This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism Are Natural Allies
Melanie MacEacheron
Melanie MacEacheron
is a social evolutionary psychologist and a non-practicing lawyer at the University of Western Ontario.

In the last half of the 19th century, “hysteria” was a ubiquitous mental health problem (Micale, 1993). Hysterical behavior has been strongly associated with the female sex or womanliness. Hysteria has even entered common knowledge as a special, extra insanity, to which women are especially susceptible (Chodoff, 1982).

But did most of those diagnosed as “hysterical” actually possess a mental disorder? Perhaps not. Its use as a diagnosis has, if not disappeared, at least declined precipitously (Micale, 1993). Perhaps non-coincidentally, when it was commonly diagnosed, there was a dearth of female diagnosers—psychologists and doctors. That is, in the main, members of only one sex determined when the mind of a member of either sex was disordered. So, what if each sex’s perception differed somewhat on average, without those differences constituting a mental disorder? Would the non-diagnosing (female) sex more often get diagnosed than the diagnosing sex would when there was actually no mental disorder present? Would (male) diagnosers have even been likely to suspect these differences might be normal? I posit that both feminism and evolutionary psychology have gotten us to the point at which such a potential ‘blind-spot’ in the perceptions of one sex regarding the other, has been reduced.

I am not a feminist scholar—I have only published in psychology (and law). But there are very few feminist scholars who are also evolutionary psychologists. So as someone with some background in feminist thought, I wanted to share my views on how feminism may have assisted evolutionary psychology in particular. I do so, in the hopes of perhaps achieving discussion or reconciliation between the two fields. And to argue the two are absolutely not incompatible.

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Many women currently complain some men (who aren’t psychologists or doctors) call them “crazy” unjustly. They also complain they are called this because they are female and the “caller” is male (e.g., O’Malley, 2014). Some women (also unqualified to diagnose) have also been guilty of attributing a degree of insanity to men. I’ve seen women do this when hearing that neutral male observers report significantly greater sexual interest on the part of women they observe than do neutral female observers (Haselton and Buss, 2000). It also happens when women laugh to hear that in Clark and Hatfield’s (1989) famous study in which men and women were approached by opposite-sex strangers for either a date or sex, more men said ‘yes’ to sex than to the date. And when they hear that about three-quarters of the men – and none of the women– said ‘yes’ to sex.

Instances of each sex’s possible misapprehension of reality, on average, do exist. Haselton and Buss did not just find that men and women perceive women’s level of sexual interest differently. They also found that women and men perceive men’s level of relationship commitment intention differently. Perhaps there are more such average differences in perception between the sexes yet to be discovered. But where perceptual ‘disagreements’ between the sexes exist, is one sex always right? Is one sex right about each individual issue about which they tend to disagree– and researchers just need to discover which sex is right in each case? Neither of these possibilities need be the answer, of course: Differences in average perceptions do not have to reflect lesser sanity (the ability to correctly perceive reality) in one sex. They may also be adaptive (Haselton & Buss, 2000).

There is evidence of some strong, average, psychological differences between males and females in particular areas. These areas, such as interest in more short-term sexual relationships, are those in which men and women must have dealt with very different selection pressures during evolution. Evolutionary psychology, foremost among the social sciences, hypothesizes and has found evidence for such psychological differences. Because it posits these differences, evolutionary psychology (perhaps uniquely within the social sciences) may even posit a slightly different male and female average perceptual reality. Again, these perceptual realities, if they exist, would be predicted to be mainly or only in domains in which males and females faced different selection pressures during evolution.

But a large difficulty exists with the study of sex differences and of relating to the other sex, perhaps evolutionary psychology’s two most contentious aspects to many feminists. That difficulty: no one has ever been both solely male and solely female. There are, of course, intersex individuals (perhaps 1.7% of the population: Fausto-Sterling, 2000), and others, including some who give their gender as somewhere between male and female, who feel they are simultaneously members of both sexes. Some of these individuals might allow us invaluable insight into what it is like to be or feel to be, a member of both sexes at once. Yet over evolutionary time the large majority of humans have been, apparently (to themselves and others), solely one sex or the other. And there was never human male without human female nor human female without human male. These two poles of humanity have always coexisted and co-evolved: each sex in response to the other, at least partly due to sexual selection.

No one researcher can understand on a personal level what it is to be (solely) male if she is female, nor (solely) female if he is male. And each sex has always exerted selection pressure on the psychology of the other. These two factors complicate sex-difference research. I use a hypothetical scenario of the simplest possible sex difference in perception to illustrate: Imagine one sex had a perceptual bias compared with the other—and that other sex’s perception was verified by solid, outside sources to be true to reality. Because that other sex co-evolved with the first, that other sex exerted selection pressure on the first that may have led to its perceptual bias. Thus, both sexes should be studied in order to fully understand an average sex-based perceptual bias, even where only one sex perceives reality wrongly. (Of course there is no solid, outside arbiter of reality, so even if a sex-based perceptual bias — or difference, as it would have to be assumed before study determining which sex, if either, had the ‘correct’ perception – is sometimes this simple, we couldn’t know that before studying it in both sexes.)

And the situation can be considerably more complicated. Consider, for example, what may be the driving force behind Haselton and Buss’ finding that men tend to overestimate women’s sexual interest, and that women tend to underestimate men’s relationship commitment intent. Under these authors’ (and W. T. DeKay’s) Error Management Theory, the missed opportunity cost to men if they fail to perceive true sexual interest on the part of women, would be greater than the cost to them of over-perceiving female sexual interest. And the cost to women of over-perceiving male romantic commitment would be greater than the cost to women of under-perceiving it. So under this theory, each sex’s average perception is biased (at least relative to that of the other, although Haselton and Buss additionally provide some evidence of objective bias). Why does the theory posit this happened? Because of the interests of that sex, and the interests and actions of the other. And it may be even more complicated. What if, for example, women tend to underperceive male romantic commitment in part because males are more motivated to pursue more short-term sexual relationships, and thus have an incentive to overstate their own interest in a romantic commitment? Women who did not tend to (mis)perceive male romantic commitment as not existing in ambiguous situations, might be at a disadvantage relative to women who did. Thus, an average perceptual difference might represent some members of one sex bettering their competitive stance versus others of the same sex, all the better to interpret potentially-deceptive signals of the other sex (see Haselton & Buss, 2000). (And we could even envisage a scenario in which such signals were partly selected for increasingly artful deceptiveness by the first sex, etc.) I can’t imagine trying to determine how correct each sex was on average in its perceptions in such a circumstance, without considering the perceptions of both sexes.

So what seems to be needed, at a minimum, is to study both sexes’ perceptions in areas of apparent, average disagreement. (What are those areas? The safest route is to assume we don’t know all of them, and to always test for sex differences in perceptual research.) And what is needed at minimum is to recognize what the interests of each sex are, in order to help anticipate potential, average, perceptual differences—which should at least include somehow getting the perspectives of members each sex. For different reasons, perhaps, both evolutionary psychologists (because of previous findings of sex differences as well as theoretical framework) and feminists (because of the importance of perspective-taking within their theoretical framework and maybe other reasons) would agree with such research practices.

But each person, and therefore each researcher, is likely to have a somewhat different perceptual reality compared with about half of humanity (the other sex, assuming the researcher is not an intersex individual). Even in evolutionary psychological research in which no sex difference is predicted, both sexes are routinely studied and tested for any difference. Why? There are several studies pointing toward some average sex differences in some areas of psychology. Thus, the possibility of a sex difference in other areas of psychology is a live one, and certainly, one that is legitimately considerable. Perhaps, the field even implicitly acknowledges the potential of perceptual blind-spots as between the sexes and so routinely engages in studying both and comparing their perceptions.

I have especially valued bouncing almost every evolutionary psychological notion I’ve learned (or had) off of male colleagues (though they haven’t previously known this motivation for doing so). I do it in part because I do not possess their automatic perspective. I can teach parts of it to myself as it is revealed by males. But I cannot assume I will ever be able to experience it, or at least all of it, all the time. (If you think you can, I’d love it if you’d explain how you’ve accomplished this, and how you can tell you have.)

Value to Evolutionary Psychology of Feminism

An enormous feminist contribution, in my view, to all social science research practice including that in psychology, has been the assertion that the perspectives of all peoples of whatever origin are to be taken into account (e.g., Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2007). This assertion presumably stemmed, at first, from insisting that female and male perspectives, rather than just male, should be examined. Thus, feminism was pioneering in positing that female psychology was different to and not a lesser version of that of males (and therefore not understandable via study of just it). And that it was just as important—and hence needed study, too. The moment evolutionary psychology acknowledged an average psychological difference between the sexes that was not merely construed as a deficit in one, it showed itself to be feminist in this same way.

A related position that feminism shares with evolutionary psychology is that there is a male-female divide in aspects of how the world is viewed. Many feminists would say this is wholly attributable to gender (“The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones …”: Oxford English Dictionary). On the other hand, many evolutionary psychologists would say it is attributable to sex and gender (with the former influencing the latter), while likely just investigating sex as causal. It is completely understandable that some feminism would deny sexedness of psychology or aspects of perceived reality and attribute all average psychological differences between males and females to gender (which is taught and mutable). Such belief perhaps had to underlie the initial questioning of each and every “sex difference” that was assumed pre-feminism—including some that prevented or stymied female participation in many activities. Considering whether gender may wholly explicate an apparent “sex difference” is still important, due in part to the ‘blind-spots’ of members of each sex with respect to the perceptual world of the other. Even without such blind-spots science would demand that all posited sex differences be thoroughly researched before they are accepted (with such acceptance being permanently provisional, in the sense of welcoming any new data that disputes it). Evolutionary psychology is a science and thus holds this value.

The world improved immeasurably when feminists helped ensure legal equality between the sexes in some areas of the world. Maybe feminism couldn’t have helped achieve this without holding that average differences between the sexes in psychology (and reality perception) were solely gender-based. During struggles for suffrage, for example, would men in a position to decide the issue have listened to women saying “You may be right about some psychological sex differences, but we contend that, despite us not knowing just what these are, none of them would justify maintaining unequal rights for women. We make that ‘leap’, and so should you.” The fact is that this may never have worked. And if it hadn’t, we mightn’t have nearly as many women working in most fields today, evolutionary psychology included. This would have been a special detriment to evolutionary psychology, over and above the loss of much data, theory, and other contributions, for the reason outlined above.

Thus, though it is true that many feminists would dispute that average female psychology differs from that of males due to any non-environmental factor (socialization, etc.), feminism shares one of its core values, equal perspective-taking between male and female, with evolutionary psychology, perhaps more so than with any other branch of psychology.

Evolutionary psychology may even share with feminism, more than do other branches of psychology, feminism’s commitment to using the perspectives of all peoples, of whatever origin. Future work in every psychology sub-field will hopefully expand by how much people from around the world and not just the West are studied. But evolutionary psychology may currently lead traditional social psychology in the extent to which it studies non-WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) peoples from around the world (Kurzban, 2013).

Evolutionary psychology does not tell women or men that where they tend as a sex to perceive differently than each other, they are crazy. It tells them there may be adaptive reasons they do so. Evolutionary psychology and the traditional, equality-advocating feminism with which I have familiarity, all hold that the elevation of either sex’s view over that of the other is nonsensical. Evolutionary psychology holds that males and females on average each have a somewhat different psychology and somewhat different perceptions in select areas. By implication, each sex, therefore, may have on average a somewhat different perceptual reality. This does not imply that one sex is superior to the other. And none of this precludes being both a feminist and an evolutionary psychologist—perhaps being one can even help some researchers be the other.

References:

Chodoff, P. (1982). Hysteria and women. The American journal of psychiatry, 139, 545-551.

Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

“gender, n.”. OED Online. June 2011. Oxford University Press. 18 May 2016. Link

Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Error management theory: A new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 81-91.

Hesse-Biber, S. N., & Leavy, P. L. (2007). Feminist Research Practice. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Kurzban, R. (2013). Is evolutionary psychology WEIRD or NORMAL? The Evolutionary Psychology Blog. Evolutionary Psychology.

Micale, M. S. (1993). On the” disappearance” of hysteria: A study in the clinical deconstruction of a diagnosis. Isis84(3), 496-526.

O’Malley, H. (9 July 2014). Men really need to stop calling women crazy. Washington Post. Link 

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  1. Robert King says:

    Nice piece of exposition. I wonder if in years to come the words “toxic masculinity” will be seen alongside “hysteria” as highly gendered attempts to manipulate the opposite sex?