Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
The Dangers of Men
Left, Right, and Mother Nature
Compared to most animals, we seem inconceivably vulnerable. We're not particularly strong or fast, nor do we have protective armor or jabbing appendages to deter predators. Imagine walking unarmed through the natural environments of the world, which swarm with fearsome animals with the power to eviscerate us with claws or fangs, trample and crush us, or inject us with a pharmacopeia of deadly poisons. Many of these beasts are predators that would probably enjoy a naked ape as a meal.
That said, with our outsized brains, we have mastered the ability to use tools, make fire and weapons, coordinate complex actions, and devise strategies, and in doing so we have taken over the world. For these reasons, although humans were not always the apex predators of their day, it is also true that for a large span of our evolutionary history other animals were not the biggest threat to humans. Rather, other humans were—not only as vectors of disease but also as murderers. Archaeological research has brought to light the stories embedded in broken bones, cranial injuries, and embedded spearpoints, showing whole populations of people rubbed out in the massacres of our species’ past, and these findings are startlingly consistent. Thus, danger from the lethal hands of humans may have been among the biggest selective pressures driving our personality differences and their associated political ideologies.
But this is only half the story; specifically men are the most dangerous humans. Even today men account for an astronomically higher percentage of all kinds of violence than women, and recent psychological research suggests that men have been so dangerous across evolutionary history that our brains are primed to fear them.
Scientists have come up with ingenious ways of unearthing the threats of our evolutionary past. By pairing a mild electric shock with certain stimuli, like pictures, researchers can examine how quickly we acquire a fear response to those pictures, or how slowly fear is extinguished once the shock is removed. Fast acquisition and slow fear extinction (i.e., a slow decline in fear responses) indicate that a threat was prevalent in our species’ history. For example, researchers in one study showed subjects pictures of snakes and spiders, as well as pictures of birds and butterflies, while giving them a mild electric shock.46 The researchers measured fear, using skin conductance—when fear is present, we sweat more, sweat being a survival mechanism designed to cool the body down as we're fighting or fleeing for our lives. The resulting moisture gives our skin higher conductance. When the pictures were later presented without the shock, the subjects quickly habituated to the pictures of the bird and butterflies (they stopped sweating with fear), but they did not fully habituate to the snakes or spiders. This makes sense enough—butterflies and birds were never the killers of humans as were snakes or spiders, and so our brains easily relinquish fear of these creatures. The psychological stamp left by these evolutionary dangers can be seen in the fact that phobias of spiders and snakes are far more common than fears of things like cars, even though in the modern day motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) account for an exponentially higher death rate than snake or spider bites.47 This is because in our modern lives the dangers of MVAs have had little time to influence the design of our brains.
What is interesting is that the researchers repeated the experiment with black and white subjects, but instead of showing them animal pictures, the researchers showed them photos of unfamiliar black and white people. Perhaps predictably, given the findings about xenophobia presented above, black subjects habituated fully to the black faces in the absence of shock but not the white faces, while white subjects habituated to the white faces but not the black faces. This does not necessarily mean that we have genes coding for fearing outside races. Race is a superficial category that does not always accurately reflect genetics—for instance, there is more genetic diversity among native Africans than in all the rest of the world. However, our brains may use race as a heuristic for outsider, and we seem to be pre-primed to fear outside people.
The results of another similar study, however, were even more telling. Researchers took the prior procedure one step further and examined the impact of sex on fear extinction.48 In this study, black and white subjects were shown pictures of black and white men or women. During the non-shock phase, fear toward women extinguished irrespective of whether the women were from the in-group race or the out-group race. The only photos to which fear did not extinguish were those of out-group men. What this tells us is that our brains are prepared to fear not simply outsiders but outside men. Men from the outside tribe were a prominent threat to our survival across the history of our species, and our brains “know” this. And as we will come to understand, male mate competition has been an essential source of male violence, with profound implications for our political selves.