Judith Hand, Ph. D.
Why are women universally responsible for fewer homicides than men (1)? Universally!
In 1999 the psychologist Anne Campbell reported on her examination of the use of aggression across many societies. Women, it turns out, much more than men, prefer to avoid physical aggression and killing. Campbell pointed out that evolutionarily this serves to protect the women, their families, their close associates, and especially their children from harm, which would be a serious reproductive hazard, a blow to reproductive success. When we’re talking about traits that evolved as adaptations that foster reproductive success were talking biology, not culture (2).
In that same year the anthropologist Helen Fisher published The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World. Here was another exploration of how men and women, considered as groups, might have strong, statistically significant different approaches to a variety of social skills based, not just on culture, but motivated by innate, biologically evolved differences. Fisher made a strong case for why societies need to harness female “natural” inclinations for the public sphere (3).
Exploration of the relationship between women and violence continues and is expanding. In an important new book with the provocative title Sex and World Peace, four authors have assembled data on the relationship of women to community and national security (4). I read it with great pleasure because it’s about time that decision- and change-makers who want to end war and establish lasting peace realize that neither can be done unless and until women become equal partners with men in making decisions about war and peace and how to build and sustain safe and life-affirming communities.
The book’s authors compile a great deal of data—not opinions or anecdotes but researched data—showing that where women are empowered societies fare better in many ways and that violence, including war, is reduced. The authors document strongly this CORRELATION.
But correlation is not causation. The case for women’s empowerment is and can be made MUCH stronger than just showing correlation.
My work, much of which can be found in my book Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace (free download) and the essays on my extensive website, AFutureWithoutWar.org, examines from an evolutionary perspective why raising the status of women and their concerns and the empowerment of women at all levels of society does not simply correlate with better social outcomes. I offer a theory for why it is CAUSATIVE!
To find the strongest possible argument for women’s empowerment, we must look to biology as well as culture. I called my theory a “social stability” hypothesis because it says that women bring many predispositions to social living that are evolved (not learned) adaptations which function to foster social stability. This notably includes a greater preference by women to avoid using physical violence. The theory says that as a consequence of our biology, empowering women as equal partners with men in governing is a necessary condition to create positive and lasting change to build socially stable communities and countries. Why? Because a number of women’s evolved proclivities are the antidote, so to speak, for evolved male proclivities for domination that can, if left unchecked, include, among a number of negative things, using physical violence.
Anyone familiar with humans (virtually all of us) immediately will think of facts of life that seem to contradict the idea that women, in general, have an innate, built-in—if you will, hard-wired—preference for avoiding physical violence which is more consistently expressed by them. For example, why do we see that when sufficiently riled, a woman may attack her husband with a frying pan? Or why do women sometimes urge men to make war? I spent a lot of time puzzling over many seeming contradictions such as these.
The key to the puzzle came one day in the shower, where I do a lot of creative thinking. I serendipitously attacked the issue from a fresh angle. I asked two obvious biological questions that, oddly, I’d never asked myself before. Not counting the obvious urge to find a good man, I asked myself, “Biologically speaking, what do women want, and why do they want it?”
To my surprise, a two-part answer immediately rose to my conscious mind: women want safe and stable communities and they want sufficient resources, both being necessary to raise their children. Mind on fire, I hurried out, dried off, and wrote down the questions and the answer. I even made some quick initial mental tests as to how those two biological needs—those female reproductive imperatives—would translate into behavior when it comes to using physical aggression…and maybe even other social behavior as well.
In very general terms what the answer means is that women are geared by natural selection to do whatever is necessary to foster social stability…short term and long term. Anything that would threaten the life of her children or a mother’s own life, certainly war, would be an unacceptable risk to successful reproduction. Thus women would have to continually accommodate the need for social stability (the security of her family and community) with the need for sufficient resources for her offspring.
Feeling certain I was on the right track, I started applying these two imperatives to a variety of contexts. To my pleased amazement, women’s behavior, even those strange contradictions I mentioned above and many others, made sense. Keep in mind that humans have been living in cooperatively breeding groups for at least 200,000 years. And in such social groups, if a disagreement develops over how to divide up a resource that two women both claim as theirs, a physical fight between the two of them—much more than a verbal screaming match—would more likely rile up and draw close kin and allies into physical fighting. The possible result of a fight could well be that one or both of the women, or perhaps one or more of their children, might be wounded in the ensuing melee.
Wounds can often become infected and, especially lacking modern medical care, result in death or be outright fatal. It would be far more adaptive over the long (evolutionary) haul for the two women to find a way to compromise, perhaps with the aid of an outside third party. Indeed, the outside third party might have a stake in keeping the women from physical fighting because of her (or his) own interest in maintaining the peace. But if the resource in contention was food and starvation or the threat of starvation were at hand, the survival need for food could very well lead the women to physically fight over the resource. So women would not avoid physical fighting in all contexts.
An immediate question arises. Wouldn’t the rule against physical fighting apply equally to men? Yes, provided there is no incentive for men to engage in physical fights. But Homo sapiens is a primate, descended from a primate lineage in which males compete aggressively, including fighting physically, for dominance. That our men still inherit that predisposition is evident; it is something all cultures work to suppress or control.
That our females more strongly than males prefer to compromise rather than fight physically is a trait that likely goes as far back into our lineage as male urges for dominance because early recourse to fighting physically did NOT generally serve the reproductive or survival interests of human females while male/male fighting sometimes, or often, did.
This same sort of analysis can be applied to conflicts in other contexts. For example, it can explain the phenomenon of soccer moms who vote for preemptive war. “Go to war,” they will say to the men if they can be convinced that their community, where they are raising their children, is in imminent danger (e.g., of starvation or attack). It can explain choices of conservative thinking women who oppose politically progressive causes that would give them more individual power, such as the right to vote or a right to reproductive choice, because they prefer to avoid disruptive social changes in the familiar social order even more than they desire personal power (5).
This preference-for-social-stability-theory can be tested. The eight hypotheses (H) to be tested listed below state that the traits in question are (or are likely to be) more characteristic of women, keeping in mind individual differences and the moderating influence of culture. Although seemingly unrelated by any common function, they all have the potential to produce or foster social stability. The theory predicts that when traits are found that universally show statistically significant differences between men and women, analysis should reveal that some that are more characteristic of women undergird social stability, either immediately or over time.
The first three (H1-H3) are already well documented cross-culturally. They were the facts that stimulated this social stability theory. The remaining five have some support but need further study.
Although learning can reinforce their use, these traits are not learned behavior. Think of the situation being similar to language: the aptitude/inclination for the behavior is innate but learning reinforces and brings it out in full form in a particular culture. What is critical is that all of these inclinations/proclivities would produce the observed behavior because doing them is positively reinforcing to the person acting under their influence (doing so produces feelings of satisfaction), or not doing them is negatively reinforcing (failing to do so produces feelings of disquiet or dissatisfaction).”
• H1 – Forms of conflict resolution: More frequent or quicker use of win-win conflict choices of behavior (negotiation, mediation) or compromise that diffuses conflict.
• H2 – Dominance hierarchies: More stable than those of men and formed without using physical aggression.
• H3 – Physical violence: Less use of physical violence in interpersonal or community conflicts.
• H4 – Reconciliation: Willingness to more quickly forgive/reconcile over small crimes but harshly or seriously punish violent crime or crimes against women; greater concern to bring about reconciliation between individual fighters or groups.
• H5 – Sympathetic concern: After a fight, more likely to console losers (e.g., with words or friendly embrace), reducing the recipients stress level and facilitating continued group cohesion (6).
• H6 – Budgeting choices: for example, more money spent on things to reduce violent neighborhood crime rather than spending on something that would enhance prestige, like acquiring a sports team for the community or a new city hall building.
• H7 – Foresight: Less emphasis on winning a conflict now in contrast to more emphasis on making sure the solution chosen now will also mean less conflict later (foresight regarding potential conflicts) (this kind of foresight coupled with women’s concerns about having sufficient resources may explain the bias women have for supporting “green” or conservation issues) (7).
• H8 – Justice: less focused on the punitive and more focused on understanding an offender’s problems, which places less emphasis on the letter of the law and more on individual justice based on circumstances (empathy for defendants)
Consider an amusing example that reflects women’s preference for conflict resolutions that can foster return to social stability as quickly as possible. A colleague told this story of an incident she experienced when working at the United Nations. She was observing negotiations between two parties. Both sides wanted to reach some resolution, but it was clear they were not making progress. Noting that no women were at the negotiating table, she suggested to the men that they include some women. The immediate response from the men on both sides was, “Oh no. We can’t do that. The women would compromise.”
Consider also that great male leaders tend to display a number of these traits. All of us as individuals are a complex mixture of traits different societies call male and female. So to speak, we all have male and female aspects to our personalities. To the extent that the above traits are more characteristic of women, it is as if great male leaders can be said to be well in touch with their female side.
Investigating these hypotheses won’t be easy. It requires study of very complex behaviors of the two sexes cross-culturally, and setting up appropriate controls. For example, someone might ask concerning reconciliation (H4), “Don’t some male elders exhibit this trait as well? Even more than a young women might?” But it would be inappropriate to compare young women with older males; the preferences or inclinations of young women should be compared with those of young men, and older males with same age females having similar life experiences. If detecting whether such differences exist and whether they are statistically and behaviorally significance were easy, they would already be well known and understood.
If this social stability theory proves to be robust we can say firmly that women do not bring just “talents” to governing, in all cultures they bring evolved predispositions that shape HOW they (would) govern and to what ends. My research, which is yet another step following Campbell and Fisher in this exploration of the biology of women’s approach to using physical aggression and seeking community stability leads to the conclusion that women’s empowerment will not only be essential to free humanity from the grip of our worst instincts and the behavior they produce, including war. Because of fundamental biological drives of both sexes—particularly with males more preoccupied with dominance/status/control which results in the turmoil of changing the social order and a relative inattention to community—the perpetual empowerment of women will be a necessary condition for maintaining stable, safe communities in a future of enduring peace. Herein lies the strongest possible argument for the empowerment of women.
(1 )Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
(2) Campbell, Anne. 1999. Staying Alive: Evolution, culture and women’s intra-sexual aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22:203-252.
(3) Fisher, Helen. 1999. The first sex. The natural talents of women and how they are changing the world. NY: Random House.
(4) Hudson, Valorie, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad F. Emmitt. 2012. Sex and World Peace. NY: Columbia University Press.
(5) Hand, Judith. 2010. Sarah Palin and why all women are not progressive. http://tinyurl.com/2c2o2tl
(accessed 5 April 2012).
(6) In chimpanzees and children, females provide comfort more often than males – Waal, Frans B. M. de. 2012. The antiquity of empathy. Science 336: 874-875.
(7 Polaskovic, Gary. 2012. Are women greener than men? Los Angeles Times. June 13. http://tinyurl.com/6p3k7c5 (accessed 13 June 2012).