Thursday, August 20, 2009

Want Peace? Elect Scrawny Men.

Breaking news:

1. Among men, there seems to be a link between physical strength and aggressiveness. (You may have noticed that NFL linebackers seem eager to engage in violent collisions with other large, strong men. Likewise, your average boxer seems overjoyed to have knocked an opponent unconscious in the ring. )

2. Exceptionally beautiful women can be, at times, a little... well... high-maintenance. (Enough said.)

As always, Home Range provides clear-eyed analysis of the latest science. According to Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune:

"The power of [Vladimir] Putin's symbolism [expressed in recent photos showing his physicue] is explained by a provocative paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Authors Sell, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, link physical strength in men with both a propensity to anger easily and a favorable attitude toward the use of force to settle political disputes.

"'If governmental decision-makers are like other humans, then their musculature may be playing a role, unconnected from rational evaluation, in their decisions to go to war,"'they write. It's a bold statement, but one based on a somewhat startling premise: Brawniness, they contend, is next to thuggishness."

Jacobs quotes psychologist Aaron Sell:

"This model of behavior, in Sell's words, 'predicts that individuals with enhanced abilities to inflict costs or to confer benefits will anger more easily, for two related reasons. First, their greater ability to withdraw benefits or inflict costs translates into greater leverage in bargaining over conflicts of interest, meaning that anger is more likely to be successful for them. ... Second, their greater leverage leads them to expect that others will place greater weight on their welfare.'"

The researchers tested their hypothesis by measuring upper body strength of university students and subjecting them to questions designed to measure their temper, history of conflict, and general hawkishness. Not surprisingly, the stronger students seemed to have shorter fuses and placed greater importance on national defense than did their less-brawny counterparts.

I accept their results, but I'm not buying their broader interpretation.

Early in my rather short and unremarkable college football career I noticed, like most of the other freshmen athletes, that the biggest assholes, the ones most likely to start a fight, were nearly always marginal upperclassmen who felt threatened by more talented underclassmen. The most physically imposing players, though they were extremely violent on the playing field, were more likely to be humble and easy-going off the field. Sure, some were thugs, but most weren't. The strongest man on the team, a guard who could bench press well over 500 pounds, had a reputation for being especially kind and helpful toward freshmen.

Perhaps strong men fought more during their playground and locker room years simply because they believed they had a good chance of defending themselves whereas weaker boys and young men chose to flee or put up with abuse rather than risk a beating. Please understand that I'm not excusing or minimizing the misery inflicted by sadistic jocks and other large thugs. Nearly every group has its sadists and violent, capricious, paranoid kooks. I suspect that bullies tend to be physically strong only because strong young men have an easier time bullying. Are we to assume that violent fantasies and tendencies are extremely rare among weaklings?

During my years in the engineering world, I noticed no connection between physical stature and belligerence. In fact, the most notorious corporate bullies and guerrilla warriors - the ones I had the poor fortune to work with, anyway - were physically unremarkable. I assume that their apparent arrogance and pugnacity stemmed from inborn temperament and the cognitive ability that allowed them to dominate their high-tech work environment.

Admittedly, mine isn't a scientific survey, but I stand by it. When I was young, I loved to hit people on the football field. I'll even go so far as to say that I enjoyed the unavoidable pain that comes with any good collision. I never felt a moment's remorse about the separated shoulders, cracked ribs, and at least one concussion that I caused. I had my share of off-the-field brawls, though I never started one, and I've always hated bullies. And I damn sure understood the difference between behind-the-bowling alley fisticuffs and a military invasion. I don't think I'm unique in that regard.

Fresh out of college, I reported to my first engineering job along with about a dozen other young engineers and scientists. Compared to today's collegiate football players, I was a little fart, but I was far and away the biggest guy in my group of new-hires, and the only ex-jock. During that first week, our boss, a very skinny middle-aged engineer, called each of us in separately to discuss company policy. After covering vacation, sick days, and various acts that could get me fired, he said, "...and if you ever shove or punch anyone, you're out the door."

During lunchtime discussions, I learned that I was the only one of the group to receive that warning.

Naturally, I wanted to storm into my boss's office and knock his head right off of his skinny neck.

Okay, seriously, my new boss didn't know me at all. He made a quick judgement based on my appearance or perhaps my Kentucky drawl. (You know us hicks. We're always going around killing things. )Perhaps he thought, "This guy is a lot bigger than me, and he talks like a redneck. He might hit somebody. I had better warn him." His comment didn't bother me at all; it merely seemed odd. I knew that I was harmless and couldn't imagine that anyone could suspect otherwise.

Nevertheless, I try to keep that experience in mind.

A thought: President Obama is slender but fit, and, I suspect, quite strong for his age and weight. It's likely that he's every bit as strong as the equally fit George W. Bush. I seriously doubt that Senator John McCain, even in his prime and adjusting for his long mistreatment by his North Vietnamese captors, was much if any stronger than the current president. Gerald Ford, probably the best athlete to ever serve as President, is often remembered for his even temper and conciliatory tendencies.

As for data that suggest a positive relationship between feminine beauty and sense of entitlement ... well ... I'll defer to the experts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book News

Working Dogs of Texas should be out late next month.

Wyman and I have started work on Under One Fence, a photostudy of the giant Waggoner Ranch. It should be out Fall 2010. If you liked 6666: Portrait of a Texas Ranch, you'll like this one too.

In June, I signed a contract with Texas Tech University Press to write Right of Capture: The Looming Water Crisis in Texas. A publication date hasn't been set, but I expect the book will come out in late 2011.

I'm trying not to panic. I'll finish wearing out my pickup doing the research.