Part of my friend’s question that I didn’t answer last time was about misogyny, which he hopefully speculated is now maladaptive. I deferred this because from an evolutionary viewpoint it is in a different category from xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. Let me state clearly at the outset, as I did about the other categories of prejudice: I think we are gradually creating conditions in which misogyny is maladaptive, and we must continue to do that.

However, it has to be recognized that for the long span of human evolution some aspects of misogyny were adaptive—not for women, but for men. As with xenophobia and racism, we can’t use “adaptive for the species” as a starting point, because that is not the main unit of evolution. Some individuals or groups have succeeded at the expense of others, as with the ill-gotten gains made by men at women’s expense.

Except, of course, women are not over the hill in the next valley, they are in an intimate and unavoidable entanglement with men on which reproduction depends. Both must reproduce and need each other to do it. But unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean full cooperation and fairly shared gains. From the viewpoint of natural selection, it can mean equality and joint commitment to offspring, but it can also mean exploitation.

Men have gained at women’s expense by controlling them, making them dependent, making them work, ignoring many of their needs, accumulating two or more women as sex or marital partners, coercing them into sex, and even kidnapping them from their villages, in which case they really are over the next hill. Often in the historical and anthropological record, this last tactic has been a byproduct of xenophobia—you attack the enemy, try to kill the men, and take their women for yourselves. 

In fact, the whole of human evolution and history can be seen as the playing out of strategies by which men tried to control uteruses. The myriad kinship and marriage rules of traditional societies have attempted to regularize this control, and in most such cultures the best protection women had against men was to rely on other men—fathers and brothers—whose interests might be more aligned with theirs. But fathers and brothers too have their interests and try to use their daughters or sisters to their own advantage, by essentially trading them for alliances or aid. If you think this is something primitive, take a look at the whole history of Europe’s royal families.

Now in some hunting-gathering societies, like the !Kung (Bushmen) I lived with for two years, women drew natural power from two main sources. They made a very large contribution to subsistence—hunting is great but chancy, gathering a steady meal ticket. And they raised their voices around the fire every night, and their intelligence and wisdom were obvious and valued. If they were lucky enough to raise several children to adulthood, these became another source of status and power.

But in many more “advanced” societies, relying on agriculture, animal husbandry, and military strength, men found it possible and advantageous to control and suppress women. This is a deep part of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, and other religious traditions, several of which allowed (and in their fundamentalist branches may still allow) a man to have more than one wife, and all of which went to much greater lengths to control female than male sexuality. Requiring women to cover themselves from head to toe, restricting their movements outside the home, and severely punishing them for immodesty or other violations of restrictions were only some of the tactics men used—always in service of the ultimate goal of keeping women in a childbearing mode as frequently and as long as possible.

Some fundamentalist Muslims and Mormons still have polygamy, and fundamentalist Jews and Christians impose severe controls on women. At the extremes, you have young teenage girls forced into plural marriages in a fundamentalist Mormon splinter group; Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men spitting and throwing feces on little girls whose modest dress is not modest enough for them; the aborting of far more female than male fetuses in China, even late in pregnancy; and the so-called “honor killings”—really dishonorable murders—of women by male family members among certain groups of Muslims. Invariably, misogyny or oppression of women and predicts physical and sexual abuse.

Is misogyny becoming maladaptive? Yes. Legal and moral traditions in favor of women’s equality have gained ground almost everywhere in the world. But they are up against male tendencies honed by evolution, so we still have a long way to go.

About the Author

Mel Konner MD, PhD
Melvin Konner's books include The Tangled Wing and The Evolution of Childhood. He has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, Nature, and Science.

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