Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I'm fairly certain many married men had already figured this one out.*

Some of you may remember that I recently blogged about a fairly dramatic bit of sexism over on Conservapedia. This post is not about Conservapedia, per se, but it is about sexism. Or, more appropriately, the degree to which men and women can be viewed as essentially the same as opposed to essentially different.

One perspective, often advanced by social conservatives, is that males and females are inherently different from one another, while others claim women and men are essentially the same. Usually claims of difference are based on either biological distinctiveness (i.e. evolution/god made us different on a physical level) or spiritial distinctiveness (i.e. god intended for us to be different on a metaphysical level). Additionally, we sometimes run into the idea that we're different on a physical psychological level (i.e. evolution/god made our brains work a little differently). Now, nobody with half a brain claims that there are no sources of physical distinctivness. Sexual dimorphism, among other things, makes that claim untenable. Yet, there have been claims that women are physically not suited for some tasks that men are suited for and vice versa. Often, these sorts of claims get meshed with the psychological distinctiveness claims and yield some fairly interesting assertions, such as Newt Gingrich's famous remarks about women and men in the military:

"If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don't have upper body strength. I mean, some do, but they're relatively rare. On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, doesn't matter, you know. These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets, a female may be again dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes."


Of course, often the issue isn't whether or not there are differences but, rather, whether we should attend to those differences and whether they're a result of genetics or experience. So, for example, perhaps on average women have less upper body strength than men, but that said I think there are plenty of female gymnasts who could kick my ass. Shouldn't we judge based on the attribute we're interested in (e.g. strength) rather than something that has a correlation with it (e.g. sex)? At the same time, just because women and men are different in adulthood it doesn't mean that those differences are inborn but, rather, could be the result of life experiences. W.I. Thomas had a pretty awesome article on this in the American Journal of Sociology with the title "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races."** Despite the title, it is a pretty progressive argument that men and women are different mostly because their lives are made different by structure. I'm not going to touch the spiritual argument about differences between men and women- as a materialist atheist, I find the entire question to be ludicrous.

Often efforts to portray men and women as different stem from a desire to restrict female activity or, alternatively, to delineate the proper sphere of female action. Ahem. Still, sometimes it works in a different manner. It has, from time to time, been suggested that women are kinder, gentler and more decent than men. Particularly, it has been argued that women are less violent and may make better leaders. This argument was part of the women's suffrage movement in the 19th century*** and is at the heart of Robin Williams' famous remark that if a woman were President there would never be any wars- never ever. Just every 28 days there would be serious negotiations. It has even lurked beneath some feminist thought, arguing in a sort of odd reversal that women are different from men, as has been traditionally believed, it's just that they're better.

I have no interest in passing judgment on that view as a whole and, indeed, am well aware that from an evolutionary and biological perspective, males of our species are considerably more expendable than are females.**** Yet, I have always been more than a little skeptical of the notion that a society ruled by women would inevitably be more just and less violent than one ruled by men. What can I say? I'm a structuralist at heart.

And, as it turns out, new research suggests that my skepticism may have been justified:

Anthropologists have never directly observed a female-dominated society among humans, but many have speculated that such societies would be less violent than male-dominated ones. Now that postulate has been challenged by hard evidence. Bonobos, a primate species that is female-dominated and bisexual, have been observed repeatedly hunting and killing other apes in the wild.


Or, to quote directly from the researchers:

In chimpanzees, male-dominance is associated with physical violence, hunting, and meat consumption. By inference, the lack of male dominance and physical violence is often used to explain the relative absence of hunting and meat eating in bonobos. Our observations suggest that, in contrast to previous assumptions, these behaviors may persist in societies with different social relations.


Does this mean that human females aren't naturally less violent than human males? No, but it does provide reason for us to believe that they probably aren't. And in the end that's probably for the best.

We're an aggressive, hardy, tough species and that goes for the women as well as the men. It just so happens that wishful counterfactuals aren't going to help us learn to deal with that.


* Not talking about my wife, mind you, I just get to hear stories of bitterness from other men now and then.

**Thomas, William I. 1907. "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races." The American Journal of Sociology, 12(4): 435-469.

*** e.g. Holly McCammon's work on suffrage.

**** I sometimes like to observe that human males traditionally had two roles: father the next generation, get eaten by tigers. And we pretty much had to do it in that order, too.

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7 Comments:

Blogger TamsynX said...

I remember reading a science article (I think it was newspaper, not journal) that mentioned differences between men and women. It said something about a study that found women are more ruthless than men. Or maybe it was meaner. I thought that had good points for women being in the military ;)

Monday, October 20, 2008 2:15:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Drek -

The bonobo example is not relevant here. The actual paper you're discussing essentially says, "We observed five examples of bonobos hunting monkeys in one particular location." Keep in mind that bonobos hunt other animals; they just haven't been observed to hunt monkeys. Monkey-hunting is rare and may or may not have occurred in the past and may or may not occur in other bonobo societies.

True matriarchal societies, which may or may not have ever existed, might or might be violent. It's a stretch to say bonobos are a "violent" society on the basis of this report, and even bigger stretch to use this, even as an example, of how a human (different genus) matriarchal (unknown/unobserved social structure) society would still be "violent."

But I agree with the point of your post. Margaret Mead wrote an interesting book on this which I can't quite remember... I would just add one thought: testosterone.

Monday, October 20, 2008 3:20:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Mister Troll,

Yeah, I actually have some doubts about the applicability of this work to the question as well. I mention it, though, for two reasons.

First, bonobos are often used as an example of a peaceful relatively non-violent primate society, often in explicit contrast to homo sapiens. So some of my mentioning it derives from the fact that this study debunks a certain notion, not because I think it bears particularly strongly on the ultimate point. The issue of whether or not human females are as aggressive as males ultimately has to do with humans and not with our primate relatives.

Second, it is interesting to me to see bonobos killing chimps as opposed to, say, a deer. At least to me it suggests a degree of aggression more compatible with the intra-species violence characteristic of humans but relatively unusual otherwise.

Nonetheless, I think you're pretty much on target.

Monday, October 20, 2008 6:15:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Minor correction:

The study reported that bonobos were observed to hunt monkeys (not chimpanzees as you said in your reply).

I'm not a primatologist, so I can't be sure* but I don't recall hear about any cases of chimpanzees hunting other chipanzees (common, bonobo, or otherwise). Google didn't immediately supply an answer, either. As far as I know, chimps haven't been seen to hunt other chimps; if anyone corrects me, I'd be very interested to learn more.


*Translation: I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'll keep talking anyway!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 5:58:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

"I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'll keep talking anyway!"

Damn, I should have used that for the blog title!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 6:10:00 AM  
Blogger Hopeful Monster said...

Not so much chimps "hunting" other chimps for food, but there are definitely violent clashes between chimp groups, gang-like interactions, and stalking of individuals by larger groups.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 9:36:00 AM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Hey, thanks for the link, Hopeful! Very interesting. So there are violent clashes between different chimpanzee groups. Good to know.

Monday, October 27, 2008 11:18:00 AM  

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