2018 Women's March in Morristown, N.J. (Morristown Green/Photo by Sharon)
I’m a big fan of both iterations of the sci-fi show The Outer Limits, and recently I happened to see a great one from 1998 called “Lithia.” The year’s 2055. Fifty years earlier, a nuclear war devastated the planet and wiped out nearly the whole human race, and then the wretched survivors were struck by a deadly plague. Mysteriously, it afflicted only males, so before long all that was left of the once proud and dominant species that unironically called itself Homo sapiens, wise human, was a small number of females.
Now earth’s begun to recover from the war, and nature is green and flourishing again. The women live in small agrarian villages that look right out of the Middle Ages except for the absence of men. Their lives are hard and full of toil, and yet they seem content and happy. They all get along, everyone is equal, they work out their problems peacefully. They think they’re better off without men. As one of the elders in the village of Lithia explains to the young girls: “When the males of the earth had vanished, so too did wickedness and wars and hatred.” They don’t even need men to have children. They have frozen sperm for that, though unfortunately (or perhaps not) boy babies die shortly after birth so their world remains all female.
Well, almost all. It turns out Lithia actually has a man. Major James Mercer (played by the always excellent David Keith) was cryogenically frozen in an experiment that was supposed to last six months, but then the war came along and he’s been stuck in the deep freeze ever since. The women decide it’s the right thing to do to thaw out the major, and let him resume his life. After all, how much damage can one man do?
Quite a lot, actually. Major Mercer is a perfectly decent fellow and means well, but the mere presence of a square-jawed alpha male in Lithia quickly throws it into chaos. Mercer’s an Adam in a villageful of Eves, and long dormant hormones begin to stir. He’s got lots of ideas for making Lithia better. When he finds out a neighboring village has gotten an old hydroelectric dam up and running but doesn’t want to share the electricity with Lithia, he decides to steal it from them. Things go tragically wrong though, and several women die. The horrified women of Lithia hastily hustle poor Major Mercer back into the deep freeze, and life in Lithia resumes its happy, peaceful, manless course.
We haven’t had a nuclear war and a killer plague yet, but the situation is dire on our planet. Life began on earth two and a half billion years ago. It’s been only a couple of hundred thousand years since humans arrived on the scene, and 10,000 years since we invented agriculture and this thing called civilization began. We look around us now and we see our beautiful blue and green world being turned into a dead, foul wasteland by human activity. There have been five mass extinctions of life over the last 500 million years. The causes are uncertain, but candidates include comets, volcanoes, asteroids, and gigantic methane belches that changed the climate. Now many scientists say we’re in the midst of the sixth extinction, compliments of us. And it’s not just the plants and animals and birds and fishes that we’re destroying, but we’re also, exuberantly and in great numbers, by the millions and tens of millions, slaughtering one another.
We tend to take the killing for granted, as just the way things are; after all, isn’t nature “red in tooth and claw”? But the fact is, humans are nearly unique among creatures in killing their own kind. We kill each other in wars and in bar fights, in robberies gone wrong and in justifiable homicides, in terrorist acts and assassinations and public beheadings and drone strikes, we kill because we are hot-headed, jealous lovers or pissed-off mass murderers or sick serial killers or businessmen who want to bump off their partners and get all their money or racists or homophobes or despondent people who can’t bear to exist any longer and take their own lives. We kill in multitudinous ways, with knives, swords, axes, all manner of guns, orange juice with arsenic in it, flamethrowers, bombs, rockets, our bare hands, bows and arrows, nerve gas, poisoned darts expelled from blowguns, clubs, empty whiskey bottles, we suffocate people with pillows or push them out of windows or helicopters or over scenic cliffs high in the mountains, we drown them or torture or starve them to death or run over them with trucks or tanks or withhold water till they die. In short…we’re killers.
Or are we? Were the Lithian women right? Is the problem not Homo sapiens per se, but male Homo sapiens? Are “wickedness and war and hatred” the fault of men?
Well, yes, pretty obviously. According to a 2013 United Nations study, 96 percent of all homicides worldwide are committed by men. And wars are clearly a guy thing. You’ll find female warriors here and there, like in guerilla units in Colombia or Kurdish militias in the Middle East, but they’re not fighting in wars that they’ve created but in the wars of men. It’s simply a fact that men are far more violent than women. The only question is, why?
Some say it’s a matter of nurture, not nature. The nurture people seem to think it’s all the fault of the patriarchy. Males kill their fellow humans because they were raised as boys to be aggressive, and if they were magically plopped down in the middle of a matriarchy, you wouldn’t be able to tell the boys from the girls, at least as far as behavior is concerned. The problem is, they have a tough time pointing to any actual matriarchies where boys don’t roughhouse and get in fights and play football and violent video games and pretend to be soldiers but instead engage in placid play with their sisters, perhaps because those matriarchies don’t seem to exist, either in the present or the annals of history. It seems to be natural in our species for males to be aggressive and to dominate females.
Male violence is a matter I believe we have to take out of the realm of sociology and into the realm of biology. When I said earlier that humans are nearlyunique among creatures in killing their own kind, you probably wondered what other animal engages in this disturbing practice.
You remember Cheeta, don’t you? Tarzan’s chimpanzee sidekick? Comical, loveable Cheeta, turning happy somersaults when he saw Tarzan emerging from a jungle river all dripping and victorious after saving Jane from a crocodile, or scampering off to get help from Tarzan’s other animal friends when the ape man found himself in a jam. But we now know Cheeta had a dark side. Primatologists who have studied chimpanzees in the wild have discovered the males are aggressive, nasty, domineering, and violent. They’re in constant competition with the other males in their community to be the top chimp, the number one dude. The females are definitely second-class citizens. The males have sex with them whether they want it or not, beating them if they’re not compliant and often even if they are. Sometimes a male will kill an infant if it’s been fathered by another male, then mate with the bereaved mother so as to put his own offspring in the place of the murdered infant. Oh Cheeta, say it ain’t so!
Chimpanzees live in groups that wander through the forest hunting for food. They’re very hostile to other groups, whom they’re competing with for food and territory. Sometimes one group will launch an attack on another. A raiding party of half a dozen or so males, led by the alpha male, will sneak through the forest, making every effort to be quiet and stealthy. If they find a chimp from another community by itself, they’ll launch themselves upon it, biting and kicking and dragging and pummeling the poor creature till it’s dead or badly injured, whereupon they’ll turn and run for home, exultantly hooting and screaming.
Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, in his book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (written with Dale Peterson), points out the similarities between chimpanzee raids and the intertribal warfare that takes place among isolated groups of indigenous people like the Yanomamo of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. Ten to 20 males will set out through the jungle and head toward a neighboring village. “[I]f they find a lone enemy, they shoot him with deadly curare-tipped arrows. The raiders then immediately flee, anticipating a chase and ultimately a retaliatory raid against their own village.” It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to go from jungle villages attacking one another for generation after generation to “civilized” modern nations doing the same, employing machine guns, tanks, artillery, bombs, rockets, and napalm to do their killing instead of the vastly less efficient curare-tipped arrows.
DNA analysis shows that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than to any other species. Somewhat surprisingly, the converse is also true; we’re chimpanzees’ closest relatives, more so than even gorillas. Five to seven million years ago in Africa, the apes that would eventually turn into us split off from chimpanzees and went their own evolutionary way. Eventually we developed the big brains that allowed us to become the dominant species on earth, but you, I, and everyone remain 96 percent chimpanzee, genetically speaking. To make sense of them, human males might best be thought of as quasi chimps, ever eager to fight each other or to band together and go off and invade some hapless foreign country, and where females are concerned, evincing an insatiable urge to dominate, to procreate, to spread their seed far and wide. Their propensity for violence probably made some evolutionary sense in a perilous prehistoric world of woolly mammoths and cave bears and dire wolves, with the added problem of males from neighboring groups sneaking up on them and hoping to skewer them with spears or bash out those big brains, but it just doesn’t fit into the world we live in now. Or as Professor Wrangham put it in a more academic way: “Perhaps humans have retained an old chimpanzee pattern, which, though it was once adaptive, has now acquired a stability and life of its own, resistant to new environments where other forms of society would be better.”
Hm. “Other forms of society.” Like what?, I wonder. Oh, I know. Like Lithia!
Is there any doubt that, generally speaking, women are more empathetic, compassionate, intuitive, patient, generous, collaborative, and practical than men? It’s a common belief among men that women are more emotional and unstable than men and thus are less to be trusted in a crisis, but what is that based on? The fact that women cry more? It’s not the out of control egos and the limitless lust for power of women that are wrecking the planet. Maybe I would cry more too if I were a woman having to put up with the madness of men.
The women of Lithia in 2055 were able to manage their lives very nicely without the presence of men (except for, briefly, the unfortunate Major Marcus). The women of today, however, have nearly four billion males that have to be dealt with, in one or another. Of course, by definition, all males aren’t alpha males, and many men share a vision with women of a world where “wickedness and wars and hatred” have been banished to a distant past. “Every man who is any kind of artist has a great deal of female in him,” said Orson Welles, and the artists and dreamers and mystics and just the regular guys who want nothing more than to lead peaceful, pleasant lives can align with women and create a new majority that can change our civilization. I believe we witnessed the power and potential of just such a coalition in the elections last year that saw thousands of women across the country running for office for the first time and emerging triumphant.
A note to the alpha males out there. You have nothing to fear. There will be a place for you in our new society. We will be nothing if not inclusive. Your broad shoulders, your boundless energy, your can-do spirit, your determination to succeed, will doubtless prove to be of inestimable value in many situations. But a word of caution to every male. If ever that ancient ape anger arises in your breast and becomes uncontrollable, it will be into the deep freeze with you! I, for one, intend to be on my best behavior.