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A bonobo world, etc, 18: gender and aggression in life and sport

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bonobos play-fighting


human apes play-fighting?

If anyone, like me, says or thinks that they’d like to be a bonobo, it’s to be presumed they don’t mean they’d like to live in trees, be covered in hair, have a shortened life-span, a brain reduced to a third of its current size, and to never concern themselves with why the sky is blue, how the Earth spins, and whether the universe is finite or infinite. What we’re really interested in is how they deal with particular matters that have bedevilled human societies in their infinite variety – namely sex, violence, effective community and the role of women, vis-a-vis these matters.

While making a broad generalisation about human society, in all its billions, might leave me open to ridicule, we seem to have followed the chimpanzee and gorilla path of male domination, infighting as regards pecking order, and group v group aggression, rising to warfare and nuclear carnage as human apes became more populous and technologically sophisticated. One interesting question is this: had we followed the bonobo path of female group bonding and controlling the larger males by means of those bonds, and of group raising of children causing reduced jealousies and infanticides, would we have reached the heights of civilisation, if that’s the word, and world domination that we have reached today?

I realise this is an impossible question to answer, and yet… Human apes, especially in post-religious societies, are recognising the power and abilities of their women more and more. Social evolution has speeded up this process, bringing about changes in single lifetimes. In 1793 Olympe de Gouges, playwright, abolitionist, political activist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, was guillotined by Robespierre’s disastrous Montagnard faction, as much for being a moderate as for being a woman. Clearly a progressivist, de Gouges opposed the execution of Louis XVI, and capital punishment generally, and favoured a constitutional monarchy, a system which still operates more or less effectively in a number of European nations (it seems better than the US system, though I’m no monarchist). Today, capital punishment generally thrives only in the most brutally governed nations, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though there are unfortunate outliers such as Japan, Singapore and arguably the USA (none of those last three countries have ever had female leaders – just saying). One hundred years after de Gouges died for promoting female equality and moderation, women were still being denied a university education in every country in the world. However in the last hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, we’ve seen dramatic changes, both in the educational and scientific fields, and in political leadership. The labours of to the Harvard computers, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury and many others, working for a fraction of male pay, opened up the field of photometric astronomy and proved beyond doubt that women were a valuable and largely untapped intellectual resource. Marie Curie became the most famous female scientist of her day, and inspired women around the world to enter the scientific fray. Today, women such as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of CRISPR-Cas9 fame, and Michelle Simmons, Australia’s quantum computing wizard, are becoming more and more commonplace in their uncommon intellect and skills. And in the political arena, we’ve had female leaders in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Serbia, Croatia, Russia (okay, in the eighteenth century), China (nineteenth century), South Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Sri Lanka (the world’s first female PM), Israel, Ethiopia and Liberia, and I may have missed some. This may seem an incredible transformation, but many of these women were brief or stop-gap leaders, and were all massively outnumbered by their male counterparts and generally had to deal with male advisers and business and military heavyweights. 

So it’s a matter of rapid change but never rapid enough for our abysmally short life spans. But then, taking a leaf from the bonobo tree, we should look at the power of female co-operation, not just individual achievement. Think of the suffragist movement of the early 1900s (the term suffragette was coined by a Daily Mail male to belittle the movement’s filletes), which, like the Coalition of Women for Peace (in Israel/Palestine) a century later, was a grassroots movement. They couldn’t be otherwise, as women were then, and to a large extent still are, shut out of the political process. They’re forced into other channels to effect change, which helps explain why approximately 70% of NGO positions are held by women, though the top positions are still dominated by men. 

When I think of teams, and women, and success, two more or less completely unrelated fields come to mind – science and sport. In both fields cooperation and collaboration are essential to success, and more or less friendly competition against others in the field is essential to improve quality. Womens’ team sport is as competitive as that of men but without quite the same bullish, or chimp, aggressiveness, it seems to me, and the research backs this up. Sport, clearly, is a constructed form of play, in which the stakes are sometimes very high in terms of trophies, reputations and bragging rights, but in which the aggression is generally brought to an end by the final whistle. However, those high stakes sometimes result in foul play and overly aggressive attempts to win at all costs – and the same thing can happen in science. Sporting aggression, though, is easier to assess because it’s more physical, and more publicly displayed (and more likely to be caught on camera). To take my favourite sport, soccer, the whole object for each team is to fight to get and maintain possession of the ball for the purpose of scoring goals. This battle mostly involves finesse and teamwork, but when the ball is in open play it often involves a lot of positional jostling and other forms of physicality. Personally, I’ve witnessed many an altercation in the male game, when one player gets pissed off with another’s shirt-tugging and bumping, and confronts him chest-to-chest, nature documentary-style. The female players, when faced with this and other foul play, invariably turn to the referee with a word or a gesture. Why might this be? 

In 1914, the American psychologist E L Thorndike wrote:

The most striking differences in instinctive equipment consists in the strength of the fighting instinct in the male and of the nursing instinct in the female…. The out-and-out physical fighting for the sake of combat is pre-eminently a male instinct, and the resentment at mastery, the zeal to surpass, and the general joy at activity in mental as well as physical matters seem to be closely correlated with it.
Of course, much has changed since those observations. Women in OECD countries aren’t quite so into nursing, with birth rates plummeting and female work-place participation rising, but boys still like to tote guns by and large, and girls still like to dress as fairies and play with dolls. The difference is largely in degree. But my observations of soccer matches tell me that women are far less inclined to fight their own battles regardless of the rules than men, and have an ‘instinctive’ (but it’s all cultural) sense of referring to the referee, the parental figure, when aggression is wrongly applied. The thought comes to mind of a girl running to mum or dad when nasty big brother is tormenting her. It’s the reasonable thing to do. Boys, though, are still half-expected to fight their own battles.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm