Ottawa professor: Women evolved to talk smack about each other


The Real Housewives of Miami. (Photo by: Glenn Watson/Bravo)

A professor at the University of Ottawa is claiming that women are hard-wired for mean-girl behavior and that we use it as a tool when competing for mates.

Pardon me. I have to excuse myself so I can meander to the women’s restroom and say something catty about Tracy Vaillancourt and her apparent allergy to empirical evidence.

Vaillancourt, the lead author of the analysis, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B., reached this conclusion after reviewing nearly 100 evolutionary psychology papers, but she didn’t conduct any studies of her own to test her claims, first reported by ABC News.

This makes her conclusions irresponsible at best, as they feed into the worst sorts of stereotypes about women, and there’s not much to back them up. What’s left is one professor’s attempt to lend an air of credibility to the portrayals of women on shows like “Real Housewives” and “The Bachelor.”

Christopher Ryan, co-author of “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality,” said that Vaillancourt reached her conclusions while neglecting to factor in societal forces that could also be used to explain trash talking among women.

“This is not to say there isn’t ANY biological basis for some of these observations,” Ryan said in an email. “For example, women are apparently more verbal, and gossip does seem to be observed more in women across many societies than in men. But the passive-aggressive ‘catty’ behavior cited in the article presumes that this gossip is meant to destroy other women, which takes those observations to another level.”

What’s more, Vaillancourt conveniently ignores the results of a 2009 study conducted by Dr. Nicholas Emler, whose study of 300 people found that both men and women gossip. In fact, 80 percent of human communication is gossip, but only five percent comprises the sort of nastiness we tend to associate with socially sadistic high school girls. Furthermore, Emler told London’s Daily Mail that men were twice as likely as women to make petty remarks about a person’s looks.

These claims aren’t just irresponsible because they reinforce sexist and pernicious stereotypes about women. They also undermine the work of credible evolutionary psychologists. Feminists find ourselves clashing with evolutionary psychologists when their work  reinforces the same traditional gender roles that we’re working to dismantle. Just look at any Jezebel post written in response to a study like this. It’s dangerous to dismiss an entire scientific discipline, but it’s difficult not to when findings always seem to have one message: Ladies be crazy, because SCIENCE.

Even Ryan said Vaillancourt’s findings were “a rehashing of the conventional [evolutionary psychology] dogma which typically fails to distinguish between behaviors that are responsive to particular social contexts and biological imperatives.”

“I find that the reluctance of most evolutionary psychologists to address the political contexts in which human behavior takes place renders many of their insights meaningless and, ironically, deeply political,” Ryan said. “To show you what I mean, take the same argument Vaillancourt is making here and change a few details and you’ll arrive at the conclusion that black people are biologically programmed to be criminals. After all, a much higher proportion of blacks go to prison than whites, right? Must be in their DNA. By ignoring the messy historical, economic, and political contexts in which our behavior occurs, too many researchers merely end up providing pseudo-scientific justification for the status quo.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality.

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