How does biology affect gender inequality?

A key concept within liberal feminism is rationality. To deny that the genders share a similar rationality could undermine liberal feminism. Sociobiology offers an argument that threatens to do just that. In this review I will critique the objections made by Groenhout regarding Sociobiology. Whilst I will discuss these in relation to Sociobiology, Groenhout’s objections are also made to Feminist gender essentialism. Whilst I agree broadly with Groenhout’s position, I think her critiques do not go far enough in defending Liberal feminism. I will briefly summarise Groenhout’s explanation of the Sociobiological position, and her objections to the position. I will then critique Groenhout’s first objection, specifically focusing on her charge that Sociobiology focuses too heavily on differences between sexes and neglects similarities. I will then critique her second objection, that determinism is overstated, similarly arguing it doesn’t go far enough and draw upon points she raised regarding education and socialisation altering one’s nature, suggesting an analysis of these processes may be more valuable than the evolution of humans in understanding where differences between the sexes stem from.

Groenhout attempts to defend liberal feminism from its critics. The Sociobiological position sees men and women as essentially different (Groenhout, 2002, 62). Differences between the sexes are driven by a long process of evolutionary change, which subsequently led to differences in behaviour and traits, leading to those more successful being passed on (Groenhout, 2002, 62). Cultural and social differences between the sexes therefore reflect biological differences (Groenhout, 2002, 62). This sees men take up dominate positions and be prone to violence, whereas women tend to take up a nurturing position and focus on their partners success more than their own (Groenhout, 2002, 63). The Sociobiological camp then splits into two: those who think that human nature is simply a culmination of one’s biological makeup, meaning there is no common rationality between sexes as it is no more than successful survival and reproductive strategies; and those who think it is just one aspect which in conjunction with other fields of study can offer insight into our nature (Groenhout, 2002, 64).

The first objection Groenhout (2002, 66) raises is that the Sociobiological approach overly focuses on differences and ignores the similarities between the sexes. For example, just because men are more aggressive than women does not mean women are not aggressive in themselves (Groenhout, 2002, 66). Aggression can manifest itself in different ways, and appear in different scenarios. Moreover, this suggests a massive generalisation of aggression as simply violence (Groenhout, 2002, 66-67). In actual fact it is only one form of aggression. An example of non-violent aggression could be a business’s approach to securing greater market share by undercutting competitors. The fact that women may not be as aggressive (or in the same way) is not to then say they are not aggressive at all (Groenhout, 2002, 67). The second objection Groenhout (2002, 68-9) raised is that Sociobiology is overly deterministic in nature. It is possible to recognise biological differences between the sexes without going on to say that they determine everything in one’s life. Whilst it may be true that we are never completely in control because of biological constraints that is not to say we cannot change the tendencies this leads to through socialisation and education. The jump from the idea that this gives us certain tendencies, to arguing that these biological facts are deterministic is not clear.

Groenhout’s first objection is not one I critique not because I object to her argument, but rather because I do not think her conclusion goes far enough. In objecting to the level of difference between the sexes Groenhout seems to settle on simply showing that they have overlooked the similarities. This is true. However, simply illustrating how similarities have been overlooked does not in itself offer a rejection of the notion that men and women have different rationalities, as raised by the Sociobiological position. If true, different rationalities could undermine the liberal argument. The example of aggression is a good way to illustrate this. Groenhout does use this to show how men and women are both aggressive, albeit in different ways and different degrees. I think we can take this a step further and argue that at its core men and women have the same rationality, but it manifests itself in different ways due to both biological and non-biological pressures. Sociobiology does seem to overstate the differences between the sexes, but what it overlooks, and what Groenhout doesn’t go as far to say, is at the core of these differences is a shared rationality. Take the example of reproductive strategies; whilst I do think the account Sociobiology makes is questionable, it does seem at least plausible to say that different reproductive strategies are effective for the different sexes (Groenhout, 2002, 62). However, at the core of these different strategies is a shared rationality: to reproduce. Whilst this rationality may manifest itself in different ways, certainly once you add societal pressures, it all comes from a shared rationality. If we take a hypothetical example of a mixed group of men and women who have no concept of society or institutions on their own in the wilderness, the rationality for all can broadly be labelled the same: to survive. This rationality may begin to manifest itself in different ways, but at its core is survival. What the Sociobiological position confuses, and Groenhout overlooks is that differences in behaviour and strategies are not differences in rationality, but different manifestations of the same rationality. Groenhout’s objection does undermine the argument from difference Sociobiology makes, but I do not feel that it goes far enough to completely undermine it nor strengthen the liberal account as much as it could.

Groenhout’s second objection, that determinism is overstated, I also think is guilty of the same mistake: it doesn’t go far enough. It illustrates the issue with the deterministic nature of Sociobiology very well. It seems evident that biology, or at the very least one’s own biology, is not the only thing which goes on to influence our lives. The way we develop through our adolescent years for example, whilst being a biological process is also cultural in nature. Whilst Groenhout’s point highlights the issue with jumping from biological tendencies to determinism due to biology, I do not think she has taken this objection as far as it can go. First, one’s own biological tendencies are not the only thing that can influence you. If a child’s, C, parent, P, has a variation of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) then it is plausible to imagine throughout C’s upbringing his parents’ obsessive cleaning tendency will lead C to normalising such behaviour. OCD can be hereditary in nature, but C has not inherited the trait and so does not have the same biological tendency. Yet, it seems plausible to suggest that because of P’s behaviour C could display and adopt similar behaviour. This kind of behavioural similarity between parent and child is also quite observable, for example in political views and voting patterns across generations within a family. Yet, if C does adopt said behaviour, it wouldn’t make sense to ascribe it to biology, nor does it make sense to argue you have biologically inherited your political beliefs. What it in fact shows is that the behaviour of others can have a significant influence on oneself. This is where Groenhout’s account finishes, where she highlights how we can change biological tendencies through education and socialisation. However, because of the role education and socialisation can play, why not posit that the evolution of such process has as much an impact on tendencies as biology? A more interesting objection to the Sociobiological position would be that they are trying to study the evolution of the wrong thing, and that their approach would be benefited by a similar method of inquiry with greater emphasis on non-biological processes. The role of education and socialisation within institutions such as the state and the family may then help illuminate the origins of different social roles and positions of the sexes, whilst also helping the liberal argument undermine the notion that men and women have different rationalities, as this could be something socially constructed within illiberal social institutions.

Whilst I agree with Groenhout’s objections to Sociobiology, both my critiques have shown that they have not gone far enough. Her first objection that there is too much focus on differences between the sexes and neglects similarities is true, but what my critique has shown is that this can be extended to refute claims that rationality between the sexes is different, furthering the liberal case. My second critique takes Groenhout’s objection, that biological tendencies do not lead to the jump that biology is deterministic, as true. However, Groenhout did not further her argument by expanding upon the role of education and socialisation as much as she could. Instead, these two processes can have an influence on tendencies as much as biology, so perhaps a study of the evolution of these processes in social and political institutions could tell us as much about our behaviour as biology. Thus, Groenhout presents a good argument against Sociobiology, but could take her points further to strengthen the liberal case.


Groenhout, R (2002). ‘Essentialist Challenges to Liberal Feminism’, Social Theory and Practice, 28 (1), pp. 51–75