Biology, Culture and Economics

A new evolutionary take on men and violence

Academics like me are well known for living in intellectual silos. This is not to say, however, that they totally dismiss different ways of thinking about the topics they study. Rather, given their increasing time demands, scholars have difficulties keeping up with the rapidly growing body of empirical and theoretical literature on any topic. This is unfortunate because there is much to learn from reading materials outside one’s discipline. For a social scientist such as myself, Human Evolution and Male Aggression: Debunking the Myth of Man and Ape, written by two biologists specializing in animal behaviour, taught me many lessons and I will liberally cite it in some of my future writings on male violence in private and public places.

It is often said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Upon receipt of Anne Innis Dagg and Lee Harding’s path-breaking offering, I immediately assumed that these two seasoned researchers were attempting to add further support to the popular, but scientifically erroneous, assertion that men are innately aggressive. Then I read the subtitle and reviews on the back cover and quickly remembered the old adage: “assuming makes an ass out of you and me.” That is the first lesson I learned from this book. The second is that progressive sociologists and some experts in animal behaviour have much in common and need to routinely exchange ideas.

It is not uncommon to hear from a variety of sources that the evolution of man was violent and that explains why there is so much male violence in the world today. Dagg and Harding correctly point out, using a wealth of scientific evidence, that nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, humans’ early ancestors were basically peaceful, and serious human aggression only emerged less than 12,000 years ago. According to Dagg and Harding, due to the development of new technologies, some “fortuitous mutations,” and other factors too numerous and complex to discuss here, “humans’ natural ability and inclination to defuse aggression became less valued as chieftains began to recruit warriors to fight other groups for resources that were still scarce and sparsely distributed.”

Consistent with research done by a large international group of social scientists, Dagg and Harding’s findings demonstrate that male violence is not universal in this current era. For example, Nordic societies have much lower rates of violence than those of Colombia, the Russian Federation, the United States and Canada. Certainly, some societies are much more likely to teach violence to men than are others. The lesson here is that, in the words of Dagg and Harding, “faulty reporting and interpretation of biology were the bases of the pervasive notion that humans and other primates are inherently aggressive; … cooperative and affiliative behaviors more accurately characterize most primates’ daily lives, including humans.”

How do the authors make their case? The bulk of their data is derived from studies of animals living in their natural habitat. They also occasionally cite empirical work done on species confined to zoos or laboratories and provide up-to-date information about the fossil remains of human ancestors. Dagg and Harding do emphasize, though, that animals’ behaviour in captivity cannot be generalized to those of animals living in the wild. Furthermore, they remind us that humans sometimes alter conditions in the wild to the point that “habitats become more like bad zoos than natural -environments.”

This book is by no means a traditional scientific monograph. The methodology section is quite brief and the text is not riddled with empirical jargon that only leading experts in the field can understand. Additionally, the scientific names of the animals examined are provided in an appendix and the authors included a glossary for what they refer to as “unusual but necessary terms.”

Dagg and Harding’s book should be widely read and incorporated into both high school and university curricula because the myths they challenge are so deeply embedded in mainstream society and are perpetuated and legitimated by people with strong academic credentials. For example, in 2008, I attended a World Health Organization conference on injury prevention and safety promotion in Mérida, Mexico. Shortly after this gathering ended, I by chance met another Canadian attendee at the Mérida airport. He was a prominent engineer who specialized in traffic safety but knew little, if anything, about the reality of sexual assault. He inquired about my research and I told him that I have spent close to 25 years studying various types of violence against women in intimate relationships. He then told me his theory of rape, one that was heavily informed by a highly problematic interpretation of evolutionary theory. In his opinion, men raped because they were biologically compelled to “spread their seed.” When I asked if he was serious, he retorted, “I am, and your research is biased by a feminist perspective.” There seemed no point in continuing the discussion. As Dagg and Harding conclusively show, rape among primates is a rarity and this harm is definitely not a male technique of increasing reproductive success. A large scientific literature spanning close to 40 years consistently reveals that rape rates differ across societies and this gendered harm is not a sexual act. Rather, it is an act of power and control.

The aforementioned professor is one of millions of like-minded people, which seriously calls into question how students are taught evolution, let alone gender relations. There are, after all, very basic differences between humans and animals, but one of the most important distinctions that is not well known is that, as demonstrated by Dagg and Harding, “animals’ lives and behavior are shaped entirely by evolutionary principles and humans’ are not.” For Dagg and Harding, modern cultural factors are the key determinants of violence and aggression. No sociologist would disagree.

Many theories attempt to lay out offender characteristics that best predict interpersonal violence, but the most robust determinant of who commits beatings, homicide, rapes and so on is whether the offender is male. Why are most violent offenders men? Dagg and Harding contribute to the large body of criminological knowledge showing that it has little to do with their biological makeup or with factors identified by evolutionary psychologists. Again, they view aggression as mainly a product of modern culture, but their analysis of this issue, from a social scientific standpoint, is too brief. Actually, it is only six pages long, but there is a large social scientific literature that supports their argument. What are the implications for further empirical and theoretical work? Many social scientists would suggest that the best answer is provided by masculinity studies, which these authors could benefit from including in their further research.

Scores of scholars and activists see much of what is bad in our world as the product of men and masculinity. This is understandable because men commit most of the predatory street and corporate crimes, take us to war, cause most of the environmental damage and are the main perpetrators of violence in intimate/family relationships. Nevertheless, we often forget that much of what is good in our world is also, in large part, produced by men. There are few fields in which men around the globe are not making outstanding contributions every day: technology, medicine, education, science, entertainment and sports, to name just a few. As Dagg and Harding state near the beginning of their book, it is time to eliminate the bias toward male aggression and to recognize that “cooperation, not aggression, is the essential mainstay of life.”

By no means do Dagg and Harding minimize male aggression and their book includes a sobering description of brutal crimes committed during war and of various types of male violence against women. However, a very important -variable—turbo-charged capitalism—is missing from their analysis of contemporary male violence. Consider homicide in Canada and the United States. Why is the Canadian rate typically three to four times lower than that of the United States? It is not because Canadians are naturally kinder and gentler. Dagg and Harding are not the first to point out that there is no aggression gene. Hence, could the answer lie in population size? Well, if this was the case, Tokyo or Beijing would have dramatically higher murder rates than the U.S. when in fact those cities are markedly safer. Let’s briefly return to culture. Thousands of Canadians listen to music, watch violent movies and television shows, view pornography, and feast on other features of violent popular culture consumed and produced in the United States. This is not surprising because most Canadians live near the U.S. border. Yet Canadians are, as a whole, much less violent. Researchers such as myself and many others would say that this is because Canada has a much better social safety net, cheaper university and college tuition, and other factors that help buffer its citizens from the violent consequences of unbridled free market capitalism that is endemic to the United States.

Countless criminological studies show that countries with a wide gap between rich and poor are the most violent and that countries characterized by democratic socialism (e.g., Nordic countries) are the least violent. Granted, Dagg and Harding study animals and arguably it is unfair to criticize them for not being familiar with international crime statistics. Nevertheless, such data are easily accessible online and elsewhere, and the next edition of Human Evolution and Male Aggression (and I hope there is one) would be greatly enhanced by including a section on class inequality and male violence. Dagg and Harding do, in fact, mention that violence is partially shaped by economic crises, but they do not elaborate on this point.

What is to be done about male aggression and the ubiquitous popular myth of its being simply part of the male genetic makeup? Dagg and Harding conclude their work by stating that “it is our hope that the ideas in this book, and the scholarly research behind them, will influence politicians and the business leaders who support them.” Many would agree, but it is highly unlikely that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. or other powerful figures will peruse even a small section of this book.

Using social media and writing op-ed pieces in newspapers would help, as well as giving public presentations in libraries and schools. Undoubtedly, Dagg and Harding’s words need to get out and should not gather dust on library shelves. Moreover, these two researchers should make policy recommendations based on their extensive research, although no practical, short-term solutions are provided in Human Evolution and Male Aggression.

There is another positive feature of this book that is worth mentioning. Many people, including thousands of academics, believe that scientists are objective and their main goal is to search for the truth. This, like the claim that humans’ ancestors were primarily violent, is a myth. As the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted in his 1964 The Words, “all writing is political.” I commend Dagg and Harding for starting the first chapter of their book by reiterating this point. They assert that “scientists live within their cultures and take on the prejudices that prevail in their lives.” They then go on to describe four major biases in the field of animal behaviour: bias against females, bias against homosexuality, bias against full participation of Africans and bias toward male aggression. The first bias involves spending more time observing male behaviour and framing female animals as being inferior to males. The bias against homosexuality existed because, according to Dagg and Harding, many zoologists were homophobic. Racism and colonialism affect almost every aspect of our society and the third bias entailed excluding Africans from being fully involved in animal research projects. The last bias Dagg and Harding examine involves historical research (done primarily by men) that showcases and worships male aggression. They claim that this problem “has tainted some of the research on primates and falsified the story of how human beings evolved from their early primate ancestors to the present.”

Obviously, Dagg and Harding are critical thinkers and are not afraid to call into question the sexist, racist and homophobic nature of work done by some leading experts in the field. They should also be applauded for making explicit their own personal experiences with aggression. Both authors provide separate personal statements. Dagg’s experiences were limited to watching violent movies, seeing aggressive hockey games, witnessing a man spank a child and attending a party that involved a father insulting his son, which, in turn, resulted in his son waving his fists, but the conflict quickly ended.

Harding, on the other hand, has seen men fighting and he, too, has fought, but not since university. He also states that he was drafted for the Vietnam War but immigrated to Canada. Like numerous contemporary social scientists, Dagg and Harding are fully aware that no scientific method or theory is value-free and it is highly erroneous to claim that one’s scientific work is “purely objective.”

Much more can and will be said about Human Evolution and Male Aggression in the years to come. This is an eye-opening book that will definitely change many people’s thoughts about men and violence. It is also an important bridge between academic disciplines and I strongly suspect that Dagg and Harding’s work will assist social scientists in their quest to motivate political and economic elites to effectively address the ways in which the current political economic order contributes to brutal male aggression.