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A new challenge from an anthropologist to cozy Darwin tales about men vs. women

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Holly Dunsworth. (Photo by Michael Salerno)

Holly Dunsworth (pictured) seems to have actually researched the literature rather than signing on to the narrative. When people do that, the results can be unsettling, sometimes scary:

In her paper, Dunsworth focuses on how different levels of estrogen production dictate bone growth in both sexes, with ovaries producing more estrogen than testes. Boys and girls grow at roughly the same pace, reaching about 62 inches by age 13. At that age, greater estrogen production in girls causes long bone growth plates to fuse. Boys continue to grow taller for about five more years, until they reach levels of estrogen that fuse their bones. In that time, boys grow another 8 inches on average; girls just 2. As with height, sex differences in the pelvis skeleton are also rooted in the differing levels of estrogen and its effects over time on differing systems of gonads, genitals, ligaments and bones.

“There are ways that men and women are so obviously different in their evolved reproductive physiology,” Dunsworth says. “It’s really as if the reigning theories just look at the skeleton to claim that men are taller because they evolved to be dominant and competitive – as if women didn’t – and to claim that women are broader because they evolved for reproduction – as if men didn’t. Conspicuous sex differences in our bodies lead to assumptions about gender differences. They feed our narratives about what a man is and what a woman is, and what our different roles in society should be. These myths about human nature haven’t exactly worked wonders for women and they fuel toxic masculinity.”

Tony LaRoche, “URI anthropology professor challenges evolutionary narratives of big, competitive men and broad, birthing women” at University of Rhode Island

The people who tell those Darwin stories, in the experience of some of us, are men who have no idea of the viciousness of the competition that goes on among women. By definition, they wouldn’t know. So they theorize as if what they don’t know doesn’t matter.

Dunsworth, a biological anthropologist, sees it as her job as a professor and researcher to overturn outdated and false evolutionary traditions and to retell origin stories that are inclusive and unbiased.

“We make meaning out of human evolutionary origin stories,” she says. “Whether they really dig human evolution or not, people are using it to make sense of the world and they’re thinking that some of these very narrow, very outdated ideas are the science, are the facts,” she says. “There are facts and then there are stories we tell about them. But we can improve our stories. There are more inclusive stories to tell, more complicated, more dynamic, more interesting, more scientific ways of describing the facts and telling stories about those facts.”

Despite their flaws, theories of sexual selection for height and natural selection for pelvis size continue to be taught in classrooms, Dunsworth says, even in hers.

“We’ve taught it for years because there’s an obsession with comparing the degree of difference between men and women to the much larger difference between male and female gorillas. Somehow, it’s supposed to show that we are more peaceful and more cooperative, while still acknowledging that, because human men are bigger than women, the big men in our ancestry have been the big winners,” she says. “I was teaching sexual selection. It’s canon. I thought this is how we explain this until I sat back and thought it through.”

Tony LaRoche, “URI anthropology professor challenges evolutionary narratives of big, competitive men and broad, birthing women” at University of Rhode Island

Here’s the paper (subscription required).

A friend writes to say that Dunsworth is following in the footsteps of now-emeritus Joan Roughgarden, who questioned Darwinian sexual selection theory in the early years of this century.

Righty. Roughgarden crossed our radar in 2006:

Bill Dembski: If There’s No Controversy Over Evolution,What’s This?

And a number of times since, including:

David Tyler picked up a signal in 2012: The Paradigmatic Power Of Sexual Selection.

Looking for biologists willing to emerge from the Darwinsludge and look around them hasn’t been easy. It’s like SETI looking for alien signals. But we’ve had much better success, we are glad to say.

We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves, of course. Humans who think past this stuff are more common than aliens. We just have to listen and not drive them away.

See also: Can sex explain evolution?

3 Replies to “A new challenge from an anthropologist to cozy Darwin tales about men vs. women

  1. 1
    AaronS1978 says:

    So I can’t open her research but I certainly would like to know why her research challenges the broad idea that men evolved the way they did to be competitive and dominant because they’re larger I’ll she did from what I can read here was discovered the mechanism that evolved to produce the effect

    But I don’t see how this topples the Darwinian that’s so story about sex

  2. 2
    News says:

    It’s not that she topples it but she dares to question and isn’t Canceled.

  3. 3
    Belfast says:

    Well, according to Ethan Siegel and Seversky (previous Forbes article) I shouldn’t accept this maverick.
    I just don’t know which way to turn any more.

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