In which I rain hellfire on a debate, espouse an unpopular position, and ask questions about our long term plan. Be warned this is not easy reading: do not burn me at the stake if you don’t like it, I’m not forcing you to read it, think about it, or respond to it. Do as you will.
Those of you who don’t know my work very well may not realize that I’m fascinated by power. My world model assumes that, to all intents and purposes, there are only a handful of real countries in the world – those with nuclear weapons and the will to use them. Everything else is merely an autonomous region operating on the sufferance and indifference of the nuclear nations. This kind of absolutist power analysis is not very popular in international relations analysis so you can imagine that applying it to gender and sexuality is going to be upsetting. Read on at your own risk.
Two axioms, clearly stated: biological evolution is real and our basic outlines are more-or-less correct. Second axiom: therefore, any model which does not cleave closely to this biological basis is worthless. If you ask why the earth goes around the sun, but answers involving gravity are forbidden, you’ll get nowhere. If you want to understand the sexual behaviour of a social primate species, and give no attention to evolutionary biology and ethology, you’re living in a dreamland. Note that I am not going to draw the same kind of bullshit conclusions that normally come from evolutionary psychology, but let’s deal with things as they lay.
So let me slice through the first layer of bullshit. We have no fundamental understanding of why homosexual and asexual mammals evolved. For reasons that we do not understand, there are homosexual animals across an enormous range of species. There may also be widespread asexuality in animals – it’s been observed in humans and sheep, but researchers have not looked closely elsewhere yet. With existing scientific models, there is no compelling explanation for why 5% or more of a species should take themselves out of the gene pool while apparently healthy. The presence of this trait over an enormous number of species argues against it being a quirk of evolution. In all probability, given the high reproductive cost of homosexuality, and its widespread nature across divergent species, homosexuality is an adaptive trait at a macro level for reasons we do not currently understand.
This is intensely important. All arguments about homosexuality and, by extension, much of the debate about gender and sexuality are based in ordinary primate behaviour: animals do this stuff too. But amazingly, for such a large class of activities across a lot of different species, we have no reasonable scientific explanations. There are speculations, but no clear understanding at this time. Whatever it is, it is likely that the evolutionary biology of homosexuality will be forehead-slappingly obvious once understood, but until then it is largely opaque although some of the genetic/hormonal markers are thought to be known. Conclusion: we have to accept all homosexual behaviours as natural (from animal models) unless there is compelling reason not to in some specific circumstance. We also know that fundamental models of homosexuality are almost entirely cultural artefacts – the normative bisexuality of Rome and the entire Greek thing.
Homosexuality is normal primate behaviour around which different cultural models are built. Do you roast your food or eat it in soups? It really is about that important at a fundamental level, i.e. not at all.
Now let us discuss rape. There is a ton of rape in animal sexuality. There’s a ton of rape among our primate relatives too, with whom we share an enormous evolutionary heritage and a very similar social structure. Animals rape. Our primate relatives rape. Rape is state of nature as much as homosexuality is.
However, starving to death in winter and being eaten by savage predators is also state of nature. We do everything in our power to avoid freezing to death or being eaten by savage animals: it is therefore very reasonable that we attempt to make rape as rare as being eaten by wolves. We have to choose (individually and as a society) which natural behaviours we foster, and which we criminalize and suppress at all costs. Some societies choose to attempt (unsuccessfully, or course) to stamp out homosexuality, or allow rape to go largely unchallenged. These are horrible choices about how to manage our biological inheritance. But let us make no mistake: managing our biological inheritance is the name of the game here. This is not social or political discussion, this is all primate biology and we are those primates.
One thing is certain: we seem to have done a much better job stamping out being eaten by wolves than stamping out rape. Attitudes to how best to stamp out rape vary as widely as attitudes and cultural norms around homosexuality. For a long time, the human norm was that rape was prevented by large aggressive men in the nuclear/extended/tribal family with big pointy bits of metal and an “honour code.” This scheme is widely agreed to be far from perfect. Now instead of the archaic “honour code” systems, the State is the primary retaliator for rapes and it does a piss poor job of prosecuting. Without effective social mechanisms to stamp out rape, given that rape is common in animals including our primate relatives, rape continues to be common.
Now, let me frame this argument carefully. What I am saying here is this: animals rape, quite a lot, including primates. Humans also rape quite a lot, but we have a unique ability to engineer outcomes that are far from the state of nature including operations like farming, making electricity, and going to the moon. The tendency towards rape is likely in our genes, but we no more have to live in a rape-laden society than we have to live in caves and eat rotting meat. Natural does not mean good: it is the baseline from which we must work, not the end of our possibilities.
I’m working through these base cases to approach making a case about why the patriarchy is a completely misunderstood institution, and why attempts to overthrow it have more or less completely failed, with some danger of current progress being rolled back by regressive factions, for example, US Christian Conservative Republicans. To break through to effective actions means reconsidering what we think we know. I did not suggest this would be pleasant: remember, I think there are only six or eight real countries, defined by nuclear weapons, and the rest are just little vassal fiefdoms. This is bloody gender/sexuality realpolitik not Californian Gender Studies classes around 1989.
Let us turn to a more pleasant subject: basketball. Let us assume a society in which wealth is allocated by success in playing basketball, a sort of Sports Socialism which has chosen to directly tie economic gains to sporting success in a sort of athletic command economy. Pure gedanken experiment, nothing realistic about it. Sports Socialism.
In this imaginary world, somebody notices that tall people are making a lot more money than short people. True, this effect is not true in all cases – there are some short people who are doing very nicely thank you very much, although rarely do they reach the very top rank of earners. There are many tall people who are useless at the game. But, on average, and indeed on the mean, the tall dominate the sport.
Various suggestions are made about how to handle the problem of tall people out-earning short people. Some areas use leagues divided up by height, but with the rewards still weighted towards the taller in each bracket: less unfair competition in each height bracket, but with the taller brackets still getting greater rewards. Other areas attempt to hobble taller players by making them wear weighted shirts or even glasses that restrict vision. Some even feed short people performance enhancing drugs in the hope of evening the odds. Nothing works: all solutions are unsatisfactory and have unwanted results as well as evening out the height imbalance. If the game is to be the yardstick by which money is handed out, height is always going to be a factor. Some wags point out that even if we have leagues made of players of exactly the same height… why then weight starts looking like a statistically significant predictor of earnings. These systems of privilege just never stop, do they?
By the way, this is not entirely fiction: short people really are measurably economically and socially disadvantaged compared with taller people. The effects are substantial, significant, and hardly ever discussed as a widespread form of prejudice like racism, sexism or ageism, even though the impacts are quite serious over the course of a lifetime. This is an anomaly which I do not pretend to understand: culture is weird and inexplicable at times, and the lack of regulatory action on height discrimination is part of that puzzle.
Let us return to the basketball experiment:
The only way to fix the notional society in which the game of basketball is used to allocate wealth is by playing a different game.
There is no way to handicap the game of basketball so that everybody can compete fairly. Bodies and talents are too different, and any rule change to level the playing field results in new anomalies which are often as bad in their own way as the original height bias is. The game inherently favours the tall, and the only effective way to remove this bias is to change to a new game. A game which selects for the tall cannot be effectively handicapped to produce a more level playing field in most cases. If our society wishes to allocate rewards not based on height, then it must change the game played in profound ways.
Now, two more observations. Basketball on first examination is a fair game: everybody has an equal chance of doing well, with rewards largely dependent on skill. Secondly, basketball’s rules nowhere mention height as being an input into one’s formula for payment. Wealth flows to the winners, who happen to be tall, but the rules of the game do not explicitly give rewards based on height.
The game of basketball is, in fact, fair. It’s only through observation we discover who basketball is biased towards. Looking at the rules on paper, you might conclude victory would go to those who can throw effectively or run fast but, in practice, height turns out to be a dominant factor to an amazing degree. Who knew?
Back to the real world.
The game is called reproductive fitness. Its the game of human evolution, in which different genetic codes are duking it out for the most widespread dissemination of copies of themselves. There have been a series of breakout strategies conferring massive advantages in this game. Some notable examples: opposable thumbs, walking upright, large brains, language, tool use, agriculture, cities, capitalism. These trends go from the unquestionably biological through to the potentially/probably cultural, but there is no doubt that the language-using apes out-competed the dumb ones: that’s why we damn near all talk today. Damn near all humans survive on agriculture, too. This is winner-take-all in most cases.
In 1991 the Soviet Union died. Their vision of the future of humanity – and it was a global vision – was Socialism, which many critique as human-as-hive-social-insect. Central planning committee takes the role of queen, and everything radiates out from there. Whether it was an adaptive strategy for humanity is hard to say, because their implementation was horrible. There’s no reason that Socialism had to result in mass murder and toilet paper shortages, at least not one which is immediately obvious. But theirs did, and the result is the centrally planned hive-model is dead, for now.
In its place we have capitalism and colonialism. The financial collapse has put enormous numbers of young middle class professionals back in their parents homes, because they cannot afford a place to live, and house prices are kept artificially high to protect their parents’ generation from market forces. The little bits of paper we exchange for toil and ideas and risk simply decide, in many situations, who will breed and who will not. Our genetic outcomes are shaped by our economic systems, because a home and a certain amount of security are necessary to most decisions to reproduce. The imperative to put our 20s into education and work rather than child-rearing as most of our ancestors did further shapes our reproductive options based on cultural factors. Human genetics and economics are, correctly understood, a single field. Our position in all of these games literally forms the identity to which intersectionality refers: race, gender etc. all cut right to the biological core of our instinctive behaviors. Our responses are far from rational!
The winners of both of these social structures, Socialist and Capitalist, the team that stays on the table regardless of outcomes, are typically male. Although historically roughly twice as many women have children as men (cite) the men that do stay on top often have absolutely phenomenal reproductive success. Bob Marley is thought to have had around fifty children, vastly more than any woman could manage even in theory, for example. One human in 200 is descended from Genghis Khan, which verges on reductio ad hitlerum for this argument.
That’s your patriarchy, right there. It’s the tiny fraction of men, mostly warlords and dictators, who throughout human history have managed to silverback absolutely enormous numbers of women into breeding with them. One big male and a group of females is a strategy found in our close relatives, and when it breaks out in humans, the nature of our biology and culture can spread those genes unbelievable distances. This is, if you like, genetic imperialism. You take one facet of primate biology, and multiply it by complex social structures and enabling technology like the stirrup, and what results is an incredibly, unreasonably effective reproduction strategy: enormous centralization of power, and vast harems. This is a reproductive strategy, and it’s one that works: the silverback gorilla rules over a nest of one younger male and a few females, plus the kids. The human emperor rules over an entire region, and frequently produces many hundreds of children. Zsa Zsa Gabor was the virgin lover of Ataturk. She was far from alone. Her description of her experience is enlightening.
Until we acknowledge the biological basis for social forms like dictatorship, we cannot effectively fight them. It is not enough to wish we were evolved from bonobos rather than some evil creature that’s closer to the baboon than anything else, given their omniverous canine teeth and love of throwing stones at predators! While the patriarchy is understood to be a purely social construction there is little hope of combating it. It must be seen and understood as an artefact of primate biology, amplified in reach and damage by our exquisitely complex social structures. Then it comes within reach. The genetic legacy of the super-successful reproduction of the occasional Emperors builds on the inheritance of the silverbacks and lives within all of us: the genes sleep in men and women alike. The adoring crowds of sexually available women that surround celebrities are doing their genetic bit to propagate the patriarchy too. Every groupie is unconsciously playing the female response to the genetic strategies of Ataturk, the Ottoman Emperors and Genghis Khan: enormous centralization of genetic success enabled by complex societies building on top of primate polygyny ala gorillas tends to produce incentives we would not necessarily choose consciously.
Let me say that again: the reproductive strategy of a very few men mating with an enormous number of women is the foundation of the patriarchy. Women who are not captives raped in war still often play into this male reproductive strategy around celebrities or those with extreme wealth. Star fucking is a female continuation of patriarchy. So is looking for a very rich husband. This pattern is ancient. What it produces is genetic incentives for centralization of power around one asshole who fucks everything that will lie still long enough, or can be made to lie still. The poor man tends to monogamy. The rich man does not have to. Patriarchy is an evolved strategy. Women are not its only victims: young men drafted for the Vietnam war, or the nice guys who can’t get a date are also confined by a winner-takes-all model all too familiar in financial competition as oligarchical capitalism, and in genetic selection terms as patriarchy.
It’s possible that over some number of generations, birth control (i.e. groupies and most mistresses are not conceiving these days) may be a surprisingly effective brake on this strategy. Only time will tell.
Now, hold your anger. Stop and think. If we accept homosexuality as natural and acceptable, and rape as natural and unacceptable, we are two thirds of the way to looking at patriarchy in similarly biologically deterministic forms. The social, and more likely biological winner-fucks-all reproductive tendency in animal species (think deer) gives rise to the entire spectrum of inclinations which we culturally manifest as the patriarchy. The genetic incentives are completely different than those in a society in which monogamous pair-bonding is the reproductive norm (if such a thing ever existed, probably not.)
Winner-fucks-all and genetic competition make perfect sense of the Imperial tendency towards genocide. Groups with very different genetic makeup meet, and as with the new silverback killing the children of the previous silverback, an atavistic impulse to kill and enslave everyone, and impregnate all of the women kicks in. In happens in wars: rape followed invasion in the ancient world in nearly every case. The Red Army stands accused of raping its way across Germany. This pattern continues to this very day. You cannot separate this atavistic genetic tendency from imperialism, from colonialism, from slavery, from war. In certain circumstances, women voluntarily participate in the propagation of these genes (groupies, star fuckers etc.) but let us not downplay the coercive nature of the harem, and the outright rape which is the backbone of this reproductive strategy.
It is in all of us: it is the dead hand of our ancestors and our barbarous past. Form the pyramid, and the one on top gets to father 0.5% of the human race 1000 years later. Genghis Khan as the all-father. Recent dictators have tended to be less free to perform mass impregnation, but who can deny the psychosexual weirdness around Hitler, or Mao’s train-loads of concubines.
Worse, the patriarchy gene and the cultural transmissions that go with it are often extremely good at handling raw political power (on this blog) which creates a self-reinforcing power cartel. The competition between the patriarchs is like the competition between the silverback gorillas: it is about perpetuating the patriarch line, not about bringing it down. It does not matter who you vote for, the government always wins. There is no way out of this situation without understanding this. The Empire is a sexual organ by which the patriarchy propagates its genes.
The Empire is the extended phenotype of the patriarch, and the patriarchy is one natural (but not desirable) human sexual selection strategy. There are other, less damaging, models.
But let us be clear here: the patriarchy keeps coming back because the patriarchy is in our genes. Planet of the Apes portrays an egalitarian-monogamous society, but get right down to it and in the back room there’s gorilla-on-gorilla single combat to ascertain dominance, followed by orgies. That’s gorillas for you, even in a society where they’ve evolved speech and complex culture. We are doing our equivalent right now.
In America, instead of gorilla orgies, we have college football and cheerleaders.
Is college football a re-enactment of tribal combat followed by rape of the conquered? You have to wonder. At least I do.
But these are the questions raised by following the genetic footprints of violence and sexual behaviour around violence in detail. Nobody wants to ask them, and almost nobody wants answers. I’m (at times) Mr. Realpolitik, Mr. “nuclear weapons define sovereignty.” I warned you at the beginning this was going to be rough, and it certainly is.
If course, if you dont like it, it’s very hard to prove any of this. We don’t have the science. But we could one day. To really study what is going on at the genetic level might be the right approach to really understanding rape and the cultural abuse of power right up to and including genocide well enough to put a stop to it forever. If we don’t look, we can’t know. If we can’t know, we can’t win.
It’s that simple.
Power, without evolutionary biology, cannot be studied effectively. I’m not sure that power can even be defined correctly without reference to our primate heritage and mammalian dominance. The Old White Dudes that run so much of the world are consciously or unconsciously playing out a reproductive strategy from our dim and distant past that still works today for some of them. The younger men that support them, hoping one day to be the silverback, extend this power structure for their own reproductive interests. The Lewinsky class instinctively seek these guys out, and the quiet discussion in the corners from young male college professors is that this phenomena doesn’t require any great amount of power to manifest: you don’t have to be a president for status to be attractive to people. Just a little social standing in a sufficiently naive group will do it. Patriarchy for women is not just about rape, patriarchy is also wanting a successful husband, a man who has won his war to get to the top.
Within this framework, the Thatcher-Meir-Gandhi-Bhutto-Merkel line also makes perfect sense: either they are fitting into a system designed to be run by men or, even more disturbing, they’re running enough of the relevant genetic scripts to pursue these strategies unconsciously, even though they have no reproductive advantage to gain from them. This is a heretical thought and no more than an idle speculation, but is the motivation to power always a buried male reproductive script exemplified by Genghis Khan? Are there really any other modes to the Will to Power? Do you have to carry the genes to be shaped by it, or can it be community-acquired from the culture?
Without doing the science, we will never know.
Centralization of power benefits men by creating opportunities for men with power to father enormous numbers of children. The star system that produces Led Zepplin or Bob Marley does the same thing. Bob’s fifty kids, all fathered (as far as we know!) with willing women are as much an expression of this reproductive strategy as, well, frankly the women who chose to sleep with him.
Until women stop having lots of children with rich, powerful, socially central men, there will be patriarchy. The strategy only stops working when it stops working in genetic terms and the people with the power to make that decision are females, unless you are dealing with Mao or Genghis Khan in which case that choice is completely removed.
The price of accepting that homosexuality is biologically normal in mammals is that we need to start thinking about other aspects of human life in biological terms. Homosexuality is inevitable, persecution of homosexuality is clearly preventable. A tendency towards sexual violence is natural, rape is clearly preventable. A tendency towards patriarchy and domination is clearly natural, Empire is probably preventable. There are a few mechanisms we could use.
But until we understand that we are wrestling with monsters from the id, with the horrific legacies of evolution which we must work very carefully to prevent overwhelming us – as carefully and as strategically as we fight cancer – we will all be in danger from the violent past in which our species evolved, and the ways we evolved to cope with it.
Today the biological imperative towards power manifests as nuclear weapons. Males, out of territory to expand into, appear to be fully locked into primate dominance wars. There’s nothing to do but a fight to the finish between two sides, as we’re currently seeing shutting down the government in America. The multi-party face-off between Russia, America and China is simply three groups of big apes following their genetic programming.
I don’t believe that without opening up new worlds for our ancient genes to conquer there is any realistic hope of peace on earth. But if we can reopen the sky, perhaps we can trick the most genetically driven members of our species to sink their atavistic drives into getting off the rock and taking their genetic equivalent of “manifest destiny” with them. Perhaps with enough room to manoeuvre, a more cooperative culture can emerge, with our “last man standing” genetic switches set to the off position because we have abundant territories to expand into, explore and discover.
The two archetypes at work here are Genghis Khan and Captain Kirk. In a limited, zero sum world, the inner Genghis Khan predominates.
But it is possible that if we can open the sky, the male and male-strategy replicating portions of humanity will discover their inner Captain Kirk, the desire to boldly go places, and not to kill their way to power which is so much of our current dominator mode of business? Could it work?
We are locked on this planet with monsters from the id. But if we set them free in the stars, it is my firm belief they will sprout wings and transform into, if not angels, Pegasus, carrying our awful genetic heritage into the heavens, but transforming it in peace and freedom as we go. It may be that our fundamental violence is soluble in the infinite horizons of space. It is this or genetically selecting these trends out of our species: what could possibly go wrong with such a plan? Everything. Eugenics? Everything.
In the 20th century, we had a simple choice: what to do with nuclear technology, and what to do with the plutonium. Here were our two choices: the territorial dominance ICBM, or Project Orion that would have taken us to the stars. I think you know what choice we should have made. I certainly do. Our probes would certainly be back from Alpha Centauri by now. Possibly even our first manned Orion-class craft.
If we stay confined on earth, we are going to have to artificially select or genetically engineer out male aggression and female attraction to wealth, power and status if we are to survive. If we go into the stars, aggression will turn into exploration, and rather than living in genetic slavery, we may all be free. Faced with an open horizon, who will we become?
Space is the only viable path to cohabiting with our genetic heritage, rather than breaking nature in the name of peace. I do not believe we have the wisdom to govern our genetic inheritance wisely, but I do believe we could escape our trap, and go to the stars. The Spirit Level may be a temporary fix, but a lasting solution to our problematic genetic heritage is going to require a radical change in our environment. There’s only one place I can see that coming from.
To survive ourselves we need black sky thinking about even the most everyday of issues.
(the end. i may have a few more tweaks upcoming, but that’s it for now.)