Conceived in Western terms, the Minangkabau matriarchate is best defined as “mother right,” not female rule. Neither male nor female rule is possible according to Minang social philosophy because of their belief that decision making should be by consensus. Although differences of opinion are regarded as normal, consensus is the goal of all deliberations. About differences of opinion the Minangkabau have a proverb: Crossing wood in the hearth makes the fire glow. This notion of crossing wood is repeated in the idea that males and females complement one another-like the skin and nail of the fingertip-I was told. The consequence is a peaceable, nearly violence free society with a remarkable egalitarian philosophy undergirding the activities of everyday life. Peggy Reeves Sanday Women Centeredness in Minangkabou Symbolism Life Among the Minangkabou
What is This Thing Called Sexual Dimorphism?
The term comes from the Greek dimorphos, meaning having two forms. Most species of non-microbial organisms, the plants and animals—reproduce sexually at least some time in their life cycle. They have males, which make sperm that are tiny and motile, and females, which make eggs that contain nutrients sufficient to develop into a new individual. Humans obviously fit this pattern . Sperm have the equipment and energy for movement but are small. And eggs, which hold nutrients for development of a new individual, are relatively huge and immobile. This massive difference in size, composition, and function has profound biological ramifications, because eggs, having all that nutrient material, are much more expensive to make than are sperm. Males can make thousands or even millions of sperm. But in every sexually reproducing species, females produce far fewer eggs.
This fundamental asymmetry sets up a situation in which reproductive pressures on and strategies pursued by males and females of all sexually reproducing species are very different. Natural selection will shape the two sexes differently in some critical ways. The biologist Robert Trivers, in his paper “Parental investment and sexual selection,” wrote what is arguably the most influential paper explaining how this fundamental male/female difference has affected evolution of all sexually reproducing species. And that includes us. (Trivers 1972)
Anyone who closely observes animals sees these differences played out in many forms of different or competitive male/female behaviors, the result of natural selection on the two sexes over time. Observers often refer to some male/female behavioral interactions as a “battle of the sexes.”
Sexual dimorphism can occur in anatomy, physiology, and behavior. It exists in external anatomy (e.g., male/female differences in body shape, color, or size) and internal anatomy (e.g., on TV shows like “Bones” or “CSI,” experts often look at skeletal or dental remains to tell whether a human victim was male or female). A general biological principle relevant to this book’s discussion of social conflicts and conflict resolution has to do with size differences; during social conflicts, a general rule is that larger and stronger animals always dominate smaller, weaker one—unless the weaker ones have “leverage” in the relationship. (Hand 1986)
I studied the communication behavior of Western and Laughing Gulls, including changes in behavior when males and females formed pair-bonds. Male gulls, always larger than females, could easily dominate a female. But during pair-bond formation their behavior changes so that they end up with a relationship where conflicts are resolved using what we would call egalitarian behaviors. For example, sharing a large food source, or using signals to negotiate which mate would be the one to incubate eggs at a given time. (Hand 1985) In gulls, close cooperation and coordination of nest building, territory defense, incubation duties, and chick rearing are required for successful breeding, and this gives smaller females “leverage” in their relationship with their larger mate. If domination of females by larger mates reduces male reproductive success, male/female relationships may be egalitarian.
How does this apply to us? Human males are larger and stronger than females, so we should expect men always and everywhere to dominate women. Whenever they don’t, we need to ask why; what cultural or reproductive leverage is likely cancelling out women’s size disadvantage in that context? This is a subject too extensive for consideration here, but chapters in a book edited by M. Z. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere explore many examples of societies where circumstances give women such leverage, and we see women exercising both domestic and public power. (Rosaldo & Lamphere 1974)
In physiology sexual dimorphism isn’t as familiar; notable examples are differences in blood levels of the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen.
It’s sexual dimorphism in behavior, however, that’s critical to discussing human social affairs. Looking across the animal kingdom we see behavioral complexities that relate to multitudes of different species living in widely divergent habitats, from fish to reptiles to birds, to mammals. Humans are classified scientifically as mammals because women nourish their newborns and young with milk from mammary glands. That being the reality, the discussion that follows focuses on examples taken from mammalian species.
While differences directly related to reproductive interactions like mating behavior occur, behavioral differences also occur that are not directly related to reproduction. For example, an elephant herd consists of females and their offspring, including sexually immature males. But when a male comes of age, the females expel him, allowing contact only during breeding season. Expelling males of reproductive age is a built-in proclivity, or preference, that regulates elephant social affairs but is not directly related to reproduction. Male and female lions can live together, but it’s females that have the proclivity to unite to kill prey to feed the whole pride. Males do participate in hunts, especially of large prey, but the main urges of a pride male are to guard the pride from other males and mate with females as often as possible when the females are in heat. For gorilla families, food consists primarily of green leafy vegetation, and the females’ biological urges motivate them to spend their days eating and caring for their young. They also prefer to let the male determine the direction of the group’s movements: when he moves they follow. If danger threatens, he’s the one with the proclivity to protect the group.
Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?
Knowing what it is and what to look for, we can now consider how behavioral sexual dimorphism plays out for us in ways relating to efforts to create a more positive, secure and just human destiny and an enduring peace. We’ll consider first how it relates to psychological tendencies to use physical aggression, and then to preferences for social stability. What follows is a summary of material presented earlier in two books (Hand 2003, 25-29/2014, 37-44)
Recall that we are mammals and we are primates, closely related to other Great Apes: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. A number of realities that are true for other mammals and primates are also true for humans. The following are three biological realities that affect women’s proclivities with respect to social conflicts and especially physical aggression.
Reality Number 1. The biological bottom line for all living things is to reproduce. Women must successfully reproduce. If an animal doesn’t reproduce, its genes and the physical and psychological characteristics they govern are eliminated from the game of life. From a biological perspective, life is all about successful reproduction because that is the vehicle by which genes for traits, including behavioral/psychological ones, are passed to subsequent generations. I didn’t have children so the genes for my social and sexual preferences won’t be passed on. Fundamentally, traits for resolving social conflicts of women in the past who were successful reproducers are the traits women have today.
Reality Number 2. For female mammals, including female primates, reproducing is a very expensive investment, beginning with production of eggs (as opposed to sperm), and then additionally, investment in time, risks taken, and energy expenditure. What does that mean for women? Consider that female primates carry an offspring to term, nourishing it from within their body—often for months; for women, nine months. Then they risk the serious hazards of childbirth. Then for a substantial period of time they provide milk from their body for nourishment, something very costly from a physiological perspective. They must protect this offspring, care for it, and in our case, support it for years before it is old enough to reproduce, the earliest at ages between roughly eight and thirteen. Finally, after their offspring reproduce, research shows that women in most cultures are still deeply involved in making sure that the offspring of their offspring also survive and thrive: they invest in their grandchildren. (Hawkes 2003, pp 380-400, Hawkes 2004, pp 128-129) Reproduction is unquestionably for female primates, including us, a very extended, risky, and expensive process that puts enormous reproductive pressures on females. Most especially so for us since our offspring are born so very helpless.
The evolutionary result, Reality Number 3, is that the ideal social situation for female primates, including us, is social stability for long periods. Anything that threatens the life of these expensive offspring or their caregiver, for women certainly something like war but also deadly fighting within their community, has been and remains hugely evolutionarily counterproductive.
This reality is fundamental to women’s behavioral choices. Many observed behaviors characteristic of how women respond to conflicts reflect a strong, evolved, emotional/psychological preference for social stability because that proclivity, and the observed behaviors which it underlies, is what made women reproductively successful.
For example, women, in general, are naturally inclined toward negotiation, mediation, and compromise, much more than men, in general. Why would natural selection, over time, favor women thus inclined? Because, as many writers and experts like William Ury have pointed out, solutions arrived at by those nonviolent means often result in win-win outcomes, which tend to be more socially stable and longer lasting. (Ury 1999, 2000)
Another example. To keep the peace when challenged, women may defer rather than argue or fight; in a given context where it will not cost them reproductively to do so, women may anticipate that challenging another person may produce a socially disruptive result and so they may opt to refrain or defer (for example, in that who-will-sit-under-the-shady-tree case mentioned in the previous chapter). When under stress, in conditions that might elicit fighting, men typically react with what is called the “fight-or-flight” response. Women, however, are more inclined toward what has been called the “tend-and-befriend” response, something much more likely to facilitate a calming effect on the situation. (Taylor et al. 2000)
It is important to stress that evolutionary pressure favoring a preference for social stability did not result in women being by nature pacifists or saints. They can be spiteful. As members of a hierarchically inclined species they engage in power struggles, but typically establish and maintain their social status using nonviolent forms of aggression (bad-mouthing a rival, excluding someone from their clique, resorting to witchcraft). They can kill a sexual rival out of jealousy or a spouse they no longer love. But compared to men, women do so rarely.
Women can even fight in wars if no other option is available, and soldiers who have fought with women claim that if roused to the point of taking up a weapon, women can be vicious fighters. Lack of aggressive motivation is not what is being asserted about women’s biology. The forms that women’s aggression takes, however, shows dimorphism. What women are by nature is determined preservationists of socially stable and nurturing communities. A wide range of women’s social behavioral choices, described in Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace (pp. 138-144) and Shift: The Beginning of War, the Ending of War (pp. 62-65, 165-167)—not just avoidance of war—are a reflection of that preference). (Hand 2003, 2014)
With respect specifically to war, if women can be convinced that they, their children, or their community are under some kind of imminent mortal threat, women will urge their men to wage preemptive war. For the overwhelming majority of women (not all women, but the overwhelming majority), physical fighting in defense of community is an uncommon behavior. But as fierce defenders of children and community—and that includes their way of life—women will fight, and fight bravely, if necessary. This reality was well described by writer and film critic Kate Muir in her book Arms and the Woman. Female Soldiers at War. (Muir 1992)
A review going back several hundred years shows that strong women leaders have waged wars of defense or preservation (Hand, 2003, 99-104/2014, 117-122). Think of Golda Meir (4th Arab/Israeli War), Margaret Thatcher (Argentina), or Elizabeth the First of England (Spain). In a warring society some percentage of women will certainly be political “hawks.” Historically, however, and this is key, women leaders in power have been overwhelmingly less inclined than male leaders to launch a war of conquest. Elizabeth the first of England is an example of the former protective sort, as evidenced by her mounting a navy that defeated the Spanish Armada. If history can be believed, Cleopatra of Egypt exemplifies the less common woman leader, having a genuine lust for conquest. In short, we can expect that female heads of state are as likely as male heads of state to be strong defenders of their nation, but are less likely than male leaders to start wars.
In this compressed summary we have covered how natural selection for reproductive success shaped the fundamental psychological relationship of women, in general, to using physical violence, to waging war, and to a preference for living in and creating a socially stable community in which to raise children. [We’ll take up the issue of womens' individual differences later.] We turn now to two further biological realities, also the results of natural selection for reproductive success and/or survival. These apply to men, in general, and to their relationship to physical violence and war.
Reproductive Pressures on and Priorities of Men
Reality Number 4. For male mammals, the reproductive game is very different; males virtually never invest in offspring as heavily as females do. With only rare exceptions found in one primate family (Callitrichidae – tamarins and marmosets), male primates never invest in offspring as heavily as female primates do. In many primates, males invest nothing but sperm. Human fathers often become involved in some support and protection of their young (think monogamy), but this isn’t even the case in all cultures. With only rare exceptions would a father’s physical participation, risk, and time investments approach those of a mother.
And very importantly, if a man loses an offspring for any reason—from a fight within the community where he lives or in a war—men potentially can relatively easily father replacement offspring. They simply need to find a woman to impregnate, and the father may or may not take responsibility for the years-long care required to bring the child to sexual maturity, which is a basic criterion for evolutionary reproductive success.
As a consequence of the above: Reality Number 5 is that for many male primates, including men, maintaining social stability is not as high a priority as it is for women. It is important to men, who have no desire to live in chaos, but not nearly as critical reproductively as it is to women.
Actually, the urge to rise in dominance status is, in many primate species, a major evolutionary pressure on and priority for males, because higher dominance is frequently correlated with greater male reproductive success or survival. There remains some debate around the extent to which this is true for humans. (Rueden & Jaeggi 2016) What is unquestionably true, however, is that much of men’s social lives and psychology is focused not on promoting social stability but on rearranging the social order to achieve greater social dominance that translates into social status. (McMartin 2017)
Sometimes this involves using physical violence (in cultures where violence isn’t strongly suppressed). Think of participation in fist-fights, knife-fights, gang wars, and inter-state war itself. These are characteristic of human male behavior in dominator cultures. And in any culture, they are uncommon to rare behavior for women compared to men. Research and common experience shows that men are more likely to use physical aggression that results in killing, a classic study of this reality being that of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s Homicide. (Daly & Wilson 1988)
Already mentioned, cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes life in egalitarian African tribes, noting how hard these egalitarian, nonviolent people work to ensure that “upstart males” (more rarely females) cannot assert themselves in a way to increase their dominance. (Boehm 1999) At minimum, they’re ridiculed. Say a hunter brags about what a big gazelle he brought down. A woman may laugh and say how nice, since what he brings in is usually so puny. If ridicule doesn’t work, “upstarts” can be sanctioned by group shunning for a time. Or even the extreme of ostracism; if he won’t quit efforts to rise in dominance (status) over others, they toss him out.
We, men and women, have inherited from primate ancestors the urge to form dominance hierarchies. This urge or proclivity—the desire to control, defeat, or “win” over others rather than share or compromise as partners—when that desire becomes the overarching passion in a human heart, it becomes a poisoned wellspring of the evil that humans do to each other. It’s the killer of lives and societies, and a generator of war.
It is virtually self-evident that if we are to build communities that remain stable, tendencies for increasing one’s domination that might result in physical violence, especially killing and certainly war, must be suppressed one way or the other—using customs, education, laws and even punishment. And women in general are, by nature, psychologically geared to respond to potential or actual conflicts or situations that might develop into physical conflicts by using nonviolent behaviors that foster social stability. How this inclination can positively affect social decision-making will be explored in a subsequent chapter. ("Equality for Women Means Progress for All") We now briefly consider, however, some male proclivities that make us susceptible to making war.
Proclivities that Facilitate Building Armies
Some strongly genetically-influenced inclinations that are more characteristic of men can be used to build an army. One is group bonding and alliance formation. (Wrangham & Benenson 2017) This includes aggressive male bonding. This proclivity has always facilitated protecting a group from large predators. It’s key to many forms of hunting. We see the tendency expressed in the male love of aggressive team sports, in young boys who unite to do pranks like draping neighborhood yards with toilet paper, and when angry men form a mob—say after a stolen election or simply after a soccer match. Common experience is that such mobs are unlikely to be composed mostly of women. A warmonger counts on this tendency when he needs to unite men into a force that can kill.
A second, and admirable, tendency more typical of men can also facilitate building an army: willingness to protect the group, even at the risk of death. A clever manipulator will assert that it is vital that “our group,” especially women and children, must be protected from some evil other group. For the evolved reproductive reasons described above, women are psychologically primed to be reluctant to risk death. But when it’s convincingly asserted that the group must be protected, most men find it emotionally impossible to let other men do the risk-taking, fighting, and dying while they stand by with the women. Arguably this can be explained, in part, by an emotional reluctance to lose social status in the eyes of other men or the women. Young men are the single most restless and aggressive members of any society. (Daly & Wilson 1998) When they feel alienated, they’re dangerous. Warmongers can readily use them to build armies. To end war, young men must very consciously be made part of the effort. (Barry 2011, Hand 2014, pp 179-187) That means specifically focusing on meeting their social needs: to feel inclusion in their societies, to have the means to make a living, to have a sense that they are valued. They must become warriors for and maintainers of the peace.
In summary, some evolved behavioral sexual differences between men and women, in the most stripped-down essence, reflect natural selection resulting in men keenly interest in securing social dominance and/or maintaining their social status, and selection resulting in women keenly interested in securing and maintaining socially stable and nurturing communities. (Hand 2017) This consideration of human behavioral sexual dimorphism with respect to 1) social conflict versus social stability, 2) the use of physical aggression, and 3) the embrace of war has been compressed and simplified. It should be clear, nevertheless, why for reasons associated with reproductive success, the majority of women in all cultures have a much stronger preference for maintaining social stability than do the majority of men in those cultures. With respect to many social choices we make, these sexually dimorphic psychological differences are a defining aspect of what kind of animal we are.
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