Behaviors are not caused by genes. There is not a gene that causes you to be good, or to be bad, or to be smart, or good at accounting, or to like bananas. There are, however, drives. “Drives” is a nicely vague term that we can all understand the meaning of. Thirst and hunger are drives we can all relate to. In fact, these drives are so basic, consistent and powerful that almost everyone has them, we share almost exact experiences in relation to them, and they can drive (as drives are wont to do) us to do extreme things when they are not met for long periods of time. While eating disorders are common enough and these affect a hunger drive, it is very rare to find a person thirst themselves to death.
Beyond thirst and hunger there are other drives, and as we explore them we find increasing complexity, inter-individual and inter-cultural variation, and even differences in whether or not they are present in an individual or widely manifest (or not) in a culture. Nonetheless, the fact that they are “true drives” is evidenced by their near ubiquity across cultures, their link to a biological mechanism typically having to do with the limbic and endocrine systems, and the fact that when we don’t see them acting overtly in a person it is often because a fair amount of individual or cultural energy has been spent repressing them.
Personally, I think that most biological drives, maybe all, produce extreme or pathological behavior if unchecked, and that therefore all drives are repressed to some degree in almost all individual humans. There is considerable evidence that things like anger, thirst, or fear (to use highly generalizable terms) are manifest as a balance between limbic circuits that are excitatory or inhibitory; Experimental interference with one or the other circuit produces extreme results such as a rat that will not stop eating or a cat that will maintain an arch-backed bristle-haired stance until it falls over in exhaustion.
Also, I think that what I’m calling drives (again, as a convenience … you won’t find what I am thinking on Wikipedia) are a basic mammalian trait. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask if some of the evolutionary events related to the rise of new species of mammals are related to changes in drives, or more interestingly (and more commonly, I suspect) changes in how drives are on one hand repressed and on the other hand re-configured to work with each other.
Thus, one could say that since humans are behaviorally derived with respect to many traits in comparison to African apes in general, a major feature of the human brain must be mechanisms telling the rest of the brain, to some extent every minute of the day, “Don’t be a chimp …. Don’t be a chimp. Seriously, dood … don’t be a chimp.”
At the individual level, and I’m oversimplifying a great deal here, one might imagine drives being enhanced or repressed to a degree that makes an individual very different from others. The fictional character “Brennan” on the TV series Bones comes to mind. She seems most of the time to have no drives at all, or to be intellectually in denial of them. Social and psychological pathologies may often be associated with drives that are inappropriately strong or weak.
So, is it really true that behaviors are not “caused by genes” if there are these drives? Yes, and I say this because the average person who is thinking that behaviors are caused by genes is not thinking at all about intermediate mechanisms, and if they are, they are assuming that the intermediate mechanisms are little more than a transparent ether through which genes operate on the behavioral phenotypes we observe. Also, “genetic determinism” is not about whether or not one or more genes are involved in a trait, but rather (and this is very important so if you’ve got a yellow highlighter uncap it now) “genetic determinism” is about the close correspondence between variation across individuals in the genetic code they carry and the ensuing variation across individuals in the phenotype they express. Moreover, “genetic determinism” as usually conceived is presumed to average out within categories such as “race” or “sex” with very little variation within, but enough variation between these categories to be measurable. Which is why the concept is almost always racist or sexist or both.
But in reality, variation in the way limbic and other brain functions as well as closely related endocrine systems are manifest in humans and probably many other mammals is only to a small extent a function of genes, and is otherwise a function of what we may loosely call development. This relationship is not a post-hoc observation, or a liberal excuse, or a politically motivated bit of rhetoric. It is, rather, the explanation for why we have large brains that mostly develop, in detail, on the basis of experience rather than genetic coding for how they are hooked up. (And, while this applies mainly to mammals, something like it might be going on in some birds.)
Consider long term habituation. When endocrinologists (those who study hormones) measure hormone levels, they generally adjust the numbers to account for individual baselines, because while two individuals may have very different baselines they can have the same range of behaviors and responses. Two men may have androgen hormone levels that vary between them by a factor of 2X or 3X, but have the same basic behavioral repertoire. This is because of two things: First, the number of receptor sites and their sensitivity matters as much as, if not more than, the serum hormone levels; and second, most hormone systems are some sort of feedback loop that relies on changes in concentration against set points that are individually established, not species-specific. Putting it another way, if a hormone system is like a thermostat in your house (a homeostatic equilibrium system) then each individual has a personally established and potentially unique “room temperature.” This variation between individuals could be genetic, but is it just as likely, or even more likely, to be developmental. A related example is the mechanism by which we become “cold” or “warm” (with respect to comfort). This is not innate, but rather, a function of exposure to environmental conditions in early life (thigh there are body-shape related variations that probably are genetic that matter to thermoregulation in a non-industrial population).
Given huge piles of evidence for individual variation in behavior as a function of context, conditioning, and development and relatively little evidence that has not been made up, cooked up, or otherwise tainted or damaged for straight forward genetic determination of behavior, I’m going to go with the model that humans vary mostly on the basis of their biological and cultural experiences post-conception. For example, the single largest factor in variation in human intelligence in a given population can easily be prenatal alcohol exposure, or variation in folic acid in the maternal diet. Given the amount of post-conception stuff the brain does in development, and how much of that depends on experience, it is very unlikely that brain function varies across individuals on the basis of genes (other than individuals with genetic disorders, but we need not count broken individuals in considering normative development).
From what we know about “drives” and from what we know about brains and development, it is very reasonable to hypothesize that variation across individual human males in something like violence levels, likelihood to carry out rape, or other widespread and usually male-associated behavior is environmental. Yet, these behaviors at the base, the systemic potential for these behaviors, is a mammalian feature or a primate feature or a great-ape feature, depending on level of analysis.
This is not the place to discuss this in detail, but a quick digression regarding comparison among mammals is probably useful at this point in order to stem unnecessary direct comparisons that may come up in discussion. Maybe mammalian males in general have certain traits leading them towards violent or icky behavior, but the details are important. The fact that big horn sheep butt heads in contests sometimes to the death, taken as an extreme male-male competitive trait, can not be linked to similar behavior among human males (and such behavior does seem to happen in humans). The basal bovid-type organisms from which the big horn sheep derive was probably a small bodied monogamous forest dwelling animal in which males probably did not have a much greater tendency to butt heads than females, though both males and females would likely have employed some sort of “violence” in defending young or territories. Among primates, Old World Monkeys include a lot more examples of violent male behavior than do New World Monkeys. The latter group, in fact, have many cases of distinctly non-violent males as typical of the species. We don’t know the nature of the basal primate, but we cannot assume that it was like a baboon, which is the primate often taken as prototypical in thinking about primate social behavior. In fact, we can guess that it was probably NOT like a baboon for a number of reasons. Therefore, what might be thought of as “over the top” male behavior (butting heads to the death) is NOT a basal mammalian trait that may be found in humans because we are mammals. The phylogenetic link between big horn sheep and human football players is non-existent. (This is why many of us cringe with the latest “evolutionary psychology” finding!) Rather, violence in human males is either derived in our species or in a set of species closely related, including perhaps the great apes, or apes in general, or some other subset of Old World primates.
And, this would be a matter of evolution of drives in a very general sense which are then shaped in a maturing individual by other developmental tendencies and in social beings with large brains, buy culture.
Which brings us to the famous YanSan comparison.
There is an intellectual and pedagogic tradition that comes from people working out of a handful of American Universities (originally, Berkeley, Chicago and Harvard, but then other places such as Madison) having to do with the study of both primates and human foragers. The details are interesting but this is not the place for them. What is important is this: A lot of us (and I’m part of that tradition) learned some of our best metaphors, for doing both research and teaching, from Irv DeVore, who either came up with them himself or consolidated them from people with whom he overlapped or worked, such as Sherwood Washburn, George Gaylord Simpson, and others. And one of those tidbits, which is a comparison and a set of stories much larger than your average metaphor, is the YanSan comparison.
It runs like this. Imagine a Yanomamo village in the Amazon. The Yan (short for Yanomamo) live in a society that for various reasons incorporates a fair amount of violence among men. Men who have killed other men are given a special name of respect, tend to have more children than other men, and often have two wives (in a society in which while polygyny is allowed, it is rare). Then, in contrast, imagine a “San” (Busheman) community in southern Africa. The San live in a society of hunter-gatherers where variation in status among men, for any reason at all, is discouraged, and interpersonal violence is frowned upon. Among the Yan, disputes are settled with chest pounding duels or axe fights, while among the San, disputes are settled by endless discussion during which there might even be hugging.
That’s the background. The YanSan comparison itself goes like this:
In the day to day course of events, a Yan child may become upset or agitated as children occasionally do, perhaps in relation to another child. The good Yan father steps in. He brings his son to the center of the community courtyard and calls over the other child with whom the conflict has arisen, and that child’s’ father tags along. The two Yan dads equip the children with poles about the length of their bodies and set them up to whack at each other until one of them succumbs to injury. Or perhaps, instead of using the poles (because that can be dangerous … you can poke your eye out with one of those things) the dads teach the 6 year olds the rudimentary form of the chest pounding duel, in which each participant gets one free shot at the other’s chest, and you can use one fist or two to pound on your opponent. The participants go back and forth taking fee shots at each other’s chest until one falls to the ground. The one still standing wins.
Meanwhile, over in the San society which is entirely different, a perturbed child is treated differently. If a toddler or youngster is very upset, yelling, having a tantrum, any nearby adult who knows the child, often but not always a relative, will hold the child in both arms until he calms down (this can take considerable time), and then spend some time soothing the boy and telling him thoughtful thoughts.
In both cases, there is a set of drives typical for men, and there is a society in which there is expected, normative male behavior. But since the expected behavior is very different between the two societies the developmental process has a lot of work to do. Boys will not on their own grow up to be Yanomamo warriors with the proper kind of fierceness, and boys will not on their own grow up to be San hunters with a proper cooperative attitude, unless a great deal of cultural energy is expended.
And this is facilitated by the existence of childhood, which may well be Homo sapiens most important adaptation. The YanSan comparison exemplifies how humans transit from blastosphere to adult with respect to behavior, and demonstrates that there is a great deal of potential variation in what the result is, and thus, there is great potential variation in the sorts of societies that Homo sapiens can come up with.
But males are still demonic.
What I mean by that is this: Across all human societies, even when there is relative equality between males and females in power or other measures, males are the more violent sex on average. When human societies range into more violent normative behavior, it is males who are in the vanguard virtually all the time. There are plenty of cases where females are also violent, but they are comparatively rare and less extreme.
And, there are patterns to this behavior seen across society, and interestingly, there are even patterns of male behavior when males are viewed across species, as per the above discussion, among the great apes and in particular comparing chimps and humans. Those patterns may be accidental, they may be nothing more than basic mammalian behavior (or the behavior of an internally fertilizing lactating creature, on whatever planet it is found) and thus almost too basic to be meaningful, or they could be patterns around the specific nature of ape social systems, of which chimpanzees and humans have their own similar yet different versions.
Some years ago, Richard Wrangham, emerging as a leading primatologist, was woo’ed away from his home in Michigan by Harvard to do research and teach interesting courses. One of the courses he developed in his new milieu and taught to advanced undergrads in bioanthropology was about male behavior in apes, looking at the behavioral biology and culture of this behavior, seeking patterns, similarities, contrasts, etc. Over a short period of time this course became very popular. Knee-jerk feminists responded to the course with great disdain because it seemed to be biological determinism, but then some went ahead and took it anyway and found out that it was not. And eventually the course became a book: Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
Many have criticized Wrangham’s book for suggesting that simple underlying genetic systems determine things like gang violence in humans, but few who have read the book have come away thinking that. It may well be that Wrangham’s view is somewhat deterministic, but that is hardly the point of the study. And, if you bring to the discussion, as Wrangham does, the concept of “drives” or similar psychological phenomena as I’ve described above, the genetic determinism that might be inherent in many comparisons between species’ behavior rather fades away. More interesting, though, may be the political nature of the problem of determinism, and this relates to the ongoing discussion of male privilege as well as to a previous discussion we’ve had on this blog about rape. Is it possible to attain the ideal feminist society (towards which we all strive) if male and female drives are somewhat different, and male drives are (or at least some of them are) so … dickish?
… a new philosophy has emerged in the last decades, an evolutionary brand of feminism that sees the emergence of patriarchy as an intimate part of human biology. Evolutionary feminists, writers like Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Hrdy, Meredith Small, and Barbara Smuts, agree with traditional feminists about the evils of patriarchy, but they do not disconnect humans from their biological past. The logic of evolutionary feminists appreciates the rich details of patriarchal history as recounted by historian Gerda Lerner, but it simultaneously rejects the notion of plumbing the human condition through reading merely the last 6,000 years of history.
Evolutionary feminists … would insist that people can think about the evolutionary pressures that elicit rape, for example or other forms of violence, without necessitating any absurd pronouncement that because rape is “natural” it is in any way forgivable. After all, no one considers the case of the black widow spider, who kills and eats her male counterpart after mating, to mean that murder and cannibalism are okay. …
Patriarchy is worldwide and history-wide, and its origins are detectable in the social lives of chimpanzees. It serves the reproductive purposes of the men who maintain the system. Patriarchy comes from biology in the sense that it emerges from men’s temperaments, out of their evolutionarily derived efforts to control women and at the same time have solidarity with fellow men in competition against outsiders.
(Wrangham 1996 pp 124-125)
It is interesting to consider the commentary emerging (mainly in comments but also in a few blog posts) around Rebeccapocalypse in light of this discussion. Most commenters are either on board with giving women the right to set their own level of concern about potentially dangerous men (those are the feminists) or they re busy making excuses or denying the demonic nature of male Homo sapiens. While many of the former are men (it might be about 50:50 men:women) the vast majority of the latter are men.
In homage to an inspiration of this post, I provide this link to the secret, generally unseen obituary of Professor Irven Boyd DeVore.