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DEMONIC MALES, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson

by Caitlin Burke

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Civilization: Playing Pacifist

Demonic Males is a lively book, combining reviews of work in anthropology and primate behavior with discussions about the evolutionary potential of humans. Arguing, in essence, that our close relationship to other apes suggests a longstanding genetic endowment of violent behaviors, Wrangham and Peters have managed to present what could be a deeply embittering topic in a light that is both unsentimental and optimistic.

Wrangham and Peterson discuss historical approaches in both anthropology and primate behavior, tracing a history of evolving notions about humans and other primates and some startling lack of evolution as well. While technology such as DNA analysis has allowed scientists to make statements about the relationships between humans and other primates that were barely thinkable before, Wrangham argues that the nature/nurture debate has encouraged a falsely dichotomous approach to handling, in particular, very difficult questions. The result is a thoughtful discussion of what the scientific issues are, as well as how to think about them scientifically, rather than stumbling into Social Darwinism.

Demonic Males is aimed squarely at the lay reader. It is articulate and well referenced, and yet it gives a great deal of space to careful expositions of logical arguments, more or less annotated to show the reader some of the logical fallacies that have clung to discussions of evolution and anthropology while reinforcing the primary points. In addition, the book is a speculative discussion about ways humans can choose to behave rather than an exposition of the way humans are or will be or, indeed, must be.

Wrangham and Peterson come back to the lines of argument several times, wanting to assist the reader in becoming very clear about what they want to say and what they don't want to say. They don't want to say, "Apes are just like primitive humans!" They do want to say, "Apes and humans are very closely related and share a suite of behaviors. How can observations of apes help humans think about shared behaviors?" And they want to say this especially unflinchingly about behaviors such as infanticide, lethal raiding into neighboring territory, and rape. The discussions of rape are particularly interesting, since the authors want to make a clear distinction between rape as a mating strategy and rape as a political strategy, a way for males to solidify control over females. It is this latter, political function that Wrangham believes is operating in rape among at least some apes.

And yet Wrangham and Peterson are optimistic, because not all ape species share the violent behaviors that the bulk of the book discusses. One species, the bonobo or "pygmy chimpanzee", is remarkably free of violence and lives--in stark contrast to its closest relative, the chimpanzee--in relatively large, stable groups that often have peaceful relationships with neighboring groups. Wrangham uses some discussions of the ways the bonobos are different to support his argument that humans can, in fact, develop toward a less violent society and are, even, beginning to do so in some places.

What makes bonobo society different? Wrangham and Peterson begin Demonic Males with a discussion of male bonding and lethal raiding among chimpanzees, and the primary difference between chimpanzee and bonobos seems to be that male bonding does not really take place among the bonobos. Coalition-building behavior looks like an exclusively female activity among the bonobos--one that appears to be solidified by female/female sexual contact--and lethal raiding does not exist. This sneakily radical interpretation is fleshed out with human artistic representations of peaceful and female-bonded political structures, drawing from examples as disparate and Melville and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Demonic Males is by and large carefully argued and straightforward in its presentation, although it uses some anthropomorphized examples, and the writing occasionally feels tense. Wrangham and Peterson are careful to specify that labeling a behavior as "nature" is not necessarily to say that that behavior is "good" or intractable, and they are clearly appalled by the endemicity of violence across ape species. And in a way that is both optimistic and refreshing, they go beyond two of the more specious and lazy approaches to the relationship between humans and apes: They neither represent humans as necessarily more valuable nor relegate humans to the inevitability of genetically inherited behaviors. Wrangham and Peters offer the world as it looks in order to encourage people to choose to improve it.

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