Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Sex and War

For a while now I’ve been showing up at my local Borders and spying a particular book. The name, Sex and War, seemed simple but intriguing, so after a bit of research on Amazon I picked it up. It lived up to the name but wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

The thesis of the book is that male team aggression is an evolutionary predisposition that was useful in our preliterate days but is now harmful to peace on earth. That’s a lot to take in, but the book spends a lot of time breaking it down and supporting its argument. It does so by delving into three main topics: primatology (the study of primates), history, and evolutionary psychology. On the whole, the book is good, so let’s start with the pros first.

The links that the authors use to connect primate behavior to humans in particular are well chosen. This is usually very difficult because, as the authors put it, it’s easy to see connections where there are none (especially when the species in question has a distant relationship to humans) and it’s easy to overlook connections where there are some. The rationale behind the choices the authors make are thus well justified and by the time the first third of the book is done, the thesis is pretty much accepted. Later in the book there’s a bit of historical focus on how particular weapons were used (biological, chemical, and nuclear) and how this can be dangerous to humanity as a whole. These parts are extremely well written, and also provide some insight into how we can work towards making the world a safer place.

Unfortunately, while the book had a lot going for it, it also has a lot going against it. After the great section on primatology, the book switches phases and goes into evolutionary psychology, and some of the points the authors are extremely confident about seem to be dubious at best. One discussion in particular tries to reason about why we like to spend an atrocious amount of money on defense and after a short discussion, it’s concluded that it must have been evolutionary. The justification is minimal and boils down to “it must have been evolutionary or else it wouldn’t have made it this far” and excludes any other factors (e.g., political, social, cultural). This is a bit of a shame, as an otherwise great book just gets bogged down with a lot of these little points where evolutionary psychology gets called in to explain something extremely specific and it must have been evolution without a deep discussion of the alternatives. It’s also not even like the book relies on the conclusions from this section – the entire book hammers the point of “team male aggression” so much that cutting out these parts would really strengthen it (since it’s the weakest link by far).

After the evolutionary psychology section, the book gets a bit schizophrenic, going from history to primatology to statistics to evolutionary psychology again and back and forth between all of the above. Most of the sections are well written, and the statistics parts are a great example of how to prove points about very specific things (in contrast to the evolutionary psychology stuff) but by this point the book feels more like a collection of essays by different people. Individually, they’re good pieces of writing, and they have a common theme (“male aggression = bad”), but there’s no real unity asides from the authors just throwing more evidence onto the mound.

If you haven’t noticed it by now, I’ll repeat it again, “team male aggression = bad”. On every page of the book, this point will be made at least once, and I don’t really have a problem with it, as most of the arguments are valid. But the quantity at which this point is made is excessive, to say the least. I like how different topics are brought in and how a very conscious attempt is made to make the book current and relevant to today’s times (spoiler: terrorist cells = team male aggression = bad), and I think that there is an amazing book in here somewhere.

So let’s start being constructive: how could this book have been better? One way could have been to go the Doctor Who and Philosophy route (or really, the X and Philosophy route): break the book up into discrete sections for primatology, evolutionary psychology, history, etc. Also, most of the evolutionary psychology stuff should be cut right out as fast as possible. I don’t have a problem with evolutionary psychology, but the way the authors use it isn’t well-justified. The authors make this point better than I do when talking about primatology: it’s very easy for non-experts to not sell their points as good as the experts do. Either beef up the evolutionary psychology sections with better evidence (again, see the nicely written statistics section), and if it’s not possible, cut it out. For me, that section killed the momentum I had going that really made me like this book, and made me question the rest of the book very closely even though it was really quite nice.

Interestingly, the book is already in an essay-like format already – each chapter looks somewhat distinct from one another, but since it’s not presented that way, the inclination is to take it as a regular book, and when that happens, the repetition of the thesis is a bit much. Maybe breaking the thesis up into multiple parts (e.g., team aggression is bad and let’s see why through primatology, the advent of particular types of weapons, and so on) would have helped, but that seems similar enough to me as just making a history section, primatology section, etc. that either would be fine.

My recommendation….is a bit tentative then. There really is a great book in here, and I’d gladly pick up a newer edition that addresses these flaws. So I would say “good but flawed” for now. If you’ve read everything I’ve posted to this point and really need something to read, check out Sex and War, but you couldn’t go wrong reading the first section on primatology at your local bookstore over a cup of coffee and calling it a day there.

UPDATE (2/28/11): This article at New Scientist pretty much mirrors the book and is 100 times shorter. Check it out!