Anthropology, Department of


Date of this Version

May 1997


Published in The Evolving Female: A Life-History Perspective, edited by Mary Ellen Morbeck, Alison Galloway, and Adrienne L. Zihlman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Used by permission.


In this chapter I have two objectives. One is to detail the consequences of changes in social structure for gender roles and to show how economic change affects the lives of males and females. The second objective is to explain how my perspective on the relationship between behavior and social structure has changed over time. More particularly, I have been influenced by ideas in evolutionary biology. Although I still see human beings as embedded in a cultural context, I also see that other insights come by viewing humans as another mammalian and primate species. These ideas will be elaborated more fully in a later section of the paper.

The sociobiological perspective provides another piece of the puzzle about sex, gender asymmetry, and culture. The substantial gender equality that is seen among the foraging !Kung must be related to the ecologically imposed low ceiling on male-male competition. In the hunting-and-gathering setting, the best a given man can do, reproductively speaking, is the best a woman can do. Not surprisingly, monogamy is the prevailing marriage form; polygyny is allowed but rarely practiced. Because of the "simple" technology, the requirements of mobility, the inability to store surpluses, and the unpredictable nature of both vegetable and animal resources, men and women must work equally hard to maintain themselves and their dependents (Lee 1968). Ecological uncertainty makes sharing, especially the sharing of animal protein, a necessity, and a consequence of the sharing is minimized male-male competition.

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