Thursday, 1 December 2011
Towards defining Darwinian feminists and feminist Darwinians.
The following is extracted from:
Can Darwinian Feminism Save Female Autonomy and Leadership in Egalitarian Society? Griet Vandermassen. email Griet.Vandermassen@UGent.be
A critical distinction needs to be made between Darwinian (or evolutionary) feminism and feminist Darwinism (or evolutionism): whereas the former is feminism informed and inspired by evolutionary knowledge, the latter is Darwinism inspired by feminist perspectives and concerns. The distinction does not just come down to a difference in focus; it is a difference in category.
Evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and other evolutionary disciplines are sciences. The job of scientists is to find out how things work, to try to be even-handed with the evidence, and to present their findings in a neutral way—not to embellish their results to make them more politically palatable. Feminism is not a science, so it is not held to these requirements. The various strands of feminism are first and foremost political philosophies and programs, based on the finding of women’s oppression, and aimed at freeing women from this oppression. By extension, Darwinian feminism is first and foremost a political philosophy and program, and not a scientific one. Political theorists are studying what is, but also what might be or ought to be, in addressing normative concepts such as justice, liberty, and rights. As they necessarily let themselves be inspired by a theory of human nature, whether explicitly or implicitly, this is where an evolutionary perspective may step in.
The most effective political program will arguably be one that is informed by a sound theory of human nature; that is, a theory that is willing to take into account the latest findings on the determinants of human behavior. Research within the biological and evolutionary sciences is now providing a strong corrective to the “blank slate view” of the human mind that has long been prevailing within the social sciences (Pinker 2002).
Following this, Darwinian or evolutionary feminism would be a feminism that is prepared to investigate and take into account the growing body of scientific knowledge regarding evolved psychosexual differences between women and men. Armed with these insights, it would strive for a world in which the interests of both sexes are taken seriously. This intellectual openness will, however, demand a reevaluation of many previously held positions, because the premise no longer is a psychosexually neutral mind, nor is the political ideal the creation of a society in which average gender differences no longer exist.
The political ideal would be a society that gives individuals the maximum freedom and opportunity to be whatever they want. We might expand this definition of evolutionary feminism to that of a political movement that would use knowledge about our evolved dispositions to strive for a more just and more peaceful world, a movement that looks for strategies to “work around” less palatable components of human nature, by seizing upon some of our more constructive evolved dispositions.
Feminist Darwinism, or feminist evolutionism, on the other hand, is not a political program at all. It is a scientific program that lets itself be inspired by an awareness of the centrality of gender to social structures in the human and animal world, of the liability of bias in disciplines that have traditionally been male-dominated, and of gender inequality in humans. It is interested in bringing female perspectives to the evolutionary study of human and animal behavior, and it may, and probably will, also be inspired by a wish to fight gender inequality and sexual violence. It will, however, never let ideology prevail. It is prepared to go wherever the evidence takes it, and will not force schemes generated by wishful thinking upon reality.
Feminism can be invaluable as a source of inspiration to scientists, but in the end scientific methodology should prevail. Feminist sensibilities can never serve as a source of validation in a scientific context. This is why I think Darwinian feminism does not belong in the world of science, but outside it—just like all other varieties of feminism. I am greatly in favor of any research inspired by feminist aims, however, as long as basic scientific standards are adhered to.
Gowaty (1997b), who explicitly calls herself a Darwinian feminist (p. 5), makes a similar distinction between Darwinian feminism and feminist evolutionary biology. Darwinian feminism, she argues, is based on natural selection hypotheses that explain the functions of particular human behavior. In scientific tests of these hypotheses it is mandatory that they be rigorously tested. Political actions based on theories of Darwinian selection pressures, however, are not held to that standard. Gowaty feels a tension between both: although the scientist in her thinks that it would probably be more effective to base political activism on tested theories, the feminist activist in her resists this slow process (p. 9–10).
A more poetic way of phrasing the difference between Darwinian feminism and feminist Darwinism is provided by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller:
I’d describe myself as a Darwinian feminist, but also as a feminist Darwinian. I often find it useful to switch back and forth between them. Darwinian feminism emphasizes using an ideologically-liberated (or at least ideology-sensitive) imagination to develop new scientific hypotheses and insights; feminist Darwinism emphasizes using scientifically rigorous methods and standards to investigate female-focused alternatives to male-biased hypotheses.
For me, feminism in science is mostly about freeing my male imagination from its individual history and cultural constraints, so I can better sympathize with the adaptive problems faced by both females and males. It is an imagination-amplifier and an empathy-amplifier. (Personal communication, 2008)
I am quite convinced that other feminist evolutionists would concur that ideology should not come into the way of science. In discussing how feminism relates to primatology, Darwinian feminist Hrdy (1999a), for example, stresses that, as a scientist, she is first and foremost led by scientific concerns:
Feminism was part of the story, but not because women primatologists and biologists had different sensibilities than male scientists, or because feminists do science differently. Rather, women fieldworkers were predisposed to pay more attention when females behaved in “unexpected” ways. Women were also more likely to have been affected by feminist ideas.
My own interest in maternal strategies grew directly out of an emphatic identification with my study subjects. (…) women scientists were less likely than male scientists to identify with authority and with the scientific status quo. Women fieldworkers (…) may have been more willing to entertain unorthodox ideas about sex roles (…). But feminism per se had little to do with the conclusions I reached. (p. xviii–xix)
A few have gone so far as to ask whether the incorporation of “the female perspective” into evolutionary biology should be read as a “triumph” for science or for feminists. I think such questions are mischievous. The answer is so obvious: any time wrong ideas are corrected, science wins. If biases were there in the first place because of sexism, and a feminist perspective helped us to identify them, it is still science that comes out ahead when they are corrected. (p. xix)