People have always been nervous about the possibility of human nature being nothing more than animal nature all tarted up with a big brain. There’s lots of bristling at the idea that biology might explains us just as easily as it does our animal cousins.
We’ve been wondering for a long time just how thin the line is that separates our behavior from that of those animal cousins. And we can’t ask that question without wondering if civilization is maybe nothing more than a thin veneer we humans wear to protect ourselves from the most dangerous animals on the planet — each other.
Strangely enough in the past few weeks, it hasn’t been The Pet Shop or rutting Siberian beavers on Animal Planet that have me thinking about that thin line and what’s actually going on beneath the veneer. I confess to know next to nothing about neurobiology and even less about the financial world. I write nasty stories. But when penises and testosterone and male biology enter, detrimentally, into the stock markets and the banking industry, I’m suddenly very interested.
I first became aware of the market-testosterone connection while doing my usual scan of the news over breakfast.
In his article for the Observer, Testosterone and High Finance Do Not Mix: So Bring on the Women, Tim Adams gives a brief lesson in ‘neuroeconomics’ and writes about hearing Michael Lewis, author of the book, ‘The Big Short,’ Speak at the London School of Economics. Lewis was asked what single thing he would do to reform the markets and prevent such a catastrophe happening again, and he said: ‘I would take steps to have 50% of women in risk positions in banks.’
Several days later there was an article in the Guardian about the EU calling for women to make up one third of bank directors in an effort to prevent ‘group think,’ which is often blamed for exacerbating the industry crisis of 2008. According to the article, gender diversity can lessen the problem of group-think, partly because there’s evidence that the leadership style of women is different, that they ‘attend more board meetings and have a positive impact on the collective intelligence of a group.’
When I shared the ‘testosterone’ links with my husband, he sent me a link to a New York Times article, in which Paul Krugman discusses a comment from a post by economist, Kevin O’Rourke, called, ‘What do markets want.’ This is the comment:
‘The markets want money for cocaine and prostitutes. I’m deadly serious.
‘Most people don’t realize that ‘the markets’ are in reality 22-27 year old business school graduates, furiously concocting chaotic trading strategies on excel sheets and reporting to bosses perhaps 5 years senior to them. In addition, they generally possess the mentality and probably intelligence of junior cycle secondary school students. Without knowledge of these basic facts, nothing about the markets makes any sense—and with knowledge, everything does.’
In the animal kingdom, younger males are sometimes ostracized from the community until one of them develops the strength and maturity to wrest the power from the alpha male. In the animal kingdom, the one who gets to breed is the winner. Even our seemingly companionable British robin will fight to the death with a usurping male if it will get him the chance to pass on his genes to the next generation.
I couldn’t help but wonder as I read about hormones and the market running amuck if our cultural queasiness with our animal nature has, once again, come back to bite us in the butt. The drive to procreate, and the sooner the better, may no longer be at the top of our civilized ‘to do list,’ but the biology for it is still there. What better place for young men, not yet mature enough to lead the pack, to play out that possessive, territorial ‘need to breed’ aggression than in the market? As I said, I’m definitely no expert, but it seems to me that to turn the animal loose in an already testosterone-charged play-ground, complete with expensive cars and high-end sex, and expect him to behave in a ‘civilized’ manner is more than a little bit naïve.