Sex and War by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden is the icon of a paradigm shift. Perhaps better than any other recent work, it marks academia’s final abandonment of the Blank Slate, final tossing away of ideological blinders, final acceptance of the abundantly obvious fact that we are predisposed to act in some ways but not in others by our genes, acceptance of the equally obvious fact that these predispositions are not all rosy and benign, but have been a major contributing factor to our species’ long history of warfare and violence, and recognition, at long last, that there are such things and ingroups and outgroups, and our behavior towards individuals is profoundly different, depending on whether they appear to us to belong to the one or the other. In the author’s words,
We suggest that the predisposition to form aggressive coalitions is so deep-seated within us that all humanity is compelled to live by two profoundly contradictory moral systems. We have the morals of the troop, expressed by “Thou shalt not kill,” and the morals of the aggressive male coalition, also explicitly spelled out in the Old Testament, “And when the Lord they God has delivered (a city) into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword… Whether we want to or not, we all distinguish between our ingroup and various outgroups.
This pretentious “suggestion,” of course, amounts to nothing more than a belated acceptance by the authors that writers who said the same thing decades ago were right after all. For example, from Sir Arthur Keith, writing in the 1930’s,
Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.
Somewhat later, Robert Ardrey wrote about the same behavioral traits a great deal more clearly, in a much pleasanter style, and with a much better grasp of their implications for the future of our species. He referred to them as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and devoted a chapter with that title to the subject in The Territorial Imperative. Of course, Ardrey was a mere playwright who, lacking the academic gravitas of such worthies as Potts and Hayden, “rose above his station” in insisting on such a palpably obvious aspect of our nature at a time when the orthodox in anthropology were still bedazzled by the Blank Slate. As readers of this blog are aware, his reward for such pretentiousness has been the gross distortion of his legacy and consignment to oblivion. And as for Keith, comically enough, the authors actually do mention him, but in a context that has nothing to do with his writings on ingroup/outgroup behavior. Apparently they were loath to be upstaged. But I digress.
Actually, one should cheer on reading a book like this. It represents the victory of an obvious truth over the quasi-religious dogmas posing as “science” that prevailed for decades in the behavioral sciences, according to which human nature was either nonexistent or insignificant. Alas, I could only sigh. It’s a bittersweet book for anyone who’s actually been paying attention to what’s been happening in the field now referred to as evolutionary psychology for the last 50 years. Fifteen years ago, Potts and Hayden would have been almost universally vilified as fascists and demons of the right for publishing such a book, just as Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz and E.O. Wilson were in their day. Now, instead of chanting “four legs good, two legs bad,” the academic sheep are chanting “four legs good, two legs better,” just like in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ironically, Potts and Hayden belong to the very milieu of the academic left that would have been foremost in hurling down righteous anathemas on their heads 15 years ago. Apparently all unawares, they still live in the ideological box of that most obscurantist and dogmatic of ingroups. It’s delicious, really. They give a perfect description their own ingroup in the book without even realizing it.
Allow me to illustrate with a few quotations from the book. Of course, every good ingroup must have its outgroup or, in the vernacular, bad guys. For Potts and Hayden, these are the usual stock villains of the academic left; conservative Republicans, Israel, evangelical Christians, evil white people against pure and innocent Indians, etc. For example,
On May 26, 1637, during the war with the Pequot Indians in New England Connecticut Colony, a Puritan army commanded by John Mason surrounded a small wooden fort in which “six or seven hundred” Pequot Indians were sheltering. Mason ordered the wooden palisade surrounding the fort set on fire. Only seven Indians escaped alive.
This bit of “history,” in all likelihood unbeknownst to Professors Potts and Hayden, is such a vicious and outrageous lie that it’s worth addressing it at length. From a work entitled “History of the Indian Wars,” published in 1846 by Henry Trumble, who was anything but an inveterate hater of Indians, we read,
In June, 1634, they (the Pequots) treacherously murdered Capt. Stone and Capt. Norton, who had been long in the habit of visiting them occasionally to trade. In August, 1635, they inhumanly murdered a Mr. Weeks and his whole family, consisting of a wife and six children, and soon after murdered the wife and children of a Mr. Williams, residing near Hartford.
In spite of many such outrages, the colonists signed a treaty of peace with the Pequots. Trumbull continues,
Soon after the conclusion of peace with the Pequots, the English, to put their fair promises to the test, sent a small boat into the river, on the borders of which they resided, with the pretence of trade; but so great was the treachery of the natives, that, after succeeding by fair promises in enticing the crew of the boat on shore, they were inhumanly murdered… A few families were at this time settled at or near Weathersfield, Ct. the whole of whom were carried away captives. Two girls, daughters of Mr. Gibbons of Hartford, were in the most brutal manner put to death. After gashing their flesh with their knives, the Indians filled their wounds with hot embers, in the mean time mimicking their dying groans.
The colonists had no illusion about their fate if they were defeated by the Pequots. As it was they could hardly hunt or cultivate their fields and were in danger of starvation. If they suffered a serious defeat they and their families would likely be butchered. The “army” Potts and Hayden referred to consisted of less than 100 men, the entire effective fighting force of the Connecticut colony. It was accompanied by several hundred Indian allies who, at the moment of crisis, stayed in the rear and watched as noncombatants. It did not surround the Pequot palisade and coolly set it on fire, an act that would have been impossible with such a tiny band facing an effective force of several hundred Indian warriors inside. Here is how Trumbull describes the action:
When within a few rods of (the palisade), Capt. Mason sent for Uncas and Wequash (leaders of the Indian allies), desiring them in their Indian manner to harangue and prepare their men for combat. They replied, that their men were much afraid, and could not be prevailed on to advance any farther. “Go then,” said Capt. Mason, “and request them not to retire, but to surround the fort at any distance they please, and see what courage Englishmen can display!” They day was now dawning, and no time was to be lost. The fort was soon in view. The soldiers pressed forward, animated by the reflection that it was not for themselves alone that they were to fight, but for their parents, wives, children, and countrymen! As they approached the fort within a short distance, they were discovered by a Pequot sentinel, who roared out, Owanux! Owanux! (Englishmen, Englishmen.) The troops pressed on, and as the Indians were rallying, poured in upon them the contents of their muskets, and instantly hastened to the principal entrance to the fort, rushed in, sword in hand. An important moment, this; for, notwithstanding the blaze and thunder of the fire-arms, the Pequots made a powerful resistance. Sheltered by their wigwams, and rallied by their sachems and squaws, they defended themselves, and, in some instances, attacked the English with a resolution that would have done honor to the Romans. After a bloody and desperate conflict of near two hours, in which hundreds of the Indians were slain, and many of the English killed and wounded, victory still hung in suspense. In this critical state of the action, Capt. Mason had recourse to a successful expedient. Rushing into a wigwam within the fort, he seized a brand of fire, and in the mean time crying out to his men, “We must burn them!” communicated it to the mats with which the wigwams were covered, by which means the whole fort was soon wrapt in flames. As the fire increased, the English retired and formed a circle around the fort. The Mohegans and Narragansets, who remained idle spectators to the bloody carnage, mustered courage sufficient to form another circle in the rear of them. The enemy were now in a deplorable situation. Death inevitably was their portion. Sallying forth from their burning cells, they were shot or cut in pieces by the English; many, perceiving it impossible to escape the vigilance of the troops, threw themselves into the flames.
So much for Potts’ and Hayden’s tall tale about the “army” that coolly burned the inoffensive Indians in cold blood. The little band of 90 men knew that if they failed on that day, nothing would protect their wives and children from the Pequots who had demonstrated their ruthlessness on many previous occasions. If the authors or anyone else know of any source material disputing Trumbull’s account, I hereby challenge them to bring it forward.
Forgive me for going on at such length, but I get really tired of the “noble savage” schtick. Moving right along to Israel and the Republicans, we find them, too, consigned to the outer darkness reserved for outgroups, far from the enlightened halls of the wise, the good, and the just inhabited by the author’s academic ingroup:
We cannot remind ourselves too often of the ubiquitous nature of our Stone Age behaviors. On the same day in 2006, President Bush announced he would veto a Senate Bill loosening restrictions on stem cell research and permit the export of bombs to Israel to use it its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where collateral killing of civilians was certain. When I was a laboratory researcher, I needed a powerful microscope to even see a bunch of stem cells, and personally I would have been much less troubled by flushing stems cells down the sink than dropping a bomb on a house full of women and children. Yet our ingrained ability to dehumanize others is so strong, and our ability to “justify” war so facile, that intelligent and well-intentioned people spend more time worrying about embryos than children or adults – provided of course that those children and adults live somewhere else and are not part of out ingroup.
And so the good professors self-identify their own ingroup. I need hardly mention there’s another side to this story. Anyone worthy of the name of “scientist” should have been aware of the fact and mentioned it, whether they personally agree with it or not. Instead, Potts and Hayden are content to merely condemn their Republican and Israeli outgroups for “Stone Age behavior.” Here’s another example of “Stone Age behavior” that, coincidentally enough, once again relates to two other iconic “bad guys” of the ideological left, evangelical Christians and the military:
Michael Drosnin, who wrote The Bible Code, implying extraterrestrial forces embedded a secret code in the Bible only modern computers can unravel, was invited to brief “top military intelligence officials” in the Pentagon following 9/11. Whatever the original evolutionary benefit of blind faith in such patently ridiculous explanations of the world may have been, its application to modern international relations is clearly and wildly maladaptive.
This version of the Drosnin affair is more or less an urban myth, but it fits the narrative, so Potts and Hayden simply swallowed it, apparently without even bothering to do a little fact checking on Google. Apparently they found their version in the New York Times, which should have been an obvious tipoff as to its ideological provenance, but no doubt the Grey Lady is the soul of objectivity as far as the authors are concerned. The evangelical Christian outgroup comes in for a good deal more abuse, counter-intuitively, it would seem, as Muslims have been responsible for most of the deliberate religiously motivated mayhem against civilians. Remember, though, that we are in the realm of ideological narrative, not facts. For example, referring to the latest Gulf war,
Blair did not wear religion on his sleeve while in office, but Bush paraded his faith enthusiastically. His religious outlook resonated with many American fundamentalist Christians, whose contrived interpretations of the rambling Book of Revelation have sinister implications for war and violence. In one strain, a belief has emerged that the Temple of Solomon has to be rebuilt in Jerusalem in order for the Second Coming to take place – and that “keeping” Jerusalem Jewish is a necessary step on the way. Beyond being poor theology, this interpretation encourages foolish military action in order to hasten the coming of the end times, but still finds a receptive audience in the United States.
It struck me that this yarn about the sinister Christians lurking behind every bush in the United States had an unmistakable British ring to it, and, sure enough, Potts originally came from merry old England. If you’re interested in “comparative religion,” read Sex and War alongside Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, which is larded with lots of similar horror stories about the “American Taliban.” I think you’ll find the tone of the two books remarkably similar. As an American atheist, it seems to me our cousins from the old country have a marked tendency to lay it on a bit too thick when it comes to American Christian fundamentalism.
In short, what we have here is a chimera, a couple of professors who come from the same milieu from which the fiercest Blank Slaters used to emanate writing about ingroups and outgroups as if they were devoted disciples of Robert Ardrey, all ensconced in a thick, hoary crust of ante-deluvian leftist ideological shibboleths. One of the more interesting aspects of the book has to do with the relevance of its theme to moral behavior. Intellectually, the authors know, or at least pay lip service to the fact that there is no such thing as an objective, transcendental morality. For example,
Most people, however, still think of moral sentiments and religious convictions as transcendental things that come from outside of us, either reflecting some eternal truth, emanating from a supernatural power, or as instructions from a God who created us and who will reward or punish us according to how we restrain aggression or enhance empathy. History shows that this understanding of morality has not worked terribly well as a means to ending war. Our survival as a species will not depend on divine intervention but on understanding our Stone Age behaviors. Once we do that, controlling them should become an achievable goal.
And yet they simply cannot dispense with the cherished belief of all people who share the ideological box they dwell in that they represent the good, the true and the just, as opposed to members of the outgroups cited above who are slaves of the basest human behavioral predispositions. Of course, they cannot have a monopoly on truth and justice unless these things have an objective, transcendental existence of their own, so we have what Marx might have called a “contradiction.” As a result, a certain amount of doublethink is necessary. For example,
Before we look more closely at how we can rein in our warring impulses, we have first to understand the nature of what it is we are confronting. In English, we have one simple word that expresses it perfectly: evil.
In what sense does the term “evil” have any meaning if it has no objective existence? In fact the authors make it quite clear that, in their heart of hearts, they perceive morality as an objective thing-in-itself. It is not a product of evolution, but an entity having an independent existence of its own, often in conflict with evolution. For example,
…evolution is not only remorselessly amoral: it is also not nearly as efficient as we might like in pruning branches that come to bear toxic, destructive fruit.
Evolution doesn’t make morality obsolete, any more than being hungry excuses a violent mugging.
Remember that evolution cares not a whit for morality, it has provided human males at the bottom of the social pile ample reason to risk everything, including violent death, rather than live a passive, sexless life without passing on their genes.
Such statements are complete gibberish, absent morality as a thing-in-itself. Evolution may not “care” about morality, but morality does not have any existence whatsoever other than as a subjective subset of the human behavioral repertoire which is itself a product of evolution. It has no independent existence other than as an evolved behavioral trait. When you say that evolution does not make morality obsolete, my dear professors, pray tell me what morality you are talking about. Well, we can excuse this particular instance of doublethink. After all, without virtuous indignation and a smug feeling of moral superiority, life would hold little joy for the average ideologue of the left. Apparently the realization that they had just sawed off the limb that they and their moral superiority were sitting on was a bit much for Professors Potts and Hayden to bear.
In any case, the two find grounds for optimism. As they inform us,
Now we are finding ways to extend ingroup morality beyond national boundaries to embrace all humanity.
How, exactly, they plan to do that after roundly denouncing that vast bloc of humanity unfortunate enough to have landed in one of the familiar outgroups of the left is beyond me. Do they plan to invite them all to the University of California at Berkeley for a seminar on anger management? Perhaps they will be good enough to let us know in their next book.
No matter. We, too, can be optimistic, dear reader, for while Sex and War may be a tedious ideological tract, it is also one more data point confirming that we have finally landed safely on the far side of a paradigm shift. It and many other works of its kind emanating from the hoariest and most obscurantist caverns of academia serve as announcements that, yes, the Blank Slate really is stone, cold dead. We have finally gained acknowledgement that such a thing as human nature really does exist, and that is no small thing.