Is Misogyny Maladaptive?

Part of Prof. Blumenthal’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.



3 thoughts on “Is Misogyny Maladaptive?

  1. It is no accident that feminist sci-fi has created utopias that empower women. In these the males are either highly enlightened, selected, or non-existent except for breeding (as was the case for the legendary Amazon Women).The State of Israel was formed to provide a place for Jews. It requires constant vigilance (and plenty of weaponry) to keep it that way. Things are no different for women. We are not a race, a religion, or an ethnicity. We are biology staring men in the face–and they hate us for it.

    The few places we as women are truly safe in the world are those democracies that pass and enforce laws to help protect us. Still, we need to protect ourselves–by being strong, physically as well as mentally, by arming ourselves–and by refusing to buy into the consciousness that we are still inferior.
    In 1983 Andrea Dworkin asked for a “Twenty-four hour truce during which there is no rape.” Rape continues.
    Your point is well taken, Dr. Konner. We women and thoughtful men should never become complacent. Nuclear war is certainly the most extreme example of how our propensity as primates to violence is maladaptive. That threat never leaves us, either.

    • Dear Dr. Darling,

      Thank you for this articulate and meaningful contribution. I would only add that while Israel was founded on ideals including equality and strength for women, the Ultra-Orthodox have taken a growing number of women backward in time instead of forward. Even they don’t treat women as badly as some cultures do, but their influence is not positive.

      Stay strong,

      Mel Konner

    • Dr. Darling, thank you for this thoughtful and succinctly expressed viewpoint. I hope to follow your lead in clarifying paragraph 7 of Mr. Konner’s article as it pertains to Mormon men.

      There are two windows through which we can view them:

      (1) evolution, i.e., primate evolution, and its attendant
      presupposition of a genetic and/or societal predilection to
      “control and suppress women,” and assign to them what I
      call ‘stealth chauvinism’ under the guise of religion.

      (2) taking Mormonism at their doctrinal face value, i.e., that man exists as an act of Divine creation and purposes, and then seeking an honest understanding of them beyond stealth chauvinism.

      The concern is the Mormon “The Patriarchal Order of the Priesthood” doctrine, which is at the heart of the Mormon understanding of the purpose of Creation. The ‘Order’ is a fundamental principle of government in what they believe is the earthly kingdom of God, in other words, the Mormon Church.

      Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that whether we believe
      what Mormons believe is irrelevant to the discussion. We are seeking understanding of what they believe, and, therefore, what they believe about women.

      Back to it. This Order places men and women in a unique relationship; when marrying, they are under solemn matrimonial covenant to see and understand alike, and to cooperate fully in their marriage and in the government of their family. T

      This makes them equal partners in a joint-venture to unite each other and their children forever in the next life, i.e., eternal life as a family, the highest aspiration of their faith. Neither the man nor the woman can achieve this separately, nor when joined, without mutual love, regard, respect, and harmony in both the theological and practical sense. To Mormon men and women, this is a joint-venture of eternal significance, and it is taught in Mormon homes by precept and example, and elucidated in official Mormon educational settings, from the earliest years of a child’s life.

      The reality that there are Mormon men who fail in this
      either as single or married men, and who like primates (chauvinists) towards women, is not an indictment of either Mormon theology or faithful Mormon men. Their
      failure places them crosswise to what they revere as
      revealed doctrine, and they will be called to account by Mormon leadership if it persists, and in extreme cases,
      religious (and if necessary, secular) penalties will follow.

      To not look through this window at Mormon men is to
      easily misunderstand and unintentionally misrepresent

      If there are corollary questions you (or Mr. Konner) have in conjunction with this explanation, please allow me the privilege of answering them.

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