From these basic concepts of the parental investment theory and sexual selection, evolutionary psychologists argue that gender identity and roles centre on mating strategies. For instance, they claim that man is naturally aggressive, sexually dominant and competitive to help them hunt and provide for the offspring, whereas women are monogamous, nurturing and protective which is useful for keeping the mate and raising offspring. These roles encourage behaviour and actions appropriate to each gender and thus reinforce human gender identities.
A study that supports the evolutionary theory of gender roles is Williams and Best (1990). They looked at attitudes to gender roles in different cultures and found universal agreement across cultures about which characteristics are typically masculine and feminine. Men were perceived as dominant and independent whereas women were considered caring and sociable. Williams and Best also found children in these cultures exhibited the same attitudes. They therefore concluded attitudes to gender roles are biological and thus universal. This supports the evolutionary theory as it is centred on the role of biology on gender roles as an adaptive response. William and Best’s findings show that men were perceived as dominant, whereas women were seen as caring, which supports the parental investment theory as part of the evolutionary explanation, therefore adding validity to the approach.
Barry (1957) conducted a supporting study with detailed research across many non-Westernised cultures, looking at which qualities were deemed important for males and females. Nurturing was seen as a dominantly feminine characteristic while self-reliance was seen in the same way for males. These findings are similar to Western perspectives of gender roles, suggesting universal generalisability. His study supports the evolutionary explanation of gender roles as females were seen as nurturing, which has an evolutionary advantage in helping to raise offspring, while self-reliance could relate to the independence of hunting and competition for resources. Also, non-westernised and westernised cultures both had the same perception of what masculine and feminine characteristics were, which in turn undermines the cultural approach to gender roles and adds validity to the evolutionary explanation.
Mead (1935) conducted a study on social groups in Papua New Guinea, providing evidence of cultural gender role differences and thus contradicting the evolutionary theory of gender. She found that one tribe was gentle, responsive and cooperative, regardless of their gender. In another tribe, men and women were violent and aggressive and valued power and social position highly. By contrast, a third tribe showed gender role differences, the women were dominant, impersonal and managerial whereas the men were emotionally dependent. Mead’s study challenges the theory of evolution affecting gender roles, instead supporting the idea that culture influences gender roles as it shows that gender roles clearly vary depending on the culture in which an individual lives, even within the same country (such as Papua New Guinea), as depending on the culture of the individual (in this case, the tribe) the gender roles differed greatly, therefore not having an evolutionary basis and challenging the role of evolution on gender.
The nature/nurture debate is an intrinsic aspect of Psychological theory. Nature refers to Gender being determined by innate factors, while nurture deems culture and social environment as responsible. The evolutionary perspective suggests that a persons gender is due more or less completely to the environment they grow up in, that is, nurture. Therefore, the evolutionary approach only supports the nurture side of the debate, which does not address the role of nature, such as genetic makeup and hormonal influence. This limits the theories influence – as it is important to recognise that most human behaviour is due to both a combination of nature and nurture.
The evolutionary perspective of how we obtain gender roles can be compared to the influence of culture on gender roles and behaviours, in order to determine whether gender develops through our cultural environment or whether it’s universal. The evolutionary theory argues that gendered behaviours developed because they were advantageous mutations to each sex and thus gender roles and divisions of labour are argued to be universal. Evolutionary research, such as Barry’s (1957) study, therefore presents an issue for the argument that gender is culturally relative. As much research has shown there is some universality to gender roles and behaviours throughout the world, this would suggest there is an evolutionary basis to gender, which cultural research fails to explain. However, evidence has shown that gender is culturally relative and thus behaviour, roles and division of labour varies widely between cultures. This can be seen in Mead’s research, which demonstrates the differences in how gender roles are divided cross culturally in Papua New Guinea communities. Overall, the debate into whether gender is universal, with roots in evolution, or culturally relative, is complex and the research is varied. The best approach would be to consider the complex phenomenon of gender as a combination of both evolutionary traits, which are shaped by cultural experience. In this way, an approach can account for all research and argument into the causes of gender around the world.