Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace:

Copyright © 2001 by Judith Hand


Women. Power. Peace. This book explores how these three things relate to each other.

In a 2002 address at the University of California, Davis, the American ex-president, Bill Clinton, described his vision of what it will take for the world people to secure lasting peace. He described national behavior and policies that stoke hostility and aggression. He then described positions and actions required of a nation that seeks to create more partners in the world and fewer enemies.

I select Clinton's speech as an example of some of the best of today's political thinking in order to point out that, though well intentioned, the current visions of our most visionary politicians remain inadequate. His insights reflected his intellect, experience, and the thoughts of a widely read, serious thinker. Nevertheless I noted that he didn't acknowledge that over four thousand years of recorded history conclusively demonstrates that governance by men in complex societies, in any form, has never yet yielded lasting peace. Nor did he give his audience reason to believe our time in history will be different. He appeared to assume that if we are men and women of good will and work at it, we can finally grasp what has eluded us for millennia. I also noted that at no point did he acknowledge that there are differences, important differences, between men and women with respect to aggression. Nor did he consider how the exclusion of women from decision-making in world affairs may have impacted our fates. It is this specific issue - exclusion of one gender and the resulting effect on war and peace - that is the subject of this book.

Before going forward, I acknowledge that some people argue that a bit of war now and then is a beneficial evil, a necessary engine that drives creativity of all sorts. I make no attempt to argue the pros and cons of that view. I assume that while some wars have, beyond question, been necessary, modern war is an unmitigated tragedy and a waste. It is a demon from our evolutionary past.

There is a danger involving bias I want to address because I am a female author offering a somewhat harsh assessment of male aggression. I've been told by friends and colleagues that the defining features of my life - the disciplines I've studied, the professions I've practiced, the experiences I'v had as a woman raised in a male dominated culture - take me uniquely qualified to write a book on this subject. And important among those qualifications is that for thirty years, until recently widowed, I was happily married to a man I adored. I love men. I do criticize the males of our species, but I also look at females with a critical eye. While the tendencies described are often associated with one gender or the other, I stress that they exist in both sexes. And the book's theme, stated more than once, is that what war-weary humanity needs for best results is male/female partnership.

My purpose is exploration and my point is positive:

    1. a practical and achievable path to peace does exist.
    2. there is a powerful biological underpinning for this path.

Humans are not forever doomed by our nature to be wracked repeatedly by vicious and destructive armed conflicts.

War - its causes and how culture and biology work together to produce it - is complex. One book, especially a small one, certainly cannot be in any way definitive. My intention in Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace is to present a new perspective which I hope will provoke reflection and discussion.

We are living in extraordinary times: as I explore in the pages that follow, the tide of the history of the last ten millennia is turning with respect to the relationships between men and women and war. Each of us will play a part, however small, in the speed with which this revolutionary tide shifts. The land to which it bears us is unknown, but I will argue that, from the perspective of biology, war is not inevitable. It is a choice. We can accept war as our predestination or resolve to be rid of it. A clear understanding of the differing biological predispositions of men and women can be the basis of new cultural imperatives that if achieved, will provide a stabilizing polestar as we journey together to arrive at, to in fact create, a far more peaceful home.

J. L. Hand


"If women ran the world, there would be no wars."
Winston Churchill
"If women ran the world we wouldn't have wars, just intense negotiations every twenty-eight days."
Robin Williams

No wars. Must that dream remain forever a dream? Or can we make it a reality?

Religions have't tamed this Apocalyptic horseman. Quite the contrary. Pacifism, too, stands powerless against his charge. Secular appeals to humanitarian morality find themselves trampled into the mud and dust of one ravaged land after another. Education also fails, as the Second World War conclusively proved; the Germans were some of the world's most educated people. When War engulfs us, we suffer unimaginable horror and brutality and waste of resources and life in spite of all our moral training and education.

You may have wondered, when you sent a son or daughter or soul mate off to fight, or went yourself, if humanity could escape the tragic and brutal cycle of destruction or if this behavior, as so many have claimed, is in our genes, forever a part of our destiny. You may have thought, "I'd give anything to stop wars," and questioned to the depth of your being if you could't personally do something to defeat this dread horseman.

In early October, 1992, I had begun a journey that would explore these questions and reveal some answers. I followed the Minoan workshop leader from The First International Minoan Celebration of Partnership out of our meeting room onto the patio of the Akti Zeus Hotel in Heraklion, Crete. A flawless blue sky arched overhead. Dazzling beds of flowers - yellows, oranges, and reds - welcomed us. We sought refuge from the stark Mediterranean sun under a patio umbrella, taking seats opposite each other.

At once she said, "I asked you to talk with me in private because your comment was upsetting to some of the workshop participants."

Since I had offered only one comment, there could be no doubt about what she was referring to. During a question and answer session, I've said, "Well, assuming that peaceful goddess societies did once exist and they were supplanted by patriarchal, warlike societies, they likely ceased to exist because they couldn't or wouldn't fight back. Sometimes fighting back is absolutely essential."

This sentiment, apparently, had been so upsetting to some of the Minoan workshop members, a number of whom were pacifists, that our leader felt compelled to ask me to tone down my comments. Which is exactly what she was doing - in a most gentle manner, but firmly.

I agreed to her request. I wasn't there to argue politics or philosophy. But I couldn't help noting that the exchange illustrated how humans are often reluctant to be troubled by facts when their cherished beliefs are challenged.

Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and The Blade, was one of the conference organizers. Many experts continue to disagree with Eisler, who proposes that in ancient times, many "goddess cultures" existed throughout Europe, and that these had been peaceful and egalitarian, and had been conquered, and most evidence of their existence had been obliterated by patriarchal cultures that succeeded them. Whether one entirely agrees or disagrees, her book is thought-provoking. The second organizer was Margarita Papandreou, former wife of the Greek Prime Minister and a noted pacifist. The meeting's principle objective was to assemble leaders, women and men, from around the world who shared the views and goals of Eisler and Papandreou. These two women convened this gathering in the hope that participants would cross-pollinate and generate plans of action to advance the world - progress toward a more positive future of partnership between men and women.

My Minoan workshop was a small part of this much larger project. The workshop was, however, headed by world-class experts on a Bronze Age culture that had flourished on Crete some three and a half thousand years ago. Since I was right in the thick of researching a novel set in that long ago time and in this exact place, I couldn't pass up a chance to simultaneously learn from the best and soak up local atmosphere.

Two days after this little talk on the patio, I was strolling alone through the stunning ruins of Knossos outside Heraklion. The excavator of this once lost and still largely unknown culture, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, had dubbed this site the palace of the mythical Greek king Minos. I arrived at the east side and stood at the base of narrow steps, craned to look upward at several stories of massive cut stone, and then trudged my way to the top. I stepped onto what must have been an entryway and marveled again at the sophistication of the drains carved into the stone. I closed my eyes and in my imagination heard flowing water and saw elegant courtyard gardens richly decorated with sweet-scented flowers.

Four days earlier I had been here on a tour to get a sense of what local guides were telling visitors, but on this day I began my own research at these ruins and at the fine museum in the town and at other sites on Crete. I wandered through a maze of rooms and courtyards, large and small, and passed through the Great Central Court, where it is thought the important event of Bull Leaping might have been watched by thrilled crowds of hundreds. I studied the partial reconstruction of the impressive Procession mural, knowing that its central figure was a woman. As I explain later, women had been respected here. Most impressively, for hundreds of years they had apparently kept peace here. I walked ancient, sun-warmed stones determined to learn the hows and whys.

I turned a corner and walked toward the middle of what is usually called the West Court. There, coming toward me, was our workshop leader. She, too, was alone. We met in the court's center. Stopped. Smiled. But said nothing. We shared a moment of understanding requiring no words. We were, each of us, in our own ways and with our own visions and needs, communing with the people who had lived and worked and loved and died here all those thousands of years ago.

In the year 2000, I finished my novel, Voice of the Goddess. Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace began its life as a companion to that work. I wanted to explain for my readers the theoretical background against which I viewed the Minoan civilization, the Bronze Age people who form the flesh and spirit of the novel's world. I wanted to do this because as I worked on the Minoan fiction, I also explored the possibility that these people were as extraordinary with respect to aggression as Sir Arthur Evans thought they were. If so, the Minoan culture is far more than an interesting, exotic world in which to set an epic novel. If the culture of ancient Crete was as peaceful as all evidence to date indicates, its existence has profound significance for humanit y- past, present, and future. These unusual people may have come closest to being a state-level civilization in which the fact that women had power made a profound difference when it came to the matter of war. From the depths of the past, the Minoans become a case study of what might have been, and in Part II, I describe and discuss their significance in some detail.

This book's central theme is that world peace cannot be achieved without full partnership between men and women. We need male/female balance in civic affairs. The attendees of the conference on Crete embraced this theme unanimously. But their arguments in support of balance for the most part seemed to me to rest on a sense of morality - that it's not "right" for men to dominate women, particularly because male domination leads to bad results. Moral arguments seldom "work." Rather than look to morality, Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace looks to biology to explain why calls to morality have failed to prevent "bad" behavior in the past and will continue to fail in the future.

So, from a biological perspective, how might world history over the last four thousand years or so have been different if women had been running things all these millennia or if they were to be running things now?


"How about this for another slogan; 'War is to Man what Motherhood is to Woman?' Very good, I think you'll agree. A fine slogan with a lot of virility to it . . . ."
The Duce
from Louis de Bernieres' Corelli's Mandolin


Martian Men and Venusian Women

Is there any reason to think women would do anything differently from what men have done? Many women like to think they would, but liking to think so doesn't make it truer even likely to be true. If women had power, perhaps its seductive sway would lead them to act exactly like men?

If we look only to American culture, we might infer that women are less aggressive than men and so, surely, they would do things differently. But looking to only one culture and being guided by "gut feelings" easily leads to erroneous thinking. To explore the question of whether significant male/female differences might transcend culture, I start by turning to the field of evolutionary biology.

John Gray has become famous for saying: "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." His book by that title, one of the most popular relationship books, suggests how men and women can understand their differences in order to communicate better and get along. Some differences Gray describes are what anthropologists can demonstrate to be superficial (changing fashion can quickly alter them) or they are cultural (not based on genetics and thus changeable, although often not readily), but Gray's familiar phrase also expresses a significant kernel of biological truth. Some differences between men and women have deep genetic origins and are, for all practical considerations, unchangeable.

Evolutionary biologists have for years been exploring what they call male and female reproductive strategies. I focus here on the work of Sara Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist whose specialty is primate social behavior. She has written several impressive survey books, the latest of which is Mother Nature . This sterling piece of academic writing, scrupulously documented and so well written it's quite accessible to lay readers, presents in detail a list of references as well as the kind of evidence that forms the backbone of the following steps of biological logic. Another excellent and brief discussion of most of these biological points is Deborah Blum's Introduction to her book, Sex on the Brain .

The Biological Logic

Keep in mind two biological facts: first, we are mammals and, like all female mammals, our females produce milk to feed their offspring. And second, we're primates, related to chimps, gorillas, and orangutans and more distantly to baboons and monkeys. Keeping these biological facts in mind, the biological logic goes like this:

  1. For all living things, the basic biological bottom line is to reproduce and have offspring that in turn have offspring. Genes of individuals that fail to reproduce are eliminated from the great evolutionary game of life. This means that the behavioral inclinations coded in those genes are not passed to subsequent generations. There are some subtleties here - for example, highly social animals (bees, humans) can often contribute some genes to the future by aiding close relatives rather than reproducing themselves - but such subtleties don't alter the basic biological reality.

  2. For female mammals, and certainly for female primates, reproducing successfully is a very expensive proposition. Female primates carry an offspring to term, protecting and nourishing it within their body, often for many months. Then they provide milk to nourish it for weeks if not months or even years more. They must protect it, care for it, and support it sometimes for many additional years before it is old enough to reproduce. For every parent raising children, whether in the United States, Brazil, Thailand, or Ghana, the extensive costs involved (in time, energy, risk, and resources) resonates deeply. And then, in most cultures, once a child is raised, females remain involved in ensuring that the offspring of their offspring -t heir grandchildren - also survive. This is, beyond doubt or argument, an extraordinarily expensive process.

  3. As a consequence of the above, the ideal condition for female primates to carry out this difficult and expensive feat is social stability for long periods . Serious social turmoil or anything that threatens the life of these expensive offspring before they can reproduce - and certainly war that results in their death or the death or loss of their primary caregiver, their mother's hugely counterproductive.

  4. For male mammals , including male primates, the biological game is usually quite different, because they do not invest as heavily in the survival of their children as females do . In some primates, fathers contribute little or nothing beyond their sperm. While human males often become involved in support and protection of their young, this isn't the case in all cultures (see, for example, the Mosuo described by Hua where technically there isn't even an institution of marriage), and in few cultures does a father's investment approach that of a mother. There are some notable primate exceptions, tamarins for example, but compared to females, male mammals and male primates are generally more involved in spreading their seed widely than investing heavily in any given offspring.

  5. Consequently, for male primates, social stability is not as high a priority as it is for females. For example, in her first major book, Infanticide , written with colleague Glenn Hausfater, Hrdy documents a number of cases where males form a group or team and move into an established troop, drive out or kill the resident males, and then kill the young - that is, these males invade and subsequently commit infanticide. Even males of other mammalian species, like lions, behave similarly.

    Killing the young means that their mothers stop suckling and begin their estrous (menstrual) cycles again so that they are fertile. For the invading males this means they can breed sooner than if they had tolerated the offspring of the vanquished males. By cooperating in this group action, an invading male increases his chances of gaining access to the premier biological resource for a male: a female or females he can impregnate.

    At the same time, this male aggression is likely to give invading males access to other critical resources on the captured territory: food, water, new places to shelter. The benefits of such male cooperative aggression are multiple and great. There is no mystery at all that evolution has favored this type of male aggression in a variety of primates, including humans.

From Mother Nature and Infanticide you can form your own assessment of the power of competition for resources such as food, territory, or access to females, to shape the evolution in many mammals, including primates, of a male tendency to band together for invasion. In my view, while human males may have evolved often under an imperative to invade and conquer, a basic reproductive imperative for females has been to do whatever they can to foster social stability. I propose that a female inclination to facilitate social stability is as deeply evolved in humans as the well-known and frequently discussed male inclination for group aggression.

This is why things would be different if women ran the world - specifically, society would be more socially stable. Because of a female's unavoidable and costly commitment to her offspring, basic human female biological priorities are different from those of males.

These differences are not cultural. Their origins are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. We inherit them from our pre-human primate ancestors. Given free rein and uncurbed by social or ecological forces, these opposed tendencies, with males ready to bond together in acts of aggression and females more inclined to seek social stability, will play themselves out in our group behavior. Not to take them into consideration when discussing the question of war and how to make a lasting peace is a profound error.

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