Does aggression define manhood?

“You’re going against 40,000 years of evolution”

“This innate toughness that men have is crucial to our survival.”

These points, and many others along the same lines, were made by Mr. Gavin McInnes, author of “How To Be a Man” in a recent discussion of masculinity on the Huffington Post. His argument is based on a suite of assumptions common in our culture. It often forms the basis of misogynist arguments against feminism. Basically:

1. Evolution has made men naturally more “aggressive and tough”, and women naturally more “compassionate and domestic”.

2. Therefore in the modern world, as in past societies, men are the natural breadwinners, and women the natural caretakers of the home/children.

3. Going against these gender norms, as feminism has done in the last few decades, is going against nature, and disrespectful of the importance of childcare!

According to Mr. McInnes, women who work outside the home are “forced to pretend to be men. They’re feigning this toughness. They’re miserable.” You’ll hear a lot of people agreeing with this line of reasoning. But is it scientifically based? Short answer: No. Not at all. Mr. McInnes’ knowledge of science (at least, displayed these rants) is embarrassingly feeble. I work at the intersection of anthropology, genetics, and evolution, so I’m going to critique this argument with evidence from these fields. (I encourage you to also check out these  other critiques , although Jezebel’s was basically just “HAAAAAAAAAAAA!”).

First of all, a bit of terminology. Sex and gender are used interchangeably by many, but they’re not actually the same thing. “Sex” refers to the genetically/developmentally determined biological categories “male” and “female” (XY vs. XX). “Gender” refers to cultural perception of the sexes and their roles (“masculine” vs. “feminine”). In our culture, sex and gender are pretty intricately entangled, but that’s not the only way it works. Gender is conceptualized differently by different cultures. While our society has long viewed gender as binary (albeit with people outside the traditional categories, who self-identify as “genderqueer”), many cultures, both in the present and in the past have more than two genders. What we’ll be discussing here is the extent to which the Western binary gender system is based on biological adaptations for the two sexes that make it “natural” for each to engage in different kinds of activities.

(Aside: I have a serious pet peeve with the whole “natural is better” argument to begin with. It’s actually a logical fallacy, known as the “appeal to nature,” and it’s used to push all sorts of idiotic pseudoscience. Think about it: Giardia is “natural”, but that doesn’t mean drinking water containing it is better than drinking filtered water. Always be suspicious if someone uses this argument. )

There are obviously physiological differences between men and women. Nobody is denying that. Next time you’re people watching, notice the variation in size among men and women. Observe the extremes—notice how women tend to occupy the “very smallest” category and men the “very largest” category–but also the overlap where some women are larger than some men. This is true of strength as well. For example, with a 300# deadlift PR, I fall somewhat above the mean in female strength and size. Even so, the average man (if he’s trained in powerlifting technique) will be able to lift much more than me. But there will also be a small percentage of men who are weaker then me. Strength and size are examples of continuous traits—those that aren’t neatly divided into discrete categories in a population (like whether or not you can roll your tongue). Also, they’re not dependent strictly on genetic factors; my strength is derived not only from some genetic component, but also from years of training and eating a certain way. It’s not a simple case of “gene X causes Y quantity of strength”, nor will every woman with an identical training history to me have identical results (some will be weaker, some stronger). For many traits, therefore, the “nature vs. nurture” idea is a really misleading oversimplification. I want you to do your best to banish that dichotomy from your brains forever.

So, there are definitely physical differences between men and women, many of them overlap, and many of them are the result of intricate interactions between genes and environment. But are there also essential psychological/behavioral differences between the two genders? That’s a huge field of research, and it’s not so straightforward. Let’s focus on what Mr. McInnes cites as the key difference between men and women: aggression.

The thinking goes that men have aggressive tendencies that are genetically determined, evolutionarily selected for, and therefore result in adaptations for certain types of behaviors (hunting, fighting, working in the public sphere). The problem with the conventional wisdom here is that aggression is a set of behavioral characteristics, not a strictly genetic trait. As with size or strength, you can’t point to a single gene or genes that separate the aggressive from the non-aggressive. There are a few genes tentatively associated with aggressive behavior, but it’s not a simple phenomenon of “this genetic variant causes this person to be aggressive.” Remember this: genes code for proteins, not behaviors.

Furthermore, it’s not so clear that men have evolved to exhibit more aggressive behavior than women. In his fantastic book “Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You”, bioanthropologist Dr. Agustín Fuentes reviews the published research on human aggression and gender. After a detailed breakdown of differences in aggressive behavior between men and women, he concludes that

…aggressive behaviors and violence are not central parts of male as opposed to female behavior. But the overall picture regarding aggressive behavior and the sexes is not particularly clear. There is no behavioral evidence that being aggressive is evolutionarily more likely for males than females, and while males appear to be more aggressive in some contexts, females are in others. Males are more likely to be aggressive than females in same-sex aggression, and there are differences in outcomes than females in same-sex aggression due to male body size.” (p137)

Here is an example of behavioral overlap with regard to aggression (disclosure: my little sister is in this video).

Behaviors such as aggression are the result of many complex factors, including culture, gene expression, environmental influences, and individual choices. And the current scientific literature simply does not show “a clear suite of evolved differences in behavior between the sexes.” (Fuentes p203)

For another excellent explanation of why invoking evolution as a simple causal explanation for gender role differences is problematic, I encourage you to read
this piece by evolutionary biologist PZ Myers:

“I think a better answer is that there are evolved human traits that are shared among every individual in the population without regard to sex, and that culture acts as the repressor/enabler of particular attributes in particular individuals. That ought to be the default assumption, with exceptions requiring exceptional evidence beyond just reading the cultural codes. Change the culture, and all those fully human abilities can be expressed in everyone, not just the ones permitted by convention.”

So what about those cultural gender differences? All cultures, past and present, have segregated activities by gender, right? In fact, no. Claiming that women have always, “naturally”, done certain activities is based on a very selective (mis-) reading of the archaeological record. I think the archaeologist Dr. K Anne Pyburn summarizes it nicely in the first chapter of her book “Ungendering Civilization”:

“The naturalized link between beauty, child-rearing, “private space” and womanhood is sacred to western culture, and affects all the cultures participating in the modern world system. Needless to say these are folk models, but they continue to inform not only public opinion, but also scholarly research in a number of fields. Despite the fact that a number of feminist investigations have disproved the reality of such proscriptions in the present day and recent past, a surprising number of intellectuals, including a number of feminist scholars themselves, continue to believe that the division of labor, which either subordinates women, or at least separates the economic, social, and political spheres of women and men, is an historical if not biological fact. Ultimately, the belief that all early civilizations independently developed the same division of labor has been an unexamined support for essentialist arguments about the role of women and men in the rise and functioning of the modern world (Tringham 1991).”

In other words, starting with a preconception of how gender roles should be influences the kinds of questions that are asked in anthropological research, and the kinds of evidence that is gathered to answer these questions. If you are convinced a priori that only men did certain activities in past societies, (such as making cave paintings, or using spears, you might completely miss the fact that women were doing them, too.

Those kinds of interpretations have been going on for a regrettably long time, but fortunately these days the field of anthropology is somewhat more aware of these biases. And this kind of awareness has revealed so many examples of women in past cultures NOT behaving according to the Western “domestic” ideal that, as Dr. Pyburn noted in an email to me, we now know “McInnes’ idea of nature is realized in very few societies around the world (past or present).”

Now critics of my arguments will certainly cite evolutionary psychologists who claim that evolution shaped men for certain activities and women for others. It’s scientifically proven, they’ll say, that women like to shop because it’s similar to gathering food–a naturally feminine activity. Of course women like the color pink because that reminds them of the berries their great-(x10) grandmothers had to find.

Does this sound stupid? It should. This type of “just-so” storytelling by evolutionary psychologists is roundly criticized by the general scientific community. It’s awfully easy to make up explanations for observed phenomena after the fact. Anyone can do this. For example, here’s a suggestion offered by Dr. Pyburn:

“Complex societies arise from warfare, not because of the organization that grows up in support of a standing army as has been argued, but because – like the Vikings – the men left to fight and the women stayed behind and developed a complex political organization while they were out of the way…”

Why is this story not every bit as plausible as any other alternative?

If you’re reading these and find yourself asking “But where is the evidence for this explanation?” you’ve caught on. Stories are fun, but they’re still stories. Demand evidence.

Mr. McInnes falls into this trap when he literally offers his “gut” explanation in one sentence, and criticizes anecdotal evidence in the next. Unfortunately for him, his attempt to validate his notions of gender roles by an appeal to nature falls apart when his claims are carefully scrutinized with scientific data.

Truthfully, many of us whose lives don’t fit neatly into the worker/homemaker dichotomy can attest to feeling fulfilled. I’m certainly very happy in mine, where I work professionally as a scientist, and train as an amateur fighter in my free time.

But according to Mr. McInnes, I’m probably faking it.
11/3/13 EDITED TO ADD: I wanted to update this post after I read this article describing the exact kind of interpretation that I’ve been talking about. A very cool Etruscan tomb dating to 620-610 BEC was recently discovered, containing the skeletons of two individuals and their accoutrements. One of these individuals, buried with a spear, was identified as a “warrior prince”. The other, buried with jewelry, was identified as “his wife.” However, when the sex of the skeletons was determined, it was discovered that the “prince” was a female, and “his wife” was a male. Oops! But it wasn’t enough that the archaeologists had gendered the skeletons solely on the basis of their burial goods. Even after discovering that the “prince” with a spear was actually a high-status female, they scrambled to explain why some of her burial goods actually were symbolic, while others were things that she used. Guess which things were “symbolic”? Obviously the “male” objects (i.e. the spear)! And which were “possessions”? The “female” objects (i.e. a sewing kit)!

You should go read Dr. Judith Weingarten’s entire post for a terrific discussion of this. She concludes with:

“‘It’s not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance’ says Prof. Mandolesi, and that is certainly true. Is this tomb unique? Or are we looking into a mirror of our own making? Until recently, sex determination was mostly based on gendering grave goods rather than any scientific bone analysis. If every corpse buried with weapons was sexed as male, willy-nilly there can be no females in the sample. Spear = male? The jury on Etruscan princesses is still out. But taking the spear out of her hands and embroidering a story with needles in the pyxis will not necessarily bring a true verdict.”


33 thoughts on “Does aggression define manhood?

  1. Neil Rickert October 27, 2013 / 7:51 pm

    Your link to a PZ Myers post is broken.

  2. suburp October 28, 2013 / 2:43 am

    I know way too little about anthropology or genetics to put my two cents into this but have, in the past have told people who argued gender behaviour on the “cave men theory” that we have currently evolved to a state were many people do no more have space for their wisdom teeth because we no longer need to chew raw meat, so maybe we could have overcome the role distribution quite naturally too, if only it wasn’t so comfortable for men to claim theirs – and still so easy, culturally and physically, to simply impose it.

  3. Boxing scientist October 28, 2013 / 5:07 am

    This post is the best I’ve ever read on the topic. It’s good to see the ” “just-so” storytelling by evolutionary psychologists” called out again for the utter nonsense that it is. The overlap is huge. That’s very well illustrated by marathon running. It was only quite recently, well 1967) that Kathy Switzer entered the Boston Marathon and it took another 5 years before women were allowed to run in the same races as men. That seems quite ridiculous now, but it shows very well how quickly norms can change. It’s also meant that the vast majority of male runners had to get used to being passed by large numbers of women. Perhaps that well-developed male vanity is why men were so opposed to women running in the 60s. Runners like Paula Radcliffe can run 26 miles faster than most men can run one mile. Get used to it.

    Much more recently the same thing has happened in martial arts. When I started boxing it was exclusively male: the idea of women competing would have seemed outrageous and “unnatural”. In the 70s I had a girlfriend who wanted to join the local boxing club and was told in no uncertain terms to get lost. All that shows is how quickly one’s idea of what’s natural can change. A glance at your video shows that women are more than capable of competing at the highest level in combat sports. No doubt that makes some men feel every bit as inadequate as being passed by women in a marathon. More fool them.

    What seems “obvious” and “natural” in one decade can change totally in the next decade. Thanks for pointing it out so clearly.

  4. A Hermit October 28, 2013 / 11:00 am

    Thank you from the bottom of my middle aged white middle class male heart. I’m so tired of this “men are from mars women should stay home and have babies” bullshit. The imposition of gender defined roles is limiting and restrictive, to both men and women, and I for one am delighted to see how much things have changed in my lifetime.

    I watched that video, and had to laugh when McGinnis started whining about women not taking their husband’s name when they get married. When my wife and I first talked about getting married she asked me if I minded her keeping her own name. I was actually happy about that; I’ve never felt the desire to possess another human being like that. Thirty years of happy successful life together, of sharing responsibilities and being strong for each other when needed just reinforces for me the value of letting people just be who they are without trying to pigeonhole them.

    • La Strega October 31, 2013 / 1:55 pm

      You don’t know how cheering it is for this white middle aged female to hear this. Recently steeped in the “manosphere”, I enjoy being reminded that many men nowadays appreciate the loosening of socially-prescribed gender straight-jackets too.

    • queenanon November 1, 2013 / 1:08 am

      Bless you for your wonderful comment! A+

  5. Bronze Dog October 28, 2013 / 11:28 am

    I’m glad you and PZ bring up the point that there are universal human behaviors that are then suppressed or exaggerated by culture and individual upbringing. There might be some genetic factors that produce tendencies in the sexes, somewhere, but it’s foolish to claim those factors exist without controlling for culture. Controlling for culture is something I have yet to see evolutionary psychologists attempt.

    I think it’s reasonably likely that there are some biological tendencies in the sexes, but I expect them to be pretty weak when compared to environmental influences and/or different than Western expectations. But even if they do exist, so what? It’s not like we have an obligation to obey our genes or some reified depiction of Mother Nature. Diversity is a good thing, and there’s nothing wrong with being atypical. A lot of the time, being atypical can be an evolutionary advantage.

    On aggression, I agree context is important, since individuals use different approaches in different contexts. For a personal example, I’m a peacenik in games like Civilization, but I’m an aggressive speed lover in Magic: the Gathering.

    Looking at the large set of behaviors and how individuals can vary wildly in which ones they express, followed by bigots touting gender norms while appealing to the naturalistic fallacy has given me a certain perspective: They’re effectively rejecting human individuality and trying to enforce conformity. Sadly, people still do the same thing about race, seeking to discourage those who have talents that go against their stereotypes.

  6. Anna P October 28, 2013 / 11:38 am

    In any case, why is it always framed as family or career, and as career requiring aggression? Plenty of women have a family and a career, and not every career requires you to work 80 hours per week, or to have an aggressive attitude. There are plenty of careers other than cowboys and wall street bankers.

  7. Glidwrith October 28, 2013 / 12:13 pm

    It truly pains me to say something rather contrary, but there is evidence that genes which code for proteins can dictate behavior:

    Specifically the Hox8b appears to control grooming behavior. It is a fascinating read, but to go from an obsessive, repetitive behavior to the crap that McInees spewed is ridiculous.

  8. David Colquhoun October 28, 2013 / 1:29 pm

    I fear you have been reading the hype not the reality. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. David Dobbs explains it very well here

    Even the simplest congenital diseases, those caused by a change in a single amino acid in a protein with a well-understood function, have turned out to be anything but simple. Almost every family has turned out to have a different mutation. All of the mutations affect the function of the protein in slightly different ways. So, for example, there isn’t just one startle disease, but a whole spectrum of them.

  9. J.xu October 28, 2013 / 1:42 pm

    Once again, these attempts at rationalization fail to impress. Your arguments fall along the typical line of derailment. That is to say, bringing up a multitude of other explanations without actually addressing the main argument.

    It COULD be culture. It COULD be oppression. Or it could also be genes, simultaneously.

    At least the evolutionary psychology has parsimony and reductionism behind it, however imperfect. Correlation isn’t causation, but if often leads to discovering said causation. Speculation on cultural causes barely even has that. It only has alternatives for parsimony without solid backing, which makes it even less credible. And, in the absence of any definitive evidence, is it rational to discount or downplay genetics?

    Finally, Western academia is too deeply afflicted by leftist ideology. None of you like to hear it, but it’s the truth. That is, Western thought privileges theories that sound “nice” or “equal” or socially acceptable rather than what is logical, which may or may not be those things.

    Those of us outside Western academic circles look on with worry in our hearts. There is a grave issue of trust here, something that should be protected at all costs. If the scholars are prejudiced, then who do we turn to for reliable information? Virtually every social science in the West, anthropology included, is so intrinsically biased, the very academics involved are blind to their bias. People like Anne Pyburn, for instance, should be taken with extreme suspicion. Things like “gender” or “social context” or “ethics” are codewords for political fluff, but in the West, I’ve been surprised to find that they are often the center of study. For the sake of rationality, please step away from this approach before analyzing subjects like this.

    • Eric Mills October 28, 2013 / 3:08 pm

      …bringing up a multitude of other explanations without actually addressing the main argument…

      Bringing up other explanations to see if they work better isn’t derailment; it’s how science works.

      It COULD be culture. It COULD be oppression. Or it could also be genes, simultaneously.

      Indeed. Which is why we should look at the evidence for various explanations, which is exactly what this article was doing.

      evolutionary psychology has parsimony and reductionism behind it

      Actually, it doesn’t. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “parsimony and reductionism”, but generally this refers to theories in which a large body of data can be reduced to a relatively small number of underlying processes that give predictive power. Evolutionary psychology doesn’t have this; it postulates a number of stories that connect current behaviours with presumed pre-historic conditions, but it doesn’t reduce them to some underlying processes that can be used to predict anything.

      Correlation isn’t causation, but if often leads to discovering said causation.

      This is true. But in order to figure out what is causative, you need to look at alternate explanations.

      …in the absence of any definitive evidence, is it rational to discount or downplay genetics?

      In saying this you are assuming that genetics should be the default explanation; that the onus is on those who disagree with you to show that it’s wrong. But in science all hypotheses should enter on equal footing. It’s up to those who think men are genetically determined to be more aggressive than women to show evidence for that position, not simply challenge others to show evidence against it.

      Western academia is too deeply afflicted by leftist ideology

      This is a classic ad-hominem attack; you aren’t addressing any specific argument here, just claiming that you can’t believe anything researchers say because of their “leftist ideology”.

      Things like “gender” or “social context” or “ethics” are codewords for political fluff

      All three things you mention here have been thought about, written about, and studied throughout human history; they are not unique to “Western academia” and are certainly not indicative of a “leftist bias”.

    • Jennifer Raff October 29, 2013 / 12:48 pm

      J.xu, could you please provide citations to evidence supporting ANY of the assertions you’ve made here? For the sake of rationality…

  10. David Colquhoun October 28, 2013 / 2:03 pm

    Sigh. You say ” Western academia is too deeply afflicted by leftist ideology” and by that remark you show your own bias and motives. Perhaps you could explain how ideology, leftist or otherwise, affects the results of DNA sequencing, or the truth of a mathematical theorem?

    You say “For the sake of rationality”, but I fear that you wouldn’t recognize rationality if it hit you in the face.

  11. Brett October 28, 2013 / 4:28 pm

    You brought up the size difference, which makes me wonder how certain traits – such as aggression – compare across men and women of similar body size. Google wasn’t helpful in that regard, but I’ll keep looking.

    • David Colquhoun October 28, 2013 / 5:50 pm

      I don’t know either whether there is any such relationship, but it doesn’t sound to me like a very helpful question.

      Anecdotally, it seems very improbable. I know as many feisty small women as tall ones in a work context. In sports I expect one would find that shot-putters and high-jumpers tended to be tall, but marathon runners are always slim, and often not very tall. In martial arts, where opponents are matched for size, it makes not the slightest difference how big you are.

      It’s one of those irrelevant questions that sociologists and some psychologists seem to love.

  12. flowersjay October 28, 2013 / 9:28 pm

    Ack! I’m disappointed. I’m not here to support anyone in the original argument. But, I was hoping to find some fact-based information that goes against prevailing opinions in sex/gender behavioral and physical difference.

    It seems that you have no rebuttals against what you see as sex-biased anthropology/genetics/evolution arguments except to say that it’s possible that things MIGHT not be the way we assume. Which seems particularly irritating form someone who makes a call to authority at the very beginning of her post (“I work at the intersection of anthropology, genetics, and evolution”).

    Yes, things MIGHT not be the way we assume – and our cultural bias when looking at history MIGHT color our view of the past

    But, how can we still be making claims that are against reality (the fabric of the world around us)? Men have more testosterone in their bodies through adolescence and early adult-hood (and most through older age as well).

    I know it’s not as simple as testosterone – but, we know the affects of testosterone in the human body – we know that it causes aggression and contributes to size and strength. Which is why men are larger and more aggressive than their typical female counter-parts.

    Pointing out that women at the high-end of female physicality overlap the lower end of male physicality doesn’t dispel this idea – it reinforces it.

    I’m not a men’s rights advocate (though, I do support the rights of all people) nor am I an apologist for it’s radical sword-rattlers – but, I think it’s time for a more fact-based looked at sex/gender equality. Because, when it comes down to it – WE ARE DIFFERENT!!! Men and women are physically and psychologically different. The sooner we can all accept that VERY OBVIOUS bit of reality – the sooner we can all start looking at each other’s situations with empathy and dignity.

    • Anonymous October 29, 2013 / 1:03 am

      No rebuttals to what specific arguments exactly? When faced with such vacuous assertions as women liking the color pink because of their Paleolithic ancestors’ gathering practices how is one to respond other than to point out that these are, indeed, simply “just-so” stories without a jot of evidentiary support? The fact that sex differences exist shouldn’t prompt us to grant automatic legitimacy to any post hoc hogwash lazily appealing to nature and the rigor of public opinion; “cuz testerone – OBVIOUS” isn’t science. You might be surprised how difficult it is differentiate cultural trappings from genetic predisposition. Just think how the embarrassment of pink berries might’ve easily been avoided by doing some homework on the 19-20th century contrivances of gender color. Did you know that the color scheme used to be quite the opposite? That’s the interesting thing about science – it’s often counterintuitive.

    • Jennifer Raff October 29, 2013 / 10:03 am

      I’m not sure what you’re really asking for, here. I summarized the (yes, fact-based!) research on this subject. Would you like links to specific studies? There are piles of them. I’d suggest the two books I quoted from as a convenient starting place. They provide very good reviews of the scientific literature on the subject.

      It seems to me that you’re doing the very thing you’re bothered by. We “know the affects of testosterone” make men and women completely psychologically different? (I’ll give you the physical part–nobody is denying physical differences!!). Citations, please? As I said above, studies have shown than men and women may express aggression differently in different circumstances, but differences in the overall total amount of aggression? Not as clear cut as you claim here.

  13. Shawn October 30, 2013 / 5:08 pm

    Evolved differences in emotional behavior (along with their many neurological bases) is my area of specialization. I’m not going to review the whole literature here, but I would like to speak to the first part of the argument:
    ‘”Evolution has made men naturally more ‘aggressive and tough’, and women naturally more ‘compassionate and domestic’.”
    There are a whole lot of assumptions packed into a tiny space here. My shorthand answer (and I can go in more depth with citations, my dissertation research, etc. if you contact me) is this- Throw out “toughness” and “domestic”, since they are not necessarily associated with aggression or compassion, biologically or culturally. Humans are less aggressive on an in-group level than our closest living relatives in the genus Pan, and probably the LCA, so we are not arguing about an increase between sexes but rather relative differences in decrease. There are hormonal differences between men and women which have effects on their behavior. Some areas of the brain are sexually dimorphic, albeit each to their own degree, and these also have effects on behavior. Despite this, studies show women feel similar levels of anger that men do; the difference is they are less likely to physically act this out, i.e. display “aggression”. It isn’t your rationality that suppresses your anti-social emotions, it is your pro-social emotions competing with them. Hormonal and neurological differences make women feel pro-social emotions like empathy more strongly, on average, than men do, but this has nothing to do with how much anger they feel, or how tough or domestic they are. Sex differences in levels of aggression are due to that, not because men are evolved to be more aggressive. It’s a complex point, but then again nature never promises us simplicity.

    • Jennifer Raff October 31, 2013 / 10:06 am

      Fascinating! Thanks for your insights, Shawn. And I’d definitely love it if you pointed me towards some more literature to read on this subject. I didn’t touch on the nonhuman primate aspects at all, because I felt that it would make this post way too long. But maybe as a follow up….

  14. jj October 30, 2013 / 9:21 pm

    This is the kind of nonsense article produced by writers with fundamentalist viewpoints, whatever the chosen dogma might be.

    In this instance its feminism and so we get paragraph after paragraph of thin justifications such as “some big women are bigger than small men” or evidence that “some women historically held spears”

    Some, some, some

    The old saying, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer” is applicable here. A few isolated and atypical examples don’t suddenly redefine things.

    Females are the only gender capable of childbirth. That indisputable fact has lay at the core of womanhood and its role from the year dot.

    Point out to me the numerous female warrior cultures of history? Are there any? Let’s look at modern female fighters – does the fact that many are lesbian have any bearing on it? Is there anything to to suggest that gay females are more drawn to contact sports? Are there any studies showing the percentage of gay females in fight sport vs gay females in swimming, for example?

    Your post makes out that aggression is equally likely in both genders. So why is it that around the world it Is men – especially young men in the flush of testosterone – who are the majority of street/bar fight participants? You don’t think there’s any evidence of natural tendency there?

    You’re a female fighter yourself. You’ve taken a few small examples and constructed a tenuous argument which, obviously, you have more than a little vested interest in.

    Ultimately, the entire nonsense campaign to eradicate gender will come to naught. Nature will carry on regardless of philosophy student wittering. Women will continue to give birth and largely tend towards being caring, home making types. Men will continue to procreate, get into fights and do what they need to do to satisfy the drive to look after their own.

    Lovely essay but deeply and fundamentally flawed.

  15. Shawn October 31, 2013 / 1:29 pm

    The question is, does aggression define manhood? This suggests that where you see aggression you have manhood, and where you do not see aggression you do not have manhood. ANY contrary examples then, such as Jenny pointed out, are relevant.

    Consider this: (1) The majority of inmates in the world’s prisons are men. (2) The majority of men are not in prison. This suggests to me aggression does not define men, even if there are differences between men and women, on average, in levels of aggression.

    I have never shot or stabbed anyone. To my knowledge none of my friends have either. Men who frequently display aggression are only a small subset of all men, and I think its safe to say other men do not generally consider them role models.

    I’m trained in two martial arts; both of my instructors were on a South Korean Olympic team. I know how to incapacitate people quickly, using a wide range of physical (including deadly) force. But I think Jenny would beat me in a MA match. I don’t think that makes me less manly, or her more so. It just shows she’s more dedicated. Definitions of manliness do not enter into it at all.

    • Jennifer Raff October 31, 2013 / 2:02 pm

      Shawn and jj,
      Right, and my point in bringing up the archaeology is that if we examine the archaeological record with this preconceived bias (that men and women must have had separate activities), we’re going to find evidence to confirm it. We *know* this has happened consistently throughout the history of archaeology–certain objects have been “gendered” so that the person buried with them is assumed to be male or female based on their presence alone. When we go back and question this assumption (as is happening more often these days) via skeletal or molecular analysis, we sometimes find that the previous assumption was wrong. And yes, “sometimes”. I can’t give you a specific frequency, because this is ongoing work and a rather recent (last 40 years?) development in archaeological theory. Hence the examples.

      Two additional points from jj’s comment:
      “the entire nonsense campaign to eradicate gender ” is indeed nonsense and a strawman argument. Nobody is denying that there are physical differences between men and women, and nobody (at least no anthropologists I know) is involved in a campaign to “eradicate” gender. Your use of this argument reveals your extremely limited understanding of gender. Try reading a bit more about gender roles in other cultures, both past and present. Not everybody does things the same way….

      “Let’s look at modern female fighters – does the fact that many are lesbian have any bearing on it? Is there anything to to suggest that gay females are more drawn to contact sports?

      I don’t know. I can only give you my anecdotal experience: I’m acquainted with both gay fighters and straight fighters, and I don’t see much difference in their motivations for fighting. But why do you think that sexual orientation is the same thing as gender? I, too, would be interested in seeing the correlation (if any) between hormonal profiles and attraction to fighting. But nobody’s done that work yet, as far as I know.

  16. Shawn October 31, 2013 / 4:22 pm

    An excellent way to understand how nature and nurture can interact is to consider critical periods. If all behavior were biology, children wouldn’t have to learn language, they would just develop it on their own. If all behavior were learned, then you could wait until an individual was 30 years old to teach them their first language, and they would have no trouble acquiring it. But in reality languages are easier to learn as a child, during development, and if a child never learns a first language this has a strong negative affect on their communicative abilities as an adult.

    This isn’t a design flaw; its a feature. The brain is an expensive organ, and some neurons are “use it or lose it” because of this. There is some evidence that empathy has a critical period- that if you never see or receive any while growing up then you can not learn it as an adult. In an environment where empathy is prominent, you do better to have it. In an environment where it is lacking, having it is maladaptive. The brain develops in a way seemingly appropriate for the adult environment.

    This is one reason why it is a terrible idea to try children as adults or to send them to an adult prison, if you hope to rehabilitate them. If they haven’t learned empathy before they go, they certainly are not going to have a chance to learn it prison, and even if they are released in their early 20’s by that time it will probably be too late for them to ever really ‘understand’ it.

  17. Morgan November 2, 2013 / 2:00 am

    I think it bears mentioning that this type of evolutionary psychology argument, at least in this instance and innumerable others like it, isn’t being used to simply describe biological differences. It is being used as a prescriptive argument for what men and women are innately capable of and what women (in particular, though it goes both ways) should be allowed to be and do because of them, regardless of personal aptitude and ability. It is an argument for preemptive exclusion based on concern-mongering (“really ladies, it’s about your mental health and happiness!”) and an impoverished “appeal to nature” that unquestionably serves the interests of a particular group of people who are losing power in contemporary society. It is really no different, fundamentally, than the recently ridiculed concern that driving may damage women’s reproductive organs as a justification for continued sex segregation in Saudi Arabia. Also, my favorite thing proponents of this argument seem to remain willfully ignorant of: culture is arguably among the most successful evolutionary adaptations of the human species. Thanks for the great post, Jennifer.

  18. Maya April 26, 2014 / 10:26 am

    OMG OMG you just nailed it!!!!! I’m so silk and tired of this pseudo-scientific bull**** science can be perfectly used to justify the patriarchal status quo, just like darwinism and freudism were used to excuse racism and so-called female “hysteria.” And it’s NO different than reactionary religion.

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