We know sexism exists, even if we aren’t willing to admit to its presence in our own lives, and the evidence of it is in nearly every nook and cranny of our collective civilization. But how did that whole sexism thing get started? Are humans just inherently sexist?
Well if you ask most evolutionary psychologists, they’ll tell you the answer to the last question is yes, because men are bigger and stronger than women and so, bam just like that, sexism is a fact of life for humans and has been in existence since before humans were human. Which is why you should never ask a evo psychologist that question, because their answer is seriously misogynist, cis-sexist, and a completely revisionist view of our species’ history.
Granted, I don’t fully know the answer either, and unless we can invent a time machine, no one will ever be able to know without a doubt. But, we do have a lot of biological facts that weave a very different history from what mainstream evo psych would have you believe.
First up, we know many different species have cultures. We see it in whales and dolphins, apes and monkeys, even in birds. One group does things differently than another group and passes it down through the generations not through genetics and instincts, but by teaching and learning. It seems like a really simplified definition, but when you think about human cultural differences it holds true as well, we just prefer to use high brow things like music and dress and religious customs as the determining factors instead of hunting techniques. food gathering, or migratory patterns.
We also know that these cultures can change and evolve over time. We see it in the way bird songs change over time and when hunting groups discover new tools they can use. We also see that these animal cultures can change from outside forces. For an example, lets look at chimpanzees. They are a close relative of ours and we like to see that our more aggressive urges are reflected in their behavior. Things like random fighting, warfare, and male violence towards females are common occurrences in chimp culture. Now, some of this may be due to human influence. The group of chimps that Jane Goodall observed going to war for the first time were greatly influenced by the fact that she left out huge piles of food to draw them out for observation. A chimp culture, which was already full of male dominance through violence was given a highly prized, very dense and reliable source of food. It’s not that big of a leap for such intelligent creatures to fight to control the area from outside threats. However it is a bit of a leap to assume that chimps are war-like by nature when so much human influence is a part of their environment, especially with such novel threats like poaching and deforestation impacting their food resources and survival. It’s possible that even though chimps are a male-dominant culture that sustains hierarchic through violence that their tendency to go’to war’ was stimulated by human interference, especially considering the extremely peaceful nature of their bonobo cousins.
For those that don’t know, bonobos are basically another chimp species from across the Congo river that are basically the exact opposite of chimps (at least in the pop cultural conception of chimps). They are matriarchal and instead of physical aggression, they use sexual appeasement as a way to solve conflicts. We are equally related to both species. For some reason, though, we rarely claim bonobos and their peaceful ways as our cousins despite our shared love of recreational sex, but we are over eager to identify our destructive urges within chimpanzee culture. One wonders, though, how did the bonobos and the chimps, which are very, very closely related species, come t such wildly different cultures? Bonobos speciated from chimpanzees when the Congo formed and separated the two populations. They are of the same stock, but on opposite ends of the spectrum. What could cause a reversal of this magnitude? Well, my friends, we actually have an answer to that, with real time, in the flesh science.
Meet the baboon, one of the most violently male dominated primate cultures out there. For both the hamadryas and savannah baboons, life within the troop is a violent struggle centered around male aggression and dominance displays. Except for the Forest Troop. This savannah baboon troop lived near a tourist lodge and the most aggressive and dominant males would always go to the lodge’s trash pit and fight over the food there. Which was all well and good for those tough guy males, up until some tuberculosis tanited meat made its way into the trash pit and consequently their stomachs. All of the baboons that made a habit of dining out died off, leaving behind a very skewed sex ratio and most of the subordinate males who were less aggressive and more social than average. This led to a revolutionary change in their culture. Now they didn’t quite turn into bonobos or anything, but the male social hierarchy became much looser, even to the point that male on male grooming became a not uncommon sight (something that would be seen almost as a taboo in other baboon cultures) and the females of the group were less wary of male attention. Now, this would be a pretty amazing change even if it only lasted a generation or so until one of the males got the idea to assert himself as head bully in charge, but it went farther than that. In the over all baboon culture, males leave their natal troop and assimilate into a new troop while the females stay in their troop of birth for their entire lives. So you’d think that males coming from the typical aggressive, hyper male dominated cultures would come in to the Forest Troop and just start wiping the floor with the more subordinate males, right? Well, then you’d be discounting just how strong a force culture is, even when its the only culture of its kind out there.: all the male transplants to the Forest Troop adopted the troop’s culture very quickly and very readily.
So what does this all mean for humans and their sexism? We know that in the dawn of humanity we were an egalitarian culture and we know this because most extant hunter-gather societies are egalitarian, even if they have some sex-segregated roles. They operate based on consensus and cooperation, not dominance and hierarchical competition. Sexism, or raising one gender up over another, is something as alien to them as true egalitarianism is to us. Something in our environment must have happened to reshape our culture into one that values hierarchical structure and specifically sex-based hierarchical structures. Many people hypothesize that that event was the advent of agriculture, and to be sure it is a very real possibility. It creates a very concentrated, reliable, and dense food resource and we saw what that did to the chimpanzees. There is also the possibility that a freak accident happened and wiped out part of a population and the group coped by becoming aggressive and severely restricting women’s roles. And that turn in aggressiveness led them to warfare and imperialism.
We honestly can’t know right now, and may never know, because this was all before history was written down and there is only so much we can glean from pottery fragments and campfire remains. Any stories we spin are no better than the “just-so” stories evo psychologists spin about women making better tips when fertile and men are animals incapable of controlling their sexual urges. But we do have these facts, scenarios we’ve witnessed with our own eyes in other species and our knowledge of human groups that still live in ways as close to our ancestors as possible. To suggest that sexism, and other hierarchical -ism like racism, are an instinctual or biological fact of human nature is to ignore the science and evidence in front of our faces.