A provocative theory by a Canadian scholar suggests that women can't be "equal." Our biological heritage dictates that men form groups to run the world, and women can't join

Alexander Ross May 1 1969


A provocative theory by a Canadian scholar suggests that women can't be "equal." Our biological heritage dictates that men form groups to run the world, and women can't join

Alexander Ross May 1 1969


A provocative theory by a Canadian scholar suggests that women can't be "equal." Our biological heritage dictates that men form groups to run the world, and women can't join

THERE IS AN UNEASY feeling abroad that something basic is happening to the relations between men and women. In London, some of the trendier birds on King’s Road have taken to wearing fake moustaches with their miniskirts. The line that “marriage is obsolete” has become staple fare in women’s magazines and cocktail-party conversations. Women are wearing pantsuits. Men — some of them, anyway — are sporting lace ruffles again. In Canada, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women has spent at least two years trying to find out how and why men treat women as second-class citizens, and what to do about it. Plainly, there is more confusion surrounding the separate roles of men and women than at any time in the past century.

In this atmosphere of sexual ambiguity, it is probably inevitable that a new theory by a young and in-

genious Montreal-born sociologist named Dr. Lionel Tiger will become one of the most discussed, quoted and misquoted ideas of the year. Like Marshall McLuhan, he has produced a serious academic study which, because of the answers it provides to some contemporary puzzles, is bound to be expropriated by popular journalism. Like McLuhan’s theories, Tiger’s main insight is unscientific, in the sense that he admits his theory is speculative and can be validated, if at all, only by massive research. (But then, so was the theory of relativity.) Like McLuhan’s, Tiger’s theory is heavily freighted with ambiguity. You’re never sure whether he’s onto something dazzlingly original, or is merely (as an Oxford undergraduate once remarked of his tutor) “providing dim, mysterious glimpses into the obvious.” To complete the McLuhan analogy, Tiger’s theory comes with a built-in slogan that could replace

Alexander Ross

“the medium is the message” as a piece of suburban folk wisdom. Tiger’s slogan is even snappier: Males


The male bond refers to the tendency among some

males, in most primate species including man, to

band together in a way that females almost never do.

This male bond, Tiger theorizes, is not merely an ac-

cidental alliance but a process that is necessary for

biological survival.

Reviewing the biological evidence from the prehuman australopithecines of two million years ago to

the behavior of men on the floor of any stock exchange,

Tiger suggests that the male bond is the means by which

men run the world’s institutions, organize its wars and

manage its economies. Females, because they lack this bonding propensity, stay home and mind the children

— and probably always will.

This much may be obvious. But the implications of Tiger’s observations—spelled out in a book to be

published this spring called Men In Groups—are im-

pressively diverse. For one thing, Tiger thinks he has

isolated, for the first time, a universal human need that

is as compelling as the need for food, shelter and sex:

the biological need of men to be in the company of

other males. For another, his definition opens up a

wholly new line of sociological inquiry that could keep

scholars busy for decades, analyzing various human institutions in terms of the male bond. Finally, Tiger’s

book is bound to counteract much of the loose talk

about sexual role-reversal that has become a current

preoccupation. Through a synthesis of ethology, soci-

ology and biology, he’s hit on a provocative new expi anation for why men act. like men and women persist

in acting like women. ►

Obeying the biological need to group together uiith other males, men exert dominance over momen in social organization, fighting, hunting, making deals— in running things

One of the main'implications of his findings would seem to be that men are naturally superior, at least in their capacity for social organization. Not superior, actually, but different. Man’s flair for organization, fighting, hunting, making deals — for running things — is balanced by woman’s biologically-programmed propensity for hearth and home. Both roles are, or were, equally important, Tiger believes, for the survival of the species. Still, to a certain kind of emancipated woman, Tiger’s bland assurance that nature never intended her to be minister of defense is infuriating. Accordingly, he’s become skilled in defending himself in man-woman debates. “A few months ago I was being interviewed on television, and the interviewer was gorgeous,” Tiger recalls. “She said to me, ‘You mean I’m not capable of being prime minister?’ and I looked at her and said, ‘Of course not. You’re too beautiful.’ She blushed, she actually blushed, and cut off the interview. That part was never broadcast.” When he was being interviewed by Barbara Amiel of the CBC’s The Way It Is, they went to a zoo. Tiger’s theory derives from analogies of animal behavior, though not by direct comparison, and the monkey cages were deemed to be an appropriate backdrop. “The trouble was the chimp found her as attractive as everyone else did and kept grabbing through the bars at Barbara. That interview didn’t go too well either.”

Tiger looks a little like an amorous chimpanzee himself. A decade or so of postgraduate job-hopping from McGill to the London School of Economics to the University of British Columbia to Rutgers University, where he now teaches, has given him, in addition to his doctorate in sociology, a distinctly mid-Atlantic style: English big-checked suits, Bloomsbury bow ties, a leather overcoat that looks like one of Trudeau’s hand-me-downs, and a fast, witty mode of expression that owes much to his origins in Montreal, where he grew up a few blocks from Mordecai Richler’s storied neighborhood and, like Richler, Irving Layton and David Lewis, graduated from Baron Byng High School.

He is fond of outlandish analogies to illustrate his theory:

“I make the point that women, because they’re women, find it hard to be taken seriously in politics. Look: suppose the Italians were adulterating the wine they exported to Canada. So we declare war on Italy. Now suppose there’s an armistice. And suppose that Sophia Loren is the prime minister of Italy. We have peace talks. Trudeau and Sophia lock themselves up in a room for four days. If there were two men in that room, the world would assume they were bargaining for peace. But with Pierre and Sophia, what’s the world going to think they’re up to?”

He got wondering about men and women, in an academic way, some six years ago. A student in one of his sociology classes at UBC asked him why so few

women succeed in politics. “I gave him the usual answers,” Tiger recalls: “Women have been shut out by men; they require more and better education; when the millennium comes we shall have a female minister of war. Then I thought about it and realized that that was no answer at all and might be the product of a liberal reflex rather than a scientific analysis.”

Tiger began looking for an explanation in the traditional scholarly way: by reading and thinking, assisted by a string of Canada Council grants. Although his training was in sociology, he began searching back beyond human origins, to the animal kingdom, for answers.

This put him in one of the more fashionable streams of current scholarship. Ever since the late 1950s, the conviction has been growing that we’ll learn some critical and fundamental things about human beings as part of the natural order by studying animals as well as people. This new emphasis on the animality of man has caused a small revolution among some scholarly perceptions of human societies.

Ever since Darwin, it’s been known that various species rose through biological adaptations to their environment. But it wasn’t until fairly recently that the idea took root that animal behavior is as much an environmental adaptation as prehensile toes or the polar bear’s white fur. Why do blackbirds, when they perch on telephone wires, arrange themselves so that there is an equal distance between each of them? Why do some species of tropical fish, when placed in an aquarium, attack members of their own species but leave fish of other species alone? Why, for that matter, do human animals form families, hierarchies and nations and persist in killing their own kind? Darwin’s discovery of natural selection showed that all such traits, physical or behavioral, must have been useful at some stage in evolution in assuring the survival of the species. Thus the human sciences — psychology, anthropology, sociology — are increasingly turning to ethology (the study of animal behavior) for insights into why and how people act the way they do. This trend has produced a spate of books on the animal origins of human behavior and institutions. Several of them have surprised their authors by becoming best sellers.

In African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, Chicago-born playwright Robert Ardrey summarized more than a decade of layman’s research into what science was finding out about animal behavior and human origins. Both books were deeply pessimistic, for Ardrey’s analyses tended to emphasize the inherently aggressive nature of man.

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian biologist, compressed a lifetime’s study of animal behavior into a book called On Aggression. Originally, he argues, the aggressive instinct was a tool of biological survival; animals used it to defend their separate territories against other members of their species. Lorenz also shows how, in

Why aren’t women equal?

They lack the urye to band toyether. They can’t be oryanizers.They have another role, equally important: they’re bioloyically proyrammed for hearth and home

hunting animals that are easily capable of killing each other, the aggressive instinct has been inhibited to avoid the possibility of a species killing itself off. Man’s crucial problem, Lorenz argues, is that he lacks this inhibitory instinct.

Tiger’s argument rests on the same ethological foundations. But he singles out one aspect of animal behavior — the male bond — that Lorenz and Ardrey scarcely mention, and speculates that, for a number of species including man, it may have been one of the central mechanisms of evolution.

The instinct certainly operates among baboons (a species so successful that in Africa they probably outnumber people). In any baboon troop, three or four males single out each other for special preference; this “inner circle” dominates the troop and receives mating privileges. Other primates, including chimpanzees, act the same way.

The question is, why? Tiger theorizes that, in any primate society that lives on the ground instead of in trees, social organization becomes especially crucial to survival. Instead of fleeing up the nearest tree, land-dwelling primates must organize to protect themselves. The bonding instinct was the means by which this was achieved. A group of apes that “elected” a subgroup of dominant males, and that excluded females from its hunting parties, would have a better chance of survival than a group that did not. Thus, Tiger theorizes, the bonding propensity between males was not simply a matter of preference based on the physical differences between the sexes; males were actually programmed genetically to feel a positive attraction for each other’s company. And this attraction was as crucial to the species’ survival as was the sexual bond between males and females.

From there, Tiger moves to a wideranging scrutiny of human societies, and finds that, in all cultures, men and women behave surprisingly like male and female baboons. It seems to be a human constant, for instance, that women play a subordinate role in politics: “When a community deals

with its most vital problems, when statements of internal and external importance are made,” he writes, “when — particularly in warfare — decisive actions must be taken — at these times females do not participate. The public forum is a male forum.” There are also far fewer women’s organizations than men’s, and they tend to have far less effect on the political life of a community.

The same strictures apply to women at work. Since all economic activity is an extrapolation from the hunting of our prehuman ancestors, Tiger suggests, there is an instinctive genetic bias against women who “hunt.” Those who do are penalized by exclusion from the reproductive process. (The Amazons of mythology, he notes, had to cut off one breast so they could wield their bows and arrows properly. He cites statistics showing that American career women seldom marry — and if they do, have fewer children than the average.) Tiger also looks at patterns of male dominance in three primitive communities, including the Newfoundland outport of Cat Harbour, where the men eat first, women and children afterward; and where seaworthy fishing vessels are referred to in the masculine, leaky and unreliable boats as “she.”

Men In Groups also devotes a chapter to male secret societies, which occur in nearly every culture, from Sierra Leone to Frat Row at UBC. Their initiation ceremonies, he concludes, are as essential to the male bond as courtship ceremonies are to the male-female relationship. This is because male societies, biologically speaking, are the means by which ag-

gression is achieved. Whenever men form an all-male society, its purpose might easily become aggressive, although not necessarily violently so (i.e., the group tries to force or persuade outsiders to do something the group wants them to do).

The male-bond theory collides with a lot of distinguished orthodoxies, including the prevailing notion that women are treated as second-class citizens because of some male conspiracy that can be corrected if enough women sign enough petitions. Tiger, who is in favor of more feminine participation in politics, suggests it may not be that easy. “If you passed a law saying that only women could be elected to parliament,” he says, “I suspect that it would be a pretty ineffective parliament. But if there were quotas for women in a lot of areas — politics, industry, the professions — then they might well become more effective and more humane. But to do that, we’re bucking biology, so we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s going to be easy. It is infinitely more complex than achieving racial equity.”

He has nothing but sadness for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. “It’s ridiculous for them to be traipsing all over the country, asking what women’s grievances are. That should be obvious: no nursery schools, job discrimination. What they should be looking at is women’s behavior. The Pill and its biological effects are fantastic departures from millions of years of genetic history, and they are beginning to have some effect on the way women behave.” In conversation, he refers to the commission’s chairman (all right: chairwoman) as “Auntie Tom.”

For the record: the originator of the male-bond theory is married to a Toronto girl named Virginia, who is completing her doctorate in English literature this summer and also teaches at Rutgers. And what does she think of the proposition that women, as a result of biological programming, are not equipped to run the institutions that men have built? “She’s not emancipated,” says Tiger. “She’s just smart.” □