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No. 249 "Vital Articles on Science/Creation" March 1994
Darwin's Teaching of Women's Inferiority
Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.*
Copyright (c) 1994 by I.C.R.
All Rights Reserved
* Dr. Bergman is on the science faculty at Northwest State College,
The racism of evolution theory has been documented well and widely
publicized. It is known less widely that many evolutionists, including
Charles Darwin, also taught that women are biologically inferior to men.
Darwin's ideas, including, his view of women, have had a major impact on
society. In a telling indication of his attitude about women (just
before he married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood), Darwin listed the
advantages of marrying, which included: "...constant companion, (friend
in old age) who will feel interested in one, object to be beloved and
played with -- better than a dog anyhow -- Home, and someone to take
care of house..." (Darwin, 1958:232,233).
Darwin reasoned that as a married man he would be a "poor slave,...
worse than a Negro," but then reminisces that, "one cannot live the
solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless...and childless staring
in one's face...." Darwin concludes his discussion on the philosophical
note, "there is many a happy slave" and shortly thereafter, married
Darwin concluded that adult females of most species resembled the
young of both sexes and from this and the other evidence, "reasoned that
males are more evolutionarily advanced than females" (Kevles, 1986:8).
Many anthropologists contemporary to Darwin concluded that "women's
brains were analogous to those of animals," which had "overdeveloped"
sense organs "to the detriment of the brain" (Fee, 1979:418). Carl
Vogt, a University of Geneva natural history professor who accepted many
of "the conclusions of England's great modern naturalist, Charles
Darwin," argued that "the child, the female, and the senile white" all
had the intellect and nature of the "grown up Negro" (1863:192). Many
of Darwin's followers accepted this reasoning, including George Romanes,
who concluded that evolution caused females to become, as Kevles
...increasingly less cerebral and more emotional. Romanes
...shared Darwin's view that females were less highly evolved
than males -- ideas which he articulated in several books and
many articles that influenced a generation of biologists.
Romanes apparently saw himself as the guardian of evolution,
vested with a responsibility to keep it on the right path....
University of Pennsylvania...paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope
wrote that male animals play a "more active part in the
struggle for existence," and that all females, as mothers, have
had to sacrifice intellectual growth for emotional strength...
One reason nineteenth century biologists argued for women's
inferiority was because Darwin believed that "unchecked female militancy
threatened to produce a perturbance of the races" and to "divert the
orderly process of evolution" (Fee, 1979:415).
Darwin taught that human sex differences were due partly to sexual
selection, specifically because men must prove themselves physically and
intellectually superior to other men in the competition for women,
whereas women must be superior primarily in sexual attraction. Darwin
used examples of cultures that require the men to fight competitors to
retain their wives to support this conclusion. Because "the strongest
party always carries off the prize," the result is that "a weak man,
unless he be a good hunter...is seldom permitted to keep a wife that a
stronger man thinks worth his notice" (1896:562).
Other examples Darwin uses to illustrate his conclusion that
evolutionary forces caused men to be superior to women included animal
comparisons. Since humans evolved from animals, and "no one disputes
that the bull differs in disposition from the cow, the wild-boar from
the sow, the stallion from the mare, and, as is well known through the
keepers of menageries, the males of the larger apes from the females,"
the same must be true with human females (Darwin, 1896:563). Further,
some of the traits of women "are characteristic of the lower races, and
therefore of a past and lower state of civilization" (1896:563,564). In
summary, Darwin concludes men attain
...a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can
women--whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination,
or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were
made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting,
sculpture, music (inclusive of both composition and
performance), history, science, and philosophy, with
half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not
bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the
deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in
his work on "Hereditary Genius" that ...the average of mental
power in man must be above that of women (Darwin, 1896:564).
Obviously, Darwin totally ignored the influence of culture, the
environment, social roles, and the relatively few opportunities that
existed in his day, as well as historically, for both men and women.
The conclusion that women are evolutionarily inferior to men is at
the core of Darwin's major contribution to evolutionary theory: natural
and sexual selection. Since selection, in the long term prunes out the
weak, all factors which facilitate saving the weak work against
evolution. Males are subjected to more selection pressures than women,
including the supposed fact that, in earlier times, the stronger,
quicker, and more intelligent males were more apt to survive a hunt and
bring back food. Consequently, natural selection would evolve males to
a greater degree than females. Since women historically have focused
primarily on domestic, often menial, repetitive tasks and not on
hunting, they were less affected by selection pressures. Further, the
long tradition of males has been to protect women: only men went to
battle, and the common war norms forbade deliberately killing women.
War pruned the weaker men, and only the best survived to return home and
reproduce. The eminent evolutionist, Topinard, concluded that men were
superior because they fought to protect both themselves and their wives
and their families. Further, Topinard taught that males have
all of the responsibility and the cares of tomorrow [and
are]...constantly active in combating the environment and human
rivals, [and thus need]...more brains than the woman whom he
must protect and nourish...the sedentary women, lacking any
interior occupations, whose role is to raise children, love,
and be passive (quoted in Gould, 1981:104).
Women's inferiority -- a fact taken for granted by most scientists
in the 1800s -- was a major proof of evolution by natural selection.
Gould claims that there were actually "few egalitarian scientists" at
this time. Almost all believed that "Negroes and women" were
intellectually inferior. These scientists were not repeating prejudices
without extensive work and thought; they were attempting to verify this
major plank in evolution theory by trying to prove, scientifically, that
women were inferior.
One approach which was seized upon to substantiate that females
were generally inferior to males was to prove that their brain capacity
was smaller. Researchers first endeavored to demonstrate empirically
that female cranial capacity was smaller, and then that brain capacity
was related to intelligence, a more difficult task (Van Valen,
Among the numerous researchers that used craniology to "prove" the
intellectual inferiority of women, one of the most eminent was Paul
Broca (1824-1880). One of Europe's "most prestigious anthropologists"
and a leader in the development of physical anthropology as a science,
Broca, in 1859, founded the prestigious _Anthropological Society_ (Fee,
1979:415). A major preoccupation of the society then was measuring
various human traits, including skulls to "delineate human groups and
assess their relative worth" (Gould, 1981:83). Broca's conclusion was
human brains are
...larger in mature adults than in the elderly, in men than in
women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in
superior races than in inferior races...other things equal,
there is a remarkable relationship between the development of
intelligence and the volume of the brain (Gould, 1981, p. 83).
And, as Gould notes, Broca's research was not superficial: "One
cannot read Broca without gaining enormous respect for his care in
generating data" (1981:85).
Broca was especially concerned about proving women's inferiority to
men: "Of all his comparisons between groups, Broca collected most
information on the brains of women vs. men..." (Gould, 1981:103). He
concluded that "the relatively small size of the female brain depends in
part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual
inferiority" (Gould, 1981:104). Broca also concluded that the disparity
between men's and women's brains was still becoming even greater, which
he explained was the "result of differing evolutionary pressures upon
dominant men and passive women" (Gould, 1981:104).
These views were expounded by many of the most prominent
evolutionists of Darwin's day. The founder of the field of social
psychology and a pioneer in the collective behavior field was Gustave Le
Bon (1841-1931). This scientist, whose classic study of crowd behavior
(_The Crowd_; 1895) is familiar to every social science student, wrote
that even in
...the most intelligent races...are a large number of women
whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to
the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious
that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is
worth discussion.... Women...represent the most inferior forms
of human evolution and...are closer to children and savages
than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness,
inconsistency, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to
reason. Without a doubt there exists some distinguished women,
very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional
as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla
with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely
Re-evaluation of the conclusion that females were less intelligent
found both major flaws in the evidence that "proved" women's inferiority
and in major aspects of evolution theory. Fisher even argues that the
whole theory of natural selection is questionable, quoting Chomsky's
...the processes by which the human mind achieved its present
state of complexity...are a total mystery.... It is perfectly
safe to attribute this development to "natural selection," so
long as we realize that there is no substance to this
assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that
there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena
Another method used to attack the female-inferiority conclusion of
evolution was to attack the evidence of evolution theory itself. Fisher,
for example, makes the following observation:
The difficulties of postulating theories about human origins on
the actual brain organization of our presumed fossil ancestors,
with only a few limestone impregnated skulls -- most of them
bashed, shattered, and otherwise altered by the passage of
millions of years -- as evidence, would seem to be astronomical
Actually, many of the attempts to disprove the evolutionary view
that women are intellectually inferior to men attacked the core of
evolutionary theory because it is inexorbitantly bound with human-group
inferiority, which must exist, from which natural selection may select.
The inferiority-of-women conclusion was so ingrained in biology, Morgan
concludes, that thinkers in this area tended to "sheer away from the
sole subject of biology and origins," hoping they could ignore it and
"concentrate on ensuring that in the future things will be different"
(Morgan, 1972:2). She stresses that we cannot ignore evolutionary
biology, though, because of the belief that the "jungle heritage and the
evolution of man as a hunting carnivore has taken root in man's mind as
firmly as Genesis ever did." She concludes that evolution must be
reevaluated, and that scientists have "sometimes gone astray" because of
prejudice and philosophical prescriptions. She argues that the
prominent evolutionary view that women are biologically inferior to men
must be challenged, and in this and scores of other works that preceded
her, dozens of writers have adroitly overturned the conclusion that
women are biologically inferior to men, and, by so doing, have
undermined a major plank in evolutionism.
Chomsky, Noam. 1972. _Language and Mind_. New York: Harcourt, Brace,
Darwin, Charles. 1896. _The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to
Sex_. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
---------. (Nora Barlow, Ed.). 1958. _The Autobiography of Charles
Darwin, 1809-1882_. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.
Dyer, Gwynne. 1985. _War_. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc..
Fee, Elizabeth. 1979. "Nineteenth-Century Craniology: The Study of the
Female Skull." _Bulletin of the History of Medicine_, 53:415-433.
Fisher, Elizabeth. 1979. _Woman's Creation: Sexual Evolution and the
Shaping of Society_. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1981. _The Mismeasure of Man_. New York: W. W.
Norton & Company.
Kevles, Bettyann. 1986. _Females of the Species: Sex and Survival in
the Animal Kingdom._ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morgan, Elaine. 1972. _The Descent of Woman_. New York: Stein and Day.
Van Valen, Leigh. 1974. "Brain Size and Intelligence in Man."
_American Journal of Physical Anthropology_, 40:417-423.
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