Thursday, November 13, 2008

Brizendine's Darwinian Feminism

"Darwinian feminism" might sound like the caption for a Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon. But it's not a joke.

Of course, many feminists would regard the idea of Darwinian feminism as a ridiculous contradiction in terms. Many feminists assume that Darwinian accounts of the biological nature of men and women support the patriarchal oppression of women by men. The liberation of women, they say, requires a radical dualism of biological nature and cultural construction. Although sexual identity is a biological trait that human beings share with other animals, gender identity is a cultural construction that is uniquely human. Men and women show biological differences in their reproductive anatomy comparable to that of other animals. But the gender identity of men and women--their psychosocial identity as male or female--is created by human beings through culture or social learning in a manner that has nothing to do with biology. Human sex differences come mostly from being raised by our parents as a boy or a girl. At birth, our brains are not male or female, but our unisex brains are channeled by parental rearing into either a male or female path of socialization. Consequently, we could change our gender identities by changing our cultural norms of socialization. In a feminist utopia, we could rear our children to be unisex or androgynous beings so that there would be no difference in the psychological propensities of men and women, which would support a radical form of sexual equality.

This feminist dichotomy between animal sex and human gender assumes a cultural creationism. Just as biblical creationists assert that human beings have been created with a spirit or soul that transcends the biological nature of other animals, cultural creationists assert that human beings create their psychological identity through human culture as a transcendent realm of human freedom beyond the natural world.

Against this cultural creationism popular with many feminists, Louann Brizendine--in her book The Female Brain--surveys the evidence for the conclusion that there is no unisex brain, because girls are born with female brains, and boys are born with male brains. To be sure, these brains are sensitive to the social environment, and so their development over the human life span will manifest the effects of cultural learning. But because of the natural differences in their brains and in the biological phases of their lives, men and women will on average differ in their natural desires. Consequently, any attempt to create a totally unisex world will fail, because the natural differences between men and women will assert themselves.

And yet what Brizendine says about the choices that women face in satisfying their natural desires over their lifespan shows a feminist concern for the freedom and equality of women in seeking to satisfy their natural desires. For example, Brizendine describes the neurophysiology of the "mommy brain." Women are naturally adapted to undergo a rewiring of the brain and endocrine system during pregnancy and nursing to sustain their maternal bond with their children. Consequently, it's natural for mothers to want to be close to their children, and this will create hard choices for them if they have to balance child care with work outside the home. But there are natural ways to be a working mom. "Allomothering"--finding substitute moms--is common not only in human societies but among other mammals. Human beings probably evolved to be cooperative breeders so that mothers can rely on allomaternal care from others. Here Brizendine rightly cites the work of Sarah Hrdy in Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (2000).

Brizendine concludes her book with a chapter on "The Future of the Female Brain." She declares: "Understanding our innate biology empowers us to better plan our future. Now that so many women have gained control over their fertility and achieved economic independence, we can create a blueprint for the road ahead. That means making revolutionary changes in society and our personal choices of partners, careers, and the timing of our children" (159). "Women have a biological imperative for insisting that a new social contract take them and their needs into account" (163).

Here Brizendine falls into a tradition of Darwinian feminism, which can be seen in Sarah Hrdy's work, in Patricia Gowaty's edited book Feminism and Evolutionary Biology (1997), and in Griet Vandermassen's Who's Afraid of Charles Darwin? Debating Feminism and Evolutionary Theory (2005). The idea here is that the distinctive needs of women will not be respected if we ignore the ways in which women are naturally different from men.

Furthermore, feminist culturalism harms women. If we cannot look to human nature to judge the natural desires of men and women, if the needs of men and women are arbitrary cultural constructions, then we fall into a cultural relativism in which we cannot judge cultural practices as better or worse in satisfying human desires. We cannot say, for example, that female circumcision--clitoridectomy and infibulation--frustrates the desires of women in oppressive ways. If female circumcision is deeply rooted in the cultural life of some societies, then we cannot criticize it without being guilty of "cultural imperialism." In fact, this has become a big debate among feminists whose cultural relativism deprives them of any natural standard of judgment.

Wouldn't it be better for women to adopt a feminist naturalism based on the idea that women have evolved natural desires that constitute a standard for judging cultural traditions as better or worse in satisfying those desires? That's my argument in Chapter 6 of Darwinian Natural Right.

A Darwinian feminist naturalism would recognize the natural differences between men and women, while allowing those differences to express themselves by securing an equality of opportunity under the rule of law. In this way, Darwinian conservatism respects the natural desires of both men and women.

Many conservatives, however, are ambivalent about the Darwinian account of sex differences as rooted in evolved human nature. Conservatives generally agree that there are natural biological differences between male and female that need to be respected by any social order. But some conservatives are suspicious of Darwinian science, because they fear that it promotes a reductionistic materialism. This is clear in Harvey Mansfield's defense of manliness, which was the subject of a previous post.

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