It’s been a while since Scientific American has published misleading and distorted articles to buttress its “progressive” Left ideology, and I hoped they had shaped up. (To be honest, I haven’t followed the magazine, and got the following link from a reader.) My hope was dashed yesterday when I read this new article claiming that women constituted a high proportion of hunters in early hunter-gatherer societies. It is full of misconceptions and distortions (some of which must be deliberate), neglects contrary data, is replete with tendentious ideological claims, and even misrepresents the claim they’re debunking. You can read it for free by clicking on the screenshot below or by going here:
First, the idea that they’re trying to debunk is that women were “second class citizens” in early societies, forced to gather food because they were tied to childcare duties, while men did all the hunting. This is apparently an attempt to buttress the editors’ and authors’ feminism. But feminism doesn’t need buttressing with data on hunting; women’s equality is a moral proposition that doesn’t depend on observations about hunting. In other words, women have equal moral rights and should not be treated unfairly because fair treatment is the moral thing to do. If women never hunted, would we then be justified in treating them as second-class citizens? Hell, no! Here’s their thesis:
Even if you’re not an anthropologist, you’ve probably encountered one of this field’s most influential notions, known as Man the Hunter. The theory proposes that hunting was a major driver of human evolution and that men carried this activity out to the exclusion of women. It holds that human ancestors had a division of labor, rooted in biological differences between males and females, in which males evolved to hunt and provide, and females tended to children and domestic duties. It assumes that males are physically superior to females and that pregnancy and child-rearing reduce or eliminate a female’s ability to hunt.
Man the Hunter has dominated the study of human evolution for nearly half a century and pervaded popular culture. It is represented in museum dioramas and textbook figures, Saturday morning cartoons and feature films. The thing is, it’s wrong.
The story is in fact the cover story of the November issue, so the magazine will never, ever issue a correction or clarification:
Click to read for yourself:
First, note that I’ve written at least five pieces on the “woman hunter” hypothesis: here, here, here, here, and here. The source of the hypothesis was a PLOS One paper arguing the following (from the PLOS One paper):
Of the 63 different foraging societies, 50 (79%) of the groups had documentation on women hunting. Of the 50 societies that had documentation on women hunting, 41 societies had data on whether women hunting was intentional or opportunistic. Of the latter, 36 (87%) of the foraging societies described women’s hunting as intentional, as opposed to the 5 (12%) societies that described hunting as opportunistic. In societies where hunting is considered the most important subsistence activity, women actively participated in hunting 100% of the time.
According to the authors’ data, then, 36 out of 50 societies in which there were data on women hunting (72%), the hunting was intentional. That is the important result: in most societies, women participated in hunting. The present paper also implies that this was not rare participation—say a few women included in a big hunting party—but that women constituted a substantial proportion of those engaged in hunting, and that a substantial proportion of hunter-gatherer societies had women hunting. Here’s how the new Sci Am paper ends:
Now when you think of “cave people,” we hope, you will imagine a mixed-sex group of hunters encircling an errant reindeer or knapping stone tools together rather than a heavy-browed man with a club over one shoulder and a trailing bride. Hunting may have been remade as a masculine activity in recent times, but for most of human history, it belonged to everyone.
“Hunting. . . belonged to everyone” clearly implies, as the paper does throughout, that women’s hunting was nearly as frequent and important as men’s hunting. This is an essential part of the authors’ ideological contention, for if women hunted only rarely, or constituted only a small fraction of hunting groups, that would imply intolerable hunting inequity.
But the authors’ defense of their hypothesis is deeply flawed. Here are six reasons, and I’ll try to be brief:
1.) Nobody maintains that, as the authors assert, “men carried this activity out to the exclusion of women”. This may have been a trope in the past, but even those rebutting Obocock and Lacy’s (henceforth O&L’s) data these days do not claim that women never hunted. Of course they did, and no scientist would say that “no women ever hunted” because we cannot document that. The question, which the authors don’t address, is how frequently they hunted and what proportion of hunters did they constitute? (See below for more.)
2.) I don’t know anyone (I may have missed some) who argues that men evolved to hunt: that is, natural selection acting on hunting behavior itself caused a difference in the sexes in their propensity to hunt. The alternative hypothesis—and one that is far more credible—is that sexual selection based on male-male competition and female choice led, in our ancestors, to the evolution of greater size, strength, musculature, and physiology in men than in women. Once that had evolved, then men would obviously be the sex that would participate in hunting. (And yes, childcare by women is also a possible reason.) The authors’ claim that “males evolved to hunt and provide, and females tended to children and domestic duties” is thus misleading in that males probably got their generally superior athletic abilities (see below) as a result of selection, and their hunting then became a byproduct of that. Similarly, women tend to their children more because that’s another result of sexual selection (women have greater reproductive investment in children), and their lower participation in hunting could also be a byproduct of that.
O&L don’t mention this alternative hypothesis in their paper.
3). The authors neglect important data casting doubt on O&L’s conclusions. Soon after the original paper by Anderson et al. appeared, other anthropologists began to find fault with it. To see examples of how Anderson et al.’s data is dubious, see my posts here, here and here giving other people’s rebuttals.
Here are the conclusions from one critique, which does recognize women’s value in hunting small animals:
100% of the societies had a sexual division of labor in hunting. Women may have participated with men in some hunting contexts, typically capturing small game with nets, but participated much less in large game hunting with weapons or by persistence. Even within these contexts, it was usually the case that the role of women during the communal hunt was different. For example, women flushed wild game into nets while men dispatched the game.
These are my subjective ratings based on the papers I read in Anderson et al. (2023) and the supporting literature I cited. You may disagree and assign some different ratings. The point is that there is substantial variation across cultures in sex-based hunting roles. Additionally, none of the societies truly have an absence of these roles.
. . . Why did the perception of “man the hunter” arise? It’s likely because we see many sex-segregated hunting practices, particularly in hunting large game with weapons. Additionally, when you think of hunting, the first thing that comes to mind may not be chasing birds into nets. You probably think of a man with a spear — usually a man, not a woman, with a spear.
Here are tweets from another anthropologist looking at many societies, about which I wrote this:
Before I go, I’ll call your attention to a series of tweets by Vivek Venkataraman (start here on Twitter), an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology of the University of Calgary. His university webpage describes his interests:
Dr. Venkataraman is an evolutionary anthropologist who is broadly interested in the evolution of the human diet and food systems, and their relation to life history and behavior. He is assistant director of the Guassa Gelada Research Project ,and also the co-founder and co-PI of the Orang Asli Health and Lifeways Project (OAHeLP)
Venkataraman is somewhat dubious about some of the PLOS One paper’s results, especially the 80% frequency of women hunting among all hunter-gather societies. On the other hand, like me, he applauds any new data that can change our views of biology, and thinks the frequency of hunter-gatherer societies in which women hunt is somewhere between 13% and 80%; but he also thinks that women’s hunting was even more frequent in the past than it is now (see below)
Have a look at these. . . . tweets, which involve examining many more “forager” societies:
The O&L paper does not mention these criticisms, and therefore does not answer them. They are relying on data that has come into severe question because of its incompleteness and possible cherry-picking. They simply cannot be unaware of these data; they just ignored them. (Note: I haven’t looked for more recent data addressing O&L’s claim,)
4.) The authors repeatedly imply that, in effect, males and females are equal in athletic performance, undercutting the idea that men hunted because they were athletically better equipped to hunt. But O&L’s claim of “athletic equity” is false. The authors note that women outcompete men in some endurance sports, citing this:
Females are more regularly dominating ultraendurance events such as the more than 260-mile Montane Spine foot race through England and Scotland, the 21-mile swim across the English Channel and the 4,300-mile Trans Am cycling race across the U.S.
I looked up the Montane Spine Foot race, and the Wikipedia tables for summer and winter events give the results of 17 races, one of which was won by women. (I presume they compete together; if not, the women’s times are still slower.)
Likewise, in all English Channel crossings in which there are men’s and women’s records (there are two- and three-way crossings in addition to single crossings), the men have faster times.
Finally, in all the Trans Am Bike Race results given on Wikipedia (11 are shown), a woman won only once: Lael Wilcox in the 2016 eastbound race. In all other races save one, in which a woman finished third, no women ever placed in the top three.
I conclude that O&L’s claim that women “regularly dominate” in these events is at best a distortion, at worst a lie. There is no “dominance” evident if a woman only had the fastest time in a single event.
Further, while it may be the case (I didn’t look it up) that women more often win events in archery, shooting, and badminton, in every other competitive sport I know of, men do better than women. Here is a table from Duke Law’s Center for Sports Law and Policy giving men’s and women’s best performances in 11 track and field events, as well as boys’ and girls’ best performances. In every case, not only was the record held by a man, but the best boy’s performance was better than the best women’s performance.
There is no doubt that, across nearly all sports, men perform better than women. That’s expected because of men’s greater upper-body strength, bone strength, athletic-related physiology, and grip strength. I didn’t look up sports like tennis, but we all know that the best men outcompete the best women by a long shot, something Serena Williams has admitted. And. . .
She and her sister Venus were both thrashed by Germany’s world No.203 Karsten Braasch at the Australian Open in 1998 while trying to prove they could beat any man outside the top 200.
If I erred here, please correct me!
Here’s a quote by O&L (my bolding)
The inequity between male and female athletes is a result not of inherent biological differences between the sexes but of biases in how they are treated in sports. As an example, some endurance-running events allow the use of professional runners called pacesetters to help competitors perform their best. Men are not permitted to act as pacesetters in many women’s events because of the belief that they will make the women “artificially faster,” as though women were not actually doing the running themselves.
Here the authors are wading into quicksand. In fact, the entire quote is offensive to reason, for it implies that, if women were treated the same as men in sports, they would do as well. Given the differences between the sexes in morphology and physiology, such a claim flies in the face of everything we know. The “pacesetters” argument is purely hypothetical, and I’m betting that women who had pacesetter men (note: not pacesetter women), would not turn women into winners. But of course it’s worth a try if O&L are right.
5.) O&L claim that both sex and gender are a spectrum, and sex is not binary. Here’s their quote (emphasis is mine):
For the purpose of describing anatomical and physiological evidence, most of the literature uses “female” and “male,” so we use those words here when discussing the results of such studies. For ethnographic and archaeological evidence, we are attempting to reconstruct social roles, for which the terms “woman” and “man” are usually used. Unfortunately, both these word sets assume a binary, which does not exist biologically, psychologically or socially. Sex and gender both exist as a spectrum, but when citing the work of others, it is difficult to add that nuance.
No, Scientific American: I know your editor thinks that biological sex is a spectrum, but she’s wrong and so are you. The “sex is a spectrum” mantra is another ideological tactic mistakenly used to buttress trans people or people of non-standard genders. But Mother Nature doesn’t care about ideology, and, as Luana Maroja and I showed in our paper on “The Ideological Subversion of Biology” (see point #1, about sex), sex is binary in all animals. In humans, for example, the frequency of exceptions to the binary is only 0.018%, or 1 person in 5600. That is about the same probability of flipping a nickel and having it land on its edge, but we don’t say “heads, tail, or edge?” when calling a coin toss. For all practical purposes, sex is binary, and if you want to argue about it, don’t do so here. And, as Luana and I emphasized, whether or not sex is binary has no bearing on the treatment (or nearly all rights) of trans and non-standard-gender folks.
6.) Whether or how often women hunted is irrelevant to our views of men and women. Really, why does ideology push Scientific American, and in this case O&L, to distort the facts and to leave out contrary data, when the rights of women don’t depend in the least on whether they hunted or on their relative athletic performance? Women’s rights rest on morality, not on observations of nature. Yes, there are some trivial exceptions, like those of us who don’t think that transwomen should be allowed to compete athletically against biological women, but there are many feminists who agree with that. The real feminist program of equal rights and opportunities for women has nothing to do with whether they hunted as much as men in ancient (or in modern) hunter-gatherer societies.
In the end, we have still more evidence that Scientific American is no longer circling the drain, but is now in the drain, headed for, well, the sewers. It used to have scientists writing about their field, with no ideological bias, but now has ideologues (these authors happen to be scientist-ideologues) writing about science in a biased and misleading way.
Apparently this trend will continue, and apparently the publishers won’t do anything about it. So it goes. But those of you who want your science untainted by “progressive” ideology had best look elsewhere.