4 Eliza Burt Gamble’s Refutations to Darwinian Theory of Evolution and the Societal Norm of Male Superiority

Jackie DeQuattro

Introduction

This primary source is an excerpt from a book titled The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man published by Eliza Burt Gamble in 1894.[1] This book was revolutionary for its time because of Gamble’s feminist refutations to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Gamble, although making clear her appreciation for Darwin’s exceptional mental breadth, clarifies in her book that his scientific theory is not completely objective. She believed that Darwin’s conclusions were a product of the societal norms in the Victorian era and that in his attempt to prove the superiority of men, he ignored certain facts he himself discovered. Therefore, her book is both a critique of Darwinian theory and an academic and scientific justification for the superiority of women.

Eliza Burt Gamble grew up in Concord, Michigan with her mother and her older sister.[2] Being raised by a widowed mother, some believe, is partly the reason Gamble grew to be the strong, empowered feminist she was. Moreover, after Gamble’s mother passed away in her later teenage years, Eliza was left to provide for herself, and through that she found a career in education, more specifically serving as the superintendent of East Saginaw school district. The self-reliance and independence that Gamble gained through her childhood also bolstered her feminist ideologies, some of which included believing firmly in human rights and individual liberties, making her a natural supporter of women’s suffrage. She became involved in the movement in the late 1860s and helped organize in 1876 the first suffrage conference in Michigan.[3] However, even through her work with the women’s suffrage movement, Gamble believed that the movement addressed only the surface issues of sexual equality[4].

In the year 1882, Gamble was convinced she could prove her long-held hypothesis that “the female organization [was] in no wise inferior to that of the male.”[5] and address society’s preconceived notions about sexual inequality. To do this, Gamble set out to Washington D.C. where she studied the collections at the Library of Congress[6], and after years of tirelessly researching and writing, Gamble published The Evolution of Woman.

In her book, Gamble’s main argument revolves around Darwin’s ideologies from his novel published in 1871, The Descent of Man. In his work, he claimed that the inferiority of the female sex became apparent at the age of reproduction when secondary sexual characteristics were observable.[7] The Descent of Man discusses that the secondary sexual characteristics of men enabled and aided their pursuit of women, making them the superior species, however, Gamble counters this point by stating that the female’s exercise of discerning taste and choice in sexual selection makes them in fact superior: “if it is through [the female’s] will, or through some agency or tendency latent in her constitution that Sexual Selection comes into play, then she is the primary cause of the very characters through which man’s superiority over woman has been gained.” [8] Gamble considered this evidence not only of female superiority, but also the higher mental capacity and intelligence of women because it is through a woman’s “power of choice” [9] they have been “the directing and controlling agency in the development of [man] through which, the human species was reached.” [10] Gamble argues that the determining capability of the female marked complexity through which the species was founded upon, establishing their characteristics as more developed and therefore more remarkable than the characteristics of man.

According to Gamble’s novel, the high specialization of women and their complexity is marked by the constancy of their sexual characteristics, whereas the variability of the male’s sexual characteristics showed low organization and an inability to perform legitimate functions. Gamble argued this concept by explaining that in environments lacking resources like food, light, and moisture, males were the predominant sex born, but in communities wealthy in resources, the female sex was more commonly produced, supplementing the evidence for women having organizational superiority. Gamble also mentioned that “statistics prove that in towns and in well-to-do families there is a preponderance of girls, while in the country, and among the poor, more boys are born,” [11] leading her to assert that the female “represents a higher development than the male.” [12]

Another argument that Gamble uses to reinforce her claim of female superiority is that some of the preconceived strengths that men have over women prove to be “useless, if not an actual hindrance to [them].” [13] She asserts that even though man’s greater size was necessary through natural selection, their larger size and weight has now caused their power of endurance to fall below the power of women. Gamble discusses how this supposed attribute of superiority in men actually acts as an impediment and example of structural superiority in women.

As evident from her multifaceted argument, Eliza Gamble’s The Evolution of Women was both well-constructed and complex, working as an ingenious plea for the supremacy of the female sex. The heart of Gamble’s argument illustrated the feminist ideologies that she grew up being inspired by. Gamble provided scientific and evidence-based arguments refuting the Darwinian theory that had asserted the inferiority of the female sex was natural within society.

The Evolution of Woman

Eliza Gamble

Sexual Selection, we are told, resembles artificial selection, save that the female takes the place of the human breeder. In other words, she represents the intelligent factor or cause in the operations involved. If this be true, if it is through her will, or through some agency or tendency latent in her constitution that Sexual Selection comes into play, then she is the primary cause of the very characters through which man’s superiority over woman has been gained. As a stream may not rise higher than its source, or as the creature may not surpass its creator in excellence, it is difficult to understand the processes by which man, through Sexual Selection, has become superior to woman.

“He who admits the principle of sexual selection will be led to the remarkable conclusion that the nervous system not only regulates most of the existing functions of the body but has indirectly influenced the progressive development of various bodily structures and certain mental qualities. Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colors and ornamental appendages have all been indirectly gained by the one sex or the other, through the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealousy, and the appreciation of the beautiful in sound, colour or form; and these powers of the mind manifestly depend on the development of the brain.”[14]

While the female has been performing the higher functions in the processes of reproduction, through her force of will, or through her power of choice, she has also been the directing and controlling agency in the development of those characters in the male through which, when the human species was reached, he was enabled to attain a limited degree of progress.

Since the origin of secondary sexual characters is so clearly manifest, perhaps it will be well for us at this point to examine also their actual significance, that we may be enabled to note the foundation upon which the dogma of male superiority rests.

Although the gay coloring of male birds and fishes has usually been regarded as an indication of their superiority over their somber-colored mates, later investigations are proving that these pigments represent simply unspecialized material, and an effort of the system to cast out the waste products which have accumulated as a result of excessive ardor in courtship. The same is true of combs, wattles, and other skin excrescences; they show a feverish condition of the skin in the over-excited males, whose temperature is usually much higher than is that of females. We are assured that the skin eruptions of male fishes at the spawning season “seem more pathological than decorative.” [15]In the processes of reproduction, the undeveloped atoms given off from each varying part are reproduced only in the male line.

The beautiful coloring of male birds and fishes, and the various appendages acquired by males throughout the various orders below man, and which, so far as they themselves are concerned, serve no other useful purpose than to aid them in securing the favors of the females, have by the latter been turned to account in the processes of reproduction. The female made the male beautiful that she might endure his caresses.

From the facts elaborated by our guides in this matter, it would seem that the female is the primary unit of creation, and that the male functions are simply supplemental or complementary. Parthenogenesis among many of the lower forms of life would seem to favor this view. We are given to understand that under conditions favoring catabolism, the males among rotifera wear themselves out, under which conditions the females become katabolic enough to do without them.

“Among the common rotifera, the males are almost always very different from the females, and much smaller. Sometimes they seem to have dwindled out of existence altogether, for only the females are known. In other cases, though present, they entirely fail to accomplish their proper function of fertilization, and, as parthenogenesis obtains, are not only minute, but useless.”[16]

So long as food is plentiful, the females continue to raise parthenogenetic offspring, but with the advent of hard times, when food is scarce or of a poor quality, the parthenogenetic series is interrupted by the appearance of males. Although, unaided by the male, the female of certain species is able to reproduce, he has never been able to propagate without her co-operation.

Concerning the conditions which underlie the production of females and males we have the following from The Evolution of Sex by Geddes and Thomson:

“Such conditions as deficient or abnormal food, high temperature, deficient light, moisture, and the like, are obviously such as would tend to induce a preponderance of waste over repair, —a katabolic habit of body,—and these conditions tend to result in the production of males. Similarly, the opposed set of factors, such as abundant and rich nutrition, abundant light and moisture, favor constructive process, i.e., make for an anabolic habit, and these conditions result in the production of females.”[17]

Among the lower orders of animal life—notably insects, we are assured that an excess of females denotes an excess of formative force, and that an excess of males indicates a deficiency on the part of the parents. In the case of bees, the queen, which is the highest development, is produced only under the highest circumstances of nutrition, while the birth of the drone, which is the lowest result of propagation, is preceded by extremely low conditions.

The working bee which, being an imperfect female, may not be impregnated, will, however, give birth to parthenogenetic offspring, such offspring always being male. In the case of aphides, the sex depends on the conditions of nutrition. During the summer months while food is plentiful and nutritious, females are parthenogenetically produced, but with the return of autumn and the attendant scarcity of food, together with the low temperature, only males are brought forth. It is observed that in seasons in which food is abundant, cladocera and aphides lose the power to copulate; they nevertheless multiply parthenogenetically at a marvelous rate of increase, “giving birth to generation after generation of parthenogenetic females, so long as the environment remains favorable, but giving birth, as soon as the conditions of life become less favorable, to males and to females which require fertilization.”[18] We are assured also that if caterpillars are shut up and starved before entering the chrysalis stage, the butterflies which make their appearance are males, while the highly nourished caterpillars are sure to come out females. In the case of moths innutritions food produces only males.

Experiments show that when tadpoles are left to themselves the average number of females is about fifty-seven in the hundred, but that under favorable conditions the percentage of females is greatly increased. The following is the result of one series of observations by Yung. In the first brood, by feeding one set with beef, the percentage of females was raised from fifty-four to seventy-eight; in the second, with fish, the percentage rose from sixty-one to eighty-one, while in the third set, when the nutritious flesh of frogs was supplied, only eight males were produced to ninety-two females.[19]

It is stated that although scarcity of food is an important factor in determining the appearance of males, temperature also plays an important part in their production. Kurg having found a few males in mid-summer in pools which were nearly dried up, was induced to attempt their artificial production. We are told that he was so successful that “he obtained the males of forty species, in all of which the males had previously been unknown.” He proved that “any unfavorable change in the water causes the production of males, which appear as it dries up, as its chemical constitution changes, when it acquires an unfavorable temperature, or, in general, when there is a decrease in prosperity.” From which observations, and many others quoted from During, Professor Brooks concludes that “among animals and plants, as well as in mankind, a favorable environment causes an excess of female births, and an unfavorable environment an excess of male births.”[20] According to Rolph, also, the percentage of females increases with the increase of favorable conditions of temperature and food.

Among insects, the males appear first, thus showing that less time is required to develop them from the larval state. Of this Mr. Darwin says: “Throughout the great class of insects the males almost always are the first to emerge from the pupal state, so that they generally abound for a time before any females can be seen.”[21]

Recent observations show that among the human species nutrition plays a significant part in determining sex. Statistics prove that in towns and in well-to-do families there is a preponderance of girls, while in the country, and among the poor, more boys are born; also, that immediately following epidemics, wars, and famines, there is an excess of male births. On examination, it was found that in Saxony “the ratio of boy-births rose and fell with the price of food, and that the variation was most marked in the country.”[22]

That the female represents a higher development than the male is proved throughout all the various departments of nature. Among plants, staminate flowers open before pistillate, and are much more abundant, and less differentiated from the leaves, showing that they are less developed, and that slighter effort, a less expenditure of force, is necessary to form the male than the female. A male flower represents an intermediate stage between a leaf and a perfect, or we might say, a female flower, and the germ which produces the male would, in a higher stage, produce the female. In reference to the subject of the relative positions of the female and male flowers in the Sedges, Mr. Meehan observes:

“In some cases the spike of the male flowers terminates the scape; in others the male flowers occupy the lower place; in others, again they have various places on the same spike. It will be generally noted that this is associated together with lines of nutrition, —those evidently favored by comparative abundance sustaining the female flowers.”[23]

To this Mr. Meehan adds: “And this is indeed a natural consequence, for, as vitality exists so much longer in the female than the male flowers, which generally die when the pollen has matured, it is essential that they should have every advantage in this respect.”

The most perfect and vigorous specimens of cuniferous trees are of the female kind. We are told that in its highest and most luxurious stage the larch bears only female blossoms, but that so soon as its vigor is lost male flowers appear, after which death soon ensues.

In the Evolution of Sex, by Geddes and Thomson, is the following:

“In phraseology, which will presently become more intelligible and concrete, the males live at a loss, are more katabolic, —disruptive changes tending to preponderate in the sum of changes in their living matter or protoplasm. The females, on the other hand, live at a profit, are more anabolic, —constructive processes predominating in their life, whence indeed the capacity of bearing offspring.”[24]

Among the lower orders of animals, there appears an excess of males, and among the higher forms of life, man included, the fact that the male is the result of the cruder, less developed germ, has been clearly shown, not alone by the facts brought forward by Mr. Darwin, but by those enunciated by all reliable writers on this subject. As a result of the excessive eagerness in males, and the consequent expenditure of vital force among the lower orders of life to find the female and secure her favors, they are generally smaller in, size, with a higher body temperature and shorter life. Among the higher orders, the human species for instance, although man is larger than woman, he is still shorter lived, has less endurance, is more predisposed to organic diseases, and is more given to reversion to former types, facts which show that his greater size is not the result of higher development. We are assured that the liability to assume characters proper to lower orders belongs in a marked degree to males of all the higher species—man included.

Doubtless man’s greater size (a modification which has been acquired through Sexual Selection) has been of considerable value to him in the struggle for existence to which he has been subjected, but the indications are already strong that after a certain stage of progress has been reached, even this modification of structure will prove useless, if not an actual hindrance to him. On mechanical principles, every increase of size requires more than a corresponding increase of strength and endurance to balance the activities and carry on the vital processes, yet such have been the conditions of man’s development, that his excess of strength does not compensate for his greater size and weight, while his powers of endurance fall below those of women.

We are informed by Mr. Darwin that by a vast number of measurements taken of various parts of the human body in different races, during his Novara Expedition, it was found that the men in almost every case presented a greater range of variations than women, and, as Mr. Wood has carefully attended to the variations of the muscles of man, Mr. Darwin quotes from him that “the greatest number of abnormalities in each subject is found in males.” He adduces also the testimony of several others who have practically investigated this subject, all of whom agree in their statements that variations in the muscles are more frequent in males than in females. These variations usually consist in a reversion to lower types—a reversion in which muscles proper to lower forms of life make their appearance.


Jackie DeQuattro, a freshman at Wake Forest University, is involved in Student Government and the environmental group EcoDeacs. She is interested in the subordination of women throughout history as well as examining arguments for and against this seemingly natural hierarchy of sexuality.


  1. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50
  2. Michigan State University. “Women in Science | Biographies | Eliza Burt Gamble.” Women in Science. Accessed December 2, 2019. http://womeninscience.history.msu.edu/Biography/C-4A-2/eliza-burt-gamble/.
  3. Michigan State University. “Women in Science | Biographies | Eliza Burt Gamble.” Women in Science. Accessed December 2, 2019. http://womeninscience.history.msu.edu/Biography/C-4A-2/eliza-burt-gamble/.
  4. J. David Hoeveler, The Evolutionists (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007)
  5. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  6. Mary Cohart, Unsung Champions of Women (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975)
  7. Michigan State University. “Women in Science | Biographies | Eliza Burt Gamble.” Women in Science. Accessed December 2, 2019. http://womeninscience.history.msu.edu/Biography/C-4A-2/eliza-burt-gamble/.
  8. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  9. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  10. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  11. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  12. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  13. Gamble, Eliza Burt. The Evolution of Woman; an Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894. http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/BmBh50.
  14. The Descent of Man, pg. 617
  15. Geddes and Thomson, The Evolution of Sex, p. 24
  16. The Evolution of Sex, p. 20
  17. The Evolution of Sex, p. 50
  18. Prof, W. K. Brooks, Pop. Science Monthly, vol, xxvi., p. 327
  19. Geddes and Thomson, The Evolution of Sex, p. 42
  20. Popular Science Monthly, vol. xxvi., p. 328
  21. The Descent of Man, p. 212
  22. W. K. Brooks, Popular Science Monthly, vol. xxvi., p. 326
  23. Native Flowers and Ferns, vol. i., p. 39
  24. Native Flowers and Ferns, vol. i., p. 26