Friday, August 30, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Sex & War

"Once I sat on the edge of a narrow plank bridge across the the Gombe stream as two adult male [chimps] pulled apart a small palm tree to eat the pith. Once finished, they crossed the bridge just behind me, and as they did so the biggest animal brushed against my back softly but deliberately, his very large scrotum swinging a foot from my face. The message I got was, 'I know I am a male like you, I could crush you if I wanted to, but with balls this size I don't need to worry about you.' I agreed with him." ~Malcolm Potts

What is the cause of war? Is it nature or nurture? As our country and its allies edge closer and closer to yet another armed conflict in the Middle East, this question becomes especially relevant. What good timing that I read a book earlier this month that attempts to answer that question—and to provide a way out. My pick* for August's book review is Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World.

Obstetrician Malcolm Potts and science writer Thomas Hayden have a definite point of view on the cause of war: blame the primate brain. Humans and chimps share an ancestor, and boy howdy, was that one crabby little ape. These two primates, unlike almost all other social animals, band together to attack and kill other members of their same species. Coalitional violence is behind everything from dawn raids on rival tribes, to soccer riots in stadiums, to international wars. Why do we do it? "Team aggression evolved because males who first manifested the behavior improved their chances of transmitting their genes to the next generation," the authors state simply. Group violence is part of our evolutionary heritage.

Before they started throwing chairs

The thing is, people don't want to hear that explanation. It sounds too defeatist, too deterministic: as a friend of mine said (paraphrased), "Well, if we evolved to be this way, we should just throw up our hands in defeat. Humans are a failed experiment." His resistance reflects what most of us were taught in high school and college: violence is taught, not innate. "The standard social science model, which dominates most of our discussions of war and peace, assumes that culture and the environment determine aggression and set the stage for conflict," Potts and Hayden write. "Margaret Mead's mistaken belief that a newborn infant is a blank slate waiting to be marked with culture's message has infected the Western mind—and a wide preference for this belief has sustained it for half a century. … In crude, shorthand form, this standard view suggests that if we stop giving little boys toy guns they will not grow up to be soldiers. It expresses a naïveté that has seen its hopes shattered time and time again." That naïveté extends to a rose-colored view of our ancestors as living in a peaceful Eden, ruined when we ate the apple of civilization and became big warring meany-heads. People as diverse as left-wing university professors, right-wing survivalists, and neo-Druids circling Stonehenge share a nostalgic longing for a life free of the supposedly ruinous effects of modern civilization.

Life sure was better back then

Potts and Hayden know they have to counter this ingrained viewpoint, so they heap mounds and mounds of data upon their hypothesis, as well as illustrating it with colorful (if brutal) anecdotes: our ancestors were not more peaceful, especially not when they lived in tribal societies. Many hunter-gatherer tribes, which we are trained to think of as harmonious and ecological, pillaged the environment and each other. An article in the Economist states, "From the !Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots of posturing, but death rates are high—usually around 25-30% of adult males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century." There's solid evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers were not much gentler.

So are we screwed? Not at all. Potts and Hayden have a much better plan than that of nostalgic traditionalists, who seem to recommend we travel back in time to a past that is largely mythical. Instead, Potts and Hayden point to our advances: we are not killing off 25 to 30 percent of our adult male population anymore. (Unless you are a hunter-gatherer.) Almost ad nauseam the authors repeat this caveat: biology is not destiny. I believe them. I am a healthy female primate, and thanks to evolution I am primed to have at least 10 offspring. But biology is not destiny, and I only have two kids. I am able to control my biology, now more than ever. And so the primate impulse to aggression does not determine that impulse must be acted out. "We can't emphasize too strongly that while many of our behaviors have evolutionary roots, biology is not destiny," they write. "As humans, we have many ways—as individuals, as societies, and as a global community—to shape our actions and change outcomes. Biology merely provides the starting point and the raw materials for human society. Culture, community, and free will are what determines its ultimate shape."

Women belong in the house and the grave ~Afghan proverb.

We haven't entirely vanquished our chimpy selves; just turn on the news. But the data is clear: humans steadily have become less violent over the eons; we are doing something right. What is it? We need to know, so we can do more of it. Potts and Hayden have a fairly simple answer: empowering women. Specifically, they recommend giving women control over their wombs. There are many (many) more things that can be done, and they spell some out, but this one thing has and will continue to make an enormous difference. Not all humans are bellicose: it's primarily young men. When women have no control over how many children to have or when, populations tend to bubble and outstrip their resources. You end up with unemployable young men prowling the streets, vibrating with testosterone, angry at their idleness, with their worst chimp impulses at the ready. They are the rapists, the murderers, the suicide bombers, the problem. As the nonpartisan National Academies wrote in Discouraging Terrorism: Some implications of 9/11: "Many societies that foster terrorism are characterized by high population growth and large numbers of disadvantaged youth and by extreme poverty and inequality." There is plenty of evidence to support this. When women can control their reproduction, they generally choose to have fewer children and to have them later. This not only helps those societies become more peaceful and prosperous — it protects the rest of us from the worst impulses of the most pugnacious subset of society.

"If you want peace, understand war."

This book is long: sixteen hours of listening time, if you go the audiobook route. (The visual book is almost 50% notes, so the page count isn't as intimidating as it looks.) I can't possibly cover the scope in one terse review, so I'm hoping readers who have doubts and questions will ask them: I'm not Potts or Hayden but I can try to fill in the gaps left by this review. Even better—read the book. It's exhaustively researched and very convincing. I highly recommend it.
* I write for this blog and also for a shared one, Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood. I did a book review for each.

Check out the other Cephalopod reviews here:

1.The Armchair Squid2.Scouring Monk
3.Trisha @ WORD STUFF4.Counterintuitivity
5.Denise Covey, L'Aussie Writer6.The Random Book Review
9.StrangePegs -- The Wizard of Oz10.Lara Schiffbauer
11.M.J. Fifield12.Julie Flanders
13.Nicki Elson14.Bird's Nest
15.Spill Beans16.Yolanda Renee
17.My Creatively Random Life18.Words Incorporated
19.Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood20.Hungry Enough To Eat Six
21.Ed & Reub22.StrangePegs -- "Memories"
23.V's Reads24.Maryann Miller's It's Not All Gravy
25.Feather's Passion


  1. Well, that is a fabulous excerpt from the book you led off with. It's so complicated, isn't it? I mean, as a species we've been clubbing each other over the head ever since we picked up sticks. I tend to agree that we are actually moving in a less violent direction, though, compared with the past. And much of that can be attributed to empowering women. I believe that.

    1. I did love that image, made me laugh. (Which is a feat in a nonfiction book on war.) My husband and I now have a phrase we use when we see men aggressively driving Hummers: "chimp balls!" :)

  2. Isaac Asimov and Steven D. Leavitt (Freakonomics guy) - two western men I can think of who were and are quite vocal in support of your premise: the key to saving humanity from itself is to empower women, especially in terms of their reproductive rights. Good stuff, Stephanie. The book sure sounds like a winner.

    1. I didn't know that about Asimov ... must give that guy another read! Another book I finished in July that focused entirely on empowering women was Nicholas Kristof's "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." Although they don't cite this book, they basically take the premise and turn it into practical application. It's very good, my teenage daughter read it too. (She actually made ME read it.)

    2. Asimov - If you can find a video or a transcript of his interview with Bill Moyers, you'll get his thoughts on this.

  3. I think humanity can't be saved, but for different reasons. We seem unable to think as a species in terms of planning for the very long run, and as such are ignoring the slow environmental catastrophe that is occurring which will almost certainly lead to the extinction of our species in the medium run. :-(

  4. I'm happy the authors go to pains to point out that biology isn't necessarily destiny. And while I am always unsure what people mean when they invoke "free will" I do think greater information can be crucial to changing behaviors. We see this all the time in other areas of human life (think of how information on diet changes what people order, and how much, or the way we tell our biology to take a hike when ever we put on a condom, or take a birth control pill), why not aggression?

    1. Exactly: I think we can credit information with much of the change. Information on reproductive choices, information on conflict resolution, information on the neurobiology of personal aggression. Think of how much safer schoolyards are now that we take bullying seriously, and don't simply let it happen because "boys will be boys."

  5. "Violence is taught, not innate"

    While I can see how violence can be learned/mimicked/induced, I think that the idea that humans are born like a blank canvas seems extremely romantic and idealized. Have they not seen toddlers in action? If anything we have to be taught to resolve conflict without violence.

    Empowering women sounds nice, but too simplistic, IMO. What about such important factors as religion, politics, struggle for power? Aren't most wars taught because of the difference of opinions in these among other issues?

    1. LOL, too true about the toddlers!

      Empowering women alone is too simplistic, I agree. That's mostly my fault, because I'm trying to write a short review of a long book. They discuss religion *quite* a bit, as it happens, and I deliberately didn't get into that because it's already hard enough to convince people, in 1500 words or less, that maybe we're not blank slates. :) The role of religion in war overlaps neatly with the role of tribalism and in-group vs. out-group conflict. Religion can have a pacifistic element ("turn the other cheek" and that) but generally it encourages strong tribal identity and inflames passions. It's very good, like most strongly-held identities, as fanning the flames of war. You can say the same thing about nationalism. One special problem of religion they discuss is how it gets in the way of empowering women. Powerful US right-wing religious groups stop us sending aid in the form of contraception to places like Africa and Pakistan. This stubborn moral opposition is directly at odds with our national interests—not to mention the interests of the women there, who are forced into continuous childbearing.

      Thoughtful opinions seem to play less of a role in war than you'd expect. When chimps and toddlers scrap, often it's territorial, and so it is with grown men warring. Look at the US: we don't get involved in lots of horrific civil wars, why are we looking at this one? Territory, resources. (Our fancy name for this is "vital US interests.") Opinions can form after the fact, but the impulse to fight comes first. Also, there's a lot of posturing. Obama drew that "red line in the sand," and now he feels he has to follow through or he loses face. The concept of "losing face" is fairly primitive: you get a standing in your tribe, you have to keep it through demonstrations of resilience & might or you won't be the alpha male for long. It may have been behind (among other things) Bush/Cheney's drive into Iraq: finish daddy's war, let all the other chimps know our balls are bigger.

    2. I agree with Lorena on the empowering women bit seeming too simplistic. Although I'd have to read the book for myself to see exactly how everything is put, I think I'd disagree with some of what Potts and Hayden came up with. I won't get much into my beliefs here, but yes, violence can be taught. But if it can be taught, then there must be something there to feed our violence and the ideas we come up with for ourselves as individuals. What feeds that fire? Our primate history? I have a hard time believing that. I do believe in free will and the fact that we all have one. We have the capability to do whatever it is we want to do, no matter what. It happens all the time. Going back to empowering women, how do the authors put into perspective the Nazi uprising in such a civilized country of its time? How does empowering women play out with this destructive force? Hitler had an idea that was slow to get going (heck he was fighting off the Communists ideas every chance he could), but this one individual stuck to it, and look what happened. So,if we just control the ovaries then everything will work itself out and the right guy will win? I guess the Allies did a better job at keeping the birth rate down even though they had more manpower in the end. I don't know, it just doesn't seem to make sense to me.

      Whether there's contraception or not in a third-world country, wouldn't education be a smarter idea? It's like handing condoms out to teenagers, saying they're going to do it anyway, but not really informing them what will happen if they don't use the condoms. Maybe it's worse than that. We have a strong educational system in the US, but there needs to be more of it in the countries we're trying to help if we want to keep the population down. Anyway, who are we, as the US, to say a country must and should keep their population down?

      That's just my train of thought.

    3. You bring up some important points, MM. Potts & Hayden agree with you that our evolutionary history doesn't determine our behavior: we do have free will. "We can't emphasize too strongly that while many of our behaviors have evolutionary roots, biology is not destiny. As humans, we have many ways — as individuals, as societies, and as a global community — to shape our actions and change outcomes. Biology merely provides the starting point and the raw materials for human society. Culture, community, and free will are what determines its ultimate shape."

      I'll let them answer your concerns here, too: "Any discussion of an issue as complex as the role of women in war and peace is bound to attract charges of reductionism. But our argument is not that population pressures are the only cause of wars or terrorism, or that a high ratio of young men in the population always triggers conflict, or certainly that all unwanted children turn into tyrants. Just as an evolutionary precedent can't excuse wartime rape any more than it can remove the shine from battlefield heroism, all wars, battles, and terror attacks are the product of myriad individual circumstances and human decisions. But neither does this mean that biological and demographic factors can be dismissed. As we've seen, they are not only worth examining; in some cases they turn out to be significant, decisive factors in the course of human events. ... Can a lower birth rate bring peace? Certainly, it will be associated with less competition for resources and a lower ratio of young, volatile males in the society. That can't prevent the occurrence of wars and civil disturbance altogether .... [but] there are good reasons to believe that competition for scarce resources is at the heart of a great many wars, human or otherwise — and the larger our population, the more intense the resource competition will be."

      I'll break this into two posts: my initial one is too long! I got yelled at by Blogger. :)

    4. Part II. :)

      You ask, "Anyway, who are we, as the US, to say a country must and should keep their population down?" Excellent point. It would be patronizing in the extreme to *force* women to prevent pregnancies, and of course the authors recommend nothing of the kind. Here's what they say: "Even though most people want more material things, many parents want fewer children. One of the most important things we can do for the safety and peace of the planet is to let women have control over whether and when to have a child. Looked at another way, if males' violent impulses and predisposition to team aggression and warfare are the result of evolution, then what better way to combat these impulses than by .... empowering women with easy access to contraception." Which, if you ask around, those women will tell you they DO want. It should be their choice.

      Regarding Nazis: "Margaret Sanger was right to point out that military leaders often demand 'a higher and still higher birth rate.' Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Idi Amin were among the vilest and most cruel dictators of the twentieth century and each one took specific steps to restrict access to family planning and safe abortion. ... When Adolf Hitler was made German Chancellor in 1933, long before he invaded Czechoslovakia or Poland he set about invading German bedrooms by closing family planning clinics. He claimed contraceptives were a 'violation of nature' and thought abortion should be 'exterminated with a strong hand.'"

      Most US administrations, including those of Nixon, Bush, and Reagan, recognized the threat to US interests that came with population explosions, and looked for "a comprehensive effort including enhanced support to international family planning and improved educational opportunities and job creation for women." Unfortunately, their efforts have repeatedly been blocked by religious conservatives. "Fundamentalist Christians and conservative Roman Catholics, who are theologically far apart on many issues, have united to oppose international family planning programs. The Vatican has used its Observer State status at the United Nations to pressure governments, and particularly the US government, not to make family planning a part of foreign aid."

      Hopefully I've found the right excerpts to address your thoughtful points.

    5. Okay, that was a lot!

      Here's my question about the likes of HItler and Stalin: I'm aware of the way they went about fostering more births instead of the opposite, but weren't they both, in a sense, going for a purity of race? And because of that, they were willing to kill off what they thought were the infidels. So, in a sense, they were depleting their population plus, in the case of HItler, depleting the populations of other countries. Doesn't that go against some sort of primal instinct? He was, in a twisted, perverted sense, controlling the population, so why does it have to be women empowerment? (I don't agree with one thing he did, but do Potts and Hayden address these ideas of population control?) And, again, during the end of WWII, Hitler was putting boys as young as 12-14 into the war just to realize his dream, that's how much he had destroyed the young men in his country (Japan was pretty similar). At what point does the violence in someone cross the line of what that individual thinks is best for his "tribe" or whatever you want to call it, and all he thinks about is the glory for himself. How does an individual's need for glory, to the point of almost total annihilation of his own people play into the primal instinct? Are we born with the capacity to only live for ourselves and screw the rest of humanity? As far as I've understood about primates, they protect their group. But do we, as humans, have the ability to step outside the ring and go it alone on our own, no matter how crazy or deranged our thought process may be? Does that then make us something more than a primate?

      I think with the idea of family planning that it has a lot to do with educating not only women, but also men, no matter what country one's dealing with. My hope is that the authors recognize that for populations to remain in a reasonable range that it takes an educated populace to understand how to bring about change.

      Damn that train! There it goes again...

    6. "At what point does the violence in someone cross the line of what that individual thinks is best for his "tribe" or whatever you want to call it, and all he thinks about is the glory for himself."

      A lot of the nuances of these personalities and eras are forgotten by contemporaries, because it's just easy to say "well, they were evil.", and that's the end of it. One also has to consider that these evolutionary behaviours tend to exist for groups, rather than unique individuals who come along and be weird. Autocrats mess with things terribly because they're not predictable like groups of humans.

      Hitler for instance believed he could win, there's the scene from the film Downfall (well worth watching) that got turned into an internet meme with Hitler ranting about everything. But basically that was the first point at which he realised he was not going to win, so he started screaming about how the German people were to blame, because a general pointed out the divisions he thought were coming to save him had all been killed. And he later shot himself.

      The Nazis also fought to the death because they didn't view their war as typical; they thought it was a war of annihilation, and so fought against those forces they considered Jewish (Soviets) with a grim ferocity. Either they destroy those trying to destroy the German people, or they be destroyed by them. This is why ethnic cleansing was so widespread in eastern Europe. And when things began to turn it wasn't only about the fact they were fighting against the supposedly Jewish influence, it was the simple fact that they had been raping and murdering Russians left right and centre for years, and the Russians wanted revenge. Many Nazi officers fled west as fast as they could as the war came to a close because they feared what the Russians might do to them. And Stalin wasn't at all bothered with the widespread rape and pillage of the Red Army. Rape by the Red Army was widespread, in one East German town the women were raped so many times in a day that dozens of them committed suicide by jumping off bridges or drowning themselves.

      Stalin was quite like Hitler, he was convinced he could win. The difference was that Hitler did what he did because he loved the German people. Stalin did what he did because he didn't care, he might very well have hated everyone. At the funeral of his first wife in 1907 he said:

      "This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity."

      Hitler was loved by most Germans, and Stalin was feared by everyone in the USSR. Apparently they had a stack of clean underwear and trousers at his residence since many messengers were so terrified of giving him bad news they shit themselves. Germans would give Hitler a standing ovation gladly; Hitler was a father figure and everyone loved him, even his own top brass... but Russia's elite would clap for as long as they could when Stalin entered to give a lecture, fearing if they were the first one to stop, they would be killed for showing a lack of loyalty.

      At one point during the war Stalin was phoned up by his general in Stalingrad, the general said they couldn't keep on fighting. They should pull back to the Urals and regroup, it would force the Germans to over-stretch and they could then, reinforced, kill them. Stalin asked him. "Do your soldiers have spades, comrade?" "Spades, comrade? What sort of spades?" "Any will do." "... Yes, comrade, we have spades. What shall we do with them?" "Tell your soldiers to dig their graves. You will not leave Stalingrad." and slammed the phone down.

      In these examples psychology comes into it more than evolutionary theory, which tends to speak of groups rather than individuals.

    7. Now how come Blogger didn't yell at YOU for your long post, Nodgene? Well stated, though. Potts & Hayden do talk about how Stalin was a true psychopath, apparently lacking in any empathy. I've heard Hitler called a sociopath but I'm not sure if that's like, a diagnosis, or just a casual description we like to use for really awful people.

      "Well, they were evil." Yes, this is a conversation stopper, isn't it? The book quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” He wrote that while sitting in a Russian gulag.

  6. Sounds like a fascinating read. I don't feel that I inherited any thirst for violence or urge to beat anyone up, but maybe I just haven't found reason to become violent yet. :)

    1. You can probably thank your gender for that, Trisha. (As well as your self-control and upbringing etc.) The vast majority of violent human (and chimp) acts are committed by young males. Which—before the young males reading along get angry!—does not mean that all young males will be violent.

  7. It's true, some people are more programmed toward violence, but I do believe that's 50% of the issue. If children are being raised in homes where parents are involved and hold a value of life, war would be much less an issue. There will always be disagreements, and always a need to exert oneself, but I think sometimes war is usually spawned out of hatred, intolerance, or ignorance.

    1. I'm not sure what the stats are, but I believe if you look at the wars currently being waged, lack of parental involvement is decidedly not a factor. The Taliban are nothing if not family-centered. When the Civil War broke out, most fighters, and the politicians who sent them, came from loving two-parent homes that would certainly have classified themselves and morally upright and God-fearing. I do think hatred, intolerance, and ignorance have some role to play, but again if you look at the Civil War: you could not describe either Lincoln or Confederate President Jefferson Davis as "ignorant" or "hateful." None of the generals really fit that description either.

      However, I do see sheer hatred coming into play in genocidal massacres. Rwanda, Nazi Germany, Darfur. And then the question is: where does that hatred come from? The book delves into that, too. And here's Wikipedia: 'Genocide occurs as unsustainable civilization declines causing shocks of widespread economic downturns. “Hungry, frightened, scared masses demand survival and reassurance. Opportunistic leaders may now benefit by sacrificing 'others, outsiders' for the sake of supporters in leaders’ quests for power and influence.” Once overwhelming pains precondition our human overpopulation-violent psychology, genocidal explosions await what Adams called the “holocaustic spark.”' This theory seems similar to that of Potts' & Hayden's. Population bubbles & resource depletion seem to be at the root of much conflict. Hatred is more the fuel that keeps the killing going than the root cause.

    2. One analysis of things like Nazism and its genocides is that they didn't occur because of hatred; rather they occurred because of love. Nazism was about the love of the German people, and when you love something you'll do whatever you must to protect it.

      There was one example I heard of. Two junior Nazi officers were in Russia, and they came across a rural farm house occupied by two elderly Russians. One of them went into the house and shot them both death. When he returned his friend was shocked. "Why did you do that? They weren't a threat to anyone." "The only good Russian is a dead Russian." It's at first hard to suggest that kind of violence is caused by love, but for any conflict there's usually a sense the individual is trying to protect something they love. By comparison it's quite unusual to find examples where extreme violence has been done from a position of indifference.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Magnificent, Steph. Okay, so we talked a little about how you feel like you should write fiction because you love it so much but I have a sense from reading your reviews alone that you are so ideally-suited for cultural commentary that I wish I could suggest a venue of wider distribution. Remember when I called you unflinching? Here again is an example of what I mean. You stare stuff down but remain radically buoyant in your pragmatic optimism.

    Also, the other day in traffic, this woman honked at me and raced around me for no good reason except she just had to go faster and I literally imagined punching her. Like, several times. I pictured getting out of the car and duking it out just because she annoyed me as much as I apparently annoyed her.

    And I don't have an enormous scrotum, nor was I given toy guns in my formative years. But, yes, biology is not destiny. It's just a (raw, weird, fierce) launching pad.

    As always, wonderful, wonderful review.

    1. No more word veri!!! YAY!!! :D

    2. Thank you, Suze! Friends have suggested I write for Slate or Salon but I am not sure how freelancers get established there. And I kind of like the freedom I have to just write what I want to, when I want to. Though a wider readership would be nice.

      I have had that same punchy urge: in fact I have a draft blog written about a specific conflict, which I started writing well before I read Sex & War. Now I'm curious to see if I still agree with my own (previous) conclusion. :) I feel I want to say something here about enormous scrotums (scrota?) but I just can't do that justice. It will have to hang there. As it were.

      Word verification: did not even realize it was there till someone told me. It must be automatic when you set up Blogger. I'm sorry for inconveniencing everyone for so long! I hate those things too.

      I am so glad to see you here.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.