Recently, I was involved in a conversation about gender roles. Someone raised the idea that certain things are more “natural” for men and women because of our evolutionary history.

I think the general point they were trying to make was this: women have evolved to be more nurturing and men have evolved to be more competitive because that’s what worked best when humans first evolved from apes. Women had babies they had to protect, and men had to compete for food to feed the family (be “the hunter-gatherer”). This isn’t an outrageously strange position to hold. Many people hang onto the idea that it is essentially the man’s role to be the breadwinner. Others argue that there is evolutionary-biological difference between the female and male brain (there is a difference, actually, but it doesn’t confirm stereotypes. I’ll post about this sometime in the future).

While there are many scientific, political, philosophical and social issues to be discussed here, I’m limiting myself to something quite narrow: the use of the word “natural” in any debate that appeals to evolution.

Under the theory of evolution the concept of what is “natural” is instrumental, not intrinsic. Species adopt certain characteristics because they help them adapt to their environment. What is natural is what is instrumentally useful for a creature’s survival at a certain time in a certain place. A giraffe has a long neck so it can reach the food on the trees in the area it inhabits, not because it is “in the nature of the giraffe” to have a long neck. It’s just something that happened because it was useful.

This has two outcomes for the current debate. 1. Once the particular environment has stopped calling for a certain characteristic, it is no longer useful to carry on using it. Ergo, it is no longer natural.. The fact that it was natural for men to hunt mammoths and women to be pregnant in the cave back in cave man times does not mean it is natural now. Because we (I mean, for the most part) do not live in caves and eat mammoth. Which brings me onto the second point.  2. Because what is natural is purely situational, the word should have no real force in an argument. Is it natural for women to stay at home? Well, is it a useful means to an end?  In that particular situation at that particular time?

You could say that if we are sticking close to the evolutionary framework, we should conclude “yes”- it means that women will have more babies, and this is ultimate signature of evolutionary success. But is it? The fact that we have brains which can rationalise and think about the concept of equality and happiness is no less part of our nature. So why prefer one over the other? That needs it own justifying argument. What’s more, overpopulation is a genuine global concern. There is a sense in which we will be more successful as a species if we have fewer babies because the world’s resources are running out. This has the appearance of taking a dramatic swing away from what it we intuitively label biological success (i.e. reproduction) but in reality it is no different the evolution and survival of every other species. We are adapting to our circumstances to ensure the continuation of the species.

If a couple has a baby, and the woman has a good business degree whereas the man has no qualifications, then maybe sending the woman out to work and leaving the man at home is the best way of taking advantage of the circumstances to ensure a better chance of survival for this couples child. I believe this sticks more closely to the guiding principles of evolution than my friend’s argument does.

Of course, in reality the problem is far more deeply rooted than this. Women do not have good business degrees as often as men, and here lies the real issue. But let’s not make it worse by wrongly using the word “natural” to defend traditional gender roles; giving the who thing a scientific sheen it isn’t entitled too. The time when the provider/protector dichotomy was pragmatic and useful has long since passed. Our “natures” as men and women are no longer relevant to the situation, and therefore they no longer exist. As long as we are still humans, we will always carry on evolving. It’s time our values did the same.


About Coral Waters

"To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is." -Einstein
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