Monday, April 6, 2015

Man Seeking Woman, Have Dishwasher

Like a frog in slowly heating water, I've just realized that I'm a fully cooked feminist. Thank you corporate America. Thank you Planned Parenthood haters. Thank you religion. Thank you ISIS. All of you had your hands on the heat controls of my simmering awakening. And thank you most of all to my lover, who was patient with me and didn't laugh at me as I groped my way.

I've also realized that the other thing that has been warming in my slow pot is my interest in evolutionary psychology. I don't do field studies, only thought experiments and a lot of Googling, but for a while I've been fascinated by the possible evolutionary roots of our behaviors. Particularly the terrible way we treat women. 

In much of the world, women are still little more than property. Even in developed countries, they don't have the same opportunities as men. Here in Silicon Valley--even here, in the land of the bluest of the blue--women in tech can't get a break from the men who control the industry.

What I did not know until recently is that those two warming parts of me, feminism and evolutionary psychology, have at times enjoyed an uneasy co-existence. Some feminists don't like it when evolutionary psychologists trace the roots of bad behavior in men to evolution. Their complaint is that such explanations may be seen to let men off the hook: "Hey, baby, my genes made me cheat on you."

Not that men would take such a cheap way out. Would we? 

One article I read recently, "Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism" (Buss and Schmidt, 2011), answered the feminist concern this way: "Is" does not mean "ought." No matter the origin of bad behavior, the question must be, "What can we do to change it?"

One evolutionary theory of patriarchy--men's dominant control of resources--is that women preferred men who could take care of them. So an adaptive mating strategy for men became competing with other men for the resources that would make them attractive to women. This resulted in men duking it out and ultimately controlling virtually all resources. When they favored women with them, this made the mating relationship essentially transactional: resources (home and comfort) in exchange for sex. Little wonder that, in that environment, men began to think they owned women. And women began to feel like property.

So what do we do about that now? How can we use this understanding of how we evolved to help us go in a different direction. Evolution doesn't preordain an outcome (well, not a behavior), but it strongly favors it. Often without much conscious thought on our part. Once we realize what's going on, what can we do? Is there an antidote for evolved traits?

Yes, but it's not fast acting. The antidote is awareness and commitment to change. In this sense, the evolutionary psychologists have to pass the baton to activists. Both groups can see the problem, the bad behavior. One group has come up with theories about how we came to behave like that, but it falls to the other, and to all of us of like mind, to call out the misconduct and insist it not be tolerated. To say, "Genes be damned, this is wrong."

The evolutionary psychologists also hope that in tracing behaviors back to their roots, clues can be found about how to change them. I'm a little less certain about that when it comes to mistreatment of women. Could women just say, "Baby, I don't want your money, I just want you to do the dishes."? 

That works with me, even though soapy hands and dripping plates aren't fantasies of mine. But my lover and I live in a resource rich environment of equal opportunity. I don't know how much of a dent that approach would put in the way ISIS and other crazy fundamentalists (including some none of us like to mention: you know who you are) treat women. We'll have to go deeper for that. And there is a chance, one that should not be completely dismissed, that armed with an understanding of how we how we picked up our worst habits, we can devise new ways to break them.

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