Today – and the timing could not have been more apt – at the weekly biological anthropology seminar at my institution, we discussed Barbara Smuts’ 1995 article The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy.
Over the course of 24 pages, Dr. Smuts lays out the evidence for the evolution of male dominance as the predominant strategy in great ape societies for reproductive success. In humans, male dominance has become even more expansive than in our great ape relatives – and she identifies 6 crucial factors for the evolution of this uniquely human gender inequality:
- A reduction in female allies
- elaboration of male-male alliances
- increased male control over resources
- increased hierarchy formation among men
- female strategies that reinforce male control over females
- the evolution of language and its power to create ideology
I want to be clear here that Smuts is not advocating for genetic determinism – her argument here is that evolution has permitted the selection of traits that are competitive in patriarchal environments. This does not mean that there are not other modes of being that these genotypes cannot support – and likely even thrive in. (There is behavioral psychology data to back this up – see Cooper and Zubek, 1958).
But the lack of evolutionary determinism does not make the extremist version of patriarchy we see in human society any less frightening.
It is in human societies, Smuts writes, that we see male coercion in its most extreme form. She writes “Males are not universally dominant among nonhuman primates, and even in species in which individual males dominate individual females, male control over female sexuality and other aspects of female behavior is usually quite limited […] with rare exceptions, male nonhuman primates do not often control female movements, or the resources females depend upon for survival and reproduction.”
Well, that sucks, right? Yes, but! If we can identify the causes of this extreme human form of patriarchy, we can find ways to take action against it. Smuts writes: “This evolutionary analysis does not imply that patriarchy is inevitable, because humans have evolved to express a wide range of behaviors.”
And Smuts is already ready to suggest what new behaviors we can engage in:
- Males controlling resources? Create economic opportunities for women and legal protection of our property rights.
- Hierarchical relationships among men? Support economic and political changes that reduce inequality amongst men.
- Female complicity with patriarchy? Identify and change female behaviors that support patriarchy. (I’m looking at you, white women).
- Language perpetuating patriarchal ideologies? Women must have access to media, the classroom, and the government.
- Weak female alliances and strong male alliances? Create female political solidarity.
Why does female solidarity feel so radical? Why does, as a woman, it feel transgressive to create a space for women? Why does it feel so difficult to reach out to another woman, to create relationships that are serious, that are political, that challenge our relationships with men? Precisely because it upends our cultural and evolutionary status quo.
It’s time to break tradition. With culture, and with our evolutionary history.
It’s time to foster female alliances.
It’s time for Nasty Women to find each other.
Smuts, B. (1995). The evolutionary origins of patriarchy. Human Nature, 6(1), 1-32.
Cooper, R. M., & Zubek, J. P. (1958). Effects of enriched and restricted early environments on the learning ability of bright and dull rats. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 12(3), 159.