Gender Is Not Just a Social Construct

Anyone who has ever grazed the subject of sociology is surely familiar with the claim that “gender is a social construct.” That is, those contrasts we contemporarily observe between the social situations and behaviors of men and women are not predicated by innate differences in biological hardwiring, but are instead relics of longstanding social norms and institutions that are not intrinsic to our nature (or so it is claimed). While there is invariably a role for nurture to play in all social circumstances, including gender differences, it seems to me that the strong view of “gender as [almost entirely] a social construct” is naïve to the rudimentary insights of evolutionary biology.

Consider Bateman’s principle. This is the well-established biological observation that sexually reproductive species exhibit different variances in reproduction rates within each sex, resulting from the necessity of prenatal development of offspring in one sex and not the other. In most species, reproductive success (RS) among males varies more greatly than it does among females, consequent of the female’s role in carrying pregnancies. Whereas a female’s reproduction is bounded by physiological constraints on the number of her gestations, a male’s reproduction is bounded in no such way, and is only limited by as many females as he can impregnate.

Naturally, this leads to more competition among the males of a species for the limited reproductive capacities of their female counterparts, seeing as a successful male can potentially father offspring with many more females than a female can with different males. As a result of the differences in RS variance between the sexes, this would lead evolution to naturally select on them in dimorphic ways. For instance, while females are comparatively rewarded for caring for their limited number of offspring, males are comparatively rewarded for aggressive and promiscuous behavior which gets them reproductive access to a larger number of females.

What these dimorphic pressures entail is that the males of a species can be predicted to surpass females in the expression of those attributes which are more intensively selected upon by higher male RS variance. Conversely, females can be expected to outperform males on those traits for which females are comparatively more selected upon. And in reality, this is what we observe. Consider:

And:

  • Women perform cognitively better in measures related to social intelligence
  • Women are frequently targeted by microfinance initiatives in developing countries because they are more reliable in spending resources on their children than men

Many of these characteristics epitomize gender stereotypes with which we are all too familiar. While such differences are not self-proving to be of a natural origin, the fact that these are so consistent with what could be predicted from dimorphic selection pressures resultant of sex differences in RS variance is unlikely to be a mere coincidence.

In fact, a relevant implication could be inferred from this sexual dimorphism vis-à-vis social hierarchy. For one, women are inclined to seek quality men who are better situated to provide for their offspring; what’s more, men are inclined to situate themselves where they can more readily acquire reproductive access to women. These both suggest that men may have a comparatively greater incentive to pursue positions of high social rank than women do. In other words, Bateman’s principle could suggest that males will disproportionately occupy the upper echelons of social hierarchies.

To be sure, this is not always the case. There is plenty of nuance to be had in how Bateman’s principle is observed in practice. Nonetheless, the principle itself of divergent RS variances remains as a very consequential observation in biology. While we should not rule out that male preponderance in leadership roles could have some antecedents that are socially constructed, it is of interest to recognize that such male preponderance is not inconsistent with a natural explanation deduced from basic evolutionary biology. Actually, it should be stressed that natural versus social constructs ought not be dealt with as if they are bifurcated processes acting independently of one another. Natural preconditions undoubtedly play an important role in creating complementary social norms and institutions! More subtly, these social constructs may even exert selective pressures on the population over time.

So what should our takeaway be from all of this? When it comes to drawing political or cultural implications from what we conclude about the originators of gender differences, we must distinguish between the positive (what is) and the normative (what ought to be). If certain gender differences have a significant natural component, and if this has precipitated a preponderance of men in positions of power, does this mean that men should exclusively dominate in these roles? Of course not!

Nature is nothing to idolize. Evolution has shaped us not with concern for our happiness or suffering, but for our fitness for survival and reproduction. What is remarkable about our situation as an intelligent species is that we can reject our nature, using social constructs to realign our own behaviors and environment to fit our utilitarian interests instead of our evolutionary directives.

The problem with the incessant faulting of social constructs for most social problems is that it sometimes purports that humanity’s natural state absent these constructs is a purer form of good. I am more inclined to believe something of the opposite sort: that a human in the state of nature is perhaps not evil, but interested in oneself and those of kin to the point where others’ interests may be violently disposed of in expediency.

Thank goodness for social constructs which have been working to eradicate this cruel disrespect for the interests of others. Thank goodness for social constructs which have been working to curtail the incidence of such evils as violence and rape. Thank goodness that agrarian economies are finally going by the wayside, so that male economic dominion from superior physical strength can give way to more gender egalitarianism (among other blessings of industrialization). And thank goodness for the social construct of capitalism, which has rerouted self-interests to become mutual, and in doing so has liberated billions of human beings from their natural state of poverty.

Above all, thank goodness for social constructs which suppress the worse parts of our nature which are at odds with an enlightened understanding of what is morally decent and utilitarian. When it comes to something like gender disparities and the lament thereof, let us not perceive them merely as malicious social constructs which must be banished in the interest of an otherwise sensible and egalitarian nature; rather, let us recognize them more as the manifestations of our natural predispositions, the ill parts of which only well-devised social constructs can properly redress.

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