3.5 feminist evolutionary psychologists walk into a blog…
I think it’s fair to say that evolutionary psychology is a field that people hold strong opinions about. It’s a field some folks love to love, and a field that some folks love to hate. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Remember when Charles Dickens plagiarized me to start that book?!) Feminist scholars have long taken issue with the assumptions, methods, and conclusions of evolutionary psychology. And, many evolutionary psychologists have argued against feminism itself or specific feminist principles. But what happens when the evolutionary psychologists are feminists? (Cue! Dramatic! Music!) Inquiring minds wanted to know, so I spoke with 3.5 feminist evolutionary psychologists to get their take on what it’s like to be a feminist evolutionary psychologist when evolutionary psychology is not exactly known for being feminist-friendly and feminist scholars are not known for their fond feelings towards evolutionary psychology (wow, can I be politic or what?!). Put another way, I asked them what it’s like to be feminist in a discipline that largely dislikes feminism and that feminists largely dislike.
Who did I speak with? First of all, this is not the 20th century where people “talk” to each other “in person”. When I say ‘speak’ I obviously mean some form of electronic communication. Second of all, people is busy so I asked them to spend no more than 1-5 minutes on their answers. Third of all: I know there are grammar issues with the first sentence of this paragraph, and you grammar police will just have to let your head explode. I spoke with Professors Lisa DeBruine, Maryanne Fisher, Justin Garcia, and Rosemarie Sokol Chang. Why? As with everything in life, it’s pretty clear when I lay it out in bullet form.
- Lisa DeBruine is Reader in Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow (rhymes with GlasCOW or GlasGO???? NO ONE KNOWS) and has published about three billion papers (roughly). In addition to other degrees, she has a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies.
- Maryanne Fisher is Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Mary’s University and notes that some of her scholarship is aimed at the intersections between feminist theory and evolutionary psychology.
- Justin Garcia is Assistant Professor in Gender Studies at Indiana University with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology (he’s also affiliated with 800 other programs I would get carpal tunnel syndrome typing).
- Rosemarie Sokol Chang is Adjunct Professor of Psychology at SUNY New Paltz and has interests at the intersection between feminism and evolutionary psychology.
In addition, more bullet points:
- The latter three folks edited a book called Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women, which states that it is: “The first volume to rectify a major theoretical gap on the role of women in the evolutionary behavioral sciences.” Sounds agentic!
- All have published in evolutionary psychology journals (e.g., Evolution and Human Behavior, Evolutionary Psychology, etc.).
- And, Drs. Fisher and Sokol Chang are co-founders of FEPS: Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society.
If you are a mathematician or a number genius, you may have noticed that I bullet listed four people but my title tantalizingly noted three point five feminist evolutionary psychologists (is there anything better than typing out a number in full that has a decimal point? If so, I don’t know what) (milkshake). Why 3.5? Well, I’m only counting Justin Garcia as half an evolutionary psychologist because it’s way funnier to count someone as half. Just kidding! There are real reasons that come from the real Dr. Garcia:
I’m an evolutionary biologist by training. This gets us into territory of the fine distinctions within the evolutionary sciences themselves. I do very much consider myself a human evolutionary behavioral scientist, and I’m often called things like an “evolutionary anthropologist” or “evolutionary psychologist”, but in the American tradition, at least, I don’t generally use an “evolutionary psychology” approach… but rather more behavioral ecology, although I do mostly work with contemporary U.S. populations. So, there are also all sorts of distinctions and issues WITHIN both feminist scholarship and evolutionary sciences that complicate these intersections, and make some more or less possible (palatable?) than others.
Now you know why 3.5. Ok, so what did folks say about feminist evolutionary psychology? Well, first, what about just being a feminist evolutionary psychologist? I didn’t ask specifically about that, but people said:
Being a feminist in evolutionary psychology is different depending on who I’m talking to.
In my experience, the first reaction is usually a bit of shock, and then skepticism – but almost always intrigue! The inherent reservations, I think, are about how one walks the disciplinary lines, with all the corresponding issues and traditions in terms of theory, methodology, and scholarly agenda.
‘Intrigue’ is a major selling point for me. Like “Feminist Evolutionary Psychologist, Person of Intrigue”… Who WOULDN’T see that movie?! Back to the main question. A non-unanimous theme emerged that feminism was a harder sell in evolutionary psychology spaces than evolutionary psychology was in feminist spaces:
As I wrote, I realized I get much more guff from the EP [evolutionary psychology] than the feminist community – but that is probably because I am not engaged much with feminist communities.
Ok, you had me at ‘guff’ because: a.w.e.s.o.m.e. Anyway, someone else said:
I won’t dismiss how challenging it has been at times to try to integrate feminism with EP. I’ve had countless debates over breakfast meetings or social events at conferences, where often I find my EP colleagues placing me in the position of defending feminism.
I’ve found my colleagues in Women and Gender Studies to be far more excited about intersections with evolutionary biology, and bridging gaps, than many outside feminist scholarship would assume. I think there is certainly a level of caution and hesitation, given the histories of human biosciences. But, I’ve thus far found it to all be clean and in an honest attempt toward scholarship – asking questions about theoretical assumptions, methodological problems, interpretation of data, etc., are all things that should happen in any field!
Unfortunately, I’ve personally found that those in human evolutionary behavioral sciences are far more suspect and dismissive of feminist approaches. I suspect this is somewhat due to the tumultuous history of sociobiology itself – a field that not long ago needed to close ranks and fight for the right to do important science, and became hyper vigilant against the outside critic (or so is my interpretation of the history here). I think many have had unpleasant academic experiences trying to find common ground with feminists at a time when there wasn’t much, and have since whole-sale abandoned any thoughts that this is possible.
I remember a judge of the HBES [Human Behavior & Evolution Society] young investigator award telling me that he couldn’t be bothered to read my paper because the topic would never receive an award. I was 26 and crushed. Just before this happened, one of my doctoral supervisors said that the topic wouldn’t work for a dissertation because it was too risky and that I should wait until I was a senior scholar.
Similarly, FEPS (the feminist evolutionary psychology society) received some support from evolutionary psychologists, but not-hugs from others:
When [we] started the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society (FEPS), Glenn Geher showed his support by writing a blog about our fledgling society. This is when I started to realize I was keeping what others perceived to be strange bedfellows. While the feminist community remained silent – indeed, members of this world probably had no idea about the blog post or our new group – the evolutionary psychology community had a few outspoken members. We received more than an earful foreshadowing our doom from aligning research with politics, though this alignment was more in the eyes of the beholders than our own society. Strangely, to my knowledge the folks responsible for creating the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society never received similar backlash from the evolutionary community – though the goal is to apply evidence based research to practice and policy.
You’ve got to love the use of the “Ahhh! Thou art evil, Politicks and Applyd Approches… unless of course you’re Polytycks and Applyd Approaches that is not Femynyste” ideology popping up here. Here’s another related comment, that also highlights a very partisan view, and the inherent anti-feminism of scientism:
I think many scientists are resistant to explicitly addressing feminist issues in their work because it’s “not science” and use the excuse that they are just reporting dispassionate scientific findings and aren’t responsible for interpretations. But we need to take responsibility for all the potential uses of our research.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to be an evolutionary psychologist in feminist spaces:
…my feminist studies colleagues tend to dismiss that I work within an EP framework and we continue along the best we can.
While I have engaged in conversations with people who are very much feminist, and very against evolutionary psychology (after decades of doctors and politicians trying to be in charge of what women can and can’t do with their bodies and minds, who knew?), the conversations tend to be pretty docile. What appears clear is that there is a wall between feminism and biology, and many feminists aren’t willing to think about climbing that wall anytime soon.
There is also an interesting clash of perspectives even from those who identify as feminist evolutionary psychologists about how feminism is perceived in evolutionary psychology. But, hey, what discipline doesn’t have a good internal clash now and then? So, while one person says:
It is a strange feeling that as a person surrounded by liberal, educated individuals, the word “feminism” is as much a four letter word as if I were transported back to a 1950s conservative household. For this reason, I was never outspoken about my feminist tendencies; in fact, I was more likely to face self-denial about them altogether.
another person comments:
Within the discipline [evolutionary psychology], it’s [agreement with feminist principles] pretty much expected. I perceive there is a higher proportion of publicly self-identified feminists in the evolutionary community (with includes biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, etc) than within the other disciplines with which I’m aligned (animal behaviour, experimental psychology, psychophysics).
Some folks identified a tension for feminist evolutionary psychology, not in the ‘My name is Captain Obvious’ way, but more in the ‘holy, this has more tensions than anticipated’ way. For example, more baggage than realized:
I didn’t realise the topic carried with it an incredible amount of baggage. Those using feminist theory tend to dismiss EP for being reductionistic, sexist, and/or downplaying socio-cultural forces. Those within EP tended to have a cemented view of women (and of men!), and [EP] studies that used a different perspective were (in my honest opinion) somewhat dismissed at first.
As another example of these complex tensions is a comment about who represents evolutionary psychology to people outside of evolutionary psychology:
But most of my interaction is with serious evolutionary scientists, and there are a LOT of novices who I don’t consider part of the discipline, but who advance naive evolutionary hypotheses that aren’t grounded in study of biological evolutionary processes and are perceived by the public as “evolutionary psychologists”. Not to mention members of the field with good credentials who use their scientific authority to advance their own racist social ideas (e.g. Kanazawa, Rushton). So I understand why feminists outside the discipline can perceive the entire discipline as anti-feminist.
But when I interact with feminists outside evolutionary science, so many have a strong impression that ev psych is inherently racist, sexist and biologically determinist (and all straight white men). There has to be something we’re doing wrong as scientists to not be combatting this incorrect impression. For example, HBES [Human Behavior & Evolution Society] has a very large proportion of female scientists, and many of the past presidents and major award winners are female.
Though I didn’t explicitly ask about this, some commented on how they came to feminism in evolutionary psychology. For example:
When I initially started focussing my research on women, it was not with the intention of bringing a feminist viewpoint to evolutionary psychology. Instead, I had read [Sarah Blaffer] Hrdy’s “The woman that never evolved” and was inspired by a comment she made in her last chapter about women’s intrasexual competition being very subtle. This became my main topic of research through my PhD and into the first decade of my professorial career.
and another two examples, that parallel the way many folks come to feminism in any field:
It was once I started paying more attention to the topics cropping up at evolutionary psychology conferences, and the theories that were meant to encompass current as well as past human populations, that I noticed I did not feel wholly reflected in the work of the field. Upon talking with other folks in my field, I realized I was not alone – perhaps I was not the one outlier after all.
Ten years later my resolve has strengthened. I started reading feminist works with the hopes of understanding the arguments – and some of them are compelling. I started to return to original sources in EP and see how as a field, certain topics have been pushed to the side, or how some ideas became fact without empirical testing.
Some of the folks are optimistic for a joining of feminism and evolutionary psychology in at least three ways. One of these ways involved a senior prominent figure in feminism and evolutionary psychology encouraging a junior person entering that same trajectory:
I must also say that when Hrdy came up to me after an ISHE [International Society for Human Ethology] presentation – my first ever scholarly presentation with overheads and all – and said that I was doing the right thing and asking the right questions with my work on female intrasexual competition in humans, I was speechless. Her informal vote of support right then gave me a boost that saw me through some unpleasant storms during my graduate school years.
A second form of optimism for the future of feminist evolutionary psychology was the reflection that support for it already existed:
At the same time, I’ve received support from the most unexpected people. Some of the most notable scholars in EP have congratulated me on exploring issues that have been otherwise pushed aside. A handful of these don’t agree with my conclusions but they appreciate that there is a scholarly discussion underway. I remember one conference where I was stopped in a stairwell – this was just as we received the OUP [Oxford University Press] contract for Evolution’s Empress – and a colleague who I rarely talked to congratulated me on pushing the field open. I was stunned.
A third form of optimism was hope for what could or should happen:
I hope that groups like FEPS and Gap Junction Science will show that there is a way for the two sides to meet, and to create sounder understandings of why it is that humans act, think, and feel the ways they do.
Each field has a LOT to offer the other… I think we’re getting closer to doing that effectively, and it is a really exciting time for these intersections.
I think the tide is turning, too. If I had answered this question 10 years ago, my comments would be far darker and more negative than today. The tide is turning – the intersection between feminism and EP [Evolutionary Psychology] is gaining attention. Evolution’s Empress is out, FEPS is alive and growing. There are special issues of journals dealing with these issues – Sex Roles in 2011, or the upcoming JSEC [Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology] issue in December. There’s a critical mass of scholars now who are working on related issues, and that has changed everything.
So there you have it. Three point five feminist evolutionary psychologists giving some thought about what it’s like to be feminist evolutionary psychologists in a discipline that isn’t always feminist-friendly and that feminists aren’t always fond of. Challenges, tensions, complexities. Convergent and divergent experiences. Changes over time. Value seen is the conjunction of feminism and evolutionary psychology. And hope for a present-future.