What is the relationship between warfare, rape and population growth
December 23, 2019 at 5:38 am #39150Sarah LimParticipant
I write this post as a woman and a feminist who has been interested in studying the concept of “rape culture” since I was in my teens. My mother was raped by a PhD classmate shortly before I was born, and I have occasional on-and-off moments of wondering if I was the product of that dreadful experience. I live in a part of Southeast Asia which is a notorious hotbed for exploitative sex tourism, with wealthy tourists flocking down from America, Europe, China and South Korea to purchase sex from little girls as young as 4 years old whose desperate poverty-stricken families sold them to brothels. We know that rape does occur throughout the animal kingdom, with ducks, chimpanzees, dolphins and beetles being the most notorious examples of species where the behavior is common. What is interesting to note about the animal kingdom as a whole, however, is that rape is not solely the domain of males in non-human animals, as anthropocentric patriarchal gender stereotypes would have us believe. You could argue that male honeybees (drones) have been ill-fated to be the mindless sex slaves of honey bee queens, and that this has been the same sorry state of affairs for the last 65-120 million years. Similar things may be said of sexual relations between black widow spiders, praying mantises and anglerfish. In female-dominated bonobo colonies, primate anthropologists have observed dominant female bonobos attempting to rape subordinate males.
Reading Nick Longrich’s article, “Were Other Humans the First Victims of the Sixth Mass Extinction?”, on the Conversation sparked a thought regarding the relationship between rape, population growth and warfare. Longrich argues that warfare was one of the most important checks on population growth in the pre-civilizational hunter-gatherer era. We know that warfare is the means by which one tribe seizes resources from another tribe, to increase the survival chances of their own bloodlines.”Women” are one such resource. The Monghol hordes, the Roman Empire and the first Europeans to reach the Americas all spared the women of their enemies from slaughter, if only so that they could take them as sex slaves and broodmares.
Our long history of warfare, harking back to our hunter-gatherer days, shaped the current gene pool we have today as combat thinned the herd. Only the most vicious, physically powerful and sneakiest warriors (and later kings and generals) were left standing at the end of every battle. And only the most subservient, reproductively fertile and eager-to-please women were taken as captive sex slaves; infertile women and women who had the cajones to resist physically were slaughtered. The domestication of women was made even more extreme with the advent of civilization and institutionalized religion.
It would seem, however, that warfare’s ability to thin the human herd has been dampened since civilization began. Once large standing armies could prop up expanding empires, the net resources gains of waging war began to significantly outweigh the cost of combat. The Monghol, Roman and Ottoman Empires are all good examples of this. With the advent of agriculture and civilization, humanity’s overall numbers became too great for even famines or the Black Plague to severely cripple.
Anthropologists such as Jared Diamond and Gerda Lerner (and Karl Marx if you’d like to count him) argue that it was the full-blown subjugation of women at the advent of civilization that was the backbone of this explosive growth. While Diamond acknowledges that hunter-gatherer tribes are not saints (as mentioned above), and that they still tend to be male-led, women still hold considerable influence in many tribes because they contribute an equal amount of calories to the resource base via foraging. Furthermore, the births of hunter-gatherer women tend to be spaced out by around four or five years each, since carrying a nursing baby or toddler on one’s back is often a liability for a traveling woman. Derrick Jensen cites some hunter-gatherers who have used combinations of dozens of medicinal herbs, agreeing to abstinence with their male lovers or simply resorting to infanticide when times are lean and the roaming tribe cannot feed another mouth.
Which led me to a question I have spent the last year pondering about:
Why do rates of rape skyrocket during times of resource leanness?
I am approaching this question from an evolutionary cause-and-effect point of view and suspending my own convictions about gender equality for a while. But why is it that rape becomes the most prevalent in times of famine? From an evolutionary perspective, this seems extremely counterintuitive. You would think that rates of rape would shoot straight through the ceiling when food, shelter and clothing are abundant, and then plummet to nix in times of famine. A starving, highly-stressed woman is not a fit one and forcibly impregnating her is likely to mean that your baby will die with her. This seems to be the case with some other mammals. We know that when pregnant reindeers face grave stress and food shortages, their bodies simply re-absorb the fetus that they are carrying. Mother pigs and rabbits eat the weakest of their own litters if they don’t have sufficient food. Even worms have the instinctive reaction to limit the number of babies they give birth to when their food supply shrinks. What makes human beings so different?
It is true that, in the context of civilization at least, many women are forced into prostitution in times of famine, as we have seen in Venezuela, Sudan and Syria. But from an evolutionary perspective, wouldn’t it make more sense for the male sex drive and propensity for sexual violence to plummet if there are too many mouths to feed and not enough food? What is the point of a stressed Venezuelan man impregnating a desperate 15-year-old forced into prostitution, if there are already more Venezuelans than food to feed them? Why have the impulse to bring another malnourished, tortured baby into an already starving population? From a strictly evolutionary point of view, wouldn’t it make more sense for angry men to focus all of their aggression into combat or hunting to acquire more food, while their sex drives drop to zero? So instead of a horde of starving raiders pillaging a neighboring village for food and raping the women there, they would slaughter all the women and just take the food and run.
January 20, 2020 at 7:59 pm #40372
That is a good question. The logic I have heard about it, is that male mammals in general are in competition to have sex, because the more sex they have, the more likely they are to reproduce. With all males acting like that, though, you can have some serious competition selected. That competitive drive has been tempered in humans to some degree, because human young require a lot of care, and a man is also more likely to reproduce if he helps to take care of a pregnant woman and offspring. At some point in the distant past, one theory is that mutations that lost estrus gave an advantage in trading sex on a regular basis for help, which worked. Things like falling in love with a specific other, also helped. We are also highly social animals and it works better for men to cooperate with each other within groups. But tensions remain. A man isn’t necessarily doing well to take care of someone else’s offspring, but the man who fathered the child is getting more of his genes into the next generation with less work on his part. Men will also cooperate with their group- but other groups, not so much, especially if they speak a completely different language, different culture, but such concerns seldom extend to whether their women are suitable to have sex with. Sometimes, though, hunter gatherers are reported to have tried to exterminate another group, so that isn’t always true. But specific mitochondrial genes passed by women, have seldom been lost, while y chromosome genes passed by men, are often lost. It has still often worked for men to be physically aggressive about fighting all out for sex, in spite of it generally being bound by rules of non lethal competition within groups. Aggression and sex are still linked in male brains. Threats to life bring out aggression and that is linked to sex.
But while that has worked enough in the past for instinctive reactions to be passed down, winning at conflicts can also selects better ability to think logically and while a potential dieoff can bring up similar instinctive reactions to the competition to survive such problems, the instincts are a lot less likely to work with regards to sex, as well as other things. Spreading your seed as widely as possible can work when there are plenty of resources around and women are likely to live and raise the children, but when resources are scarce, and the additional stress of pregnancy, birth, and nursing are more likely to kill both woman and child, then as you have seen, it is a counterproductive strategy.
We have been increasing the amount of resources we could take to grow population with new innovations in tools and domestication since the Neolithic, so quite often the aggressive strategy has worked. I think this is coming to an end.
In 1979, I read “Limits to Growth”. I was on track to graduate with a degree in mech. engineering, but the book, and similar books, disturbed me. People told me that we could safely ignore the projections of “Limits to Growth”, because we had found ways past limits in the past, so we would do it again. On the surface that sounded logical, but when I looked a little closer, I realized that this was not a logical conclusion at all. People were depending on finding things that were imaginary. Looking for imaginary things doesn’t mean you will find them. I can imagine all kinds of things, like unicorns and flying dragons, but would I bet my life that they exist? No, I wouldn’t. Looking doesn’t cause finding with imaginary things. I couldn’t say it was impossible that what people want will be found, but I could say that the expectation wasn’t rational. People were confusing correlation with causation with the statement that because we had found ways around limits in the past, we would do it again. We weren’t being scientific, and I felt we were very likely to come to serious grief on the matter. If we behaved logically, we would find what we needed and test it very well before we bet so much on it. But most people have dismissed this concern completely.
I also considered how we were measuring value, trying to understand what we needed to do to incorporate the above understanding into economics, assuming people might be found to want to behave with rational expectations about the future. Eventually I realized that people are highly social animals, we live by teamwork and die without it. This observation can be tested by anyone, we all have the naked body to test our independence of social groups. Teams can be more or less energy efficient at getting everyone enough food, shelter, and reproduction, and they can have more or less rational expectations about the future, as well. Expecting to find whatever you need when you need it, isn’t rational, but seeing the future exactly, also isn’t at all likely, either, which is why I think we have degrees of rationality about it. Hopefully we see it clearly enough to survive and adjust where we were off the mark in what we thought would happen.
Something I should have mentioned above, is that while male mammals have generally been selected to be aggressive about sex, and females to be nurturing to offspring, the fact that aggression doesn’t work, nor do instincts for nurturing work, when serious scarcity is an issue, shows up with animals selected for seasonal breeding. Animals in temperate climates have generally been selected to have offspring in the spring. Animals have also been selected to avoid having offspring during regular, or irregular, periods of drought. No amount of aggression or nurturing makes up for problems of scarcity of resources. If people can see the logic of this and understand that we are facing problems of severe scarcity, then putting energy into surviving the scarcity rather than into reproduction, makes more sense.
The problem is whether to follow logic, or follow instinctive urges. The latter I know, can be very strong… I would say this is a situation where being able to override instinctive urges and be logical, is more likely to succeed.
There is a lot more that can be said about all this, but these are the basic things I’ve seen about it. I respect your ability to put aside your emotional reactions and write about these things, and try to do the same.
One thing I have doubts about with your post is the idea that female reindeer can absorb the fetus when stressed… Perhaps under when the fetus is very young? I’ve never heard of this. There is an example of reindeer introduced to St. Matthew’s Island at the end of WWII. They were meant to be an emergency food supply for the men operating a radar station there, but they were left behind when the war ended. They reproduced from around twenty or thirty, to an estimated six thousand, then nearly all died with a bad winter. No fertile males survived, though a few females did. Likely the male aggression to breed left the males in poorer condition- male deer are known to often have high winter kill even in ordinary winters because of this. Fits with everything we are considering here. Skeletons were found of fetuses inside the bones of their mothers… https://www.geo.arizona.edu/Antevs/nats104/00lect21reindeer.html
January 20, 2020 at 8:01 pm #40376
Something else I find interesting about our evolution is in Richard Wrangham’s ideas about how male coalitions have domesticated us, making men much less likely to do acts of reactive aggression compared to chimpanzees, but proactive aggression remains. He thinks female coalitions domesticated bonobos, though with a different approach. Wrangham thinks male coalitions killed bullies taking whatever they wanted when they wanted it. He thinks female coalitions of bonobos, have controlled which males reproduce and that has also resulted in domestication of them. Male bonobos don’t reproduce unless they have high status with the females, and having high status requires a relationship with a female- usually his mother. If she dies, his status drops and he is unlikely to reproduce. Perhaps you know about this? He goes over it in this video. It sounds plausible to me, certainly fits the observations that have been made. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2TOxoE5QCg
January 31, 2020 at 7:15 am #40393
Malcolm Potts has written a wonderful book on this topic, Sex & War, if you’re interested! https://www.amazon.com/Sex-War-Biology-Explains-Terrorism-ebook/dp/B003UBAX3A
April 13, 2020 at 9:35 pm #41077Keith HayesParticipant
Rape is a breakdown of normal behavior. It is more violent aggression than desire for sex. Rapists are angry violent men who use rape as a means to express their violence. If rape becomes more prevalent in times of famine it is because men are angry and social norms and laws are breaking down. I doubt rape becomes more prevalent without other types of aggressive acting out also becoming more common.
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