No, Biology Doesn’t Make Me a Total Asshole.
Posted by Pedal Powered Anthropology
Recently, and to my delight, my facebook news feed has been peppered with articles merging two of my favorite topics–biological anthropology and feminism.
So in light of that, I’m gonna write my own!!! Yay!
Really though it’s partly a reaction to one specific article that’s been going around, and a couple others mixed in. And then a heapin’ helpin’ of my own perspective. Because I have a blog. That means I’m important. Everyone has their own points of view, so I’m going to try not to call out the primarily criticized article directly. There’s (presumably) science behind it that I’ve yet to be privy to…and honestly, this is the internet era. One can find enough support for whatever it is one wishes to put forth to write a book.
So whatever. This is my two cents. If you’ve read the article, you’ll probably know which it is/who the author is. That’s unimportant, because what I have to say stands alone. Or at least I’d like to think so.
There’s been some big deals going on about the need to put an end to patriarchy. I agree, and I hope the majority of “my” readers do, too. But some of these arguments make biological claims. Like “this is the case because biology.” Some of which don’t just make the argument for the end of patriarchy, but also argue that females are superior, rather than just equal.
Honestly I can agree that women (at large) are kind of ahead of the game in a lot of ways when compared to men (also at large). I’ll get to they whys of that in a bit.
But really I feel that the arguments I’m butting up against are lazy, dismissive, arrogant, irresponsible, regressive and potentially dangerous.
These are arguments purporting that women are more evolved–as in better capable–of dealing with the societal issues that have cropped up and which we face today.
That women are not bound by the same base impulses and violent tendencies that distract men to violence, and often sexual violence.
That women are inherently more logical and compassionate than men, and not constrained by bigotry; and, as a result, are more trustworthy.
They discuss our ancestral, hunter gatherer populations and the supposed struggle of women to find solid societal footing, despite small population size, because of patriarchal structures.
Being male is reduced to a “birth defect” or a “syndrome,” conferring some benefits to the species while being rife with setbacks to the individual, some of which are potentially fatal.
In this view, female-run societies would be more egalitarian, more compassionate, more logically founded and with wars being fought out of necessity, rather than conquest.
In some sense, every single statement made here may be correct. And honestly in some sense I agree that each may even be likely. But I find not a single one of them to be true for the reasons I just listed.
To describe maleness as a syndrome or birth defect. I mean. Yeah I guess it’s legit, in the view that all of evolution is sort of a biproduct of everything going on. Evolution has no goal. If you pass on your genes, you’ve won. If you carry some bad-news genes that don’t get expressed until after you’ve successfully reproduced, then those bad-news genes escape natural selection.
All of evolution is a cost-benefit problem, to some extent. Men exist because they confer a benefit to recombination of genes in reproduction that is better than in species that do not have sexes.
Here’s a super concise article that explains how the existence of males helps the resilience of a species to extinction:
Obviously this is a tiny drop in the bucket of the argument. But evolution works at the level of population. If the population benefits by mixing up the genes with males, and then life sucks for males with all sorts of health problems later in life…evolution just doesn’t really give a shit.
Men and women are the same species. There are some biological differences, yeah. But there is a great deal of overlap. We are considered moderately sexually dimorphic. Meaning women are a bit smaller than the men, with plenty of size overlap. Orangutans and angler fish are extremely sexually dimorphic.
To me most of the inherent differences going on are going to be tied to reproduction, then followed closely by societal structures and male/female roles within them–many of which can likely be seen in, or at least have some analog in nonhuman primates.
In the past, women were often considered the “sexual sex.” Yep. Pretty much until the beginning of the 19th century, women were the ones viewed as slaves to their sexual desires, with men trying to escape from their desires.
Here is a link expanding on it, I’ve read better but I’ll add those links/sources as I find them:
It’s brief, yeah. But it’s a decent background. I’ve also read in places that some exclusively-male intellectual societies were founded in part to keep away from the perpetual sexual needs of women. That’s a reference I need to find.
What I’m getting at is the history (as in pre-19th century) of sexuality shows women being at least as into sex as men are…with some cultural spikes of women totally wanting it more than men. Really I think that removing the cultural barriers instated by puritanical views would show a pretty balanced desire for sex. OR at the very least, culture can just as easily foster an enhanced female desire for sex.
I agree that women are more logical. But again, I refuse to believe that arbitrary societal constructs that have arisen in the last few hundred years have driven the evolution in one half of a globally reproducing species.
That view is by definition confined to Western societies. It’s a view that was kind of born out of 19th century patriarchal intellectualism that excluded women from education in favor of keeping them ripe for impregnation (I’m paraphrasing). Also…to some extent, since formal logic is a construction of western philosophical thought, it quickly becomes less, or completely, inapplicable when looking at perfectly successful non-western societies.
So, why then? Why would women be more logical than men, if not biologically driven?
The simple answer? Men aren’t challenged.
Boys are raised to be independent and assertive. To think linearly. They’re at point A. The goal is point B. They’re told they can do it, and encouraged to try. If they fail, they should “man up” and try again.
Historically girls, on the other hand, are raised to be more passive. They’re challenged to make sure they’re doing what’s expected of them, and kind of taught to take a supporting role in life, household and work place. Yes, that’s changed a bit, particularly moving into the second wave of feminism and into the third, in the U.S., but it’s still a norm, and absolutely what’s depicted in media…even when unintentional.
Here’s a fun link about unintended/subconscious portrayals that play on stereotypes in ways that just kinda need to stop:
So yeah. When women wind up independently successful, they speak for the TOTALITY of women whenever they open their mouths. really. In other words, women HAVE to be logical, or they risk setting back the lives of other women. I’m really not full of shit here.
Here’s another link that I bet a good amount of people won’t read…but that I think everybody should.
Also see my write up that spins off of this in unpacking my own privilege in relation to McIntosh’s article:
So what about violence?
Well. In non-human primates there is a pretty clear link between increased testosterone and increased aggression. But those same studies have been inconclusive in humans. It’s not so clear cut. Especially with humans…because…well…we’re human.
Here’s another link that expands upon the link, although briefly.
So then…why male violence?
Well. Enculturation, again.
When women are brought up to take a sidelining role in society, with males experiencing little adversity short of what their racial/socioeconomic privilege afford…the climate just sort of permits it. I’m not getting into the nitty gritty of it here. But you know it all. Men are portrayed as big and strong and awesome. Then they get fat and bald and weak and still do well. Women are portrayed as sexualized even when extremely talented in their field, with their value still being tied to their attractiveness. No links for that one because that’s not the immediate point of this discussion.
I’m making the argument that culture permits aggression in men. Where culture dissuades it, it is less prevalent. And when culture permits it in women, it is very much present.
Now, we don’t have any matriarchal societies. I’m not opposed to trying them. Because clearly patriarchy isn’t working so well. But when we lack a direct comparison, we have to look at analogies.
So. Here is a link discussing criminality and violence in female gangs.
In nonhuman primates, we see female dominance in lemurs, and bonobos are kinda weird and Frans de Waal has described them as female dominant, but I’ve also read them described as co-dominant. Either way they’re a departure from the strict male dominance of primate societies as a whole.
Neither of the groups are without violence, and interestingly female lemurs seem to have increased amounts of male hormones. This to me suggests an epigenetic effect between increased male hormones and dominance, as well as cultural permission of violence and increased hormones.
Here is a write up by Frans de Waal about bonobos:
And here is a bit about lemurs and aggression, and hormone levels:
I think it’s important to point out that evolution would have created a feedback loop of female dominance/need for aggression and the increase of hormone. A “the need drove the increase and the increase drove the need” type thing. It simply cannot be narrowed to “SEE THEY HAVE MORE HORMONE THAT PERMITS AGGRESSION.” We really just can’t know that, because it’s too in the distant past to make the call.
But given the existence of violence in all-female gangs, and the changing influence of culture, we cannot say with ANY confidence that wars in female-run societies would be “wars of necessity.” That is…except for the fact that in somebody’s view, EVERY WAR HAS BEEN A WAR OF NECESSITY. Most likely the view of the perpetrators of the war in the first place. Nobody goes to war for something they see as pointless.
Oh but also! I just remembered. There is this great example in chimpanzees. A female named Passion and her daughter, Pom. For a buncha years they were killing and eating the babies. No big deal or anything.
Aaaaand here’s yet another link. This one discusses the pitfalls of using the behaviors of non-human animals to explain the behaviors of humans, and maybe why we should try looking at culture a little bit, sometimes:
And that brings us to hunter gatherers.
We don’t have direct evidence of the societal structures of our ancestors. We have physical remains. We have association of artifacts with those physical remains. But nobody is left alive from a society from, say, 12,000 years ago. Before agricultral societies really started flourishing and creating a hierarchy of labor division and all that stuff.
So, like the inferences on female violence, we must look towards modern hunter gatherers. And what do we find?
There has been such an influx of these articles that I do not know where to begin. So basically I’ll go off what I already know, referencing the primary author from whom I learned it.
First of all, I’m going to talk about the Ju/wasi. Genetically, they’ve been found to have the oldest lineage of any group on the planet. Culturally, they live in neolithic conditions. Linguistically, they have names for places that refer to plants and animals that haven’t existed in said places for at least 10,000 years.
This means that biologically they haven’t diverged much from the groups to which everyone on the planet descended. It means culturally they are still using implements similar to those groups. And it means that linguistically, they are referring to areas in ways that imply what those ancestral groups were seeing at the time they existed.
Ok. I think we can agree that they’re a good analogy. And they’re egalitarian. Actually, the women own the property. The hunters are male, but the kills are not necessarily attributed to the man who made it, but rather to the individual who provided the arrow that made the kill. And the meat is first distributed to the wife’s parent’s family. The women do not hunt, strictly. This is partly because they are less mobile because of pregnancy, but hardly…because they are required to be extremely mobile in foraging. They educate the children about what plants/roots/whatnot not find where and when. How to prepare them. All that good stuff. The men are also expected to forage, and foraging provides the majority of the food.
Really it seems as though pregnancy is biologically exclusively a female thing, so hunting became the exclusively male thing. So it’s less about men doing “man things” and more about keeping society equal.
So…why then are hunter-gatherer groups viewed as savages?
Basically it comes down to depictions of non-western cultures in a Eurocentric light. It’s what I have come to call the “Looney Tunes” view of the world. It’s what you’ll see depicted in cartoons from the ’50s. “Blackest Africa,” “The Heart of Darkness,” the “Mystical Orient.” It showed people in these regions of the world to be less civilized and more barbaric.
But…at the same time, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was living among the Ju/wasi with her family, anthropologist Lorna Thomas and Laurence Marshall (co founder of Raytheon but also an advocate for indigenous rights before it was cool…he pressured the governments of Namibia and Botswana to stop human trafficking of native peoples) and John Marshall (big time cool dude ethnographer). She spent her life with these people, as did the rest of her family.
But really, the white, male scholars combined with pop-culture promoted the view of them as savage.
So what we have is a dismissal of challenging view points put forth by female academics with decades of field experience in favor of mainstream views based on racist, western, patriarchal, colonialist assumptions. Sounds a little…sexist, to say that absolute least. And when making arguments against sexism…sexism should probably be avoided.
My point is this:
Women may very well be better equipped to succeed and elevate society, with men being maybe the primary deterrent to this.
But reducing it to biologically determined behaviors absolves men of their responsibility in this scenario. It reminds me of this picture I saw a while back. An attractive young women was wearing a very low-cut skirt and most likely (by the looks of the picture) no underwear. Her nipples were covered, and, “Still Not Asking for It” was painted across her body. Someone commented saying “yeah, but it’s like throwing meat into a shark tank.”
No. It isn’t. For all of the reasons I just discussed. And so many more I didn’t touch on.
It also presumes that women are inherently less capable than men of being violent and committing atrocious acts. And as notorious asshole Elizabeth Bathory showed, when those cultural barriers are removed, it’s simply not the case.
We all have a responsibility to the progress of civil rights, social justice and equality. Especially those of us who are social scientists (particularly in the digital age!) who have the platform to influence popular culture on these topics based on presumed-expertise alone. Let’s not shirk that responsibility because of antiquated and all-too-often unchallenged assumptions.
About Pedal Powered AnthropologyI have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.
Posted on 05/24/2015, in Cultural Anthropology, feminism, Primatology., Sex and Gender, Social Justice Babblings. and tagged anthropology, biological anthropology, culture, feminism, gender, male privilege, patriarchy, primatology, sexuality, social issues. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.