Nature vs Nurture? – Why We Need to Stop Using Evolution as an Explanation for Gender Differences

When talking about gender issues, the word ‘naturally’ pops up quite a lot.

“Women don’t earn as much as men do because they are naturally less inclined to negotiate for their starting salary.”

“You see images of sexualised women everywhere, but not sexualised men, because men have a naturally stronger sex drive than women.”

“So many men commit acts of violence because men are naturally more aggressive than women.”

“So many women cut their careers short when they have children, because they naturally prefer caring for them instead of working, whereas men naturally prefer work to childcare.”

And once the word ‘naturally’ has reared its head, you can bet that the word ‘evolution’ will quickly follow, with the phrase ‘caveman days’ hot on its heels. Everyone present nods sagely; much beard-stroking ensues.



Sadly, proponents of the evolution-as-explanation-for-gender-differences idea seem to have fallen victim to something very similar to the fundamental attribution error, a term used in social psychology to describe humans’ tendency to attribute a person’s behaviour to their disposition, while completely ignoring any situational factors. Although this term refers specifically to individual personality, the same phenomenon seems to be at work when people choose to ascribe gendered behaviour to dispositional reasons, instead of acknowledging the possibility that there could be sociological factors at work.

Of course, there’s no denying that evolution explains almost everything about our physiology, and a good chunk of human behaviour. It is when evolution and biological determinism are used to explain everything, without reference to any period other than the present Western society and the vaguely-defined ‘caveman days’, that problems arise.

Here’s a small example of what I mean.

In 2007, through asking 208 volunteers to select their colour preferences, neuroscientists Hurlbert and Ling discovered that men had a preference for bluish/greenish colours, while women had a preference for pinkish/reddish colours. While the study did nothing to prove that this preference was biological, Ling made the leap quite easily, going from showing that grown men and women tended to prefer different colours, to stating, “This preference has an evolutionary advantage behind it.” Women, it was suggested, had to gather berries while men hunted, and so needed to spot ripe berries and fruits easily. This story was picked up eagerly by newspapers, with headlines like, “Study: Why Girls Like Pink“, and “Scientists Uncover Truth Behind ‘pink for a girl, blue for a boy“. As far as I can see, the study showed nothing about why girls like pink, but simply that they—well—did.

Yet all one has to do is go back 100 years in time (a mere nothing by evolutionary standards) to see that the pink/blue rule is fairly recent, and that the accepted social norms at the time were just the opposite. And since we’re doing some time-traveling, let’s have a look at life just one or two generations ago, and note the behaviour of women and men then, compared with women and men today. And then let’s take a tour around other countries too, in different continents. Maybe have a look at two people of the same ethnicity, who have been brought up on opposite ends of the globe.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point—that people’s behaviour isn’t immutable. Social norms play a huge part in determining how we act, what we value, how we feel, and even, apparently, what colour we prefer. Why do women today seem more ‘naturally’ inclined towards engaging in politics and sports than they were a hundred years ago? Why did they seem ‘naturally’ more subservient just 50 years ago? Was it evolution? I think not.

Evolution accounting for gender differences in behaviour is a neat theory to get behind; it satisfies our need for explanations, and gives us the reassurance that everything is as it should be. However, it quickly becomes a thinly-veiled excuse for gender inequality. When we hide behind evolution to justify the gender pay gap, the under representation of women in politics, or male violence against women, we are hiding from any responsibility for our part in sustaining this state of affairs, and we are refusing to acknowledge that change is possible.

So if anyone you know is insisting on sticking to evolutionary reasons for gender differences, tell them about the study of Baby X, where participants were shown to describe and behave towards Baby X in markedly different ways, depending on whether they thought Baby X was male or female. Ask them to watch kids’ TV and read their storybooks, and make a note of how many male and female characters there are, and how each gender is represented. Tell them to go into any children’s shop and read the words written on girls’ and boys’ clothes. Get them to ask both women and men around them what ambitions their families encouraged them to have as a child.

In short, tell them to open their eyes to the gendered pressures and influences that surround each of us, which start from the cradle and follow us throughout our lives, and that create the seemingly stark contrast between the average woman and man, before they decide that all gender differences are predetermined, and gender inequality unavoidable.

16 thoughts on “Nature vs Nurture? – Why We Need to Stop Using Evolution as an Explanation for Gender Differences

  1. Yes! Nicely put! And evoultionary theory totally fails to account for cultural differences in rates of violence against women. Why, as Peggy Reeves Sanday has found, are some societies rape prone whie others are rape free? She has answers for that question (it’s cultural) while the evolutionary biologists/psychologists do not! Nice article!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post! Well said! And the evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists can never account for cultural differences in the rates of violence against women. Why are some cultures rape prone, and others rape free? Peggy Reeves Sanday addresses this issue (it’s cultural), but these “scientists” never do. Nice job!


  3. Well-written article/post. What I find depressing — as someone nearing 50 years old — is that so much of this is still going on, half a century after second-wave feminists of various genders began working so hard to eradicate these problems and attitudes. This stuff seems to stick like glue (or something more rancid).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re somewhat on to something, but sadly I think you’re missing the most important point (I think most post-modern thinkers and activists are this way).

    Yes, studies on the differences between genders are suspiciously concluding that men and women are “naturally” different in terms of behavior. And yes, that’s simply false. The reason for those faulty conclusions, scientifically speaking, is that in order to try to contrast men and women one must already assume that they are two different types of beings with characteristics that deserve such a study. In other words, scientists must already think men and women are different in order to design studies to prove such a thing. That’s why it’s pseudoscience.

    HOWEVER, it’s absolutely as irrational and as damaging to continue to acknowledge men and women as different types of beings due to “social pressure and influences”. In fact, it’s two sides of the same coin. The whole tribalistic notion that there are different categories of human beings is a backwards way of thinking.

    Here’s the truth of things:
    1. We are all equally human, i.e. we are all homo sapiens which means we are a particular type of animal the only one which survives by use of reason rather than instinct.
    2. We are all completely different from one another in every way other than rule 1, i.e. we are INDIVIDUALS.

    So what if some individuals who happen to have penises happen to like blue and some happen to like pink? It’s an irrelevant statistic. But if you really want to explain “WHY” some individuals with certain sex organs prefer certain colors, fine. The explanation is ALWAYS the same – individual preference. Period. No amount of evolution and no amount of “social pressure and influence” will ever change that fundamental fact of human nature.

    Let’s hear it for individualism.


    • You’re the one who’s missing the point. Individual preference is greatly influenced by environmental, experiential factors. Individuals don’t exist in a vacuum. And it’s a glaring fact that men and women, while not necessarily *inherently* different from each other, are socialized in different ways. Their experiences are gendered, whether they want them to be or not. No one gives them a choice when they’re born. These roles are forced upon them from society immediately when they’re born. And women are denied access to many privileges that men are entitled to, which necessarily creates a gap between the genders even though they are inherently equal. This has negative effects on both men and women.

      Individuals have little control over the overpowering external influences foisted upon them from the day they are born. Your individual preferences are not as individual as you seem to think.


      • Acknowledging that humans are tragically socialized into arbitrary categories and acknowledging that there is no natural reason for doing so (i.e. as I expressed before it is irrationare quite different things. If you do not believe that we are naturally individual rather than naturally gendered, then (1) feminism would be meaningless and (2)


        • (Computer cut me off – need to stop being cheap and buy a nice one lol).

          (2) everything we scientifically understand about humanity would be thrown out the window.

          By the way, I’m rather startled at the epic confusion here:

          “Individuals have little control over the overpowering external influences foisted upon them from the day they are born. Your individual preferences are not as individual as you seem to think.”
          Just because I can’t control the world around me (which is not completely true because it is human beings who most greatly influence the world), I no longer have my own preferences? That makes little to no sense.

          I’m not ready to take any of these leaps of faith. As I said, let’s hear it for individualism.


  5. Thanks for this post! As a scientist, I am appalled at how much pseudo science is tossed around and called “evolutionary biology.” Throughout history we have seen a lot of pseudo science about the differences between men and women debunked (for example, the smaller cranial size of women does not mean they are less intelligent). Then, we have also seen real science, like survival of the fittest and the notion of the alpha male, incorrectly interpreted to perpetrate cultural myths about men versus women.

    So, yes, I agree! We really do need to stop using evolution as an excuse for male/female differences, especially when the scientific theories aren’t even being used correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Social norms play a huge part in determining how we act, what we value, how we feel, and even, apparently, what colour we prefer.

    How are social norms determined in the first place?
    Why do social norms even exist?

    …the gendered pressures and influences that surround each of us…

    Where did they come from?

    canbebitter says:
    February 13, 2013 at 10:00

    evolution … does not explain socialised behaviours.

    What does explain socialized behaviors?
    Why are there socialized behaviors in the first place?


  7. I get so frustrated by all the evolutionary psychology rubbish! A brilliantly written post with great examples to show just how stupid a “science” it is!

    Liked by 1 person

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