#MeToo: The biology behind the ugly culture of sexual misconduct

Our society tends to equate "normalcy" with everything being "OK."

"Dude, why does your car sound like that?"

"Ah, don't worry about it, it's normal."

But just because something is normal does not mean everything is OK. Sexual harassment in this country is normal. As much as the papers and news outlets try to capitalize on all the high profile cases coming to light, this is a normal, every day occurrence in our society.

But it is not OK.  

We need to take a long hard look under the hood to figure out exactly what is wrong if we have any hope of correcting our immoral "normalcy."

All of our evolutionary programming has led us to this: a sex crazed primate that struggles to overcome our biological programming to act appropriately in modern society.  Part of the main issue may be in defining what we deem is "appropriate" in polite society. In many ways, our standards and expectations of our moral aptitude far exceed our underlying brain programming. This is not a justification of sexual misconduct, simply a reality check. If we want to make things better, we have to first understand the roots of the problem. 

Humans are special, but not that special. We are animals, and just like every other animal we are driven by two things: sex and survival.

From bats and birds to otters and apes, rape or unwanted sexual contact is not an uncommon phenomenon in the natural world. Because reproduction is energetically significantly more expensive for a female in most species (think about how much more work a female must invest in laying eggs, feeding young, or birthing and suckling offspring), they tend to be more discriminating in choosing a mate.

 That does not look easy!

That does not look easy!

Often females are looking for good genetics, or a good provider, or protector. Females need to choose quality.  

Males on the other hand, are in another game.


There is little energy required from males in most species (sperm is cheap!) for the reproductive process, and as such, males tend to be far more promiscuous and in some cases, dangerous, in order to procure mates.

 A harem of sea lions.

A harem of sea lions.

Take for example, the behavior of male lions. Their first act as a dominant male is to kill off all the young cubs. Having cubs that are suckling prevents the females of the pride from coming into estrus and mating with the new male.

 Disney got some things right. 

Disney got some things right. 

This seems heartless.

From a human perspective, we are appalled at the idea of mating with the murderer of our offspring. We find this morally objectionable. 

The real difference between us and lions is the massively expanded and connected frontal lobe of our brain that allow conscious reasoning and the ability to recognize the monstrosity of this behavior.

So, yes, by some arguments, we humans are indeed quite special. We have an incredible capacity to reason, and empathize, and behave “morally” but that doesn’t mean we always use it. In fact, I’d argue that we are in a constant battle between our more dominant subconscious, animalistic brain, and our relatively underutilized, thinking, processing, frontal lobe.

At our core, we humans are driven in a primal fashion like every other animal on this planet. Biologically, we are a complex mixture our two closest relatives with whom we share some 98.7-99% of our genetics:

1.The peaceful, highly social bonobos which live in largely egalitarian societies where males and females enjoy a relatively equal social status and...

 Bonobo grooming

Bonobo grooming


 2. the aggressive, highly territorial chimpanzees, which live in patriarchal societies, where males dominate and control females.

 Chimpanzee aggression

Chimpanzee aggression

If we look objectively at anatomical clues, humans appear to have evolved from a species whose culture more closely resembled that of the chimpanzees. We are sexually dimorphic in a way suggesting that the typically larger, stronger male of our species would be able to more readily dominate the, on average, smaller, weaker females. In other words, our biological roots support highly male driven, possessive, and sexually aggressive behavior.

Certainly, our cultural practices have contributed to this behavior by promoting status and strength as an attractive feature for males, and soft, nurturing coyness as preferential in females. Our biology may be to blame when it comes to the establishment of our patriarchal culture, and our willingness or complacency to accept the monstrous acts that often accompany any culture in which one gender is dominant, but this can no longer be an excuse for acting like animals.

If we all buy into the premise that men and women should have equal say, equal status, and equal rights, then the recent press surrounding the exposure of sexual misconduct is just the beginning of a cultural shift.  We are only starting to peel back the ugly realities of the animalistic ways we are driven biologically to behave, and our ability to rise above this nature by putting to use our gift of a moral, logical, and reasoning frontal lobe needs to take center stage. 

Until we confront our less than favorable animalistic mindsets, we will not be any more special or morally inclined than any other species.  It's time we acknowledge the role biology had in shaping us, but boldly pursue the higher power allotted us with a brain capable of overcoming these behaviors. 

Let’s hold the focus in that special frontal lobe for as long as we can to become better than the biology that built us.