Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson
Houghton Mifflin 1996
350 pp, $24.95.
The trenches of World War I developed into relentless
machines for grinding up good men and other precious resources of civilization.
Exploding shells whizzed back and forth, fired by men rehearsed to crank
the monotonously screaming wheels of automated combat, across lines of
battle that seemed scarcely to move for eternities. Meanwhile, behind the
headline reports of the War, creative life in the cities went on
Biology has seen its own interminable and resource-consuming trench wars in the so-called nature/nurture debates. These tedious and polarized battles with their ancient rehearsed arguments have demanded public attention for much of the 20th century, and yet research long ago demonstrated that even species characteristic behavior patterns commonly result from interactions between genetics and environment during development. Zoological studies come easily to mind by Konrad Lorenz on imprinting, of Jack Hailman on species-characteristic pecking behavior in gull chicks, and of Peter Marler on the learning of species-characteristic songs in birds. We have long known that some species-characteristic behaviors involve developmental programs that are relatively open to learning and cultural influence, and some that are relatively closed. The challenge has been to build upon such knowledge and to discover for species of interest the dynamics of behavioral development, elicitation, CNS mediation, and adaptive function and disfunction.
Science has long known that human behaviors such as language, aggression, and sexual enthusiasm are quite open to societal influences during development. The challenge has been to understand, for example, how and why boys in given societies have come to be sexually excited by women's feet shaped by binding, breasts shaped by silicon injections, or hips shaped by feasting or fasting. Why did Protestants and Catholics grow up to kill each other during the Reformation, while they would not think to do so in my peaceful neighborhood today? What are the implications of genetic variation between individuals in a population in their propensities for violence?
It has long been understood by mainstream scholarship that humans are the offspring of a marriage of Nature and Nurture, and yet too many generals are still firing big noisy guns and ordering suicidal charges across old trenches.
The Nurture trenches were once commanded by extreme Skinnerians and Pavlovians, who have largely come and gone. Nurture shells may still come out of the old trenches held by the economic determinists of both the political right and left. But it is the new trenches that have been built by the extreme deconstructionism enthusiasts that have created the most concern in the officers' clubs for the Nature troops. Humans are flesh and blood apes with real DNA, the generals sputter, not artificially constructed narrative texts.
Command of the Nature trenches has been taken up by zealous sociobiologists in recent years. Ed Wilson predicted in his manifesto, Sociobiology, that the social sciences and humanities could be reduced to theoretical population genetics with no residue (but maybe not) and this ambitious speculation became a premise, an ontological reality, for enthusiasts.
The premise was that ‘basic' human behavior is not determined by emergent properties of the cultures into which humans are born. Simple Darwinian perspectives supposedly would be so epistemologically powerful that their ruthless logic would reveal an immutable core to human nature, without careful developmental and cultural history studies, or even a realistic understanding of physiological mechanisms.
The traditional precaution in science to understand environmental variables and to devise controls for them would be unnecessary. Indeed, the investigation of environmental/cultural influences on the formation of vital behaviors was seen by enthusiasts not simply to be an axiomatic if difficult obligation of scientific epistemology to demonstrate intellectual or experimental ‘controls,' but as giving comfort to the Nurturist enemy.
Demonic Males comes into this relentless war as yet another big gun, firing at distant trenches, booming the message that human violence today is the simple fallout from a male temperament shaped by evolution to compete for the domination of females.
It is an impressive gun, an extremely well written and entertaining read with lots of blood and guts. Spectacular male apes and humans stomp about countrysides, slums, and the pages of history, killing and raping.
The senior author is Richard Wrangham, a familiar face on television, a Harvard professor and a ‘gatekeeper of knowlege.' His views are necessarily influential not only in the media but in the research community. A book by him will have impact.
The authors have implied that the book was not intended for a scientific audience, and that it is ‘only' an attack on feminist deconstructionists who believe that male nastiness is purely an artificial construct. But this fact will hardly be noticed or understood by readers, for the book presents itself as a rigorously scientific theodicy that exlplains the origins of human aggression and nastiness.
Demonic Males does a very good job of making one very important scientific point. Among the great apes it is males that are the violent sex. This is not true for hyenas or even for many species of monkeys. Human violence mostly fits the ape pattern in that males tend statistically to be more overtly violent than women.
Demonic Males skips on, though, to argue that evolution has left women with a sexual appetite for ‘bad boys,' because in the ancient mating game aggressive and ruthless males and their sons fathered the most children. The next parlay is that the sexual tastes of women today perpetuates genetically ordained regimes of violence.
The final parlay is the argument that fundamental change can only come from the top and from eugenics if modern humanity is to have any hope of taming the masculine demon that, woven with in-group/out-group emnity, threatens civilization with destruction. Women would have to take power from men and also change their own sexual appetites for demonic males. One-world government and culture homogenization would also be necessary.
Demonic Males is not so much a scientific report or analysis as a broadside against the old utopian dreams of Atlantis, Eden, Elysium, a Golden Age, Romantic paintings, and the late Margaret Mead. Human nature frustrates these utopian dreams, the book argues, and the evidence is that very few societies are completely peaceful. Yet ironically, the book's conclusion is that the ‘scientific' way to change the bloody biologically determined status quo would be a breathtakingly grandiose utopian psycho-social re-engineering project to change female sexual desires, topple males from control, and erase ethnicity everywhere.
Demonic Males builds its more controversial arguments upon genetic perspectives that have been much more thoroughly explored in books such as The Genetic Seeds of Warfare: Evolution, Nationalism, and Patriotism by R.Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong, Sociobiology and Conflict: Evolutionary Perspectives on Competition, Cooperation, Violence and Warfare by J. van der Dennen and V. Falger, and The Origins of War by van der Dennen, or even the earlier Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm, and these should have been cited.
All of these analyses did find a role for an evolutionary history of male sexual competitiveness and group coalitions in establishing some of the biological preconditions for human violence and wars. But they unanamously rejected the notion that a combination of individual aggressive urges and xenophobia is thus the principle cause of violence and wars, and that individual aggressiveness makes war inevitable. As Aristotle might have put it, such biology may be among several ‘material causes' of war (the clay of which a statue is made), and to some extent a ‘formal cause' (the profile of the statue) but it is not typically the ‘efficient' or ‘moving cause' (the sculptor's hand) which was Aristotle's version of ‘cause' in our modern scientific sense.
Demonic Males supports its extremist position on war and sexual competition by the unsupported claim that rulers throughout history have fathered exceptionally large numbers of children; with notable exceptions such as Alexander, who had only one child (one wonders, who could know how many children Alexander actually had?).
Their only specific evidence, though, for these extreme beliefs about the sex-linked genetic motives behind human war is the story that Sparta attacked Athens from fear of Athens' growing power. Demonic Males reduces cultural frictions and economic conflicts of interest, and the suspicions and fears between political units, to a rivalry for status driven by male pride, which has in turn emerged from a sexually competitive male evolutionary past. This, like all reductionist arguments, is easy verbally, but it would be difficult to support factually or with critical logic even if a better example had been used. In the case of Sparta, one has it on the authority of Aristotle and others that while the men were tough warriors, it was rich women who actually ran Sparta.
The sense of the inevitability of social disruption and war based on sexual competition and xenophobia that hangs over this theodicy could have been avoided if the authors had discussed interesting advances in psychiatric research into the genetic contributions to aggression and violence (E.g. review by Cadoret et al., The Psyciatric Clinics of North America 20:301-322).
A number of adoption studies on identical twins have shown clearly that young people develop a level of aggressiveness that increases according to the commonness of conflict and related variables in the family environment but that is also influenced by genetic factors. One large study detailed a complex interaction between genetics and family environment. Youths who were genetically predisposed to conflict and violence (based on information about their biological parents) became progressively more aggressive than those who were not when the former were raised in adopted families where there was progressively more conflict, control, harsh or abusive parenting, or progressively less independence, or expressiveness.The genetically predisposed youths had conflict scores close to zero when raised by a calm and nurturing family, about the same as the non-predisposed children in similar households, but their conflict scores increased dramatically in more contentious families, far above the non-gentically disposed individuals. Positive feed-back effect was suggested between children who might be difficult and the disciplinary practices of the parents.
Thus, if the genetics of aggressivity could be dealt with alone by wise parents, social harmony might well be possible even though some individuals in populations are genetically predisposed to develop combative personalities.
Of course, genetics cannot be isolated. Most socioeconomic systems today require a steady supply of military, commercial, professional, academic, and wage-laboring ‘warriors,' so to speak. Parents and children alike face the challenge of coping with a range of social demands. These, and other social and biological factors, such as learning or communication problems, make it difficult to imagine that a utopian universal harmony could be a reality.
Utopias or not, it may be more productive to work toward needed reductions in violence by first identifying the social variables that have been causing its disturbing increases than by aiming for a sexual revolution and the elimination of ethnicity.
Demonic Males will be loved or hated by those who have gravitated to one pole or the other of the polarized nature/nurture debates. Those who are aware of the important research that takes place in the middle ground may safely enjoy this book, as I did, for its lively annecdotes and writing.
Perhaps the most truly significant problem that middlers may need to be aware of is a misleading treatment of our remarkable bonobo cousin, Pan paniscus.
There is good evidence that we went through a phase in our evolution that was something like bonobos with respect to sexuality, social organization, and perhaps aspects of locomotion. Continued studies on bonobos could help to sort out why humans so commonly use sex for bonding and conflict resolution and not mostly for fertilization; why sex has become extensively erotic and exploratory; the forward orientation of the vaginal canal; the concealment of ovulation; the commoness of bisexuality; the commonness of political and social respect for women among pre-agricultural peoples; the sharing of resources among non-kin; excellent conflict resolution within bands and tribes, and links between advanced mental abilities and social organization.
Wrangham and Peterson ignore the remarkable anatomical, physiological, and behavioral similarities between bonobos and humans and their evolutionary implications. Instead, they over emphasize the peacefulness of bonobos and argue that because their characterization does not fit on the straight line with which they wish to connect violence in the other apes to the human violence with which the media bombards us, bonobo behavior is an oddity that has nothing to do with presumed Darwinian strategies of human adaptation. They claim that the bonobo pattern only illustrates a path not taken -- what might have been; not what may have once been essential for us to become us, and then became scrambled in the course of human cultural developments where political power became centralized, and where populations crowded upon each other and conflicts of interest and misunderstandings increased.
The bonobo is not a living missing link, but it is at least as closely related to us genetically as the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, and it has many human-like anatomical and behavioral features that make it an exceptionally valuable research model to help science to think through puzzles about the evolution of human uniqueness.
Readers should not assume that all the facts have been aired, especially where Demonic Males argues that bonobo biology is merely an evolutionary oddity that has minor intellectual and practical scientific implications.
Philip J. Regal
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota 55414