Gendered Conflict in the Human Family

Special collection edited by one of our funded researchers

New special collection emphasizes the importance of culture in the evolution of ‘Gendered Conflict in the Human Family’

One of our funded researchers, David Lawson, has co-edited a special collection in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences (with Sarah Alami, Oluwaseyi Somefun and Kathrine Starkweather). The collection includes new work on topics as diverse as bride wealth and women’s autonomy in Ghana, arranged and early marriage in Nepal, Bangladesh and Tanzania, matriliny in China, and new cross-national studies of polygynous marriage and intimate partner violence. All articles are open-access and can be accessed here.

The collection includes a new perspective piece by the editors, in which they review the history of sexual conflict theory and its application to human behaviour. For biologists, sexual conflict refers to conflict between the evolutionary interests of females and males, such that the optimal state for one sex imposes fitness costs on the other, often leading to corresponding adaptations and counteradaptations as each sex attempts to gain the upper hand. However, the application of sexual conflict theory to human behaviour has proven controversial, in part because prevailing sex/gender stereotypes have biased research, and because new developments in theory continue to challenge classic assumptions. To move the field forward, the editors advocate for three priorities, which echo the priorities of the CES Transformation Fund:

  1. Prioritise diversity: Just as improved representation of women in evolutionary science has allowed us to tackle gender stereotypes, Lawson and colleagues argue that achieving cultural diversity among researchers is also essential in tackling ethnocentrism and achieving ethical research practice. Here, special focus is placed on bringing the insights of researchers working outside of Europe and North America to the fore, especially in research conducted across relatively low and middle-income nations. To this end, the editors made a number of efforts, including asking all contributors to be attentive to inequities in the assignment of authorship in cross-national research teams, and by soliciting submissions from researchers who have not previously written for an evolutionary social science audience. For example, in a contribution by Akurugu et al., the authors draw on ethnographic observations among bride wealth practicing communities in Ghana to evaluate competing evolutionary and wider social science theories about the function of bride wealth and its impacts on women’s autonomy.
  2. Place greater emphasis on cultural determinants of conflict between women and men: The editors also argue for a more forceful recognition of the role of culture in the expression of human sex/gender roles and accompanying conflict, as a key distinguishing feature of our species. To encourage this shift, they propose a strategic shift in terminology from ‘sexual conflict’ to ‘gendered conflict’ when addressing human behaviour. An emphasis on culture does not negate that conflict at an evolutionary level ultimately plays out via differential selection on biological sexes. However, emphasizing gender over sex places appropriate focus on how the behaviour of women and men is also fundamentally socially acquired and transmitted. To support this argument, Lawson and colleagues highlight findings demonstrating the fundamental impact that cultural practices such as female genital cutting/mutilation, rules on the acceptable number of marriage partners, post-marital residence, and marriage payments play in structing ‘conflict backgrounds’ between women and men.
    The authors also call for more dedicated research into the role of evolved mechanisms of social learning in determining cultural variation in gender ideology (i.e. expectations about appropriate behaviour for each sex/gender). Here, the paucity of evolutionary research is surprising, not least because the notion of socially acquired and ‘performed’ gender roles has motivated a large body of scholarship in sociology and social psychology. To this end, Lawson and colleagues are now working on the social learning of gender ideology in Tanzania, as part of their CES Transformation Fund Research Project.
  3. Steer researcher attention to matters of contemporary policy concern: Finally, the editors argue that cultural evolutionary researchers should turn their focus to global movements to address gender inequality and apparent “harmful cultural practices” – a term used in the global health sector to refer to practices deemed damaging to wellbeing. Supporting this theme, many of the papers in the collection evaluate not just the fitness implications of gendered conflict, but also the impacts cultural practices have on the wellbeing of women and men. For example, Howard and Gibson test alternative evolutionary theories addressing the cross-cultural prevalence of intimate partner violence, while Anderson and Bidner review findings on the impacts of polygynous marriage, aiming to integrate economic and evolutionary accounts.  

More news