Let me nip this little brouhaha caused by my last post in the bud. So perhaps—just perhaps—I made a slight gaffe in directing readers to the Jezebel.com Web site in order to illustrate social aggression in reproductive aged females. It was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek rub at that Web site, I must admit, precipitated by a rather nasty editorial there on an earlier article of mine. But I didn’t anticipate a humorless mob of “Jezebelers” commenting angrily in defense of their own tight-knit online community. Well, maybe I expected the reaction a little bit; I’m not entirely naïve to viral marketing campaigns.
I’d like to point out, though, that for a blog site that wishes to portray itself as the mature, sophisticated, sensitive, sexually egalitarian and supportive environment for women that many of the commentators are convinced it is, Jezebel was an interesting choice of namesake. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “jezebel” as an “immoral woman who deceives people in order to get what she wants.” And lest we not forget its historical countenance, the Easton’s Bible reminds us that, “Jezebel has stamped her name on history as the representative of all that is designing, crafty, malicious, revengeful and cruel.”
And until now, my only experience with Jezebel reflected exactly such maliciousness and cruelty—courtesy of the particularly vituperative and serpent-tongued editor who wrote the aforementioned piece about me. Having now read through some of the commentary threads on Jezebel.com, however, there is indeed a certain wit and clever sensibility permeating there that has gained my newfound respect. I apologize for painting the women (and men) of Jezebel with too broad a brush. I admire the site’s incisively liberal bent; as a science writer with my own biases in this direction and one with little patience for bigotry, I suspect we’re on the same page.
Bering in Mind is a column based on research findings that I think are fascinating—my articles should not be confused with the kind of dispassionate news articles found on the rest of ScientificAmerican.com. I’m a voice of science with a bite. I’m also a professional scientist, not a journalist, and I often write these columns during my lunch breaks.
I do, however, take care to report research results as accurately as would be done in a news story—in other words, I will not apologize for what I wrote about men and women and the differences in our underlying psychologies. In order to really believe that the only differences between the sexes emerge from what human beings learn from culture and society, you’d have to be either inordinately naïve or grotesquely misinformed about evolution, biology and psychology. I adore feminist legends such as Simone de Beauvoir as much as anyone (she’s a particular existentialist close to my heart, in fact), but ignoring what we’ve learned about biologically based differences between the sexes, and how they influence social behavior is, well, colossally dumb these days.
In addition to the work of Hess and Hagen that I discussed in my last post, you might, for example, find University of Durham psychologist Anne Campbell’s ongoing research on sex differences and aggression especially interesting. She’s been carefully teasing apart the many complex strands of cultural transmission and hormonal mediators in her evolutionary theorizing about female violence. Campbell has argued that much of the sex differences in aggression can probably be understood in terms of “parental investment theory.” Parental investment theory was developed in the early 1970s by biologist Robert Trivers. One of its basic implications is that, since human mothers make a disproportionately greater contribution (and physical investment) to the offspring’s survival than human fathers, women have evolved to be generally more reticent than men in their mating strategies. Typical male physical violence, Campbell argues, is largely a form of showy sexual competition between men for reproductive access to the most desirable women. The types of social aggression among women I described in my previous article also appears to be a form of intrasexual competition for the most desirable men, but it avoids the comparatively higher cost of physical harm to women’s bodies.
Now, about those cases that seem to stray from this logic. Experimental psychological science is a discipline based on statistically significant, aggregate differences between comparison groups. In the present case, there are observed differences in the preferred aggressive-retaliatory styles between the sexes—ones that continue to appear even after controlling for social norms. I’ll reiterate what I said in my earlier post that there are certainly male “bitches”—I’ve known my share and such tendencies aren’t altogether foreign to me, as you’ve probably already noticed—as well as physically violent females out there. And of course everybody has a bit of androgyny in his or her psychological makeup. But we’re talking about general leanings here—exceptions to the general pattern don’t threaten the theoretical integrity of an evolutionary model one iota. As a homosexual evolutionary psychologist, believe me, I appreciate the fact of individual variation more than most. It’s the fodder of natural selection. Yet I also understand that today’s heritable individual differences in personality, physiology and sexuality are largely irrelevant to the more general evolved biological adaptations that took root in our species’ brains over hundreds of thousands of years of selective pressures.
In the ancestral past, it may very well be that teenage girls and young women who weren’t particularly catty were disadvantaged in evolutionary terms, similar to men who were physically weak. Being a “good” thing in a sociopolitical sense and a “good” thing in an adaptive sense aren’t one and the same, and I suspect many of the reactions to my previous post were the result of conflating these two categories.
But if you still want to believe, as de Beauvoir did, that “one isn’t born a woman, but becomes one” through unfair societal ascriptions and expectations, go on and do so. Just don’t appeal to science in support of such nonsense; you’ll find very little evidence in favor of these types of a biological, postmodernist ideas.
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.