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Richard Wrangham is a professor of biology and anthropology at Harvard University who studies chimpanzees, and their behavior, in Uganda. His main interest is in the question of human evolution[…]

Having more females in positions of power could reduce aggression in our society.

Question: Have the any of the results of your research surprised you? 

Richard Wrangham: So, one of the things that happens with chimpanzees is that they use sticks, a bit like toys. And it turns out that the juvenile females use sticks in a way that I suppose is rather unfamiliar to us, but basically they just carry them around. They'll just break off a stick and they'll carry it on their back, on their tummy, keep it with them, sit with it while they're feeding. And then after a few hours, sometimes after a few minutes, let it go. 

Males will break off a stick and then guess what males will do with it? They'll use it to hit others or throw it at others. So, it's kind of like kids in the playground. You know, they're not allowed any guns, they're not allowed any dolls and what happens? The boys will pick up a rock and use it as a gun, and the girls may pick up a gun and use it as a doll, who knows. 

Well this inspiration to a study in which an undergraduate, Rob Tennyson, has tested what a baby does to play with a balloon both before and after it sees somebody hitting the balloon. So, this was a kind of shock because, first of all, it turns out that if you allow a baby to play with a balloon and then allow it to watch both men hitting a balloon, women hitting a balloon, men cradling a balloon, men cradling a balloon, then what the babies do is change their behavior in one particular way. Girls don't change their behavior, they hit the balloon before watching, they hit the balloon after watching, no difference. The boys hit the balloon before watching, but after watching, then it turns out they hit the balloon twice as much. 

And what are they watching? Well both boys and girls tend to watch hitting more than cradling because hitting is just a little bit more exciting, more interesting. But here's the amazing thing. The boys watched the man hitting and the more they watched the man hitting, the more they hit. And the girls watched the woman hitting, and the more they watched the woman hitting, the more they hit. So, this is domestic violence model. At six months old, these are long preverbal; these little babies are picking up on their own gender and responding by modeling their behavior on their gender. 

So, it's a wonderful interaction to biology and culture because the boys are hitting more than the girls as a consequence of watching, and so that's something from within. That's some biological system that is causing that. And yet they're both being socialized because they're both saying, "Hey, mommy or daddy is doing the hitting; I'm going to do some hitting too." It means that even at six months, you've got to be careful about what you allow your babies to watch. 

Question: How would women holding more positions of power influence the climate of war in society? 

Richard Wrangham: Well, I mean, when you look at primates and when you look at humans, it's very clear that in a majority of species, particularly first related to us, males are in many ways more aggressive than females. And this aggression plays out in a particular way, so if you just talk about gossip, if you just talk about the relatively low level kinds of aggressiveness, actually there's no difference between men and women. It's when the aggression is really costly to the victim. It's when, for instance, in car accidents, call them accidents or call them something else, where the car has been used as a weapon against somebody else. Men are far more likely to be the drivers, per million miles driven, whereas, in minor accidents, men and women are equally likely. 

So, there's all sorts of evidence that men are more violent than women and this is surely significant when we think about the high level interactions that occur in interstate conflict. So, if you look at the leadership styles of men and women, you find that women are more thoughtful about the outcome of potential conflict, they are better at taking the perspective of the opponent; they are less likely to be purely ego-driven, simply wanting to be superior to the other side. Experiments show this and analyses of particular interactions show this. 

I think that when in October, 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the history of the world to have more women than men in its national legislative body, in its parliament. That was a great move forward. And wouldn't it be wonderful if we get more women sharing with men the decisions that are so critical to all of us about power relationships because not to say that women will necessarily always be peaceful, not to say that they won't, on occasion, be just as bloody and destructive in their decisions as men might be, but it is going to tilt the balance towards a very often, more reasoned and optimistic outcome, I think. 

Question: Why aren’t women there yet? 

Richard Wrangham: I do think that people have not paid enough attention in general in thinking about sex role differentiations to some very elemental thing about our domestic lives. And so this relates to the issue of cooking. The fact is, that all the way around the world, in every culture, except modern urban industrial society, you can absolutely predict that women are going to be doing the cooking for men. And the significance of women cooking for men is that during the day, a woman is bound to the stove. Now, you can say it's because she has small children anyway, and to some extent that may be a contributor. But for whatever reason, the fact is that in essentially every society women are responsible for the cooking, whereas, the men are free to go off during the day and do something, nowadays, to go into being a professional, becoming a professional politician, and then be fed by their wives in the evening. And of course, in the era of fast food and easy meals picked up at the supermarket, it is a lot easier for men and women to share the domestic tasks and in urban industrial societies, that's what very often happens. Sometimes you get a reversal in which men cook for women. 

But, I'm sure a huge sociological momentum which has maintained this tradition of women being domestic and men going off and being free to develop their own professions. So, I think that's just as important as any kind of tendency to do with men being more ambitious for the rewards of professional work. And the point about the cooking, since it's old news, but I think what's interesting about it is, only recently we started thinking about the fact that this really makes humans very different from our close relatives. Because our close relatives, you never get women cooking for men, as it work. They don't cook for anybody, of course. And so here we have a radical new kind of system, which I think has enlarged the potential for patriarchal domination by men of women. Once you have the cooking system with the household economy as we have it today, then the result is you have this huge freedom for men and not for women, and it exaggerates any kind of previous tendencies for sexually dimorph -- sexually different sex roles. 

Question: How would women handle leadership positions differently than men? 

Richard Wrangham: I think there are big differences between men and women that conform to something that we see in our post relatives. If you look at the things that chimpanzees compete over, then what it comes down to is that the females tend to complete over sensible things, that is to say, food, safety for their offspring, a safe place to be. They will fight over those things. Males tend to fight over nothing. Males tend to fight over just a look. Over just status, over just whether or not the other guy gave the appropriate signal of subordinancy. If he didn't, I'm going to fight him. And this is, of course, incredibly like what you see in humans. So in urban gangs, whether they are in Norway, or Los Angeles, or the Philippines, I mean, it's a human thing, it's not a race thing.  Then what you see there in a kind of anarchic world because you have young kids, on their own, on the streets, nobody being able to protect them, they’ve got to look after themselves, then a look really matters and its the guys, its the young men for whom respect is just phenomenally important, and if they don't get it, then what do they do, they resort to aggression. 

Now, why is it that it should matter so much for men that respect be given to them? Well because respect is a predictor of their ability to get the resources when the crunch time comes. So, it's kind of setting up in advance who is going to get access to the key things; the food, the women, the weapons, whatever it is. 

So, yes, I think that carries on in sort of in some ways, you could say a ridiculous way into the adult world of modern sociopolitical complexity. We bring with us some atavistic tendencies from our ape past. 
Recorded on March 5, 2010