Book Review: 'Sex and War' by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Malcolm Potts, an obstetrician-scientist, is a hero of the international movement to improve women's health. Here, with journalist Thomas Hayden, he offers a lively and highly readable account of the evolution of war and terrorism. Potts's interest in this subject stemmed from his own experience treating women who had suffered unspeakably. Rape, he learned, is war's fellow traveler, and the perspectives of anthropology and Darwinian theory suggest why.

For Potts, "team aggression" in chimpanzees is a touchstone: Several males find a solitary male or female from a neighboring group and punch, bite, kick and stomp that victim to death. This occurs too often to be an anomaly and has analogies to ambush raids by human males. In both the ape and human cases, females may be spared and impregnated by the foreign males; the Bible, "The Iliad" and other sources tell us this was routine in ancient wars.

Another touchstone is a simple fact of genetics: One in 12 men in Central Asia today descends from a single man of Genghis Khan's era who, according to the chroniclers, was a serial rapist. Similar findings in Ireland suggest the descent of two or three million from the warrior-king Niall. With fossil and archaeological evidence, these facts describe a pattern of killing men and raping women that has been with us for so long that the inclination is built into our genes and brains. The authors condemn the pattern but believe that we will be in a better position to control and prevent it if we grasp its evolutionary foundations. So do I.

"Sex and War" is an important effort to raise our species' consciousness of its ugliest behaviors. Yet there are problems with its argument. The authors know that bonobos, as near to us genetically as chimps, have no such aggressive pattern, but they don't explain why they focused on chimps instead. They assume that hunter-gatherer cultures were as violent as later ones; most anthropologists demur.

And their politicizing is sometimes distracting. The authors deem the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan utter failures triggered by a chimp-like overreaction to 9/11. But the U.S. "overreaction" was undertaken with a calculated sense of what might happen in the future if the response did not restore respect for the attacked nation's power. None of which a chimp would understand.

-- Melvin Konner

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