Friday, December 14, 2007

Book Review: Demonic Males

OK, so here's the deal. This book has been recommended to me over and over and over. It's supposed to give you an inner glimpse into the male psyche.

It took me almost half the book to really "get it" and not be able to put it down. The first half was good - not boring, lots of interesting stories, but I couldn't see what they were getting at. Once they hit the bonobos, though, it all tied together.

The basic premise of the book is: Men are inherently violent, much more so than women. Is that culture alone or is there a biological reason? Can we find the answer to that question by looking at the other great apes, man's closest relatives?

There are five species of great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, humans, and bonobos. Of these five species, all but one have high levels of violence towards others of their species, and relationship violence (males being violent towards females) is high in those four species.

Orangutans - rape by the "small males" is very common. (A quote from this section that I marked, since it's a sensitive subject, was "Even if animal parallels tell us about ourselves, they justify nothing.") They will even rape human females. Battery of females by the small males is very common and quite brutal. Since orangutans are solitary, there is not "inter-group" violence.

Gorillas - infanticide is amazingly common. The vast majority of gorilla females lose at least one baby to an attack by a silverback out to get her to join his troop. Gorillas live in groups that consist of one male and many females. Other males looking to start their own group/enlarge their group can go about this in two ways: they can either kill or defeat a silverback with an existing group or they can charge past him, tear a baby out of its mothers arms and kill it - there is a good chance that that mother will choose to join him. It didn't make sense to me until they spelled it out, but it is a logical choice for the mother of the killed infant to join the killer - she knows that he is strong enough to protect her next baby. So sad. There is little relationship violence since silverbacks want the females to join them willingly. There is violence between silverbacks for harem control.

Chimpanzees - by far the most violent of the wild great apes. They raid other groups, killing when they can. They rape. They beat lower males and any females and children. They even have torture like behaviors when in the midst of a raid.

There was a lot of time in this book put into comparing chimpanzees and humans since they are the closest to us in behavior.

Humans - obviously very violent. A really interesting piece that I pulled out was about how quickly humans form groups and how quickly one group can become violent towards another group (within minutes even of forming an Us vs. Them complex towards strangers).

Bonobos - now here's the interesting group. Bonobos have no "relationship violence", as a general rule. There is no rape, as a general rule, no infanticide. These apes are not a "nice" species, there is nothing that can be seen in their genetic makeup that makes them more peaceful. What makes them more peaceful? The females.

Female bonobos have the power. If a male attacks a female, he does not just have her to deal with - he has to fight off all of her supporters also. Female bonobos spend a lot of time and effort building up a support network. When a female is in danger, her friends come to her aid physically and emotionally. They support her with hoots and howls when she's fighting well and support her physically if she's being beaten. Rape is not allowed - the male would be beaten down.

Bonobos live in troops similar to chimpanzee troops. Many males, many females, a constantly changing power struggle within the troop. However, in bonobos, a female may be "top dog" while that is NEVER the case in chimpanzees. Truthfully, it's rare in bonobos also. Most of the top bonobos are male, but they are there only by the grace of the females, specifically their mothers. If the mother of a bonobo male dies, his place in the troop is likely to downgrade while a bonobo with a present and lively mother will likely move up. In chimpanzee groups, no female is above any adult male. In bonobo groups, males and females are constantly moving around in the power game and there are more females higher up than males. Also, if two females switch places, power-wise, in a troop, their sons are likely to have to switch places with each other also.

This piece of information, about bonobos being female-bonded, was exciting for me. I thought about it constantly for a few hours after I read it. It sounded so similar to the call for action in the book C*nt (sorry, I had to change that for search engine reasons) that I read a few years ago. I plugged that option, females defending females, into scenarios in our human world, specifically in my culture and came to the depressing conclusion that it would not work for us, at least not right now.

The most glaring example? Say that I have a dinner party. A friend's husband yells at her and shoves her. The other females at the party stand up to him together and tell him that he may have had the power before, but with all of us together, the power dynamic has shifted and he's no longer in control. He can't beat down seven angry women. We can protect her... until they go home together (or she goes home alone, in which case she's no longer protected - he can easily find her again). In our "nuclear family" society, we can't protect other women sufficiently. We just can't. Goddess, it's depressing to see a way out and not be able to take it.

Overall, this book was great for two reasons: the realization that a group of animals has figured it out, so we should be able to also and the realization that while male violence is never excusable, and there is a huge cultural influence on the amount and type of violence, there is also a genetic component there. And that realization helps. I don't know quite why, I wish I could explain it, but it does seem to calm me. Maybe because the bonobos have the same genetic component but have still found a way to live very peaceful lives? I don't know. My pregnancy brain won't let me compute it.

1 comment:

green said...

"In our "nuclear family" society, we can't protect other women sufficiently."

Seems the solution would require some sort of communal living style... like having sisters share a communal living area or maybe an inter-generational home... grandma mom and daughter. I'm sure its discussed in your other book C*nt so I'll read it.

"the realization that a group of animals has figured it out, so we should be able to also"

Not sure that they "figured it out" so much as that their surroundings dictated it. From an evolutionary perspective, its interesting that this trait was naturally selected for. For a creationist, that's scary.