Theorising the evolution of sex

Psychology, Evolution and Gender
October 6, 2000

In an age of increasing specialisation, our need for integrative theory is ever more apparent. Neither the mechanistic simplicity of modernist theorising nor the free-floating relativism of postmodernist theory can help to bring together the diverse perspectives that contribute to our understanding of what it is to be human. We need meaningful dialogue between different areas of knowledge in order to comprehend what each has to offer and how each can contribute to a well-rounded understanding of the human condition.

Psychology, Evolution and Gender aims to provide a forum for such dialogue. By bringing together feminist and evolutionary theory, it hopes to encourage meaningful discussion between two bodies of knowledge that have traditionally been in vehement opposition. Both sides have had much to say about gender and about what it is to be a human male or human female; but what they have said has rarely agreed. Feminist psychologists have generally regarded evolutionary psychological arguments as crude and reductionist, while evolutionary psychologists, according to Paula Nicholson, see feminist psychologists as biased and unscientific. Attempting to bring the two together in one journal is a brave and valuable venture.

The first issue, understandably, is largely polemical, and the editorial team is to be congratulated in bringing together such a range of viewpoints. The potential of the journal for opening new areas of research is signposted by a discussion of crying and gender, while an excellent article by Jim McKnight discusses standards of argument and criteria for evaluation in the quest to integrate different types of theory.

Polemical discussions continue in issue two, focused around the theme of the gendered body and offering useful insights into concepts such as normality, premenstrual syndrome and maternal instinct. The balance of feminist and evolutionary perspectives is maintained, but how far they are meeting is an open question, which becomes more relevant in subsequent issues as empirical research articles become more frequent. Theoretical discussions make a slight return in the fourth issue and are accompanied by the first explicitly qualitative analysis of research data, in a discussion of explanations given for teenage girls' indirect aggression.

What is signalled by these four issues is a mixture of theoretical discussion, informed polemic, formal quantitative research and qualitative analyses. There are also thoughtful book reviews and some attempt to develop specific themes in single issues. The combination is promising, and many of the papers are scholarly and thought-provoking.

One of the more disappointing things to emerge, however, is a tendency towards very simplistic interpretations of evolutionary theory. There are very good scholars active in this area whose work permits and even encourages the integration of knowledge at many different levels of analysis. The academic (as opposed to populist) works of Stephen Jay Gould and Elaine Morgan spring immediately to mind. Yet all too often, the evolutionary examples that have been used here draw from simplistic animal comparisons, in the worst tradition of reductionist evolutionary theorising.

Sometimes the limited awareness of perspectives within evolutionary theory leads to some strange assertions. At one point in the first issue, for example, Gould is located as an anti-evolutionary theorist: an assertion that betrays a lack of knowledge about his academic work or even his writing in Nature , not to mention his role as one of the leading spokespersons for evolutionary theory in popular science. He is outspoken in his opposition to the simplistic reductionist versions of evolutionary theory, but that critique stems from a deep understanding of what evolutionary theory has to offer.

Unless this journal can come to terms with those deeper implications of evolutionary theory, it will continue to perpetuate the kind of analyses and comparisons that have attracted so much opposition from feminist and other critics in the past. The empirical papers that begin to appear in later issues, for example, have been characterised by some stunningly superficial evolutionary parallels, which take very little account of the diversity of human behaviour, the contributions of culture and social learning in shaping evolutionary tendencies, or the role of cognition.

Integrative theory can only develop by knitting together different levels of analysis. The first step in the process is a better awareness of what different levels of analysis have to offer, and the existence of this journal is a good start. But unless it can deal properly with how evolutionary mechanisms interact with culture, cognition and sociability, it runs a risk of perpetuating the problems it sets out to challenge.

Nicky Hayes is lecturer in social psychology, University of Bradford.

Psychology, Evolution and Gender: 3 times a year / http://journals.routledge.com

Editor - Paula Nicholson and Susan Thorpe
ISBN - ISSN 1461 6661
Publisher - Routledge
Price - $174 (instits); $44 (indivs)

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