Nature teams with nurture in ‘The Professor in the Cage’

“The Professor in the Cage,” Jonathan Gottschall’s provocative new book, locates itself at the gridlocked intersection of biology and culture.

The subtitle “Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch” suggests another question, Why are women the nicer sex? and its corollary, Are they really?

The answers are fascinating and complex, though perhaps not as complex as his book makes them out to be.

Part of “The Professor in the Cage” is about how Gottschall, an out-of-shape, disenchanted academic, got involved in the brutal world of mixed martial arts (MMA). His personal story is less interesting, however, than his personal observations. He hits the mark, for instance, when he says that MMA is like gay porn – all those rippling, sweaty physiques grappling with one another in clutches that are at once amusing and arousing. It’s the reason I love wrestling. And I suspect – as the nude wrestling scene in “Women in Love” suggests – it gives men a license to touch one another in a way that conforms to traditional heterosexual society, as do all sports.

But why must male athletic competition be so violent – or at least carry the threat of violence? And why do we secretly – or not so secretly – find it thrilling?

There are two answers – hormones (nature) and power (nurture). You don’t have to be Darwin to intuit that testosterone gives men greater physical strength for fighting and protecting, greater risk-taking. In turn female hormones enable women to develop the kind of personal relationships necessary for childrearing. Women are less likely than men to be risk-takers – or at least takers of stupid risks – but then, they have to survive to raise the kids.

Gottschall says men gravitate to womanly beauty, which telegraphs female hormones, while women gravitate to male strength and success – which telegraph male hormones. So far so good biologically. Except that we are a long way down the evolutionary road, and the old paleo archetypes no longer apply in a world of technology and gay marriage.

Then, too, we now understand that we all belong on a hormonal spectrum that may shift over time. Some of us have more testosterone than estrogen and progesterone and vice versa – regardless of whether we are male, female, something in-between or none of the above. It’s telling that almost lost in the NFL’s domestic violence debacle are the stories of alleged abuse by soccer star Hope Solo – who claimed self-defense against her 6-foot, 9-inch nephew in a case that was dismissed – and between engaged basketball players Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson. Do sports encourage aggressive behavior (or, as Gottschall theorizes, channel and legitimize it)? Or rather do they require a high degree of testosterone that results in aggressive behavior and seeks acceptable outlets in the athletic arena?

Gottschall says that women kill far less frequently than men but when they do they tend to kill their own children. Yet they are unafraid to square off against their male partners even though they are usually fighting way outside their weight class. Perhaps they assume a kind of privilege or protection as wives and mothers. It’s an assumption that can have tragic consequences as we’ve seen with the NFL’s 10-game suspension of Dallas Cowboys’ defensive end Greg Hardy, the latest example of the NFL’s mean season. Here’s what commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to Hardy about his treatment of former girlfriend Nicole Holder:

“The net effect of these acts was that Ms. Holder was severely traumatized and sustained a range of injuries, including bruises and scratches on her neck, shoulders, upper chest, back, arms and feet. The use of physical force under the circumstances present here, against a woman substantially smaller than you, and in the presence of powerful, military-style assault weapons, constitutes a significant act of violence in violation of the personal-conduct policy.”

Frankly, Hardy got off easy.

In general, women prefer guerilla tactics, guerilla warfare being the tool of the physically weaker. Which brings us to the other reason men fight and why we like to watch. They not only have the physical power to do so, they have for centuries had the political, financial, scientific, technological and sociocultural power as well. And what is power ultimately about? It’s about the maintenance of itself. The only way to ensure that maintenance is through a brutality that is visited not only on women and children – or even primarily on them – but on other challengers, on other men. That’s why we have wars, boxing, MMA, hockey, football and any number of stories, filmed and otherwise, in which stunning men are bloodied to a pulp. (See any movie starring Marlon Brando.)

Will that change as technology continues to obviate male power and women dominate colleges and professional schools? Will that change when the leader of the free world also happens to be a woman?

Probably not. Because women like men too much.

And because power remains itself.