‘The Evolution of Woman’ versus ‘The Descent of Man’

Eliza Burt Gamble

Women have interpreted and applied evolutionary theory in arguments about women’s nature for over a century. Eliza Burt Gamble (1841-1920) was a pioneer in this endeavor. Gamble was an advocate of the Woman Movement, a mother, a writer, and a teacher from Michigan. Over the course of her career, Gamble wrote three books: The Evolution of Woman (1894), The God-Idea of the Ancients (1897), and The Sexes in Science and History (1916). In these works, Gamble sought to challenge male patriarchy using arguments grounded in religion, science, and history. Although Gamble’s work was the ‘road not taken,’ Gamble was a trailblazer for her recognition of the significance of female choice in sexual selection, her use of evolutionary theory as a resource for arguments about women’s nature, and her criticism of androcentrism in science. By reinterpreting Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, Gamble even argued for the superiority of the female over the male.

 

Peacock. Photo by Kristine Deppe, CC Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0), http://www.flickr.com/photos/33414049@N08/7339653286/

Peacock. Photo by Kristine Deppe (CC BY-ND 2.0)

One portion of Darwin’s work that Gamble made particular use of in her argument for female superiority was the theory of sexual selection. Darwin defined sexual selection in his 1859 magnum opus On The Origin of Species. Darwin believed that sexual selection was critical to the development of secondary sexual characteristics, which he felt played an essential role in attracting mates but were not physically necessary for reproduction itself.[1] According to Darwin, secondary sexual characteristics resulted from male-male competition for mating privileges. As he explained, “it is the males that fight together and sedulously display their charms before the females; and those which are victorious transmit their superiority to their male offspring.”[2]

 

As a result of this process, those males with sexual characteristics that females considered attractive would “leave a greater number of offspring to inherit their superiority than the beaten and less attractive males.”[3]

 

American Bison in Rut. Photo by Dan Dzurisin, CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), http://www.flickr.com/photos/ndomer73/2950261775/

American Bison in Rut. Photo by Dan Dzurisin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While Gamble and Darwin both worked with the principles of evolution and sexual selection, they disagreed on the ultimate effect these processes had on the relative intelligences and abilities of the sexes. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin explicitly noted that “man has ultimately become superior to woman” and “attain[s] to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain.”[4] Gamble, on the other hand, suggested that through evolution and sexual selection the female sex had become more sophisticated and more intelligent than the male. Nonetheless, Gamble acknowledged a debt to Darwin. As she wrote in The Evolution of Woman:

 

“[i]t was not… until the year 1886, after a careful reading of The Descent of Man, by Mr. Darwin, that I first became impressed with the belief that the theory of evolution, as enunciated by scientists, furnishes much evidence going to show that the female among all the orders of life, man included, represents a higher stage of development than the male.”[5]

 

Although Gamble credited Darwin for providing the seeds of her theory, she believed that Darwin had a “remarkable” “ability to ignore certain facts which he himself adduced, and which all along the line of development tend to prove the superiority of the female organization.”[6] Unlike Darwin, Gamble felt that the “power of choice” exhibited by females in sexual selection implied “a degree of intelligence far in advance of that manifested by males.”[7] Gamble suggested that, as a result of female choice in sexual selection, men could not have evolved to become superior to women. As she explained, “[a]s a stream may not rise higher than its source, or as the creature may not surpass its creator in excellence, it is difficult to understand the processes by which man, through Sexual Selection, has become superior to woman.”[8]

 

Posted by Katie Ericksen Baca

 


[1]  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1871), p. 245, GoogleBooks, (accessed October 8, 2010).

[2]  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, p. 263.

[3]  Ibid., 252.

[4]  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol. II (London: John Murray, 1871), 328, 327, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/contents.html (accessed February 21, 2011).

[5]  Gamble, The Evolution of Woman, v.

[6]  Ibid., viii.

[7]  Ibid., 24.

[8]  Ibid., 29.

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