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man, beast and politics: the nature of sex

westminster hour, bbc radio 4, 4 november 2001

'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.' So wrote Simone de Beauvoir in her celebrated 1949 book The Second Sex. In the decades following the Second World War, most thinkers believed that differences between men and women were culturally created and could be transformed with suitable child-rearing practices and social changes. Give a boy a doll instead of a toy gun, and he will grow up to be loving rather than violent. Create adequate nursery provision, and women will be as happy in full time work as looking after their children.

There is today increasing dissent from this view. The differences between men and women, many argue, are not culturally created, but deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychologists, as we discovered last week, view human nature as having been designed to facilitate the spread of genes. Men and women, they argue, have different strategies to do this, and hence possess different natures. Why the different strategies? Because, to produce an offspring, women are required to go through nine months of pregnancy. Men, on the other hand, are simply required to have sex. In evolutionary jargon women have to invest considerably more in parenthood than do men.

Such differential investment, many argue, leads to distinct psychologies. Men are evolved to be promiscuous, aggressive, competitive, and not care much about whom they have sex with, so long as they can have sex. Women, on the other hand, tend naturally to be monogamous, home-loving, nurturing and picky about their sexual partners. Men are from an evolutionary Mars, women from a Darwinian Venus.

The trouble with much social policy, evolutionary psychologists insist, is that it is sex-blind - uninformed by Darwinian understanding of sex differences. Here's how Helena Cronin and Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics put it:

Achieving sexual equality between men and women does not entail treating them as identical. Contrary to fashionable 'gender' thinking, women, like men, have their own distinct evolved psychology. If the government genuinely wants to extend the scope of women's choices then it should allow for the fact that their priorities are not always identical to those of men. Rather than taking male standards as the universal measure, or expecting the sexes to adopt androgynous working roles, the government should design family-friendly employment practices that reflect the different preferences of women and men.

Despite this insistence that social policy must be informed by knowledge of our evolved natures, what is striking about the application of Darwinian theory to policy formulation is the confusion that accompanies it. Take, for instance, the question of sexual harassment. In 1995, the US Supreme Court ruled that the criterion for assessing whether a woman had suffered sexual harassment was whether a reasonable person would have found such behaviour offensive.

The American critic Robert Wright dismisses this as an illogical ruling because the Court failed to take human nature into account. When it comes to sexual harassment, he suggests, there is no such thing as a 'reasonable person': men and women have evolved different criteria as to what constitutes harassment. Women are much more likely to be distressed by lewd comments and sexual suggestions because

during evolution it was costly (genetically) for women to have sex with a man she didn't want to have sex with... The abhorrence women feel at the prospect of sex with a man they find unattractive is an expression of this logic.

For men the logic is different:

The worst likely outcome for the man (in genetic terms) is that pregnancy would not ensue. There is no reason for evolution to have instilled in the male mind an aversion to coerced sex with women.

When it comes to the question of sex, therefore,

asking what a reasonable person finds offensive is like asking what colour a typical fruit is. The answer depends on whether you're talking apples or oranges.

As Helena Cronin and Oliver Curry have put it, since 'male and female psychologies have evolved to be distinctly different' so 'our legal system should reflect these differences if it is to promote true equality before the law.'

But what does this mean? If men and women really are so different how can the law be fair to both? It may be possible to treat sexual harassment in the way the McPherson report suggests that we should treat racial violence: by taking the victim's perception as the truth. But such an approach would clearly be unfair to men who, according to Wright and Cronin and Curry, would then be penalised for behaviour that they do not, and cannot, accept as harassment. Even if evolutionary thinkers are right about the psychology of sexual harassment, then, their analysis does not help us formulate a policy to combat it.

The law takes the view of a 'reasonable person' as its standard because it recognises that humans are not simply evolved creatures. We are also rational agents, capable of determining what might be reasonable behaviour and of modifying our behaviour in response to this. Humans can take responsibility for our actions, which is why those actions can be subject to the scrutiny of laws and regulations. US Supreme Court judges appear to have a more nuanced understanding of human nature than do many evolutionary psychologists.

Similar problems arise in Darwinian discussions of rape and of how we might prevent it. The government is currently conducting a review of rape laws. How might an understanding of human nature help?

Evolutionary psychologists view rape as a strategy designed by evolution to help men to spread their genes further. The biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer, for instance, argue in their book A Natural History of Rape that men rape because it's in their nature to. It's an argument that has been subject to much withering criticism. But if their analysis is controversial, their prescriptions appear both banal and highly traditional. They inform us, for instance, that evolutionary psychology has come to the conclusion that 'punishment can influence the frequency of rape' and that 'long incarceration' is the most effective. Now, why hasn't anyone thought of that before?

Thornhill and Palmer want all young men to receive 'an evolutionarily informed educational program.' Teenage boys should be taught 'why they get an erection just by looking at a photo of a naked woman' and why they might 'mistake a woman's friendly comment or her tight blouse as an invitation to have sex'. They should complete such a course before they can get a driving licence (though why evolutionary knowledge about rape should make young men better drivers, the good professors do not explain).

Thornhill and Palmer have advice for women too: don't dress provocatively and don't wear too much make up. A woman's behaviour, they insist, plays an important part in encouraging rape. They worry that 'the common practice of unsupervised dating in isolated environments such as automobiles, often accompanied by alcohol consumption, has placed women in environments conducive to rape to an extent unparalleled in history.'

And their answer? All young couples should be chaperoned. Don't wear sexy dresses. Don't get drunk. Don't have a grope in the car. Never leave teenagers without adult supervision. Why does all this sound depressingly familiar?

The arguments of Thornhill and Palmer are controversial, even within Darwinian circles. But their policy prescriptions are fairly typical: a combination of the blindingly obvious and the fashionably authoritarian. They leave you wondering why you need evolutionary knowledge to come up with such banalities in the first place.

There is another way, too, in which evolutionary psychology seems irrelevant to the real task of policy making: almost any political viewpoint seems able to draw comfort from human nature. Take, for instance, the discussion about discrimination in the workplace. Two expressions of such discrimination are the 'glass ceiling' - a metaphor that describes the under-representation of women in the upper reaches of management - and the 'gender gap' - the gap between the pay of men and that of women. Feminists and others have long argued that both are created by social discrimination. Evolutionary psychologists disagree. According to Kingsley Browne, professor of law at Wayne State University, the problem lies not so much with social structures as with evolved psychology. Most women, Browne believes, are simply not cut out to be top managers:

Men are more inclined to take risks, more oriented towards attainment of status and resources, and more single-minded in achieving these goals. Women, on the other hand, are more nurturing and empathic, and more centred on maintaining a 'web' of relationships than on being at the top of a hierarchy.

Men, unlike women, possess the traits required to climb the greasy pole. Hence, Browne suggests, it is not surprising that there are disproportionate numbers of men in leadership positions, nor that they get paid better for their work.

Like all evolutionary psychologists, Browne insists that he is explaining discrimination, not justifying it, and that by understanding such discrimination, one can devise means of eradicating it. Unfortunately, however, he also thinks it unlikely that any real change is possible. Human nature simply won't allow it:

Pressuring fathers into greater domestic roles... is unlikely to result in an overall gain in life satisfaction, and it may not even benefit women... Conversely, pressuring women to accept management positions that they really do not want is likely to lead to inadequate performance or unwanted stress and changes in family life.

What practical conclusions might a Darwinian-aware politician draw from all this? Probably that women should be encouraged to remain in part-time, low-status jobs, and to devote much of their time to domestic work; that men should be encouraged to work in full-time, high-risk, high status jobs; and that childcare should be seen as primarily as the private responsibility of women.

Such a programme might appeal to conservative traditionalists, but it would probably turn Blair's babes apoplectic. No problem. The new breed of Darwinists can serve up a political programme in tune with the Blairite vision too. The future is female, suggests American anthropologist Helen Fisher. Evolution has provided women with all the requisite Blairite virtues:

Empathy; emotional sensitivity; an ability to do and think several things simultaneously; a broad contextual view of any issue; a penchant for long-term planning; a gift for networking and negotiating; an impulse to nurture; and a preference for cooperating and leading via egalitarian teams.

Women, in other words, unlike men, are evolved to be joined up thinkers. That's why the twenty-first century needs them. While Kingsley Browne celebrates the cave-man mentality, Helen Fisher prefers the mentality of the cave woman. But many who agree with Fisher also believe that men's evolved tendencies - the willingness to take risks, the lust for power, the capacity to form coalitions - allow them to achieve positions of prominence unrelated to merit. Hence we need policies, 'not to redress prejudice but to redress human nature', as Robert Wright has put it. These include affirmative action to promote women into jobs from which they are now excluded; flexible working conditions (such as the establishment of tax incentives for part-time and homeworking); and family-friendly social policies - for example, the changing of school hours to better fit mothers' work schedules.

Both traditionalists and modernists, then, can draw comfort from evolutionary theories of human nature. Given the political climate of our time, it is likely that the Blairite version of evolutionary psychology will win out over the more traditional vision of sex differences. But the question arises: if a theory can be all things to all policy makers can it be of any use to any policy maker?

There is a deeper problem, too. Kingsley Browne suggests that 'each sex seems to have a different definition of what constitutes success in life', a view that all evolutionary psychologists share, though they might disagree as to which of the definitions is the better one. In reality, however, sexes do not have definitions of anything; people do. And policy makers must engage with the views and behaviours of real people, not of abstracted sexes.

Men and women clearly differ in their anatomy, their physiology, their psychology and their behaviour. You don't need a PhD in evolutionary biology to recognise this. We should, however, over-estimate neither the extent of the differences, nor their importance to policy-making. What is important for policy makers is to treat men and women as individuals, and as rational agents, not simply as members of groups with purported values and abilities. The danger of evolutionary-based policy making lies in its failure to understand this.