The Sexist Science

Recently, I was reading an article over at VICE that contained many good points amidst the tangled web of editorial notes and reviews of a book entitled Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini.

I found myself in agreement with many of the points being made, including:

  • It’s a bit ridiculous that 3 male scientists concluded that menopause makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because older women are not attractive to older men.  The amount of sex that happens in nursing homes suggests that this is simply not true.
  • Science has been used throughout its history to reinforce gender stereotypes and keep women in subservient roles, and women have been excluded from it too often, and also frequently haven’t been given credit for their discoveries or innovations.
  • Science is popularly seen as far more impartial and certain in its proclamations than it actually is.
  • There are a lot of conclusions unsupported by evidence that are conveniently drawn by folks who want to perpetuate narratives about female inferiority, albeit only loosely based on the findings of evolutionary psychology.
  • The strength of women in various areas (physically, mentally, emotionally) has been undervalued by biological scientists on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Saini does some leaping to conclusions unsupported by the evidence as well.  Her speculation that men might be physically stronger on average not because of role differentiation and sexual selection in primates (the most likely cause), but rather because women spend more of their energy on menstruation and childbirth, doesn’t make much sense.

Our musculature’s upper limits are determined by our genes, not our energy costs.  If every man and every woman were to achieve their maximum muscular strength, there would still be an average difference in strength between the sexes.  See the Olympic Games’ results in various sports for evidence of this.

Now, higher energy costs will definitely reduce the ability to build muscle, but men and women do not on average have the same potential to build muscle because of the typical genetic differences.  Men and women are equal, but we are not interchangeable, not even in the aggregate.

Given that many people who have espoused the idea that women are inferior to men based on reactionary cultural values or religious views have used it to support their imperatives to keep women subordinate to men, and that MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) have used it to support their views about women’s excessive power in our culture that operates to the detriment of men, it’s completely understandable that any feminist would look askance at evolutionary psychology.

For a fair number of contemporary feminists who are vaguely familiar with evolutionary psychology, it’s true that they often recognize that the scientific endeavor has historically been and is now tainted by sexism, but it’s also true that evolutionary psychology is the scientific discipline that is not infrequently seen by feminists as THE sexist science par excellence.

This is unfortunate, in my opinion.  I think that evolutionary psychology can be very useful and often is very useful in understanding important things about ourselves as homo sapiens.  It would be a shame to miss out on really valuable knowledge because of the uses to which evolutionary psychology is put by reactionaries or MRAs.

Sadly, I suspect that there will always be some feminists who reject evolutionary psychology wholesale.  Some may do so because there are so many historical and contemporary examples of its misuse.  Others may do so for the less appealing reason that evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology contradicts their dogmas about the interchangeability of men and women and the causes of differences between the sexes.

For the latter group, evolutionary psychology, no matter how it changes and even if sexism is eliminated in the discipline, will always be seen as the sexist science.

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