Explaining Gender Violence Through Evolution.

spoilt modern indian woman

Image: startinn.com

The following was submitted by SMIW contributor Navya Mishra.

This is an attempt at presenting the concept of evolutionary programming that may explain a bizarre, violent need to set and enforce a code of conduct for a subgroup within a population and, the psyche of intolerance that goes with violation of that code.

Violent enforcement of conformity to an accepted code of conduct affects everyone, irrespective of gender. Yet, during attempts to explain social and cultural factors of gender based violence, this perspective is surprisingly under examined.

Thousands of yeas ago, if humans were to survive and evolve, they had to band together in large numbers and perform their designated roles within a tribe. The rules were unspoken, clear and influenced the chances of survival of the entire tribe. In response to the perpetual threat of extinction, our cranial capacity continued to increase and, having been armed with oppose-able thumbs, we learnt to identify our resources and manipulate our immediate environments to favor our species.

A popular theory in evolutionary biology states that there are certain traits which gradually appear in generations, in response to an environmental stressor, and recede when the stressor is no longer present.

Applying this analogy to behavioral traits, it is easy to understand how rapid learning from the environment and adaptation determined survival for our predecessors, thereby fueling a rapid increase in cranial capacity and increasing gray matter. Similarly, once the environment was manipulated into a form more conducive to sustaining human life and we learnt to shield ourselves from the elements that threatened our existence, the pressing necessity for rapid learning and adaptation gradually receded.

We got left behind, a rapidly multiplying species with a learning disability. We continued to cling to our ancient need for conformity and our fear of the unfamiliar. We had no one to learn from, but ourselves.

Here, one must understand that the battle our unarmed ancestors had to wage – against nature in their fight to survive – was not an easy one. Every unknown element could snuff out a life or, an entire tribe. Clinging to the familiar for dear life, did in fact, keep them alive.

While that, in 2016, is no longer the case , our habit of clinging to the familiar has somehow stuck.

This accumulated disdain for the unfamiliar and what I like to refer to as a culture’s learning disability, is what’s resulted in the society’s strained relationship with its women. Back when physical strength was the primary determinant of superiority – women were easier to overpower and control because of sheer biological disposition. In a lawless society based purely on survival, a tussle between a woman and man – where both competed against each other for survival through access of same resources – usually saw the man prevailing through use of physical force.

Those may be the earliest origins of gender violence – rooted, not surprisingly, in a struggle for power.

However, thousands of years on, when gender roles saw a rapid shift – as a response to economic transitions – the power dynamic no longer remained as straightforward. But, unfortunately, this shift in gender roles and power dynamics did not come with behavioral evolution – despite evolution of culture, society and law and, in spite of global recognition of basic human rights. Because, cultural aspects that determine the extent of social permeation remain a function of ancient evolutionary programming.

Gender based violence was a panicked response to fear – fear of the unfamiliar and the loss of control, of power, and it remains so, because of our species’ inability to evolve.

That said, socio-cultural factors do determine awareness, sensitization and learning to a considerable extent. Because, at the end of the day, those are forms of evolution – not physical, but mental. This is reflected in the lower rates of gender based violence among settings where access to awareness and reinforcement of tolerant, gender friendly behavioral traits is commonplace.

In India, where a majority of the population is a victim of extreme inequity and apathy, the need to scavenge for resources is stronger than behavioral adaptation. Similarly, the strong psychological adherence to what’s familiar and therefore ‘acceptable’, is unlikely to respond to common interventions aimed at generating awareness and sensitization alone. Unsurprisingly, the number or intensity of these campaigns, unaccompanied by initiatives to address inequity and to create an enabling learning environment for all, fails to impact on reducing gender based violence.

Our apathy nurtures extreme inequality and deprivation, seizing from its victims the ability and opportunity to learn, feel, grow, adapt, respect, admire and love. Why do we then feign surprise at the ineffectiveness of our attempts at rehabilitating our culture and its strained relationship with our women – when we ourselves fail to foster equity, rather than just endorse it?


About the Author:

Navya is a biologist and studies determinants of social inequity on the side.

June 29th, 2016

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  • This is what is called a “just so story”. It asserts logical arguments without any supporting evidence at all and in fact goes against what evidence actual anthropologists have already reached consensus on. Through the use of this story, it attempts to justify pre-historic male violence against women.

    We need more than a story bro… And frankly, who cares. If you can’t justify modern day male violence against women on it’s own merits (and can only attempt such a justification by appeals to a pre-historic undeveloped lizard brain) then the only argument which can be logically deduced from that proposition is that male pattern violence has never evolved. Which then in turn suggests all sorts of other things, such as modern male humans lack the ability to evolve, to reason or control themselves.

    And if male humans tend to lack the ability to ever evolve, to reason or control themselves, then why should modern male humans have the right to vote or act in any capacity requiring leadership? This is serious question which requires a serious answer, if anyone is to take the original assertion at face value (to reiterate again, despite that assertion having no supporting evidence).

    We could just as easily write another “just so story” which explains why modern day male humans tend to have such high rates of violence compared to the low rates of violence committed by females, which could sound like this: men are neanderthals who haven’t evolved as well as women and perhaps we should explore ways to reproduce our human species using only females.

    Sir, women certainly won’t reminiscence fondly on all that male violence and those who perpetuated it when we are gone. Shape up, learn how to evolve like the rest of us, or be left behind in the dust bin of history. If you’re having trouble with your relationships with women, then exert the effort to learn how to have healthier relationships, don’t try to justify poor interpersonal skills by saying your great-great-great uncle a thousand times removed was a lousy hunter.

    • Errrrrrrrr ,Sir Jonathan J Flosswell, the author Navya Mishra is a woman ,I guess.( Author please correct me if I am wrong.) You have addressed her as a man all through your comment. Any particular reason for your assumption?

      Yes,there is much too speculation in the article. Coming from a biologist and that too a female,probably feminist,biologist I expected more than furthering of outdated socio biological theories. Wonder what Ruth Bleir would have to say about this.

      • Dear Nidhi,

        Thank you for finding the time to read the article. Tempting as it is, to write a scientific review with the most recent citations, I am held back by my need to create impact among the few people who spend their time reading the article. I am hoping you write back to me with references to articles that would refute ‘my speculations’, I would be happier to learn of other theories that may well explain this phenomenon. Evolutionary biology is objective, while behavioral evolution is not, I am afraid, in your research you are likely to encounter qualitative data, which is neither straightforward to understand nor as ‘satisfying’ to interpret as quantitative findings.

    • Jonathan,

      Glad you found the time to critique. Please go through the article once more, paying particular attention to the last sections, which talk about factors affecting behavioral adaptation in a socio economically disadvantaged setting.
      Since you find this explanation too simplistic, try this exercise.

      -> pubmed
      ->Search “gender violence” AND “socio economic status” AND ” behavioral adapatation”

      Please revert with anything that I may have missed out in my story.

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