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Science & Technology

Published on July 17th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © Joe Mabel


The Ascent of Man, the Descent of Man

Can science explain gender roles? 125,000-80, 000 years ago Homo-sapiens left Africa and landed in Arabia (Southern Yemen). The ‘Great Migration’ is credited as being the defining moment in which humans would go on the ‘conquer’ the world. Early, Homo-sapiens were small creatures who, during their time in Arabia, physically evolved. Archaeological evidence suggests that Homo-sapiens (Humans) mated with Neanderthals. Remains found in Jebel Qafzeh near the modern-day city of Haifa shows that mating possibly began there. From the human genome project we know that all people with blue eyes descend from one woman who lived in southern Turkey 12,000 years ago.  Human evolution is still occurring. People today are on average taller than they were a few generations ago.

The Dutch are today the world’s tallest people and yet in the 19th century they were the world’s shortest people. Their height evolution was brought-about by changes in nutrition, diet, industrialisation, rapid urbanisation and accessibility to health care and education. Long periods of peace have contributed to increasing in height of Dutch people and the same effects can be seen in developing countries that start to follow this trend. Other changes include tooth size. People born today have smaller teeth on average than they had in the 19th century. It is believed that changes in diet and use of cutlery have led to this evolutionary change. Embedded in our DNA are certain instincts: things our ancestors learned but we were born with. Our evolution is ongoing, and yet old social constructs such as the role of men and women have only changed silently. Why?

Are our concepts of masculine power and feminine subjugation an unnecessary modern social construct or an evolutionary necessity? Why is it that men hold most of the leadership roles, most of the world’s wealth and its education? Could we evolve out of specific gender roles? Science itself seems largely inconclusive over the issue of gender. Research suggests that children learn about gender and identity by the age of three. However, their concepts of gender are still fluid until they reach the age of seven- when it becomes more rigid. In the past, the appearance of genitalia is how society determined what someone’s sex was. Today, it is determined by someone’s chromosomes. 1 in 100 people are born with mixed gender chromosomes and genitalia, which means their gender cannot be determined.

Gender, when applied outside linguistics, is a new term. It was first coined by Sexologist John Money, who sought to create a distinction from biological sex and to create masculine and feminine as social roles. It was later popularised by Feminist theorists in the 1970’s. Many feminists welcomed the classification of feminine and masculine as social rather than biological determined roles. If something is social then it is a construction based in cultural prejudices. Different societies deal with this concept differently and have different ideas of what is masculine. Crucially however, a social construct can be deconstructed and changed (which is harder to do with biological determinism), fundamentally masculine and feminine are about power relations and not biology.

But the historic question is when did gender move from biology and into a social construct which was about power relations? Is it a post-industrial phenomenon? Or did it begin in the hunter gatherer societies? The answer you give, will not be purely factual. If you argue that gender relations, as they are today, sprang out of the hunter-gatherer societies due to mens’ perceived bodily strength, then it is only natural that men ‘rule’ society? If you argue that the gender-relations are a result of the post-industrial age, are you suggesting that in the medieval period masculine and feminine were equal to one another? The real point of this article is that science has a narrative, history has a narrative and you have a narrative. Your answer reflects your narrative, which is based on ideological and sociological prejudices. Science is often a tool of one’s own narrative.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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