seX & whY Episode 24, Part 1: Sex and Gender Differences in Conflict

Jeannette WolfePodcast Episodes

Show Notes for Episode Twenty-Four of seX & whY: Sex and Gender Differences in Conflict, Part 1

Host: Jeannette Wolfe
Guest: Joyce Benenson, lecturer of evolutionary biology at Harvard and author of the book Warriors and Worriers

Here is a link to Dr Benenson’s book Warriors and Worriers.

This book dives deep into the evolutionary roots of human behavior and Dr Benenson makes a very clear and well referenced case that human males and females have evolved from slightly different playbooks.  The root of this difference is sexual selection in that adaptions and behaviors that optimize the chance that a male’s DNA gets into the next generation are slightly different than a female’s, specifically Benenson asserts that a female’s strategy relies more heavily on keeping herself and her children physically safe and healthy. Innate differences may then by amplified or attenuated by sociocultural norms and experiences that shape an individual’s “expected behavior.”

Some bullet points from her work

  • Evolutionary biology focuses heavily on the behavior of non-human primates
  • Much of the behavior observed in other primates can also be seen in humans
  • When studying human behavior, it can be very hard to untangle behavior rooted in biological sex versus sociocultural influence. This is because the two are tightly interwoven and even if you intentionally raise your child to be “gender blind”, the child will still be exposed to significant gendered expectations by peers and broader societal exposures.
  • Many of the behaviors seen in adult humans can be visibly observed by watching pre-school children.
  • Boys and girls (for this podcast we are concentrating on the book ends of the gender spectrum: boys/men and girls/women) typically exhibit different behaviors as children.
  • Boys are more likely to participate in rough and tumble play and are more comfortable with hierarchy and rotating allegiances in groups. Girls prefer playing in smaller groups of two and three. Many girls find in quite difficult to participate in larger groups consisting only of females, as they feel increased pressure to effectively navigate the different relationships within that group.
  • Chimpanzees, like human males, are two of the few species that engage in “warfare” or systematic behavior to attack other groups of their own species. Groups of male chimpanzees that are good at this behavior enhance the survival of the rest of their group by expanding food and territory. Benenson believes some of this warfare behavior has genetically evolved into humans and that it is  further enhanced by learned sociocultural practices.
  • Benenson has extensively studied conflict and how males and females have different evolutionary consequences to direct aggression. She strongly believes that females are wired to avoid direct conflict to optimize their physical ability to bear and rear children to their own reproductive age.

This is Dr Benenson’s study that looked at how much time two players spent interacting with each other after the conclusion of a  competitive sports match. It showed that men typically engaged longer with their opponent than did women. She theorizes this behavior suggests that men tend to be more agile in realigning these relationships because the relationship may be needed for a future allegiance (i.e.  in war or hunting.)

Please tune in next month for Part 2 of this series.