Commentary | Against evolutionist theories of gender

Problematizing the idea that our gender roles are biologically predetermined

From time to time, I hear or read people wondering, “Where do differences between men and women come from?” and then emitting tentative explanations grounded in prehistory and evolution. These theories are what I call “evolutionist theories of gender,” and I find them deeply problematic. According to these theories, modern men and women are differentially determined by evolution. Aside from the fact that I have a tendency to be very suspicious of arguments grounded in biological determinism – since, for instance, they have been used among others to attempt to demonstrate racial inequality – I think that an evolutionist theory of gender shows huge and insuperable shortcomings from the points of view of biological and genetic sciences, anthropology, logic, and even paleontology.

I am told that women are endowed with such and such characteristics, such as being able to multi-task, being naturally capable of conversation and communicating, being focused on small things, and interested chiefly in domestic life. On the contrary, men are supposed to be able to focus on only one thing at a time, supposed to be straightforward, not so able to express feelings, and interested in public life.

I am told that this is so because of evolution and genetics. These arguments tend to refer to prehistory, and to behaviours that are learned over time. For instance, if I am able to multitask, it is because generations of women have done so before, thus transforming the female brain into an organ that is designed for multitasking.

However, I am deeply concerned when I hear people who are clever enough to know better endorse this type of argument.

First of all, from a biological and genetic point of view, I don’t see how gender-differentiated lineages could develop separately. Do I need to inform my reader that for each individual who is  born, a man and a woman contributed? As it is, for each of us, half our genome is transmitted by the mother, while the other half comes from the father. And to make things even more complex, those two halves are completely intermingled to produce a unique DNA. Genetically, the cerebral structure is the result of such an intermingling of the mother’s and father’s DNA.

The brain is a highly plastic organ. In other words, it changes constantly during life, and is highly receptive to its environment – especially in the early years of childhood. Cutting edge research in France shows that there is no such thing as a feminine or masculine brain in itself. It seems that children tend to develop different abilities according to their gender, because the social environment expects different things from them depending on whether they are boys or girls.

If those two arguments were a bit too scientific for your taste, please proceed to the third one, which is based on logic. How do we know how prehistoric societies were organized? How do we know that the picture we have of them – men hunting, women picking fruits – is not more the result of our present culture, which biases the researchers, than an accurate representation of how things were? Though this picturesque view is seductive with its simplicity, it has been reassessed by modern prehistorians and paleontologists. The current trend is to estimate that the men-hunter and women-gatherer picture is simply not plausible. In brief, it is not very likely that hunting was a daily and male activity. It is more probable that it was a cyclical activity, in which the whole tribe would engage at definite times of the year, according to researcher Linda Owen.

To sum up, I find the statements on “natural” gender differences based on evolution extremely dubious, and am disturbed that people who have access to information and apparently possess good analytical and critical skills stick to these obsolete theories. Not because the short scientific explanations I have given are necessarily completely true, but because they seem sufficient to raise a more than reasonable doubt in regards to the accuracy of such theories.

Diane Le Gall is an L.L.M. non-thesis candidate in the Institute of Comparative Law. She can be reached at diane.legall@mail.mcgill.ca.


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