Reply to Saini’s condemnation of Darwin’s bias

Angela Saini argues as follows: “[Darwin] assumed that women must be biologically inferior [to men]. Of course, he ignored the abundant evidence around him that women didn’t have nearly the same freedom and opportunities as men. … Darwin fell into the easy trap of interpreting structural inequality as biological difference. He was suffering from bias. As brilliant a scientist as Darwin was, he couldn’t help but be blinded by prejudice when it came to women.”

It would be sad indeed if the leading scientists in history committed such elementary blunders and couldn’t avoid even the crudest forms of social bias. If so, we should have to accept the postmodern historiography that takes science to be a social construct determined by the powers that be rather than by objective truth.

Let’s see if this is the right conclusion on Darwin. Saini bases her point on this quote:

“The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman.” (Descent of Man, 361)

It is indeed hard to dispute, as Darwin observes, that “lists … of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music …, history, science, and philosophy” have mostly men in them.

But is this due to biology? Saini evidently thinks it would be a naive fallacy to assume as much. So what is the alternative? That these inequalities are arbitrary social constructs with no biological basis? Then how to explain that they have persisted across cultures and millennia? Did men just happen to obtain the upper hand once upon a time thousands of years ago and then doggedly managed to maintain their arbitrarily constructed advantage without interruptions across countless revolutions, bloody wars, religious upheavals, and the rise and fall of empires? And also the same chance occurrence took place many times over in one geographically isolated civilisation after another?

I don’t think you have to be “blinded by bias” to infer that there are biological factors at play here. Of course this does not mean that men are more intelligent than women. Maybe they just have more muscles and maintain their advantage by force, for example. So is Darwin’s mistake that he assumed “intellectual powers” to be the explanation? His view is rather more nuanced. He in fact explicitly denies that there is an innate difference in this regard:

“It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes prevails with mammals; otherwise, it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.”

Instead, he attributes the advantage of men to “higher energy, perseverance, and courage.” If there is any innate gender difference, says Darwin, it is this: “Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright.”

Today, “although men do not now fight for their wives, and this form of selection has passed away, yet during manhood, they generally undergo a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes.” Therefore, “in order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance.”

In sum, Darwin denies that men are inherently more intelligent than women. Instead he attributes their higher prominence in intellectual pursuits to differences in attitude, and notes that present societal circumstances play a large part in this. Altogether, I do not think this warrants the conclusion that Darwin’s reflections are self-serving “Victorian male” make-believe rather than science.