Sex, war and stupidity

In labelling Churchill as ‘ape-like’ and claiming that Timothy McVeigh was driven by ‘primate’ instincts, the authors of Sex and War hope to prove that war is an evolutionary trait. Their thesis is mind-blowingly dumb.

Stuart Derbyshire

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Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World is an unbearably stupid book.

The authors, Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden, ‘explain’ war and violence by treating human beings as machines programmed by evolution to grab resources, form in-groups and pass on their genes. Women, according to the authors, are naturally more passive because they must invest more effort into rearing offspring, and men are naturally more aggressive because they can produce lots of offspring by being dominant. It is a commonly told tale that explains little and confuses an awful lot.

Potts and Hayden create immense confusion by stretching this simple tale across all human history. They muddy everything, including the origin of Christianity, the laws of warfare, the causes of rape, gang violence and terrorism, and the meaning and cause of almost every war beginning with the classical wars of Ancient Greece and Rome all the way to the First and Second World Wars, Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda and the current ‘war on terror’. Evolution is thrust forth as a ‘universal acid’ (1), burning through explanations based on reason, politics, history, culture and anything that is not biology.

Laws, culture and politics, which point to great chasms of difference between humanity and the animals and provide testament to the enormous mental distance travelled by humanity, are first swept away by an avalanche of unwarranted equivalencies. Dogs, pigs and monkeys, announce the authors, ‘are just as interested in sex as we are’. Purely for research purposes, I typed ‘sex’ into Google and received 748million hits: that’s more than one hit per person who uses the internet. I somehow doubt the sexual imagination of dogs, pigs and monkeys stretches to a concern about shagging in outer space (2).

After sex comes motherhood: ‘Watch female chimps and you see immediately the meaning of being a good mother’, write Potts and Hayden. Really? I am certain that chimpanzees do not spend time reading to their children, taking them to ballet or football practice and worrying about their future ability to afford university, a house or food. After the authors cover birth, they return to an old problem: ‘Like us, chimps can be fastidious – wiping blood from wounds or menstruation with wads of leaves for example.’ I do not typically watch women dealing with their menstrual fluid, and I have not inquired much about the subject, but I believe that ‘wads of leaves’ are not a first-choice feminine hygiene product. Any woman who uses leaves might be considered desperate but probably not ‘fastidious’.

Potts and Hayden draw numerous other unsubstantiated and frankly ridiculous comparisons between humans and animals, but war, terror and violence are their main targets. ‘Chimpanzee society’, say the authors, ‘is hierarchical’, and male chimpanzees ‘have a tendency to establish coalitions’. Chimpanzees also recognise ‘territory’ and ‘boundaries’ that they ‘patrol’ in their version of ‘international relations’. Chimps banging kerosene cans together is evidence of their ‘technological innovation and arms development’.

The authors’ deliberately misleading use of language pulverises critical differences between humans and chimpanzees so that the mere movements of chimpanzees within a local area can be presented as acts of war. The authors are seemingly oblivious to ‘international relations’ depending on nation states, a form of human organisation only consolidated by the French Revolution and certainly alien to our Stone Age ancestors and to chimpanzees. And vast differences between chimpanzee aggression and battles and wars involving the mass movement of troops, ships, planes, tanks, spies, sabotage, strategic planning and so forth are swept aside as unimportant; the mass movements of human wars are somehow equivalent to chimpanzees clanging kerosene cans.

Even the basic differences escape the authors. Potts and Hayden suggest we share a tendency towards war with chimpanzees because, ‘just as we have the same bones in our hands and feet as chimpanzees and the same networks of neurons in our brains as chimpanzees, so we also share with chimpanzees a predisposition for adult males to team up, attack, and kill other groups of our own species’. In fact, human hands and feet are radically different from those of chimpanzees. Our hands have the famous fully opposable thumb, which means we can grasp small items and bring them into closer view for inspection and manipulation (3). Our feet, in contrast, have an adducted (non-opposable) hallux and shortened toes, which means we can’t hold on to a branch or a banana with our feet like a chimpanzee can. We also do not have the same networks of neurons in our brains. There are similarities, but the brains of humans and chimpanzees do not weigh the same, look the same or respond the same. The precise details are discussed in detail elsewhere (4), but it is obviously the case that our bodily and neural anatomy differ importantly from those of chimpanzees, or else we would be chimpanzees. And we aren’t. The anatomical differences reflect massive differences in the actual and potential behaviour of humans and chimpanzees.

Sweeping away and ignoring important differences between humans and chimpanzees is necessary for the authors to erect their fantastic vision of human behaviour, but it is not enough to sustain it. They must also sweep away and ignore important differences within human behaviour. If evolution drives men to war and procreation, and this influence is powerful, then it is obviously a bit embarrassing to find men doing things like working hard for their families and engaging in acts of kindness, being teachers and taxi drivers, and doing banal, simple things like enjoying sport and reading books. It is just as possible to build an evolutionary story of the human race based on a predisposition towards kindness and banality as towards war and rape. Potts and Hayden avoid this by recasting normal acts as violent, and insinuating that men are really violent even if they do not show it.

They interpret testosterone increases before a football match, or even a game of chess, as reinforcing assertive behaviour in a ‘proxy war’. They interpret comradeship and loyalty in a team, or even growing up together, as reinforcing the necessary links that make battle possible. They cite a survey of American men, suggesting that over one-third would commit rape if they could get away with it, as evidence of a latent male violence (5).

Potts and Hayden believe they are explaining violence when they are actually refusing to understand. Take the explanation for the Hitler Youth continuing to fight when the Second World War was lost in 1945: ‘Endowed with emotional and psychological predispositions for war and shaped by years of drilling and propaganda, the Hitler Youth fought a stubborn and effective battle… Whether we look at Sparta two-and-half millennia ago or the Hitler Youth… we see that all young men have in them the predisposition to form bonds with their peers that are so strong that they are willing to risk their lives for one another… [and] it often doesn’t take much more than permission, or a little encouragement, for them to kill and maim those they believe to be their enemies.’

Apart from the inappropriate equivalence of Sparta with Germany, the authors fail to explain why there was a Hitler Youth but not a Churchill Youth or a Roosevelt Youth or a Mussolini Youth or a Hirohito Youth, and so on. The authors assert a predisposition for war, which needs only a little encouragement, but do not explain the ‘years of drilling and propaganda’.

Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma Muir Federal building in 1995 is similarly ‘explained’ by the ease of young males to ‘slip back to the basic primate drive of exterminating everything that moves’. Potts and Hayden ignore McVeigh’s experiences during the First Gulf War of 1991, where he refused to open fire on an Iraqi machine gun post that was surrendering and came to view the US government as a bully (6). To Potts and Hayden, McVeigh’s experiences do not matter, the First Gulf War does not matter, and politics does not matter. The Federal building exploded because of a ‘primate drive’.

Or take another Second World War example. Potts and Hayden assert that the Allies won the war in part because of ‘Churchill’s quite illogical and very ape-like refusal to believe that he could ever be defeated’. I am not making this up; they really wrote that down (on page 186). Again this assertion is ludicrous and fails to explain why Chamberlain pursued appeasement (he wasn’t ‘ape-like’ enough, I guess) or why Churchill preferred a negotiated peace, even late in the war, and preferred a less brutal southern assault on Europe rather than the all-crushing D-Day invasions proposed by the Americans (the Americans must have been even more ape-like than Churchill, I suppose) (7).

The authors have a slavish adherence to a ridiculously simplified evolutionary stance, but they are also outrageously ill-disciplined. Men who kill each other in war do so because they have formed an ‘in-group’ with their own side against the ‘out-group’ of the enemy. But when the in-group and out-group get together, as famously occurred in No-Man’s Land at Christmas in 1914, former enemies adopt ‘the in-group rules of behaviour’. African schoolboys ‘make such effective warriors and terrorists’ because of an evolutionary predisposition, but humanitarian organisations also get these same boys ‘back to being boys’. The authors approvingly quote Sun Tzu, who wrote ‘All warfare is deception’, despite having spent almost 200 pages asserting that war is the violent expression of male nature. It is hard to avoid the impression that the authors will write down any old rubbish to fill a bit of page space and provide some loose support for their theory.

Potts and Hayden cannot even uphold consistency in relation to their own idea. ‘We take the view that human behaviour can only be truly understood through the lens of human biology, including the several million years of human evolution’, they state. Later they argue that young chimps play is ‘identical to human play’ and ‘only a virtually universal and deep-seated inherited drive’ can explain military expenditure (8). This concreteness is seemingly misplaced, however, as the authors point out that ‘biology is not destiny’ and there is the need for ‘sober second thought… to survive our own deep impulses’. Evolutionary psychologists want to claim that they can explain human behaviour without reference to reason, politics, culture and so forth, but then they want to take the idea back. This all rather leaves the reader wondering why they don’t just explain the causes of human behaviour directly rather than dressing everything up in an unsustainable evolutionary garb that they are only going to abandon.

If you are unfortunate enough to own this book, you might toss it into the air and entertain yourself by picking through the inconsistency and lunacy on whatever random page falls open. When you are bored with that, you might toss it into the bin.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Sex And War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism And Offers a Path to a Safer World , by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden is published by BEN BELLA. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Daniel Dennett, Simon & Schuster, 1995

(2) Astronauts test sex in space – but did the earth move?, Guardian, 24 February 2000

(3) The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being, Raymond Tallis, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh), 2003

(4) From Monkey Brain to Human Brain,S Dehaene, J-R Duhamel, MD Hauser, G Rizzolatti, Bradford Books, 2005

(5) Potts and Hayden are not entirely convinced as they go on to say, ‘and it’s hard to imagine that as many men or more weren’t so honest as to admit the truth’. Imagining what people might have said, but didn’t, and might do, but haven’t, is a poor substitute for actual evidence. Interestingly the cited source for the survey is a pair of reports investigating the psychological pain felt by women after rape. I find no reference to male attitudes to rape in either report: pp155-176 ‘An Evolutionary Analysis of Psychological Pain Following Rape: I. The Effects of Victim’s Age and Marital Status’, NW Thornhill, R Thornhill, Ethology and Sociobiology, 1990;11; pp177-193 ‘An Evolutionary Analysis of Psychological Pain Following Rape: II. The Effects of Stranger, Friend, and Family-Member Offenders’, NW Thornhill, R Thornhill, Ethology and Sociobiology 1990;11

(6) American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, Lou Michel & Dan Herbeck, HarperCollins, 2001

(7) Winston Churchill, Clive Ponting, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994

(8) My emphasis.

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