Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By Melvin Konner
Norton. 404 pp. $26.95
After thousands of years of systemic oppression, are things finally looking up for the female of the species? Biological anthropologist Melvin Konner thinks so, and he’s got data on everything from water skaters to bonobos to prove it. After surveying recent research from doctors, anthropologists, primatologists and social scientists, he concludes that the human future is female, and that’s a good thing for us all: “As women gain in influence, all else being equal, the world will become more democratic, more socially compassionate, more equal, less discriminatory, less sexually casual, and less pornographic.” Human females in the present may need a little more convincing about the likelihood of that happy outcome.
Konner is the man partly responsible for the omnipresent Paleo diet, and in his new book he is equally convinced that the lessons of our biological ancestors may usefully be applied to the modern world. But there’s a lot more at stake in our approach to gender, sex and reproduction than in our attitude toward processed carbs, and when it comes to women’s increasing influence, the caveat “all else being equal” is more like a chasm. But Konner is aspiring to the kind of big-picture, TED-talk-friendly narrative found in books like Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” a recent study of the mysterious global decline in violence. The hope of such books is that if the view is broad and long enough, even chasms can be papered over.
It makes sense to start with what actually distinguishes male and female human beings. Although the number of people for whom gender is genuinely misaligned is statistically tiny, Konner suggests that our increasing acceptance of transgender identity — the idea that some people are born into the wrong body — shows that we do acknowledge that gender is hard-wired, not merely a matter of performance and culture. Doctors, for instance, no longer assign a gender to babies born with indeterminate genitalia, instead allowing an individual to find his or her way to “his” or “her.” But even if homosexual men and women are included in this designation, the group remains a small minority — almost everyone else falls to one side or other of the genetic divide. And in Konner’s reasoning, those on the male side are profoundly disadvantaged.
The Y chromosome produces a person who is likely to be taller, more aggressive and more disease-prone than his XX counterpart, who can gestate and nourish children and has a good chance of seeing her 80th birthday. Maleness could therefore accurately be classified as a syndrome that kills off its members in droves, either directly through disease or indirectly as a result of that violent streak. In every society across the globe and at every point in history, the overwhelming majority of homicides are committed by men; women usually kill because they’re defending themselves or their children against men. Why, then, does the human species continue to cripple half its young with this defective chromosome?
The most obvious reason for sexual difference is, well, sex. But why sex? Why do so many species continue to use messy, inefficient, conflict-producing sex for the essential task of reproduction? Konner pursues the mysterious persistence of this hit-and-miss evolutionary strategy through studies of various creatures that have found a way around it. These include unisexual whiptail lizards and deadbeat cassowary moms, which abandon hatchlings to Dad’s care. The notoriously violent female praying mantis, who makes a meal of her partner, also makes an appearance — “Talk about a boy losing his head over a girl.” Approaching closer to human experience, Konner describes the social organization of bonobos, which — in contrast to chimps, their aggressively competitive relatives — have developed a means of sharing responsibility and resources that has resulted in a remarkably mellow and peaceful existence.
Is such an outcome possible for humans? In the early 1970s, Konner and his late wife, Marjorie Shostak, spent two years living with and studying the !Kung San people in Botswana, who were then a hunter-gatherer society, one of the last remaining such groups on the planet. Women worked together to produce food and care for children, but also had an equal share in the conversations around the village fire at night, which included the “open airing of difficulties” and the resolution of problems. Violence in hunter-gatherer societies was not uncommon, but it did not lead to war — that came only when humans began to settle and cultivate land, meaning that they had something to lose and to defend. In the feudal societies that developed, men used violence to achieve domination and still more violence to maintain it, including rape on a massive scale. That’s why some 16 million men today can trace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan, a tyrant who pushed polygyny to its physical limits. Konner advances the intriguing thesis that the violent strain in modern man might not be due to maleness in the abstract but to a perverted ancestral strain of it, “a legacy of successful men in this benighted past.”
In the feminine future, these traits should theoretically dwindle out of the gene pool as they no longer yield reproductive results — with the power to choose, women will select caring, committed partners over feckless brutes. But that power must first come from society and the law: Contrary to what some Republican lawmakers have claimed, women’s reproductive systems don’t shut down during rape. It remains a brutally effective and appallingly common weapon of war in the 21st century.
A society in which women are allowed to speak and be heard on equal terms with men is one that has a shot at the kind of decent and democratic future Konner is looking toward — but we don’t have to wait until women’s sexual choices breed the bad guys out of the species. Even he doesn’t quite seem to realize the importance of the !Kung San model he cites when he turns his attention to one particularly fraught arena of gender relations, the modern American college campus, where young women are waging heroic battles to get their voices heard and believed. The first red flag should be the appearance of Camille Paglia, who has written that campus rape is both to be expected (because men are “natural” sexual predators) and not really rape (or what she calls “felonious” rape), but a problem of booze and mixed signals.
Konner tends to brandish Paglia’s name and her 25-year-old book, “Sexual Personae,” every time he makes a point he thinks will upset feminists, not seeming to realize that there’s more than one kind of feminist and that Paglia’s hardly in the progressive vanguard. So it’s not much of a surprise that he credulously cites journalistic studies of campus hookup culture (a phrase that needs to go the way of Genghis Khan’s dating style) to prove that when undergraduate girls try to play the game of casual sex, they are “way out of their league.” Elsewhere, Konner cites the power of “stereotype threat” in studies where girls are told that they’re biologically inferior at math and then perform worse on a subsequent test. Yet he does not seem to consider that similar gender stereotyping might affect how girls answer researchers’ questions about their sexual desire. There’s probably no stereotype with which modern American adolescents are more fiercely bombarded than the idea that sex is something men want and women give them. So is it any wonder the girls express regret for their behavior while boys brag about their conquests?
Konner tells us that when it comes to biological gender differences, “we should be celebrating, not minimizing, them or belittling women because of them,” but it’s unclear what that celebration would look like. As a species, we’ve proved far too good at using difference as an excuse for injustice. Before we arrive at Konner’s female-focused utopia, we need to take a more modest lesson from the !Kung San and allow women to be part of the inner circle around the fire, free to speak out even — or especially — when it makes men uncomfortable.