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


Over the past year, I have thought of Sex and War often.  It has profoundly affected my thinking. The essential argument may at first seem preposterous or antifeminist, but it is neither of these.  Potts and Hayden make what seems to me a very solid case that the inequality between the sexes has its roots in evolution.

Now stay with me here.  Potts and Hayden are at pains to point out that a species having reached a certain manifestation through natural selection does not mean the end result is good or benign, nor that a particular feature will continue to be adaptive indefinitely. Indeed, they argue that the human gender situation has long since become maladaptive and needs to be altered through cultural effort as quickly as possible.  (Now, if I still have your attention, I expect you will stick with me a bit longer.)

Humans are one of only three known species that purposely plan attacks on their own kind, using group strategy to do so.  The only others are chimps and wolves.  Important: this is not to say that these three are the only species that kill their own own kind–because that does happen–but that only these three actually plan and strategize, in intentional groups, to conduct massive violence against their own.  And they seem to do this sometimes with little reason other than boredom or blood lust or desire for power.

A specific feature of human behavior is the systematic raping that usually accompanies warfare.  In the past few decades, fighting men in, say, Chad or Bosnia or Congo, have used rape as a weapon of war–and have shocked the world, as if this were a new development. But, in truth, rape has been a consistent feature of human warfare throughout our known history. Potts and Hayden argue that we have done this raid-and-rape thing since before written records, that it is a sinister part of our evolutionary heritage.

We do not accept war as a good and natural thing just because we have always, everywhere, waged it.  Similarly, there is no reason to feel that sexual violence–and the female subordination that inevitably came with it–is good and natural, just because it is such a common feature of human life.  Potts and Hayden, after many long pages of evidence drawn from biology and history, argue that our species will not survive much longer if we don’t (a) stop the raid-and-rape ethos that characterizes male groups from urban American gangs to rural African militias and (b) start bringing the feminine ethos to the fore. They do not argue that women never engage in violence, but instead that women so rarely engage in the kind of warfare that men constantly wage on each other that it represents a different feature of our evolutionary heritage, one that we would do better to emphasize and develop, while purposefully trying to do everything we can to put male violence in eclipse.

The book is horrifying in its relentless detail of the history of this phenomenon.  It is often surprising and shocking.  In the end, though, for me, the most important thing about it was the piece of thought that dropped into place as I was reading it.

For many years, feminists have assumed, taking their cues from Engels and Beauvoir, that women’s oppression was caused by industrial capitalism, specifically that it emerged alongside the invention of private property.  But evidence coming forward from global databases collected by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum,  and others over the past fifteen years have put this idea firmly to rest.  Women’s subordination happens in every country in the world, but there is a clear spectrum in which the nations where industrialization took place early have the best conditions and the places as yet unindustrialized have the worst.  I also feel that the features of that subordination are so spookily similar from one culture to another that it becomes very difficult indeed to view women’s oppression as a quirk unique to each and every locality on the ground. It is also the case that, where women are more equal, there is less hostility, less disease, and better prosperity all around for everyone.  This data, therefore, support Potts and Friedman’s argument that the female ethos, rooted in the desire for a stable and supportive environment for children, is the direction the world needs to travel.

Gerda Lerner’s brilliant Creation of Patriarchy documented women’s subordination occurring in Mesopotamia at the time writing was invented.  Following the tradition of mainstream feminist thought, she located the emergence of female subordination in the invention of private property, but extended her argument to say that women’s exclusion from writing (which was invented for the purpose of tracking property) left them deeply illiterate, in the sense that they never gained a sense of their own history.  She also documents the disappearance of goddesses in the same area at that time, a phenomenon that seems to have accompanied the rise of the militaristic states that eventually became kings and nations (and led to massive worldwide war). So we end up with a nation, a church, and a military that are all male and, I have argued, uncannily similar institutions in their violence and hierarchical structure. (Again, this is not to say that there haven’t been women who were powerful rulers or highly educated.  But, by far, the worldwide historical pattern is for women to be excluded from education, power, and, more often than not, religious leadership.)

But there are a big holes in Lerner’s argument and they have bothered me for a long time. She assumes there was a previous period in which men and women were equal and that there came a point when women actually agreed to be subordinated.  I see no reason to think that half the human race would have been willing to simply agree to an indefinite period of servitude. And, the very laws she documents emerging in the first written texts point to a pre-existing problem:  the constant abduction of females in the context of war. Indeed, Lerner uses as a central point that dealing with the status of women who were and were not captives led to different classes of women, as wives or prostitutes.

If, as Potts and Hayden argue, the raid-and-rape of war comes from our evolutionary heritage, then the pre-existing pattern of social behavior in the laws Lerner analyzes can be explained.  And there would have been no need for agreement. Instead, the women would have come into the period of writing and private property already cowed by thousands of years of sexual violence.  The pervasiveness of sexual violence in contemporary culture–including its creepy eroticization–also become intelligible, though no less awful.  Potts and Friedman note that the men who raped the most would have deposited more of their DNA in the species, thus any traits associated with war and sexual violence would be passed one in ever greater proportions.  It would also become advantageous for females to prefer warlike men.  So, for the species to come to view violence in erotic terms would develop hand-in-hand with the natural selection process. And, if this is all a function of evolution, the worldwide pattern of today’s gender subordination–marked as it is everywhere by rape–would be explained.

Potts and Hayden point out that this dark combination of features may have been, at one time in the distant past, adaptive.  But species develop in a certain way and the combination of biology and circumstance often lead what was once an adaptation to become maladaptive. For instance, when whales developed the ability to breathe out of water it was probably a positive adaptation.  But once whaling vessels came along, the need to come to the surface to breathe was extremely maladaptive and the species became endangered.  I have written in an earlier post how the combination of biology and social behavior would have doomed pandas if humans had not stepped in.  So, there is no reason to glorify this raid-and-rape foundation just because it is where we ended up in some random sequence of selection.

So, in the end, the thing I liked best about this book was the way that it gestured toward the potential for common cause.  Far from using nature to excuse bad behavior, these authors explain what the situation is, the intransigence of the thing we are up against, and how important it is for all of us, men and women, to tackle this problem.

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