Prinz on social VS evolutionary explanations for male violence

He does an awesome job. A couple of examples:

A historical explanation of male violence does not eschew biological factors, but it minimizes them and assumes that men and woman are psychologically similar. Consider the biological fact that men have more upper-body strength than women, and assume that both men and women want to obtain as many desirable resources as they can. In hunter-gatherer societies, this strength differential doesn’t allow men to fully dominate women, because they on the food that women gather. But things change with the advent of intensive agriculture and herding. Strength gives men an advantage over women once heavy ploughs and large animals become central aspects of food production. With this, men become the sole providers, and women start to depend on men economically. The economic dependency allows men to mistreat women, to philander, and to take over labor markets and political institutions. Once men have absolute power, they are reluctant to give it up. It took two world wars and a post-industrial economy for women to obtain basic opportunities and rights.

In response to a recent article supporting the evolutionary “male warrior” hypothesis:

The authors claim that men are more xenophobic than women, because they are wired to wage war. But this is also predicted on the historical account, because men control governments and handle foreign relations. It follows too that men start all wars.
The authors contend that, compared to women, men prefer social dominance hierarchies, which testifies to their innately competitive nature. But this is easily explained on the social story: in male dominant societies, men gain from dominance hierarchies, and women lose.
The authors note that men are more prone to cooperate when under threat than otherwise, which may suggest an instinct to form armies. But a simpler explanation is that, having obtained power, men are reluctant to cooperate except under pressure.
The authors cite a disturbing study in which men endorse war after being primed with a picture of an attractive woman, which suggests that male violence has a sexual motive. But the link between sex and violence may derive from the fact that sex is often coercive in male dominant societies.
The authors link the male warrior hypothesis to racism: white men, they say, show greater fear responses to pictures of black men, than do white women. But this is difficult to explain on any evolutionary hypothesis, since there would have been little ethnic diversity in our ancestral past. Racism is more readily linked to the social history of slavery, an industry run by men.
The authors also remark that women become more racist at times of peak fertility, suggesting fear of impregnation by foreign invaders. A different explanation is that menstrual peaks also bring out strong emotions, which lets latent racism come to the fore.
The male warrior hypothesis makes many predictions that don’t pan out. There is no evidence that men prefer foreign women–the Western ideal is Barbie–and women often like effeminate men: David Bowie would not be sexier with an enormous beard. On the male warrior hypothesis, women should fear foreigners as much as men do, because foreign men are hardwired to attack them, but women are actually more sympathetic to foreigners. This may stem from their firsthand knowledge of discrimination.

(Thanks, R!)

7 thoughts on “Prinz on social VS evolutionary explanations for male violence

  1. “Strength gives men an advantage over women once heavy ploughs and large animals become central aspects of food production. With this, men become the sole providers, and women start to depend on men economically.”

    Ignoring the rest of the article, this statement is false. For example, both Gail Hershatter in ‘Gender of Memory’, and Susan Mann in her work on the Jiangnan region during the Qing dynasty show a long pattern of women working in the fields (at times even with bound feet). Indeed, rather than a culture of economic dependence of women on men, there was one of communal interdependence, or even one in which men – engaged in the scholar examination system – were largely supported by the female side of the family.

    Maybe to say that, as Mann shows, a history through sources that attend only to the role played by men misses a crucial half of the story, and is not one to base any definitive statements on.

  2. I like it. But I have to say, the idea of David Bowie with an enormous beard is just curious enough that I wish Bowie would give it a try, for the sake of science. Probably it would be awful, but it might be fun to see.

  3. Thanks for the post on this great piece by Prinz.

    As regards the positions and arguments behind the quotation called into question in comment #1 above, interested readers should check out the paper “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough”. Interested readers can find relevant links and info here:

    https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/gender-inequality-index-3/#comment-34339

    https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/gender-inequality-index-3/#comment-35551

  4. Humbug. Does anyone else chafe at the dualistic premise here that biological differences and psychological differences could be neatly distinguished, even in theory? Are we to imagine that muscles (and genitals and hair follicles and bones, etc.) respond in statistically divergent ways to X/Y developmental differences while the brain does not? Bodies are complex and subtle, folks! Why assume psychology is not biological?

    To press this point is not to root for *reductive* accounts of biology (that the X-vs-Y genotype difference suffices to *cause* various salient phenotypic differences). Environmental, cultural and dietary interactions mediate *all* of biology, not just psychology. Pinning our hopes on *culturally* reductionist accounts is just as bad as pinning them on genetically reductionist accounts.

  5. Interestingly (to me, at least), the general point that Prinz makes in the first call-out — about how men’s upper-body strength gave them a certain advantage once heavy tools became an integral part of food production and women thereby became economically dependent on men — is made forcefully by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. (See the “History” section, esp. the part about the development of tools during the bronze age.) This point fits with two of the main claims in the book: (1) that biological differences between men and women can be, an have been, *exploited* to women’s disadvantage, though they haven’t directly *caused* this disadvantage and (2) that women’s economic independence is absolutely critical to fighting women’s oppression.

  6. “In hunter-gatherer societies, this strength differential doesn’t allow men to fully dominate women, because they on the food that women gather….”

    “The authors claim that men are more xenophobic than women, because they are wired to wage war. But this is also predicted on the historical account, because men control governments and handle foreign relations. It follows too that men start all wars. ”

    Wouldn’t the fact that in virtually every hunter-gatherer society known, present and historical, men are in charge of hunting and warfare lend support to the innate violence hypothesis? Prinz suggests that men put themselves in charge of warfare after they gained control of economic and political institutions because of their massive biceps (or something). But as Prinz himself as much as admits in the first passage quoted above, even before the invention of agriculture women were responsible for gathering, men for hunting. To the extent that hunter-gatherer societies waged warfare (and they certainly did), men were in charge of warfare too (war requires the same tools as hunting, after all).

    “…in male dominant societies, men gain from dominance hierarchies, and women lose.”

    The men at the top of the dominance hierarchies certainly gain from them. They gain access to resources and mating opportunities. The men at the bottom of dominance hierarchies lose out on all of those things. Women do not lose in male dominance hierarchies; they don’t compete in them. Instead, they compete in their own dominance hierarchies with other women. These battles between women are fought less with physical than with social and relational aggression.

    “The authors link the male warrior hypothesis to racism: white men, they say, show greater fear responses to pictures of black men, than do white women. But this is difficult to explain on any evolutionary hypothesis, since there would have been little ethnic diversity in our ancestral past.”

    People are sensitive to anything that suggests genetic similarity or dissimilarity. People are more likely to be altruistic toward those they perceive as genetically similar, and selfish or aggressive toward those they perceive as genetically dissimilar. Race and ethnicity are one among many tools people use to decide who is and who is not likely to be related to them.

    “…women often like effeminate men: David Bowie would not be sexier with an enormous beard.”

    The preference of women during peak fertility for masculine faces, bodies, and voices is well documented. So is the preference of women who consider themselves attractive for these traits.

    “The authors perpetuate the myth that evolution prefers men to be polygamous and females to be monogamous.”

    If this is what the authors say, then they are indeed perpetuating a myth. Women are more accurately characterized as hypergamous: always seeking a partner with higher status, higher genetic quality, and more resources.

    Finally, as anyone who as undergone a natural or chemical increase in their testosterone levels can attest, you certainly *feel* a hell of a lot more violent and aggressive.

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