Where Darwin went wrong

Repeating antique arguments for male superiority is even more troubling, as women close in on equality.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ comments about the possible innate differences of women with respect to their abilities in math or science reflected views closer to those of the last century rather than those we would hope from modern academia.

Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man,” in words far more eloquent than those of Summers: “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands … We may also infer … that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman . . . (Men have had) to defend their females, as well as their young, from enemies of all kinds, and to hunt for their joint subsistence. But to avoid enemies or to attack them with success, to capture wild animals, and to fashion weapons, requires the aid of the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination. These various faculties will thus have been continually put to the test and selected during manhood. Ö Thus, man has ultimately become superior to woman.”

Darwin goes on to reason that it is a good thing that men pass on their characteristics to their daughters as well as to their sons, “otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to women, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.”

These principles were summarized and questioned by noted Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard in her work “The Politics of Women’s Biology.” Hubbard paraphrased Darwin as follows: “Men’s mental and physical qualities were constantly improved through competition for women and hunting, while women’s minds would have become vestigial if it were not for the fortunate circumstance that in each generation daughters inherit brains from their fathers.”

It is interesting to rewrite Darwin’s ideas (which Summers implicitly endorsed in his remarks) as follows:

“Women have had to defend their families from enemies of all kinds and to gather food for the subsistence of their families. But to avoid enemies or to raise crops of higher yield requires the aid of higher mental facilities, namely

observation, reason, invention, imagination, cooperation and communications. These various faculties will thus have been continually put to the test and selected as women mature. Thus woman has ultimately become superior to man and it’s a good thing that women pass on their characteristics and supply the environment to their sons as well as to their daughters, otherwise it is probable that the brain of a man would be of no more real significance than the ornamental plumage of the peacock.” (Quotes supplied with poetic license.)

Darwin also postulated the evolutionary success of the most aggressive males who left the most progeny. A more feminist point of view might say that the successful man in evolution was not the one who spread his genes about with the greatest abandon through polygamy or rape.

What might have been more important is that the next generation grew to sexual maturity not just having experienced conception. We can postulate that males entering into the most caring and egalitarian

relationships had the best chance for success of their families in evolution. Such a man sets a fine role model for both his sons and daughters so that they are most eager to enter into similar relationships at maturity.

The socio-biological arguments on the inherent inferiority of women become louder when women are closer to breaking down barriers and obtaining equal access to positions of power and prestige in general. It is an attempt to use the allegedly neutral voice of science to categorize an inferior position for women as a fact of nature.

The women and men of today who believe in equality must stand together and say this is wrong, as the Harvard faculty did last week in voting they had “no confidence” in Summers.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, represents areas including the University. Kahn has a bachelor’s in physics and doctorate in biophysics from Cornell and Yale universities, respectively. Please send comments to [email protected]