Yes, ALL Men’s Rights Groups are Responsible for Elliot Rodger’s Murders

On Friday, May 23, the nation was stunned by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, where he murdered six people, sent seven others to the hospital, and eventually killed himself. Details about Rodgers emerged quickly, most notably a trail of extreme misogyny in the form of a 140-page manifesto, online videos, and participation in discussions on a site for failed pick-up artists. In his last video message, he said

You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer . . . All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men. And all of you men for living a better life than me, all of you sexually active men. I hate you. I hate all of you. I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve, annihilation.

Within a couple of days, though, the race was on to control the narrative, to define what, exactly, had caused this tragedy. Some people (e.g., at the New Statesman, the American Prospect), pointed to a misogynistic ideology, which is pervasive through much of our culture, and can be found in its most distilled form in the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) and Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) communities.

Other, stupider people tried to point the finger elsewhere. In the Washington Post, film critic Ann Hornaday argued that it was because the “schlubby arrested adolecsent” in Judd Apatow films always gets to have sex. Fox News – presumably after having tried and failed to find some way in which Rodger was actually Black, or Muslim, or a secret-pro-gun-control-false-flag-sacrificial-lamb – ran a segment in which they brought in a psychotherapist / psychologist to speculate that the shootings were the result of his “fighting against his homosexual impulses”.

Obviously, guns were involved in the crime, and the shooting is already being used to argue for new gun control laws, but it appears that the first three victims were stabbed to death. Likewise, mental health was clearly an issue, as it almost always is in these cases. However, to the extent that blame for this crime can be ascribed to “gun culture”, or to the systematic deficiencies in our mental healthcare “system”, both of these causes pale in comparison to the normalization of an extreme, violent misogynistic ideology.

So how, exactly, are the MRA and PUA groups to blame here?  No one is saying that they are directly responsible for these murders. However, in the absence of these groups, and the broader culture of mainstream misogyny, I think it is unlikely that Elliot Rodger would have wound up where he did.

The key concept here is psychological priming. When we evaluate things, whether actions, or people. or values, we evaluate them in comparison to something else. Marketers know this, and they exploit it regularly: sales are attractive because they make us feel like we’re getting a bargain. The fact is, I have no absolute sense of how much a box of mac and cheese should cost. If I walk in to the grocery store and see that it costs $1.59 for a box, I’ll think, “Okay, I guess that’s how much it costs.” But, if I see that it normally costs $1.99, but is on sale for $1.59, I’ll feel like I’m getting a great deal.

Similarly, fancy restaurants often have one or two high-priced items on the menu, and wine stores will stock a handful of bottles of extremely expensive wine. Even if no one ever orders or purchases these high-end goods, it is worth their while to stock them, because their real value is in making the rest of the prices look more reasonable. If there’s a thousand-dollar bottle of wine on display, you’re more likely to spring for the hundred-dollar bottle.

There’s not much question that Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. Maybe it was inevitable that he was going to lash out against women in some way, that he was going to do something horrible that went three steps over the line. MRAs don’t bear any responsibility for that.

What the MRAs and PUAs are responsible for is where the line was. And they’re responsible for working to make it seem normal – even admirable – to stand as close to the line as you can get.

Like most poisonous ideologies, misogyny tends to get whitewashed with Orwellian double-speak and dog whistles. In public discourse, at least, MRAs are not “against women”, they are against “women getting special rights”, just as homophobic bigots are against “special rights for gays”.

More broadly, very few men would claim to have a problem with women, but a lot of men have a problem with women who are “stuck up bitches”, or who are “psycho”, just as most racist troglodytes “don’t have a problem” with black people in general, just the “lazy” or “criminal” or “entitled” ones.

Whether we’re talking about racism or homophobia or misogyny, there is a societal sense of what sorts of statements and actions are and are not appropriate – of where the line is. The finely carved rhetoric of most MRAs is an attempt to make sure that they stay on the right side of that line. In a way, that’s a good thing. The problem is that when you normalize behavior that is just on this side of the line, you make it that much easier for someone who is angry or mentally ill to cross over that line. Because that is how our brains work.

No matter what the societal norms are, there will always be people who are outliers. That means that if you work to create societal norms that are just this side of physical violence towards women, you all but guarantee that there women will be targeted with physical violence.

Imagine if we lived in a society where misogyny was not endemic. Maybe in that society, Elliot Rodger still winds up as a mentally ill kid with a lot of frustration and anger directed at women. Maybe he still steps way over the line of acceptable behavior. But maybe that means that when he goes to a party, hits on a girl, and gets turned down, he throws his beer in her face and calls her a bitch.

Imagine if that was what three steps over the line looked like, and calling a woman a bitch for not going out with you was national news, the sort of thing that would result in someone like Rodger receiving the psychological help he needed.

Is that scenario even possible? Well, just how far the line of societal norms could be moved depends on the answers to a whole lot of nature/nurture questions. But there is no doubt that we could achieve something closer to that scenario than what we have at the moment.

But the other problem is that we have gangs of the Men’s Rights Activists and Pick-Up Artists tripping over each other to position themselves just on this side of what is acceptable. It’s like that scene in World War Z, where the zombies pile on top of each other until some of them can make it over the wall. Elliot Rodger is the one who made it over the wall, but all the MRAs and PUAs who have been normalizing misogyny helped him over, and they absolutely bear responsibility for the murders he committed when he landed on the other side.

12,000-Year-Old Underwater Skeleton and the Peopling of the Americas

So, a paper published in Science yesterday describes the analysis of the skull and mitochondrial DNA of a skeleton discovered in Hoyo Negro, a water-filled cave beneath the surface of the Yucatán Peninsula.  In addition to the human skeleton (whom the scientists named “Naia” before removing her head for further study), the cave contains the remains of 26 other large mammals, including a saber-tooth tiger and some sort of a mammoth-type thing.

Check out the story over at National Geographic for some cool underwater pictures.

There are a couple of things that make this an interesting story. First of all, it’s a freaking underwater cave with a 12,000-year-old human skeleton and a saber-tooth tiger. Second, it adds an interesting piece of data to our understanding of how people first came to America. (Spoiler: the answer is not “Jesus brought them on the Ark”.)

The standard story of the colonization of the Americas goes something like this. Back during the last ice age(s), maybe 15,000 to 25,000 years ago, the sea levels were lower, and there was a land bridge connecting Siberia to Alaska. During that period, people from Northeastern Asia crossed over and spread throughout North and South America. Thousands of years later, their descendants had the misfortune of being discovered by the Europeans.

The dates of archaeological sites throughout the hemisphere generally fit with this story, as do genetic data collected from contemporary Native Americans and from skeletal remains. Native Americans, both past and present, are genetically most closely related to the peoples of Siberia, and the genetic divergence between the two groups is consistent with the populations having separated around the time when the land bridge existed.

The problem is that when you look at skull shapes (“cranio-facial morphology”), they seem to tell a different story.  Contemporary Native Americans have facial features similar to those found in Northeastern Asia. But “Paleoamericans” (dating from more than about 9,000 years ago) have features more closely resembling those found in African and Southeast Asian populations.

Those features suggest a different story, one where humans arrived in America in two waves. In this scenario, the humans who crossed the Bering land bridge would be the second wave, perhaps displacing the original, first-wave settlers. This is a story that entered the public consciousness more than fifteen years ago, following the discovery of “Kennewick Man”, who was described as possessing “caucasoid” features by James Chatters, who is also the first author on this paper. A certain strain of “thinker” took this to mean that the White people who came to America were not colonizers, but liberators, having been the continent’s original inhabitants.

The single-wave model suggests the possibility that the difference in skull morphology observed between earlier and later Paleoamericans represents evolutionary change that occurred after the migration across the land bridge. At first blush, this seems a bit questionable, since it would have the American population evolving to more closely resemble their genetic relatives in Asia, but only after having become geographically separated from those relatives.

The persistence of this controversy is due, in part, to the fact that the genetic data has generally come from different sources than the morphological data. This is where Naia comes in. Naia has the longer, more slender, Africa-esque cranium found in other early sites, but her mitochondrial DNA haplotype is a typical Native American one. This seems to support the idea that the people who left these narrow skulls all over America and the people who left their descendants all over America were the same people.

The biggest caveat, of course, is that this is a single skeleton. It is exciting and informative, since very few samples of this age have been discovered, and none of them have been of this quality. But those small numbers also mean that anything we discover about this skeleton is bound to be consistent with multiple stories, and things are unlikely to be resolved without a lot more data.

The other caveat is that the mitochondrial DNA is only one piece of the genetic history. It is possible that these really were two separate populations, and that Naia just happened to have some second-wave ancestors on her mother’s side. If we were to examine the rest of her genome, we might find some or all of it to be more similar to some other population (like the lost thirteenth tribe, who immigrated to America from Israel and/or Kobol).

Will we get the rest of Naia’s genome? I hope so, but we’ll see. It is relatively easy to collect mitochondrial DNA from archaeological samples, since there are hundreds of copies of the small, circular mitochondrial chromosome in each cell. There are only two copies per cell of the rest of the genes, which reside in the cell’s nucleus. So, it is possible that the sample was sufficiently well preserved that mitochondrial DNA could be extracted, but degraded enough that the nuclear DNA is not recoverable.

Whatever the eventual conclusion, the story will be interesting. Either the peopling of America involved a mixture of multiple populations that will be fun to unravel, or it involved some interesting, almost convergent, morphological evolution. Stay tuned!