Also Evolving: The Language of Sexism in Biological Anthropology

Two peacocks.
Common Peafowl: male courting female by Rick Daniels. CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia Commons

By Amanda Rossillo

The importance of language in shaping scientific practice is not always readily apparent, and both practitioners and the public can take words and phrases in science for granted.  Yet, the study of the natural world is the process of giving order through naming, and unconscious or conscious stereotypes are inevitably imposed through this process because the process of labeling is primarily a social and cultural activity. Through the continued use of these labels, scientists create a dangerous feedback loop that can blur the boundary between science and prejudice, particularly when human’s place in nature is concerned. Gender biases in scientific rhetoric and the continued impact of them on science over the last century have been particularly noticeable in the study of biological anthropology. However, recent strides in the last 20 years have begun to dismantle the rhetorical sexism upon which the study of human origins has been built.

The study of the evolution of “mankind” dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries, largely to justify pro-slavery and pro-colonialist ideals. Scientists sought to develop stages through which humans progressed until they reached its zenith, the European man. For example, in his 1864 paper in The Quarterly Journal of Science, geologist William King compared a recently found Neanderthal skull to that of modern humans and claimed, “The Andamaner, it is indisputable, possesses but the dimmest conceptions of the existence of the Creator of the Universe: his ideas on the subject, and on his own moral obligations, place him little above animals…”

The  undisguised racism in King’s statement is apparent to anyone who reads it. What may not be so obvious are the gendered connotations. If men of color barely constitute human beings, according to King, can one even imagine where women of color would fall on the 19th century spectrum of humanity?

The use of male pronouns when describing all people, known as linguistic sexism, may appear arbitrary or simply careless, yet it has deep social and psychological roots and powerful consequences.

Sitting in my Origins of Human Society class at Barnard College, I felt shocked and disgusted seeing words like King’s. I felt betrayed when reading excerpts of Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in which men are depicted as “active and ardent” while women are “passive and reclusive.” I felt a quiet rage knowing that this discrimination, posing as science, was responsible over 100 years later for the prejudices that many women still face under the guise of a so-called natural order.

I felt something else, too, directed more inwardly each time I was confronted with a phrase like “evolution of man”— something approximating shame. What about my evolution? Why was that not worthy of discussion? Was this idea of female inferiority engrained so deeply in society that it seemed natural because on some level, it could actually be true?

In 1981, anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy published a classic article in Science titled “The Origin of Man.” He argued that human bipedality arose as a result of males provisioning females with meat in exchange for sex: Males that could bring back more meat had more sex and, thus, more offspring, so it was advantageous for them to be able to stand up and carry the meat back to their females. Somehow, females eventually became bipedal, too, and to keep their partners coming back, their anatomy shifted. Lovejoy argued that this shift resulted in an increase in sexual attractiveness. With women’s buttocks and breasts better displayed to mates, bipedality in women evolved because they needed to be sexually attractive and receptive. As a result, nuclear families formed as women remained at home with her children. This became known as the Male Provisioning Hypothesis.

Lovejoy’s message was clear: Men are agents of evolutionary change and women are passive followers. Man the Hunter nobly ventured out in the face of danger to provide for his mate, shifting from scrambling on all fours to striding bipedally, controlling fire, and developing weapons in the process. The only changes that women experienced served to make her a sexually desirable mate and subsequent mother. Though the terms “man” and “mankind” ostensibly encompassed all of humanity, they effectively referred only to the evolution of men, expunging women both in name and in presence from the history of the species. Through the labeling of man as the evolving and striving member of the species and women as passive and physically chained by that process, Lovejoy’s rhetoric reflected the unconscious gender bias that had permeated the field for nearly two centuries.

The use of male pronouns when describing all people, known as linguistic sexism, may appear arbitrary or simply careless, yet it has deep social and psychological roots and powerful consequences. After all, as anthropologist Kathleen Sterling notes, “Knowledge production […] is socially situated.” Men were, as the classic trops goes, literally writing human history and could expel whomever they wanted at will to reaffirm their superiority. In their use of male pronouns, they expelled women as evolutionary actors.

The title of Lovejoy’s paper immediately erased women from humanity, and the very name of our species, Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man” in Latin, only lexically applies to roughly half of the human population. King’s, Darwin’s, and Lovejoy’s scholarship, separated by nearly 100 years, are but a few examples of sexism expressed in scientific terms, conveying what had been both explicitly stated and implicitly understood for centuries. Female inferiority was simply a biological fact, written in our DNA and unchanged over millions of years.

Among the many concepts that Lovejoy failed to take into account is what actually happens in nature. Instead of trying to convince males to mate with them, in most animal species it is almost always the other way around. Females invest much more time and energy in producing eggs or becoming pregnant, giving birth, and lactating, so they are much pickier about choosing a mate in order to ensure the health and success of their offspring. Because males produce millions of sperm and are able to father children at little cost, they are more willing to mate and, thus, often engage in competition with other males in an effort to attract the choosy females. This is known as sexual selection, which explains why in most animals and insects, males are bigger, have ornate coloring, and sometimes different physical structures, such as horns. This theory was proposed by Darwin over a century ago and has been accepted by the scientific community — it is disappointing yet not surprising that Lovejoy overlooked this theory, reducing women to objects of male desire whose sole purpose is to bear and raise children.

Though it is a seemingly small change, shifting the language we use to describe humanity to become more inclusive — and more accurate — is inextricably linked to this major conceptual shift within the discipline that forced scientists to recognize the diversity of past and present gender identities, cultural values, and social systems.

Binary gender roles themselves, let alone the gendered division of labor, are not universal among modern human societies. Sterling describes the circularity often involved in archaeological analyses of past groups in which “we assume certain (modern, Western) things about gendered behaviors among hunter-gatherers because those behaviors are natural [for us], and we then confirm the naturalness of these behaviors by finding them among hunting and gathering groups, past and present.” Realizations like these, beginning in the 1970s and having an appreciable effect on the discipline by the 1990s, have caused scientists to become aware that over the centuries their own biases influenced their predictions, which generally were not testable, and oftentimes their results.

As anthropologists integrated these new findings into their understandings of human evolution, they evaluated gendered rhetoric, which gave way to gender-neutral terms like “human” instead of “man.” It is not clear who initiated this shift, but the discipline adopted the rhetorical shift by the early 2000s. Though it is a seemingly small change, shifting the language we use to describe humanity to become more inclusive — and more accurate — is inextricably linked to this major conceptual shift within the discipline that forced scientists to recognize the diversity of past and present gender identities, cultural values, and social systems.

Now finishing the second year of my Ph.D. in biological anthropology, I am grateful for the exposure to the theories of Darwin, Lovejoy, and countless others as an undergraduate. It gave me a fuller understanding of the history of my discipline, which should not be erased. Rather, it should be used as a cautionary tale about how science can simultaneously reinforce and be molded by prejudice. The acknowledgement of the field’s "narrow antiquated, racist, embarrassing past" in the classroom promotes critical evaluations of and engagement with this history, allowing students to participate in the development of this ever-changing field.

This is not to say that there are no longer issues of sexism within anthropology, as the current power structure of the discipline certainly reflects its past in many ways. I am faced with this fact at every departmental meeting; every time I hear of yet another instance of sexual harassment or assault in the field; or every time I meet with my dissertation committee, with four white men on one side of the room and me on the other.

These days, when I come across an old Sherwood Washburn or Franz Weidenreich paper, my skin still crawls. Rather than feeling shame, however, I am comforted by the fact that anthropologists today recognize the infusion of bias in these older works and are making active efforts to move forward, even on small scales. I have a bookshelf in my office that houses unwanted books from my department’s “giveaway table,” most of which have variations of the title “Fossil Man.” I look at them to remind myself that my evolution matters, too.  

Further Reading

Ann Bodine. "Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They’, Sex-Indefinite ‘He’, and ‘He or She’." Language in Society 4, no. 2 (August 1975): 129-46. (accessed February 13, 2019).

Carl Degler. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Lori D. Huger. Women in Human Evolution (London: Routledge Press, 1997).

Robin Tolmach Lakoff. Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Erika L. Milam. Looking for a few good males: female choice in evolutionary biology. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

Amanda Rossillo is a PhD student in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, studying human evolution.

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