By Dr David Laing Dawson
Men, war, women. Kathleen Mochnacki challenged me to consider why women’s attitudes about war are very different than men’s after my Reflections of Remembrance Day post.
We are different, men and women. Our biologies, our hormones, our muscles and bone structures, our brains. Our brains are different, differently constructed in a few important ways. And these differences allow (on average) different skill sets to flourish. A small group of boys walks to the shore of a lake. You can be sure that within minutes something will be thrown into that lake. A small group of girls walks to the shore of a lake and they stand around, and sit, and talk. And what they talk about is not the question of who would win in a no-holds fight between Superman and Batman, assuming Batman had no Kryptonite on hand, but rather, relationships, and other girls, and boys. Okay, some boys will engage in that talk as well, and some girls will throw a rock in the lake, but on average….
About two million years ago the first of our ancestors left Africa and crossed what would become the Sahara Desert to Northern Africa and the Middle East. With DNA we can now trace these pathways to India, Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. These early hominids had evolved to become the most successful species on the planet. That evolution included the development of opposable thumbs, tool making, abstract thinking, and language. It also included the development of sets of instincts and behavioural traits that would ensure survival of both the individual and his or her family, and, gradually, bigger and bigger tribes. They were hunter/gatherers. The men were hunters, the women gatherers. Women looked after the babies and children and maintained the kinships. Men monitored the boundaries, fought off invaders, lead the raiding parties. They made the tools, constructed the weapons, built the rafts.
In a sweet little rethinking of Margaret Mead’s famous work about life in Samoa, called “Are Men Really Really Necessary?”, the authors point out that the nuts and berries the women gathered in the woods contained sufficient protein for their babies and children (they didn’t really need meat to survive), and that the men, the successful hunters, rather than bringing the product of their hunt back to feed their families, used this prized meat to barter sexual favours from the most bodacious women of the village. And this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective; it ensures the fittest genes combine to form the next generation.
With rare exceptions, social organizations (families, kinship groups, tribes) were structured around an Alpha Male. As with other primates, this alpha male, this Grey Back, would have to be visible and defend his position on occasion. Eventually abstract thinking, the ability to think and converse in language symbols, allowed the formation of larger and larger tribes organized within a social structure dictated (at least according to the apostles, prophets, and acolytes) by an Invisible Alpha Male.
And there we have it. We have not much changed biologically in the past million years. In fact we shrunk a little when we shifted to agriculture, and only recently regained our height.
We are really the same biological beings of a thousand years ago, even though, in our part of the world at least, we evolved socially. We passed through a period of enlightenment, the development of science, industry, medicine, birth control. We socially evolved to such an extent that we can now cohabit the same ecology with people who speak differently, dress differently, have different coloured skin, and who perform different rituals. We socially evolved to the point that we can govern ourselves within a form of democracy without recourse to an invisible Alpha Male and his scriptures. We socially evolved (with a little help from medicine) to the point where we no longer need that old biological male/female division of traits, labour, and skills.
But our biologies have not much changed. The old instincts, traits, skill potentials, impulses – our genomes, our rat brains, our primitive brains – remain the same.
It was disheartening recently to see Vladimir Putin pound his chest, pump his pectorals, snort and huff, only to have thousands of middle aged men, pundits and politicians, on this side of the divide, do the same. The two million-plus-year-old male instinct at work.
We are unlikely to biologically evolve, at least in Darwinian terms, over the next few hundred years. In order to survive, one of our tasks through this period will be to recognize some of these instincts as no longer viable, no longer of value. In fact, we need to recognize that they could now lead to our destruction. We will have to wait to see if social evolution can trump our biology. Our male biology.
Not that women are exempt from this challenge. Although, let’s face it, the more women we have in leadership positions, the more likely we will be able to follow Winston Churchill’s admonishment: “Talk, talk, talk is better than war, war, war.”