Monday, March 9, 2009

Are Male Primates Innately Violent?

NPR has an interesting story up about a chimpanzee named Santino who is kept in the Furuvik Zoo (Sweden). Santino is reportedly making projectile weapons of out rocks that he stockpiles and throws at humans who are especially bothersome. Okay, first off, the zoo personnel could have probably informed those attending the zoo not to harass the animals. It wouldn't have taken too much effort to enforce.

As for Santino, his behavior has been documented by a PhD student, Mathias Osvath, in Current Biology. The NPR story describes Santino, his ability to plan ahead and show restraint before unleashing his rock throwing ways:

According to a report in the journal Current Biology, the 31-year-old alpha male started building his weapons cache in the morning before the zoo opened, collecting rocks and knocking out disks from concrete boulders inside his enclosure. He waited until around midday before he unleashed a "hailstorm" of rocks against visitors…

Seemingly at ease with his position as leader of the group, Santino didn't attack the other chimpanzees, Osvath told The Associated Press. The attacks were only directed at humans viewing the apes across the moat surrounding the island compound where they were held.
(emphasis added)

So this provokes the age old question, is violence rooted in nature or nurture? Quite frankly, I think it's both, and at the risk of infuriating any social constructivists out there, I'll get back to that point a bit later. But first, it's critical to point out that Santino is labeled the "alpha male" in his group and takes "position as leader of the group."

Let's examine the different typologies of violence that exist as defined by the
World Health Organization: (1) self-directed; (2) interpersonal; and (3) collective. Then across these three typologies, the nature of violence can come in four different forms: (1) physical; (2) sexual; (3) psychological; and (4) deprivation or neglect (pgs. 6, 7). If we look at the violence that seemingly runs rampant across the globe, for almost every dimension, the violence is dominated by men.

Whether it comes in the form of genocide, gangs, sexual violence, sports, 1-on-1 beefs, whatever, violence between males consistently outnumbers violence between females. And even more so, male violence against females consistently outnumbers female violence against males. In fact, these gendered patterns of violence are so common across cultures and over time, they're taken for granted and hardly make people raise an eyebrow, which is part of the problem. "Boys will be boys," right … or wrong?

This is of course with the exception of self-directed violence, where the gender gap is closer (although with the current recession, we may soon see a spike in male suicides). But the overwhelming gender discrepancy in interpersonal and collective violence makes me think that while male violence is unquestionably and uncritically nurtured in our society, there may also be something in the male psyche that makes us a bit more susceptible to accept that violent nurturing.

And perhaps that is what is seen here in Santino – the so-called alpha male. Sticking with this gendered theme, how did the zoo keepers attempt to calm the violent Santino? Well of course, emasculate him!

For a while, zookeepers tried locking Santino up in the morning so he couldn't collect ammunition for his assaults, but he remained aggressive. They ultimately decided to castrate him last autumn, but will have to wait until the summer to see if that helps.

Admittedly, the above mentioned "intervention" makes me cringe, but would the intervention work if imposed upon the male dictators that have ravaged so many societies over time? Alright, this is getting a bit over the top and unlikely to put into practice (wait, the reverse does happen in certain
excessively patriarchal societies).

Furthermore, as movies like Boys Don’t Cry so vividly remind us, the rigid male-female binary that polarizes our violent society is far more complex than the popular sexed duality suggests. And truth be told, Santino is a sample size of a "whopping" one, so through him, it is difficult to make over-arching generalizations about possible innate sex differences in us primates as they relate to violence.

But yeah, I'm hardly surprised he's a guy, and I'd be surprised if he wasn't. Wouldn't you?

(Photo courtesy of NPR).

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