[Excerpt below is from Chapter 3 of War and Gender]

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War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)

Drawing, levels of analysis
Two-way causality across levels of analysis.

This chapter considers whether gendered war roles result from differences in men’s and women’s individual bodies. Moving from the most categorical types of gender difference to the subtler ones, possible explanations might be found in genetics (e.g., a “gene for war” on the Y chromosome), circulating testosterone levels, size and strength, brain “wiring” (cognitive processes), or the pacifying effects of female hormones. I will review each of these in turn, but first consider the larger, controversial issues that surround these topics in public discourse.

The nature–nurture feedback loop

Both war and gender individually, as well as their possible connection, have served as battlegrounds (to use a war analogy), or “contested sites,” in the debate over the roles of biology and culture in shaping human social behaviors. The decades–old “nature versus nurture” debate still emphasizes two polar extremes (nature or nurture). On one side, genetics explains everything and people are just like other animals. Males and females are made of different stuff – boys of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” and girls of “sugar and spice and everything nice” – because God or evolution designed us that way. On the other side, any concession that biology has any role in gender or war brings accusations of “essentialism” and declarations that “biology is not destiny!” The terms of debate still assume a dichotomy. For example, a 1998 Washington Post poll used the following phrasing: “What do you think is the main reason for any differences there might be between men and women? Is it mainly because of the way men and women are brought up, or are the differences part of their biological makeup?” Just over 10 percent of both women and men volunteered the answer, “both.” (Of the rest, incidentally, men split evenly while women split almost 2-to-1 on the “upbringing” side.)1

Life magazine’s recent cover story, “Were You BORN That Way?” states that “a wealth of new research has tipped the scales overwhelmingly toward nature” in the nature–nurture debate. The actual research results mentioned later in the article, however, show that “the heritability of most personality traits is about 50 percent.” (This has long been the consensus in psychology.) Yet the article goes on to conclude that a “child will develop along paths set out by his genes,” because people seek out experiences and environments from birth onwards that resonate with their genetic makeup. Science’s increasing ability to control genetics, the article concludes, may someday let us “end war by getting rid of aggressive genes.”2

Two-way causality and feedback loops “Both” is an obvious answer to “nature or nurture,” especially when research finds outcomes to depend about equally on each. But this answer is not good enough. The relationship between biology and social behavior is not just additive – ½ cup nature, ½ cup nurture, mix well. Rather, it is a system of reciprocal causality through multiple “feedback loops” – a complex two-way causality between biology and culture.3

Cichlid fish illustrate the feedback between biology and social relationships. The males are hierarchical; 10 percent of them control the feeding territory and do all the mating. These “dominant” males (see pp. 204–6) are larger and more brightly colored than the other males or the females, they are territorial, and they behave aggressively. If a dominant male is removed, other males fight to fill the vacant position in the hierarchy, and a new male becomes dominant in the territory. Then, as a result of this change in social relationships, that male’s brain changes: certain cells in the hypothalamus grow larger and produce more of a certain hormone, stimulating the pituitary. As a result, the testes become enlarged, more sperm are produced, and the size and coloring of the fish change, as does its behavioral pattern of aggression. If a stronger fish later displaces this male from its dominant position, the relevant cells in the displaced male’s hypothalamus shrink, and all the other effects reverse themselves in sequence.4

Among wrasse fish (and apparently unique to them), if a dominant male dies and another male does not quickly take over the territory, the dominant female (among several females that occupied subterritories of the dominant male) develops within a day “into a complete and functional male.” Even among orangutans – one of the four animal species closest to humans – males come in two versions, and may switch from one to the other far into adulthood (a kind of long-delayed puberty) depending in part on social relationships. All these examples show that sexual anatomy and physiology can be pliable under social and environmental influences.5

Two-directional causality across multiple levels of analysis is illustrated in Figure 3.1. The feedback down to the level of DNA occurs not only in a slow evolutionary sense with the sifting of the gene pool over generations. Higher levels also directly control DNA through the process of gene expression – the activation of a particular genetic sequence so that a protein is made. (DNA folds up in three dimensions with only some parts of the code activated by being exposed at a given time. Special molecules and systems regulate gene expression according to the needs of the organism.) Indeed, sex hormones such as testosterone have their effects on the body precisely by regulating the expression of certain genes. Those (and other) hormones in turn respond to moods, perceptions, and social relationships, minute by minute, as we shall see. So, the world of culture (nurture) feeds back to the deepest level of biology (nature), and this happens in all of us, every day. The interactions among hormones, brains, and behaviors are “incredibly complex.”6

Drawing, levels of analysis

Figure 3.1 Two-way causality across levels of analysis.

A striking example of the influence of human culture on biology is that adolescents are now going through puberty younger than a few generations ago – perhaps as the result of exposure to “grown-up” influences in teenage culture, or possibly because of higher stress. However, this trend is nothing new. It follows a long-term and almost linear decrease in age of puberty over more than a century in European countries. The average age of a woman’s first menstrual period dropped from almost 17 in the mid-nineteenth century to about 13 by 1960 (see Figure 3.2). This change may result from urbanization, since in Poland during this time period the average age was about two years younger for city dwellers than country folk.7

Image under copyright

Figure 3.2 Decline in age of puberty for girls, 1845–1965. [From J. M. Tanner, “Earlier Maturation in Man.” Copyright January 1968 by Scientific American, Inc. All rights reserved.]

Another problem in the nature–nurture debate is the common assumption that biology is an immutable force, whereas culture is more controllable. Critics of sociobiology argue that war is “just” a cultural invention, and not “set in stone” like genetics are. In truth, however, scientists understand, control, and change biology (e.g., controlling diseases) much more easily – albeit with real limits – than social scientists or politicians understand and control culture and social relationships, including gender and war. We would be lucky to find that war and sexism were biologically determined, 100 percent. We could find the hormone or neurotransmitter that inhibits these unfortunate behaviors, then add it to the water supply like fluoride. (Instant peace. Just add water.) Unfortunately, real biology is a lot more complicated and less deterministic.8

To the extent that biology is destiny, that destiny is diversity. As this and the next chapter will show, biological systems are extremely complex, flexible, and varied. Biology and feminism both value and celebrate diversity, both mistrust simplistic theoretical models for that reason, and both struggle against religious fundamentalism – common grounds sometimes overlooked in the heated debates over sociobiology (see pp. 51–52).

1 Evolution: Daly and Wilson 1983; Wilson 1978, 105; Draper 1985; Klama 1988, 3; poll: Morin and Rosenfeld 1998: A17.

2 Colt and Hollister 1998, 40–42, 44, 48; cf. Begley 2000.

3 Forrester 1971; Giddens 1984.

4 Fernald 1993; Francis, Soma, and Fernald 1993.

5 Wrasse: Caspari 1978, 104; orangutans: Wrangham and Peterson 1996, 134–36; physiology: Silver 1992, 401.

6 Angier 1994c; Blakeslee 1997; Moyer 1987, incredibly 20.

7 Herman-Giddens et al. 1997; Newsweek, October 18, 1999 [cover]; trend: Silver 1992, 402–3.

8 Mead 1940; D. Jones 1994.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)