Charles and the Women: Darwinian psychology meets the female body

Paul Griffiths, The University of Sydney

Natalie Angier Woman: An Intimate Geography, Melbourne, Scribe, 2009 (464 pp). ISBN 9-781-92137-241-4 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Hannah Holmes The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself, Melbourne, Scribe, 2009 (368 pp). ISBN 9-781-92137-252-0 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

In 1908 Oxford psychologist William McDougall explained that the new social psychology was superior to earlier efforts, because it was ‘a comparative and evolutionary psychology … and this could not be created before the work of Darwin’ (1908, p. 5). The conviction that the long struggle of psychology to attain scientific maturity is over now that the discipline has finally embraced Darwinian principles has recurred several times since that first, confident dawn.

Women have often been in the front line of the struggle between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. William James, another of the great Edwardian theorists of human instinct, inspired one, fierce chapter of Natalie Angier’s excellent Woman when he wrote,

Hoggamus, higgamus
Men are polygamous
Higgamus, hoggamus
Women monogamous

‘Hoggamus and hogwash’, replies Angier.

Angier is a deservedly famous American science journalist, best known for her articles in the New York Times. This Australian edition of Woman: An Intimate Geography is the second of her books issued by Scribe, a small Melbourne publisher with a strong non-fiction list. The actual biology is surprisingly up-to-date given that the book was first published a decade ago. Biology moves fast these days, but surprisingly few of the developments of the past decade make a difference to the story Angier sets out to tell. This is the story of women’s bodies and their evolution from a frankly gynophilic perspective. Angier is completely upfront with her agenda, and is always clear how far her scepticism or enthusiasm represents the scientific consensus. When a claim is backed by solid evidence, she gives a good sense of that evidence. When it is speculative, she says so, and often provides the theoretical or historical context that explains why this speculation attracts serious scientific attention. When she simply exults in some aspect of female biology, putting as positive a spin on it as the facts will allow, she tells you that this is what you are about to get.

Angier’s writing is also funny, often archly funny, and richly allusive. Dr Johnson and Emily Bronte rub shoulders with Darwin and Mendel. In the later chapters some of her devices—especially the informal ejaculations passing as sentences—become a little wearing, but, hey, she’s tired by then—who wouldn’t be!

Angier is completely upfront with her agenda.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of the book is on reproductive biology. Angier begins with the egg, and particularly the process by which the complement of potential eggs fixed in every woman early in her embryonic development are matured and released during her ovarian cycles. Her account of the hormonal interplay between the uterus and the brain is enough to revive the great 17th century anatomist William Harvey’s claim that the uterus is a second seat of intelligence. Angier’s discussion of the symbolic significance of the egg in various human cultures, however, suggests that she is not aware that before the 17th century, no-one supposed that human fetuses actually derive from eggs, however often they may have use the egg as a symbol of birth. It was Harvey, Royal Physician to King Charles the First, who turned the traditional picture of the bird’s egg as an external womb inside-out to create the modern view of mammalian womb as a ‘nest’ for a mammalian egg. His contemporaries were amazed at this revolution in science: And for belief, bid it no longer beg/That Castor once and Pollux were an egg/ That both the Hen and Housewife are so matched/ That her son born, is only her son hatched!’ (Gasking 1967, p. 16).

There are few more vexed topics in biology than the evolution of female orgasm. A significant number of women do not experience orgasm, others do so only occasionally, and the best ways to achieve orgasm are often not the best ways to achieve fertilisation. This suggests that female orgasm is not a critical part of the mechanism of sexual reproduction. The ‘byproduct’ theory, proposed by the evolutionary anthropologist Donald Symons (1979), suggests that women have a clitoris for the same reason men have nipples. Male and female bodies are built using the same basic plan, and each retains rudimentary versions of some parts that are only needed in the other model.

But the same facts about female orgasm are also used to support the hypothesis that female orgasm is a vestigial trait, a hangover from an earlier stage of evolution. The fact that enraged people bare their teeth, said Darwin ‘can hardly be understood, except on the belief that man once existed in a much lower and animal-like condition’ (1872, p. 12). In the same way, the vestigial theory suggests that our female ancestors once used orgasm as female bonobos (‘pygmy chimps’) do today— an everyday, friendly interaction with males and females alike. One implication of this hypothesis is that, as time goes by, fewer and fewer women will retain the ancestral capacity to have multiple orgasms in an afternoon.

There are few more vexed topics in biology than the evolution of female orgasm.

But it is the unfortunately named ‘upsuck’ hypothesis which attracts most attention from Angier: orgasm increases the chance of becoming pregnant by drawing sperm deeper into the reproductive tract. This is part of a broader theory of human reproductive biology which postulates that ancestral women had multiple sexual partners. The sperm of those partners competed to fertilise the egg, and females discriminated in favour of sperm from their preferred partner. On this view, the unreliability of female orgasm shows that women are choosy about who impregnates them. The upsuck hypothesis suggests that female orgasm is an important survival tool, and that women—and women’s pleasure—play an active role in determining the reproductive success of males. In this sense it is the ‘woman friendly’ hypothesis, and Angier treats it as such, exulting in the subversion of traditional ideas about sexual competition.

It is unfortunate that Angier’s book was written before the publication of Elizabeth Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution (2006). According to Lloyd, a distinguished professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Indiana, the by-product hypothesis has not been given a fair go. The current balance of evidence, she suggests, makes the by-product hypothesis at least as probable as the upsuck hypothesis. However, evolutionary psychologists seem to have a bias in favour of direct adaptive explanations like upsuck, and against the idea of evolutionary by-products. The British Darwinist Helena Cronin has dismissed by-product explanations as the ‘scrapheap of chance’ (1991, p. 87), an attitude which is hard to understand given how often Darwin himself used such explanations, and their importance in conventional evolutionary explanations of the structure of everything from the skeleton to the genome. Complementing this hostility from evolutionary psychologists, feminist theorists have treated the by-product hypothesis as a dangerous one which devalues female orgasm and supports a dismissive attitude to women’s sexual pleasure. Both groups were vocal in their response to Lloyd’s book.

Angier is predictably enthusiastic about the work of evolutionary psychologist Marjorie Profet, who has argued that distinctive female traits such as pregnancy sickness and menstruation are brilliantly engineered evolutionary adaptations. In the early 1990s Profet proposed the ‘promiscuous primate theory’, according to which menstruation serves to defend women against sperm-borne pathogens. All placental mammals have an endometrial cycle, but some shed up to one third of the endometrium as menstrual fluid, rather than reabsorbing it all. Profet suggested that primates who have many sexual partners in a single cycle would menstruate, whereas those not in need of the menstrual defence would reabsorb this nutrient-rich tissue. So women menstruate because, however they behave now, their ancestors had multiple partners in a single cycle.

Traditional views of menstruation treat it as disease rather than design.

This hypothesis attracted considerable acclaim when it was first put forward, but it did not fare well on closer examination. It now seems that whether a primate menstruates reflects physiological constraints on reabsorbing the endometrium—a side-effect explanation. Menstruation in primates is confined to one group of related species which includes humans and which shares a particular kind of vascular structure in the endometrium. Within this group, if the ratio of female body weight to the birth weight of their offspring is such that the endometrium is too large to reabsorb, then we observe menstruation.

Although the promiscuous primate hypothesis has been refuted, Angier praises Profet for having stimulated research on the functions of menstruation. The topic was neglected, she suggests, because traditional views of menstruation treat it, like many other distinctive aspects of women’s bodies, as disease rather than design. This may be so, but I’m not convinced that we should view the episode only in this positive light. Much of the data that refuted Profet’s hypothesis was already available in the published literature. The existing evidence suggested that the number of pathogens in the uterus is not affected by menstruation. A statistical analysis of the evolutionary association between menstruation and number of sexual partners per cycle across all primate species for which data exist was conducted by Beverly Strassmann (1996). Using data in the published literature, she found no association between the evolution of one trait and the evolution of the other. In this respect the promiscuous primate theory resembles some of the androcentric evolutionary hypotheses criticised by Angier in the last chapters of her book—it received more credit than a similarly weak hypothesis would receive if it did not support an extra-scientific agenda.

The Well-Dressed Ape by Hannah Holmes seems pedestrian when placed next to Woman. Holmes tells us that she decided to write her book on finding that there is no equivalent for humans of a field guide or a species-monograph—a simple description of what is known about the biology of this species. This glaringly ignores Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967) from which Holmes’ title is surely derived. In his day Morris was amongst the best-known authors (and broadcasters) on human evolution. The Naked Ape is not in Holmes’ bibliography and Morris is mentioned only once, for his much-criticised hypothesis that the distinctive fat deposits around the female human breast evolved to provide a substitute visual stimulus for the buttocks when humans adopted face-to-face copulation. However weak that hypothesis may be, Holmes’ alternative suggestion that male interest in women’s breasts is ‘a cultural phenomenon’ is hardly an alternative. Indeed, four pages later Holmes herself seems to endorse the idea that the enlarged female breast is the result of sexual selection. For an introduction to the real complexity of these issues, read Angier.

The Well-Dressed Ape concludes with an assessment of the ecosystem impacts of the human animal—are we destroying our own habitat? In this respect it falls in with a long tradition in popular biology. In the 1960s, faced with the cold war and the potential for nuclear destruction, Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression (1966) was the best-known of several books which argued that evolutionary perspectives on human aggression could help stave off this existential threat. In the 1980s sociobiology and the selfish gene were seen by many advocates of the new right as giving nature’s seal of approval to deregulation and enhanced competition. So it is only to be expected that today’s popular writers will relate human biology to the current ecological crisis. Whether understanding our evolved natures will help to stave off climate change remains to be seen.


Cronin, H. 1991, The Ant and the Peacock, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Darwin, C. 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man & Animals (1st ed.), Philosophical Library, New York.

Gasking, E.B. 1967, Investigations into Generation, 16511828, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore.

Lloyd, E.A. 2006, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Lorenz, K.Z. 1966, On Aggression, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York.

McDougall, W. 1908, Introduction to Social Psychology, Methuen, London.

Morris, D. 1967, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, Cape, London.

Strassman, B.I. 1996, The evolution of endometrial cycles and menstruation, Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 71, no. 2, pp. 181–220.

Symons, D. 1979, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Oxford University Press, New York.

Paul Griffiths is a philosopher of science focusing on the biological sciences. He is University Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Sydney and an annual Visiting Professor at the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society at the University of Exeter. He is also Deputy Director of the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science and a member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee of NHMRC.