Science and the square wheel

James Turley is not impressed by the resurfacing of 'male aggression' myths

If there is one phrase that should raise a sceptical eyebrow whenever it appears in a newspaper headline or sub-head, it is ‘according to scientists’.

There is, it should be widely known, no guarantee that the persons concerned are, in fact, scientists; if they are, there is no guarantee that they are doing legitimately scientific science; and above all else, there is no guarantee that the article in question has reported their findings with any degree of accuracy.

So it is with the recent flurry of interest in a study led by Mark van Vugt on the ‘male warrior hypothesis’, which attempted to marshal existing evidence in support of that classic canard of bourgeois common sense - men are fundamentally violent, competitive and tribal, while women are more likely to seek compromise. The Daily Telegraph summarised his findings thus: “The male sex drive is to blame for most of the world’s conflicts, from football hooliganism to religious disputes and even world wars, according” - naturally - “to scientists.”

(As a ‘topical’ illustration of this phenomenon, the Torygraph rather mischievously chose a still from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, with William Wallace leading some underdressed Scots into war, woad-faced and mad-eyed. Such, presumably, is the root of the present difficulties with the union - Alex Salmond’s alpha male complex.)[1]

The argument runs, broadly, that in the most primitive stage of homo sapiens, it was an evolutionary advantage for men to be violent, as this allowed them to conquer more territory and seize more potential mates. At the genetic level, we humans of the 21st century AD are not substantially different from our ancestors; so the male need for more mates can be used to explain everything from match-day violence to the Mongol conquests (the urban myth about Genghis Khan’s 16 million descendents is wheeled out by the Telegraph, rather laughably, as ‘smoking gun’ evidence for the link between male virility and belligerence).

The narrative itself is, of course, hotly disputed. By no means all Darwinian investigations into early human societies come up with that kind of picture of them - the ‘sex strike’ theory of Chris Knight and his colleagues in the Radical Anthropology Group is rather scornful of this kind of reasoning, for example, and that is not the only line of thought at odds with bourgeois common sense about the biological basis of gender relations.

Indeed, in its obsessive focus on ‘male warrior’ behaviour, the press coverage has missed out an important part of the study’s argument; namely, that collective and group behaviour is in itself an evolutionary advantage. Van Vugt and his colleagues attempt, rather, to account for why something in their view hard-wired into both men and women should be expressed, among human males, as conflict and violence.[2]

Nonetheless, the argument is shaky indeed; and the best piece of evidence against the study is its existence itself. After all, Van Vugt is a man, with a Y chromosome wired stubbornly into every cell nucleus in his body; by all accounts, however, he seems not to be the picture of macho aggressiveness - though perhaps, like the antihero of M John Harrison’s excellent novel Light, his scientific career is shadowed by a habit of desperate sociopathic violence.

His work is, nonetheless, caught - like the hypothetical early humans he cites - in a fierce competition for resources. Scientific research, like everything else, requires funding; and scientists compete with one another for grants in order to carry out their work. In fact, this does lead to dubious behaviour, as the ‘Climategate’ scandal a couple of years ago demonstrated. Scientists tend to overestimate the importance of their findings, or leave the overstatements of others (especially in the mainstream media) uncorrected.

So the problem is that competition over resources (and, indeed, suitable mates) takes a vast diversity of forms in contemporary society, not all of them violent, tribal or otherwise amenable to Van Vugt’s warrior male stereotype. It is possible to argue that these are all so many sublimations of the basic urge to put a spear in the belly of the fellow from the next tribe over, of course - a kind of night in which all cats are red in tooth and claw. At that point, however, the rest of the argument immediately collapses, because women compete in these various forms quite as much as men. In that case, Van Vugt is reduced to saying, in effect, that humans are biologically capable of ruthless competition between social groups; something everyone over the age of seven had grasped anyway.

The more remarkable thing about this latest scientific ‘discovery’ is how frequently it recurs. A simple Google search will produce minor variations on the same news story more or less every few years, at least back to 1993. Before then, there was Desmond Morris’s The naked ape and its follow-ups, which were particularly dogmatic on the point of sexual difference. This shows us two things: firstly, that sociobiologists are quite addicted to this narrative, to the point that they make the same ‘discovery’ with almost Freudian levels of repetition. The other is that the bourgeois media has an insatiable appetite for such stories.

The first matter is explicable primarily through the constraining disciplinary viewpoint at work. Put simply, the methods of investigation and basic axioms of this discipline will tend to throw up errors of this kind, which in turn tend to be corrected by people in other disciplines, to whom the limitations of that viewpoint are more obvious. Throw in the tendency towards overstatement, and all the conditions are there for reinventing the square wheel once in a while.

As for the bourgeois media, the detachment of violence and struggle from history has obvious uses. The Telegraph’s use of Braveheart makes this peculiarly obvious - its editors obviously want us to identify Scottish disaffection with the union as an act of meaningless willy-waving, rather than a historically specific response to a historically specific situation.

The denigration of conflicts in this way is invariably selective. If not even the Telegraph can really argue that there is a noble mission for British troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to reduce their travails to an expression of unconscious tribalism. Sociobiology is one of those things that happens to other people.

More fundamentally, the more constrained we are in the prison of our fundamental biological imperatives, the easier it is to make the case that this world, in all its obscenity, is the best of all possible ones. How could we seriously entertain the idea of universal human liberation, if what it means to be human (or, at least, a human with a penis) is to find oneself an Other and set about him? Under socialism, what would we men do with ourselves all day?

There are more general problems with how the media treats science. This is, after all, the time of year when a particular ‘science’ story gets a sudden spike in prominence - the idea of Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. As is fairly well known today, the notion - supported by a meaningless bit of pseudo-maths - was cooked up by an opportunistic teacher as a PR job for a holiday company.

Nowadays, the holiday ‘angle’ is only picked up by the occasional article discrediting the story; but nonetheless, various mental health charities keep it alive by using Blue Monday (variously the third Monday in January, or the Monday of the last full week in January - but who’s counting?) as a platform for ‘awareness raising’. Charities are quite as involved in grubby, cynical struggle for a limited pool of philanthropic donations as scientists are for grants; it is now their PR departments that peddle this garbage. The media still gobbles it up whole.

Science, in theory, has immense potential as a liberating force; not primarily because it translates into technological progress, but because as a practice it is founded on critical thought. Science is not so much about erecting grand theories as tearing them to pieces. The eagerness of the media and other bourgeois ideologues to peddle simplistic, just-so stories as if they were scientific fact would not be a major issue if the subject was not, in its essentials, restricted to those who pursue it in an academic or professional capacity.

For the vast majority of people, however, science is something done by others to them. It is a particularly harmful aspect of the way in which bourgeois society expropriates the common intellectual and cultural heritage of humanity, and feeds it back to us in deformed chunks. It is a travesty of the most powerful form of knowledge the human species possesses. Maybe we should organise to take it back.



1. www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9030828/Male-sex-drive-to-blame-for-worlds-conflicts.html.

2. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/367/1589/670.full.pdf+html.