In December 2016 a special episode of the BBC hit Sherlock reprised in cinemaplexes across the United States. “The Abominable Bride” had had its silver-screen debut eleven months earlier, but popular appeal induced the distributor Fathom Events to bring it back. Although primarily designed for Sherlock’s fan base, the show’s defining conceit, Holmes and Watson in modern dress, was suspended. Instead, the plot warped back to the London of Arthur Conan Doyle, where a succession of cads and bounders have been murdered by what seems a vengeful female ghost. Initially stumped, Sherlock consults his brother, Mycroft, who enigmatically confides that the perpetrators compose an invisible army, found everywhere, who cannot be resisted because “they are right”. Thus guided, Holmes eventually discovers a congregation of hooded feminists in a ruined abbey, plotting the murder of their nastiest victimisers. The drama never quite concludes—it’s but a drugged fantasy of the modern Holmes interrupted by anxious friends—yet there’s no doubt of the heroic status of the homicidal assembly. They’re true social justice warriors, if a bit avant la lettre.
While it never is, or has to be, made explicit, the episode’s moral premise, one that now saturates Western consciousness, is that women rate among the great victims of human history. Certainly none in the audience I joined seemed at all uncomfortable with it. And why should they be? It’s the core message of contemporary feminism, affirmed by politicians, the media and, most especially, our socially engaged professoriate. The latter, in fact, have “theorised” it in the now fabled formula of “race, gender and class”. Settled wisdom in the university, and holy writ for women’s studies, the formula is meant to link women with serfs, slaves and other forms of immiserated labour. Off-campus progressives embrace the equivalence as well—the unity and moral authority of their victims’ coalition demanding no less. Without it the recurrent political trope of a “war on women” would appear as risible as that of a war on cat fanciers.
This essay appears in the most recent Quadrant.
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So, is the formula valid?
Clearly not—at least if one is willing to use evolution’s scorecard in assessing winners and losers. Evolution’s bottom line is reproductive success, how many offspring are produced and, of these, how many themselves survive to reproduction. Prospectively it determines the size of an individual’s contribution to future gene pools. Retrospectively it suggests the degree of wellbeing an individual has likely experienced—wellbeing having much to do with succeeding at what comes naturally.
So what happens when one compares the aggregate fitness of male and female humans? Mirabile dictu, it’s a tie: the aggregate success of females precisely equalling that of males. Surprising? Well, only if you’ve failed to notice that, up to now at least, human reproduction requires each child to have both a father and a mother.
This doesn’t mean that attaining reproductive success isn’t a struggle many will lose. Nor does it mean that the sexes have equivalent reproductive strategies or experiences: among humans (and many other animals) they tend to be quite distinct, men tempted to run up a sexual score, spreading their genes widely; women seeking stable long-term relationships with reliable partners. In polygamous societies (monogamy evens things out) the most successful males, such as Chinese emperors or Saudi royals, can have legions of offspring, sperm being cheap. Eggs are expensive, to say nothing of pregnancy, and so female fertility is capped at a substantially lower level. It thus can pay for men to be biological risk-takers, daring all for the chance of winning big. Women typically play it safer. When everything is said and done, however, the two sexes end up on par.
Of course men and women don’t live their lives as simple vehicles of reproduction. We’re a lot more complicated. Yet we shouldn’t exaggerate our differences from those lower on the chain of being. While some have found childlessness, even celibacy, no bar to personal fulfilment, most people still discover in the normal life cycle—kids, grandkids, and all the trimmings of hearth and home—the deepest of satisfactions. And despite the angst contemporary feminism strives to implant in them, this is probably truer of women than men.
More important, the issue isn’t whether the current situation of women is less satisfying than men’s. This might be correct—though it actually doesn’t seem so—for a variety of cultural reasons having nothing to do with genes. For women with powerful career ambitions, it’s easy to believe there are frustrations, conflicts, slights, insecurities and discrimination beyond that which men experience. The culture also repeatedly tells women they should expect to experience these things, reason alone for some to feel them.
The issue is whether women are a traditionally oppressed group, whose historic plight deserves to be compared with the truly wretched of the earth. Only if we believe that are Sherlock’s femmes fatales—to say nothing of those ensconced in women’s studies programs—battling a great historic evil. To debunk this highly mischievous and misleading analogy, looking at biological bottom lines is hardly beside the point.
So, if the sexes end up neck and neck, how, by contrast, fare the genetic fortunes of dominant and downtrodden classes, ethnicities and races? Differently indeed.
For ascendant races, ethnicities and classes, the genetic pay-offs have historically been substantial—class and ethnic competition being strongly inclined towards the zero-sum. Upper classes usually harvest resources from those beneath, enhancing the lower orders’ risk of starvation, disease, bachelorhood, late marriage, early widowing and, above all, infant mortality. Dominant males also prey sexually on subordinate females, further reducing the reproductive chances of subordinate males. For the most intensely exploited, the negative impact can be catastrophic. When slaves could be bought cheaply, existing ones were often rapidly worked to death. And genocide, or at least widespread slaughter, frequently attended conquests of one people by another.1
There can, of course, be exceptions. During the West’s great industrial upswing, class relationships began anomalously trending win-win, spreading a prosperity that lifted all boats. In some places class conflict was transformed into co-operation—though this involved much collective and political bargaining. The working classes gradually eschewed full-blooded socialism, while business interests eventually accepted the welfare state, resulting in what was long conventionally viewed as a mutually beneficial truce.
This highlights another gendered insight from evolutionary biology, how in certain relationships between the sexes, one of the most pervasive biological blocks to non-kin co-operation—its dependence on calculated favour trading—is uniquely overcome.
For those not closely related, favours bestowed generally require favours returned, with participants acutely sensitive to running balances. Among blood relatives this is less likely to be true, since in assisting kin one helps one’s “extended self” as defined by shared genes. The paradigmatic case is parent and child, but in more diluted form also that of cousins, aunts, nephews, and so on.
By themselves, the racial or class status of interacting individuals will have little effect on this accounting process, except, perhaps—where the social differences are most sizable—to accentuate it. Yet in one vastly important relationship between the oppositely sexed—marriage—conscious cost-counting can, in ways that are sometimes decisive for an individual’s future, go largely by the board.
What ranks highest in intensity among human feelings: affection between siblings; patriotic sentiment; friendship; the love of a parent for a child; or the gusts of emotion that drive couples smitten head-over-heels? Although parental love is certainly deep and enduring, it rarely compares in obsessiveness—except on occasions of danger or grief—with that of a “man for a maid” (and vice versa). And romantic attraction is not the same as lust; it involves something more like mutual sanctification, each partner regarding the other—for a while at least—with almost worshipful awe.
Evolution has created this extraordinary passion for very good reason: the adaptive utility of males and females—on the basis of subliminal fitness cues about fertility and dominance—committing quickly to the heavy joint investment human child-rearing requires. The origin of this attraction lies in “sexual selection”, meaning that romantic passion evolved because individuals displaying it not only made superior picks, but were preferred by prospective partners and, as a result, did better at spreading their genes. The incandescent binding power of romantic attachments thus makes gender difference the source of one of humanity’s greatest solidarities—absolutely the greatest among persons not related by blood.
Race, ethnic and class feelings, on the other hand, foment much that is most divisive in the world, the good they do generally dwarfed by the furies they can unleash. They’re rallying flags, and when they bring people together, it’s often to engage in conflict—whether it be an athletic event, an election, a riot, or a war. The evolutionary “payoff” for these feelings has frequently been measured in social spoil—land, loot and slaves. In marriage, more happily, the measure is children.
Although family feuds occur, inter-familial competition in more advanced societies—as in a modern family’s quest to advance its members’ prospects, in education, employment or whatever—is widely dispersed and rarely violent. The secret of a family’s success lies much more in its members’ collective commitment than in their enmity towards others outside the family. Most telling is how the strong “gendered” forces binding families together regularly triumph over the more transient fidelities that emerge from class and ethnic conflicts, once the peaks of those rivalries subside. In the wake of revolutions, for example, class or national solidarity predictably gives way as individuals strive to find advantageous places for themselves and their loved ones in the new order of things.
So why do we often think of gender as a source of division instead of unity, and even experience it as such? The first reason is familiarity, the second feminist ideology—as noted, conventional opinion’s current default mode for thinking about the relations of men and women.
Most people live the greater part of their lives within families. Personal memory, gossip, even literature, is largely familial narrative. Given their pervading nature, family relationships generate widely recognised archetypes. The archetypes’ components—the roles and behaviour of which they’re constituted—have thus taken on a timeless, universal quality, particularly the most dramatic, conflicted ones. The tyrant father, the shrewish wife, the wilful child, the errant son, the henpecked husband, the domineering mother-in-law, are deeply engraved cross-culturally in human consciousness, the stuff of story, jest and insult, intimacy’s repeated bad news that like all bad news upstages the good. When people “think of family” this bad news frequently comes first to mind, facilitating a propagandistic take on family as a seat of gendered warfare.
Radical feminism scales up this fractional truth from micro to macro, making it the whole, rather than just a part, of its global analysis. Whereas social struggle is most typically a competition among individuals and families for resources and status, in which individuals routinely favour opposite-sex kin over same-sex strangers, we get instead “patriarchy”, crudely dichotomising the sexes into ever-battling exploiters and exploited. Some would call this “Cultural Marxism”, the template of class struggle applied across the board. But while struggle makes some sense as a lens through which to analyse class, it misses the boat entirely when it comes to the sexes.2
But there is also a historical factor on which feminist misinterpretation plays.
The dissolution of caste has been one of the great themes of modern Western history, achievement replacing ascription as the normative status marker. By arguing that gender roles are simply superior–subordinate constructs, radical feminism hitches its wagon to this compelling story of emancipation from obsolete and injurious constraints. And although, as we have seen, gender is and always has been very unlike race and class in its effect on deepest interests, this polemical manoeuvre gains plausibility from the fact that sex and caste distinctions are both innate.
From an evolutionary perspective, what is happening when women can “be all they can” is not an escape from slavery but a shift in life-strategy. The high death rates of pre-modern societies required a preoccupation with reproduction that served to fix female roles. Modern mass abundance allows that need to be greatly relaxed, resulting in a multiplication of the ways in which a woman can satisfactorily move through life.
Misunderstanding this does substantial harm. By encouraging a conspiratorial reading of the knocks and tensions that inevitably accompany life, it fuels unjustified anger among women. By promoting the deconstruction of gender roles tout court, it works to divorce women from their intrinsic natures—a very unhappy outcome. Worst of all, it creates one more wedge issue suitable for the further aggrandisement of government power—in this case to serve as the arbitrator of putative sexual warfare. What should be a natural evolution of gender roles, allowing the sexes to adjust relations through spontaneous social learning, becomes one more occasion for imposing rigid templates that serve few interests other than those of their devisers.
Women don’t in fact seem to enjoy life any less than men, or so says the most massive international poll on the gendering of happiness ever conducted—done by Pew in 2003. Overall, women were found to be somewhat happier than men, with one of the biggest gaps in troglodytic Pakistan. Women in the United States were, in the 1970s, significantly happier than men, but with fuller “emancipation” their happiness has declined to about parity.
Studies examining satisfaction and socioeconomic status produce rather different results, people with more income and social status generally reporting themselves happier than those with less. This contrast shouldn’t surprise.
We are living through one of Western history’s most ideological moments. More people than ever before, in education, journalism, the arts and entertainment, make their livings freely inventing, refining and disseminating visionary ideology—of which radical feminism is among the most prominent and aggressive. Many of these cognoscenti, deeply invested in advocacy, are true believers. But their followers, even young women fresh out of university, may be doing little more than mouthing script, impelled by fashion and a fear of being politically incorrect.
If the “daughters of light/sons of darkness” brand of theorising encountered so often today has little connection to people’s deeper feelings, and if it’s at odds with what we know about how the sexes and gender relations evolved, perhaps we’ll eventually see its end. We’d certainly be the better for it.
1. In the contemporary West, for reasons having mainly to do with a desire of middle-class people to self-realise, together with welfare-state benefits for lower-income groups, some of the latter produce more kids than the former. But this is a recent historical anomaly.
2. There is also the need to keep in mind that while gender difference sometimes pits individuals against one another, gender commonality can do so too, as with sexual jealousy, an unusually intense emotion.
Stephen H. Balch is the Director of the Texas Tech Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Lubbock, Texas. His e-mail address is email@example.com .