Human nature, aggression, and violence have become the subject of an interesting conversation between animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff and primatologist Jane Goodall and her two co-authors.
After the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., Bekoff said on HuffPost that most “humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for.” It’s the 0.01 percent who kill and destroy that make the news, and the same misconception applies to animals. The “misleading sensationalist media” often portray animals as more violent than they are, “regardless of mounting scientific evidence that nonhumans are predominantly cooperative, peaceful and fair, and on occasion display social justice.” In his opinion, studying other animals could help us “harness our own innate goodness to make the world a better place for all beings.”
Goodall, Wrangham, and Peterson (GW&P) responded with a Wall Street Journal essay saying “if only if it were that simple. Calm and cooperative behavior indeed predominates in most species, but the idea that human aggression is qualitatively different from that of every other species is wrong.” What sets humans apart is our “skill at engineering peace” through social and government institutions:
“Under everyday conditions, humans are a delightfully peaceful and friendly species. But when tensions mount between groups of ordinary people or in the mind of an unstable individual, emotion can lead to deadly events. There but for the grace of fortune, circumstance and effective social institutions go you and I. Instead of constructing a feel-good fantasy about the innate goodness of most people and all animals, we should strive to better understand ourselves, the good parts along with the bad.”
You might be wondering—or maybe you’re afraid to ask—why I’m writing about animal aggression on a political culture blog. It’s not so I can insult politicians, even if some of them deserve it. It’s because of recent stories about the “record” number of women now serving in US Congress, and how their presence could dilute the testosterone and lead to political breakthroughs.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told ABC’s Diane Sawyer during a December interview that, “I think if we [women] were in charge of the Senate and of the administration, we would have a budget deal by now. … With all deference to our male colleagues, women’s styles tend to be more collaborative.” And according to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), “by nature [women] are less confrontational.” In her blog post on the Sawyer interview, Diana Reese said women’s natural “emotionality” and empathy would have helped these legislators “settle the fiscal cliff business” sooner.
In the comments on Reese’s post, readers both condemned and perpetuated sexist stereotypes. One said “there’s something about women working together towards a common goal, a greater good that men’s nature does not allow. Sword rattling and chest thumping are men’s behavior and that is what is going on in Wash.DC.”
I had this image of chest-thumping Congressmen on my mental desktop when I found the GW&P article, so I allowed myself a chuckle and then wondered if those authors weren’t right about politics, too.
There are probably certain personality types that tend to enter and succeed in politics: People undaunted by confrontation, competition, or the facts. Persuasive people with high self-esteem—because if they don’t believe they’re winners, neither will voters. Even people with psychopathic tendencies (see this Scientific American article on that subject).
So we shouldn’t rely on “feel-good fantasies” about how warm, fuzzy, and cooperative female politicians are, as opposed to those nasty, aggressive men. Maybe we should be trying to engineer progress somehow—to borrow GW&P’s term—keeping in mind the real and imperfect people who serve in our political institutions.