Friday, January 14, 2011

Contesting essentialist theories of patriarchal relations: evolutionary psychology and the denial of history

Nice article - definitely worth your time to read. Warning - it is quite long.

Contesting essentialist theories of patriarchal relations: evolutionary psychology and the denial of history

Journal of Men's Studies, The, Fall, 2010 by Jesse Crane-Seeber, Betsy Crane

Why do empowered females often choose to date, have sex with, and marry jerks, males whose performance of traditional masculinity brings them positive attention from other powerful males, but who often treat females and 'weaker' males poorly? Despite research revealing that women do like dating nice men (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003), practitioners of evolutionary psychology have strongly argued for the genetic and evolutionary basis for dominant-male attractiveness to females (Delton, Robertson, & Kenrick, 2006; Ellis & Symons, 1990). One early sociobiologist summarizes the conclusions of evolutionary theory as, "Nice guys finish last" (Ghiselin, 1974). As part of a 15-year-long, mother-son dialogue on this question, we examined the literature on gender from the earliest human societies until the dawn of patriarchy to understand why women are desired because of how their bodies look while men are valued for their social status, power, and aggressiveness, and why women choose such men.

This essay revisits myths about the origin of patriarchy, arguing that they play a role in the social-historical constructions of sexuality and relationships that they ostensibly explain. We argue that legitimating myths are part and parcel of the reproduction of patriarchal relationship patterns, characterized by male domination accepted by males and females, repression of the feminine and homosexuality, as well as the disciplining of masculinity. As McCaughey (2008) recently argued, a "caveman mystique" based on evolutionary theory permeates popular culture, granting privileged epistemic status to "scientific" discourse such that men experience their sexuality as "acultural, primal" (p. 3). Highlighting the ways that humans produce identities through performative interaction, we offer an alternative narrative that can produce more dynamic ways of relating. Our perspective entails the rejection of an essential self that precedes action, we instead interpret identity as something we do through habit and repetition, producing our sense of ourselves in recognizable way (Butler, 1988).

Central to our discussion is the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the "configuration of gender practice, which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of the patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women" (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 77). Historical and evolutionary explanations of male dominance act to legitimate these disciplinary practices that shape gendered expectations of heteronormative identities and relationships. In our analysis, patriarchy shifts from being something men do to women and becomes a shared logic that we all respond to. Considering what gender relations could look like outside of a male-supremacist model of social power, we offer a historically contingent view of how patriarchal relations developed.

Critically important stories of our how ancestors once lived have long been minimized or erased. Traces of other ways of relating are easily trivialized, like indigenous communities today that struggle to protect cooperative economies from governmental and corporate ambitions. The prevailing story told to children at home and at school is that men have always been dominant, implying that current social relations are the result of survival of the fittest. Not surprisingly, this his-story, whether based on ancient religious texts or Victorian interpretations of archaeological findings, was crafted by elite male authors raised in cultural systems that naturalized an emotionally distant approach to knowledge and society (Seidler, 1994). History is recorded from the perspective of the conquerors and their decedents, for nearly 10,000 years, the power to narrate history has been exercised by those who identify with and legitimate male-supremacy.

It is not true however, that all males have been winners in these historical struggles. While boys and men benefit to some extent from patriarchal relations, they are also damaged by the disciplining practices needed to reproduce misogynist relations. By analogy, racism and colonialism were also said to "benefit" dominant groups. Yet activists like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others have pointed to the self-destruction involved in dominating others (Memmi, 1991; Nandy, 1984). One day the notion that men "benefit" from silencing and sexually victimizing women may seem as ethically preposterous as a Christian "benefitting" from slaughtering pagans (Todorov, 1984).

Many theorists of patriarchy and its history have modeled their analyses on class warfare: men as a class were seen to hurt women as a class (Engels, 1884). We propose that relational constructivist analysis make more sense when thinking about gender and sexual identity performance. This allows our analysis of male dominance to highlight ongoing disciplinary practices that shape men's and boy's expectations of themselves and each other, for example, homophobic bullying and violence. Viewing society not as a clash of pre-existing groups, but as the playing out of family, educational, and professional relations demonstrates how inequalities are continuously sustained (see Tilly's [1998] treatment of poverty). Relational analysis of patriarchy reveals that hegemonic masculinity is not the only way to be male (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Instead of men vs. women, we see practices that turn sweet boys into arrogant, confused, and isolated young men, a dangerously under-theorized component of bullying and school shootings. In short, analytically transforming patriarchy from a "thing" into a set of interlocking practices shows that all sorts of men are harmed by dominating males who enact traditional roles (Heasley, 2005).

To clear intellectual space for this account of patriarchal gender relations, we first offer a critique of evolutionary psychology. Responding to those who naturalize gender identities, we highlight politically enabling insights of feminist, postcolonial, and poststructural theories of identity production. The second section utilizes insights from feminist archeology to dispute the inevitability of gender-based dominance, instead offering a narrative of how sex differences were given powerful ideological weight, with ongoing consequences.


Contrary to the folk wisdom embodied by the bestselling book series, (1) we maintain that men and women are not from separate planets. Human communities have always consisted of male, female, and trans members living together, right here, on earth. Nonetheless, many stories about the origins of dominating male-female relations obscure our shared origins.

Religious authorities have provided ideological and cosmological justifications for hierarchical societies by telling stories about how kings, presidents, the divine father in heaven, and husbands all share a fatherly duty to protect (and control) those under their authority. These social arrangements are justified by a history that begins with female subservience ordained by a male god. A husband's authority over his wife and children, starting with Adam in the garden, becomes a template for ecclesiastical and royal powers. One evangelical Christian website "dedicated to the restoration of Christian family culture" sums up this logic: "A culture characterized by biblical patriarchy is one in which godly men lead, provide for, and protect their families and communities with the aims of implementing the rule of the Lord Jesus in every area of life and of raising up the foundation of many godly generations." (2) Reformers in each faith tradition have contested the patriarchal bent of the Abrahamic religions. Yet creation stories, as well as inherited traditions and laws, continue to privilege male social power and control of women's sexuality. These messages resonate from ancient scriptures through religious institutions, media outlets, and social movements.

In response to divinely legitimated patriarchal origin-stories, feminist theory has long followed Simone de Beauvoir's (1989) contention that "Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself' (p. 725). This relational ontology of gender has long undergirded feminist critiques of both religious and secular ideologies, and has been extended by queer and poststructural theorists. Though critics of constructivist ontologies deride postmodern studies of social meaning, adopting a relational critique does not entail intellectual idealism that denies materiality; it only complicates the relationship between matter and power. Butler (1993) argued that performativity entails "a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter" (p. 9). What these critiques indicate are the historically shifting and unpredictable ways that bodies are made to mean particular things, within a given way of interpreting the world (Foucault, 1990). Bodies only come to "mean" what they do through ideological, scientific, and other operations, which are embedded in human history and political contestations. It is not that there is no real world; (3) rather, there is no place outside of the world from which to view it (as the discipline of Science Studies has so aptly demonstrated, see Haraway, 1989; Latour, 1999, 2008).

In defending essentialist notions of gender, religious traditions have allies in evolutionary theory. While the feminist critique of gender as innate has developed over decades, many still argue that variance between males and females in mate selection and physical aggressivity means that distinct sexual logics are genetically hardwired (Buss, 1989; Buss & Shackelford, 1997; Ellis, 1992; Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure, 1987). Biological reductionists claim that females, being physically weaker, need powerful males to care for them and their children. Both religious and genetic explanations erase the question of how gendered relations came about and are sustained, instead positing them as permanent.

Evolutionary psychology has been an ardent defender of gender roles as innate, insisting that males and females have differentiated mating strategies (Townsend, 1998). Evolutionary forces impel men to "spread their seeds" (through rape, if necessary) and women must secure powerful mates to ensure the survival of their children. This is inferred, "Because women more than men invest physiologically in offspring" and is the reason that "men, relative to women, are predicted to have a stronger preference for younger mates" (Delton et al., 2006, p. 268). One evolutionary explanation of male spousal abuse asserts: "insofar as males are specialized for aggressive competition and male fitness is largely determined by the frequency and exclusivity of mating access, it is hardly surprising that males commonly attempt to exert aggressive control of females" (Wilson & Daly, 1993, p. 275). Another argues that "from the woman's perspective rape can best be understood by consideration of the negative influences of the behavior on female fitness for future reproduction" (Thornhill & Thornhill, 1991, pp. 245-246).

Read on.

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