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Darwinian differences: How the theory of evolution viewed women as inferior
In line with his own ingrained assumptions, the standard ones of Victorian England, Darwin maintained that female inferiority is an inescapable consequence of nature.
Charles Darwin exerted an enormous influence on attitudes towards women because his model of evolution provided an apparently rational justification of conventional Victorian beliefs. His basic model involves two stages, each repeated sporadically time after time. First an offspring happens to appear that is slightly different from its parents; next, that difference gives the offspring an advantage in the battle for survival in its immediate environment. Eventually, after repeated adaptations, a new species emerges that is better suited—more fit—for its surroundings. Maintaining that men and women had diverged during evolutionary processes taking place over millennia, Darwin drove a wedge between the two halves of the human race.
Darwin was by no means the first person to write about evolution; he was not even the first person to write about human evolution. His own grandfather Erasmus, who died before Charles was born, had published a long poem about the gradual development of living organisms from an initial ‘ens’ (living entity) up through insects, fish, mammals, and on up to human beings. Charles Darwin’s innovation was natural selection as an agent of evolution. Although his model is now celebrated as a major scientific breakthrough, it aroused great controversy and was never fully accepted in its original form. Arguments still raged in the early twentieth century, and it was not until the 1930s that several approaches were melded together into a package resembling modern Darwinism.
Darwin’s Victorian critics promptly pounced on several shortcomings. Most obviously, he had no way to prove that he was right. Despite piling up example after example in support of his ideas, Darwin could not explain why one generation should possess a new characteristic. What biological mechanism enabled two parents with identical flippers to produce a baby with flippers of a different style? He had plenty of circumstantial evidence, but no convincing explanation.He could not even point to an instance of evolution that was actually happening. Modern experimenters can simulate evolutionary pressures in a laboratory by breeding short-lived organisms such as beetles, but Darwin’s system rested on hypotheses. His book is peppered with rhetorical question such as ‘might it not be reasonable to suppose that . . . ?’ Very persuasive, but not the stuff of scientific proof.
Brooding for years over a theory he knew would be contentious, Darwin struggled to explain how some features might have conferred an advantage for survival. Human eyes, for example, were very problematic: how could such a complicated organ possibly have emerged in stages? Just thinking about it made him go cold all over, he told a friend. Even worse, the ‘sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!’ How could it possibly be advantageous for a male bird to carry such a cumbersome tail? And why was the female so dowdy? To resolve this conundrum, he argued that the male’s ostentatious display would allow him to pick the strongest and most fertile hens, a reproductive advantage that would outweigh the physical hindrance.
In 1859, Charles Darwin self-protectively refrained from mentioning human beings in On the Origin of Species, but by 1871 he felt ready to publish The Descent of Man, with its significant subtitle Selection in Relation to Sex. Moving from peacocks to people, Darwin claimed that equality was scientifically impossible. In line with his own ingrained assumptions, the standard ones of Victorian England, Darwin maintained that female inferiority is an inescapable consequence of nature. Men are cleverer, ran his argument, because over the millennia, their brains have become honed by chasing animals and defending their families. ‘The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes,’ he wrote, ‘is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses or the hands.’ To attract a powerful man, he explained, women compete by dressing elaborately. His admirers backed him up. A fashionable woman, commented H. G. Wells, surpassed even the extravagance of peacocks by providing ‘an unwholesome stimulant’ for men.
Darwinian evolution implies a natural hierarchy, and was often interpreted to reinforce Victorian views on ethnicity as well as on gender. According to Darwin, just as lower creatures had evolved into higher ones, so too primitive races had evolved into more civilized ones. As these processes took place, the sexes diverged further and further, so that—he argued—male brains are superior to female ones; correspondingly, female characteristics such as intuition, empathy, and sensitivity are inescapable because they are biologically imprinted. For some of his followers, this meant that women are closer to animals and non-Europeans. As the sexologist Havelock Ellis put it, women are ‘more curved forwards than the men’, rather like apes and the ‘savage races’.
Conveniently, this scientific explanation supported domination not only over women at home, but also over the people of the British Empire. Although women everywhere were inferior, the problem was greater among the civilized races—so ran the argument—because divergence between the sexes had increased during evolution. Speaking in the House of Commons, an opponent of woman’s suffrage argued that
An adult white woman differs far more from a white man than a negress or pigmy woman from her equivalent male. The education, the mental disposition of a white or Asiatic woman reeks of sex; her modesty, her decorum, is not to ignore sex but to refine and put a point to it; her costume is clamorous with the distinctive elements of her form.
These were not the words of the MP himself: he was quoting H. G. Wells, who reached wide audiences all over the country.
Measurements of brain weights and skull sizes seemed to corroborate views that white men (especially English ones) were the most highly evolved—that is, the best!—form of humanity. Expressing it the other way round, a London chemistry professor pronounced that because women were lower down the evolutionary scale than men, ‘Education can do little to modify her nature’. Even those sympathetic to science for women argued that they were better ‘fitted’ (that is, suited) to subjects such as chemistry or botany that required ‘a capacity for noting details—patience and delicacy’.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, noted a female physician bitterly, ‘men tended to divide women into two camps. (1) Clever women and pretty women. (2) Good women and bad women.’ Presumably speaking from experience, she explained that in public debates, women often found themselves in a lose-lose situation. If they spoke in an appropriately feminine way, they were accused of being subjective and emotional—but if they argued rationally, they were warned not to overtax themselves, lest they endanger their health and their sanity.
However, women could take advantage of ambiguities within Darwinism. As originally formulated, evolution by natural selection is governed by chance rather than design, whereas Darwin’s later theory of sexual selection suggests that people can direct evolution by choosing desirable partners. Striving to refute biological inevitability, suffragists denied that they were destined through evolution for marriage and motherhood. By placing the blame on social conditioning, they insisted that change was possible, that women could control the course of evolution by altering their behaviour. Cicely Hamilton, an outspoken journalist and playwright, argued that women had been schooled into submission so that they could fulfill their role in what she described as the economic trade-off known as marriage. In order to get her man, she explained, a woman learned to exaggerate the characteristics of passivity and stupidity that make her attractive as a bride: ‘women have been trained to be unintelligent breeding-machines until they have become unintelligent breeding-machines.’ But how short-sighted of men to adopt that strategy—suppressing women’s intelligence would result in them suckling fools! Women needed to change their tactics, but she regretted that time would be needed to undo the damage: ‘Think of the years, the generations, that women have been told they must not think! What wonder then that they make some mistakes when they begin to use the rusty instrument.’
Another way of vindicating the suffragist cause was to claim that the modern woman occupied the next step up the evolutionary ladder. According to this argument, whereas men had long ago succumbed to animality by manifesting excess sexual desire, women were the civilizing influence who had clung to higher standards and could guide the future story of evolution by making the right choice of partner. The Woman’s Freedom League suggested that in an industrial world, men were no longer adapted for superiority: technology in the home was a liberating force that would enable women to achieve their natural destiny of evolving still further. Modern inventions, the League argued, were making masculine strength redundant, so that large muscles would no longer be sufficient for attracting a choosy bride.
In this suffragist version of evolution, women would slowly gain ascendancy by educating society towards a higher state of morality. Adopting Darwinian terminology, campaigners maintained that ‘the woman of political and social activity will be different from the domestic woman . . . just as palaeolithic man differs from his neolithic brother’. Instead of being doll-like, the modern woman ‘is now energetic and assured; not less beautiful, only differently beautiful’. To undermine the power of conventional arguments, they enlisted scientific vocabulary to castigate opponents as social dinosaurs. One cartoonist labelled an imaginary prehistoric creature the ‘Antysuffragyst or Prejudicidon’. Hampered by a tiny brain and sight so defective that it could not see past the end of its nose, it fed voraciously off the stupefying Humbugwort as it launched meandering attacks on its enemy, the female Justiceidon.
Figure 3.1. ‘The Antysuffragyst’, The Vote, 26 September 1913.
Adapted from A Lab of One's Own. Copywright © Patricia Fara 2018 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.