Thursday, January 21, 2016

Demonic Males

Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
© 1996 Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham
350 pages

Why is the world run by violent men?  Demonic Males  argues that human males are by violent by nature,  a trait we share with other primates, and that this aggressive behavior is sustained through sexual selection.   Males are not uniquely violent, nor is our inherited penchant for bloodshed  inescapable,  but we can only begin to look for remedies by understanding the scope of the problem.  To combat violence is to war against human nature itself.

Contrary to popular opinion, human beings are not the only creatures who wage war against ourselves. Demonic Males opens an account of a band of chimpanzees moving through the forest as though on a hunt, only to choose at their target an isolated member of a neighboring band of chimps.  After a gruesome ambush  that left the target dead, the war-band then retreated into its own territory – its sole accomplishment having been the deliberate murder of a neighbor.   The authors follow up with many other such field reports, from Africa to Asia, spanning the primates, and find casual and ‘political’ violence in each class of the great apes, and from this argue that the domination of the planet by aggressive men owes not to a vast culture of patriarchy, but to the desperate straits our ancestors came of age in.

Small orangutans chase down unwilling females and force them to copulate,  chimpanzees brutally attack one another when vying for power, and even the mostly-peaceful gorillas practice infanticide.  In every primate species, it’s the men doing all of this fighting – and fighting with tooth and claw.  Do humans seem like improbable creatures of war? We have no tusks, no claws, no powerful tails.  Our methods of carnage are simply different:  human males specialize in fisticuffs, common to long-limbed apes.   The authors’ research indicates that the difference between highly aggressive species like humans and chimpanzees, and the more peaceable groups, lay in the social dynamics of food sourcing. the gorillas and bonobos observed  had ranges that allowed for large, stable troops, while the chimpanzees had to roam for food in much smaller bands fighting for survival. The woodland fringe where humans first appeared would have relegated us to that raiding behavior as well. The authors draw parallels between chimpanzee warfare and the small band raiding observed historically across the world, and lingering today in the depths of South America and the streets of Los Angeles.

Though violent behavior is regarded as self-defeating in the modern world, at the primeval level it serves certain purposes.   The story begins with food, but eventually circles back to sexual selection. The small variant of orangutan males could never challenge large males for mating opportunities, so they seize them. A silverback gorilla  has the responsibility for protecting every female and their young in his troop;  like a lion, he has little interest in safeguarding some other gorilla's progeny. For chimpanzees, beating their fellows into submission is just as effective as bribing them with food.   Females are involved in the continuation of aggression, too, sometimes against their will (in the case of rape) and sometimes complicitly, as when they throng a rising star, eager for his protection against the other aggressors.

Though the argument of Demonic Males is that humans are fundamentally aggressive,  the authors demonstrate that there are alternatives.  Chimpanzees, for instance, have cousins across the river who are very different:  isolated from competition and with an abundance of food, aggression has withered, and large alliances of females rein in throwbacks.    While human nature has a violence cast now, in the future, the sustained institutional suppression of violence might allow us to grow away from ours as well.  

Demonic Males covers a lot of territory --  dismantling the myth of the noble savage, weighing anthropologists and primatologists' field reports against one another -- and presents a serious challenge to those who those who believe that man can simply be 'retrained' in the matter of the New Soviet Man.  Frans de Waal's own extensive experience observing chimpanzees is not nearly as pessmetic; in Chimpanzee Politics, for instance, he argued that despite surges of violence against political rivals in high-stakes situations, most of the time the daunting strength of males is not unleashed, the contenders pulling their punches.  The gorillas' practice of infanticide, so similar to that of lions,  indicates it is not a recent, primate-specific tactic.  The authors did draw on a much broader range of activity,  however, so this certainly merits consideration.

Chimpanzee Politics, Frans de Waal


  1. We are violent creatures by our very DNA. The only way to really change that is to change our genes - at which point we stop being human. But.... considering how violent we are/can be it's surprising how little actual violence there is... generally speaking.

  2. Have you read Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature"? It's on my list for this year.

  3. No, I haven't read it. I've heard of it and about it and am very sceptical about the whole thing. I don't think he's been paying attention to what's going on in the world. [lol]

  4. I imagine he'll be making his argument based on statistical occurrence, whereas we tend to think of the world getting more violent because of the news.

  5. Possibly... and I suppose that compared with the 20th Century the 21st (so far at least) is *very* peaceful!

  6. It will take us a while to surpass the millions of the 20th century's first fifty years. Hitler accounts for 11 million civilians by his badly-groomed self, Stalin for 20 million of his own, and how many for Mao and the other Asian dictators? And that's not even counting the military deaths of the world wars.

    So far, so good. We're sixteen years in and haven't managed a world war yet, although the west's chronic engagement in the middle east certainly isn't helping prevent it.

  7. Oh, we've got plenty of time yet to catch up and remember many more countries have nukes now [lol]. There's plenty of potential flash points across the globe to be worried about. I do think it's going to be a very interesting century - very interesting in the Chinese curse way unfortunately......


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