An anthropologist (male) puts the lie to the “natural superiority" of men

July 1 1969

An anthropologist (male) puts the lie to the “natural superiority" of men

July 1 1969

An anthropologist (male) puts the lie to the “natural superiority" of men

PROFESSOR TIGER’S little exercise in “defensive masculinity” would be merely amusing if the social and political consequences of his pseudoscientific theory were not so deplorable.

Ultimately, Tiger’s views will not increase our knowledge of human behavior but will buttress and reinforce the false justifications people now offer for the unfair exploitation already extant in our society.

Tiger has made the usual, and natural, error of supposing that the particular group he belongs to — i.e., males — is bound to be superior to other groups. Thus he purveys racism in the most derogatory sense.

Tiger’s argument, supposedly based on ethology, is found wanting on the very ethological evidence he cites. The fact is that numerous species of primates evidence no “male bonding” whatsoever. For example, within many subhuman primate hordes one often finds the exact opposite of bonding: adult males that have been eliminated in the course of competition for mates are obliged to live outside or on the fringes of the horde.

If we apply the old scientific dictum that one little contrary fact is enough to destroy a theory, then Professor Tiger’s theory is already a shambles.

But the crucial point is not whether Tiger is right or wrong about primates. The crucial point is that he applies his theory to human behavior, where it becomes irrelevant. As anthropological research shows, the way people act is not the expression of any inherent human nature. There is nothing fixed or inevitable about human social arrangements. On the contrary, our

Few articles in Maclean’s have aroused as much angry dissent as

the article in our May issue called The Natural Superiority Of Men, by Alexander Ross. In it, Ross interpreted a newly proffered theory from a Montreal sociologist, Dr. Lionel Tiger, who suggests that men dominate our society because they are predisposed to band together in a way females seldom do. The angriest responses have come, predictably, from women, but the most thoroughgoing and systematic attack on Tiger’s theory comes from a male — Dr. Louis Feldhammer, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University, who read the article and wrote:

social orders grow and diversify even when the environment remains constant. The same is not true of subhuman primates. Given an unchanging environment, they will maintain an unchanging pattern of social behavior.

Man is animal, but ignoring the essential attributes of this kind of animal is as absurd as saying that dogs, robins, oysters and frogs are equivalent. There is no need to forget the biological functions we share with other animals in order to note that what sets us apart from them is culture. It was culture that saved us in our beginnings and enabled us to become what we are today. Or, to put it another way, human culture is not merely an expression of our biological success; it is also the cause of it.

Two million or more years ago, when people began using vocal sounds to convey meanings other than emotional states, man did not cease to be an animal but became a very different one. From that point on, man’s biological characteristics evolved within the framework of the culture he constructed. What this means is that human beings, by possessing culture and changing their own social institutions, literally make themselves. The same statement cannot be made about any other organism on earth.

N ow, in developing any theory about behavior — of people or any other kind of creature — it is important to distinguish between the facts that are primary and those that are secondary. Tiger fails to make this distinction. Rather, he has completely confused the roles and significance of the two variables, culture and biology.

This confusion is revealed in a startlingly clear way by his statement about the Pill: “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.” We are thus asked to believe that a man-made innovation (i.e. culture) can in the short space of approximately five years overcome the effects of millions of years of genetic programming! It does not seem to occur to Professor Tiger that the traditional behavior of women was a cultural thing, and this is why the introduction of a new cultural factor (i.e. the Pill) could rapidly alter the old pattern of behavior.

Tiger’s thesis also contains one er-

ror of so basic an order that I hesitate to refer to it for fear of dignifying it. This is the “argument of least variability,” which Tiger has borrowed from Konrad Lorenz, the ethologist who wrote On Aggression. This argument says that what is most general will likely be a cause and what is least frequent will be an effect. Tiger, in taking this line, notes that, in general, in human societies males are dominant politically and economically vis-à-vis females. (Ethnographic evidence indicates, by the way, that these social forms are not universal.) Tiger thus concludes that male dominance and female subservience are both natural.

Äien have deluded themselves with the same fallacies before, of course —including some otherwise-great men. Aristotle used the same argument to defend slavery as a “natural” condition. (He placed women on the same level as slaves, for the same reason.)

The tragic truth about male-female relations today is that women are inferior. They are inferior not because of any natural, organic condition, but because they have been socialized to be so. They suffer from the same sort of exploitation, restrictive role-channeling and psychic crippling that have been inflicted upon many other persecuted groups. Would Professor Tiger suggest that the easily observable “inferiority” of Canadian Indians, for instance, is due to “genetic history”?

The whole argument might remain purely academic, except for one important consideration: People such as Professor Tiger help, quite ignobly, to foster the popular belief that it is scientifically proper and natural for certain groups — in this case, women — to occupy a subservient position in our society. As a result, the members of such a group, along with any other people who are inclined to help them, can become impressed with the notion it is useless to struggle against this “normal” and “inevitable” situation.

In summary, Tiger’s basic thesis is a mélange of low-grade popular ethology, misunderstood genetics, ethnographical ignorance and just plain bad logic. Maclean’s is probably correct in saying his theory is fated to become a part of “popular journalism [and] a piece of suburban folk wisdom” à la McLuhan. The notion of genetically transmitted male bonding behavior is extremely effective propaganda. As science, however, it is indefensible.