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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

See the Patriarchy Tumblin' Down!: Using Sociobiology to Bolster Feminist Claims

Lydia Parnell

The ideal visions generated in the days of 1969 seem long behind the coming of the 21st century boy, however those brief moments of free love and the formation of notions dealing with unity and equality continue to resonate today. The sixties and seventies brought upon an increased feminist consciousness, with many working to expand the rights of women in the workplace and inside the home. In the past ten years however, the word 'feminism' has become enshrouded with negative euphemisms, and perhaps in a bit of an attempt to add more claim to the feminist cause, biology has been incorporated into feminist theory, added to deliver an additional punch into a chauvinist gut. 'Feminist Biology', if it may be called as such, relies on the findings of sociobiology to bolster feminist claims. In the belief that ones current state is based upon a complex interaction of genetics and social environment, feminists are able to "lay bare the harsh reality of nature" (1) and recognize how women must reconstruct a world of laws based upon biological disposition.

Yet one does have to realize that such a positive outlook regarding sociobiology has not always been held (2). When sociobiology initially came out onto the science scene feminists were among the first to criticize findings. They saw sociobiology (also more cleanly dubbed evolutionary psychology in recent years), as an attack on the feminist cause for all it seemed to do was support patriarchal claims, "most saw it as an attempt by a male-dominated field to continue to maintain its hegemony" (3). In many courses of women's studies the phrase "biology is destiny" (4)is often used to sum up the entirety of sociobiology. No sociobiologist would be able to deny the Darwinist claim that human actions are spurred by a combination of genetics and environment. Yet a controversial area is created as many feminists look only upon human behavior as a product of culture, failing to see the interaction between culture and genetics that oftentimes drives human action. Evolutionary psychologists work to make general suppositions about psychological dispositions. Such hypotheses are tested against a background of data collected across diverse cultures. If the hypotheses hold true after being tested across different cultures one can make the assumption that it is part of humanities "shared genetic heritage" (5), such findings obviously reflect a genetic rather than a cultural role. This clashes hardcore with feminist orthodoxy that understands sex differences in terms of cultural conditioning rather than through biological differences that exist between the sexes. Many of the concerns that feminists focus upon - such as rape, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and the like are all in the same spectrum that evolutionary biology predicts a conflict to occur between males and females, the major issues being mating and reproduction.

Put on the glasses of a sociobiologist and you'll start to discover that great amount of what we do all relates to our unconscious desire to reproduce. Having been put on this planet to procreate humans and animals build their worlds up around resources that help them do just that. With any sexually reproductive species that internally carries an embryo, it is the parent that carries the child that will invest more substantially in the care of the child. If a man knows that someone else will be able to nurture and provide for the offspring that he has created he maximizes his chance of reproductive potential by leaving the mother and traveling of in search to find another mate. On top of this, unlike a female, a male can never be completely certain that the child is actually his own. To invest in another male's genetic material would be a complete waste of his own reproductive success. Such makes men significantly less likely to invest in caretaking than women (3). On the flip side, a female who tries to diversify her mate choice loses much more than a male (for him it's but one ejaculation) for if her egg is fertilized she must expend much of her energy bringing up the child. As a result most females try very hard to find a decent mate, one who will not abandon them and one who will help support the child. This raw truth regarding the relations between the sexes found within the animal kingdom is why most evolutionary biologists agree that the reproductive incentives males possess provide an impetus to for them to abandon their offspring and as a result, females choose their mates with care (1).

Females benefit by securing a reliable parental investment, however the backside of it is that males long to secure their investments with just as much, if not more, vigor. Males do this by controlling a women's sexuality, for it is in this way men can be sure they are providing for their own children (1). In humans such male control has taken shape in practices such as female genital mutilation, the symbolic wedding band, veils and foot binding practices. As psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly conclude:

"Men lay claim to particular women as songbirds lay claim to territories, as lions lay claim to a kill, or as people of both sexes lay claim to valuables...Referring to man's view of women as "proprietary" is more than a metaphor: Some of the same mental algorithms are apparently activated in the marital and mercantile spheres."

In many species females who are not "claimed as property by males" (1)are very much susceptible to male hostility. Many times such male aggression is translated into sexual force, such as rape. This paints a very morbid picture of the relationship between the sexes, "it is a story in which physical aggression and sexual coercion are dominant themes...a story in which females struggle to do the best they can but are, by nature and physiology, left terribly vulnerable to male selfishness and physical strength" (1).

Yet this still does not completely explain the extent of the patriarchy within the human race. Male bonding that was originally formed as a way to assist efforts to control other groups of humans, ended up degenerating into a competition over females. For just as males learnt how to use their influence over others, they too enhanced their ability to control women. And because all beings have a certain amount of interdependence, counting on one other for resources, men were able to further centralize their power. It can also be argued that the formation of language helped further perpetuate male dominance in 'male-centered language systems and ideologies' (3). This all comes to suggest that males have been able to guide biological circumstance into a type of social control.

So now that the creation of the patriarchy has been delineated in biological terms, one can begin to look at the more political side of sociobiology. How can feminists use such a bleak picture to bolster their claims, for doesn't it seem as if everything discussed lies in such opposition to the very nature of the feminist movement itself? Moreover, is it even possible to change these biological dispositions and the social structures we have built over this frame? Despite the disparaging view of evolutionary psychology with regard to the sexes, many feminists find such information valuable. One has to begin to understand the cognitive mechanisms directing how the sexes interrelate if one aspires to change the male/female relationship. Sociobiology confirms the existence of the patriarchy as being more than some crazed feminist fantasy and shows how the cultural structure built around the evolutionary biology of the sexes does not favor the status of women. The legal system designed needs to be changed for further advancement of the cause as there is great failure on the part of the law to control the injustice occurring. Seeing the relationship of the sexes through a biological perspective can help feminists bolster the legitimacy of their claims, for they have indeed been working to change a system of inequality(1). And if nothing more, sociobiology has formed the beginnings of including everyone into the biological scope (7).

WWW Sources

1) Biology For Feminists , by Katharine K. Baker

2) The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack , by Barbara Ehrenrich and Janet McIntosh

3) Eve Psych , by Maia Szalavitz

3) Biology as Destiny , by Rod Van Mechelen

3) Should Feminists Reject Darwin? , by Angela Keckler

3) Unnatural Selection: The Feminist' Unconvincing Biology , by John O. Mcginnis

3) Gender-Based Biology Courses Take Diverse Forms , by Rikki Lewis




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