The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present

Women are born to demand their share - just ask the hunter-gatherers, argues Camilla Power

May 10, 2012

Has sexual equality ever existed? How did it work? Can we restore it to our modern world? In tackling these questions, Paul Seabright deploys the most powerful materialist theory there is for addressing relations between the sexes: Darwinian sexual selection.

Sexual selection theory focuses on the costs and benefits of strategies for individuals of each sex - dependent on what the other sex does. It predicts endemic cooperation and conflict between potential or actual sex partners. For all sexually reproducing species, sexual encounters provoke games of strategic decision-making. The more that males and females can second-guess each other's moves, the more complex the adapted psychologies and the more elaborate the communicative signalling that ensues.

With large-brained mammals such as monkeys, apes and us humans, the stakes of genetic choice and economic investment run very high indeed. Each sex constrains possible outcomes for the other. Darwinian feminist Patty Gowaty calls this tug of war between male attempts to assert exclusivity of access and female attempts to extract maximum investment in offspring, while retaining choice, "sexual dialectics". A number of Darwinian anthropologists suspect that this evolutionary force propelled the emergence of human culture in the forms of language, art and religion.

Seabright, an economist familiar with evolutionary modelling, synthesises several disciplines in asking what our evolutionary heritage teaches us about men's and women's rights and roles in the modern labour market. Judicious in bringing Darwinism to bear on contemporary mores, he avoids the vulgar reductionism that often plagues this kind of popular science. My main gripe is that, given the scope of his theory, he is not ambitious enough. This Darwinian feminist would like to see less timid reformism and more revolutionary and dialectical thinking.

As Seabright argues, natural selection never designed us for perfect partnerships "till death us do part". Notions of lifelong monogamy stem from historic religious ideologies. We are all psychologically attuned to the subtleties of sexual conflict and negotiation. The mighty novels of the 19th century, from Stendhal's The Red and the Black to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, deal with the mismatch between our evolved nature and an imposed patriarchal ideology.

Those ideologies are essentially rooted in farming economies. The so-called Neolithic Revolution was a disaster in terms of freedom for women, in effect a "counter-revolution". With control over agricultural resources of land and cattle, men, often in patrikin groups, were and in large parts of the world still are able to control, subordinate and confine women as the price for access to those resources. In post-industrial labour markets, we are in remission from the cancer of Neolithic gender hierarchies.

Rightly, Seabright contrasts the situation of women in forager economies, where men rarely exercise that degree of control. Female foragers need to maintain autonomy to feed and shelter themselves and their children, move camp, visit kin and allies, and make their own decisions about sex partners. While acknowledging this, Seabright crucially fails to explore the nature of the gender relations that made us human.

The funniest parts of this book are the field notes purportedly written by "great ape anthropologists" investigating the peculiar ways of Homo sapiens. The chimps feel frustrated at having to abandon their study on "Violent Conflicts on the Tokyo Subway" after weeks of observation produce one measly incident of violence. The bonobos neglect their fieldwork, too busy getting it on themselves, to observe the extremely slow action on their "Sexual Intercourse among High-ranked Business Executives" field study. The gorillas can't get their heads around the way small kids bully the supposedly dominant males. Seabright has an astute grasp of the Machiavellian intelligence governing ape social and sexual lives. But he needs to think harder about the implications of the differences between them and us. For humans, might is not right; all human societies have rules around sex; childcare is central to human endeavour. He is just too inclined to draw an evolutionary straight line between apes' political manoeuvring and power play in a modern office.

True, in societies like ours, riven by inequalities of wealth and status, humans revert to great apes' dominance and submission patterns, even if it grates for us in ways it probably never does for chimps. But the societies in which we evolved as modern humans countered and reversed such dominance relations. We became modern Homo sapiens in assertively egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups. The rapid expansion of brain size from 300,000 to 200,000 years ago, resulting in the birth of our species in Africa, is solid evidence that women asserted gender equality by getting men to hunt more productively for them and their babies. Strangely, Seabright argues that female chimpanzees have more autonomy than hunter-gatherer women because they get no help whatsoever in childrearing.

Such a gender revolution at the heart of the human revolution did not come about through individual pair-bond negotiations alone, but thanks to gender solidarity and kin alliances. Seabright imagines hunter-gatherer men acting in concert to control scarce resources such as meat in order to assert themselves over women. Yet among African foragers, hunters are not left in charge of meat distribution. The ethos of demand-sharing ensures egalitarian relations. When meat or honey comes into camp, no child goes hungry; women and children never depend on one man. In the party atmosphere, women don't count tight-fistedly how many kilos of starch they have to exchange in a market bargaining session. Flesh deserves flesh - or the chance of it. Women motivate men's work because they collectively control the ultimate scarce resource: sex. Seabright's odd position that women have nothing to bargain with does not reflect the logic of bride service among African foragers. If men don't produce the goods, they risk getting chucked out by their wives and in-laws. With men kept on their toes, the gender balance of power among hunter-gatherers is constantly under negotiation.

Hunter-gatherer camps are cooperative childcare projects, with women as a gender group central to their sexual, political and economic organisation. We have an enormous amount to learn about what it means to be human from that organisation. Seabright inspects an array of psychological and economics studies to assure himself and us that there is no valid evidence of differences between men and women in terms of talent or of motivation, and therefore no apparently justifiable basis for pay and promotion differences. He seeks the cause of those in the disproportionate penalties women pay for taking time off for children in competitive work environments. Women, he suggests, are not prepared to be alienated from their families, spending long hours of overtime at the office to demonstrate commitment to their seniors. Men may be more willing to fall into this "signalling trap". The lesson to learn here from hunter-gatherers is that such alienation from one's children is cruel and inhuman, and should be stopped. Hunter-gatherer women flexibly combine social and economic aspects of childcare while having fun: why can't we?

Men and women, Seabright suggests, may operate different styles of alliances, which affect the way they advance in corporate and managerial systems. I'd have more confidence in the idea if the author examined how forager women's alliances work. Ultimately, Seabright's discussion applies to pay and status differences among highly paid executives - the males and females of the 1 per cent. I'm more bothered by the near 20 per cent increase in female unemployment in the past two years of banker-imposed austerity, and even more bothered about the billions of women and men still enduring benighted Neolithic patriarchy. But our Palaeolithic heritage as hunter-gatherers gives us reasons to be cheerful: we're born to assert equality, to demand our share, and stay solid with our sisters.

The Author

Professor of economics at the University of Toulouse, Paul Seabright says he loves the city, "but when I go back to Oxford [where he was a student] I'm astonished by its elegance: seeing the Radcliffe Camera in the early morning always provokes a twinge". He has travelled widely: "the academic posts have all been liberating, and the most difficult challenges have been on field trips - battling dysentery in India; trying to stay sober in drinking contests instigated by my hosts in Ukraine, Russia or China."

Seabright speaks good French - "with a French wife and half-French children, I've had plenty of incentive" - and "passable Spanish, rudimentary German and Italian that makes it possible for me to follow a dinner conversation without being able to say much more than that I agree with the speaker. This gets me a lot of dinner invitations."

Of his career path, Seabright observes: "I applied to study postgraduate economics because I couldn't think what to write on the BBC traineeship application. I've never regretted it. But if I had had any idea how exciting neuroscience would become, I might well have been tempted in that direction."

The economic crisis, he says, "has legitimated the idea that economists should consider it a duty and a pleasure to talk with non-economists in a comprehensible common language".

The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present

By Paul Seabright

Princeton University Press

240pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780691133010 and 9781400841608 (e-book)

Published 14 May 2012

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