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.