The XX Factor

Sorry, Evo Psych Fans. Our Caveman Ancestors Probably Practiced Gender Equality. 

Cavemen in modern times—who may or may not have resembled these 2012 New York Comic Con attendees—would call themselves “cavepeople.”

Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

It’s a sad week for evolutionary psychology buffs. A new paper out in Science, by a group of scientists led by University College London anthropologist Mark Dyble, suggests that despite widespread claims to the contrary, early hunter-gatherer societies likely practiced equality between the sexes.

“The scientists collected genealogical data from two hunter-gatherer populations, one in the Congo and one in the Philippines,” the Guardian reports, “including kinship relations, movement between camps and residence patterns, through hundreds of interviews.” In more sexist societies, “tight hubs of related individuals emerged” as men try to amass as much power and influence as possible through their own families.

More egalitatarian societies, however, spread out a lot more, as women have more control over how they live and who they sleep with. “When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” Dyble told the Guardian. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.” 

Because of this, Dyble and his team argue that gender inequality is tied directly to agriculture, when owning land and wielding power over others starts to become a big deal. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources” in an agricultural system, Dyble explained, “and becomes favourable to form alliances with male kin.”

Guess evolutionary psychology aficionados are going to switch gears and start arguing that our “hard-wired” gender roles evolved during the advent of agriculture and not during our hunter-gatherer days. But evolutionary psychology has always been a conclusion looking for an explantion, the reverse of how science is supposed to work. Goodbye paleo fantasies. Hello, pickup artist manuals that romanticize some ancient dude harvesting wheat. 

It might be tempting for feminists to flip the argument around and declare that we’re actually hard-wired for equality. That urge should be resisted. What this paper should really do is remind everyone that human beings are incredibly flexible and adapt rapidly to changes in our environment. Under some circumstances, we’re more egalitarian; under others, we’re more sexist. And because we now have significant power to control our environment, we should choose what’s fairest to everyone.