In 2017, I published a piece here titled “The Sacred Space of Lovers.” It discussed “the space that lovers can create to inhabit together — a space that, ideally, is one of open-hearted intimacy of body and soul, of romantic passion, of deep love and attachment … .”
Because such a relationship is ideally suited to the flourishing of life, from generation to generation, “because our nature has been crafted to find fulfillment and beauty along those paths that have best served the life of our kind,” we experience that space as “sacred.”
However, as we know, not all that happens between men and women in the sexual realm embodies that ideal. The recent #MeToo movement has brought into focus how much trauma, assault and humiliation women have suffered from men. More broadly, the history of civilized cultures shows pervasive domination — and often disregard, demeaning and abuse — of women by men.
The question arises: Why?
Part of the answer arises at the level of biological evolution. Another part concerns the consequences of “the reign of power” that, as I have written previously, inevitably accompanied the rise of civilization.
Different strategies for evolutionary success
Natural selection, which is the engine driving the process of biological evolution, creates wholeness in impressive ways — from the cell, to the organism, to the ecological community, to the biosphere.
That natural selection creates such wholeness is not surprising, given that it operates by continually choosing life over death.
But wholeness is hardly the evolution’s whole story. That’s because the various players in the drama of life often have conflicting interests — like between predator and prey, parasite and host, and even within the same species (as between male and female). And because that “choosing of life over death” is entirely opportunistic.
We can think of each “player” in the “game” of evolution having to answer the question, “How do I get my DNA into the future?”
Given that’s determining how creatures get shaped, dangers arise in the relationship between human males and females as a result of the profound asymmetry between the situations of men and women regarding that fundamental task of passing life along into the next generation.
For the female, producing the next generation inescapably entails an enormous investment (and risk as well). Pregnancy is no small thing, and when the baby arrives, the mother is always there.
The male’s role in producing the next generation, by contrast, does not necessarily entail such an enormous investment. The male can pursue different strategies to get his DNA into the future — involving different degrees of involvement, and more or less loving ways of relating.
The “sacred space of lovers” is at one end of the spectrum, characterized by love and mutuality and commitment. In that approach, the father invests heavily in his offspring. Given how long our young are dependent, and given how important it is for the flourishing of human young that they be well enculturated, this strategy is good for producing fewer offspring but with each having a higher probability of survival.
But the male also can “succeed” at the evolutionary game by fathering more children and doing less (or nothing) for them. “Love ’em and leave ’em” works to get a male’s DNA successfully into the future. But that approach leaves the women and the children more vulnerable.
(And unfortunately, at the opposite end of the mutuality of “the sacred space of lovers,” some males can be rewarded for getting their DNA into the future through sexual assault.)
The genetic predisposition toward any of these strategies is apt to get represented among the patterns of “male human nature.”
So while natural selection is likely to produce females motivated to establish relationships with men who will stick around to protect her and her children, that same process apparently can produce “family” men, but also “rogues.” And possibly rapists.
Which shows clearly a fundamental point about what’s “natural”: though the “natural” connects in many ways with what we regard as “the good,” it is not at all reliable in that respect. And as a result, the natural often needs to be checked and corrected by cultural morality.
But civilized cultures have had their own problems. Which leads to the second part of the answer.
The rise of civilization, the reign of power and the victimization of women
As I argued in a previous column, the rise of civilization made it inevitable that only those societies organized for power in “the war of all against all” could survive. As a result, starting many millennia ago we find the world filled with warrior societies.
The increasing centrality of war in itself warped the relationships between men and women, as the increased importance of those who fight (men) meant a corresponding drop in the status and power of those who nurture life (women).
Then, this problem of male dominance has been compounded by the misogyny that, because of what such societies require of men, seems an endemic by-product of men being socialized into warrior subcultures.
In these ways, the warping of human life through the reign of power brought with it a widespread pathology in civilization that has led many men to treat women badly.
Schmookler is a prize-winning author many of whose works can be found at www.ABetterHumanStory.org. He writes a monthly column for The News & Advance.