

Freeman’s research and criticism sparked a storm of protest, especially among social scientists that had eagerly embraced the findings of Mead and like-minded cultural anthropologists, but also from less partisan quarters. Some claimed Freeman wittingly overstated the prevalence and extent of domestic and sexual violence in Samoan society. Others pointed out that he studied the inhabitants of a different island than Mead, and at a much later time. Though the dust from the controversy has not yet fully settled, it is now beyond dispute that Mead’s work was strongly driven by her ideological commitments. She romanticized life on Samoa and omitted or downplayed information that did not fit her preconceptions. Most importantly, modern anthropological research clearly revealed the existence of numerous human universals shared across all cultures, including romantic love, sexual jealousy, male sexual possessiveness, and greater male physical aggression[16].

All creatures, be they male or female, were viewed as almost infinitely malleable by the external world via their lifetime experiences.

At the end of the 1960s, the collective failure of Mead, Benedict, and other Boasian anthropologists was as plain as a pikestaff. By that time, however, the counterculture of the day had already wholeheartedly embraced the notion of an almost infinitely malleable human nature. Not so much because of its perceived scientific value, but mainly because of its political appeal.

How the Left Was Lost

Despite their glaring shortcomings, neither cultural relativism nor cultural determinism readily disappeared from the academic scene. Epistemological social constructivism came to the rescue. In the humanities and social sciences, the contention that there is no such thing as objective truth and that the whole of science is just a tool designed by Western white men to dominate, anything and anyone else, suited many scholars. Any scientific finding not to their liking, such as evidence of a shared human nature, could be dismissed as the preconceived outcome of typically Western and white-male aspirations. Little surprise then that in feminist circles, epistemological social constructivism and an exclusive focus on environmental explanations of gender differences often go together.

In 1962 philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published his highly influential best-selling book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn argued that rather than being a steady and victorious march towards the truth, the history of science is marked by prolonged periods of paradigmatic stagnation. From time to time, a scientific revolution will radically topple the broadly shared existing worldview or paradigm, only to replace it with a new paradigm or prevailing view of nature. This seems to confirm the constructivist notion that what people consider to be nature or scientific truth is just another social convention. Even though Kuhn firmly rejected this reading of his theory in the book’s second edition, many feminist authors keep referring to the work as a source of corroboration. As geneticist and philosopher of science, Massimo Pigliucci, points out Kuhn’s view of how science proceeds by paradigm shifts most certainly does not apply to every scientific endeavour.[17] Ever since Darwin, for instance, evolutionary biology underwent many alterations and additions. For the most part, however, Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of natural and sexual selection stood up to scrutiny. Chances are slight that one day a scientific revolution will give rise to a fundamentally new explanation of biodiversity and animal behaviour.

How is it that, of all people, liberal and left-wing intellectuals were by far the most fervent proponents of epistemological social constructivism? After all, for all its real and imagined flaws, modern science had effectively exposed and trashed many myths about women, race, sexual orientation, and other long-standing grounds for discrimination. Conversely, it was always hard to see how social constructivism could possibly provide sound criteria to distinguish between reliable knowledge and superstition, prejudice, or mere opinion.

According to sociologist Ullica Segerstråle, the link between social constructivism and progressive politics is largely a matter of historical accident.[18] In the first decades of the 20th century, both conservatives and progressives invoked genetics to promote, and enforce specific eugenic policies. In fact, it was not until after the Second World War that genetic explanations of human behaviour, intelligence, and other characteristics acquired any negative connotations. The final turning point came in 1952, when the newly formed UNESCO, in order to once and for all dissociate science from racism, officially proclaimed environmental explanations of difference and inequality to be the only politically and intellectually correct approach.[19] It was well-intentioned, no doubt, but a major setback nonetheless. 

There are many other reasons as to why epistemological social constructivism so strongly appeals to left-wing intellectuals and activists. Many reject science claiming it is a tool of capitalism or focus exclusively on its most notorious ideological derailments. According to Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, disappointment over the implementation of Enlightenment ideals is key to the widespread disenchantment with modern science in liberal and left-wing circles. Western colonial powers exploited and decimated indigenous peoples, leaving a trail of chaos, death, and destruction in their wake. Since the second half of the previous century, tropical rainforests and other vulnerable habitats have been devastated and plundered at alarming rates, while ever more deadly and powerful weapons have proliferated. Accused of complicity, science became an obvious target of criticism for Western intellectuals, desperately struggling to shed the heavy moral burden of their historical legacy.[20]

Epistemological social constructivism came to the rescue. In the humanities and social sciences, the contention that there is no such thing as objective truth and that the whole of science is just a tool designed by Western white men to dominate, anything and anyone else, suited many scholars. Any scientific finding not to their liking, such as evidence of a shared human nature, could be dismissed as the preconceived outcome of typically Western and white-male aspirations.

Feminist writings amply demonstrate the moral underpinnings of epistemological social constructivism. Kathrin Thiele, gender researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, argues that “colonialism, slavery and fascism are the building blocks of modern knowledge and science systems.”[21] Denouncing “the destructive consequences of the imposition in the Third World of First World scientific and technological assumptions and practices”, philosopher of science Sandra Harding insists on the need for a deep, far-reaching revision of existing ideas about science.[22] According to sociologist Susan Archer Mann, rather than promoting social progress, the rationality of science and technology puts the planet at risk from environmental degradation, nuclear war, and other major hazards:

As the irrationality of rationality became more visible, increasing scepticism was directed toward the rules governing scientific inquiry and what is deemed as credible knowledge… Indeed, the deconstruction of science by new feminist epistemologies revealed the hidden fingerprints of power underlying scientific inquiries and engendered a radical uncertainty in regard to what constitutes ‘truth’ and whose ‘truth’ is privileged.[23]

That’s all very well, but as Gross and Levitt acutely point out, we really have no choice but to commit ourselves to the ideals and values of the very Enlightenment humanism that epistemological social constructivists denounce as a stooge of capitalism or a male, white, and Western tool of exploitation and oppression. After all, if not for the social justice ideals of equality and equity, the recognition of the dignity and inviolability of the individual, and the acceptance of the universality of moral principles, on what grounds do we condemn colonialism, slavery, and other crimes against humanity? The real conundrum as Gross and Levitt point out is that the accused, the plaintiff, and the judge are one and the same. The authors also link the anti-scientific attitude of so many left-wing intellectuals to a rebellious penchant to almost automatically value anything unconventional more than what established institutions represent or come up with, echoing the mindset of the counterculture of the 1960s that spawned new academic disciplines, such as gender and post-colonial studies.

Why go through the trouble of trying to dismiss science as just another arbitrary social construction when all it really takes to criticize its occasionally deplorable record is a bit of common sense and some basic moral principles? Does it truly require the deconstruction of the entire edifice of modern science just to be respectful of non-Western customs and beliefs, at least of those in keeping with fundamental human rights?

By virtue of their interdisciplinary approach, sociology and psychology got off to what looked like a promising start. Gradually, however, both fields retreated into the intellectual isolationism that has been considered politically correct ever since the 1950s. Almost by definition, biological and evolutionary perspectives on socio-cultural and psychological phenomena were, at best, ridiculed and, at worst, censored or dismissed as reactionary poppycock. Increasingly isolated from the broader scientific community, social constructivist theorists were able to perpetuate and cash in on an unholy trinity of fallacious arguments: the false dichotomy between nature and nurture, the straw man of biological determinism, and the appeal to the nature argument. Locked in a self-reinforcing spiral, these fallacies consolidated the feminist aversion to biology.

Nature? Nurture? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Scientists have known for a long time that, in its most common form, the nature versus nurture controversy is based on a false dichotomy. There is no point in questioning whether an individual’s specific qualities, such as an inclination toward caring or a gift for mathematics, are genetically inherited or socially learned – that is, biologically innate or culturally acquired. The answer is always both. Every aspect of every living organism is inevitably shaped by a never-ending, extremely complex, interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk points out that pondering whether a certain personality trait is caused by nature or nurture, is like contemplating whether a violin sonata is produced by the violin or the person playing it: the music cannot be separated from the two vital parts that compose it.[24]

It is, however, perfectly legitimate to wonder whether two performances of a specific sonata sound different because they are played by different violinists or because they are played on different instruments. This brings us to a second question in the nature-nurture debate that of the causes of individual differences. To what extent can differences between individual people’s physical or behavioural traits be explained by genetic differences between them? This is exactly what behavioural genetics, the scientific field that studies the heritability of traits tries to find out.

Heritability is a statistical estimate of the contribution of genetic factors to the observed differences between members of a particular group. Methods commonly used by behavioural geneticists to quantify heritability include the study of identical twins and adoptees. As a result, we now know that variations in human stature are about 90 percent heritable. This does not mean that your genetic make-up determines 90 percent of your own height, while your food and other environmental factors contribute only 10 percent. At an individual level, both factors are always inextricably linked and equally important. What it does mean is that genetic differences between people of the group you belong to account for 90 percent of the observed differences in height between you. In the same manner, personality traits appear to be about 50 percent heritable. With regard to personal qualities like perfectionism, extraversion, or need for social dominance, roughly half the variation between any two people is due to genetic differences, with other factors accounting for the remaining half.[25]

By its very nature, behavioural genetics ignores the genes shared by all members of our species. These genes, however, constitute the bulk of the human genome. Humans are genetically vastly similar. This brings us to a third question in the nature-nurture debate: that of the underlying developmental programs giving rise to our species-typical mind. What matters here are neither individual or ontogenetic development nor heritability or discrete differences between people, but species-wide characteristics that distinguish us as human beings. Do we, like other species, possess specialised psychological mechanisms that steer our development and behaviour in typical directions? And, if so, can this help explain universally observed psychological and behavioural differences between the sexes? The answer is an emphatic yes. We are now venturing into evolutionary territory, where the concept of nature is paramount, at least in the following specific sense: the genetically transmitted psychological or brain architecture universally shared by all human beings as a the result of evolution by selection. Exactly how these psychological adaptions manifest themselves, however, widely varies and strongly depends on context, socio-cultural factors, and factors such as age and sex. Human behaviour is extremely flexible indeed, but not in an arbitrary manner.

Do we, like other species, possess specialised psychological mechanisms that steer our development and behaviour in typical directions? And, if so, can this help explain universally observed psychological and behavioural differences between the sexes? The answer is an emphatic yes.

In feminist thought, the nature versus nurture dichotomy keeps popping up time and again. Take, for instance, the celebrated yet untenable distinction between sex as a biological given and gender as a social construct. At the level of individual development, as well as at that of human nature, the distinction basically boils down to an antiquated, near-Cartesian kind of dualism, with anatomy a natural and mind a cultural affair. As already explained, at the level of an individual human being, biological and environmental factors are as inseparable as the two sides of a piece of paper. At the level of our species, many feminists still hold that the evolved brain architecture all of us share has little or no bearing on our cognition, emotions, and motivations. They argue that the human brain is so flexible as to enable men and women to completely transcend their biology and evolutionary heritage. Once again, this line of thinking is based on the belief that human biology is an entirely separate entity. In reality, biological factors are inextricably bound up with whatever it is that makes us who we are. To perform a violin sonata, even the most accomplished violinist still needs a fiddle and bow. Exactly like human nature, the instrument allows for a huge variety of unique productions, but none of them will sound anything like a piano concerto or a death metal band. Rather than an obstacle or constraint, the violin is an essential precondition.

The Straw Man of Biological Determinism

Evolutionary scientists are often met with the objection that their theories are biologically deterministic. This criticism can also be countered in various ways. Diane Halpern, for one, points to the widespread confusion surrounding the term ‘biology’. Since human beings are biological organisms, at some level, everything we do, think, or say is inescapably biological. By no means, however, does this imply that biology is tantamount to fixed immutability or preordained destiny. Ultimately, the development of every single evolved or innate quality is subject to environmental conditions. Consequently, within certain limits, changing or tweaking one or more relevant factors can profoundly influence our development and behaviour. We are not slaves to our biology or genes, nor for that matter to our experiences or socio-cultural background.[26]

Within the evolutionary community the thinking that anything innate is unmodifiable is seen as entirely unwarranted. What is unmodifiable is the universal set of genetic instructions that all humans inherit at conception. We share the instructions for the formation of a human body and a human mind, i.e., a shared set of evolved psychological mechanisms. How exactly those genetic instructions are expressed, however, is often affected by environmental factors. As a rule, vital instructions such as those for building and maintaining bodies are generally not or much less susceptible to environmental circumstances. But for organisms to survive and reproduce, natural selection provided them with an extensive array of extremely flexible, condition-dependent mechanisms that enable them to adapt to the contingencies of their environment. A case in point is the human immune system, which draws lessons from the pathogens it encounters. By the same token, rather than purporting that we are biologically determined to behave in certain ways, evolutionary psychology argues that we are naturally flexible and responsive beings, geared towards adapting to our environment and present situation. Our behaviour is not genetically determined but always controlled and mediated by our brain. Our shared psychological architecture is designed to subtly adjust to varying ambient conditions resulting in astonishing diversity of behaviours exhibited by different people with different life experiences in different contexts.[27] This means that, in spite of their ubiquity, we are not compelled to simply accept status differences between the sexes or atrocities like war, genocide, rape, and other forms of abuse as ‘only natural’ and therefore inevitable. Whether morally deplorable, admirable, or neutral, human behaviour is never caused directly by biological, evolutionary, societal, or environmental factors. It is always the result of an infinitely long and intricate causal chain. At each link, random events or deliberate interventions may radically alter the outcome.

Appeal to Nature: Comes in Different Flavours

The question remains: why some people are politically drawn to the notion that human nature is almost infinitely malleable. After all, if human personality, aspirations, and behaviour were largely a function of environmental influences and conditioning, it would be relatively easy to indoctrinate people. Worse still, we would be deprived of an objective, factual basis to denounce any kind of oppression. Our evolved and shared nature is the ultimate yardstick against which we assess and condemn cruelty, iniquity, and all other forms of inhumanity. If not for the deep human needs, inclinations, and desires all of us are born with, on what grounds could we possibly object to rape, abuse, and oppression? Why not just teach people to roll with the punches, lay back and enjoy? If this sounds preposterous, that’s because it is. And it is because you’re human.

They argue that the human brain is so flexible as to enable men and women to completely transcend their biology and evolutionary heritage.

While radical constructivism is shockingly inconsistent, the idea that sex differences are socially constructed strongly appealed to feminists. Over the centuries, women’s oppression has been justified by all manner of biological claims. Against this background, the enthusiastic feminist reception of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and similar publications explicitly advocating an environmental approach is quite understandable. Male prejudice and a lack of theoretical refinement in early sociobiology did nothing to reduce feminist suspicion of biological approaches. When, for instance, sociobiologist David Barash brazenly claimed that reproductive biology relegates most female mammals, including humans, to the nursery and non-competitiveness, alarm bells started ringing among even the most moderate feminists. And rightly so. Nonetheless, the patently women-friendly approach and stunning explanatory power of present-day evolutionary psychology should appeal to feminists of all backgrounds. Sadly, this is hardly the case. Besides peer pressure, scientific illiteracy, and paradigmatic myopia, Doreen Kimura points out another likely explanation for feminism’s persistent aversion to evolutionary accounts of human nature and behaviour:

The bias against biological explanation seems to have arisen from egalitarian ideologies that confuse the Western concept of equal treatment before the law – the societal application of the idea that ‘all men are created equal’ – with the claim that all people are in fact equal. People are not born equal in strength, health, temperament, or intelligence. This is simply a fact of life no sensible person can deny. We have chosen a system of governance which has decided that despite such inequalities each individual shall have an equal right to just treatment before the law, as well as equal opportunity.[28]

The notion that human beings are born equal in every respect and that acknowledging any differences between them only serves to gloss over social inequities and uphold the status quo, ultimately rests on the widespread assumption that what is natural is good or better. This is known as the appeal to nature argument. It comes in many flavours, one of which is the common and infamous naturalistic fallacy or the argument that what is natural is not just good, but also right or morally good and therefore socially desirable. Less well known but equally prevalent is the moralistic or reverse naturalistic fallacy: the false assumption that since nature is, well, naturally good, whatever one considers wrong and morally reprehensible cannot possibly be natural. Seen from this perspective, if the principle of equality is morally paramount, all differences between people, including those between the sexes, must be artificial constructs rather than natural givens.

There are, of course, no compelling reasons to promptly move from what is to what ought to be or vice versa: what is natural is not necessarily good and what is good is not necessarily natural. One only needs to think of nasty stuff like deaths in childbirth, infectious diseases, lethal earthquakes, and other devastating natural disasters to be wary of any appeal to nature. Throughout history, our ancestors have always done everything in their power to guard against all the less than desirable aspects of nature. Controlled use of fire offered early humans protection from predators and the elements. Slings, spears, and other weapons made hunting both safer and more efficient. Science and technology helped us overcome our natural limitations and vulnerabilities. Even our moral codes are principally aimed at clamping down on the less commendable features of our evolved nature, such as our thirst for revenge or our penchant for tribalism and nepotism. It is up to us to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong, and desirable or obnoxious. In feminist writings, however, the notion that natural givens somehow dictate how society ought to be organized keeps popping up repeatedly. Take, for instance, Cecilia Åsberg’s claim that “by making a separation between socially constructed gender and sex as a biological category we can contest the belief that women’s social inequalities are rooted in, and are hence justified by, biology.”[29]

Less well known but equally prevalent is the moralistic or reverse naturalistic fallacy: the false assumption that since nature is, well, naturally good, whatever one considers wrong and morally reprehensible cannot possibly be natural.

Following the publication of A Natural History of Rape (2000), their evolutionary analysis of sexual violence, biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer became the unfortunate victims of a full-blown witch-hunt. According to some of their most feverish critics, the authors condoned or even encouraged sexual violence against women – nonsense, to be sure.

Thornhill and Palmer point out that, because a lot of social scientists habitually fail to clearly distinguish between facts and ideology, they simply imagine that other scientists do so as well. Indeed, anyone concurring with Fausto-Sterling’s contention that “all scientific writing embodies political agendas” will take it for granted that evolutionary research is likewise politically motivated.[30] From time to time, being only human, an evolutionary scientist will get carried away and overstep the bounds. False accusations of misogyny and hidden agendas, however, are always beyond the pale. When sociologist Hilary Rose misquotes sociobiologist Barash as saying that “if Nature is sexist don’t blame her sons”, it is hard not to question her integrity as a researcher. The alleged citation from Barash’s 1979 book The Whisperings Within is nowhere to be found. Not only that, but Barash repeatedly stresses that to identify certain behaviour as natural does not in any way imply that it is good or justified. Another example is Åsberg who takes it upon herself to slam biologists Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology. “Feminism, in their eyes, went against the laws of nature”, she sneers, offering no supporting evidence whatsoever. Never mind that Wilson identifies himself as a feminist, or that Dawkins makes no secret of how important feminism is to him. More often than not, non-academic popular feminist books are also rife with outrageously inaccurate or blatantly dishonest accounts of evolutionary psychology.[31] When it comes to driving people interested in gender issues away from biologically informed explanations, it seems anything goes.

Only socio-cultural approaches and explanations are allowed. Case closed. But arguing that biological equality is a prerequisite for equal rights is skating on thin ice. What if it turns out that some differences between people cannot be explained by environmental factors alone? Would that somehow make discriminatory practices acceptable? To brush aside biological findings for fear of reactionary fallout is to play straight into the hands of the very people and policies you oppose. Rather than boosting existing misconceptions by indiscriminately demonizing all evolutionary approaches, it seems to me that women and feminism have far more to gain by exposing the shortcomings of inadequate or ideologically, driven vulgarizations. Genuine information will always trump censorship and wilful distortion.

Current Socialization Theories: Act Your Gender!

Feminists scholars accept the empirically refuted conception of the human mind as a blank slate or tabula rasa at birth. Growing up, the tabula rasa child is rewarded, punished, and otherwise moulded by its next of kin and others, up to the point where it has unwittingly developed a self-concept, gender identity, and behaviour that, according to society, matches its biological sex. Or so the story goes. In addition to this socialization perspective, which explains gender differences as the result of social learning and internalized gender stereotypes, there is no lack of abstract analyses of gender as something conjured up out of thin air by social discourses and practices. You may think you actually know a thing or two about the nature of men and women, but make no mistake: “Widely held gender beliefs are in effect cultural rules or instructions for enacting the social structure of difference and inequality that we understand to be gender.”[32] If you happen to be a woman, you may very well cherish your femininity, but don’t forget: “The practice of femininity is situated within the social structure at the site of everyday interactions organized by cultural expectations which construct gender as a dichotomous relation.” Really?

Thornhill and Palmer point out that, because a lot of social scientists habitually fail to clearly distinguish between facts and ideology, they simply imagine that other scientists do so as well. Indeed, anyone concurring with Fausto-Sterling’s contention that “all scientific writing embodies political agendas” will take it for granted that evolutionary research is likewise politically motivated.

While some gender researchers do refer to the biological, naturally evolved human body to explain the origin of gender differences, they typically conceive of the human mind as self-contained and totally independent. According to psychologists Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood’s social role theory, for instance, sex differences originate in men’s greater size and strength on the one hand, and women’s childbearing and nursing abilities on the other. Supposedly, these physical disparities between men and women give rise to a specific gendered division of social roles and, consequently, to psychological differences.[33] Eagly and Wood completely overlook the fact that the evolution of physical differences always involves psychological and behavioural ones as well. Physical traits do not evolve out of the blue. Humans’ upright posture implies bipedal locomotion. Our digestive system reflects our distant ancestors’ diet. Functional breasts could never have evolved in the absence of a concurrent evolution of specific behaviour patterns like breastfeeding a baby. Likewise, the evolution of greater muscle mass and higher upper body strength in men is inextricably linked to the evolution of adaptive behaviour like wrestling and wielding weapons, be it to fight, hunt, or simply show off and impress friend and foe. All of these behavioural patterns also imply the evolution of both cognitive and emotional adaptations that drive and guide them. After all, if not for at least some innate motives and goals, no creature would ever feel compelled to do anything at all. Social role theory is also lost for an explanation as to why more or less the same pattern of sex differences is evident across virtually all other mammal species. Any attempt to further defend the theory must not just reveal why only and solely in human evolution the standard mammalian pattern of psychological sex differences suddenly became maladaptive, but also why natural selection subsequently eliminated only those differences while doggedly preserving the corresponding physical ones, leaving everything up to learning processes that yield exactly the same result. A formidable task.[34]

If sex differences were truly mere social constructs devoid of any biological rationale, our world would look nothing like it does today. Evolutionary psychology is frequently reproached for simply stating the obvious, but the obvious is only obvious because it is part of human nature. It only takes a little imagination to dream up all kinds of different ways in which humans, at least theoretically, might live their lives. In principle, like tigers and orang-utans, they might be primarily solitary creatures, actively seeking out individuals of the opposite sex only for mating purposes. Like male chimps, adult men might, as a rule, find older women more desirable than younger ones. Sticking to the social constructivist paradigm, whenever field anthropologists stumble across an uncontacted tribe, they should not be surprised if the tribe turns out to be unambiguously matriarchal, with women preferring to hook up with younger partners and men doing the bulk of domestic work and child care. With a bit of luck they might even happen upon an idyllic society where justice and equality reign, truly free of gender differences, status struggles, nepotism, and sex-based divisions of labour. In reality, in all cultures worldwide, strikingly similar patterns of behaviour exist.

In the final analysis, all social constructivist explanations of sex differences, whether based on imitation, socialization, or other theories, are equally unpersuasive. Sex differences in social behaviour, play and toy choice are already evident in children long before they become aware of their own sex or are able to assess whether or not their behaviour and preferences conform to gender-stereotypical norms.[35] Furthermore, many sex-dimorphic behaviour patterns are clearly driven by genetically controlled hormonal mechanisms and responses.[36]

While it is true that some cultures and societies recognize a third or even a fourth sex or gender, all of them apply and share the same two basic categories: male and female. We can learn a lot from cultures that provide an extra category for people who clearly do not fit either, but it does not mean that gender is socially constructed. The vast majority of people everywhere identify as unambiguously male or female, their gender identity fully matching their anatomical and physiological sex characteristics. Rather than binary, sex and gender are bimodal: there are more than just two options, but their distribution shows two clear peaks. The vast majority of people everywhere are also heterosexual, which of course makes perfect sense, at least from an evolutionary point of view. To deny this biological reality for fear of discrimination of sexual minorities, as is becoming increasingly common, will get us absolutely nowhere.

Griet Vandermassen is a philosopher at Ghent University, Belgium. She’s the author of Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin? Debating Feminism and Evolutionary Theory. She’s currently working on a revised edition of that book.

[1] Carroll et al. (2017). A Cross-Disciplinary Survey of Beliefs about Human Nature, Culture, and Science; Cowan (2014). Feminist Perceptions of Evolutionary Psychology: An Empirical Study.

[2] Buikema et al., eds. (2015). Handboek genderstudies in media, kunst en cultuur. Bussum: Coutinho.

[3] Deutsch (2007) Undoing Gender.

[4] Eaton and Rose (2013). The Application of Biological, Evolutionary, and Sociocultural Frameworks to Issues of Gender in Introductory Psychology Textbooks.

[5] Carlson (2016). Sex, Biological Functions and Social Norms: A Simple Constructivist Theory of Sex.

[6] Berenbaum et al. (2011). A Role for Biology in Gender-Related Behavior.

[7] Stern (2016). Undoing Insularity: A Small Study of Gender Sociology’s Big Problem.

[8] Söderlund and Madison (2017). Objectivity and Realms of Explanation in Academic Journal Articles Concerning Sex/Gender: A Comparison of Gender Studies and the Other Social Sciences.

[9] Chrisler and Erchull (2011). The Treatment of Evolutionary Psychology in Social Psychology Textbooks.

[10] Marecek et al. (2004). On the Construction of Gender, Sex, and Sexualities. In: The Psychology of Gender, eds. Beal et al. New York: The Guilford Press.

[11] Ellis et al. (2008). Sex Differences: Summarizing more Than a Century of Scientific Research.

[12] Fausto-Sterling (1992). Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men.

[13] Kimura (1999). Sex and Cognition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[14] Halpern (2012). Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities.

[15] Pinker (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature; Plotkin (1997). Evolution in Mind: An Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology. London: Penguin.

[16] Buss (2019). Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind.

[17] Pigliucci (2012). Biology’s Last Paradigm Shift: The Transition from Natural Theology to Darwinism.

[18] Segerstråle (2000). Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond.

[19] Segerstråle (2000). Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond.

[20] Gross and Levitt (1994). Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.

[21] Thiele (2015). Kennis als strijdtoneel: Virginia Woolf en gesitueerde kennis. In: Buikema et al. (2015).

[22] Harding (2004). A Socially Relevant Philosophy of Science? Resources from Standpoint Theory’s Controversiality.

[23] Archer Mann (2013). Third Wave Feminism’s Unhappy Marriage of Poststructuralism and Intersectionality Theory.

[24] Zuk (2002). Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn from Animals.

[25] Bouchard (2004). Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits: A Survey; Polderman et al. (2015). Meta-Analysis of the Heritability of Human Traits Based on Fifty Years of Twin Studies.

[26] Halpern (2012). Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities.

[27] Barrett (2015). The Shape of Thought: How Mental Adaptations Evolve; Hagen (2005). Controversial Issues in Evolutionary Psychology. In: The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Buss. New York: Wiley & Sons.

[28] Kimura, Doreen (1999). Sex and Cognition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[29] Åsberg, Cecilia (2015). Het lichaam als strijdtoneel: de cyborg en feministische visies op de biologie. In: Buikema et al. (2015).

[30] Fausto-Sterling (1995). Attacking Feminism Is No Substitute for Good Scholarship.

[31] Barnett and Rivers (2004). Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs. New York: Basic Books.

[32] Ridgeway and Correll (2004). Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations.

[33] Eagly and Wood (1999). The Origins of Sex Differences in Human Behavior: Evolved Dispositions Versus Social Roles.

[34] Stewart-Williams and Thomas (2013). The Ape That Thought It Was a Peacock: Does Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex Differences?.

[35] Benenson (2014). Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes.

[36] Hines (2010). Sex-Related Variation in Human Behavior and the Brain.


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