“Staying Alive: Evolution, Culture,
and Women’s Intrasexual Aggression”
by Anne Campbell
The author’s primary thesis states that males and females exhibit different types and rates of aggressive behavior and that these gender differences can be explained in terms of different evolutionary pressures and ensuing adaptations. She also discusses how cultural interpretations of aggressive behavior can cause further gender stratification of the behaviors.
Females tend to engage in high-risk aggressive behaviors less frequently than males. This is apparent from the age of two onward. (Rohner, 1976; Whiting & Edwards, 1973). High-risk aggressive behaviors are defined as those that carry a high probability of physical injury, like fist fighting. These differences in aggression rate become even greater when the type of aggression becomes more serious, like armed robbery. (Kruttschnitt, 1994). That is, the more risky the behavior, the greater the difference in how much more frequently men engage in it than do women. This gender differential can be seen cross culturally. (
Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that this difference in aggression may be due to the fact that females have a lower reproductive variance than males. In other words, almost any female has the opportunity to reproduce, while males tend to compete with each other, with the successful men tending to monopolize reproductive opportunities, while low status men may not have any. (Wilson & Daly, 1988). The author examines the factors that contribute to this difference in reproductive variance, and shows how these same factors contribute to a difference in aggressive behavior. She particularly examines the question from the perspective of how a lack of high-risk behavior is an adaptive strategy for females, rather than solely looking at male aggression.
There are significant differences between the genders in physical structures like gamete size as well as in reproductive strategies and social behavior. From an examination of these differences, we can build a logical rationale for the differences in aggression between the sexes. As we have seen, even before conception the mother has a larger investment in her offspring, purely based on gamete size. This investment only increases when gestation and infant dependency are factored in. Humans have very large heads for our body size, and one of the downsides of bipedalism is the narrowing of the birth canal. This has meant that selection has favored the birth of somewhat immature infants (relative to other animals, like horses, whose young can walk soon after they are born), and this has also increased dependency on and investment of the mother. Evidence of this can be seen in data collected from orphans. Maternal death increases infant mortality cross culturally, while paternal death has the equivalent effect of parental divorce, which is much smaller increase in mortality. (Hill & Hurtado, 1996). The author examines other ways of inferring the critical importance of maternal care. Menopause is unique to humans, and the author argues that selection favored genes for women who would live long enough after their reproductive years were over to raise their last child. The point of all of this emphasis on the importance of maternal care is that the probability of survival of any child is directly related to its mother. And since the child is guaranteed to carry 50% of the mother’s genes, genes that favor maternal survival after birth have been favored. It follows from this that females would have evolved a psychology in which the costs associated with risky behavior were prohibitively high. Compare this to the prevailing theory of how males evolved, where high-risk strategies could mean the difference between reproductive success and reproductive death. When viewed in these terms it is not surprising that females have a different pattern of aggression.
The author goes on to build on the argument that survival is more important for reproductive success in females. She states that if this is so, we should be able to see the greater weight of physical danger in a psychological mechanism. This mechanism is fear, which females tend to experience more than males. Macdonald (1995) has stated that there is a difference in the type of stimuli that evoke fear in females. The author suggests that this difference fits with her prediction that women should experience more fear, especially in response to possible bodily threat. The author examined two types of fear. The first is generalized anxiety that is characterized by a lack of bodily threat. As would be predicted, there is no gender difference in occurrence of general anxiety disorder (APA, 1994). This implies that women are not just generally more fearful of the world than men, but that they experience more of a specific type of fear. The author also discusses the lack of gender differences in openness and experience seeking measures at the non-clinical level. These scales are thought to be the inverse of generalized fear. While there is a difference in sensation seeking, there is no difference in experience seeking. The second type of fear that the author examines are phobias. Phobias, unlike generalized anxiety, are thought to be evolutionarily prepared fears of specific dangers faced by our ancestors. (Marks & Neese, 1997). According to the author’s argument that females should be more concerned with their own survival, we would expect to see a greater rate of phobic responses in women, and indeed we do (APA, 1994; Marks, 1987).
So far we have focused on why aggression might be too costly for females, and how fear may be the mechanism by which aggression is avoided. The author also approaches the aggression differential from the perspective of social ties and dominance hierarchies. Because of the reproductive variance previously discussed, males need to compete with one another for access to females. One of the ways that they do this is by acquiring resources that the females want, and status, which is indicative of access to those same resources. Females on the other hand, with a low reproductive variance, need access to resources, but the costs of intrasexual aggression associated with status seeking and dominance may be too great, given the critical importance of maternal survival. This is not to say that females do not show any forms of aggression or competition. Females tend to exhibit only certain types of aggressions, which the author calls indirect aggression and which include such tactics as ostracism and gossip. These types of aggression low risk, because they tend to hurt the competition but without ever having a direct physical risk, as fighting would. In indirect aggression the aggressor remains unknown, and so is at little risk of being harmed in response. This difference can be explained in terms of what the two types of aggression are accomplishing. Direct aggression, used by males, is not only an attempt to gain access to resources, but is also an attempt to gain status. In order for status to be conferred, the aggressor must be known. In indirect aggression, the goal is access to resources, status is irrelevant. Since bodily harm is such an enormous risk for females, and they do not have to compete with each other for access to potential mates, direct aggression is not appropriate. These patterns are seen in non-human primates (de Waal, 1982; Ellis, 1995) as well as in humans (Ahlgren, 1983; Boehnke et. al., 1989).
Given the preceding arguments, the author states that certain patterns should be seen in crime statistics and gender. First of all, if there is a serious shortage of resources, then women should respond as men do, with an increase in aggression, as measured by crime rates. The author is basically arguing that aggression rates are a function of restricted access to resources, and that females can be considered a constantly restricted reproductive resource for the males. Normally the females are not under that pressure, but if a different resource is restricted, they respond as men do, with increased aggression. This can be seen in the previously mentioned correlations across geographic areas. It can also be seen in the fact that crime tends to be concentrated in the socioeconomic groups with the most acute resource shortages. The second point she makes is that there should be a larger sex difference in rates of high-risk crimes vs. low risk crimes. And this is true: taking other’s resources in an indirect way, like shop-lifting, is the only type of crime that women have similar rates to men, and these crimes increase during the same time periods that the rate of single women in poverty grew. In direct, high-risk, status-gaining methods of taking other’s resources, like robbery, women have maintained much lower rate than men have. The last point she makes is that when females’ choice of good mates is severely limited, this becomes the restricted resource which females use direct aggression to compete for. This can be seen in areas where men who will be good fathers and contribute to the offspring are in short supply and the rates of female assault (extremely direct aggression) increase. The main reasons given for these conflicts are competition for access to desirable males, protecting relationships with men from rival females, and managing one’s sexual reputation. (
The last section of the article deals with almost universal cultural stigmas of female aggression. In our society, women who exhibit direct aggression are seen as abnormal; they are often accused of “acting like men” because of a personal abnormality or because of societal changes (i.e. the feminist movement) or else they are assumed to be irrational because of mental illness or hormones. The author argues that this cultural stigma of gender incongruent behavior is a meme, the cultural/ideological equivalent of a gene, which can be passed down and selected for within a society. This meme has the widening the gender differential in aggressive behavior. The author discusses how women who are aggressive tend to be pathologized, while men tend to be punished, indicating that there is an unspoken agreement that there must be something wrong with a woman who acts aggressively. This meme has been internalized so that women, when explaining their acts of aggression, tend to use excuses (“ I lost control”) whereas men tend to use justifications (“She was asking for it”). This indicates that there is a sex difference in how people view their own aggression.
A. Males and females exhibit different types and rates of aggressive behavior
1. Females engage in this behavior less frequently then males.
a. risk of physical injury
b. the more serious the aggression becomes, the greater the gap
between men and women.
2. Gender differences can be seen cross-culturally
II. Reproductive variance
A. Females have lower reproductive variance then males
B. Factors that affect reproductive variance also affect aggressive behavior.
1. lack of high-risk behavior in females is an adaptive strategy
III. Physical Structure and Maternal Importance
A. Gamete size
1. Women have larger and fewer gametes hence greater investment in
B. Structure of humans
1. Bipedalism has caused narrowing of birth cannel.
a. Humans when born have large heads for their bodies because
humans are born prematurely.
i. This cause increased dependency on and investment of
C. Maternal Importance
1. When mother dies it is more likely that child will die which is not the
case for fathers.
2. Menopause is unique to humans
a. women even after reproductive years are still selected to raise
children which points to the importance of maternal care.
A. Fear is a psychological mechanism that females experience more frequently
then males to avoid danger.
1. Especially in response to bodily threat.
B. Anxiety fear, which has a lack of bodily threat, does not show up in one
gender more then the other.
C. Phobia fear, evolutionarily prepared fears of specific dangers faced by our
ancestors, are seen more in females because of the greater concern of survival.
V. Social Ties and Dominance Hierarchies
A. Males need to compete females by gaining resources.
B. Females don’t compete because they don’t have to fight for status and
dominance as much as males
1. They do show aggression and competition though but they usually use
indirect aggression instead of direct aggression like males.
2. Indirect aggression such as ostracism and gossip
a. Therefore they are not at direct physical risk
b. And, aggressor usually can remain unknown causing harm to
others but not risking oneself.
VI. Crime Status and Gender
A. When there is a shortage of resources for women then they do respond with
aggressive behavior just like males.
1. Aggression rates are a function of restricted access to resources.
a. Ex. When females have to compete for good fathers (which
might be restricted) to contribute to offspring
B. Crime tends to be up in socioeconomic groups with the least amount of
C. There is a larger sex difference in rates of high-risk crimes vs. low-risk crimes.
1. Shoplifting: women and men have similar rates
a. these crimes increased for females at the same time that poverty
increased of single women.
2. Robbery: women remained much lower
1. Access to desirable males
2. protecting relationships with men from rival females
3. managing one’s sexual reputation.
VII. Cultural Stigma (meme)
A. Women who exhibit direct aggression are seen as abnormal.
1. “acting like men”
2. irrational because of mental illness or hormones.
B. Meme: a cultural/ideological equivalent of a gene
1. can be passed down and selected for within a society
2. attributes to widening the gender differential in aggressive behavior.
3. explaining aggression:
a. women use excuses
b. men use justifications
Part 2- Comments
Although this article was extremely well written and drew from many sources of data to argue its points, there are several areas that seem open to criticism.
In her argument for the importance of maternal survival she gives as evidence the human phenomenon of menopause. She argues that menopause, life after reproductivity is over, exists because maternal survival was important to offspring survival. Yet she also uses the existence of menopause as evidence for the importance of maternal survival. This seems a bit circular and based on her own assumptions. Menopause is certainly an interesting phenomenon, but her take on it seems simplistic. In her discussion of female fear she refers to a lack of gender differences in measures like the Openness scale. However, these man-made scales may well have been standardized to mixed gender norms, may have lost sensitivity to gender differences in the process. The only other problem we found was in her discussion of the meme of gender specific behavior she gives a fairly standard feminist indictment of patriarchy, but fails to show how the meme, or even patriarchy would have been adaptive for females. This is a weakness in many of the arguments between evolutionary psychologists and feminists; they seem to be speaking different languages.