Does sex discrimination have an evolutionary origin?

Date 23.03.2018

Objectification of women, gender pay gaps and workplace discrimination may all have an evolutionary basis, according to a new theory, which says their roots lie in early man’s attempts to stamp out female infidelity.

The study suggests the use of psychological weapons such as guilt, shame and morality, alongside extreme physical acts like foot-binding, honour-killing, and female genital mutilation, emerged because they helped control female sexuality and ultimately ensured paternity.

Today, the severest examples of this are still found within strict religious communities, but as the report’s authors suggest, the legacy can be seen across all human societies.

According to Dr Rachel Grant, from the University of Northampton, by creating a culture where loyalty of their partner was ensured – even in their absence – men were free to invest time in other activities that enhanced their evolutionary success.

Dr Grant said: “Unknowingly raising another male’s offspring after a mate is unfaithful is a problem many animals might face. In those species, males try to prevent being cuckolded by intensively ‘guarding’ their mate for the short time that she is receptive.

“However, for a variety of reasons, women have evolved to not advertise when they are fertile, meaning men would have to physically guard them for long periods to ensure their paternity.”

Time spent guarding a partner is time not spent on other activities – including maintaining status, gathering resources, or trying to mate with other women – and this works against the interests of the male.

In turn, men have evolved to try to counter this – and the most extreme strategy to arise has also proved the most persistent, says Dr Grant.

“Circumventing the need for time consuming mate guarding ultimately led to the development of the belief systems, rules of conduct, and physical control of females typical of so called ‘patriarchal’ systems.

“Patriarchy relies on concepts such as morality, guilt, shame and family honour to maintain it and exists in the social structure of almost all human cultures. It exists to ensure loyalty, and ultimately, paternity.”

Along with her co-author, Dr Tamara Montrose, from the University Centre Hartpury, Dr Grant proposes that this way of controlling females originally evolved so males didn’t have to choose between monogamy and promiscuity – both of which have benefits for human males.

Traditional ideas of mate guarding in humans have focused on sexual jealousy, and violent and possessive behaviours, but this is the first time a study has suggested that mate guarding directly led to patriarchy – providing a new biological, and not sociological, explanation for its existence.

“Patriarchy has been prevalent at various times and in various societies throughout human history. It supports male control over women’s reproduction, and is a unique form of mate guarding because it functions even in the temporary absence of males.”

It works because it doesn’t entirely rely on physical control, says Dr Grant.

“Patriarchy depends on language and culture to perpetuate it, otherwise it would be little different from the aggression and guarding shown by the males of other primates towards females.

“Patriarchy exists to increase the costs associated with female infidelity and to increase the certainty of paternity. At the same time, it also functions to enforce in-pair childbearing by discouraging contraception and abortion.”

Historical and contemporary patriarchal practices include rape, foot-binding, honour-killing and female genital mutilation.

“Women comply with patriarchy because the costs of not doing so are high, in terms of male violence, as well as cultural and religious pressure. There has also likely been selection on females to be compliant with patriarchy, as doing so will lead to more surviving offspring.

“When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, the persistence of patriarchy into the 21st century is unsurprising,” said Dr Grant.

“In industrialised western nations, patriarchy is not absent but has become more covert, taking the form of sexual double standards, gender pay disparity, unequal sharing of domestic work, glass ceilings and workplace harassment. Awareness of the evolutionary origin of patriarchy is important in understanding its persistence and in promoting gender equality.”

The paper ‘It’s a Man’s World: Mate Guarding and the Evolution of Paternity’ can be found in the latest volume of the journal Mankind Quarterly.