National Post

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June 2, 1999

Debunking the male aggression myth

Patricia Pearson
National Post

Men are animals: pigs, brutes, apes. That basic idea, that men do beastly things because of their beastly instincts, has increasingly pervaded social-science research.

But the theory is based on flawed findings, according to an anthropologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

For decades, scholars have argued that men are more prone to philandering than women because it ensures better survival of their genes. Likewise, it's been argued that men are more inclined to violently attack stepchildren, as male primates and lions do, because it is genetically advantageous to eliminate the offspring of rivals and replace them with their own.

Such conclusions were often drawn from research into lemurs, apes and lions. They formed the backbone of many studies in cultural anthropology, which holds that human behaviour can be explained by studying how our animal cousins compete to survive.

The Moral Animal, for example, published in 1994, by journalist Robert Wright, argued that women, like female apes, are less inclined to be promiscuous because instinct tells them that their young will be endangered by "the dominant male."

But Anne Innis Dagg, of the University of Waterloo, argues that the studies of primates and lions, from which such behaviour is often extrapolated, are seriously flawed. Her article appears in the current issue of American Anthopologist, the 8,000-circulation quarterly published by the American Anthropological Association.

Lions have heen cited as the most compelling example of male sexual control of females through violence. The theory promoted by animal behaviourists since the mid-70s is that male lions will "take over" a pride of females, then knock off all the cubs and sire a new batch.

But a recent review of research on primate behaviour shows that in fact, very few males are known for certain to have kined a female's young and then mated with her to produce new offspring, says Dagg. out of the 48 cases of infanticide observed in all primates by field researchers in the last several decades, only six were commited by males who proceeded to mate with the mother.

"In over 17 years of observations of many thousands of lions, there were only seven incidents, involving at least 11 cubs, of known infanticide by males,"' writes Dagg. "In NO instance is there evidence that the males that killed the cubs then mated with their mothers!'

In fact, the available research shows male lions to be a benign presence within their prides, compared to lionesses. Sifting through all the data on lion infanticide in the Serengeti from 1966 to today, Dagg has discovered that male aggression during pride takeovers is the least likely fate for a mewling lioncub.

Cubs have more to fear from their mothers, from leopards, hyenas and male and female lions outside of the pride.

Young lions are often starved to death or abandoned by their mothers, Dagg reports. With no natural prey, lions must regulate their own numbers to ensure there are enough wildebeests and zebras to go around. The operative evolucionary strategy appears to be maternal ambivalence, not masculine aggression.

If male lions are instinctively promoting a genetic advantage, they're not doing a very good job, Dagg concludes. Not only do they have little inclination to kill stepcubs, but they also have no control over which cubs the Iionesses choose to neglect.

But once the male-perpetrated infanticide theory caught on in anthropological circles, Dagg says, Iion reseachers hegan reporting selectively on pride aggression.

"The hypothesis resonates with Western culture," she writes: "Many people accept male dominance and aggression and condone, in part, the control of female sexuality by men."

In fact, the majority of infanticides in human society; according to data collected by crirninologists, are committed by women.

There is some evidence, coflected by the sociobiologists at McMaster University; that step-parents are statistically more likely to kill the children in their care than biological parents are.

Evolutionary psychologists may have to go back to the drawing board, Dagg says, to compose a less sex-biased picture of the human brain.

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