I just finished reading Rosemary Hopcroft’s interesting article, Gender Inequality in Interaction – an Evolutionary Account (Social forces 87:4, June 2009). If I understand the article correctly, it argues essentially that frequent female deference to men is (a) well demonstrated; (b) subconscious; and (c) the result of evolutionary pressures. There’s an interesting spin, which is that because these preferences or behaviors are subconscious, feminist approaches like consciousness raising might work to change them. But otherwise the article strikes me as open to several important alternative hypotheses.
The principal alternative hypothesis results from the time problematic. Like other studies based on evolutionary psychology, the article is premised on behaviors having emerged during the Evironment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), a period of historical development in which human genetic characteristics are said to have become relatively fixed. But there are important differences in gendered behavior, including sex deference, sexual preferences, and male “control” of female mates, across the historical time period that comes after the EEA. Thus the constant the article seeks to explain really isn’t a constant at all!
This is true synchronically as well as diacronically. The studies cited, as is common in psychology, are based overwhelmingly on US college students from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This may be less of a problem in standard psychological studies (though of even that I’m not convinced) but it’s a huge problem when what you want to demonstrate is that something is a human constant!
If, in fact, male sexual domination is essentially a variable instead of a constant, it follows that whether it is conscious or subconscious, it can’t be explained by a constant (fitness during the EEA).
It seems to me that the only way an article like this can be said to demonstrate its claim is if we take that claim to be a valid premise–that is, if we begin with the assumption that humans are essentially evolved actors, their behavior a more-or-less clear reflection of adaptation during the EEA, then we can arrive at that conclusion as well. But if we allow even the possibility that culture is an independent force of its own, distinct from the individual predispositions inherited from the EEA, I don’t see how we can arrive at the point of understanding evolution during the EEA as the essential cause of human behavioral patterns.