President Reagan may not only have offended professional women Wednesday with a remark alluding to "club-carrying" cave men and the females who have tamed them, but he also walked into a scientific buzz saw of an issue over sex roles, aggression and history.
Reagan told a group of 1,200 professional women Wednesday that " . . . We have been doing a number of things here with regard to the thing of great interest to you, and that is the recognition of women's place. I want you to know I've always recognized it, because I happen to be one who believes that if it wasn't for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs."
Bemused scientists said yesterday that the president was reflecting a "common-sense belief" that men are more aggressive than women.
Scientifically, however, the issues are far from settled, and the president's assumptions may not be justified.
As for the role of aggression in history, and how much of it men or women have displayed, anthropologist David Pilbeam of Harvard University said there is no good evidence to show that human aggression is innate or learned, male or female.
"From the fossils, you can have it any way you want it," he said. "Scientists have no way of determining the sex of the hand that used a fossil hand ax," he said, partly in jest. Also, the number of hand axes found in the world is not large, so perhaps man was not so aggressive as he is imagined. "Either there was only one hand ax per several million people, or people just didn't use them frequently."
A scientist's personality can determine his beliefs on the subject, Pilbeam suggested: "Really, literally, it is like looking in a mirror. What you get is what you see there." He said it is all too common for people to interpret the past based on their political beliefs.
Whether living males and females differ in their aggressiveness, scientists say, depends a good deal on the definition of aggression.
If outbursts of physical violence are taken as the measure, then men are unarguably more aggressive, according to a half-dozen scientists interviewed yesterday.
In animal studies, male hormones given to a young female animal will make the animal more aggressive. In studies of human violence and suicide, said Dr. Fredrick Goodwin, director of research at the National Institute of Mental Health, the rate of violent suicide is double among men, even though twice as many women are afflicted with severe depression.
In addition, a brain chemical whose absence is associated with violent outbreaks appears to be far lower in the men studied than in the women.
But Goodwin and George Brown, a staff scientist at the NIMH, said that statistical distinctions between men and women teach us little about the real world.
If men and women are rated by the frequency of their physically violent acts, Brown said, two bell-shaped curves emerge, but they overlap a great deal.
"First, you would even have a hard time finding a statistical difference between men and women unless you had thousands of people to study. But even if you found one it wouldn't have very much meaning for individual people."
He said that the differences from man to man, or woman to woman, could be far greater than any difference between the sexes. There are also many situations in which normally less violent female animals can become quite violent, for example, if an animal's young are attacked, so that situation may be one of the most important determinants of violent behavior.
Differences among men and women in crime and violent acts still do not settle the question, scientists say, because violent acts are relatively rare in the population. The term "aggression" is far broader and could mean anything from social pushiness to intellectual sharpness. On these more common questions, scientists know little about sex differences.
Estelle Ramey, professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University Medical School, said though it is clear that male hormones cause aggressiveness, hormones could not be the overwhelming determiners of behavior, otherwise Americans might logically prevent males from running for the presidency and being in a position to cause war.
She said there are several examples of female heads of government, such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher and India's Indira Gandhi, who demonstrate that it is not only men who can be bellicose.