Resisting the Darwinian Phallocracy

By Wendy Stainton Rogers

Image credit: Canva

“Resisting the Darwinian Phallocracy” – Don’t you just love the language?! It’s from a new book out by Lucy Cooke, Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution & the Female Animal and is full of sass like that. With a Masters in Zoology and tutored by Richard Dawkins, she explains:

I was taught that this apparently trivial disparity in our sex cells laid cast-iron biological foundations for sexual inequality. “It is possible to interpret all other differences between the sexes as stemming from this one basic difference,” Dawkins told us. “Female exploitation begins here.”

Male animals led swashbuckling lives of thrusting agency. They fought one another over leadership or possession of females. They shagged around indiscriminately, propelled by a biological imperative to spread their seed far and wide. And they were socially dominant; where males led, females meekly followed. A female’s role was as selfless mother, naturally; as such, maternal efforts were deemed all alike: we had zero competitive edge. Sex was a duty rather than a drive.

And as far as evolution was concerned it was males who drove the bus of change. We females could hop on for a ride thanks to shared DNA, as long as we promised to keep nice and quiet.

Lucy Cooke

Her account sums up neatly the position generally adopted by psychology before feminists got their hands on it. It is part of what I have called the ‘biologisation of psychology’; the way in which early psychology adopted a version of evolutionary theory that was preoccupied with ideas about dominance hierarchies, competition and unbridled male sexuality as the basis of its understanding of human beings/being human. At a time when Universities tended to exclude women (other than as minions in menial jobs) academic psychology was a male endeavour. It is not surprising that it adopted theories that flattered and favoured males, and treated women as inevitably ‘less-than’ – less than fully human, less capable and much more passive. And this evolutionary version of womanhood is still going strong, especially in the manosphere.

I have a growing interest in health inequities, where concepts like ‘the Common Good’ and ‘Mutual Aid’ can act as counters to neoliberal approaches to health as a commodity to be bought and sold. It has led me to an early critic of evolutionary theory, the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. His book: Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902) argued against the mainstream interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution as it was generally understood at that time. Its focus on competition, he said, was a distortion, omitting the importance of Mutual Aid – that is, co-operation within a species as well as conflict.

Kropotkin was born into an aristocratic family (his father was a Prince), received an elite education, briefly followed by working for the Tsar, and then in the upper echelons of the Russian military. His travels in the army had a major impact on his thinking. On a visit to the Jura mountains he observed how the Swiss watchmakers had established associations of mutual support rather than competing against each other. This won his admiration and reinforced his beliefs. So when he went home to Russia he refused the prestigious academic job he was offered, renounced his aristocratic heritage, became an anarchist, and devoted his life to the pursuit of social justice.

These life-circumstances formed the basis of Kropotkin’s challenge to the way in which Darwin’s theory of Evolution gave so much prominence to ‘survival of the fittest’ as the means by which evolutionary progress is made. This, he claimed, was a distortion of the nature of evolutionary development, based entirely on competition within species. In his extensive observations of animals in the wild, Kropotkin accepted that inter-species competition was one mechanism by which a species becomes better adapted to thrive in particular habitats; but, he pointed out, conflict is not the only means by which species adapt to their environments. Indeed, he rejected the idea that it was the dominant way. Rather, he claimed that it was a rare (albeit powerful) exception:

Even where animal life teemed in abundance I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species.

Kropotkin, 1902 xi, emphasis in the original.

Instead, he drew attention to the many and varied ways in which members of animal species acted together and supported each other – in order to nurture their young, to accomplish gruelling and risky migrations, and to tackle calamities like sickness, injury, storms, floods and fires.  He writes: ‘in all of these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support’ (p xii).

Coming from two very different times and places, I think and hope there is a growing trend away from the ideology of neoliberalism devoted to the primacy of competition as the means to progress. Kropotkin’s book is a very heavy read, riddled with racist and colonial thinking. Cooke’s book looks like a lot more fun.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.