An evolutionary explanation for why women are wimps

My girlfriend was running the other day. And daydreaming. So she fell and scraped up her elbow and hands. She bragged to me that she didn’t cry, but, to a twenty-five year old male, that doesn’t strike me as too impressive. As I’ve heard over the past few days how painful her scrapes are, I’ve reflected on just why women seem to be such wimps about physical pain. Here’s my probably false, but fairly plausible evolutionary explanation.

There is a biological basis for women’s wimpery. The part of their brains that process emotions are more intimately connected to the parts of their brains that process physical pain. This keeps them from being able to psychologically “distance” themselves from their pain – from putting it out of their minds in the way men commonly do. The reason for this neurological fact about women provides them with an evolutionary advantage: empathy. One’s ability to empathize with the needs and feelings of others is often fostered by reflecting on one’s own feelings. The more pain you feel then, the more likely you are to reflect on it, and the more you reflect on it, the more you understand what it’s like when you see others in similar discomforts, and so the more likely you are to care when you see their pain. This might at first seem like an evolutionary disadvantage, but it’s not. While empathizing may lead you to put yourself in a hazardous situation – say, to help save the life of another – it is also quite helpful in the evolutionary game of pass-on-the-genes. Here’s why. Imagine a cro-magnon mother who has no empathy for others. She would certainly be self-sufficient, and wouldn’t find herself in those hazardous situations that empathy might lead into. But she won’t be very good at passing on her genes. This is because, in order for your genes to make their way successfully into future generations, you have to mate, and your children have to live. A lack of empathy would hinder both – especially the second. If you can’t empathize, you won’t be very caring, as I said. If you’re not very caring though, you’ll probably make a poor mother, especially if you live in a hostile environment where infant mortality is high. The unsympathetic cro-magnon mother has a much higher chance of losing her child to malnutrition, mishandling, or general neglect because she just doesn’t care enough. If her child dies, so do her genes. In this way, females with more empathic brain structures are selected for by evolution. Which leaves us, after thousands of generations, with the empathic brain structures that make girls such wimps.

But I’m sure that’s all bs.

  1. #1 by Jessica on 3.18.10 - 2.28 pm

    Just noting that that was the first time I’ve ever fallen while running… Just a btw note…

  2. #2 by Justin on 4.22.10 - 8.48 pm

    What evidence is there for the explanandum? In my experience, most women are not wimps and often have a higher pain threshold than men (menstrual pains and labor pains are obvious examples, but there are others). To the extent that women are or appear more wimpy than men, I would attribute much of that to socialization. For example, the beauty norms for western women (be slim, have unblemished skin) are not particularly conducive to strength nor to getting used to certain kinds of pain that may leave marks (like getting into fights, roughhousing). Also, everyone craves attention, and being a damsel in distress is a fairly reliable way of getting attention, so girls and women may fall into patterns of behavior when young that emphasize vulnerability.

  3. #3 by Theresa Nesbitt on 8.3.10 - 10.53 am

    It doesn’t make sense to fight or flee when you are carrying a baby (literally or figuratively). It makes more sense for women to have a network to rely on …. “tend and befriend”. These are generalizations of course… For example see Pablo Francisco – “Mexican Women… Hold my baby”

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