There’s a tonne of ‘evolutionary psychology’ work explaining every human tendency from our fondness for music to our liking for jokes as simply products of sexual selection – i.e., traits developed by males to convince females to mate with them. It’s all very quaint, vaguely sexist (perpetually insisting that males are active and creative while women just sit there and passively decide whom to mate with) and in the grand scheme of things, rather harmless.
The real issue, I think, is when we try to explain violence away as a natural tendency. Characteristically, we only try to explain individual acts of sexual violence (rape and domestic violence) as acting out our evolutionary tendencies (when have you last heard of a robbery at gun-point explained as the result of competition over resources?). There is considerably less interest in explaining acts of group violence, such as ethnic massacres and outright wars, as primarily spurred by our biology. Moreover, acts of group violence are denounced while victims of one-on-one violence get blamed for what happened to them and it’s considered an issue one can joke about…even in Canada.
“If rape is unavoidable, just lie back and enjoy it”. Now isn’t that a nice, empowering quote courtesy of Alan Saldanha, a Canadian politician. To be sure, he’s not the only politician out there with ideas about sexual violence that, at best, can be called outlandish. How is it that rape is one of the few horrible crimes, where victim-blaming is still rife, politicians have the nerve to suggest enjoying it and the perpetrator is always being excused on the basis of his supposedly uncontrollable sex-drive which was aroused by a female, who then out of the blue declined to actually do the deed. The ‘men will be men’ and ‘women are sexual prizes’ framework goes back to all sorts of arguments which can be summed up in the general ‘males in the wild’ having to fight for the right to reproduce and females choosing (in a small minority of species) males based on their potential as providers.
There is considerable research out there showcasing rape as an evolutionary strategy to impregnate more women—something Darwin’s natural selection supposedly lead to developing and is quietly promoting from the historical sidelines till this day. The theory goes that if a man can’t secure a mate (or even if he can) he’s got nothing much to lose and quite a bit to gain (in terms of offspring and hence evolutionary success) by raping women and trying to impregnate as many as possible. The evidence to support this idea is widely considered pretty sketchy. However, the concept has had a lot of traction among social scientists and in the popular media. A rapist no longer needs to blame his victim for being drunk or wearing a short skirt. It may not be her fault, but it was in his genes and he was prompted by instincts he couldn’t overcome. Just as humans have evolved to eat, drink and defecate, they apparently also have been moulded by millennia of natural selection to force women into non-consensual sex. It’s biology, it’s natural and look around us; every other species is at so why shouldn’t we be doing it? Right?
Yes, there’s a lot of non-consensual sex among other mammals and it probably provides an evolutionary advantage in some cases. The thing is though that for good reasons we’ve rejected a whole host of behaviours that are considered natural for other mammals. For starters, we don’t usually have sex in public, we don’t eat off the ground, and we use toilets whenever possible. More importantly, when we kill babies and males of another group and conduct a gang rape of the females, nobody says ‘it’s biology’, we just call it what it is ‘barbaric, awful, terrible, inexcusable’—even though killing and raping is what every male lion would do upon joining a new pride? When groups of people kill other groups of people living near them we never say it’s the natural consequence of conflict over resources and that it’s something to be expected. Although chimps, for example, regularly go on neighbourly killing raids all the time, we would never dare to suggest out loud that, hey—stuff like that happens in the ‘natural world’ and quit with all the peace-keeping already.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge believer in biology and have spent a considerable number of years studying it. It’s just that I have a big problem with using it as an instrument to explain just one sort of human violent behaviour, and conveniently the kind which is most likely to happen in your neighbourhood: male violence against women. We ignore any biological excuses for most of our other contemptible behaviours and retreat to evolution when it comes to individual acts of usually sexual violence against a single female. Rapists are commonly elevated to consideration by evolutionary biology and this perspective on the issue actually gets coverage in mainstream media, while everything from street gang warfare to ethnic violence to world wars is explained to the general public as human cruelty. I call this the ‘marmoset conundrum’.
Pygmy marmosets are little monkeys that have a pretty unusual social system—they’re polyandrous, meaning the females have multiple (in this case two) mates. When a cute little marmoset female is fertile, she will have a lot of sex with both her partners. That way when she gives birth neither of them knows who’s the father. And guess what? There is no violence, no raping and no squabbling even. All three of the adults share the burden of raising the twin marmoset babies that result from the pregnancy. Polyandry is as natural as any other mating system. Granted it’s rarer than most others, but how many species, other than humans, do you know that send love letters, use contraception and are aware of the fact that sex can result in offspring? Didn’t think so … .
Obviously, displaying uncommon mating behaviours is not an issue for the human animal. There are cases, however, like domestic violence where we decide we fit in with the most aggressive lot and give up human exceptionalism for aggressive behaviours against those less likely to strike back. For example, jealousy over uncertain parentage is considered, in many parts of the world, a “natural” excuse for domestic violence and even murder. Somehow, being violent against female partners is more natural than behaving like a cooperatively breeding marmoset male (or openly promiscuous bonobo chimps, for that matter). I think taking a step back and looking at the variety of natural behaviours, and how far removed humans actually are from the vast majority of our ‘animalistic’ ways behaviours should give us some pause before we proceed to explaining gender violence (and only gender violence) using good ol’ Charlie Darwin’s ideas.
—Photo credit: jwm_angrymonkey/Flickr