“Biology Is Not Destiny”: The Feminist Case Against Male Superiority


Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We are now entering the last phase of our dialogue on the subject of gender relationships in society, church and family. Only two presentations to go. In this our eleventh session, our representative of secular feminism Gloria will respond to Abraham’s presentation of neo-patriarchy. Please welcome Gloria to the podium.

Gloria: Thank you. There are so many things I’d like to address in Abraham’s talk, it’s mood of condescension, it’s male-normative perspective, and it’s exaggeration of female vulnerability. My suspicion is that Abraham’s rational and theological arguments are mere rationalizations of the prejudices I just mentioned. I will let the audience decide. Despite my suspicions, I will limit my assessment of Abraham’s talk to its philosophical aspects.

As I see it Abraham’s case rests on his rational analysis of the natural characteristics of women and men. Men are physically stronger and temperamentally more aggressive than women. Women become pregnant, carry babies and provide them with milk from their bodies. These factors make women vulnerable to male exploitation and dependent on male protection. According to Abraham, these facts of nature will necessarily manifest themselves at the social level and, consequently, they justify the social, ecclesial and familial inequalities present in traditional societies. To be fair, I should point out that Abraham admits that particular arrangements will differ from society to society and from age to age. Nevertheless, it is clear that Abraham denies that these natural inequalities will ever be neutralized completely at the social level. Nor should they be, in his view.

Far be it from me to deny the basic facts of biology. Nor do I deny that biological differences will manifest themselves in society. In a one-on-one, unarmed encounter, men have the advantage over women in a fight to the death. And in primitive, warrior societies where the survival of the tribe depends on its effectiveness in battle, I admit there are good reasons for the traditional division of labor between men and women. And I understand that the warrior class (males only) will also demand to be the tribal leaders. Nor do I dispute the overall reasonableness of this demand, since leadership in that setting is about conducting war or perpetually preparing for it.

Like his hero Aristotle, Abraham recognizes that women and men are equal in native intelligence. I think he would also admit that if human minds did not live in bodies or if they could be transferred to unisex humanoid robots, the differences would be overcome. So far so good, but our agreement ends here. From this point on Abraham’s argument goes terribly wrong. The facts do not warrant the conclusions he draws from them. Though he admits that modern technology has made the physical differences between men and women less significant in the sphere of work and war than in the past, he still seems to think that the superiority of the naked male body for war and work (hard physical labor) creates a moral imperative for society to mirror this relationship of superiority and inferiority in all dimensions. Perhaps his belief that God created nature lies behind his assertion that the order of nature possesses the force of law. Some such metaphysical belief must be at work here.

I begin at a different place and argue for a different result. I argue that equality of intelligence between men and women, which Abraham also accepts, creates a moral imperative for us to strive for equality in all other areas. Biology should not determine ethics. Or, as one of my feminist sisters said, “Biology is not destiny!” Unlike Abraham, I do not believe in divine creation. Evolution creates facts but imposes no moral obligations. Hence I do not believe that the factual biological order possesses any moral force. In sum, Abraham allows biological inequality to blunt the moral force of intellectual equality. I argue that it should be the other way around.

I envision a society where technology eventually makes all—or nearly all—work depend on knowledge rather than muscle, thought instead of testosterone, and where law roots out all irrational bias against female knowledge workers. As to areas of work where muscle still determines productivity, I believe society should not allow profit to be the sole determining factor for allocating social goods. The moral imperative of intellectual and moral equality should rule out of court any bias against women in hiring for such labor intensive jobs.

Concerning Abraham’s contention that women continue to need male protection, it should be pointed out that everyone, men as well as women, need police protection against violent criminals, male or female. Men murder other men more often than men murder women. Society as a collective is neither male nor female, and it is stronger than any one man or gang of men. Society has replaced big brothers and fathers as the protector of women. Modern family law has replaced the will of father as the law of the household and has outlawed domestic violence, marital rape and other abuses of women.

In response to Abraham’s theological arguments, I have little to add to my case against Sarah’s theological use of the Bible. In response to Sarah, I argued that the Bible cannot be made to support feminism; such support would be redundant in any case. Feminism doesn’t need any help from religion. Indeed Abraham represents the Bible more accurately than Sarah does. Sarah is grasping at straws. Abraham is correct to argue that the Bible supports patriarchy rather than equalitarianism. But I am not moved by either argument, for the Bible holds no authority for me. The arguments between Sarah and Abraham about biblical interpretation seem to me much ado about nothing.

Moderator: Thank you Gloria. I appreciate your contribution to this dialogue. It was invaluable.

Note: The twelfth and last part of this series will be posted on Tuesday, January 24. Sarah will present her response to Abraham.

10 thoughts on ““Biology Is Not Destiny”: The Feminist Case Against Male Superiority

  1. nokareon

    I think I roughly agree with Gloria’s critique of Abraham’s argument from biology. To paraphrase Gloria’s comment on evolution, biology provides an is, not any ought. Don’t mistake me for arguing against gender essentialism in a person’s identity–rather, my point is that sexual morphology doesn’t determine with any significant degree of specificity how societies ought to pattern gender relations. Though I share belief in creator God with Abraham, the ought that could be drawn from sexual morphology from the fact of creation lacks his desired specificity as well. Gender essentialism as formative for a person’s social identity is one ought I would draw in light of creation; perhaps an ought grounding heterosexual intercourse over and against homosexual intercourse can be furnished as well, as Alexander Pruss has aimed to do in One Body. But to manifest as specific oughts of social roles falls beyond the scope of morphology.


    1. Dan Spencer

      Nokareon: But if we’re subscribing to an underlying metaphysical framework (namely the Aristotelian one), then there’s no is/ought distinction to be had, right? The values are built into the facts from the start, i.e. given that a man is by nature X vis-a-vis a woman, fulfilling X is objectively good. For example, given that man by nature is an “eating being,” it’s objectively good for him to eat and objectively bad for him to deliberately starve himself. The “ought” follows from the “is”–not the particular, individual man, but the universal “man.”


      1. nokareon

        Hey Dan, hope all is well! I’m prepared to affirm Aristotelian-essential properties. To take my example of gender as being unification-essential to a person, the is of biological sex generates an ought or man-or-woman-ness. Thus, chromosomal variants like XYY and XXX would constitute a deprivation of this Aristotelian-essential. So too, for Alexander Pruss, the biological function of the reproductive sex act generates an ought that packages in the possibility of reproduction. Thus sexual acts that lack the possibility of reproduction would likewise constitute a deprivation. I’m not personally endorsing the latter, but using it as an example of another argument that would flow from an analysis of Aristotelian-essential properties of human persons.

        But what follows from the biological features that Abraham points to? Nothing as specific as he desires, I submit. That male and female humans are on equal intellectual footing would generate an ought for equal treatment in roles and activities in which the relevant criteria is the intellect. That males are generally physically stronger could motivate a greater proportion of males involved in roles and activities in which the relevant criteria is physical strength—and I think we clearly see that still today. Gloria and I agree that the organization of warfare- and agriculture- based society makes sense along these lines. The question, then, is “what is the relevant criteria for leadership roles and activities in our present society”? It seems far from clear that physical strength rather than intellect or other equally-footed traits would be the primary criteria here, in the church or otherwise. So too for aggressiveness.

        One could of course posit that God has built in particular leadership qualities into the biological “is” of male human beings. That could generate the kind of ought that Abraham seeks. But if such qualities are to be supported, Abraham will have to point to different biological traits than the ones he has so far—namely physical strength and aggressiveness.

        P.S. Incidentally, it is fully possible that Abraham’s account of women needing further physical protection than men—and from men—due to the physical strength disparity could be correct and still have no bearing on leadership roles in and out of the church. Political figureheads of countries have full security details for protection precisely *because* they are recognized as leaders. One could easily posit a hypothetical matriarchal society in which senior female members are viewed as sources of leadership and wisdom, to be protected and guarded by the most physically strong males available. So even the proposed ought of physical protection wouldn’t have any bearing on who is to assume leadership roles.

        In Him,


    1. Dan Spencer

      Hi Thomas–I figured it was you when you mentioned Pruss’s “One Body”–incidentally, I found out about (and consequently purchased) that book after you returned it to Payson one day when I was working (like 2 years ago)!

      It seems to me the crux of the debate here is the very question you pose: “What is the relevant criteria for leadership roles and activities in our present society?” Of course I agree that intellect, for instance, is a “great-making property” for a leader. As are, say, integrity, confidence, initiative, etc. These might well be some of the “other equally footed traits,” though it’s not unquestionable to me that they are all equally footed–it might well be the case that men are, say, more confident on the whole than women; I would have to defer to the psychologists on this one. In any event, the first thing to be said is: if it’s not clear that physical strength and aggressiveness alone provide convincing grounds for prescribing male leadership, neither is it clear that even-footing in the other categories provides adequate grounds for going the egalitarian route. That is, supposing we are unconvinced by Abe’s strength/aggressiveness argument, why jump to the egalitarian option? If the one overemphasizes physical strength and aggressiveness, perhaps the other downplays their importance.

      I wouldn’t go this route, though–I think it concedes too much. Gloria agrees that the male leadership model makes sense for war/agriculture-based societies, but not for ours today. To the list I would add hunting-gathering, nomadic, and all “pre-human” societies generally. Once we do this, we have new datum: for the past five million years, humanity has been evolving with one system of leadership, viz. men at the helm. The leadership qualities we readily see from this might only be “physical strength” and “aggressiveness”; but if I understand evolutionary psychology correctly, there are literally millions of years of evolutionary precedent for male leadership which will manifest not just physically, but psychologically, behaviorally, relationally. For me, then, the trouble with saying “our society doesn’t fit into this scheme, so let’s jettison it completely” is the tacit admission that our society is one worth having! Gloria says, “change the model of leadership, not the society.” Dan (and I think Aristotle) says just the opposite.

      To make Gloria’s argument, it seems we need to endorse some kind of Platonic/Cartesian dualism whereby the mind or soul is what “really” counts (I don’t know where you fall there), or opt for a thoroughgoing nominalism. To sum up in a sentence: I think our evolutionary history has so programmed us that physical strength/aggressiveness are merely the tip of the iceberg; underneath is a host of other factors which (probably) affect the human psyche more than anything else.

      Sorry for that long (and maybe incoherent) response. Also, I’m with Pruss on contraception 🙂

      Hope you’re well!


  2. nokareon

    Thanks for the reply, Dan! To be clear, I wouldn’t point to sexual morphology to make an egalitarian case either—not because I don’t think it supports egalitarianism, but because it would be a category mistake to do so. Keep in mind that the present aim has simply been to diffuse Abraham’s claims for Neo-Patriarchalism derived from sexual morphology. Abraham has been the only one basing their position on biology in this debate—Gloria and Sarah took other routes to establish their case. Similarly, I don’t have much interest in natural law accounts beyond the question of ethical epistemology (in which case I think it, like Kant’s categorical imperative, can be helpful tools to identify ethical oughts which are ontologically grounded in the divine character/commands).

    I’m careful not to buy into teleological narratives of telling the history of society (i.e. “As society has evolved, we have drawn ever closer to the goal of equality”). But I’m equally careful not to fall into the opposite pitfall—the building up of past commonalities as an authoritative tradition that serves as a conservative (not politically) moderating force. Incidentally, this is probably my biggest point of disagreement with our Catholic friends and family. Evolutionary justification is a slippery slope; certainly, the non-human world is replete with examples of males forcing or coercing sex on females—elephants, tuna, lions gorillas, and beyond, often keeping a harem too. So the fruits of evolution in the grand scheme would seem to conform to male power, and have been accordingly used by the Alpha Male movements to endorse their lifestyle.

    But, that’s precisely where I would not recommend conforming to this sort of “evolutionary tradition.” The identification of distinctions becomes necessary rather than simply drawing patterns and similarities. As Stephen Mithen has argued in “The Singing Neanderthals,” as early hominids evolved and specialized for intellectual capacity over bodily strength, the window of sexual dimorphism narrowed from males having twice the body mass of females to Homo sapiens males having closer to 50% more body mass, and these species’ social interactions became accordingly more egalitarian than, say, those of gorilla society (there’s a hint of apparent teleology there, but I only mean to indicate a tendency, not a goal). I think that account serves as a parable of my overarching point in this exchange so far—the data of biology can be read in a plurality of ways, providing continuity as well as distinction. Biology may be science, but its necessary interpretation transmutes into rhetoric, as it has for Abraham. Once again, we see that biology is not destiny.


    1. Dan Spencer


      You say you’re wary of “building up of past commonalities as an authoritative tradition that serves as a conservative moderating force.” The human male has almost without exception been the leader, but this has resulted in all sorts of immoral behavior on the part of men; consequently, we shouldn’t appeal to the “past commonalities” in this regard. But isn’t to deny male leadership its normative force here implicitly to abandon essentialism altogether? Couldn’t we say the same for the eye or ear: “In the past the nature of the eye has been to see and the ear to hear, but oftentimes people’s “eye causes them to sin” and people often eavesdrop because of the ears, so perhaps we should find another use for them.”?

      All that to say, that certain manifestations of an essential property are not ideal does not show that there isn’t a proper manifestation, much less that there isn’t an essence in the first place. And if we then bring in the intellect, it seems we can pretty easily determine which historical manifestations were bad and which good–which did in fact end up being “contrary to the good of the woman.” Similarly, we can use the intellect to find which “patriarchal” arrangements would actually conduce to the good of the woman. The real point of contention does seem to be “does biology determine destiny?” In virtually all other cases, the answer seems to be “yes.” So why not in this case? Why should we let this be the exception rather than seek to find its proper manifestation (cf. Gal 5:22-33)?

      Lastly, I don’t think that Mithen’s account shows we can read the data of biology in a plurality of ways–on the contrary there is only one way we can read the data: there is less sexual dimorphism in neanderthals/humans than in their predecessors, but it is still there. It is what’s “still there” that determines one’s destiny: it’s not quite “here is what biology says, therefore that is what you are and must be”; rather it’s “the sort of thing you are is determined by the essence you possess; the essence is found by abstracting the essential features of a thing, which is aided by insights from biology.”



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