by Charlotte Kramon
“Ok, but...evolution!” Maybe you’ve heard it, maybe you haven’t. The classic response from a skeptic of social issues, particularly feminism and civil rights. When movements threaten to change an ingrained social structure, and benefactors of that structure see its impending dissipation, it is only natural for them to search for something more tangible than philosophy to defend their skeptical positions.
I am not advocating for ditching science-based facts when forming arguments. However, using basic notions of evolution and the human need for survival-which many of us learned in 1st grade-to justify sexism is not just an easy way out of a conversation, but history has proven the dangers of such a position.
Some use evolution to constrain women and justify misogyny. Simone de Beauvoir laments in the introduction to The Second Sex society’s bafflement at what, exactly, a woman is. Even back in 1949, men would say, “She’s not a woman,” or question whether or not a woman’s behavior aligns with her sex. Beauvoir dedicates the rest of her book to unpacking what a woman actually is, both from a psychological and scientific perspective. While I don’t have time to go into a deep-dive on The Second Sex, (I’ll save that for another time,) I will say that womanhood is a complicated subject that can’t be defined by mere evolution. If people questioned women’s feminity in 1949, what on earth would they say about our achievements now? Because such people would merely argue that from an evolutionary perspective, this is not how women normally act, should we revert back to confinement from the 40s?
Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is a favorite among conservatives, who sites psychological theories rooted in evolution and science to justify certain problematic attitudes towards women. “Women are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts),” Peterson writes in his new self-health book, “12 Rules for Living”. “Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness.”
The argument Peterson presents here is that historically, women get to choose mates, which is why men are particularly fragile when rejected. Peterson is absolutely right-men have fragile egos because men have been raised in a society with a narrow notion of masculinity. They are expected to walk around with puffed-out chests and shiny smiles, perhaps thinking about their hot girlfriend or wife. Emotions are a no-no. Luckily, this is changing, much to the benefit of men as well as, obviously, women. How do we eradicate some of feminism’s most pressing issues? Author and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that it all goes back to how boys are brought up to believe they must be a very specific kind of man.
Also, Peterson’s argument is a dangerous slippery slope. If you haven’t heard of Incel, they are a group of very sad, disturbed men who build community based on the belief that they have been oppressed by society because the “Stacys” of the world do not want to have sex with them. The “Chads,” they call stereotypical macho-man, get all the Stacys. Chad is not at fault, though-Stacy is. That is why extreme members of the group have intentionally driven vans into women, the ultimate cause of their sadness. These men deal with serious mental health issues, but take it out on women. Peterson’s argument is a slippery slope towards justifying extreme responses to rejection, as if women are fault-because evolution, of course.
Going back a bit further, social Darwinism was the prominent theory used to justify the mass genocide of black people in Africa and later slavery. Natural selection, social Darwinist argued, explains why black people are inferior and thus naturally in a position to be oppressed. Then there’s the “white man’s burden,” which justified genocide during the Scramble for Africa as a necessity for superior white men to “civilize” black men. While I disagree with men like Jordan Peterson, I do not think he thinks mass genocide of black people or slavery is okay. Because of that, I see the use of evolution to justify sexist attitudes as a dangerous slippery slope.
To me, feminism is not the denial of the existence of masculinity and femininity, but instead the assertion that regardless of how feminine or masculine a person is, they should be treated the same. Men should be held accountable for their inability to control “human nature,” or their “innate” behavior against women that is really just inappropriate. To continue shifting people’s perception of womanhood and femininity, we have to be cognizant of what science is legitimate and relevant to the cause, rather than un-revolutionary or merely historically dangerous and untrue ideas.