Feminism / Sex & Love / Society & Culture

“It’s Only Natural!”: The Hypocrisy of Biological Determinism

Recently, my younger brother (who is all kinds of awesome) called me from his college in Pennsylvania to relate a story he thought I’d appreciate. A classmate of his was trying to make a “scientific argument” for why gay marriage should not be legalized, which went something like this:

“Marriage exists because women had to be protected by men while they carried children. The women would stay and watch the children while the men went out and hunted. So the biological definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Sigh.

This young scholar is not the first or only one to make this point (see here and here), and his statement is not entirely wrong. One theory as to why human monogamy developed, biologically speaking, is because human children took a relatively long period of time (in comparison to other animals) to mature, and therefore it was evolutionarily beneficial to the species for both parents to stick around. Men could go off to hunt meat, yes, and help protect their children from attacks by predators and other men. The children of monogamous couples benefitted from a larger food supply, especially larger quantities of protein, which allowed them to develop larger and more complex brains (see here for more details).

However, there are a few huge caveats to be made here. First of all, this is just one theory as to the origin of monogamous relationships in the human species—as the article linked above explains, monogamy is sort of a “biological puzzle,” since it seems to fight against our instinctual urge to procreate. Secondly, this type of argument leads to a dangerous but all-too-common type of biological determinism.

I’ve seen arguments like this in relation to any number of issues with which people feel socially uncomfortable. Gay marriage, interracial relationships, and the eradication of gender roles have all been proclaimed “unnatural!” by those who want to avoid this type of progress.

Yes, there is a certain level of “nature” involved in the development of gender identity. Physically and anatomically, women evolved to birth and feed children and men evolved the capacity for physical tasks (with their larger body structure and higher muscle mass). Men developed the ability to run faster and lift more weight. There are differences, as well, between certain brain structures and, of course, hormone development, which may affect behavior. This is all fine, factual information.

However, if there was anything I was taught by my evolutionary biology professor—shout out to Dr. Diana Sherry at Emerson College!—it’s that just because something is or was a certain way, biologically and historically, does not mean that it should or must be that way. Dr. Sherry cautioned us time and time again that biology seeks to explain why something is, not to prescribe the way it should be. This is an extremely important thing to remember when considering any type of biological basis for human behavior.

Let’s take gender roles, for example. I want to mention briefly the fact that, considering many of these “gendered” characteristics are based on hormone production, we should be careful to note that hormone levels are not at all homogenous among members of the same sex, and studies of the biology of LGBTQ* people have demonstrated that there may be a scientific basis to these behaviors and lifestyles, as well.

Secondly, and most importantly, we must remember that gender roles and male/female monogamy were developed at a very specific period of human history, when they were necessary for the survival of offspring and for the species. However, in today’s world, there is little necessity for these gender differences. We’re not nomadic, and we don’t hunt and gather; technology and agriculture have done away with these obligations. We have secure shelters with locks to protect our children. We have breast milk pumps and refrigerators and bottle warmers and formula, all of which make it possible for a new mother to work full-time and still feed her child. There is no longer any biological reason for a woman to be “soft” or a man to be “aggressive.” Woman can make enough money to raise children on their own, and can use fertility technology and sperm banks to help her if she so desires. Fertility treatments can also provide a gay couple with a child via a surrogate. Individuals and couples can choose not to procreate, as well, thanks to medical science. There is no hard evidence that the children of “alternative” family situations are any worse off than those in “traditional” family situations, provided that their parent(s) is/are loving, supportive and nourishing.

Societal rules based in “nature” are obsolete and demonstrate a shallow understanding of science. Nature is nothing if not the constantly evolving set of environmental factors that shape our lives and the lives of our offspring. Technological and societal progress has brought us longer life spans and better lives—we have vaccines for polio and smallpox, we have transportation options that can bring us halfway across the world in a few hours, and we have this magical thing known as the Internet, wherein we can communicate with people all over the world in seconds! We no longer settle for horse-drawn wagons or high rates of infant death. Why would we settle for antiquated gender roles?

Think about that the next time you hear (or say), “but it’s only natural!”

For more reading on biological determinism and gender roles, see here and here.

Image via Flickr.

Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn.

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2 thoughts on ““It’s Only Natural!”: The Hypocrisy of Biological Determinism

  1. Alecia, this is so clear and well written. I love this. I think my favorite line is “There is no longer any biological reason for a woman to be “soft” or a man to be “aggressive.” EXACTLY! We’re so blinded to our own motivations for holding onto such roles, and all it does is limit our perspectives, our actions and our potential. Your brother’s classmate did a pretty good job of explaining why marriage should be illegal for basically everyone in America. Don’t plan on staying in while your husband hunts for you and the kids? Don’t get married.

    I also think that if you’re in the sciences, you should probably spend your time on more dire causes. Stopping people from getting married can be super fun, sure, but it kind of pales in comparison to discovering the cure for Parkinson’s.

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