Although a number of feminist scholars have scrutinized evolutionary psychology (EP) in order to show its gendered assumptions, very few feminist scholars have interrogated the assumptions that the field makes about disability. Nor have disability theorists paid adequate critical attention to EP, despite the fact that the field and the theories that it promotes are central to dominant contemporary conceptions of disability. In this essay, I point out the ways in which feminist criticisms of EP fail to address its implications for our understandings of disability. I argue, furthermore, that insofar as feminist criticisms of EP fail to integrate a critical approach to disability, they do so at their own expense—perhaps even undermining their own theoretical and political goals. Both feminist philosophy and philosophy of disability have much to gain from co-developing a feminist philosophy of disability that takes account of evolutionary approaches. Given the prevalence—both within and outside of the academy—of evolutionary justifications for oppression and discrimination, the need for an integrative model which would succeed where other critiques of evolutionary psychology have failed is vital.


What is disability? How do we think about this question? How should we answer it? Who should decide? Why do we ask? These questions are fundamental to disability studies and, in recent years, they have been of growing interest to feminist scholars who work in academic disciplines other than disability studies. A central goal of this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly is to examine ways in which feminist scholars "produce and reproduce [the] marginalization and exclusion [of disabled women] through a variety of mechanisms" and, by doing so, "to elevate and advance the current status of feminist philosophy of disability/feminist disability theory in feminist and non-feminist discourses" (Tremain 2012). There is still much work to be done.

The field of evolutionary psychology (hereafter referred to as EP), although relatively new to the popular and intellectual landscapes, has been powerful in its impact and has had far-reaching effects. Although EP has been widely critiqued, these critiques have not themselves had much effect. The two main sources of criticism of EP are: first, internal debates between (non-feminist) advocates of EP over the minutiae of the theory itself, and second, external (feminist) debates over EP's assumptions regarding sexuality, human reproduction, and human nature. Both the internal and external debates include challenges to the very evidence that EP cites for its positions.

Although EP and related neuro-scientific frameworks are frequently applied to disabilities in ways that undermine the rights of persons labeled disabled and reinforce medicalized notions of disability, I have found few criticisms (either internal or external) of EP's characterizations of disability from a feminist perspective, nor from a disability studies perspective, nor, for that matter, from any other perspective (some exceptions are Amundson 2005, 1-5, 2000; Tremain 2006, 43-44). One of the only places in which I did find some internal discussion of the fact that EP portrays disabilities as inherently harmful—a debate regarding the concept of a "mental disorder"—did not involve consideration of whether disabilities are organic in nature (a medical model of disability) or, rather, are a socially constituted and constructed relation between people and the environments that they inhabit (a social-political model of disability). Instead, the question at issue in this discussion of mental disorder was whether all such "biological dysfunctions" are equally harmful. In certain respects, the internal debate underpinning this discussion models some of the debates in which disability scholars regularly engage about whether impairment should be given greater significance than disability or vice versa; nevertheless, familiarity with such terminology and the distinction that it involves is nowhere to be found in this debate.

There are a number of reasons why it is problematic for feminist philosophers and disability studies scholars to (continue to) ignore the implications of EP for those living with disability. In this context, I shall mention only some of them. First, the medical model of disability employed in EP places the blame for disability discrimination and disadvantage on disabled people themselves insofar as it represents disability as a property of individuals and their bodies. For EP, any person who is regarded as undesirable and/or unable to engage in biological reproduction is an anomaly and an outlier to the process of natural selection. In other words, disabled persons in general, whom many people perceive as undesirable, asexual, or non-sexual, as well as disabled and nondisabled women, in particular, who may not be able to get pregnant, are relegated to the realm of biological and evolutionary misfits. In such a cultural and intellectual climate, discrimination against disabled people and resistance to accommodations for those living with disability can be understood as, taken for granted as, and justified as adaptive behaviors encoded in our DNA. Since discrimination against women has historically been justified through appeal to biological difference, one would expect feminist critics of EP to recognize and address the similar treatment that people with disabilities receive within an EP framework; to date, however, this kind of feminist critique of EP—that is, feminist critique of the naturalization of disability discrimination within the EP framework—has rarely been done.

Indeed, the lack of feminist attention to the way that EP naturalizes the inequalities that disabled people confront is especially problematic given feminism's explicit commitment to uncovering systems of oppression. Feminists have long argued that attending to marginalized groups must be a central goal of feminist scholarship and, in recent years, have increasingly called for analyses of gender that adopt an interdisciplinary and intersectional approach. I will use tools of feminist epistemology and disability studies in order to argue that although the failure of feminist philosophers and philosophers of disability to address the implications of EP for disability may not be a form of "willful ignorance" ("knowing that [one doesn't] know but not caring to know" [Nancy Tuana, in Hall 2012, 41]), as can be found in EP, it is nonetheless a pattern that produces "epistemic injustice," which Miranda Fricker (2006) defines as "an epistemic inequality that can bring real injury or the insult of hermeneutical marginalization" (108). I will argue, furthermore, that only a framework that combines the work of feminists and disability scholars—a feminist philosophy of disability framework—can effectively counter the widely accepted and increasingly influential claims that EP promotes about the origins and justifications for disadvantage and disability.

Finally, philosophers of disability and some feminist philosophers have joined together to express concern over the status that disabled persons hold in moral theory. As I discuss in greater detail below, philosophers and feminists with disabled children and parents, as well as a few philosophers who are themselves disabled, have recently come together to critique the conception of human nature employed in most moral theory. In the terms of most moral theories, the person with rights is assumed to be fully rational, able-bodied, able-minded, and psychologically an adult. Thus, persons who fail to meet all of these criteria are not accounted for in (most) moral theory and, according to some moral theorists, they should not be. For instance, for moral theorists such as Peter Singer, severely cognitively disabled persons do not deserve to be treated as fully human, that is, are not the type of beings to which rights should be distributed. When feminist philosophers and other philosophers come together to criticize this kind of thinking, it is reasonable to expect that they will expand the scope of their critique beyond moral theory to some of its justifications—such as the justifications that can be found in EP. I address these concerns in more detail in the third and fourth sections of this essay.

EP and Disability

EP is an approach to studying the mind that employs evolution and the concept of natural selection. It is an established school of thought in psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind and, with increasing force since the 1990s, has altered the way that American society views the relationship between biology (the brain) and behavior. David Buller's Adapting Minds (2005a) provides a clear introduction to EP and its origins in evolutionary theory. Although his book is a criticism of various aspects of EP and, therefore, a potentially controversial source for understanding the theory, responses to Buller are generally directed at his critique of EP, not at his account of EP's central tenets. The one exception to the claim that Buller's book articulates the fundamentals of EP zeros in on his account of modularity. According to Edouard Machery and H. Clark Barrett (2006) in "Debunking Adapting Minds," Buller conflates two separate versions of modularity—massive modularity and Fodorian modularity—that are in fact quite different. Nevertheless, given the near universal acceptance among advocates of EP of Buller's claims about the grounding assumptions and origins of the EP approach, I shall rely on his work to offer some brief introductory remarks about EP.

Central to EP are a number of highly-contested premises, including the following three: (1) The mind is composed of proximate mechanisms, in the form of modules, which "regulate and control [an] animal's behavior." The modules are properly understood as adaptations developed through natural selection; (2) The process of natural selection takes tens of thousands of years, at least, and, therefore, the adaptations we see in today's minds are adaptive to "the set of environmental conditions encountered by early human populations during the Pleistocene." In other words, due to the time delay between adaptation and adaptiveness, the proximate mechanisms of the mind generate behaviors that may or may not be adaptive to contemporary life, but would have been adaptive between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago (Buller 2005a, 51, 59-61; Wheeler and Atkinson 2001); and, perhaps the most controversial claim of all, at least for feminists, is (3) If modules are adaptations developed by a species in response to a singular environment, then the modules are the same for everyone (which is not to say that the resulting behaviors are identical). There is, for EP (and its proponents), a common human nature, one that best suits the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers. To be sure, there is some debate regarding the subsequent evolution of such modules, since the Pleistocene; however, little is said in these interventions that challenges the notion of a universal human mind. As I indicated above, that these are central tenets of EP is not what critics of Buller contest; rather, what gets debated is his account of the evidence for them, his failure to attend to variations in modularity, and the exact speed of natural selection, as he describes it.

In the field of EP, there is a great deal of debate about premise (1); that is, the nature, genesis, and function of modules are the source of much internal EP debate. An entire discourse has built up around "modularity of mind," focused on identifying the core characteristics of modules. There is also debate about whether the mind is, in fact, modular (see Currie and Sterelny 2000; Carruthers 2003; Buller 2005b; Frankenhuis and Ploeger 2007; Schulz 2008; Samuels, Stich and Tremoulet 2012). Premises (2) and (3) are the source of much external criticism, especially feminist criticism, as is EP's account of, and reliance on, reproductive success as a causal mechanism of adaptation. These criticisms are described in the next section. In reading EP and EP-sympathetic literature, a feminist philosopher of disability is quick to notice the complete lack of interest in, lack of attention to, and, it seems, lack of awareness of feminist, critical race, and disability scholarship regarding past, present, and future harms that have resulted from biological accounts of human consciousness and behavior. The mind of concern to evolutionary theorists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers of mind is sexless, genderless, raceless, and disability-less. In other words, a middle-class, educated, heterosexual, able-bodied, able-minded, white man's mind is (once again) assumed to be representative of all humanity.

For the purposes of this essay, it is important to note the nature and variety of applications of EP to disability. In EP and EP-sympathetic literature, disabilities are often used to "reverse engineer" the mind; that is, changes in consciousness and cognitive ability, due to traumatic and acquired brain injuries, are studied for the sole and explicit purpose of generating an account of "normal" consciousness and cognitive ability. Such reverse engineering is a common practice in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, often at the expense of, and with no regard for, the disabled people who are discussed (O'Donovan 2010a, 178). The same is true of most EP scholarship. For instance, mental and learning "disorders" are treated, uncritically, as organic in nature (the medical model of disability), providing both proof of EP's tenets (such as modularity) and justification for the development of cures and treatments. Although the intentions of the latter group of EP advocates and sympathizers are no doubt benevolent, their failure to recognize and integrate a disability studies perspective into their analyses produces epistemic harm and justification of harmful practices. For example, in his review of the anthology Pathological Beliefs, Damaged Minds, Anthony Atkinson (2001) praises the "pluralist" approach of many of the authors included in the book, whose contributions to it he believes promote "the view that a full understanding of those disorders requires input from research at multiple levels of enquiry." He notes, furthermore, that in the book there is "also the suggestion that elements of theories from other paradigms should be included, even those sometimes seen as being in opposition to cognitive neuropsychology" (226). I want to point out, however, that the "pluralist" approach advocated in the book (which Atkinson lauds) does not integrate feminist science studies, nor does it incorporate disability studies, nor does it even refer to work done on disability in other disciplines under the rubric of paradigms that differ from the paradigm that EP itself assumes. Instead, the sentence quoted above, that sounds so promising, ends with a resounding thud of disappointment: "e.g., psychodynamic theories." Although the addition of psychodynamic theories to a philosophy of mind text provides a degree of theoretical pluralism, psychodynamic approaches to the mind are arguably prone to the same sexist and exclusionary practices found in traditional theories of mind and human nature (Green, 2004). This is not exactly the pluralism feminist disability scholars have in mind.

A second cluster of writing that employs EP to understand disability takes up the topic of depression. In this cluster, we find articles such as "On the Evolution of Depression" (Martin 2002), "The Psychology and Physiology of Depression" (Glannon 2002), and (yet another teaser) "Good Evolutionary Reasons: Darwinian Psychiatry and Women's Depression" (Greenspan 2001). In the latter article, Patricia Greenspan begins her argument with a critique of evolutionary approaches to gender variations in mental disorders, such as depression, arguing that explanations according to which the greater incidence of depression in women is an adaptation are problematic: "as applied particularly to gender issues this normative language can seem to justify status quo expectations that arguably ought to be corrected, such as patterns of male dominance" (327). Greenspan describes her essay as motivated by moral concerns, rather than concern with the practice of psychology, yet nowhere does she address feminist ethics, feminist examinations of women's depression, or disability studies approaches to mental disorders. Instead, Greenspan claims that a revised version of EP is needed, a version that recognizes depression in women as potentially adaptive to contemporary environments; thus, women's depression, in the terms of the new EP explanation of it that Greenspan recommends, would (arguably) not be a biological defect, though it would nonetheless remain a disorder (336).

A third representative cluster of articles that apply EP frameworks to disabilities produces the same sense of promises unmet. In discussions of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) one finds an EP approach both challenged and reinforced. Tim Thornton (2006, 22) argues that MCI might not be pathological after all, but rather "merely a normal feature of aging that, although regrettable, lacks the connotations of illness." Janice Graham and Karen Ritchie (2006, 31) promise "to explore the possibility of a pluralistic model of cognitive impairment nosology where biological/pathologic processes respond and interrelate with a normal healthy state," a promise that, to a feminist philosophy of disability at least, seems to use the social model of disability in order to counter the medical model. This, however, is not the case. Instead, the authors' pluralistic model involves identifying multiple causes of MCI, none of which causes is attributed to outdated and troubling conceptions of disability themselves, and therefore none of which causes challenges the status of MCI as a pathology. As Graham and Ritchie put it, "MCI…is a heterogeneous condition with no certain biomarker or known etiology. …MCI still incorporates multiple patterns of pathologic, cognitive, behavioral, and functional criteria" (36).

More clusters of EP writing on disability could be addressed, including writing on the evolutionary origins of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities; however, my brief summary of the EP approach is not designed to catalog what EP scholars say about disability. Instead, the goal of my remarks above is to identify patterns of ignorance and omission of feminist and disability studies frameworks, critiques, and insights about the nature and concept of disability within EP discussions of it, exactly where one might expect to find them (not to mention where they would be quite useful). Such patterns indicate more than casual neglect or a simple lack of knowledge on the part of EP and EP sympathetic scholars, but rather are proof of willful ignorance. When debates over "the concept of a mental disorder" continue for more than a decade (Bolton 2000; Gaete 2008), the same decade in which the neurodiversity movement, with its first autistic Presidential appointee (Silberman 2012) came into its own, a decade during which students with disabilities entered institutions of higher education in ever increasing numbers, institutions in which these EP researchers teach and train graduate students, it is not acceptable (though not at all surprising) to see scholars debate the social and biological elements of a "disorder" without any reference to four decades of disability studies scholarship on the subject. There are few exceptions to this particular pattern of willful ignorance, with only minimal use of philosophy of disability and disability studies research made in the exceptions (Fabrega 2006; Savulescu 2009).

Feminist Criticisms of EP

There have been numerous criticisms made of EP from within feminist philosophy, feminist science studies, women's studies, and sex and sexuality scholarship. The introduction to an issue of the National Women's Studies Association Journal published in 2000 clearly states why:

In the face of a growing international dependence on scientific and technological research, feminists can ill afford to minimize the importance of evaluating the impact of sex difference research on the well-being of women. … To the extent that research about sex differences reinscribes and legitimates the subordination of women, it is deeply troubling. (Severin and Wyer, 2000, viii)

Concern with biological accounts of sex difference and evolutionary justifications for misogynist behavior is at the heart of much feminist critique of EP; concern for biological justifications of racism and ableism is not. Although a few feminists recognize in EP a familiar justificatory mechanism for the identification of racial natural kinds and, as a consequence, racism (Deutscher 2004; Menand 2005; Lee 2008), almost none (I could find only three articles) calls attention to the implications of EP for conceptions of disability and disabled persons. This neglect of disability in feminist critiques of EP is especially surprising given the increased awareness in recent years about disability as a topic of philosophical and feminist concern (O'Donovan 2010b). In short, despite the emergence of feminist disability studies, the implications of EP for disabled persons and conceptions of disability remain unnoticed and unchallenged in feminist critiques of the EP approach.

Indeed, as the entry for "Feminist Philosophy of Biology" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) demonstrates, when feminists discuss EP, their primary concerns are with the three central tenets identified above: (1) the modular nature of the mind; (2) the dependence of contemporary mental structures on Pleistocene environmental stresses; and (3) the claim that there is a universal human nature that consists in shared modules or proximate mechanisms for generating behavior, as well as with the nature of the evidence cited for such claims (Fehr 2011). 1 Beginning with the first claim, feminists argue that explanations of mental phenomena articulated by way of evolutionary modules deny and ignore the evidence that feminists and others have provided according to which much of mental life is socially constructed or at least co-constructed with the current environment. For example, EP argues for a theory of parental investment, the idea that closeness and concern for those we love is entirely based on the desire to reproduce ourselves: "there is…a calculus of genetic closeness…one shares more genes and is therefore closer to one's biological children… . Driven to maximize their own reproductive success, people wish to 'invest' only in their own genetic children" (McKinnon 2005, 107). Susan McKinnon is one of many feminists who challenge this reductionist account, an account that EP uses to explain, and uses as evidence for, a perceived greater incidence of child abuse among stepparents. McKinnon's challenge begins with the observation that there are a number of cultures and societies in which (unlike in the dominant culture of Anglo-American society) "mother," as a kinship term, is hard to define and is not limited to biological, birth mothers (109-113). Such critiques of parental investment theory are common among feminists who address EP (Gowaty 2003).

With respect to the second tenet of EP—namely, the Pleistocene is the environment of our evolutionary adaptation (EEA)—there are two challenges to be considered. First, if this is indeed the case, then EP must, necessarily, speculate about the environmental, biological, and social pressures to which our minds began to adapt. Such speculation, which is claimed to articulate evolutionary adaptations, reproduces patriarchal and heterosexist biases: rape is natural, male infidelity and attraction to young women is natural, women are naturally drawn to men with resources and are, therefore, naturally jealous and threatened by men's need to spread their seed, and so on (Oikkonen 2010, 592-593; Archer and Vaughan 2011; Severin and Wyer 2000; Denes 2011). Second, the evidence that EP proposes as proof of the conditions of the EEA in order to claim that the theory does not rely on mere speculation (or bias) comes from three sources: (1) inferences from "analysis of the current design of our mechanisms" (Buss 1998, 29, in Buller 2005a, 94); (2) conclusions made about "the lifestyles of extant hunter-gatherer populations" (Buller 2005a, 94); and (3) "comparative analysis, the study of species related to ours." (95).

Feminists find fault with all three sources of this evidence. Feminist evolutionists argue that evolution has not stopped and, therefore, even if comparative analyses were reliable, they would not provide an accurate account of the selection pressures to which our proximate mechanisms have been adapting (Liesen 2007). In addition, such analyses are not reliable since extant hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate high degrees of variability in both selection pressures and adaptive behaviors (ibid.). Although not a primary concern of feminist criticism of EP, other critics argue that comparisons of contemporary humans and contemporary primates are inadequate insofar as they obscure and ignore the separate evolutionary paths that the two species have travelled since the Pleistocene, as well as the alterations in ape behaviors due to confinement for the purposes of psychological and scientific testing, that is, the apes studied are not the apes located in a Pleistocene-like natural environment, untouched by civilization, and in fact no such environment exists anywhere at this time (Buller 2005a, 95-96; Kuzawa and Bragg 2012).

Both feminists and non-feminists have been quite critical of the third tenet of EP, that is, the claim that human nature is universal and defined by the nature of our adapted modules and resulting behavioral propensities. Non-feminist scientists argue against the modularity of the mind by calling attention to recent evidence of developmental plasticity which, presumably, generates mental and/or modular plasticity, rather than a fixed set of mental modules developed in response to the Pleistocene EEA (West-Eberhard 2003; Kuzawa and Bragg 2012). As Letitia Meynell explains, "[Narrow evolutionary psychology]'s approach to development is grounded on an a priori commitment…rather than our best empirical evidence from contemporary neuroscience and thus rules out by fiat contingency in the development of behavioral traits" (2012, 10). Contemporary neuroscientists who show new interest in conceiving neural development as plastic or malleable, rather than as fixed, have also provided reason to criticize this tenet of EP. Nevertheless, popular understanding of contemporary neuroscience remains preoccupied with fixed mental modules as the ultimate cause and explanation of human behavior (Quart 2012).

Feminists reject the current assumption of EP—according to which there is a universal human nature—for many of the same reasons that they have rejected the idea of a universal human nature: the idea of a universal human nature is a fiction that privileged groups generate in order to further justify and buttress that very privilege; the privileged group is never women, nor is it comprised of ethnic minorities, nor, I would add, does it include persons labeled as disabled. In a recent article—one of the few feminist articles which I have found that begins to address the impact of EP on disability theorizing and disabled persons—Kim Q. Hall (2012) acknowledges the significance of EP and "the biological turn in the humanities," for feminists and disability theorists alike. Hall uses the term "the biological turn" to describe the growing use of biological and evolutionary narratives in order to overthrow "old," traditional humanities accounts of the nature and origins of sexism, racism, and other harmful practices. Citing the work of Susan Oyama and Charles Mills, Hall argues that: "[T]he biological turn is characterized by an epistemology of ignorance that enables it to sustain naturalized understandings of behavior and bodily difference that inform the oppression of women, people of color, queers, and disabled people" (29, 32-33). In a discussion of the debate between neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and philosopher Paul Ricouer, furthermore, Hall notes (2012, 38) that Changeux and Ricouer are actively erasing the contribution of feminist philosophy to our understanding of the role that lived bodily experience plays in our development of consciousness. There is an additional implication of the "biological turn" that remains unacknowledged, but which informs the debate between Ricouer and Changeux: "namely, the role of disability in 'the science of the body' and the attribution of significance to bodily variation" (39).

Indeed, the fixed traits, selected for through evolution, that constitute the universal human nature found in EP are not, as it turns out, sexless after all. Instead, arguments have emerged about "female brains" and "male brains" that disparately developed in response to natural selection, arguments which comparative analysis with vervet monkeys allegedly confirms (Meynell 2012, 10-21). For a feminist scholar, such experiments and their results rely on "an unexamined heterosexist and patriarchal background assumption that inclines biological turn advocates to over-reach what the evidence in fact can say regarding human nature and gender difference" (Hall 2012, 35). This sort of feminist criticism ought to also apply to the characterizations of disability that can easily be found in EP; however, to my knowledge, such criticism has not yet been produced.

There are additional important critiques of EP's claim of a universal human nature, as there are of all aspects of EP. What matters for the present essay is not what those additional critiques are, but rather the fact that they, too, omit disability as an analytical framework and as a subject of feminist concern. Given that the goal of this issue of Disability Studies Quarterly is to "challenge the way in which heretofore feminist philosophy and theory have been conceptualized and (re) produced" (Tremain 2012), I shall now examine what is said and not said about disability in feminist responses to EP, as well as provide a framework for evaluating these omissions.

Tools for an Emerging Feminist Disability Critique of EP

As I have already mentioned, in my search of feminist, women's studies, and feminist philosophical databases, I found few feminist critiques of EP that begin to take disability into account. As I also mentioned above, the non-feminist philosophical, psychological, and cognitive science literature on EP does pay considerable attention to disability, though almost never in a critical manner. Instead, disabilities are proof of EP or puzzles for EP to solve. A disability studies framework is absent from that literature, which gives no indication that the authors of it are familiar with disability theory or the disability rights movement. Although this kind of failure to consider alternative narratives and critical frameworks (such as feminism and disability studies) is nothing new in mainstream academia, what needs to be explained is the ongoing ignorance of philosophy of disability and disability studies research on the part of feminists, ignorance that can almost be considered "willful." Since the 1980s, feminist disability studies researchers have been calling for a broader feminist recognition of, and collaboration with, disability studies frameworks (for instance, see Wendell 1989; Morris 1993; Garland-Thomson 2001). Although some feminist philosophers and other feminist scholars have responded to this call and a rich, interdisciplinary field of feminist disability studies is now emerging, there is a great deal more work to be done to bring to feminist consciousness the issues, perspectives, and critical insights of philosophers of disability and other disability scholars and activists.

Why should one expect to find inclusion of disability studies frameworks in feminist criticism of EP? There are a number of compelling reasons. First and foremost, feminism was founded on the recognition that persons with different life experiences (women and men) develop different knowledges and ways of knowing (Frye 1990). As feminist theory has developed, the insight has expanded to include attention to differences in class, sexuality, and race, in addition to attention to gender, in the generation of epistemological frameworks. Most notably for the critical analysis of EP, feminist science studies, in collaboration with feminist epistemology, has argued persuasively that marginalized groups—by virtue of their marginalization—have capacities to recognize and develop critical evaluations of dominant ways of knowing. The situatedness of knowledge enables, upon critical reflection, the development of alternative standpoints, standpoints arising out of marginalization that are central to the recognition and overcoming of oppressive practices (Harding 1991, 2003). Disabled persons constitute a marginalized social group and disability studies scholarship, which is grounded in the insights derived from the situated perspectives of disabled people, has the potential to provide an enriched feminist standpoint.

Second, recent work on cognitive disability and moral philosophy (that both philosophers of disability and feminist philosophers have produced) calls attention to the problematic nature and harmful implications of comparative species analysis such as the search for empirical evidence of Pleistocene EEA pressures, and modules which develop in response to them, that compares humans and non-human "human-like" species such as vervet moneys and great apes (in other words, precisely the type of analysis on which a central tenet of EP relies). In 2008, Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson organized a conference on cognitive disability whose primary aim was to critically examine the claims that Singer and other bioethicists have made according to which severely cognitively disabled humans are less human than cognitively advanced non-human animals. 2 Since much recent attention has been paid to both Singer's views on "specieism" and their implications for disabled persons (for instance, see Nussbaum 2006), it is not unreasonable to expect that feminist critics of EP would employ the work of feminist philosophers of disability and other disability theorists in their challenges to the evidence that is gleaned from comparative species analysis.

Third, given the harm done to women (including disabled women) who work within the sciences and the humanities, as well as the fact that the widespread adoption of evolutionary approaches to human nature and consciousness increasingly undermines work done in the disciplines that comprise the latter, it is reasonable to expect and indeed crucial that feminist critics of EP approach adopt a critical philosophy of disability/disability studies framework in their responses to EP. The critical philosophy of disability/disability studies framework brings with it invaluable tools for countering some of the essentialist and deterministic elements of EP, elements that are most responsible for the justification of oppressive treatment of women—including disabled women—in the academy. In "Walking a Tightrope: The Feminist Life of a Drosophila Biologist," Maria Wayne (2000) explains that in her field—"the evolutionary genetics in Drosophila (fruit flies)—male-centered gender norms are naturalized through interpretations of Drosophila behaviors and, in turn, reasserted as paradigmatic dichotomized sex differences that legitimate the major and minor insults of a chilly climate" (139).

Identifying gaps between what we expect scholars to know about disability, what they claim to know about disability, and what they demonstrate that they actually do know about disability is part of what is required to generate an epistemology of disability. In calling attention to such gaps in the case of evolutionary psychology debates, feminist philosophy of disability and feminist disability studies can produce alternate, oppression-countering and knowledge-generating frameworks for understanding the intersection of feminism and disability. It is for this reason that I want to point out that very little has been said in philosophy of disability and disability studies more broadly—within or outside of a feminist framework—about EP. Using the terms evolutionary, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and sociobiology, I conducted searches in EBSCO Open Access Journal, Academic Search Complete, ProQuest Education Journals, and Project Muse databases, as well as targeted searches of the premier disability studies journals—Disability Studies Quarterly and Disability and Society—in order to gather material that would enable me to develop a feminist philosophy of disability critique of EP; however, I found little written that would be of use to me. Though I did find a review essay on Stephen Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Mitchell 2003), a review essay on two recent disability studies anthologies (Gilman 2011), and an article on Universal Design (DePoy and Gilson 2010) that each address EP, and although many articles address eugenics (another evolutionary approach to understanding human variation), only one of the articles that I found referenced feminist disability theory. Although this article, Bill Rocque's "Science Fiction: Figuring Autism as Threat and Mystery in Medico-Therapeutic Literature" (2010), makes use of the work of feminist disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson in order to include disability studies criticism of medical approaches to human variation with insights from the neuro-diversity movement, the intersection of disability and gender is itself, unfortunately, not a topic that Rocque broaches.

While it is clear what feminist philosophy and theory have to gain from research in disability studies, it should also be clear that philosophy of disability and disability theory have much to gain from feminist philosophy and theory. In particular, feminist philosophy and theory can provide disability studies with tools to evaluate and uncover social injustice and ableist biases embedded in knowledge-claims and knowledge-generating processes. The study of the nature and generation of ignorance is a relatively new area of feminist philosophical investigation, with much of the credit for the attention now given to it due to critical race theorist Charles Mills. In The Racial Contract, Mills (1997) argues that the construction of whiteness inescapably contains and maintains ignorance of racism, making it almost impossible for whites to recognize the racism of their actions and beliefs. Promoting an ideology of "color-blindness" over and against explicit recognition and promotion of racial diversity education in white-dominated societies is one such example. While whites are able to identify as race-less in societies structured by white privilege, blacks and others identified as non-white are continually required to identify through race. In such a context, to promote racial colorblindness in the name of racial tolerance is in effect to demand of non-whites that they act or be white, and in doing so to deny the very racial identification through which white privilege is generated and maintained. In this way, ignorance of the racial and racist content of whiteness is central to practices that simultaneously promote white privilege and claim to fight against racial discrimination. Feminist epistemologists have applied Mills's account of "epistemologies of ignorance" quite fruitfully to their analyses of sexism and contemporary gender relations in much the same way, calling into question the purported gender neutrality of concepts such as mankind in male-dominated societies. I suggest that feminist philosophers of disability and disability studies scholars should follow suit by identifying epistemologies of ignorance, conceptual schemes, and ideological practices that are central to sexist and ableist practices, and knowledge-claims, both within and outside of the academy. Indeed, I maintain that doing so in response to the growing prevalence and acceptance of EP is crucially important.

Another related feminist tool worthy of adoption by feminist disability scholars is the classification of ignorance into multiple kinds. Robert Proctor (2008) argues, in the groundbreaking Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, that ignorance takes at least three forms and likely many more, only one of which includes the view of ignorance as accidental lack of knowledge: "Ignorance as native state (or resource), ignorance as lost realm (or selective choice), and ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy (or active construct)" (3). The anthology as a whole argues for the study of ignorance as a production and a strategy, much like Mills does implicitly in his identification of an epistemology of ignorance at the heart of whiteness and white supremacy. The Hall and Meynell articles discussed above identify a fourth category of ignorance: willful ignorance.  3 Willful ignorance is neither passive nor accidental, but rather, is central to the dismissal of feminist and (potential) disability critiques of EP. Willful ignorance "enables its practitioners to view their conclusions about identity, ethics, and embodiment as based on apolitical, objective, and unmediated empirical observation … [When in fact they know that] their claims are speculative" (Hall 2012, 41).

Feminist theory and practice with respect to ignorance provide support for, and answer challenges to, models of disability in disability studies. Adam Samaha (2007) argues that the social model of disability alone cannot support the policy implications that have followed from its adoption: "Despite the apparent connection between the social model and social change, there just is no necessary relationship there. … Deciding how to respond to 'disability' depends on a normative framework than cannot be supplied by the model" (1252-53). If Samaha is correct, then the normative frameworks that feminist epistemologists propose can be used to provide an account of and critical analytic tool with which to assess a causal connection between models of disability and disability policy. Dimitris Anastasiou and James Kauffman (2012) critique both the social model of disability and (its close relative) the minority model of disability. The authors argue that the minority group model obscures important differences between disabilities, serving to undermine calls to appreciate human diversity, while the social model of disability glosses over significant differences in individual experiences of disability, in effect further marginalizing those persons with disabilities who seek out rehabilitation and other therapeutic treatments. Feminist science studies and epistemologies (such as feminist standpoint theory) provide potentially corrective mechanisms to these sorts of universalizing (the minority group model) and marginalizing (the social model) tendencies. My hope is that were feminist disability scholars to employ both of these models of disability, in combination with analytical tools from feminist philosophy and theory, powerful new epistemologies of disability would emerge. The hope is for epistemologies that are more sensitive to and perhaps less vulnerable to the ignorance-generating nature of theorization, epistemologies that will provide effective and knowledge-generating frameworks with which to understand issues both within feminism and disability and at the intersection of feminism and disability.

One example of how a feminist disability studies critique of EP generates new, oppression-countering frameworks can be found in debates over the ethics of pre-natal diagnosis. From a philosophy of disability or disability studies standpoint, pre-natal diagnosis serves only to promote termination of pregnancies that result in children with disabilities (a form of genocide of disabled people). From a feminist standpoint, prenatal diagnosis enables the carers of children—predominantly women—to gain much needed power over their reproductive and parenting activities in a sociopolitical context that frequently denies women this kind of power. Joseph Stramondo (2011, 50) points out that with only the two standpoints to consider, feminist disability advocates find themselves in "an ideological double bind" regarding pre-natal diagnosis. Although Stramondo argues that a Deweyian pragmatism provides resolution to this paradoxical state of affairs, I would argue that a feminist philosophy of disability/disability studies critique of EP would be equally valuable in this regard, if not more valuable. The EP approach provides a seemingly scientific justification for the claim that disabilities can exist in a fetus insofar as EP defines disability as maladaptive behaviors attributable to biological dysfunctions found in the bodies of individuals. To think that pre-natal diagnosis can identify fetal disabilities assumes the EP definition of disability, as does thinking that sonograms definitely identify the sex of a fetus. Were the EP model challenged, the debate over pre-natal diagnosis would no longer configure women and disabled persons as (impossibly) opposed; instead, the shared concern of feminist disability scholars and other feminists scholars would be to mount challenges to the underlying assumptions with respect to the kind of facts and objects such diagnostic tests generate. Anne Waldschmidt's (2005) employment of a Foucauldian framework to challenge the terms of the debate over genetic diagnostics and counseling provides an excellent model for how new and valuable critiques could be generated (also see Tremain 2006).

Why This Matters

In sum, feminist criticisms of EP insofar as they fail to integrate a disability studies framework do so at their own expense—perhaps even undermining their own goals. Both feminist philosophy and theory and philosophy of disability and disability theory have much to gain from continuing to co-develop a feminist philosophy/theory of disability. Given the omnipresence of evolutionary justifications for oppression and discrimination, both within and outside of the academy, such an integrative model is urgently needed. Without careful attention, analyses, and critiques, the influence of EP on the humanities is likely to erase both the contributions of the humanities to our understanding of human experience and, potentially, the departments and faculties in which critical new frameworks for identifying the mechanisms of oppression and developing tools with which to overcome it. As Hall points out, "it is useful to think of the growing trend of the biological turn in the humanities in the context of what Martha Nussbaum has observed to be a global devaluing and defunding of the humanities" (2012, 30).

One need only think back to 2005, when the president of one of America's most prestigious universities justified the under-tenuring of women in the sciences at his school by citing "evidence" for innate sex differences that allegedly "proved" that women are simply less capable at science (Meynell 2012, 4). Now take a moment to appreciate that a large percentage of the women in question are or will be living with disabilities (Women with Disabilities n.d.). How much more challenging does such a woman's life and career become when EP twice banishes her to the realm of the invisible, incompetent, and maladapted human? If there is any doubt that this is a common perception of people with disabilities, and especially women with disabilities, or that disabilities are seen as organic in nature and a threat to society, one need only skim Google's news aggregator page. In no time at all, one will confront headlines such as "New Burden of Disease study shows world's people living longer but with more disability" (Brown 2012) and bear witness to the confirmation of each of these prejudices.

I would like to thank Shelley Tremain and the anonymous reviewers of this article for their helpful feedback. I would also like to thank the Council on Faculty Research & Development of Notre Dame of Maryland University for two short-term grants to work on this project.


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Maeve M. O'Donovan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame of Maryland University. She recently completed a three year term as Executive Secretary of the Eastern Society for Women in Philosophy, and currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women. Her research identifies and builds on the nexus of feminist philosophy, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of disability. She is the author of multiple articles on feminism and disability, and co-editor of Why Race and Gender Still Matter: An Intersectional Approach (Pickering and Chatto Publishers, 2014).


  1. The SEP entry, which describes feminist philosophy of biology as concerned with adaptation and natural selection among other things, contains no references to disability. See Fehr 2011.
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  2. Papers presented at the conference were first published in Metaphilosophy (2009) and subsequently published as an anthology under the title Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy (2010).
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  3. One might also read Sandra Harding's (2006) account of interested ignorance, as yet another (under-utilized) way of theorizing ignorance and its power.
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