A few weeks a go, a young girl was assaulted in the othodox Jewish community of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. Being from an orthodox family, the girl was dressed in what most people in Israel and the rest of the world would judge an inordinately puritanical fashion. Apparently, that was not enough for a group of enraged young men, who ganged up on her and terrorized her, spat at her, shouted in her face and called her a “whore” and other assorted insults. The main source of their righteous anger was her bare arms. She is eight years old.
The incident did not pass unnoticed. Israel is probably one of the most secular places in the world.The extremism of the Haredis and other fanatics are a perennial concern and irritant to most Israelis. Thousands joined demonstrations in several towns to denounce this latest eruption of puritanical folly.
Obviously, this kind of incident is far from special to Israel. In most of the Muslim world, men routinely gang up on women who fail to dress according to their standard of Islamic modesty. Women are just as routinely beaten up or even sent to jail for real or imagined violations of some extravagant regulation on what they should wear, say or do. In the US, many of the religiously inspired “social conservatives” are also obsessed with women, forever trying to push back on the very limited legal acceptance of abortion, but also on the availability or funding of contraception and genetic counselling.
None of this is new to our readers. But it raises, again, the question, What is it about women? that is, what is it that triggers that kind of apparently irrational hatred? Obviously, the question really is about men and their ever so mysterious psychological makeup.
We at ICCI are in the business of providing (or at least imagining) deep empirical answers, based on evolutionary and cognitive evidence, to the great questions of the day. But this question does not seem to have attracted much evolutionary or cognitive research.
To make the question more tractable, we should avoid grandiose but vacuous statements (“men always hate women”) as well as the patently tautological ones (“this is all because of patriarchy”).
We should perhaps start with the simple, methodologically individualist question: Why would a man participate in that kind of coercion and violence? What’s in it for him?
Long ago, when I was very small, intellectuals used to say that “it was all a question of power”, and that “men want power over women”. Small that I was, I could see that this could not be a very good explanation. Why would a man want power over women? What’s in it for him?
Growing up, I realised that evolutionary biology made that kind of explanation even less credible. An evolutionary perspective explodes the notion that “gender dominance is not about sex, it’s about power”. It is of course about sex, or more precisely about reproduction, since power itself is a means towards reproductive success.
So our main contender for a first pass at an explanation is that human reproductive strategies result in large asymmetries in the costs and benefits of various sexual behaviors. In particular, the strategic need for men to provide for their offspring is accompanied by the potential cost of providing for another man’s - in other words by the risk of cuckolding. As a result, powerful motivations towards “mate-guarding” would be present in humans, as they are in other species with important paternal investment. All this was brilliantly sketched by the late Margo Wilson, Martin Daly and others.
Assuming (as I do) that this is on the right track, we need to go further.
First, the young men in Beit Shemesh were not guarding their own mates, they were persecuting a third party, who in this case was very unlikely to be anyone’s sexual partner. In places with socially accepted coercion of women, adult males are involved in a strange kind of cartel or public-good game, in which each contributes to limiting all women’s sexual choices, their own mates but also other men’s as well as potential mates for as yet unknown or unborn males. How does that work? What are the incentives for staying in that game? How do men deter defection?
Second, we do not have a very good proximate description of what creates powerful motivation and emotions in these men. In the abstract, it seems that collective mate-guarding could be organised in a sober and methodical fashion, like tax-collection and highway code enforcement. So why all this passion? The fanatics of Beit Shemesh are sadly typical. Oppressing women usually comes with a degree of anger that seems to call for a special explanation.
So, ICCI members, provide us with your best guesses as to how to explain all this.