"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Nov 7, 2001

Defeating Your Inner Rat

If you're like me,
then you often feel like an anthropologist on Mars. I observe in confusion as men around me (who apparently share the same sex characteristics I do) behave in ways that would make the war god blush.

I watch as males of our species bluff and strut in what they call friendship. They smack each other around. They downplay one another's achievements while exaggerating their own. They refer to each other using derogatory terms for women's anatomy or as females of the order canine. What a bunch of creeps!

Even worse, I find myself struggling to resist being like them. It's as though I'm in a 1950s werewolf movie or suffering from Tourette's syndrome. I'm desperately trying to keep the monstrous behavior from erupting once again.

As a kid I participated in such masochistic enterprises as hitting your best friend in the arm until he admits pain. When a group of us got together we'd play violent and competitive games like King of the Mountain or Basketbrawl or Monopoly. I would even watch professional wrestling and cheer as two testosterone-poisoned monsters pretended to bash each other's heads in. "Boys will be boys," is the excuse I've usually heard.

This was the conclusion of a paper presented at the American Physiological Society Conference on Oct. 18. The paper, "Sex differences in brain monoamines and aggression," by Jonathan Toot, Gail Dunphy and Daniel Ely of the University of Akron, stated the traditional maxim with some jazzed-up terminology: "Aggression is influenced by a Y-chromosomal effect that decreases amygdala 5HT." In other words, males show more aggression because our Y-chromosome codes for lower amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the part of the brain called the amygdala. When the amygdala is stimulated, serotonin decreases, testosterone increases and aggression results. Simple, right? Forget special child rearing. Get out the pruning shears.

It would appear that Toot, Dunphy and Ely have solved the riddle about why boys are such pains. However, there is another consideration. Their study was done on rats. This isn't as big of a deal as you might think. The evolution of mammals has left us all with the exact same neurotransmitters and pretty similar brain structures. That's why we torture other members of our class in labs around the world to research drugs and behavior. The important consideration is simply this: Rats lack the long period of childhood dependency that humans have.

Humans come out of the oven pretty undercooked. It's at least 12 to 13 years before we're sexually mature, and up to 20 years before we're physically mature. During this period, we rely on adults for food, protection and as models for our behavior. In our current world, these models are extended by the mass media - which overwhelmingly provide entertainment that appeals to our more socially damaging instincts. Hundreds of studies have shown that violent individuals usually come from violent environments. It's reasonable to assume that male aggression in humans is strongly influenced by the environment as well.

What we share with our evolutionary cousin the rat is the innate tendency towards aggression, but biology is not destiny. What you encounter in life, especially early in life, can dramatically affect how you live. Males may have the potential for more aggression, but if it's not emphasized, perhaps it won't be expressed. After all, my father is a very gentle and loving man. Maybe this has something to do with why I'm curious to understand aggression, but don't take part in it anymore (the occasional kung-fu flick notwithstanding).

This is a powerful and world-changing idea, since it's men who presently control most governments on our fragile Earth. Of course, ritual castration of public servants is still a viable option.

Defeating Your Inner RatSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

No comments: