The Origins and Evolution of Sexism

Maybe it’s time we learned something from our past.

Sexism is everywhere, and to most people, it always has been. We don’t often lend much thought to why women are supposedly inferior to men. But seeing as sexism is one of the most misguided social institutions around, maybe we should.

The idea that men and women are not equal has existed since hominids first grew brains big enough to process it, right? Actually, wrong. Although males and females of every species have always had different roles, those roles didn’t always come with a label of inferiority or superiority. In the earliest of human communities (when I say human, I mean Homo sapiens, or modern humans, as opposed to our other varied ancestors), women traditionally took roles in child-rearing and gathering, while men hunted. The roles of each gender were equally important to the survival of the group, and they were not built into a heirarchy.

So where did these gender roles come from? The answer is evolution itself. The kinds of animals that live in groups typically have longer periods of gestation and “childhood” — the time between birth and sexual maturity and/or when the animal can fend for itself. These animals have to care for their offspring for months or years before the young can take care of themselves, and their offspring spend a lot more time as tiny, helpless babies than other animals do. This means that child-rearing is a bigger job that requires more time and energy — which, in turn, means that one animal on its own would have a hard time getting enough food to feed itself, its babies, and any others in its group. The more time spent hunting, the more vulnerable the babies are, but the more time spent with the babies, the less food there is. So it only makes sense to divvy up the work. Since females are the ones who carry and birth babies (which forces them to stop strenuous activities such as hunting for a time) and produce the milk to feed them (which is an essential part of child-rearing), they became responsible for raising the young. The females would also be able to gather food, since foraging doesn’t require travelling long distances or exceptionally demanding labor. Males, since they do not produce milk or carry babies, were free to hunt and travel away from the group without compromising the safety of the next generation.

We see this all the time in the animal kingdom, and humans are animals, so it only makes sense for us to follow this system too. Or at least it did, when we were still hunter-gatherers. However, we have evolved much more than our closest animal relatives, and the innovations we’ve created mean that evolutionary rules don’t always apply to us. Instead, we keep applying them to ourselves. As humans transitioned into more and more complex societies, we kept our primitive understandings of the world, like creation myths and superstitions, as well as sexism. What’s more, we built these outdated beliefs into the social hierarchies that were beginning to arise, and have failed to eradicate them. We took a concept that was no longer helping us to survive or benefitting us in any way and turned it into a rule.

Plenty of other rules of evolution have become part of our societies and later been discarded. For example, speaking in terms of evolution, the old, sick, and handicapped should be allowed to die off — that way, their genes aren’t passed on and/or valuable resources aren’t “wasted” on them. Nowadays, that sounds incredibly cruel and barbaric, and no one is about to go enforce that evolutionary rule, because we’ve moved past is as a society. We have don’t have to worry about food sources the same way early humans did, so we don’t mind feeding members of the society who aren’t youthful and healthy. More importantly, when we see someone who is old, or sick, or disabled in any way, we don’t see a burden or a collection of bad genes — we see a person. Our brains have evolved enough to understand complex ideas like personhood, and our society has “evolved” even more. In the present day, our culture is the most important driving force behind many of the decisions we make, not evolutionary instinct.

So, gender roles that were put in place by evolution aren’t the problem. The problem is that parts of necessary evolutionary instinct have become outdated, harmful parts of our culture. Even through our most incredible advances as a species, from farming to steel to electricity, we’ve clung to these relics of our ancient past. In the process, we’ve made sexism even more barbarous. Gender roles not originally part of any heirachy or legal standing, nor did they imply any deficiency in women. Allotting tasks was just the only way to get all the work done, and gender was an easy place to draw the dividing line. Neither sex was seen as superior to the other because the tasks performed by each sex were all essential to survival.

Early women didn’t raise the children because they couldn’t hunt, they raised the babies because they produce the milk babies need to survive. Because they were busy with this task, hunting fell to men. Consequently, men evolved to be more muscular (and therefore better hunters); they didn’t become hunters because they were muscular but became muscular because they had to hunt for their families. If men had evolved milk-producing breasts, women would have been able to hunt without jeopardizing the lives of their offspring, and they would have evolved to be more muscular.

Thousands of years later, we’re still struggling with this concept. Evolution created the need for gender roles, but in the case of humans, it also eliminated that need.

We threw away the evolutionary rule that those unable to hunt or have children should not pass on their genes or use up resources, because we see those individuals as people. It’s high time we discarded the “rule” about sexism, and all we need to do to get rid of it is to start thinking of women as people.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Emma McGrory’s story.