Aggression in girls in our society is a growing problem and many young women are paying a price for it.  And now, studying these “mean girls” has taken a new turn: a group of psychologists can now explain why females are “bitchy” to one another: it’s in their genes.

I am not kidding. “Bitchy” has been used as a scientific category and “slut-shaming” has been experimentally examined for its evolutionary roots. There is a growing sense amongst a cluster of researchers that female sniping aggression, the indirect and biting put-downs and snide remarks that girls and women can use on each other in our society, reflects a kind of competition between them for mates and status—an evolutionary gambit that shows females can be just as competitive as males…at least that is how some researchers are spinning it.

The basic premise here is that women gain the most by controlling access to sex itself (and thus reproduction) and that they do so by aggressively manipulating others (males and females). In this view the social control of female sexuality has deep evolutionary roots and is largely due to females competing to control one another. This flies in the face of the anthropological and sociological argument that that male dominance in political and economic spheres is a core factor in the various patterns of societal structures that create social control of female sexuality.  This evolved female competition view is best laid out by the psychologists Baumeister and Twenge who argued (in a review article) that “the evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.” They figure this is “a good reason for women to suppress female sexuality because restricting the supply of sex will raise the price (in terms of commitment, attention, and other resources) that women can get for their sexual favors.”  In this perspective basic supply and demand (market economy) arguments appear to go hand in hand perfectly with our evolutionary “nature.”

Tracy Vaillancourt, the lead research on the “bitchiness” study and related projects, argues that “Human females have a particular proclivity for using indirect aggression, which is typically directed at other females, especially attractive and sexually available females, in the context of intrasexual competition for mates. Indirect aggression is an effective intrasexual competition strategy. It is associated with a diminished willingness to compete on the part of victims and with greater dating and sexual behaviour among those who perpetrate the aggression.” So the bottom line is that females are bitchy to other females when they: a) see those females as a threat to their men or potential prize sexual partners, and/or b) when they want a leg up in the amazingly competitive world where females seek high-value males who will father their children. It is interesting to note that men are left out of this scenario, even though data suggest that adult men and women, while varying in many aspects of aggression, have pretty much the same rates of indirect aggression.

As is increasingly the case in psychological approaches that invoke the term “evolution,” there is a quest to find the true (meaning biological) basis for human nature in day-to-day behavior, especially in the arena of sex and gender differences (often ignoring similarities). This approach can often result in intellectual myopia.  When asking about human behavior one must be prepared to ask whether there might be other, equally valid explanations for why females might act in derogatory or aggressive ways to each other—“real” answers need not only be derived via invoking naturally selected goals from our evolutionary past.

There are indeed numerous studies that show that women (and girls) do snipe at one another and that this often has to do with social competition. For example, Dr. Vaillancourt has a fascinating book chapter entitled ““Tripping the Prom Queen”: Female intrasexual competition and indirect aggression”—people do (on occasion) trip prom queens, but the concept of “prom queen” and proms in general, school dances, dating, and high school are all extremely recent and complex social categories laden with perceptions, histories and realities of a particular culture. To ignore the possibilities that these very cultural processes and structures themselves can exert forces on how and why we do what we do is to treat human behavior as if it is all just a gloss for some basal instincts. Just because one can create a hypothetical connection between a behavior and some potential impact on reproductive success doesn’t mean that one has a viable evolutionary explanation for that behavior. 

Evolution matters, but so do our daily lives, and our social, political and economic histories. We cannot assume that natural selection will provide the explanation for any given human behavior without also considering the myriad of other possibilities. Evolutionary processes are not more “real” than cultural, historical and behavioral ones. Being human is complicated and not always best explained by competition and sex (even though sometimes it is). To paraphrase Einstein, we need to look for what is, not what we think should be.

We cannot lose sight that most of these studies on female competition and aggressiveness are conducted primarily on undergraduate students in western nations (mostly USA, Canada and the UK). This is also true for the vast majority of all psychological studies on which we base evolutionary explanations of human psychology. This is particularly problematic as we know that these students are NOT ideal and normative representatives of the more than 7 billion humans on the planet (physiologically, experientially, economically, historically, etc…). We need to take this, and our own complex lives, into account and use caution in making evolutionary assumptions about why we do what we do.

As the anthropologist Ashley Montagu sagely cautioned, “It is essential that we not base our image of ourselves on false foundations. What is involved here is not simply the understanding of the nature of humanity, but also the image of humanity that grows out of that understanding.”

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