So Much Ado ...

by Nathaniel Paull | 5/12/03 5:00am

There's been a lot of dialogue lately about gender, about behavior and innate dispositions and, in essence, the consequences of human biology and evolution on modern-day gender issues. There have been columns defending behavior as biologically hardwired and responses all but denying the existence of gender. From what I have read, they have all been fundamentally misguided.

Our biology, and our evolutionary history, tell us how we are. They explain, or theorize, rather, about why we have a four-chambered heart and two legs, why our body temperature remains constant and why we have opposable thumbs. These claims are mundane.

It is equally true and undeniable to all but the most ardently self-deluded that two genders, with two different physiologies, have also evolved. And in the general terms in which the science of evolution always operates (there are almost always exceptions to "rules"), the different investments men and women stake in the act of reproduction have produced different attitudes towards sex. This second claim is inflammatory.

Why is there, in some camps, such staunch resistance to any claims that innate differences in men and women do in fact exist and are in fact rooted in our evolutionary biology? I think the fundamental problem is ignorance about biology and its implications. Specifically, people confuse what "should be" (morality) with what "is" (our biology). An example here will help to clarify what I'm talking about. In our society and our culture, it is considered illegal and grossly immoral to fight, injure or murder a competing member of your sex over the attentions of a potential lover. This is a moral judgement that a thinking species has made for the greater good of its members. Biologically, a much better strategy historically has been for the two competitors to do as much as they possibly can to ruin the other's chances for success. Jealousy and anger leading to actions that might perpetuate your genes are good as far as evolution is concerned. They are biologically innate.

The point here is that our biology tells us nothing about morality; the two ideas are more or less completely independent. As a matter of fact, we have defined a moral code that is at odds with instinct! There is a crucial implication here for debates about gender relations and sexual identity: whether or not any "issues" in our culture are biologically rooted is totally irrelevant to how inequalities are dealt with.

It is crazy to deny that, on average, men and women have different attitudes and mindsets about sex and relationships. It would be equally inane to say that the same attitudes apply to all individuals within a sex. Accepting a difference doesn't mean accepting an inequality -- by saying a trait in one sex is "biological" doesn't defend its negative expression. So fears of admitting to inherent distinctions are unfounded. Skin pigment is biological, so are height and eye color and susceptibilities to various diseases. We fight ardently today with issues of race because we believe deeply that this biological difference should have no bearing on our conduct towards others.

So why the fear surrounding gender differences? Why the fear surrounding homosexuality? Why the desperate searches and attempts to explain away this phenomenon as cultural or societal and another as biological? It's really only of interest from an evolutionary standpoint.

Individuals are different. Groups of people are different; we define ourselves by our heterogeneity, by the qualities that make us distinct from the next person. So what? We need to look for inequality and cruelty and abuse where they exist. We need to squash them ruthlessly where they are found. And we're going to find problems that are caused by our society. We're going to find problems that are caused by our genes.

Efforts to refute widely accepted evidence pointing to the evolutionary or cultural origins of immoral behavior detract from efforts by those same concerned individuals to deal with the behavior itself. It is silly to have two people interested in solving the same problem argue about how it emerged before they've worked out a solution. Again, the origins of behavior are interesting but don't really help us decide about morality.

There are problems in our society, that we can recognize. Much energy that could be used to deal with them is instead expended arguing about where they came from. This is so needless.

We can tell right from wrong without looking at DNA.