A FaceBook friend asked me a quesiton. All Americans are watching the protests and even rioting around the country to express rage over the killing by police of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. I had pointed out that the rioters were overwhelmingly men, and that war was a male behavior. My friend noted that many women were encouraging the rioters, and he wondered how what he was seeing related to a mother bear protecting her young. That seeming contradiction, women being opposed to war yet encouraging rioting, is a good question, and here is how I answered it.
I wrote, You’ve hit on one of several issues that makes it so hard to understand gender differences with respect to aggression. Namely, that women’s strong aversion to the use of physical aggression doesn’t mean that women’s can’t use aggression. In the time during which natural selection was shaping human psychological proclivities, we lived in small groups. Physical fighting within the group would potentially endanger the life of a woman or her children. Women were selected to avoid/try to prevent disagreements rising to the level of serious/dangerous physical conflicts that might kill them or their offspring. If you will, I have described this as the evolution of a strong preference in women for social stability.
This affects many choices women make that affect families and communities. BUT, and it is a big but, women were also selected to be fierce defenders of their children, and by extension their communities. The result is that women are, as a group, far more strongly opposed to major social unrest and especially violent unrest in their communities than men are. In general, it will be the men who will make up group of violent rioters, and women who are particularly bold will get involved in trying to calm the waters….keep the protest peaceful. Few women will be setting fires, although they may be looting. Again, women are not more moral than men.
And with respect to war itself, women, in general, will vote in greater majorities to avoid going to war than the men of the community. BUT, and it is a relevant "but" that contributes to the difficulty of understanding the fundamental gender difference, if women feel their community where they are raising children is under imminent threat of invasion or other great harm, women will fight! They will fight fiercely…like a mother bear protecting her children. In fact, I’ve been told by men who have fought alongside women that women can often be vicious fighters. And we can all be sure that very many women in communities where their grown children are being killed and many of their young men especially feel always under threat of death at the hands of the police...many of those women may feel that the only way to bring attention to this longstanding disastrous condition IS to riot.
So there you have it. With respect to war, if you want lasting peace you need to have women in leadership to temper the more volatile impulses of men. But you need not fear that women are not patriots who will urge the men to fight in defense of community….will even send their sons and daughters to fight. You just have to seriously convince them that a war is the only way. That negotiation and compromise is absolutely not possible. Sorry to be so long, but as I say, this gender relationship to physical aggression is a very complex issue.
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Dr. Judith Hand writes historical fiction, contemporary action/adventure, and screenplays. Hand earned her Ph.D. in biology from UCLA. Her studies included animal behavior and primatology. After completing a Smithsonian Post-doctoral Fellowship at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., she returned to UCLA as a research associate and lecturer. Her undergraduate major was in cultural anthropology. She worked as a technician in neurophysiology laboratories at UCLA and the Max Planck Institute, in Munich, Germany. As a student of animal communication, she has written scientific papers on the subject of social conflict resolution.
Astronomy image credit: NASA: Full Hemisphere Views of Earth at Night.