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on October 17, 2001
This is among the best books I have read. I originally heard Wrangham on an NPR show discussing some facets of this book & quickly sought it out. It provides an excellent evolutionary background and discussions of humans' closest relatives- especially our closest, the chimpanzee and bonobo, whose life patterns are distinctly different from one another and provide some insight into human behavior and possibilities. The book is very well-written and highly readable regardless of a reader's background on the topic.
I had to write after reading some of the negative reviews and misinformation on the book- especially the first editorial review. The book is hardly as dark and disillusioning as it leads one to believe- quite the contrary. I finished the book a few months ago and am still pondering it. Highly recommended!
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on January 22, 2011
Fact: human males are extremely violent. Fact: our ape relatives are similarly extremely violent. Highly plausible: humans, along with our ape cousins, have a strong evolutionary disposition towards violence. This prospect is troubling, a tough pill for many people to swallow. Yet the data on ape behavior that are beautifully presented in this book, a simple consideration of the savagely violent nature of human history (and prehistory), as well as the many psychological studies that reveal how quickly humans form hostile coalitions (in some studies due to a coin toss), combine to make the idea that humans are evolutionarily violent difficult to ignore. The primate data also strongly challenge the notion that humans are violent because their culture has made them violent. If violence is based on "culture," then why are all the other apes so violent? And why has essentially every human culture ever documented exhibited patriarchy and male violence? The far more parsimonious explanation is that humans have a long evolutionary history of violence in which violent behavior led to reproductive benefits. The pacifists got killed or out-competed by their pugnacious peers.

OK, but why did evolution choose violence? Why was violence necessary? Demonic males explains this question well. There is a broad trend among mammals for males to be the more violent of the two sexes. This is because males can have a gigantic number of offspring. All a male needs to do is have sex. Women, on the other hand, need to grow the child inside them, so their reproductive prospects are much more limited. This leads to ferocious competition between males in the rat-race to reproduce as much as possible. Yet Demonic Males explains that "violence" isn't simply a general purpose behavioral imperative that resides within all apes. Rather, each species of ape (as well as every other violent animal) uses aggression and violence in different ways that are appropriate to its context. Case in point: bonobos. In bonobo societies, females form alliances that effectively stop males from abusing females. The males are still violent, and there is still violence between different groups, yet female alliances have greatly reduced the male violence that rages within and without chimpanzee groups. A similar process has occurred in human history: the advent of democracy. In both instances, power has been diffused from elite individuals to many members of society, which reduces the violence that ape elites inevitably use when there is no effective resistance. In this light, Demonic Males offers hope. Yes, we have a violent nature--but it is not set in stone. Circumstances alter behavior, and humans have the intelligence to alter their circumstances for the better.

I disagree with most of the reviewers that say the authors extrapolate too liberally. In most cases they make sound generalizations. The Emotional Brain by Joseph Ledoux argues that emotional mechanisms are conserved across species. Considering how closely related we are to the other apes, there is definitely a strong case to be made for similar mechanisms creating violence in all the apes. They argue that neither apes nor humans act violently based on conscious calculation. Rather, we apes are guided by powerful emotional mechanisms that are designed to attain and preserve status. When status is threatened, or when it is up for grabs (or punches), the neural gears start turning and apes get violent. These emotions are geared towards achieving reproductive success, regardless of whether we are consciously thinking about reproduction. The authors label this emotion pride. Is pride even an emotion? It is probably a mixture of more elemental emotions, but they make a fine point. The Emotional Brain supports it on every level. The idea that nation states go to war due to pride is a bit more difficult to accept. They cite the Peloponnesian War as an example of this. But Thucydides himself says that fear is what made the war inevitable. I think fear plays an enormous role in large scale warfare as well as smaller acts of aggression. It is surprising that the authors didn't mention that. Nevertheless, this book is extremely insightful, well-written, and engaging. Definitely 5 stars. I recommend reading it in addition to War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley, which tells the frighteningly violent story of pre-civilized war.

And as a final note, this book definitely does not engage in "male bashing." The authors explicitly state that women play an essential role in male aggression, that is, by rewarding aggression with reproductive benefits. In some cases the agrressive male forces a woman to copulate, but in many other cases it is the woman who goes after the bad boy. This is so in modern human society, as well as in lion and gorilla groups--albiet in more extreme form--where marauding males who slaughter a female's cute little offspring often succeed in seducing the very same female. Thus, anyone who engages in male bashing simply does not understand the real ethological problem. Males don't consciously choose violence, and females aren't just passive victims of it. There is a larger force at work, which the authors of this book are well aware of. That force, of course, is evolution, which is the ultimate explanation for any act of violence. Luckily, we humans can distance ourselves from evolutionary constraints, but we can never be fully free from those constraints. We can mitigate violence, but, to the dismay of idealists everywhere, we will never eliminate it.
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on April 4, 2001
Critiquing this book from the vantage point of evolutionary psychology is like a present day aeronautical engineer critiquing the feasibility of DaVinci's helicopter specs. This is a popular book that makes a very important speculation about the possible origins of human violence. None of the negative reviewers mention the important and politically impartial hypothesis put forward by the authors that ape communities with abundant resources are less violent than those with limited resources. Also, there is nothing wrong with the feminist community rallying around this book. This book isn't about taking away male power, it is about mitigating all violence.
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on February 14, 2002
Excellent and scholarly book, parts of which will annoy the politically correct no end. Takes the myth of cultural relativism, examines it in the light of known facts and data, and then comprehensively stomps on it...
Has 30 pages of notes and another 30 odd of references, plus is strewn with footnotes - but dont worry, it is nothing like as dry and academic as that implies, this is a surprisingly easy read. It is just that it is also very thoroughly researched, and provides ample data to support the authors hypotheses and suggested solutiuons which are at times of a controversial nature. Not all of it is controversial by any means, there is as much here to delight the politically correct as there is to offend :-) Thats the joy of it, you know that these guys (and yes, both authors are male) are taking a balanced and fearless look into the depths of the problem of violence.
The field of sociobiology that this book delves into is an exciting and growing area of science that promises some real and lasting solutions to some of our more pressing problems. And when combined with these authors' insights from primatology and anthropology, then we have some powerful tools to enhance the world for all.
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on October 16, 1998
Wrangham presents some fundamental insights. Why do female gorillas stay close to their reigning silverback? Because only he can protect their babies from being killed by other silverbacks. Why do adolescent male chimpanzees intimidate every female in their group? So the youngersters will not be refused when it comes time for sex. Why do bonobos, physically similar to chimpanzees, behave in a much less violent manner? Because they evolved in a place where there were no gorillas to preempt an important food source. There are two kinds of male orang-utans, small ones that must rape to reproduce and large one that have no such need. These, and other insights, are carefully reasoned from the most recent field data. Perhaps not all of his explanations of ape behavior will stand the test of time but each of them is interesting and worth further research. The reader, male and female, is challenged into introspection: how much of the modern apes lies within our modern selves?
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on October 18, 1999
Don't misunderstand. This book has a lot of interesting information about apes. But when the authors try to extrapolate human behavior from ape behavior, they blow it. If you want to learn about human evolutionary psychology, try "The Adapted Mind" by Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby or "The Moral Animal" by Wright. If you're trying to understand the evolutionary origins of human violence, read "Homicide" by Wilson and Daly. If you want to learn about chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates, start reading de Waal. And if you want to understand just why nature is so nasty, read "The Selfish Gene" by Dawkins. After you've read those, you may be able to correctly interpret this book, but after all that, why bother.
The authors leave out a bunch of important information. There is no mention or analysis of Hamilton's inclusive fitness theory, Triver's reciprocal altruism theory or Axelrod's computer simulations of Triver's theory. The authors point out that homo sapiens is a patriarchal species, but fail to mention that, specieswide, women are much more sensitive than men to the socioeconomic status of their prospective mates and, unlike men, their sensitivity is directly proportional to their own status. (see "The Evolution of Desire" by Buss.) They never mention that, unlike the other apes and 97% of mammalian species, human males provide significant investment in their offspring, making husbands vulnerable to cuckoldry, which sometimes necessitates violent precautions and responses by the husbands and their genetic kin. The authors gloss over the critical importance of fitness variance within the male and female genders and differences between these two variances. The authors mention that, like orangutans, male elephant seals commit rape, but fail to mention that with the help of the females, about 5% of the males do about 80% of the breeding, increasing the odds of the other males' genetic death. They attribute the peaceful nature of bonobo society to massed female power but, unlike de Waal, fail to mention that males may accept this because females' extreme promiscuity thoroughly obscures paternity and almost certainly shrinks both male fitness variance and the difference in variance between males and females. And they reduce sperm competition to a footnote.
The book has the tone of a feminist propaganda piece. The authors repeatedly attribute violent male behavior to stable and internal factors while attributing violent female behavior to external factors. (For a different view, see "When She was Bad" by Pearson.) They adopt a narrow definition of violence which makes men look bad and women look good. (The most general definition of violence is: Individual A is violent toward individual B if (1) A gains, (2) B loses, and (3) B cannot keep A from controlling if and how the transaction occurs.) And unlike most books written by professional social scientists, this book uses the vocabulary of morality to describe issues of gain and loss. But morality is simply a methodology and set of rules to manipulate, modify and control other people's behavior, in other words, a mechanism for doing violence to its victims. That's why feminists virtually always cast women's self-interest as universal moral imperatives.
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What drives humanity to engage in its incessant wars? Why do men fight over apparent inconsequentials? Is rape a "natural" and "sex-driven" event, or merely the consequence of human cultural demands? These questions and a host of others are addressed in this superb survey of primate behaviour studies. Ever since Jane Goodall discovered chimpanzees sought colobus monkeys for dinner treats, new studies of primates have revealed arresting behaviour patterns. Like humans, other primates murder, rape and even make war. The authors have scoured a wealth of primate studies to derive a picture of our heritage. They suggest we learn what our cousins do in order to better understand what we do. Otherwise, we will continue to make bad decisions based on flawed assumptions.
Our fellow primates are avid territorialists, argue the authors. Borders unseen by us are clearly delineated by chimpanzees, orangutans and monkeys. These defined areas are hotly defended. The other side of the coin produces invasions. Opportunism, failing resources, or just spite, drives chimpanzee groups to stealthily scout and enter another band's range. Rarely, an individual will stage a foray, but only if he thinks success likely. Too often, the raids appear to have no particular purpose. A sally may lead to injuries or even death, but the attacking troop is just as likely to withdraw to its original range with neither captives nor booty. What prompts these seemingly mindless assaults? Are they inevitable among primates?
The latter question was answered, according to the authors, with the discovery of the "pygmy chimpanzee" or bonobo. This species contrasts sharply with its common chimpanzee cousins, who live in bands beset by tension. Common chimpanzees may raid other groups, but "back home" the hierarchical structure leads to internal conflict. Raids on other groups may vent some aggravation, but it's the struggle for dominance that rules common chimp behaviour. Bonobos, by contrast, use sex to resolve their social conflicts. Bisexual and same sex couplings are common and frequent. With no hierarchy to climb, males need not struggle for dominance. Although a senior female may wield some authority, even her "rules" are imparted by selected groomings or couplings with aggressors.
Bonobos are late arrivals on the evolutionary stage, having split off from the chimpanzee line after chimps and humans diverged from their common ancestor. Humans tended in some ways toward chimpanzee behaviour, toward bonobos in other aspects. Male dominance and most aspects of male violence stem from similarities to our nearest cousins, the chimps, say the authors. They stress that most human violence is rooted in our volutionary past. Although they're prompt to deny that this foundation cannot be overcome, they stress that we must understand these roots in order to make better decisions. Most significantly, they argue, we must shed the mythology of violence as a cultural artefact. This will be a difficult step for many, but it must be taken. This book will ease the path.
[stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Bonobos and chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans and their social behavior as it relates to ours. How we are similar, how different. Chimpanzees are surprisingly violent and make gang raids on neighboring tribes and kill (with their bare hands, by the way) if the raiding party has a big advantage. We and the chimps broke off from a common ancestor about five million years ago. We went out of the forest and onto the woodlands and the savannas. We learned to dig up and eat roots and of course bone marrow from kills. This is how we survived the loss of the forest and the recurring dry seasons.

We are a little less closely related to gorillas and orangutans, but the point the authors are making is we are the fifth ape, and it is valuable to study how the other apes behave so as to gain insight into ourselves. While the authors seem to lay the problem of human violence squarely at the feet of males, it is allowed-albeit only briefly and incidentally (p. 239-240)-that women choose these demonic males through sexual selection, and ultimately the problem of male violence is a human problem.

What is especially interesting here is the thorough examination not only of the violence practiced by apes, but of their differing sexual practices: gorillas form harems with a single silver back male getting most of the reproductive tries, while orangutans live alone and the males often engage in rape. In contrast the bonobos are so frequently and openly sexual that genital rubbing is a way of greeting while the father of the little ones could be any one of the males.

This is evolutionary psychology with a wary eye on political correctness. I note that Edward O. Wilson does not appear in the bibliography but Naomi Wolf and Andrea Dworkin (for example) do. In fact, this book is something of a blatant attempt to make evolutionary psychology palpable to women. The authors even have a category they call "evolutionary feminism" represented by "writers like Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Hrdy, Merdith Small, and Barbara Smuts" united in their opposition to "the patriarchy" (p. 124). This is all to the good of course because a thorough going understanding of human nature will lead us all to the inescapable conclusion that blaming one sex for the human problem of violence really misses the profound truth of sexual equality. The authors even suggest (p. 125) that "If all women followed Lysistrata's injunctions and refused their husbands, they could indeed effect change."

Amen. By the way: ugly dust cover.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves"
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on August 13, 2007
After spending some time postulating theories which might help explain the motives and actions of school shooters, I gathered a list of relevant keywords such as aggression, violence, hate, and male, (since all school shooters I know of have been male) I found myself drawn to a handful of books which I subsequently checked out from my local library. Among these books was a copy of Demonic Males, which I chose (thank God) to read first. I was not disappointed.

In this book Wrangham makes a careful academic study out of his theory that human males are inherently aggressive or demonic as he says, and that this trait is inextricably bound to our common ancestory with apes, and in particular, chimpanzees. He shows this by contrasting human and chimp behavior with other apes, and detailing the calculated murderous behavior exhibited by both species. The result is fascinating. Wrangham carefully shows that aggression is a behavior that evolved in chimps and humans because it enables males to attain a higher status, which in turn guarantees a high percentage of success when feeding and also passing down our genes by sexual reproduction. This search for status he says, to become the alpha male, is the driving desire behind every male, and I could not agree more. As a good example of an aggressive male myself, I confidently say that this desire for status is a primary occupation for all men, especially when they are placed in situations with other males. This, Wrangham asserts, and I also believe to be true, is always the case, regardless of whether the choice to seek a higher status is conscious or not. On an interesting note, he connects (however not assertively or forcefully) that higher animal intelligence in humans and other apes allows the animal to anticipate more effectively, and therefore it can see an obvious advantage to eliminating other males and taking their females and territory (as in the case of chimps) and in the ability of humans to effectively use weapons to kill massive amounts of other people while potientially suffering very few casualties. But Wrangham is tactful on these points, since it would be out of step with current PC thought to assert that the smartest animals kill each other simply on the basis of genes. He is careful to give culturally determined influences their shared blame in this regard, which helps to avoid exonorating those who commit violent crimes.

This is what I find most admirable about the book. Though Wrangham is a born and bred ethologist, he avoids emphasizing the nature side of the nature/nurture debate. Rather he labels that debate as an error perpetuated by Galton, the man who coined the phrase nature versus nurture in the first place. Here the author allows that both biological and cultural factors have their respective and undeniable effects on our behavior, and carefully explains the error in choosing either extreme.

Regarding my interest in school shootings, this book together with chimpanzee politics is essential reading when trying to understand what I would call the more unconscious motives of school shooters, and perhaps even the reasons as to why other males often fail to react aggressively and violently in such situations, given the lean odds for survival and the lack of pre-formed coalitions due to benign competition for alpha male status in a classroom.

If I can derive such information from this book where school shootings are scarcely even mentioned (it was published in 1996 before most memorable shootings), then most any reader interested in the possible reasons for inherently male aggression will delight in the reading of this text. Truly, I cannot reccomend it enough.
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on August 26, 2001
Demonic People This book is part of the new anthropological topic: The study of maleness. Although part of the premise is based on evolutionary-biology, this book squarely places a foot in the cultural anthropology camp where the manifestation of violence has to do with the structure of society. This no doubt will get the hard line evolution biologists and the hard line cultural anthropologist in a collective huff. The first part of the book is a good overview of where humans fit into the evolution tree. For those who learnt about the great apes and our relation to them before genetics proved that chimps are more closely related to humans, than gorillas and chimpanzees. This section is a good way to catch up on the newest evolution theories. Mixed into this section is a comparison of the offensive warfare of humans and chimps. The second part of the book, takes us into the jungles of African and Indonesia, and discusses the different kinds of violence that manifest between Orangutans, Gorillas, and Chimps due to their social structure. For example: Orangutans practice rape, Gorillas practice infanticide, and Chimps on the most part practice battering, but a mixture of all three does prevail. Then the third part of the book, discusses the behavior of a ¡§recently¡¨ discovered fifth species of great apes, the Bonobos. This species formerly believed to be chimpanzees, are the only peaceful society among the five great apes. T he authors posits that because of the sexual nature of these beasts and the practice of lesbian relationships between the females create a special bond and female centered power structure. Male violence is easily stamped out by female coalitions and thus violence is not a good reproductive strategy and through time has been weaned out of the bonobos society as well as genetic make up. From this, the thesis is human violence can be stamped out if females in our society gains more power and we as a society finds a different criteria outside of strong physical males as an ideal mate. Unfortunately, the authors then go onto a long spiel about human¡¦s relation to paradise in comparative literature. Which brings the book and its theories to its weakest point. I found it terrible disappointing that the authors would find a hardly read novel about a female centered society written in Victorian times to prop up their argument. However, with the 20 pages of oddball ranting aside. This book definitely is an interesting read on cultural implications of evolution and vice versa. And just a damn good read for those who are interested violence, in maleness, or primate behavior but find acedemic papers heavy going. It¡¦s definitely the first full length book on this topic and hopefully other better researched, better defined studies will come out of it. It¡¦s very much a manifesto of sorts, filled with funny and interesting anecdotes, such as orangutans practices oral sex, bonobos had to be taken out of zoos because of their promiscuity that upset grandparents, and less scientific than most academics would like.
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