I was watching Mardaani 2 a few days ago. Now this movie is exhausting and traumatising in its entirety, and a lot of instances in this movie stand out, and mirror life for women; but I would like to focus on one particular scene. SP Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukherji) is being interviewed by a TV show host, Amit Sharma. During the interview, she is asked if the latest bungle in her pursuit of a serial killer/rapist could have been avoided, had it been a man who was investigating the case; and follows up with this dialogue: “When mother nature has created a difference between men and women, who are we to dispute it? When we put aside this difference, for modernity, we invite upon us, great consequences.”
As a woman, this particular statement really is nothing new, or even scandalous. As we foray into the public sphere, women have many dealt wit an ‘Amit Sharma’, who is happy to question our capabilities as we foray into science, business, politics, etc.
Theories put forth by evolutionary theory are a testament to what happens when the field of science is restricted to upper-class white men.
When questioned, we are asked to refer to cultural prerequisites and religious declarations. But, even those arguments can be traced back to what science has to say about basic biological differences between men and women. Science is supposed to give us logical and unbiased explanations for why the world works the way it does. But, what happens when those who practice science are themselves the products of societal conditioning that differentiates and discriminates between genders, races, and sexual orientations? Theories put forth by evolutionary theory are a testament to what happens when the field of science is restricted to upper-class white men.
Simply put, evolutionary theory says that organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical and behavioural traits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and bear offspring. In ‘Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex’, Darwin states that evolution leads to different outcomes depending on the traits of the suitor that females choose to reproduce with. Hence, males had to prove themselves to be physically and intellectually superior to other men in order to attract females. This competition gave them the opportunity to develop themselves, and he who was successful developed superior traits that were then passed on to their progeny. In addition, the competition for mates, males have traditionally been hunters in the hunter-gatherer society. And as the hunters, they have been saddled with the responsibility of protecting themselves, their wives, and their families from a myriad of trials and tribulations, thereby exposing themselves to greater selection pressures. As society made the move to capitalism, so did the list of responsibilities, encouraging men to conquer the worlds of business, science, politics and the likes.
Men are naturally engineered to achieve higher eminence with whatever he takes up. To attract the more powerful man, women compete by dressing elaborately. Save, this, the evolutionary pressures that females are subjected to were considered as child’s play, and women, the equivalent of children. Societal norms that dictated that women be bound to their households protected them from the “rigours” of evolutionary selection.
According to Bergman, “Sexual selection was at the core of evolution, and female inferiority was its major proof and its chief witness. Darwin concluded that men were like animal breeders, shaping women to their liking by sexual selection”.
Darwin’s theory has been followed up and taken up by other scientists and anthropologists who have continued to rely on scientific explanations, to explain the apparent inferiority of women. Some of the more popular theories have looked at the differences in cranial sizes between men and women. Noted French physicist, and anthropologist Paul Broca, claimed that due to consistent exposure to various selection pressures men’s brains tend to develop faster than that of women. On the other hand, the relatively smaller size of a woman’s brain was a testament to her physical and intellectual inferiority.
Another phenomenon that seems to have evolved from evolutionary theory, is evolutionary psychology. Thornhill and Palmer, in A Natural History of Rape, argue that rape is an adaptive behaviour used in certain contexts; for example when consensual partners are unavailable. They also claim that spousal rape occurs when the husband finds out or suspects that his wife has been unfaithful, suggesting that he is attempting to replace another man’s seed.
Evolutionary theory pioneers like Darwin, his supporters, and his contemporaries, were successful men of their time. They saw themselves at the top and worthy of the power they wielded. Women, black people, and poor people were at the bottom. Their thoughts, actions, and work were ingrained with the assumptions of standard Victorian Society. But these theories have persisted over centuries, and have been pulled up repeatedly by men to justify their attitude and harassment towards women.
“A mindless acceptance of these theories pardons our culture for fostering misogyny and rape apologies that enable and breeds rapists.”
Most women I know personally and professionally have recounted horror stories of harassment, and discrimination by men, that occupy public spaces, only to have their actions justified with science by both the offenders and society when called out on it. However, these claims and its proponents fail to account for “free will” and make the human race look like slaves to their biological impulses. Caitlin Dickinson wrote in The Atlantic, “A mindless acceptance of these theories pardons our culture for fostering misogyny and rape apologies that enable and breeds rapists.” It imposes that one’s gender is defined by one’s sex and that distinct social roles be assigned on the basis of one’s sex. This leads to typecasting of both men and women, and a negation of the existence of non-binary people, and invisibilisation of transgender people.
In order to the counter this typecasting of women and the regressive societal norms, feminist scholars like Gayle Rubin and Simone De Beauvoir challenged the notion that female characteristics are not determined by biology alone, and defined gender as a “socially imposed division of the sexes”. Betty Friedan, in her book Feminine Mystique, explores the different ways in which women were manipulated by the media, psychologists (male), and educational institutions into thinking that they were the lessers human beings and they were flouting the laws nature by wanting more.
Scientists like Angela Saini (Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It) and Cordelia Fine (Testosterone Rex) have, in their respective books proves that science does not support the thesis that historical discrimination of women can be attributed to biology, and that all biological differences cannot be traced back to testosterone. Evelleen Richards, took things a step further to show that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was always controversial and riddled with contradictions; and this is just the tip of the ice-berg.
While we go on viewing science as rational and unbiased, it is important to look at the corresponding scientist as well. More often than not, the research carried out by these scientists, and the questions they ask are clouded by personal biases. Women are still underrepresented in the field of science. Most claims that support social inequality are largely touted by upper class/ upper caste men, who find it necessary to upholds a social hierarchy that supports male dominance. The onus of questioning these theories, and talking about alternative falls on us, to undo the damage that has already been done.
- Slate Magazine
- Feminist Current
- The Atlantic
- History of Science Society
- Scientific American Blog Network
- Scientific American Blog Network
- New Scientist
- Feminism In India
- The Guardian
Featured Image Source: Smithsonian Magazine