Humans suck. But maybe they don’t have to.

This is some seriously intriguing stuff, right here. [TRIGGER WARNING: HUMAN/OTHER PRIMATE SEXUAL ASSAULT.] (No, not humans sexually assaulting other primates, nor vice versa, silly.)  It has haunted me since I read it yesterday.  I was discussing it over at Twisty’s Palace, and thought I would bring it here.

Eric Michael Johnson opens the article with the story of a horrific sexual assault in the 17th century, and describes the appalling way such incidents were dealt with by the culture of the time.  He mentions some modern-day sex crimes, provides statistics on present-day workplace harassment, then asks:

What is going on here? Could this kind of gender inequality be an intrinsic feature of human nature that we’re stuck with or is it simply a failure to create an environment that prevents such behaviors from reoccurring?

In an attempt to answer this, he reports on some astonishing research conducted with nonhuman primates.  There are many interesting takeaways, and the whole piece is well worth reading in its entirety, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.  First, some troubling findings:

There are three forms of sexual coercion that researchers have documented in both human and nonhuman primates: harassmentintimidation, and forced copulation. Harassment is the most common and results when males make repeated attempts to mate that imposes costs on females, intimidation is the use of physical violence inflicted on females who refuse to mate with a given male, and forced copulation (or “rape” in the human literature) is the least common form that involves violent restraint for immediate mating. The researchers found convincing evidence that the first two forms of sexual coercion (but not the third) increased the long-term reproductive success among males in Japanese macaques, baboons, and our closest evolutionary relative the chimpanzees. This suggests that, at least for these three species, sexual coercion has been selected as an adaptive strategy in male sexual behavior. [Emphasis added.]

Extrapolating to humans is problematic for many reasons, but one thing that can certainly be said is that while all primates are not humans, all humans are primates.  To get an indication of how common sexual coercion is in modern human societies, researchers looked at extreme forms of intimidation, analyzing reported statistics for uxoricide (killings of wives) in England, Canada, and the U.S. between 1965 and 1990:

Wilson and Daly operated under the assumption that the use of sexual coercion would be highest against those women with the highest “reproductive value.” In other words, men would be most likely to use threats or even violence against younger women who had the majority of their childbearing years ahead of them.

[T]heir results strongly supported this hypothesis. The highest number of uxoricides occurred in women from puberty to 24-years-old followed by those who were between 25 and 34… The lowest rate of uxoricide occurred in those women who were either approaching menopause or were already post-menopausal (50-years-old and older). The researchers also found identical trends for cases of sexual assault committed against both married and unmarried women, indicating that the murders likely had the same motivations as other cases of sexual violence…

Of course, one objection to these trends could be that younger men are simply more violence prone and would therefore be more likely to assault their partners. However, what Wilson and Daly discovered was that older men who were with younger women actually had a higher rate of intimidation than did younger men. These conclusions fit right in with those of our nonhuman male counterparts showing sexual coercion as a reoccurring feature of human behavior.  [Emphasis added.]

That is certainly a dismal picture.  Johnson refers to the oft-repeated statement that “biology is not destiny,” and for the sake of humanity I sure hope he is right about that.  As it turns out, there are also some intriguing bright spots: just as research on nonhuman primates can shed light on human problems, it can also point toward solutions.  Johnson goes into bonobos* at some length.  (Along with chimpanzees, bonobos are our closest living relative.)  The contrast to other primates — including us — is stark:

There has never been an observed case of male sexual coercion in this species despite the fact that males are still somewhat larger than females. A unique aspect of bonobo society is that they are a female-dominated species thanks to the network of support that exists between bonobo females.

But where things get really interesting is with baboons, and specifically, with their culture:

To illustrate how powerful the influence of culture can be for primate societies consider the most extreme example of a sexually coercive species: savanna baboons. Male baboons have been known to viciously maul a female that has rejected their advances and the level of male aggression is strongly correlated with their mating success. However, in a unique natural experiment Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky observed what developed when the largest and most aggressive males died out in a group known as Forest Troop (because they were feeding at the contaminated dump site of a Western safari lodge). In the intervening years Forest Group developed a culture in which kindness was rewarded more than aggression and adolescent males who migrated into the troop adopted this culture themselves.

Sapolsky concluded:

Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.

As I pointed out at Twisty’s, in order for this “multigenerational benign culture” to emerge, all of the largest and most aggressive male baboons in the troop had to go.  I think my tens of loyal readers would agree that the world would be a far, far better place without the Dominique Strauss-Kahns or chess-pounding neocons in it, but as a practical matter, well — to paraphrase an old misogynist “joke”:

Assholes.  You can’t live with ’em, and you can’t kill ’em.

Of course you can’t kill them.  That would be WRONG.  Right?  Wait.  No, no, no, it would be very wrong.  I think.**

The takeaway for me is that the culture can and needs to change:  the influence and prominence of aggressive assholes needs to be minimized, and not glorified like it currently is.  Johnson says:

But the uncomfortable implication is just what feminist scholars have been arguing all along: the patriarchy is real and it will require committed focus to reduce or eradicate sexual coercion in modern societies.

Yes, Virginia, there is a patriarchy.  Biological evolution doesn’t work toward any particular pinnacle; its goal, if it can even be called that, doesn’t make organisms objectively “better,” only better able to reproduce their DNA.  Cultural evolution, on the other hand, has the potential to evolve systems and civilizations that are objectively better than the ones we currently have.  If baboons can do it, so can we.

*If reincarnation were real, I’d definitely want to come back as a bonobo — male or female.

**Surely, I jest.  As much as I loathe and despise rapists (and conservatives), I would never seriously advocate violence.

One thought on “Humans suck. But maybe they don’t have to.

  1. I heartily recommend “A Gate to Women’s Country” by Sherri Tepper, which had the same insight about culture and aggressive male many years ago!

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