Monday, January 23, 2012

The Violent Ape. Today's Evolutionary Psychology Story about Men's Sex Drive As The Cause Of Wars

Today's evolutionary psychology study is most unusual. It applies the same story-telling approach to men as it normally applies to women:
Male sex drive is at the root of most conflict in the world, from football violence to world wars, scientists have claimed.
A review of psychological evidence concludes that men are shaped by evolution to be aggressive towards "outsiders".
The tendency, at the heart of all inter-tribal violence, emerged through natural selection as a result of competition for mates.
Today it can be seen in large-scale conflicts between nations as well as clashes involving rival gangs, football fans or religious groups, say the researchers.
Women, on the other hand, are said to have evolved to resolve conflicts peacefully. Natural selection has programmed them to "tend and befriend" to protect their offspring.
Mmm. How would "tending and befriending" work against predators or hostile strangers attacking the tribe? Anyone who has once been a teenage girl knows that the above description is at least partial bullshit. Weaker members of a group learn to use "tending and befriending," sure, but that's because they are the weaker members. It's not at all clear to me that some kind of hard-wired evolution is what is going on in here.

Besides, the study of violence in the history of human beings should also take into account the general way in which women and men are trained in that context. Women have traditionally been discouraged from using physical violence and from learning the use of weaponry. Men, on the other hand, have been pushed and prodded into those roles, to meet the needs of armies for the leaders.

But whatever the case might be, studies of this kind suffer from the odd fusing together of data and just one possible explanation: an evolutionary one. I find that approach ultimately a dishonest one because it suggests that only one story was supported by the data.

But it also appears to abstract away from the fact that the levels of violence in the society are not constant, that many people have lived through their natural lives without ever experiencing war, and that conflicts do have environmental causes such as shortage of food, potable water or land for farming. Thus, something that in fact IS variable in reality turns into a life-long sentence of violence and more violence for all humanity.

Why do these studies get so much publicity? The question is rhetorical, of course, because they are published to incite gender wars. Just read the comments here on this particular study to see what happens. But from a different angle these studies bring us no new knowledge. It's pretty obvious that most wars have been fought by men. Why that is the case is no clearer now than it was before this particular study was published.

But the argument that the only reason for wars lies in men's sex drive seems very odd to me. Violent raids and such may have been used to acquire women but surely they were most often about general resources and space? The researchers quote chimpanzees as the Comparison Animal Of The Day:
At a basic level, such ‘tribal’ aggression helped men in a group to obtain more females, increasing their chances of reproduction.
‘We see similar behaviour in chimpanzees,’ said Prof van Vugt. ‘For example, the males continuously monitor the borders of their territory.
‘If a female from another group comes along, she may be persuaded to emigrate to his group. When a male strays too far, however, he is likely to be brutally beaten and possibly killed.’
How did that male stray too far? Wasn't he supposed to be monitoring the perimeter of his territory? And who let that female out of her group? Note also that the cost of violent raids might be getting brutally beaten and even killed.

One problem with the way this story is told is that it looks at only one group of chimpanzees. If you add a second group to that you may get a situation where the females from both groups visit males in the other group and get impregnated by them. Some studies suggests that this is quite common:
Female ‘infidelity’ is also much more common than assumed. A few years ago, the first DNA paternity tests among chimpanzees showed that over half of the infants were sired by males outside the community - a fact the human researchers and probably also the dominant males had been totally unaware of (Hrdy 1999, 85).
In other words, the overall situation is quite a bit more complicated and might even be a reproductive draw. And what if we picked a different "promiscuous" primate species for the purposes of comparison? Say the bonobos:
To understand human mating we have to understand the mating system of our species. Chimpanzees and bonobos (who share around 99% of our DNA) have what's referred to as a multimale-multifemale mating system. Females have sex with multiple individuals in their troop and make positive choices about which males they're most interested in. The evolution of sexual jealousy is seen in nascent form in our evolutionary cousins when a low-ranking chimpanzee is caught mating with a female that a higher ranking male is sweet on. The forest isn't at peace for some time afterwards. In bonobos the situation is a little different. Females largely call the shots and have been known to harass males (and other females) for mating with their preferred partners.
In any case, I'm not at all convinced that the human mating system is a multimale-multifemale one.