Evolutionary Influences on Gender Development

  • Division of Labour:
  • The role division between men and women may have evolved to enhance the groups reproductive success. If women hunted rather than played the domestic role, reproduction chances would be reduced. Women can also aid the avoidance of starvation by growing vegetables, milking animals and also making clothes or shelter. Therefore, this complementary division of labour not only enhances reproduction but avoids groups dying out, showing that it has many adaptive advantages. Kuhn and Stiner (2006) suggest that these divisions are why Neanderthals (who had both sexes hunt) died out and humans didn’t.
  • Mate Choice:
  • The key to adaptive behaviour is reproductive success. In terms of mate choice, men look for partners who are physically attractive whereas females are additionally interested in the resources a partner may be able to provide for them. (Buss 1989)
  • Males select women who are more fertile by looking for signs of good health. Females also look for signs of fertility but are more concerned with a partner who can provide resources.
  • Cognitive Style:
  • Research has shown that women are better at empathising whereas men are better are systemising. Baron-Cohen (2002) calls this the E-S theory and has proposed that gender difference is due to selective pressure for each sex. For example, those males who could systemise had a better evolutionary advantage.
  • Evaluation:
  • Support for evolutionary explanations comes from a number of sources such as historical data, experiments, observations, questionnaires, comparative studies and cross cultural studies. Cross- cultural studies are used to test whether something is continuous across several different cultures, and is therefore innate or whether it is influenced and learnt by specific cultural practices. One of the main issues with this research is the problem of the degree that the data is actually representative of the people from those cultures. For example, people do not always represent themselves accurately in questionnaires which would give false data and in some cases, a questionnaire given to one culture, may not make sense in another, making it very difficult to keep consistent in a study. Another criticism of evolutionary explanations is that they are speculative, they are not formed on a factual basis. For example, the appearance of division of labour and the extinction of Neanderthals may be a plausible explanation however, we have no direct proof that this was the cause. They are also several other plausible theories for their disappearance e.g. climate change. (Tzedakis et al 2007). Another key criticism is that the evolutionary approach is determinist. Meaning that the evolutionary approach assigns gender differences as having an evolutionary origin when in reality, its likely that there will be other influencing factors such as social and cultural influences.
  • Research to support mate choice theory as an explanation of gender differences comes from a cross cultural survey by Waynfarth and Dunbar (1995). They used personal ads to assess what men and women were seeking in the opposite sex and how they advertise themselves. The results were as predicted: 44% of males sought a physically attractive partner compared to 22% of women. 50% of women offered attractiveness whereas only 34% of males did. Supporting the mate choice theory. However, this research suffers from problems of validity because it could be argued that what someone puts in an ad may not be the same in a real life situation. Meaning that it lacks external validity as it may not be applicable to other situations or people. On the other hand, the theory is supported by real life studies such as Buss (1989) who found that in a study of actual marriages in 29 different cultures, men do choose younger women. In fact men who divorce and remarry tend to marry women who are increasingly younger than they are.
  • Research evidence to support the E-S theory that male and female cognitive styles are difference coms from Baron-Cohen (2004). They conducted research to demonstrate that men and women think in different ways which align with predicted differences in cognitive style. He developed a systematising Quotient Questionnaire with questions such as ‘When I watch a film I prefer to be with a group of friends rather than alone.’ Participants were then asked to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement. Baron-Cohen found that males tended to be systematisers and females tended to be empathisers. Only about 17% of men had empathising brains and 17% of women had systematising brains.

Evolutionary Explanations of Gender Roles- Essay Plan


Division of Labour

  • Evolved to enhance reproductive success
  • If women hunted: reproduction chances are reduced. Women can aid survival by growing food.
  • This division of labour aids survival, avoids groups dying out.
  • KUHN AND STINER 2006: why humans survived, not Neanderthals- both sexes hunted.

Mate Choice

  • Men look for partners who are physically attractive, women: what men can provide. BUSS 1989
  • Males select fertile women with good health. Women do too but more concerned with resources provided. Men seek physical attractiveness; women seek partners to make them physically attractive.

Cognitive Style

  • Women are better at emphasising, men- systematisers (understanding & building).
  • BARON-COHEN ET AL 2002: E- S theory. Gender difference is due to selection pressure. E.g. those males who could systematise- survive.


P: Support for gender roles

E: Comes from a no. of sources- historical data, experiments, observations, q’s, comparative studies and cross cultural studies. Main issue with CC studies is the data actually representative of the culture. E.g. people aren’t honest in q’s.

E: Another criticism- they are speculative. Not formed on a factual basis. E.g. Neanderthals, plausible explanations but so is climate change. TZEDAKIS ET AL 2007.

E: Another criticism- determinist. Likely to be other influences.

P: Research supporting mate choice: WAYNFARTH AND DUNBAR 1995

E: personal ads to find out what men and women were seeking and how they advertise themselves. Results: 44% of men- physically attractive partner compared to 22% women, 50% women offered attractiveness whereas 34% of men did.

E: However, validity problems. Ad and real life? External validity issues.

E: However, it is supported by real life studies. BUSS 1989- studies of marriages in 29 cultures, men choose younger women. Men, who divorce, remarry younger women.

P: Support for the E-S theory. BARON- COHEN 2004

E: Systematising quotient questionnaire. E.g. ‘when I watch a film, I prefer to be with a group of friend rather than alone.’ P’s indicate how strongly they agree with statements. Found: males were systematisers, women empathisers. 17% of each sex was opposite.

E: Therefore- supports theory that men and women think in different ways, align with predicted differences in cognitive style.