Monday, August 27, 2007

Being the Boss

Vectors are converging here. I've now finished reading "Demonic Males," and want to continue on from my previous post with a topic on the roots of war, and to elaborate on what else I have learned.

All species exhibit violence in relation to their own and other species (killing, raping) but only chimpanzees and humans regularly kill adults of their own kind and actively go out in party-gangs or self-aggrandizing bands of bonded males in search of enemies to kill. What matters is the opportunity to engage in the compelling drama of belonging to the gang, identifying the enemy, going on the patrol, participating in the attack. The indulgence of this desire for lethal raiding seems to bring a specific gratification: a direct sensuous apprehension of "primitive" power. As one member of a street gang in South Central Los Angeles described it:

"Our war, like most gang wars, was not fought for territory or any specific goal other than the destruction of individuals, of human beings. The idea was to drop enough bodies, cause enough terror and suffering so that they'd come to their senses and realize that we were the wrong set to fuck with. Their goal, I'm sure, was the same." Similarly, the motivation of male chimpanzees on a border patrol is not to gain land or win females, but to beat their victims to a pulp and erode their ability to challenge.

Wars, say Wrangham and Peterson, the authors of "Demonic Males," tend to be rooted in competition for status and perceived threats to dominance. Often wars are a consequence of competition between two prideful nations ruled by prideful men driven by the desire to be on top and concerned about who is the biggest and the best. The miserable truth of these remarks seems plain enough in relation to the current combustible dynamics between Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Unfortunately, with weapons of mass destruction factored into the equation, this competitive compulsion for digging in one's heels and being the boss is a phenomenon that carries with it the potential of our demise. In such a scenario, being on top is more important than maintaining peace, and the demonic players are willing to risk anything to secure the alpha-male position.

Male dominance is a world-wide and history-wide phenomenon (a 1971 survey, cited by the authors, of ninety-three societies around the world found men to hold the bulk of the political power in all of them). However, although peaceful societies are hard to come by, war is NOT, at least according to these authors, inevitable. That said, the pattern is not likely to change unless both men and women invent other strategies for achieving their emotional goals.

If animal behavior in our evolutionary past can indeed be used as a template for thinking about human behavior, there is the intriguing example of peacefulness in a sister-species to the chimpanzees: African bonobos. Bonobos look like chimps but are a little smaller. In their communities there are no reported instances of males battering females or killing infants, no unprovoked aggression with its attendant horrors. The authors conclude that, at least in part, this is because female bonobos cooperate with one another, forming powerful coalitions to defend themselves and keep the males in their place. The power of these female alliances is able to reduce male brute force. Bonobos fight less often, with lower intensity, because male bonobos "just don't seem to care quite so much about being the boss."

In human societies, however, it is often the case that women prefer demonic males and compete with each other for the rewards afforded by their social dominance. In this way, the authors point out, women are active players in maintaining the historical narrative of patriarchy.

For me, all this has provided an interesting porthole through which to view the upcoming presidential elections. It is not hard to single out chimpanzee candidates--like Rudy Giuliani, who will be itching for a fight even before they step up to the plate--from the bonobos like Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich. Hillary, of course, provides the most intriguing case, a bonobo dressed up as a chimpanzee. But if Hillary were to really understand the stakes, she is the one who, bathing in torrents of tribute from her female admirers, could most successfully undertake that female bonding component requisite to creating the elegiac balance between the sexes...

My thought is interrupted, as Virgil arrives and puts his head on my shoulder. When it comes to war, Virgil cannot maintain a philosophically respectable depression. "I just want to let you to know that I'm organizing a League of Women Alligators, in order to jump start your enterprise," he tells me in an exhilarated voice. "I do believe that peace exists, and it doesn't particularly embarrass me--no political worrywart can accuse ME of being a chimpanzee. I'm just an old wizard alligator installing new microchips wherever I can."

I intended to end this post here, with Virgil speaking the final words, but then (coincidentally?) I read an essay in this week's Time, calling Rudy Giuliani "Mr. Tough Talk." They say he talks as if he owns terrorism, despite the fact that he has no foreign policy experience and has never set foot in Iraq. But, like Bush, Giuliani thinks the war in Iraq has made us safer!#$&!!. Yeah, mon! He is the ideal replacement for George, if what you want is more of the same.

And it could happen. "The American people are not going to vote for a weakling. They're going to elect someone who will protect them from terrorism for the next four years," Guiuliani stated to the Detroit News recently.

But I'm with Joe Biden who presciently claims that the next president who comes in will be left with "no margin for error." The world can most definitely not afford another hawkish chimp at the helm, who is convinced that "going on offense" is the safest thing we can do. So if you've read this far, be your own Fairy Godmother, put on your best cotton panties, and stay on message.


katherine devine said...

Suzi, Vannesa Fassie and I had lunch with a friend Sunday , and she shared some information she has been studying relating to testosterone and aggression-it was pretty fascinating and ties in pretty neatly with your recent blog. I feel we are keeping each other inspired, if not necessarily certain we are headed in the right direction. I am still practicing my conga moves- see you soon, Katherine

Anonymous said...

Love the second ending.

I think the female bonobos are keeping the men in line with sex. They are known for that too.

I don't think war is an inevitable part of our make-up but the odds are so against peaceful living now. There are just too many of us. And as the icebergs melt people are prone to more and more meltdowns! It's all one big mix. A mix up, I do believe.