Review by William A. Spriggs, April 28, 2002
Since the latest consensus in evolution theory argues that sexual choice is really the main force behind creating the advanced and complex human mind, I was intrigued by the title of this new book that arrived on the bookshelves last month. I decided to read and review this book before I wrote a review of Geoffery Miller's book, The Mating Mind, that spawned this new paradigm shift in the scientific community; my interest having been peaked to a very high level concerning female thought, choice, and thus, behavior. How can women be cruel (inhuman) to other women? Haven't we been taught in our modern western culture that it is the female that is empathic, nurturing, compassionate, cooperative, and gentle creatures? Haven't we been taught that it is the women who are suppressed and dominated over by a male culture that does everything that it can to humiliate and force women into behavioral roles that are only in place to assist the male in his quest for advancement? Were we not led to believe that there is a vast "sisterhood" that has formed out there ready to unite for positive change in the world?
As for the author, I will be honest here -- I have not been aware of Ms. Chesler before this book because, for the past nine years, I have been buried in evolutionary journals, books, and web sites -- rarely seeking out non-evolutionary paths, and thus, unfamiliar with her name or reputation. But like life itself, sometimes we take a path not taken before and suddenly we find a whole new perspective on the very subject where we have narrowed our studies. And Ms. Chesler's book has given me that new perspective -- and a swift smack to the side of the head -- a sort of turning on of the light bulb over the head. According to her book cover, she is the author of eight books with over three million copies still in print; is Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies and a leading exponent of women's rights and has been a popular guest on radio and television concerning the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Baby M case, and the Aileen Wuornos serial murder trail.
What this feminist and non-scientist has done is to peel away the veneer on the "gentler sex" and report to us an interesting conclusion that I have been drawn to: women are more similar to men in their innate genetic goal objectives then I have believed them to be, and thus, both sexes seem to be driven by the group social display norms that surround each sex within their local environments; which in turn determines which human behavior is best to pass one's genes into the next generation. Part of that behavior, both male and female, is to reaffirm and maintain the status quo that benefits the elites of our societies. The book has led me to the conclusion that hierarchical positioning within the GROUP and the behavioral mechanisms that we humans perform to achieve those behavioral positioning are perhaps the most important elements in our species' behavior. As a species we have come to understand that we are not alone as individuals and that we must advance beyond the SELF into the GROUP. How we do this advancement into the GROUP are the lessons we as individuals must learn -- and that means we must learn from others who are close to us -- starting with our close family, secondary relatives, and then advancing outward to the friends that we are able to bond with. Depending on our social skills, cultural norms, and complex innate underpinnings is where others either help us, use us to advance themselves in their own objectives, or attempt to hinder or exclude us from the GROUP. It still comes down to the selfish gene -- but one that must work in a new bio-cultural atmosphere of the social hierarchy.
Chesler's search begins at the beginning in Chapter One: The Animal Within: The Female of the Species. She begins by separating the males from the females in relation to violence of the two sexes to each other and the possible reasons. She relates that observations from various scientists have noted that most fatal violence amongst primates is the work of males, but that female-female violence is a close second. Chesler tells us that such prominent science writers such as Hardy and Smuts both agree "...that females of many species -- macaques, marmosets, tamarinds, gelada baboons, scanna baboons, and talapoin monkeys -- are know to sabotage each other's reproductive cycles." p. 56.
Since scientists have narrowed the origin of the human species to a common ancestor that branched off from the bonobo and chimpanzee primates, it is very useful to look at the female alliances of both species to gain clues into why females may be violent or cruel towards other females in human behavior. Chesler has us first look at the bonobos by quoting from Carole Jahme, the British primatologist, and the author of Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution.
"know as the "make love not war" ape because sex is used by bonobos as a substitute for aggression. When things get tense between males, they stop themselves before things get really nasty and they rub their penises together...the females have lesbian sex, known as genito-genital rubbing, or GG rubbing...When an adolescent female bonobo tries to ingratiate herself into a new group of bonobos, she looks for a senior female and tries to become her friend. She sits on the periphery of things for a while and sizes up who is who in the hierarchy. The young female bonobo then tries to cement a bond with a high-status older female by engaging in homo-erotic acts with her." p. 53.
Chesler again quotes Jahme to further the case of bonobo cooperation through sexual behavior and why: "[bonobos]...openly share food, wheras chimps do not...If a male bonobo has found some prized fruit, a young female will encourage him to give it to her in exchange for sex, an offer he cannot refuse. [female bonobos] ...have evolved a cultural solution to help them through isolation from their kin." p. 54.
In observing that female intragroup behavior today in 2002 comes no where near resembling the sexually open bonobo species, it then becomes logical to look at the chimpanzee species. Reviewing as many studies as we can, we easily begin to understand that our human ancestors most likely evolved most of their emotional and intellectual thinking processes from the chimpanzees due to the intense hierarchical maneuvering -- [the bonobos may physically appear closer to humans because of their long legs and their ability to be bipedal for longer periods of time; also, the sexual copulation formations are varied and appear more human (the chimpanzee only copulate with female submissive below and male dominate on top from behind). Chesler then guides into the most logical conclusion about female-female aggression: that it is a form of genetic competition. (I am not sure here, but I believe that Chesler continues to cite Jamne).
"But a non-bonobo female primate cannot trust her female allies; even her own mother may turn on her. For example, despite the importance of mother-daughter bonding, if the mother is still breeding when more than one daughter becomes sexually mature, the mother will harass and eject that second daughter as a breeding-competitor. Although female primates tend to "affiliate" more loosely than male primates, they do create dominance hierarchies in which dominant, breeding, females inhibit reproduction in subordinate "helper" females. Among primates, female dominance hierarchies consists of groups of female relatives who support each other against more distant relatives in which one female matriline supports its members against other matrilines. In a sense, female-female bonding exists because of female-female competition." p. 54 & 55
Chesler then heads us to an important point: That the lower down the non-bonobo primate hierarchy one goes, where resources become scarce, the more aggressive the female behavior becomes. Here Chesler quotes Richard Wrangham, professor of Biological anthropology at Harvard: "In extreme circumstances, female primates can compete as intensively as males. ["captive females"--those low in the hierarchies] tend to use 'male-like' behavioral strategies to gain rank, including opportunistic coalitions and frequent reconciliations." p. 55. And again, Chesler points out the aggressive female behavior in ringtail monkeys: "Among ringtails, females have "more aggressive encounters than males. 'Matrilines' can effectively eliminate other 'matrilines.'" Quoting Allision Jolly, who is affiliated with Princeton's department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, "...the outcome is sometimes wounding, expulsion from the troop, and in extreme cases, death. Female hierarchies are often circular and can be upset from year to year as females attack each other." p.58
It is at this point that Chesler then quotes from an anthropologists and a zoologist discussing the female competion amongst primate langurs. I won't go into detail other than to note that "...maybe mid-ranking females [try] to keep lower ranking females from having offspring that would compete with their own...It's often called "aunting behavior." p. 56 & 57. But Chesler delivers the defining blow by citing Sarah Hrdy Blaffer who argues that "...biological mothers also try to enlist other subordinate females in caring for their infants by destroying the subordinate's capacity to mate or to bear infants of her own. Thus, some female primates will sometimes fight for each other, but, more often, females fight against each other: mother against daugher, higher-ranking females against lower-ranking female, one troop of females against another troop of females. The fight over food, infants, sex, and position in the hierarchy. As female primates jockey for position, they hit, push, pinch, shove, and make faces at each other.:" p.59.
Well, that does not sound like very lady-like behavior that we expect from our modern sisters, now does it? That's the point of Chesler's book -- it's that smack of reality across the side of the head I was talking about; she argues convincingly that buried beneath the outward appearances of the cooperative sisterhood and individual acts of nurturing and compassion, lies behavior that is just as aggressive as males in seeking personal objectives designed to advance the female's genes into the next generation. The difference, of course, is that we must now be aware of Millerism and the driving force behind natural selection: behavior that is advanced far beyond the obvious and sometimes vicious male behavior. I believe that we must look to the female as the elevated and advanced stages of our evolution to gain glues as to which direction our species is heading; we study the male's violent behavior to see where we have come from.
Now that was chapter one; from this point on, Chesler leaves the academic world of evolutionary theory and then takes us to the human world of today; we benefit enormously from this journey that she has taken; she dips into novels, movies, poetry, myths, and her own considerable experience. In chapter two, Chesler focuses on young females and their use of indirect aggression that could harm fellow females within their own groups; this aggression, she argues convincingly, is once again the primal fear of being excluded from the group. To our ancestors, exclusion from the group was most likely considered a death sentence. "Indeed, most girls are terrified of being excluded or rejected. When this happens, a girl experiences social aloneness in the universe. She learns that she has to reinvent herself and form a new group. Sometimes, one simply hasn't the heart to begin anew, to open oneself up to pitiless exclusion again. A subsequent loss is always greater than the previous loss, since each new loss contains within it the first loss as well....This fear of being cut off, abandoned, losing the female intimates upon whom one depends, explains why may girls try as hard as they do not to upset of disagree with their friend and thus often end up never saying what they really think or feel. On the one hand, this may account for why girls, more than boys, try to engage in socially sanctioned behavior, try to mediate conflict in a creative or constructive way, and try so hard to apologize for, minimize, or justify winning in a competitive game. On the other hand, if a girl cannot say what she realy means or feels, this is likely to lead to resentment, superficiality, and repeated friendship failures. As we shall see, girls try to minimize this by choosing frineds who look, dress, talk, and think just like themselves." I picked this selection to quote for a particular reason: while I was reading the passages, excerts from studies that focused on male bonding groups would pop into my mind, and I understood that the group dynamics were the same -- only the sex was different. This intense desire to join, to be liked -- and not rejected from the group -- was the mental thread that appears to run through both male and female group dynamics. Is it really the basis for all social human group organization? Once again, that is the important lesson that one takes away from reading this book.
I won't go into deeper detail concerning the book due to time restraints on my end, but in chapter three, Chesler gives her bias view on woman's sexism -- and pulls no punches. Chapter four, five and six, is where Chesler explores the inner world of the Mother-Daughter Relationship; she explores fairy tales, myths, and Greek tragedies; she dips into Freud, and spends consider time on her own mother and their relationship. In chapter seven, Chesler goes next to the sibling relationships of females; chapter eight, she spends a whole chapter on Women in the Workplace, and finally she closes on the important Women in Groups, and Psychological Ethics of female-female relationships.
So, here we have a feminist insider who has done considerable study about human behavior from the perspective of evolution (evolutionary psychology) in the first chapter -- here is a short list of science writers whom Ms. Chesler cited: Deborah Tannen, Natalie Angier, David Buss, Dian fossey, Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Anne Pusey, Jennifer Williams, Barbara Smuts, Richard Wrangham, Anne Campbell, Martin Daly, Margo Wilson, and Linda Mealey (evolutionary scientists, please take a bow -- your influence is spreading!) But I don't want to miss-lead you about the entire book: She only focuses on the evolutionary perspective in the FIRST chapter. The book overall was not written for the evolutionary community, but to the general population from a feminist viewpoint; Ms. Chesler is not a evolutionary scientist. But what this amateur scientist has given to me, and hopefully, to the rest of the evolutionary community, is an insight into the universality of behavior between the sexes by focusing on the female side. She brings to the reader the dark side of our female sex because, I sense, that she has lived in its shadow and is informing us that the female world is not what the current dominate culture wants us to know and believe -- to do otherwise, would be to its disadvantage. Ms. Chesler has shifted the scales back to a level argument for male and female behavior as being equal -- at least in overall genetic objectives.
Because of this lack of evolutionary focus throughout the book, it falls just short of making my Recommended Reading list for the evolutionary student, but I highly recommend it for those already deeply into the study of evolutionary psychology. Phyllis Chesler has opened a door into individual and female group dynamics that is sorely lacking in evolutionary studies; she has opened a door and let the light of knowledge seep out; thus, those of us who seek an ever wider sphere of knowledge, are drawn to the light, and have no recourse but to open the door and enter.
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