From: Donald A. Collins
Book Review: Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World" by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden (Benbella Books,
Dallas, TX 2008)
TEXT: With endorsements high profile people such as Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and world's leading expert on our nearest to human primate, the chimpanzee, one can fully expect to find this book scientifically credible. It is a highly readable must read.
Sex and War will no doubt excite attention from all among the human species who still can read and think. Since that is quite a small minority, my fear is that its urgent and insightful theme will enjoy even among that sliver only an Andy Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Better not!
You may not be surprised to be told that the authors show with solid empirical proof that it is primarily male humans who bring us war, but perhaps you are unaware or unmindful of the driving force of male war making tendencies since the dawn of human history, the sex drive.
British born and Cambridge educated, Dr. Potts, now Bixby Professor at UC Berkeley, an obstetrician and research biologist has pursued his humanitarian work worldwide, including helping women in Bangladesh after the War of Liberation in 1972, then in countless other climes torn by conflicts. I met Malcolm in the 1960's when he was the first Medical Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation in London and since have served on several boards and done many travels with him. His co-author, Hayden, a freelance journalist, who is no relation to the Vietnam War Berkeley firebrand, Tom Hayden, also co-authored a 2007 book "On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq War Story" with Cdr Rick Jadick, whose experience in ministering to wounded there brought high accolades from readers.
Rather ironically Hayden's book truly may have helped spark his participation in Sex and War, for while tales of heroism and selfless bravery in battle are the historical standards for all such stories, "Sex and War" reminds us of our biological evolution. After all, for much of human history the most successful and dominant males went to war, took the spoils and raped women in asserting that dominance. You know, Genghis Khan, etc.
One can see why Goodall could be so enthusiastic about this book, since Sex and War shows how close to chimpanzee behavior humans are. Bands of young males raid rival territories, finding the fittest females in classic Darwinian behavior, and thus benefitting the next generations.
The step up description from chimps to humans allows the authors to cite similar behavior found in tribal wars, among inner city street gangs, and then in full warfare, whose aftermath Potts personally helped deal with in Bangladesh when helping war-raped women. Terrorists in our day obviously are imbued with stories of heroic male behavior, which is more powerful than the reported financial inducements. A comparatively benign manifestation of aggressive male behavior can be observed at NFL football games both on the field and in the stands.
Potts' understanding of the urgency of dealing with our now overpopulated planet leads to explanations of how that crowding leads to wars, again entered into often with enthusiasm by young males, motivated by patriotism, excitement over battle, or even escape from dull underemployment or unemployment. The authors then most logically point to one way of cutting terrorism and the risk of wars (of which we now see so many going on around the world) and "a path to a safer world" among nations we now can see are "failed" or getting close to failing is by lowering birth rates through planned parenting, birth control, and, yes, abortion. The authors clearly show that rarely in history have women been combatants.
Understand that Potts' wife, Martha Campbell, who co-authored significant chapters, like her husband brings extensive scholarship and worldwide travel to bear on illuminating a modern woman's view. While such views remain still far from full acceptance in many cultures, including our own, the book's strong recommendation for more women's education as a major contributor to better family planning availability and fewer unplanned pregnancies surely is de rigueur among anyone doing strategic thinking about solving our pressing global problems.
The deep biological nature of human evolution will not be altered easily. The world remains dominated by male leaders who all too often feel so bloody good about solutions than seem to require bloodletting. One could point to our Iraq invasion and countless prior sorties into battle which could have been avoided by less testosterone dominated negotiations.
Perhaps as the number of nations armed with nuclear weapons grows, as it surely will, major powers may be more globally fixated on planetary survival by means proposed by the authors. But then again, perhaps not. And of course people who purport to bring us absolute security have in history often lead us to absolute tyranny.
Potts had co-authored with world renowned anthropologist, Roger Short, a ground breaking earlier book, "Ever since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality' in 1999 which I reviewed for Amazon, writing "that the main evolutionary drive for humans and mammals generally has been and is SEX, for the key to our existence is the need to produce the BEST next generation. For many this book will prove an epiphany of understanding, a creation of more reverence for life, but one not based on the mythology of religion, but on the clear facts of science." Now in the nuclear age, where planetary destruction looms in multiple forms both nuclear and environmental we best find a new modus vivendi one which will provide a workable form of making love, but without war.
About the author: Collins is a free lance writer living in Washington, DC. His views are his own.