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What Evolutionary Psychologists Thought About a Canadian General’s ‘Biological Wiring’ Sexual Assault Comment

Last week, Canada's highest-ranking military officer ignited a massive controversy about sexual assault, biology, and the armed forces.
June 25, 2015, 8:50pm

General Thomas Lawson, Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff photo via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Canada's highest ranking military man, General Tom Lawson, ignited a massive controversy during a conversation with Peter Mansbridge on The National.

When Mansbridge broached the topic of "endemic" sexual harassment in the military, Lawson casually responded that the underlying reason may be the fact that men are "biologically wired in a certain way" that makes them more likely to attack women, pointing to "situations where, largely men, will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our female members."

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As Chief of the Defence Staff, there is technically nobody above him in the military hierarchy aside from our Commander-in-Chief, Queen Elizabeth II. So when a man of that stature dabbles in armchair psychology about sexual aggression during a national news interview, it's obviously going to draw a lot of scrutiny.

That's mainly because his remarks seemed to suggest that sexual assault is a biological phenomenon and that many men in the rigid ranks of the military are simply incapable of controlling their most base sexual desires vis-à-vis female counterparts because of their genetic makeup. This position obviously trivializes the very real and very macho sexist culture that exists in the military, but more on that later.

Lawson apologized almost immediately for the "awkward characterization" and acknowledged that what he said was "conjecture" and "unhelpful." Then, in a rare show of unanimity, politicians from each party took turns one-upping each others' outrage toward his remarks. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not usually one to chime in on matters of gender politics, was apparently beside himself, calling the general's statement "offensive, inappropriate and completely unacceptable." Lawson has less than a month left as Chief of the Defence Staff, so it's unlikely he'll get fired.

While this matter appears to be settled politically, at least, Lawson's statements touch on an issue that's far from being resolved in the fields of biology and evolutionary psychology.

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That is the issue of the biological roots of sexual aggression, which is often—and inaccurately—reduced to a debate over whether or not there is a "rape gene" that has been passed down genetically.

We spoke to evolutionary psychologists about Lawson's "awkward" remarks to see if they could hold up to the scrutiny of a field of science that, while often misunderstood by laypeople, has devoted a significant amount of research to human behaviour and sexuality.

Evolutionary psychology is an area of study that can be and has, in the past, been as controversial as the general's comments because it sometimes leads to unsavoury findings hinting at a genetic component for sexual assault.

Take, for instance, the possibility explored by the scientific journal Evolutionary Psychology that the "mushroom-capped" shape of the human penis may have evolved to "compete with sperm from other males by displacing rival semen from the cervical end of the vagina prior to ejaculation." The idea here is that, at one point in our ancestral history, women were having so much sex in a 24 hour period that mushroom-shaped penises evolved in order to scoop out the sperm of competing males. Or there's the theory that that spousal rape is most likely to occur when the husband suspects that his mate has been unfaithful, because he needs to override the other man's seed. These are not exactly the most flattering perspectives of human nature and male sexuality.

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Kelly Babchishin is an evolutionary psychologist and postdoc student at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, and has learned firsthand about the controversy surrounding her field and findings.

In February, she authored an article entitled "Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study" which looked at over 21,000 convicted Swedish sex offenders and found that a child whose father or brother is a sex offender is four or five times (respectively) more likely to become a sexual offender and that this is "primarily accounted for by genes rather than shared environmental influences."

According to Babchishin, a big part of the problem, both in Lawson's case and in general, is the use of the word "biological," which can easily give the layperson the impression that sexual assault can be reduced to a gene and a lack of free will, one that, at some level, absolves the sexual offender.

"I wasn't surprised by it, but the way our study was received by the public was like, 'There is a sex offender gene!' But in reality, that's not the case," Babchishin said. "There is no 'sex offender gene,' but there is a genetic contribution to being a sexual offender. There isn't one gene but multiple genes. So if people don't know what we mean by genetic contribution, they aren't necessarily going to understand or they're going to say things like [what General Lawson] did."

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Paul Andrews agrees. He is a professor of evolutionary psychology at McMaster University who focuses on the evolutionary roots of disorders like depression but also sexual infidelity. Andrews says that the cause of a lot of the controversy is largely semantic and that people outside the field associate the word "biological" with "automatic."

"It's not exactly clear to me what the general means by the term 'biological.' But I can tell you that a biologist would say that the term 'biological' just simply means something to do with living organisms. So if the question is, 'Is sexual assault a biological phenomenon?' of course it is! Even if the aggression that's involved is biological, it's all mediated through our brain and our physiology," Andrews said. "Every ability and every kind of behaviour is the product of genes and environment. For modern biology it's not nature or nurture, it's always both. It's both genes and environment that influence every trait."

But this doesn't absolve the sexual offender. To the contrary.

"In this loose sense of the term 'biological' that we're talking about [in evolutionary psychology], people evolved to go to the bathroom. In this sense, the use of the term 'biological' doesn't mean that it's automatic; we can control it. We can choose the time and the place where we go to the bathroom," Andrews said.

"In modern life, we might actually punish people for going to the bathroom or something like that. So that's part of how we control the behaviour. It's possible that murder or homicide had a reproductive or fitness advantage in our evolutionary past too. But is it possible to use that information and say the we should get rid of laws that punish murder? Of course not!"

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So, contrary to what many critiques of evolutionary psychology say the field claims (and what the general was implying), genes do not equate automatic, uncontrollable behaviour.

Despite the controversial findings of her team's study—that there is indeed an underlying genetic component to a complex behaviour like sexual assault—Babchishin, like Andrews, cannot rule out obvious environmental factors like the sexualized and chauvinistic culture that exists in the military.

"A lot of times, these things have a culture issue," she said. "And yes, there are certainly some guys in the military who are at high risk to be sex offenders and if you put them in an environment where there aren't a lot of consequences and easily accessible victims because you know that they aren't going to say anything, it's really not the way to do it."

That assessment lines up perfectly with a scathing report written by Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps. After spending six months visiting bases and listening to the testimony of some 700 members, she described an organizational culture that is "hostile" to female and LGBT members and encourages "silence" by dissuading victims from reporting cases of sexual harassment and assault. The direction of an entire institution is hardly a matter of biology.

In Lawson's defence—a phrase you won't hear often these days—he did acknowledge the systemic roots of the problem after reading Deschamps' report, the findings of which he said were "disturbing," adding that "the most alarming finding is the existence of an underlying sexualized culture that, if not checked, is conducive to inappropriate behaviour including sexual harassment and, at its most extreme, sexual assault."

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What wasn't helpful Lawson going on The National and talking about his grand theory of "biological wiring," which, if anything, proved yet again just how oblivious and insensitive the military brass can be when "tackling" the issue of sexual aggression, even after Deschamps' report was released.

Instead, he should have heeded Justice Deschamps' further recommendation. "The first step, however, is for the Canadian Forces leadership to demonstrate to members that they acknowledge that the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the armed forces is real and that the forces will take the necessary steps to tackle the issue."

When asked specifically about Lawson's soundbite, Babchishin tried to be diplomatic.

"I knew you were going to ask me that and I was trying to think about how to answer in a nice way. I think he was ill-informed. I think it's true that there is a genetic contribution, but to say that we are all hard-wired to do that… I don't think that the data supports that at all."

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