An argument on gender and evolution, presented as friendly to feminism, turns out to be mired in discredited shibboleths of genetic determinism and human nature, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Paul Seabright, The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present, (Princeton 2012), xi, 241pp.

The idea that sexual inequality persists because it is rooted in gender differences so ancient that they are encoded in our genes is unfortunately fairly common. In many contexts, it appears as an argument for the fallacy of feminism; after all if men are biologically-destined to go out and hunt while women stay at home and clean the cave, feminists are simply trying to overturn the natural order.[1] Indeed, genetic determinism as an explanation for the shape of modern human societies lends itself particularly well to the right, putting the blame for inequality as it does on the inferior genes of the poor and oppressed.

It is not just gender inequality which according to these arguments arises from human nature. Capitalism itself turns out to be all in our genes. Since Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976, the notion that humans are little more than vehicles for genes locked in competition with each other, has been influential. It promulgates a view of individuals throughout human history which is rather like the ideal consumer under capitalism, choosing whatever will bring them the best advantage in a competitive market. This view has been comprehensively demolished by Marxist-influenced scientists like Steven Rose and Richard Lewontin, but it remains an influential one on the right.[2]

In broad political terms, the view of people as being essentially capitalist and inherently socially conservative might seem to go together, but there is a problem here when it comes to women. The argument that women are programmed by their genes and thousands of years of human society to stay at home while their husbands bring home the mammoth/bacon/wage packet looks to a largely mythical version of capitalism in which women were not required as part of the workforce.

If this ever existed (and the view of the 1950s as a golden era in which all women kept house for their husbands is more myth than reality), it certainly does not now. Women have been needed as workers in increasing numbers since the 1980s. Not only would women take low-wage work in service-sector organisations, but the expectation that mothers as well as fathers will work means that employers no longer are expected to pay wages on which one earner could support a family, while still being able to hope that the dual-income families will have sufficient income to provide a market for their goods. By 2000, 12.5 million women were part of the labour market in Britain, including 65% of women with children and more than 50% of women with children under five.[3]

While some on the right are blithely happy to ignore this contradiction, to others this is obviously a difficulty. If women’s genes are telling them to stay at home, how can a good capitalist-genetic-determinist make the argument for their increased participation in the workforce? Paul Seabright here is giving it a go, suggesting that while women’s unequal position in society is indeed a reflection of human society in the Paleolithic era, we are now at a point where we can leave that genetic legacy behind. Women’s position in society means that employers are overlooking ‘talented’ women who could add value to their businesses, so it is not just in men’s and women’s best interest, but (most importantly) in the interest of profit that traditional gender differences are overcome. It is an argument which does not in the end manage to overcome the basic problems of the genetic determinist approach. However, in attempting to marshal it in the cause of limited liberation for sufficiently talented women under capitalism, Seabright is casting it as a feminist one. In view of the inherently unfeminist conclusions to which genetic determinist arguments come, it is not therefore an attempt that should be ignored.

Biology as the basis of the free-market

Seabright is clearly a believer in free-market capitalism, but persists in seeing it not so much as a system, as the product of individual human beings who are predisposed to treat their lives as a series of market transactions. In places, this is made quite explicit. When discussing how it is that women’s wages remain below those of men, for example, he says that ‘without a co-ordinating mechanism, it’s hard to see how the result of millions of individual bilateral negotiations could result in a systematic discrimination against women, or indeed against any other disfavoured group.’ In fact, he goes on, ‘whatever Marxists might once have argued, employers are not a single-minded class who collaborate to enforce their will on a reluctant proletariat’ (p.118).

If capitalism is reducible in this way to a series of individual decisions, then the existence of the market must lie in those decisions. Markets do not exist because they are the basis of the capitalist system, but because individuals are essentially producers or consumers. The effect of this is to decouple what would otherwise appear to be the reality of how society works under capitalism from the capitalist system itself. If there is no such thing as a system, then the only explanation for why individuals behave in certain ways must lie in their own biology and history; phenomena which would not have changed fundamentally in the four hundred years or so of capitalism’s existence.

Seabright’s argument therefore starts from the premise that ‘human life is founded on exchange’ (p.91). Humans use ‘economic strategies … systematic ways of negotiating over things they value, whether these are obviously economic goods like money and food, or other, nonmonetary resources like time, effort and self-esteem.’ These economic strategies are preeminent so have also, of course, shaped sexual strategies, explaining ‘why conflict exists and how it shapes inequalities in power between men and women, inequalities that have shifted over the millennia as economic conditions have changed’ (p.4).

These strategies are similar not only to those used by apes, or even just to mammals, but to insects as well: Seabright’s teasing introduction, written to make you think he is talking about humans, is actually about dance flies. Humans, he argues, are more complicated because we are more co-operative than other species, but the general impression remains that these are fairly basic traits. This is important, as it serves to embed these economic strategies deep at the roots of human behaviour. If even flies behave like this, the argument implies, how could anyone think that we could construct a different way of ordering society? As a development of the old argument that capitalism is natural and therefore inescapable, dance flies trading food for sex must, to a genetic determinist, seem unanswerable.

Inequality and the Biological Market

The core of Seabright’s argument is not devoted to demonstrating that the market has always been preeminent in human societies, as he appears to take that as a given, but to considering how it is that the workings of that market resulted in different power relations between men and women. His contention is that male dominance goes back to pre-agriculture, hunter-gatherer societies: in fact, it was all about the hunting. Humans require more and better quality protein than other apes, and it would have been men who would have produced it, as big-game hunting was too dangerous an occupation for the mothers of small children. This meant that men could control the distribution of the most high-value food – women might have contributed the bulk of everyday sustenance, but roots and berries just aren’t as exciting as big slabs of meat – and would therefore have traded it in exchange for women’s sexual submission. Thus patriarchy was born, and continues to this day because: ‘We are navigating the twenty-first century AD with instruments from before the twenty-first millennium BC’ (p.17).

There are a number of problems with this view of human prehistory. The notion that inter-personal or inter-gender difficulties exist in modern human society because our brains are evolved for Stone Age society and so cannot cope with the complexities of the modern world is a common view, but not one that has a basis in either science or logic. After all, if our brains could evolve to cope with the development of complex human societies in the Paleolithic, there is no obvious reason why they could not have continued evolving thereafter as society went on developing. There is an argument that the effect of modern medicine is to stop evolution by intervening in the survival of the fittest mechanism, but this would hardly apply to the whole of human history since the Stone Age. The point, of course, is that human brains are adaptable, and babies learn how to function in the society into which they are born, not the society in which their ancestors lived thousands of years before. Understanding this, however, would be to put the totality of our experience, rather than genes, at the centre of human development, which would rather destroy Seabright’s genetic determinist premise.

Hunting has long been seen not only as central to the economies of early human societies but to the formation of human nature. In the 1950s, palaeontologist Raymond Dart came up with the theory that the hominid species developed from apes as a result of their adoption of hunting behaviour, a view summed up in the 1960s with the proclamation that ‘hunting is the master behaviour pattern of the human species’.[4] This specific theory has now been discredited, but the idea of hunting as both centrally important to early humanity and as a practice carried out by men remains. Chris Harman, for example, in his People’s History of the World, described a society in which ‘the gatherers usually supplied the most reliable source of food, and the hunters that which was most valued’, and in which the hunters, for the safety reasons cited by Seabright, were mostly men.[5]

Harman pointed out that this did not lead to an unequal society as, in a society without class divisions, the results of different food gathering operations would simply be pooled. Seabright, whose determination not to see the existence of society also seems to blind him to class, assumes that humans, genetically-disposed to approach all their relationships as exchange, would automatically use their control of the nicest food to give them other rewards. Strangely, in Seabright’s Paleolithic, the best male hunters did not use their superiority to lord it over the other men, because apparently even the weaker men were needed for hunting, so the result was a perfect patriarchal society in which there were no class divisions, but in which all men were equal and dominant over all women.

Seabright’s determination to ignore class is the main issue here. Rather than it predating class divisions, it is more persuasive to see patriarchy as the product of the class system which developed as part of the Neolithic agricultural revolution. However, it is also worth noting that the idea of Paleolithic societies being dominated by big-game hunting may owe too much to the ‘Man the Hunter’ conferences of the 1960s. Protein was clearly important to early humans, but most of this may have come from small game like rabbits, which could be safely hunted by both sexes, and many human groups would have been much more reliant on marine protein than on game.

Nonetheless, in Seabright’s view, once it was established through control of a scarce and valued resource, male control of women became so deeply ingrained that it became part of human biology (in his ‘no such thing as society’ viewpoint, there is no other mechanism for perpetuating it), despite the similarly genetically-determined female predisposition to sneak around behind their man’s back. ‘To put it more accurately, it is natural selection that, by transmitting the restlessness in a woman’s loins to her daughters and her granddaughters, has been doing the wondering [about alternative sexual partners] for all of them. That restlessness first made itself felt many millions of years ago, but already the countdown to Anna Karenina had begun’ (p.59).

The difficulty is how, once this relationship between men and women has been set up, we could ever get out of it. Without an understanding of patriarchy as a product not of biology but of class, this is indeed a problem. Seabright’s answer is not to abandon genetic determinism, but rather biological determinism: technology means that for the first time, humans are not prisoners of their biology, but can use contraception, for example, to free their inter-personal and business relationships from their Stone Age physical needs. ‘The revolution in contraceptive technology, and the revolution in society that has accompanied it, have made it possible for the first time in the history of our species to separate the sexual collaboration between men and women from their more general economic relations’ (p.181).

It is an argument which puts him in strange company for an academic devotee of the free-market, echoing for example Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, where she also opined that contraception could free women from their biology and male oppression. It is also strangely out of scale with the reasonable but limited actions he proposes to make the opportunities given by technology a reality. Compulsory paternity leave may well be a good idea, but it hardly seems a sufficient response to the possibility of a revolution in relations between the sexes. The difference, of course, between Seabright and Firestone is that she was imaging a completely different society, whereas Seabright essentially supports the status quo. For all the breadth of the subtitle, The War of the Sexes’ conclusion is the rather limited thought that if high-flying women had a bit more help with looking after their babies, employers could benefit from having a few more of them on their boards.

According to one of the quotations on the back of the book, Seabright ‘launches a charm offensive on those who would prefer not to think that gender differences have any biological basis.’ In the end, that offensive proves only that genetic determinist arguments cannot be marshalled in defence of gender equality, not even the equal chance to generate surplus value for capitalists. The effect of this attempt is merely to underline the fact that genetic determinism is essentially reactionary, and hence very rarely charming.


[1] For more about this particular line of argument, see Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender. The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, (London 2010), especially pp.78-89 (reviewed here: ).

[2] See for example Steven Rose, Leon J Kamin and R.C.Lewontin, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, (London 1984), Richard Lewontin, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, (London 2000) and Steven Rose and Hilary Rose (eds.), Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, (London 2000).

[3] Lindsey German, Material Girls. Women, Men and Work, (London 2007), p.86.

[4] See Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention. Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, (New York 1987), pp.315-17

[5] Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, (London 1999), 2nd ed., (2008), p.8.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.