Toxic Masculinity in the Insect World
It’s been found that “chivalrous” crickets die to let their female partners go first to safety when a bird has spotted them.
How are we to interpret this astonishing behavior?
It might well be that the male crickets have just been duped: unaware that gender-stereotypical behaviors derive from mere social constructs, the hapless and unsuspecting males feel it their preordained duty — a duty artfully instilled in their psyche by the evil machinations of the females — to act in a suicidal manner when the outcome of such behavior is likely to save the life of their partners.
However, a more perceptive reading of gender dynamics across species would suggest that such apparently disinterested chivalry is but a clever subterfuge on the part of the male crickets, who thus attempt to secure a position of power over the females through the reinforcement of misogynistic misconceptions that portray the males alone as inherently strong and heroic.
What about humans?
Since cricket behavior is not the result of culture but of instinct, the above is clearly ridiculous, yet it reminds us of views regarding human behavior that entirely ignore our biological reality. As evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams has aptly remarked, “The idea that sex differences are a product of culture alone seems plausible only if you know nothing about other animals.”
We’re a sexually dimorphic species. Sexual dimorphism is the condition where the sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics, particularly characteristics not directly involved in reproduction.
This should be obvious as regards our physical appearance, but it’s true of our psychology too. Most reasonable people accept our evolved differences “below the neck”, but many are hostile to the idea that such differences extend to the makeup of the mind. Such hostility often leads people not just to deny the relevance of genetic psychological differences in humans, but to ascribe to its advocates suspicious ulterior motives.
But as Steven Pinker wrote in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, “As the new sciences of human nature began to flourish, it was becoming clear that thinking is a physical process, that people are not psychological clones, that the sexes differ above the neck as well as below it, that the human brain was not exempt from the process of evolution, and that people in all cultures share mental traits that might be illuminated by new ideas in evolutionary biology.”
People tend to be more accepting of innate individual variation. After all, it’s hard to ignore the influence of nature (genetic inheritance) in individual psychological traits, and especially so if one has more than one child. As the psychologist Marvin Zuckerman has cleverly put it: “All parents are environmentalists [nurture emphasizers] until they have their second child.”
At any rate, the antipathy towards the idea of biological differences, whether among individuals or groups, is mostly unwarranted. Particularly so when it arises from the misguided premise that universal human rights, equal treatment under the law, and non-discrimination in general, are dependent on our being biologically the same. But our inherent human worth and dignity, and our all having the same rights and opportunities, doesn’t require that everybody be genetically alike.
Legitimate reservations about biological takes
Alleged innate differences between groups have been claimed to justify inequalities. For example, it may have been assumed in the past that the obvious role of women was to take care of the home and the children, and of men to be the breadwinners, because that was just how nature had shaped the sexes.
Against that history, it’s valid to have reservations about mere hypotheses claiming that certain group differences are mostly the result of genetics. Besides, it’s never easy to disentangle nature from nurture, that is, our innate predispositions and preferences from cultural norms, and the influence of our genes from that of our environment on our psychological traits and life outcomes.
And even when studies demonstrate that a given psychological trait differs between men and women in large part due to innate genetic differences, it so happens that in all psychological trait differences between men and women it’s just a matter of overlapping distributions: there are many women in whom a given “masculine” trait is stronger than in many men, and vice versa. So even in those cases, a group mean in any given trait will not tell us much about any individual person.
Still, to obdurately deny, as a matter of principle, that evolution has shaped our minds as well as our bodies, and to insist that all psychological differences between men and women are the result of nothing but arbitrary (and often discriminatory and oppressive) cultural norms, is just an absurd denial of reality. And the consequences of such a denial are not trivial. It follows from it that any and all differences in the activities and preferences of men and women can never be the result of their own autonomous choices, but must be proof of persistent discrimination — yet it may well be that in many cases none exists.