No, Evolution Doesn’t Disprove Lean In’s Arguments

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Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Few recent books have spawned as many arguments as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Until last week, though, I hadn’t seen anyone claim that Sandberg’s feminism-in-the-workplace manifesto is anti-science. And yet that’s exactly what Amy Alkon, an advice columnist who frequently dips into psychological research, argued in the New York Observer on Friday.

Drawing on evolutionary psychology — basically, the idea that many of our behavioral tendencies were shaped long ago, when the sorts of pressures that needed to be overcome in order to survive and reproduce were a lot different than they are today — Alkon writes that Sandberg simply ignores fundamental, biologically, and genetically predetermined differences between male and female behavior, and that because of these differences, Sandberg’s advice could actually be harmful if followed.

This sort of thing pops up from time to time — it’s not uncommon to see pop-science accounts that use evo-psych to make sweeping statements about human nature, particularly on gender issues. In one recent incident Science of Us readers might remember, for instance, researchers used evo-psych principles to tell a rather nonsensical story about why Kim Kardashian’s butt appeals to so many men. But Alkon’s column, even if it draws on some long-standing and stale claims about the differences between men and women, deserves a thorough debunking simply because it’s such an egregious example of the subgenre.

Her basic logic is that since women are meeker than men, and less likely than men to bond, friendship-wise, with members of the same gender — behaviors forged by, you guessed it, evolution — Lean In doesn’t reflect the current scientific understanding of gender issues, and those who try to follow her advice will find themselves stymied. A woman who seeks out a female mentor, in other words, isn’t going to get so far, because evolution shaped women to not want to invest resources in other women, except in cases where it can increase their odds of raising and protecting their kids.

Sandberg “goes clueless on science throughout her book,” writes Alkon. But Alkon herself has some very strong opinions on what science “says,” full stop, about human behavior and gender differences. “Science says: Men are comfortable with hierarchies and taking the lead in a way that women are not. Women want everybody to be equal,” she writes. Then, a bit later, “Science says: A woman might tear down the external barriers so she can get in — and then throw them right back up so other women can’t” [all emphasis in the original]. The column is filled with these sorts of flat statements about what men do versus what women do. She cites some research as well: “Some of the strongest evidence that sex differences overwhelmingly are born and not learned,” she writes, comes from research on human infants and chimps.

The problem isn’t that Alkon is suggesting there might be some biologically determined differences between men and women. Few researchers would argue otherwise, though it depends on the characteristic being discussed, and in many cases we’re talking only about small differences in population-wide averages. But Alkon acts as though these gender differences are huge and immutable, when it’s obvious external factors play a profound role in forging, reinforcing, and, sometimes, overriding them (it’s particularly odd for Alkon to simply sweep aside culture concerns given that one of the goals of Sandberg’s book is to change that culture). Studies on infants and chimps obviously have little bearing on the question of how human culture affects human adults. 

There are, of course, numerous examples of non-evolutionary factors powerfully affecting why people do what they do. Take eating and sex, for example — two universal, ancient human behaviors tied intimately to survival and reproduction.

External factors separate from evolution obviously, unquestionably have had a major impact on both what humans eat and how they have sex. We evolved to eat both meat and plants, and to seek out calorie-dense foods; but some people (and entire cultures) give up meat, while others decide to stay away from fatty foods. As for sex, evolution tells a clear story about gender roles: Men should seek out as many sexual partners as possible to maximize their odds of passing on their genes, while women should be a lot choosier, only having sex with men who have good genes, and who they imagine will stick around to help protect and look after their young. And yet men and women alike act contrary to these biological “expectations” — if you want to call them that — all the time.

So what turns people into vegetarians or convinces men to embrace monogamy? Broadly speaking, culture (plus technology, in the case of something like birth control, though technology obviously nudges culture in certain directions, and vice versa). For example, from a very young age, boys and girls in different cultures receive radically different messages on what constitutes appropriate behavior for members of their gender. Does Alkon really think biology alone can sufficiently explain the worlds of difference between a secular, childless 20-year-old woman in Crown Heights and her next-door neighbor, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who’s the same age but already has two kids? Their genes are about 99.9 percent similar, and yet they act in completely different ways.

It comes across as simply silly to ignore the outsize role of external factors given the influence they plainly wield. And arguments that focus only on biological differences between the sexes have a sad, damaging track record, said Dr. Hunter Honeycutt, a psychologist at Bridgewater University in Virginia who has studied and written about evolutionary psychology. “What strikes me about this [column] is how the arguments made by Alkon in regards to Lean In are disturbingly similar to 19th and 20th century arguments used to oppose allowing women to vote or enter college,” he wrote in an email. “Of course, Alkon claims her arguments are supported by scientific research, but the 19th century arguments contesting women’s rights were also claimed to be supported by (at the time) ‘modern’ scientific research.”

Honeycutt also highlighted an interesting example of external factors causing behavior change; it involves cats’ so-called “rat-killing instinct” — as seemingly primal and genetically predetermined a behavior as one could imagine. “In the early 20th century it was widely cited as a clear example of an animal instinct (an evolved, unlearned, hereditary behavior),” he said. “Four-month-old kittens who had never seen rodents before were found to ‘instinctively’ attack, kill, and often devour rats and mice upon first seeing them. But in the 1930s it was shown that when kittens are reared with rats, they not only did not kill those or similar rats, they formed an attachment to them. They snuggled, shared food, and when separated, displayed signs of distress. So much for the rat-killing instinct!”

So for Alkon’s argument against Lean In to hold water, one would have to believe that even though humans can change their most fundamental behaviors through culture and other environmental influences, and even though cats, who don’t even have culture the way they do, can change theirs, all this malleability magically dissipates the moment one enters a corporate environment. From then on, we’re all cavemen and -women divorced of culture and upbringing and other external influences. Who knew skyscrapers and office parks held such profound power?

Alkon may have let ideological concerns get in the way of a clear-eyed analysis here. She is not a fan of feminism, or at least not feminism in its current form. She has opined that “feminism in the West has assumed the features of an authoritarian movement,” called feminism “the new infantilism,” and described feminism as a “victim’s-eye view” ideology. It may be the case that she’s less interested in carefully evaluating the science of gender and behavior than in attempting to score certain points about feminism.

All that being said: How should we treat the claims of evolutionary psychology? We can’t completely ignore the blueprints that built us, of course, and just as it’s silly to argue, as Alkon is, that biological influences are the only ones that matter, it would be similarly silly to ignore the role of biology entirely. What’s needed is a nuanced, reasonable view.

Maybe something like this:

Are there characteristics inherent in sex differences that make women more nurturing and men more assertive? Quite possibly. Still, in today’s world where we no longer have to hunt in the wild for our food, our desire for leadership is largely a culturally created and reinforced trait. How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed by our societal expectations.

The author? That’s Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, as quoted by Amy Alkon. Doesn’t sound very anti-science to me.

No, Evolution Doesn’t Disprove Lean In