July 2009

Beth Harrington

nonfiction

Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden

If I had a nickel for every time Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden used the term "team aggression" in their collaborative nonfiction effort Sex and War, I could probably bail out the stock market. Provocatively titled, the book's subtitle promises to trace the biological origins of violence and terrorism as rooted in human-particularly male-evolution. Their main thesis is that humans have been battling one another as long as humanity has been in existence-in fact, even before. Evidence culled from the observations of Jane Goodall and other researchers into primate behavior show that chimpanzees form bands and conduct raids on neighboring troops in order to capture resources and expand territory-not to mention increase mating opportunities with females from other tribes. Thus, the qualities that we associate with warriors-whether they are uniformed soldiers or masked terrorists-are inherited predispositions that once helped our ancestors do battle against others for resources, yet now serve little useful purpose in a civilized world.

Potts and Hayden state that they are not advocating simple biological determinism as the explanation for our violent tendencies, but their insistence on fitting every aspect of human warfare into a scientific framework often leads them to make declarative generalizations that may leave readers skeptical. In describing how sex hormones play a role in the development of aggression in males versus females, Potts tells us, "I shout obscenities at the computer when it does something I don't expect, while [my wife] would never do anything so pointless." (Really? How else do you show a computer who's in charge?) Likewise, the book states that one way to reduce terrorism is to promote women into positions of societal power because "women are more likely to network with other women and support social welfare." However, the examples the authors cite of female leaders (Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto) displayed similar levels of aggression to their male counterparts.

The authors attempt to chalk up the similarity between male and female leaders to the "man's world of politics" in which a woman feels she must prove herself by playing the game on the men's terms. Yet one could argue that women who manage to break through the various barriers that obstruct their ascent to power share similar innate levels of aggression and ambition with men. Conversely, it could be that the acquisition of power causes psychological changes within a person's mind-male or female-that renders him or her inclined to act in a certain (more aggressive) way. Perhaps if women found themselves in possession of territory and resources-inheritance of both is frequently traced through male lineage-they would behave as protectively and possessively as men. Intriguingly, in their study of contemporary female warriors in Africa, the authors report that female fighters tend to be more violent than men, "[taking] few prisoners, preferring to kill captured enemies instead." In no way does this review mean to imply that women should not hold positions of power in government or the military, it is rather the biological inevitability behind the authors' reasoning that becomes frustrating to anyone who believes in the human capacity for individuality and free will.

As Sex and War stretches on, it begins to seem padded. Sections describing anthropological evidence of raids and battles predating civilization, and the various aspects of societal development that have complicated war-technology, legislation, and the creation of established nations-plod on for pages. Such chapters are thoroughly-researched, but do not necessarily strengthen the book's thesis. One cannot help but wonder if the authors were determined to write a scholarly (lengthy) text and thus packed as much tangential information into it as possible in order to flesh it out. Paradoxically, the book glosses over alternative interpretations of the evidence the authors gathered; nor do they examine in-depth societies that have acquired some semblance of peace. For instance, the book cites Scandinavian countries, with their warlike Viking past, as evidence that team violence was endemic to all peoples at one time. However, it does not include an investigation of how Scandinavian countries metamorphosed from a culture of fierce raiders into modern-day nations famed for neutrality in the face of conflict. Such an analysis could have proved the successful utilization of peace-promoting strategies in this book.

In conclusion, Sex and War provides some interesting informational tidbits on the biological conditions of hominids and their evolution. It also provides a genuine, evidence-based plea for more attention to be devoted to population control via non-coercive family planning in third world countries. However, the book is too eager to attribute all instances of aggression to predetermined characteristics. Furthermore, a combination of poor organization, an overextended range of study, and repetition cause it to fall short of its ambition to be the authoritative text on the origins of the human inclination for violence and warfare. This is unfortunate because as a new administration takes over the reins of a troubled first-world foreign policy, the world needs a rational, objective text to counteract the polemics and punditry that have merely catapulted the population into hysteria since 9/11.

 

Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden
Benbella Books
ISBN: 1933771577
457 Pages

 

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