One of the rationalizations for men and women having fixed, separate roles is that our gender differences evovled in the Paleolithic. Society has changed radically but our genes haven’t had a chance to catch up; like it or not, men and women still respond to impulses and mating drives laid down in the stone age. It may not be fair, but it’s scientific fact, so sorry feminists.
Actually no. This is what evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk describes as a paleofantasy, an explanation of gender differences based not on science but on speculation and guesswork about what our ancestors were like? And the basis of that guesswork, of course, is what we’re like today (or what people think we’re like) because obviously that must be how our ancestors lived. The late science writer Stephen Jay Gould calls this kind of science-based mythology a “just so story.” To give one example of how it works — only it doesn’t work — consider two Paleolithic cavemen, Og and Thog.
Og is monogamous. He takes a mate and stays with her until one of them dies. Thog is a lech who sleeps with a different woman every week. In three years, the odds are that Og will have at most three children; Thog, by contrast, could easily have more than a hundred; as he doesn’t let any one woman tie him down, he’s never held back by the responsibilities of raising the children he sires.
The result is that Thog passes on his promiscuity genes to probably 50 boys or more. As his sons have the same genetic edge, the gene inevitably spreads through all men.
The women, though? No matter how much they sleep around, they rarely spread their genes to more than one kid a year. Promiscuity works against them because what they need isn’t sex but a man who can help raise their children to adulthood. Faithfulness and a willingness to cook and provide sex are their best shot at landing a man, though they have to fight against the male promiscuity gene. The end result is the world we see today: women try to get love and support, men try to get sex. Women want to stay home and care for their bundle of genes, men want to go out and screw. You can’t expect men to be faithful naturally, or to help care for the kids. Sorry ladies, it may be unfair but it’s just how things are.
None of this holds up (I have detailed footnotes in the book for all this stuff; you can find a lot of it here). For starters, Og and Thog and their mates will spread their genes to their daughters as well as their sons; some women will acquire Thog’s promiscuous instincts, some boys will inherit the maternal domestic genes. The only way that doesn’t happen is if the relevant genes are completely sex-linked. As we don’t even know the genes exist, this is a very large assumption.
Does the hypothesis really capture the way men and women are? It’s certainly a popular, accepted stereotype of relationships, one I’ve heard repeated in dating advice books dozens of times (and The Flintstones, of course, presented those stereotypes as truly being Stone Age stuff. But very few men engage in Thog levels of promiscuity; as a group, human males are way, way more involved in child care than most animal species. This makes sense; passing on your genes won’t do any good unless your kids grow up healthy and desirable enough to reproduce themselves too.
One counter-argument is that social codes set limits on men; given freedom and power, men will go through women like Kleenex. Certainly there are dictators and tyrants who’ve done this, ditto religious leaders. But does that prove all men are really like that, or that men who crave absolute power are like that? And if men’s real lusts are repressed by society, couldn’t the same be true of women? Women who sleep around are judged much more harshly than men; maybe it’s not surprising they’re more conservative in such matters.
Another problem is that Thog’s mating strategy isn’t that good. If Og and his wife make naked pretzels once a week, the odds of conceiving a kid are good. There’s a good chance a number of Thog’s lovers won’t conceive, which reduces the benefits of his actions. Besides didn’t our hunter/gatherer ancestors live in small bands by our standards? The chance Thog could find that many women to sleep with, or that the women of the community wouldn’t be aware of his reputation is pretty slim. And as I already pointed out, bearing lots of children isn’t an advantage if they don’t all grow up and have children too. Perhaps Og and his mate, raising a few children and watching over them, will pass on their genes to more people than feckless Thog.
I’m not claiming my alternatives are certain fact. My point is they’re every bit as plausible as the Og and Thog legend and have just as much evidence (basically none) behind them. And, I think, considerably more logic. The Og and Thog thesis assumes there’s no other plausible alternative. That just ain’t the case.
Book cover by Kemp Ward, comics cover by Steve Pugh. All rights to images remain with current holders.