Discuss evolutionary explanations of gender. (8 marks + 16 marks)

This is a fairly straightforward question taken straight from the specification. Ensure that instead of simply describing evolution, you link it to gender.


The traditional idea of gender roles is of man as the hunter and woman the gatherer and child-rearer. This may have evolved because women would have spent most of their life either pregnant or producing milk; if a woman hunter, this would reduce the group’s reproductive success. This division of labour is also important in avoiding starvation – a further adaptive advantage. This is because both men and women collect food: men by hunting and women by growing plants.

The meat-sharing hypothesis proposes an implication of this. When early humans went from a vegetarian diet to one including meat, men because the hunters due to selective pressures. An outcome of this may be that men used meat as a means of attracting female interest. Studies have found that this still occurs in modern hunter-gatherer societies.

One criticism of this approach is that it is determinist: it suggests that our genes specify exactly how we will behave. For example, it suggests that genes specify that men naturally take the role of the hunter while women long to care for children. However, the determinist explanation fails to take into account the view of evolutionary psychologists that genes only predispose us to behave in certain ways, rather than determining how we behave.

Gender differences in mate choices may also be related to adaptive reproductive strategies. Men look for partners who are young and physically attractive; according to evolutionary psychologists, this is because youth and many features deemed attractive (smooth skin, red lips, thin waist) are indicators of fertility and health. Females are more concerned with finding a partner who can provide resources, thus ensuring the survival of offspring.

This idea of sex differences in mate choices is supported by Buss, who explored what males & females look for in a marriage partner in 37 different cultures. The results supported predictions of the evolutionary theory. For example, women want good financial prospects; i.e. men with resources to provide for children. Men want physical attractiveness, which research has consistently confirmed to be linked with fertility and health. Men also wanted younger women – an indication of fertility.

Further support for this idea comes from Waynforth and Dunbar, who did a content analysis of personal ads. They found that males were more likely than females to specify that they are looking a physically attractive partner, while females were more likely than males to advertise physical attractiveness. This supports the evolutionary theory, which predicts that males are more interested in physical attractiveness in potential partners.

Research has shown that women are better at empathising (understanding others’ thoughts and feelings) while men are better at systematising (understanding and building systems). E-S theory proposes that this may be the result of selection pressures for males, who develop better hunting strategies, and females, who are better at relating to their children. Thus, E-S theory suggests that these gender differences are adaptations which provide an evolutionary advantage.

A
Systematising Quotient Questionnaire was developed to demonstrate the different cognitive styles of men and women. It supported E-S theory in finding that 83% of males are systematisers and a similar proportion of women are sympathisers.

Autism could be seen as an example of an extreme male brain which excels at systematising and lacks the ability to empathise. Autism is characterised by difficulties with social communication and relationships, and it appears strongly linked to an inability to understand what others are thinking and feeling. People with autism score high at systematising and low at empathising, suggesting that they have an extreme male brain.

Women may also be more focused than men on interpersonal concerns due to the different challenges faced by men and women. Ancestral males dealt with threats (e.g. from an attacking animal) by preparing to fight or flee. However, the adaptive response for females as the primary caregivers would be to protect themselves and their young. This leads to a female tendency to ‘tend and befriend’ in times of stress, while men are more likely to become defensive.

In a study by Ennis et al., levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) were taken a week before an exam (low stress) and immediately before an exam (high stress). There was a significant increase in cortisol levels in male participants, but a significant decrease in females. This shows that men respond to stressful situations by preparing to ‘fight or flight’, while women respond with decreased anxiety, which tends to make people more sociable.

Some of the support for evolutionary explanations comes from cross-cultural studies. One of the main difficulties with cross-cultural studies is the degree to which data collected actually represents the behaviour of people from different cultures. For example, people do not always represent themselves honestly in questionnaires due to social desirability bias. Some questions may also not apply to other cultures, meaning that some of these studies may be invalid due to imposed etic.

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