Jan 10, 2019

First, catch your hare: on biological explanations for differences in sex roles

‘A knife is a weapon or a tool according to whether you use it for disembowelling your enemy or for chopping parsley’
Elaine Morgan

“Would innate psychological variation (on average) between the sexes be incompatible with radical feminism? If there was a degree of such innate variation, what would the implications be for radical feminism and gender criticism?”

When faced with this question (or something very like it – I had the original questioner help me reconstruct the phrasing) last week, I swerved in what was probably an infuriating way and said that not only is the question itself not answerable with current knowledge, it is ‘une question mal posée’ – a question which interrogates premises that are themselves incorrect or inconsistent.

It is important to understand what the main objection of radical feminism to the social system of gender is. I have written about it here, but to summarise: the moral and political problem, for radical feminists, rests not in men and women having different roles or exhibiting different tendencies and behaviours, but the hierarchy of value that we have attached to any perceived differences, before then naturalising those (perceived) differences and making the value judgements a de facto class system.

I emphasise ‘perceived’ differences, because any conversation about the average tendencies or capabilities of people rests on observation of their behaviour. And the main problem with saying anything definitive about gendered behaviours is that we don’t have any stable idea which behaviours are which. In what follows below I attempt to demonstrate by example that our collective judgements are simply too unreliable to be able to correctly identify average variations between the sexes, never mind interrogate their origins.

Consider that when girls in childhood play with small anthropomorphic figurines made from wood, plastic and fabric, we call them dolls. When boys play with anthropomorphic figurines made of the same materials, we call them action figures. When men use natural materials like marble or metal to create objects of aesthetic value, we call it art. When women use natural materials like wool or clay to create objects of aesthetic value, we call it craft. This is true even in cases where men and women are using the same materials to create the same types of objects: in traditional Moroccan practice, for example, weaving carpets by hand is a women’s job but weaving fabric by hand is a men’s job. The men’s job, because it is performed by men, who anyway control the majority of financial resources, was more highly valued and more invested in, creating a discrepancy in availability of materials and complex tools which led to the development of the brocade industry. Brocades could then be made with silk and gold thread (because the men making them had more capital to invest), making them more lucrative and perpetuating the economic discrepancy. The result is that carpet weaving is considered a crude domestic craft, but brocade weaving is an elite industry. Both ‘roles’ involve putting threads in rows and then pulling other threads through.

Nor do we demand consistency of ourselves when we tell ourselves stories about why certain seemingly-related tasks are associated with men and bring financial rewards, whereas other tasks are associated with women and bring no financial benefits and the expectation of more free labour. Consider the prevailing narrative of our prehistoric ancestors. Most lay people (and a not-inconsiderable portion of experts, too) have a picture in their heads of a rigidly segregated savannah on which men hunted and women gathered. Hunting was dangerous and prestigious. Gathering was easy, opportunistic, and taken for granted. The fact that at least as much knowledge must be invested in distinguishing between ripe and unripe, or safe and poisonous plants, or knowing which parts of the environment they favour in different seasons, is at least as great as the expertise needed to track an animal to it lair. Or even the fact that hunting is an uncertain activity and it is likely that gathering supplied the majority of critical calories to the group and staved off starvation if hunting failed. That’s low hanging fruit. Here are two much greater paradoxes with the standard ‘man the hunter’ narrative:

When we think of prehistoric hunting, we tend to think of stuff like mammoths and bison – big game, basically. But the majority of hunting done by hunter-gatherer groups is not running pell-mell after giraffes; it is trapping (rabbits, monkeys etc.), netting birds or raiding their nests for eggs, and fishing. That’s true of even modern hunters, who only do it for fun. Many more people fish or rabbit course than ride to the hunt. This type of hunting doesn’t require big time investments, stamina or going too far afield. Certainly your average rabbit is not that much more exotic a foodstuff than your average apple. And guess what, it turns out that women did a lot of this kind of hunting, as you would expect – as well as participating in the stereotypical big game kind. You can certainly check a couple of lobster traps with a baby on your back, or whatever limiting function w imagine held women back from hunting (evolutionary vegetarianism, perhaps?). Well, guess what again: when activities such as catching small rodents were recorded among hunter gatherer groups, they were called… Gathering. Because women gather, men hunt. So if a woman is doing it, it’s got to be gathering. I haven’t heard of anyone calling climbing for coconuts ‘hunting’ just yet, but what do you want to bet that someone somewhere has written about it as a more complex, more intrepid, altogether more Manly activity than mere collection of yams?

[Two examples of the above classification practice can be found in this one paper about the Bakola of the Congo region: while gathering is ‘reserved mostly for women and children’, ‘the important tools regularly used for gathering include machete, which functions at the same time as a weapon for killing animals’ – but no mention is made of these animals being ‘hunted’ (earlier in the paper the author also talks about reptile meet being desirable but mostly killed by happenstance upon bush clearing, another activity undertaken by the ‘gathering’ women). Honey collection is classified as ‘gathering’ in the paper, but when describing the honey gatherer the author uses the pronoun ‘him’, without explaining what observations led to this seeming discrepancy with other gathering activities. Other examples abound in the literature.]

The second paradox has to do with agriculture. The standard picture or the development of agriculture is that it was a technological advance made by men. Certainly by the time the dust settled on the Agricultural Revolution (if it can be said to have settled yet, which is by no means certain), men in the majority of known cultures controlled not only the surplus produce of farming, but the rights to declare ‘ownership’ of land and of the people who work the land. Further: at some point before or during this process, men have arrogated to themselves the right not just to farm vegetables, but to farm people. By controlling and trading the reproductive potential of women, men guaranteed not only the food supply, but the labour supply too.

Here’s a question nobody seems to ask: how the hell did they do it? How on earth did men go from running after bison to knowing which grasses had kernels that were good to eat and which were, well, grass? How did they know which berries didn’t kill you and where in the forest they grew? How did they know what the ground looked like above a promising bit of tuber, and how deep to dig with their digging sticks? Did women write some sort of Neolithic Encyclopaedia of Gathering and, I dunno, gift it to men?

The fact is that if we accept the man-the-hunter, woman-the-gatherer narrative, we’re pretty tied up with the idea that the first cultivators of crops – even in a small way, by clearing a few weeds around a promising patch of vegetation – were women. That agriculture was invented by women. Agriculture is possibly the greatest human revolution of all time, a way bigger deal than writing or putting people in silly suits on the moon. Agriculture changed the entire world, rearranged species, transformed or destroyed or created whole ecological niches. And if we believe that women were doing the less prestigious activity in the Palaeolithic, we have a pretty big explanatory gap to fill with regard to how come they suddenly lost their interest in plants by the Neolithic. It’s the carpet/brocade thing at wok again: whichever is the more valorised and lucrative activity, it is instinctively ascribed to men.

These two paradoxes are central to a wide complex of stories we tell ourselves about the past (others are connected to things like pottery: if women were in charge of cooking, they are likely to have been the nes to invent pottery, and therefore to have been the first to use kilns. Then why do we think the technical improvements to kilns that set the stage for ore smelting were made by men?). The doll/action figure duality is a problem with the stories we tell ourselves about the present. But the inconsistencies in how we look at nature don’t just affect how we look at human behaviour. We even gender basic inanimate processes.

Everyone knows that sperm are mobile and eggs are motile, and that sperm race towards the egg and all compete to be the ones who fertilise it, right? Well now. What if I told you that the egg, sensible creature that she is, actually sits there serenely and uses a complex biochemical mechanism to first attract, then identify the most viable sperm, and once identified, actively seizes and envelops it? The ‘choosy egg’ hypothesis is slowly beginning to gain ground among experts, and the fact that it’s only happening slowly, on top of the fact that nobody has ever thought to actually check what the egg does, from the beginning of embryological science until now, tell a woeful story about not only our ability to interpret what we see, but our willingness to even look.

I am a rationalist and a materialist; I believe in evolution, in biology, in systematic archaeology and in careful evidence gathering as a means of arriving at, if not The Truth, then at least a fair enough approximation of a correct interpretation of reality to enable us to successfully operate in the world and continue to improve people’s material circumstances. As such the stories above are not a rejection of archaeology, or biology, or even the toy industry (although the latter can go to its room and think about what it’s done with regard to the Pink Apartheid of girls). But when people challenge me to definitively say which parts of our behaviour are Nature and which are Nurture, how much of sex difference in behaviour is capital-E Evolution and how much is capital-S Socialisation, I always want to take them back to the beginning and say: define 'behaviour'. 

It’s only once we understand that we interpret data through stories, and that those stories can be distorting, contradictory, or absurd, that we can really start the work of picking through the evidence to decide whether there even are significant behavioural changes between the sexes. And it’s only once significant behavioural changes consistently isolated and defined that we can start asking ourselves, and developing the complex methodologies for answering, the question ‘how much of sex difference is genetic?’ Until then, we’re dealing with mythology, not fact. Mythology, let’s be clear, is much more powerful than fact. That is why my personal efforts are directed at busting the myths than ‘proving’ any new facts about women’s brains or maths skills. And that’s why I give people annoying and seemingly evasive answers to their reasonable-sounding challenges about sex difference.


  1. Excellent essay. The real question, as you say, is not "Are there innate differences?"

    It's why are differences -- however they originate -- assigned such very different value. And how in every instance that assignment has nothing to do with the actual value of the activity to human beings.

    Every difference in the world could be 100% genetically programmed. It still wouldn't explain why, for instance, the contribution of sperm results in a whole legal superstructure conferring lots of rights, whereas motherhood is just something women do all the time that, if anything, causes problems for men.

  2. "Further: at some point before or during this process, men have arrogated to themselves the right not just to farm vegetables, but to farm people. By controlling and trading the reproductive potential of women, men guaranteed not only the food supply, but the labour supply too."

    Absolute rubbish.

  3. Men invented farming by accident when the mammoth they were chasing tripped over and ploughed a perfect furrow in a field with its tusks. It then skidded back the other way a few times.