Most people who have any familiarity at all with the subject of human behaviour will know of the “Nature vs Nurture” debate. The argument was about whether our biological history or our social conditioning determines how humans behave. We now know however, that both contribute to our behaviour. In fact the influences are so closely entwined it is generally difficult to determine which factor is being played out in any given circumstance.
A useful example is depression. Those with depressed parents are more likely to be depressed than those whose parents don’t suffer that affliction. Sometimes, but certainly not always, it is difficult to determine whether the behaviour of depressives is genetically determined or whether it is socially learnt at an early age from the example of a parent and unconsciously subsumed into their repertoire of behaviours.
When giving workshops with the good Dr Phil, he would often state that perhaps the simplest and most obvious example of how our biological history impacts on behaviour is to examine the difference in the behaviour of men and women. Sometimes we would seek an audience response by asking, “Hands up those who believe men behave differently to women.” Some would raise their hands and others, probably believing it was somehow sexist to make such a distinction, wouldn’t.
If some of the disbelievers challenged him, Phil in his deep, strong baritone voice, would provide some convincing statistics.
- Men murder more often than women by a factor of at least seven to one.
- Men take more risks than women and as a consequence are five times more likely to die in a traffic accident.
- Boys are much more likely to be hyperactive than girls.
- Males are much more likely to be autistic.
[We might also consider the communication strategies of both sexes. As the American social psychologist Carol Tavris wrote: “When females talk to females, they ask more questions, fill more silences, and insert more ‘um-hmms’ and murmurs than men do. When males talk to males, both parties tend to regard interruption as a challenge to the speaker, who may then yield his turn or speak louder to maintain it. When females talk to males, their respective language rules can create misunderstandings. He takes her supportive murmurs as a sign of agreement rather than attention, and feels irritated by her interruptions. She wonders why he isn’t paying attention to her and never seems to support what she is saying.”]
Now we cannot believe that males merely choose to behave differently in these respects. It is obvious something deeper is predisposing them to this kind of behaviour. The underlying factor is of course their genetics. These behavioural differences can be linked to the increased levels of testosterone that males have to live with.
The genetic endowment of men results in them being risk takers. By late adolescence, when the impact of testosterone is starting to really impact, the premature mortality of males is already starting to show. Testosterone leads males to commit more homicides, take their own lives more frequently, be involved in more accidents and suffer more heart disease. This does not seem to be a great survival strategy and one might wonder why it has continued to dominate the lives of men even though it adversely affects their mortality.
The simple explanation is that whilst testosterone might prematurely kill many males it leads them to mate more often. As Matt Ridley wrote, “A gene whose consequence is higher mortality should head for rapid extinction. The reason it does not is obvious enough. Risk-averse wimps may live longer, but they do not have more children. The best way to reproduce, if you are a male, is to take a few risks, elbow a few other males out of the way to impress a few females.”
So in a perverse way these aberrant male behaviours have over the eons been encouraged by the response of females. But this in turn is not a conscious thing and certainly not something to which we should attempt to attach blame. In our prehistory the aggressive, risk-taking behaviour probably helped in providing a more secure family environment warding off predators, competing suitors and ensuring more food. Under these circumstances it made sense for females to seek out males with such characteristics. And of course because males resorted to rather gross aggressive behaviour, as we all know, females developed subtler strategies.
Now, unfortunately in evolutionary terms, humans have not had time to genetically acquire more appropriate lifestyle strategies. As I have often said most of us have an instinctual fear of spiders and snakes which was probably a useful genetic strategy for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Very few of us today would know of anyone who was killed by snakebite. It would be more appropriate if we had an instinctual fear of speeding motor vehicles, electricity sockets or debilitating drugs. But these are very new threats to humans and we have not had the opportunity to develop a genetic response.
And so it is that we have to accommodate in our modern lives an overhang of genetic responses that are no longer appropriate.
One of the modern manifestations of this inappropriate behaviour, resulting from ancient derivations, is domestic violence. Domestic violence, with but a few exceptions, is perpetrated by males. Now these genetic proclivities of males help to explain this behaviour, but it does not excuse it. In a civil society we all have to suppress instinctual behaviours when they cut across the rights of others. Most of us do this and by far the majority of men do not physically harm their partners.
Despite the fact that it is only a minority of men that exhibit such appalling behaviour the toll it takes on society, and in particular women, is not insignificant. In Australia nearly two women a week on average are killed by their partners or former partners. Family violence, largely perpetrated by men, is the chief cause of homelessness for women and children. A large part of the work of police is devoted to attending to the consequences of domestic violence.
Now as we discovered earlier, most behaviour has its origins in the biological history and the early socialisation of individuals. And in many ways those impacts are additive. For example if your parents are criminals and you live in a criminal environment you are more than likely going to be a criminal offender. If your parents are criminal but you were brought up, for whatever reason, in a non-criminal environment you are far less likely to resort to criminal behaviour.
The same rationale applies to domestic violence. If you are male, and therefore genetically predisposed to some degree to violence, and live in a household where domestic violence is acted out, you are more likely to display such behaviour. It is therefore important in combatting this dysfunctional behaviour to intervene in those households to try to prevent it in order to lessen the likelihood that sons will emulate their fathers. Research also shows that women brought up in such households are more likely to view such behaviour as “normal” and are less likely to seek help when they are the victims. We must try and stamp out domestic violence in households and re-establish proper behavioural norms that promote equality between men and women and prevent men from subjugating women. I have written in other essays how I deplore the tendency of fundamental Islam to oppress women. It is difficult to promote such an argument when men in my own society are doing the same.
In general I shy away from the issues of the “gender wars” as many of them are confected. But in this case, for the reasons I have outlined above, I agree with the sentiments of Rosie Batty, Australian of the Year, whose son was murdered by her partner. She said:
“We have to be changing our own attitudes towards violence and recognising this is a gender issue. It is about men having to look at that change.”
The genetics that predispose males to be more violent than women have also resulted in men being bigger and stronger than women. It is hardly a manly virtue to act out our insecurities by beating up our women who are in general smaller and weaker than us.
It is to Tony Abbott’s credit that he has made domestic violence a major topic for the recent COAG meeting. Let us hope that the outcomes are more than a plethora of sanctimonious words!