Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom?

Author Subject: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom?
Murray Feldstein Posted At 10:40:14 02/07/2002
The author is to be congratulated for compiling such a vast amount of interdisciplinary data concerning the role of gender in war. My disappointment was that, while War and Gender examines a myriad of cultural, sociologic, and psychological explanations for gendered roles in war, I think it fails to get us any closer to the central questions of why only men are warriors or why war is so universal in our species.

One reason for this failure I think is because of the author’s self admitted biases to which he refreshingly and honestly admits. The first, announced in the first page of the preface, is that he writes from a profeminist perspective, which I think embroils us unnecessarily in largely unproductive theories of whether men fight wars to exploit women or whether women exploit men to fight wars to protect them. And while he correctly concludes that war exploits both genders, and that both genders play a role in the promotion of the war effort, I don’t feel any closer to knowing why this should be.

Perhaps the profeminist perspective causes him to worry, as he points out on page 51, that violence and gender roles are genetically determined and (at one time) adaptive in an evolutionary sense. Except for some minimal references to some prominent sociobiologists on the following pages there was nothing in Dr. Goldstein’s discussion to critically examine those possibilities. His discussion of genetics was largely limited to an examination of the X and Y chromosomes. A discussion of genetic evolution was lacking. One glaring deficiency, in my opinion, was a total disregard of selfish gene theory, even though there was a footnote for Richard Dalkins on page 52. Perhaps Dr. Goldstein disagrees with those theories, but they must at least be presented to be refuted.

In his discussion on the biological origins of the gendered role in war Professor Goldstein discusses average differences between the sexes but doesn’t address how pregnancy might affect female warriorship. On average a bit smaller, weaker, and less aggressive than males in her non-gravid state, a pregnant female could prove to be a greater battlefield liability. Before effective contraception, females were more uncontrollably pregnant and therefore even less useful as fighters.

Without a discussion of genetic evolution we cannot examine the concept of gene-culture co evolution. Instead Dr. Goldstein believes that culture constrains biologic diversity, which I think is as wrong as the equally narrow opposite belief that biology can only constrain culture. Edward O. Wilson wrote, “Culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked. But the linkage is flexible to a degree still mostly unmeasured…Certain cultural norms…survive and reproduce better than competing norms, causing culture to evolve in a track parallel to and…faster than genetic evolution. The quicker the pace of cultural evolution, the looser the connection between genes and culture, although the connection is never completely broken. Culture allows a rapid adjustment to changes in the environment. In this respect human beings differ fundamentally from all other animal species.” In other words, fish got to swim and birds got to fly, but humans, fashioned by their genes to walk upright, can now soar in airplanes where eagles fear to go.

I do not think the conundrum of why only men fight wars will be answered until an equally important riddle is solved: Why do only women bear children? In other words, why does gender exist at all? In that wars were adaptive in an evolutionary sense, their genes exploit both genders. We’re going to both reproduce and defend our genes, and in the dim recesses of time our genes “decided” it would be best for them if we specialized.

Technology blunts genetic differences. Jet planes, atomic bombs, and birth control pills now allow women to be as equally effective in combat as men. Men are losing their monopoly as warriors. What happens in The Brave New World when women lose their monopoly as child bearers? If we can clone or fertilize embryos in test tubes how long will it be before women can give up the annoying distraction of pregnancy altogether? What next happens to our species might depend upon whether women wish nothing more than a 50% chance to join their brothers in the killing. Or might men and women thwart their selfish gene’s instructions for war by developing some contraceptive antidote to our biologic propensities for aggression?

Our genes have programmed us to look at outsiders as enemies and to kill them. Our cultures have allowed us to get very good at that. Modern technological warfare promises us the Promethean fate if we cannot evolve cultural solutions to an inherited tendency. If we can somehow satisfy the genetic instinct for selfishness by, for example, viewing outsiders as potential mutually beneficial resources in a global economy, we might just survive and prosper.

abdul hai Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 1 replies)
Posted At 06:14:13 02/09/2002

i have a problem which well you believe it to be biological i think that it is a cultural thing and i don't agree with becasue he couldn't have offered the answer becaue it is a very complicted thing.
on the other hand this is a good book which offers many answers i agree that there is things which he has left out.
as for Wilson i personally feel htat he is misguided on thsi and many other points as i disagree with him about biology
Murray Feldstein Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 1 replies)
Posted At 20:59:07 02/10/2002

I think war is biologically derived and culturally mediated. I do not believe it is possible to separate the two. What role each plays is up for debate. Culture can evolve quicker, so perhaps we can adapt and do away with war, but we need to understand war's biological underpinnings. As for Wilson--we can agree to disagree.
Joshua Goldstein Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 1 replies)
Posted At 11:53:40 02/15/2002

I deliberately left out the evolutionary biology side, because I thought much of it was too theoretical (and contentious) and not empirically grounded enough. However, based on some feedback from people in this field I think it was a mistake to leave it out. Readers like Feldstein expect and deserve to see some discussion of it. I am hoping to rectify the omission with a future chapter in an edited book on evolution and war. This is not to say I agree with _everything_ in Feldstein's post! :-)
- Joshua Goldstein
Murray Feldstein Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 13:31:24 02/15/2002

I appreciate Professor Goldstein's reply and look forward to a future chapter. I wonder if Professor Goldstein would elucidate some of his areas of disagreement with my post and point me to some references of interest to support his position.
Murray Feldstein Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 13:32:25 02/15/2002

I appreciate Professor Goldstein's reply and look forward to a future chapter. I wonder if Professor Goldstein would elucidate some of his areas of disagreement with my post and point me to some references of interest to support his position.
Harold Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 08:33:17 10/03/2002

if 'our genes have programmed us to look at outsiders and enemies and kill them', then why does the world expoerience such evident cultural diversity? indeed, why are any of us left at all in this 'war of all against all'. Surely our continued existence, and the vast variety of ways in which cultures, societies, lineages and ethnicities interact might tend to attenuate any possible case for genetic determination of the phenomenon of war, rather than merely a background capacity for aggression.

The last line of Feldstein's first post suggests that he thinks economic exploitation and war are mutually exclusive. Isn't it more often the case that they reinforce each other; what else is imperialism? What else were the Gulf Wars?
withheld Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 21:29:45 10/13/2002

Re Feldstein's statement that "we're going to both reproduce and defend our genes":
I seem to recall reading a few years ago a remark by Steven Pinker that he had decided not to
have children, and if his genes didn't like it they could go jump in the lake.
To which I say, right on.

I agree with the previous post that, while aggression may have some biological
basis, the notion that war does is flimsy. War is a social and historical phenomenon,
an extremely obvious point of which Feldstein appears completely oblivious.

Murray Feldstein Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 09:47:29 10/23/2002

I don’t think Harold and I disagree as much as he believes. Let me address Harold’s second point first, and then discuss his larger problem with my statements at the same time I address the post from Withheld that followed Harold’s post.

I don’t understand Harold’s statement that I regard economic exploitation and war as mutually exclusive. Imperialism certainly is exploitive and can cause war, but I don’t think that Imperialism and Global Trade are one and the same. There are three ways that people can get something from other people that have what they need: They can (1) beg for it and depend upon other the people’s largess, or they can (2) take it without the other’s consent (or get their government to take it for them—that’s Imperialism), or they can (3) set up a system whereby they trade for what they want with something they have and the other people need. Societies that establish mutually beneficial trading policies tend not to fight with each other. The more our cultures evolve to permit that kind of global trading system, the more we can reinforce our genetic tendency to survive and reproduce using peaceful rather than warlike means.

The answer to Harold’s question as how there can be cultural diversity if in fact our genes program us for war is that there is nothing in our genetic make up that forces us to go to war if we don’t feel threatened by outsiders. Cultures evolving in two different locations will become diverse and never have to fight each other, especially if they never meet! What happens when they do meet depends upon how their culture has adapted them for the meeting. When Cook sailed the Pacific he came across diverse cultures: Some welcomed him into their homes and even their bedrooms (to their later regret), while others looked upon him as a food source. Which encounters do you suspect were more peaceful?

I think the problem that people like Harold and Withheld have with the notion that there are genetic determinants for war is an outmoded and overly narrow understanding of how genes work. Forget Mendelian descriptions of genes as discreet packages that make eyes hazel or brown in and all-or-nothing fashion—something you get at birth from your parent in predictably dominant or recessive pattern and which cannot change no matter how you wish otherwise. Some genes work that way, but the overwhelming effect of our genome is far different.

When we speak of someone as having inherited their parent’s musical ability we probably mean something like their genes program the proteins that appreciate the rarefactions and compressions in the air around us (sound waves) in a way that is different than someone else without musical talent. Or perhaps it’s in the way that those sound appreciations are relayed to the central nervous system. The point is that musical ability has a biologic basis. Making music is a universal human activity, and is normally considered a cultural phenomenon.

There is no artificial boundary between biology and culture. There is a material underpinning (biological, molecular, atomic, sub-atomic) of human activity, including ideation. While I agree with Withheld that war is a social and historical phenomenon, this in no way negates it from it also having a biological basis. We cannot have history without language or memory, and both of those faculties are genetically determined as part of our human nature. So are social interactions.

Withheld’s decision to resist the genetic impulse to reproduce is a decision that is made all the time. Very few people resist the genetic tug to copulate. The contraceptive industry depends on it. We have “outwitted” our genes in this instance. I would hope we could do the same for the making of war.

There is something that Withheld needs to know, however. I have seven grandchildren. That means that thirty years from now it is statistically likely that more people will share my hair color, body build, and ideas than do Withheld’s.
fiona Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 01:47:06 12/29/2002

I find the notion of biology and war being linked extremely interesting, but ultimately I have to appeal to the idea that the very thing that makes us human is our ability to overcome biology (I think the quote was by Einstein, or Ghandi? cant remember). Whilst homosexual behaviour is ultimately 'natural', most cultures have 'overcome' it (whether that's a good or a bad thing is another issue).

Like Murray, I hope that our

I see the two original issues as separate:
1)why war is gendered;
2)why war is universal.
Whislt biology has a part to play, a 'nature-nurture' focus can be dangerous - the common assumption that male superiority is biologically rooted is an easy conclusion to draw. Biology may be able to explain why war is universal, but its applications to gender are much more complicated. As for existing explanations, I have to say that the most rational, logical, and humane theories come from feminist theory (some, not all).
Will Re: Why war? Why gender? What exploits whom? (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 19:51:53 05/06/2003

War results from the undeveloped human's desire to dominate, to overcome their sense of worthlessness, to become remembered (as heroes... therefore near immortal), to somehow give themselves a respite from the pain of self-hate. The remedy is a grand application of love.

This post is part of the War and Gender forum.