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28 July 2023

Nature will never be feminist

A new wave of pop science books argue the animal kingdom is full of sexually liberated females. Why do women need this to be empowered?

By Ellen Pasternack

Try to picture very early humans and you might conjure up a cartoon-like image of a man in a leopard-print loincloth chasing a woolly mammoth with a spear. His wife, meanwhile, would be wearing the same style of leopard skin fetchingly tied at the shoulder – but she would be at home picking berries, perhaps with an infant strapped to her back.

But recently, science writers all over the media have been excited to report on a new study, published last month on the PLOS (Public Library of Science) open-access platform, which suggests that this imagined stark division of labour is inaccurate. “Worldwide survey kills myth of ‘man the hunter’,” announced Science magazine; CNN proclaimed the same myth “shattered”; and Spanish newspaper El Pais tells us that “Women have always hunted as much as men”.

Yet such headlines severely stretch the results. The study surveys existing records of modern hunter-gatherer societies for any mention of women hunting. In a large majority, there is. However, the study does not show that women hunted as much as men, especially not large game. So while it convincingly refutes the claim that women never hunted, it doesn’t “shatter” the idea that for our ancestors, mammoth-chasing might have been primarily what a certain recent prime minister called a “boy job”.

Research like this frequently forms the basis for popular science books arguing that nature is “more feminist” than previously thought. Lucy Cooke’s Bitch, Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, and Angela Saini’s Inferior all explain that the idea of males as promiscuous and females as chaste is out of date. Females across the animal kingdom, from spiders to albatrosses, are “leading sexually liberated lives, for the benefit of themselves and their families, with no shame attached” (Bitch). Saini’s most recent book, The Patriarchs, argues that many pre-modern societies were relatively egalitarian, and that male dominance is therefore less natural than often assumed.

[See also: Susan Sontag’s women problem]

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Such conclusions are often explicitly chalked up as a win for feminism: opponents aren’t just on the wrong side of history, they’re on the wrong side of biology, too. But this narrative is in tension with another tendency among progressives. When the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, suddenly nature has nothing to tell us about modern human society.

The reactionary commentator Jordan Peterson has infamously used lobsters to illustrate advice for human males on how to navigate social hierarchies. Interviewing him in 2018 for GQ magazine, former New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis challenged Peterson on his crustacean fixation. “It’s scientifically bollocks,” Lewis says, to “read across from lobsters, and what they do, to what humans do.” After all, she adds, “these are creatures that urinate out of their faces!” This line is intended to get a laugh at Peterson’s expense – and it works. How, indeed, can we expect to learn anything about human society from the behaviour of a creature that lives at the bottom of the ocean and last shared an ancestor with us 350 million years ago?

But if we are agreed that other species have nothing to tell us, you’ve got to ask: why should feminists care about sex-positive spiders?

This contradiction is exposed explicitly in Lucy Cooke’s Bitch. We spend most of the book learning about the liberated sex lives of all manner of creatures, with a heavily implied lesson about what this means for the “naturalness” of various human sexual mores. But in a chapter that discusses observations of ducks raping each other, any attempt to draw an equivalence with humans is swiftly nipped in the bud. To speculate that sexual coercion in human and non-human animals might be linked is to “dangerously” suggest that “a rapist lives inside all human males”, Cooke warns us. “This is a very important distinction to make.”

But some have not heeded such warnings. A Natural History Of Rape, written in 2000 by biologists Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, argued that, given how common coerced mating is in the animal kingdom, we ought to try to understand sexual violence in humans in part through a biological lens. Contrary to the feminist directive that “rape is about power, not sex”, they suggested that actually, it might be about sex, too. The book was just as controversial as you’d expect, with critics accusing the authors of excusing sexual violence by making this comparison with other species.

Progressives don’t seem to be able to get the message straight. On the one hand, nothing we learn about inequality or sexual coercion in the animal kingdom has any bearing whatsoever on humans, and it is outrageous to suggest otherwise. On the other hand, it is important to understand that nature is very feminist. This is not just a matter of getting the facts straight, biologically speaking: it is a matter of political virtue.

The truth probably contains a bit from both sides. And so yes, the fact that dominance hierarchies are found in relatives as distant as lobsters probably does say something about us as humans, and a look at the sexual behaviour of other species can tell us that monogamy is unlikely to be the natural state of our own. But if such reasoning is a fallacy, then surely it’s a fallacy in both directions. Either way, we need to be wary about claiming factual findings about the natural world as a normative triumph for one ideology or another. 

Also, none of these examples tells us much about how we ought to behave – which sex traditionally does the hunting and which the gathering is not information we need in order to believe that both sexes should be granted the same professional opportunities in modern economies. The existence of sexual coercion in nature doesn’t mean that such behaviour in humans is morally defensible, but rather suggests we face more of an uphill battle than we might realise to prevent it.

[See also: What Gen X feminism forgets]

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