The Vestiges of Darwin’s Sexism

Darwin, the impassioned abolitionist, went to a lot of trouble to disabuse himself of the possibility of errors in his evolutionary inferences, so I suspect he would be a bit defensive, maybe even embarrassed now, about his sexism. His discussion of women in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex seemed to some women readers even in the 1870s suspiciously Victorian and prudish, being not so much about evolved traits but more like wishful thinking about the nature of women. Perhaps his yet unpublished letters or other notes contain tidbits about his thoughts about those 19th century “Darwinian feminists” who turned the tide, and used the new evolutionary ideas to promote women’s suffrage and women’s economic independence. I hope that under the influence of the 20th and 21st century’s “feminist evolutionists” – who construct out of feminist rallying-cries testable hypothetical-deductive Darwinian selection hypotheses that they then test or encourage others to test – that Darwin would by now be delightfully reconstructed – with no vestiges of sexism. I hope that Darwin would today delight in and celebrate the evolution of powerful, independent, competent, competitive, and cooperative females. I hope that Darwin would be more fascinated than chagrined by the ideas and data that show that as variable as each unique female is, they prefer as mates those unique partners with whom they would produce the healthiest offspring, something that it turns out, males do too.   I even imagine that a surprised and reconstructed Darwin, rather than rolling over in his grave at liberated female flies, fish, ducks, mice and people would find satisfaction in the evolution of females (and males) who produce sets of progeny with multiple sex partners and who thereby enhance the odds that their lineages persist and endure in the face of pathogenic challenge.

Patricia Adair GowatyDistinguished Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA Affiliated Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Distinguished Research Professor Emerita, University of Georgia. Author of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections and Frontiers. (citations available on request )

What Would Darwin Think About Modern Darwinism? | The Evolution Institute.