Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Abigail Adams, Bonobo: Darwinian Feminism & The Declaration of Independence

On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John, who was in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  After passing on many items of news, she petitioned for a redress of female grievances:
"And, by the way, in the New Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. . . . Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no Voice, or Representation."
Her husband responded in a joking manner: "We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat."  They then went back and forth, with Abigail refusing to back down on her insistence that the arguments being deployed against the arbitrary power of Parliament applied just as well to the status of women in the American republic.  "But you must remember," she observed, "that arbitrary Power is like most things that are very hard . . . and notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have in our Power, not only to free ourselves, but to subject our Masters, and without violence, throw your natural and legal authority at your feet."

By suggesting that women could form a coalition to challenge male dominance and oppression of women, Abigail was anticipating the women's movement of the 19th century.  And without knowing it, she was adopting a behavioral strategy employed by bonobo females, who form strong social bonds with one another so that coalitions of females can check the power of aggressive males.  In contrast to chimpanzees, bonobo females can challenge male dominance and aggression, so that bonobo groups are more peaceful and more egalitarian than chimpanzee groups (Furuichi 2011; Hare et al. 2012).  (I have written about bonobos herehere, and here.)

In the wild, bonobo females serve a policing function, in that they intervene in fights to moderate conflicts through impartial mediation, because they benefit from living in a stable social order that is not disrupted by violence.  In this way they are engaged in "niche construction"--behavior that creates a social environment of prescriptive rules in which stable and peaceful cooperation is adaptive.

Among many animals, evolutionary niche construction includes the transmission of culturally traditions.  And among human beings, it includes the transmission of culturally learned symbolic systems such as art, science, religion, and philosophy.  The history of liberalism is evolutionary niche construction, in which the Declaration of Independence holds a prominent part.  And once the Founders have framed the symbolic system of liberal thought around the principles of equal natural rights and consent of the governed, those principles can be invoked by women like Abigail to argue for the rights of women.  (I have written about this here.)

That became clear in the founding document of the women's rights movement--The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions of 1848--which uses the language of the Declaration of Independence:
"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitled them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course."
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . . ."
"The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.  To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."
"He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. . . ."
After their factual indictment, they turn to their resolutions, beginning with an appeal to "the great precept of nature" as stated by Blackstone--"that man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness"--although Blackstone did not recognize that this "law of Nature" denied those English laws that deprived women of their natural rights.

This appeal to human nature as supporting women's rights can be sustained by a Darwinian feminism.  In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, first published in 1871, Darwin offered an evolutionary theory of the natural differences between men and women.  He believed that women had evolved to be nurturant caregivers, while men had evolved to be aggressive hunters, so that men and women would tend to have different desires and capacities conforming to their different roles in the sexual division of labor.  He concluded that as a result of these natural differences, women were on average intellectually inferior but morally superior to men.  "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness."

A few years later, in 1875, Antoinette Brown Blackwell responded with the first feminist criticism of Darwin in her book, The Sexes Throughout Nature.  She argued that Darwin's evidence did not support his conclusion about the intellectual inferiority of women.  Instead, the correct inference from the biological facts would be that the sexes are "true equivalents--equals but not identicals" in all physical and mental powers.  She charged that Darwin's interpretation of the evidence had been distorted by his "male standpoint," and that "only a women can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint."  The ultimate arbiter between these conflicting standpoints, she insisted, would be the facts of biological nature as known by science.

Following in Blackwell's path, Darwinian scientists like Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Louann Brizendine, and others have defended a Darwinian feminism.  "Women have a biological imperative for insisting that a new social contract take them and their needs into account," Brizendine declares.  A Darwinian feminist naturalism recognizes the evolved natural differences between men and women, while allowing those differences to express themselves by the free choices of women with equality of opportunity under the rule of law.

Thus does a Darwinian science of sex difference teach us to "Remember the Ladies."

I have written about Darwinian feminism herehere, and here.


Furuichi, Takeski. 2011. "Female Contributions to the Peaceful Nature o0f Bonobo Society." Evolutionary Anthropology 20: 131-42.

Hare, Brian, Victoria Wobber, and Richard Wrangham. 2012. "The Self-Domestication Hypothesis: Evolution of Bonobo Psychology Is Due to Selection Against Aggression." Animal Behaviour 83: 573-85.

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