Would you Adam and Eve it?

A Mind of Her Own
February 28, 2003

June Purvis questions the role of natural selection in creating 'gender'

Let me say straightaway that I did not find this book an easy read. It is not so much the style of writing as the content. The focus on the biological basis for human behaviour is alien to my ears. I was reared in the social sciences and history, and favour social and cultural factors rather than heredity as the key influences that make people tick. What Anne Campbell, a psychologist, tries to do in this book is to apply evolutionary theory to the study of the evolution of the mind.

Contrary to common perception, women's contribution to the evolutionary process was not ignored by Charles Darwin, the 19th-century high priest of evolution. Darwin actually suggested that female choice might be the driving force for sexual selection. But the idea that women's preferences might be more important than male competition in determining the gene pool of the next generation was considered scandalous in his day by male scientists keen to keep women in their place. This legacy of chauvinism continues to the present day, Campbell asserts.

Evolutionary theory presents ancestral men as those who shaped future generations by testosterone-driven competition, creating a wide gulf between the reproductive winners and losers. Women fit into this process as passive recipients of male sperm, accepting the "winning" male genes to pass on to their children. Since women lack the need and capacity to compete, they contribute nothing to the genetic variability that drives selection. Further, natural and sexual selection pressures are assumed to have orchestrated the architecture of the human mind, which in turn drives human behaviour.

Many critics have found this analysis of shy, bashful females and bold, ardent males unacceptable. Campbell, however, argues the case for evolutionary psychology, suggesting that it can offer a positive role for women. In so doing, she explores the differences between the sexes and between women.

The differences between men and women are portrayed as differences of degree, not kind, so that the overlap is great. Even for the most male-advantaged tasks, such as running a marathon, there are always some women who do better than the least able men, and vice versa. But there are profound differences, too, between women, which are a cause and a consequence of directional selection on female psychology. Exploration of these differences between members of the female sex forms the bulk of this book, as Campbell attempts to re-address the gender imbalance in evolutionary theory.

She discusses the themes of women and parental investment, aggression, status, crime and marriage. In the section on parental investment, for example, it is claimed that a host of psychological differences between males and females derives from the fact that women's biological parental investment is greater than that of males. Although men do not lack the ability to undertake childcare and domestic work, they do them less often.

For social scientists, the reasons for this may be found in the way gender roles are socially constructed, the patriarchal nature of family life, maternal guilt and the difficulties for women of being both mothers and employees. But Campbell seeks an explanation in the biological basis of reproduction. Without a mother, she insists, the life expectancy of a baby is cut tragically short. Mothers matter most.

Campbell's message hits home in the chapter on women and competition.

Women, she argues, are much more than simply the passive recipients of the sperm of dominant males. Women, too, are active agents, competing with each other for safety, food, security and partners. Their success in producing offspring is determined by their competitive ability. Are we, asks Campbell, not each unique? Are we not all women? She suggests there is no contradiction between these two questions, and that the answer is yes to both. Each woman is a unique experiment of sexual selection. Yet there are commonalities that all women share. Campbell concludes that it is "precisely women's differences from one another that provide the fodder of competition and hence selection. And it is selection for a specifically female route to reproductive success that unites women as a sex."

Although Campbell cites a wealth of studies to support her analysis, the emphasis on sex differences downplays the importance of gender-learned characteristics. Can human behaviour really be attributed to the selection processes experienced by our ancient ancestors so many years ago? The answer is, surely, no. As Simone de Beauvoir brilliantly illustrated in The Second Sex (1949), "woman" is made, not born, culturally created as "the other" by men, the dominant sex. Further, not enough weight is given by Campbell to the social and cultural context in which women live today. In western democracies, for example, modern technology has vastly increased choice, so that women have become divorced from the past. Many of us control our fertility, or choose not to have children. Some of us choose same-sex lovers. Modern medical advances, such as cloning, open up even more possibilities.

Neither does Campbell give much attention to the notion of "romantic love", the basis for couple relationships in modern democracies. The discussion of love is dismissed in just four lines as "an emotion understudied by mainstream psychology".

Nor is the summary of feminist theory offered adequate, perhaps because the author wishes to debunk it. Indeed, she refers to "nine brands" of feminist theory, and contends that since there is no agreement as to what feminist theory is, it is impossible to derive local hypotheses from it. But all feminists emphasise the importance of the social construction of gender, and few would deny that the emphasis on biological sex is a conservative tool for keeping women tied to the family and the home.

Campbell's claim that there is sex "in mind as well as body" was a view echoed in 19th-century Britain among those such as the Darwinian psychiatrist Henry Maudsley. For Maudsley, the baneful effects on female health produced by excessive brain work made women unfit future wives and mothers. It took a whole generation of feminists to argue against such views as they fought for the right to be educated at university, and to prove that women's brains were not inferior to those of the male sex.

A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women is clearly a provocative book that opens up a number of themes for debate. That it firmly places women within evolutionary theory cannot be denied. But it comes with a feminist health warning that should not be overlooked.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.

A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women

Author - Anne Campbell
ISBN - 0 19 850498 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £23.99
Pages - 393

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