The Caveman Mystique Vs. Darwinian Feminism




(I wanted to title this post: ‘Of Wheat and Women: Toward a Darwinian Feminism’. Alas, I couldn’t shake the gasping desperation of being mired in a spectacular patriarchal construct in which my sincere effort at departing from its all-encompassing grasp has been detourned and regurgitated as a gelatinous pile of simulacrum.)

I hate postmodern feminism. As a man by birth, not by choice, I call shenanigans on the idea of a vast male conspiracy in which I’m hopelessly complicit. The charge that I am conditioned from birth to oppress all of the women I love, all of the women I know, and all of the women on the planet is not one with which I’m likely to acquiesce. The notion that I’m doomed to omni-directional socialization smacks of Christianity’s putrid communicable mind-disease of “Original Sin”. But while Christianity offers potential salvation through authoritarian subjugation of our minds and the rest of our human nature after a life of guilt, postmodern feminism offers nothing more than perpetual guilt and a labryinthian trial of futility that would lead Josef K to rejoice in the relative clarity of his nightmare of Kafka’s prison. Like the magical monotheisms’ strategic defense by placing its rules outside the observable world and beyond the understanding of feeble brains, postmodern feminism holds its truths just on the other side of spectacular society’s aim or grasp. We are all inside the conspiracy, and thus, forever powerless to question its pervasive hold with our tainted minds.

But let’s get to the bad news…

Apparently, I am guilty as charged. I openly view women as different from men… and I like it. What’s worse, I have been known to love women precisely because of their femininity. And I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I have been successful in being smitten by oppressing women to degree that they have appreciated my undying appreciation of said femininity. Thus, I have apparently pulled off the masterstroke of Pavlovian conditioning by convincing women that there is something special different about them worthy of distinction, and that that inherent beauty defect is a point of delineation warranting irrepressible affection and admiration objectification.

Yet despite my actual loathing for postmodern feminism, and tongue-in-cheek embrace of their accusatory program, I consider myself a Darwinian feminist. Let’s be clear… that is a political position of feminist bias influenced by Darwinian science. This is not to be confused with the scientific position of feminist Darwinism, in which scientific hypotheses are formed through the perspective gained by freeing oneself from the scientific community’s irrepressible patriarchy (Vandermassen 2008). I take this position of political bias because since the agricultural revolution, feminists have an indisputable point (generally speaking). One of the first sociopolitical developments of agricultural society was property. Besides land, women were subjected to the forefront of the legal ownership construct. It’s difficult to disentangle the development of agriculture, writing, law, oppression, and theistic religion. This difficulty is explained in their mutually supportive natures (the Matrix beta version?).

In my overlap into the paleosphere, I wonder about the influence of gendered conflagrations of caveman romanticism. I think the first of Melissa McEwan’s posts I ever read was on the question of ‘Sexism and Paleo‘. Though I disagree with a few of the points in that piece, I share a disdain for the popularized caveman stereotype. On one level, I’ve wandered around a lot of wilderness looking for caves, and I can verify that they’re not a reliable strategy for shelter from the elements or protection from predators. Thus, I vote for burying the “caveman” concept along with agricultural dominance hierarchies and the vegetarian myth. On the psychosocial level, I see the caveman image of a clubbed woman being dragged off to be used as a reproduction machine as an overt misogynistic cultural amplification of testosterone-drunk wish-thinking. As a man, I’m also not going to pretend that I can’t imagine where that impulse comes from. If you take that last sentence as a justification, you don’t understand me and should probably stop reading now.

*Much of what follows was influenced by a 4-participant, 5-article throwdown in the “Feminist Forum” feature on the intersection of feminism and Darwinism in a 2008 issue of Sex Roles…  a peer-reviewed, openly feminist leaning journal. The journal is offering free and direct access through December 31, 2010. Rebecca Hannagan wrote the target article which was reponded to by feminists Laurett Liesen, Griet Vandermassen, and Celeste Condit. Hannagan also provides a follow-up on the others’ comments.

“Ignorant” Evolutionary Psychology vs. “Ignorant” Feminism

And thus begins the typical impasse between evolutionary psychology and feminism. Feminists charge evolutionary psychologists with indiscriminate justification of evil, and evolutionary psychologists accuse feminists of misunderstanding that the “job of scientists is to find out how things work, to try to be evenhanded with the evidence, and to present their findings…” (Vandermassen 2008). The project of science is understanding. The project of evolutionary psychology is understanding psychology in the context of evolution. Beware anyone who conflates understanding with justification.

“Evolutionary psychologists’ continued ignorance of feminism and their ongoing failure to recognize the vast contributions by feminist evolutionists is at worst the continuation of male bias, and at best scholarly negligence.” (Liesen 2008)
“[P]reviously considered an “archaic debate” [, genetic determinism], turned out to be a real concern still in the minds of many feminists. As Jonathan Waage and Patricia Gowaty (1997) write in their conclusion, “[t]erminology, politics, and ignorance are, inretrospect, major barriers to the dialectic of feminism and evolutionary biology” (p. 585).” (Vandermassen 2008)
I’m going to have to side with Vandermassen on this one. Since feminism is a political movement, it seems strange to demand that evolutionary biologists put it at the top of their priorities unless their research is focused on the study of politics. Thus, this ignorance seems a sin of omission at worst. On the other hand, the feminists in question by Vandermassen use their ignorance of evolutionary biology to make claims about evolutionary biology. Despite multiple pointed refutations of the misapplication of the naturalistic fallacy to evolutionary psychology (Curry 2006; Walter 2006; Wilson, et al. 2003), the attempt to end conversations with its spurious invocation is all too common.

Darwin: More Feminist than the Feminists

Darwin’s world-view was certainly steeped in a world of Victorian ideals. As such, he tended to ethnocentrize, anthropomorphize, and Victorianify a bit too frequently. However, behind the now anachronistic veneer, his wisdom was potent.

“Darwin also attributed a more important evolutionary role to females than did most evolutionists for nearly a century after him: female choice in sexual selection. Since females bear the greater parental investment through pregnancy and lactation, they have more to gain from being highly selective about with whom to mate than do males. As a result, certain traits are selected for in males if, over time, females choose to mate with the males that bear those traits more than those who do not.” (Hannagan 2008)

That first sentence could have also read, “Darwin also attributed a more important evolutionary role to females than did most feminists for nearly a century after him.” In the concept of sexual selection, we have a solid foundation from which to sweep away all attempts to legitimize gendered patriarchy. In the concept of sexual selection, we have a power structure that, excepting violence, is nearly irrefutable for men. Across the millions of species of the animal kingdom, females exercise ultimate say in selecting with whom to reproduce. The whims of females have given us everything from the peacocks’ tail (Darwin 1972) to the bowerbirds fantastic nests and 12 foot antlers of the Irish elk (Coyne 2009) to our very creativity and intelligence (Miller 2001). Sexual selection is almost universally ignored, and when it is considered, is often misunderstood as a patriarchal mechanism for herding women. Competition between men acts as a fitness cue that aids women in selecting mates (intrasexual sexual selection). Direct displays by men to women also act as fitness cues to aid women in selecting mates (intersexual sexual selection). This isn’t to say that dominance hierarchies don’t exist in various species, but it is necessary to question the assumption that intrasexual selection is a dominance hierarchy rather than a fitness cue. Intersexual selection is always the latter.

The positive implications of sexual selection for a Darwinian feminism are many. Yet ironically, and to the detriment of their program, postmodern feminism has attacked evolutionary biology after missing the point.

Another area that’s often ignored or assigned to the evils of patriarchy is competition between females. It would be naive to assume that sexual selection is unidirectional. It is true that females have the highest degree of choice, but men also gain reproductive advantage by choosing the “best” mate. Intrasexual female competition has serious negative consequences. Stereotypically female behaviors from fashion to makeup to anorexia have been attributed to competition between females (Li, et al. 2010). Interestingly, Li, et al also found this intrasexual competition functioning similarly in homosexual men. Activities motivated by intrasexual female competition have traditionally been prime targets for postmodern feminists to assign to patriarchal power structures. However, it seems that this may be a misguided confusion of intrasexual and intersexual competition.

Men and Women Are Different

That is not a claim or implication that a male brain or a female brain is better, it is a statement of fact. While – Top 5 target of anti-evolutionary psychology deniers – Steven Pinker had already convincingly refuted “blank slate” conflagrations in his 2001 book, “The Blank Slate” (linked below), neuroscience has since been demonstrating differences via fMRI and other brain studies. Sexual dimorphism (differences) in brain development have been observed to be directly influenced by differences in XX vs. XY chromosome factors (that is at the genetic, pre-hormonal level), and by gonadal hormone differences (e.g. testosterone) (Arnold 2004).

“Genes that are found on the sex chromosomes influence sexually dimorphic brain development both by causing sex differences in gonadal secretions and by acting in brain cells themselves to differentiate XX and XY brains. Because it is easier to manipulate hormone levels than the expression of sex chromosome genes, the effects of hormones have been studied much more extensively, and are much better understood, than the direct actions in the brain of sex chromosome genes. Although the differentiating effects of gonadal secretions seem to be dominant, the theories and findings discussed above support the idea that sex differences in neural expression of X and Y genes significantly contribute to sex differences in brain functions and disease.” (Arnold 2004) [emphasis mine]

“Many neurological and psychological diseases vary in incidence or severity between the sexes. Some of these diseases are known to involve X-linked genes. The vulnerability of males to mutations of X-linked genes is an obvious source of sex differences in diseases. However, more subtle variation of the same loci probably accounts for some of the differences in psychological and neural function among populations of males and females.Recent improvements in methods to manipulate and measure gene action will lead to further insights on the role of X and Y genes in brain gender.” (Arnold 2004)

Recent theoretical developments in neuronal plasticity have given the postmodern feminists and other blank-slaters a new angle to make us all the same. Some now claim that the overarching and nefarious social construct causes brains to physically develop gender identities based on patriarchal domination by way of language faculty alteration (Kaiser, et al. 2009). That’s right folks, males are so crafty that we’ve figured out how to physically alter the neuronal structure of women’s minds to do our bidding as hapless automatons. To say that gender bias goes deep is apparently an understatement of mind-bending proportions. Curiously, all such studies seem to recognize, or ignore, sex differences in the brains of all other animal species, but resort to neck-down Darwinism when considering humans. Again, the postmodern feminist position parallels that of religion in its insistence that evil forces corrupt us on unseen levels, and by excluding the human brain as the one thing Darwinian considerations can’t mustn’t be applied to.

Years after Pinker’s work, Hannagan is still comfortable enough about sex differences to say: “Broad personality constructs, such as neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness, are heritable and there are small but consistent differences between men and women on two of the big five personality constructs—extraversion and agreeableness.” (Hannagan 2008b) [emphasis mine]

This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding physical (brain included) and psychological differences.

Against the Caveman Mystique

It’s hard for me to imagine the caveman stereotype existing without the logically flawed, but evolutionarily advantageous, human cognitive availability bias (or heuristic). In short, since we find evidence of humans in many caves, but not out in the open, we tend to assume humans were more often inhabiting caves than out in the open. The art and human remains found in caves are not found there because a majority of our ancestors were “cavemen”. They are found there because caves offer protective value for preservation, and because caves are geographically obvious places to look. Thus, the probability we’ll look in caves multiplied by the probability of evidence being preserved in caves skews cave evidence to secure an artificially elevated place in our consciousness. It’s also the case that human remains are dragged to caves by whatever ate them, or humans died in caves by becoming trapped. All of this is further multiplied by the caveman narrative in culture… it’s easy to picture, and therefore remember, and therefore spreads.

The following excerpt is from a review of the apparently poorly received book, ‘The Caveman Mystique‘ by Martha McCaughey. While it’s directed at the McCaughey’s view of the caveman stereotype, I suggest that it should also be tested against feminist theory.

Perhaps the most curious omission in the book is any discussion of the evolutionary psychological view of the human female. We are repeatedly told the dubious notion that the evolutionary view of the male is that of the stereotypical caveman who drags women off by the hair for sex. But what is the corresponding picture of the female? Evidently McCaughey doesn’t think this is informative. If men are interested in having sex with as many women as possible, what does this say about women? It is a fact of simple arithmetic that the average number of sexual partners must be identical for males and females (assuming a 50-50 sex ratio). So if men have X female partners on average, the average woman must also have X male partners. What does this logic imply about the female side of mating? (McBurney 2009)
Our gendered stereotypes are so prevalent that many miss the truism that for every man who has (heterosexual) intercourse, there is a woman. Thus, it is mathematically impossible for men to be more sexual than women on average. The more important point above is that short of transcending sexual reproduction, and attaining the implied arrogance of universal sameness, we’re not presented with an alternative framework. The focus of postmodern feminism is so often that of negating maleness that it fails by constructing a unipolar dichotomy.
I suppose that means I have to provide a Utopian glimpse into the future or find myself guilty (again) of similar sins. For that, we take a look at the past.

Hunter-Gatherers: Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism

The hunter-gatherer stereotype often does no better than the caveman tripe. Rather than the overt “masculinity” of clubbing all women of one’s choosing, it’s replaced by the overt “masculinity” of killing a wily beast and the implied “masculine” domination associated with bestowing such a gift upon the rest of the band. Unfortunately, the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis that was forwarded to explain human cognitive development has been considered inaccurate almost consistently since the 1970s (Hannagan 2008).

In discussing sexual selection above, I argued that there is a fundamental refutation of patriarchy inherent in the Darwinian framework. That itself should sound the death knell for any attempts at misogyny or gendered political dominance. However, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer existence takes that a step further. It is likely that the prevailing form of social arrangement for the bulk of human evolution was social anarchism in the context of small hunter-gatherer bands. It is important not to assume contemporary stereotypes of socialism and anarchy here.

As found by anthropological studies of recent hunter-gatherer bands, hunter-gatherer bands exhibit high levels of communitarian and cooperative behaviors combined with an often explicit rejection of hierarchy. To observe this clearly, we also need to make a distinction between immediate-return hunter-gatherers and delayed-return hunter-gatherers. The immediate vs. delayed distinction refers initially to the timeframe in which they consume hunted and gathered food. With immediate-return bands, we see daily consumption of most food, little storage, and a tendency to an almost perpetually nomadic existence. Delayed-return hunter-gatherer bands tend to differ in that they are geographically isolated, or have borders imposed upon them by surrounding populations . In this transitional stage between ancestral hunter-gatherer existence and agriculture, we see more evidence of hierarchy, despite a lack of private property relative to modern agrarian cultures (Gray 2009).

Overall, we see a general lack of ownership or conceptions of private-property within hunter-gatherer social arrangements. The division of labor is an economic strategy that benefits both individuals and the group. Value is not necessarily assigned a priori to male or female, or to hunter or gatherer.

In some examples, anthropologists have noted a significant degree of male group control over “marriages”. This is often imposed not by potential suitors, but by the male family members of the woman. This is misleading as it’s often an ethnocentric assignment of our notions of monogamy on cultures which don’t necessarily share the same sexual norms. Even in societies with supposed marriages, females exercise a high degree of mate choice when it comes to actual reproduction:

Having high status as a good hunter has been shown to raise a man’s reproductive success everywhere the relationship has been investigated, one of the pathways being that it gains him sexual access to more and higher quality women, whether officially or in extra-marital affairs.” (Vandermassen 2008) [emphasis mine]

At first glance, this would seem to refute my comment a couple paragraphs back about non-assignment of value to the hunter role. However, it merely reinforces my qualification that such value is not assigned a priori. Hunters, as a category, do not automatically benefit. Hunters who excel are assigned a higher fitness value and therefore tend to be selected by females to father offspring. This does however, refute the claim that arranged marriages act as true control over women’s reproduction.


In another word, freedom. Why is every sovereign individual (by that I mean every individual) in the 21st century born not as a human, but as a proprietary asset on the balance sheet of a nation-state? Why do all agricultural societies suffer from drastically diminished levels of freedom? Why do geographically and otherwise isolated delayed-return hunter-gatherer bands tend toward political hierarchy while their immediate-return analogues do not? The atomization of individuals within the supra-organism of culture has been elevated over the autonomy our ancestors were born with, but why?

For 99%+ of human evolution, every able-bodied human has had the option of leaving oppressive regimes. Every individual had the choice to opt out of social games stacked against them. The fact of human migration across the totality of earth is proof that this strategy was employed many times. However, it would have happened more rapidly if remaining in a group was not generally more advantageous for each individual. The ability to round up a group of like-minded individuals to leave was somewhat balanced by the group’s recognition of a general strength in numbers. Call it the invisible hand of exploration, or call it migration, but it acted as a perpetual check on all forms of unwelcome domination. Their complete lack of the geographical and legal boundaries we’re faced with today allowed an entirely different paradigm for human social interaction. This concept is not new. The right to cross all borders to leave oppression is legitimized in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, it is ignored by every country on earth for reasons beyond the scope of this piece. Further, the concept loses its actual value when there is no more frontier, but only trading one domination hierarchy for the flag of another.

The temptation to form in-groups and out-groups along lines of gender, ethnicity, education, running skills, or other coin flips is a curse of a stone age brain in an information age world. Yielding to such temptations will invariably lead to error. The unbearable lightness of paranoia that accompanies postmodernist cynicism is a direct path to your own distracted energy. You’re all formally invited to ditch the postmodern feminist doomsday machine for a refreshing trip to the history of the Galapagos…

Hey! I finished in under 4,000 words! Is this the part where I get called a misogynist then burned at the altar of Margaret Mead, or… perhaps you have other thoughts? (If you have questions or comments that you think are too far off topic, you can also post ‘em in the forum.)

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