Women are naturally bitchy. This is the sexist stereotype that’s been given a new sheen of scientific respectability by a report in a Royal Society journal this week. The report posits that women have a tendency towards indirect aggression, rooted in the evolutionary past of our species. “Females compete for resources needed to survive and reproduce, and for preferred mates,” said Dr Paula Stockley, one of the report’s authors. Women opt for “low-risk strategies” to ward off other females because of the “constraints of offspring production and care”. In other words, bare-knuckle bar brawling can wreak havoc on the ovaries.
Personally speaking, when I’ve finished rearing the young and keeping the cave tidy, I prefer to spend any free time badmouthing members of the opposite sex. But that’s just me. Currently topping my grudge list is an American anthropologist called Donald Symons. We’ve never met and I’m sure he’s perfectly nice, but as the author of the 1979 book The Evolution of Human Sexuality, he’s as good a scapegoat as any for the popularisation of evolutionary psychology and everything bad which followed.
Whatever the merits of this discipline might be, it’s now often used as handy, media-friendly means to justify an observation about the behaviour of modern humans (however subjective) via a hypotheses about the behaviour of early humans (however unproven). And all this regardless of any other factors which may have come into place in the intervening 2.3 million years of human history. There’s a big leap between observing that Denise in accounts likes to spend her lunch break making catty comments about pictures of Holly Willoughby’s cellulite and concluding this is how Denise’s brain and the brains of all women are programmed.
This is not to say that all women are saintly members of a sisterhood in which never a cross word is spoken. Nor even that women, as a group, couldn’t stand to be kinder to one another. There is some obvious truth to Dr Tracy Vaillancourt’s point that: “It’s women who suppress other women’s sexuality.” Attributing this situation to evolution, however, just allows us to ignore the contemporary factors, some economic, some to do with the media, which sadly ensure that for some 21st-century women sexuality remains “a resource needed to survive”.
Other scientists have already pointed to the wrinkles in the review article. Kim Wallen, a psychologist who studies primate sex differences at Emory University in Atlanta notes that while a number of other studies are cited in support of the central theory “none of [them] contain data showing that indirect aggression is successful in devaluing a competitor”. Anne Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University, said: “There is virtually no sex difference in indirect aggression... By the time you get to adulthood, particularly in work situations, men use this, too.” Female academics, eh? Always cat fighting.
So, if you’re attempting to understand the complex behaviour of an entire half of the species an appeal to our ancestors has its limits, but it is a wizard wheeze if you’re a man wanting to dismiss some piece of legitimate criticism made by a women. Or, even better, if you’re a woman who fancies behaving badly and getting away with it. Try “the monkeys made me do it” at your next HR tribunal for bullying and let me know how you get on.