Erika's Reviews > Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World

Sex and War by Malcolm Potts
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Nov 16, 08

bookshelves: history, nonfiction, science, military
Recommended for: people interested in science, history, gender, the military, and world peace
Read in November, 2008, read count: 1

The big idea of this book is that human evolutionary biology helps explain why human beings - almost alone in the animal kingdom - organize groups that go out and intentionally kill other members of our species. But this doesn't mean we are condemned to fight each other endlessly; in fact there are a few major things we could do to stop global violence - such as giving people access to family planning all around the world.

The authors - one of whom is my husband, journalist Thomas Hayden - draw on evidence and examples from history, animal behavior studies, and personal experience to make their case, and the lively, broad-ranging nature of their discussion is the real strength of the book. The authors visit all kinds of places in world history, from chimpanzee raids in Africa to family planning clinics in Bangladesh and the battlefields of ancient Greece. They use their case studies and examples to argue that human males have a genetic predisposition to engage in what they call "team aggression" - the destructive behavor that can lead to war and terrorism.

But the authors are not genetic determinists; they do not believe this means men must always behave this way. They acknowledge that men inherit other, competing drives, as do women, and that by giving women a larger voice in society we can moderate the violence. That's the link to family planning; without the ability to decide when to have children, the authors argue, it's difficult for women to play an equal role in their families and communities.

It's an interesting and provocative argument. And I found some of the book's examples of the destabiliing effects of unchecked population growth very telling - for instance, in the recent eruption of violence in Kenya. But whether you agree or disagree with the authors' ideas, the book is a fascinating read, thanks to its wealth of examples and its engaging, reasonable tone.

I wish there were more books like this - adventurous and well-written, integrating all kinds of information from so many areas of human knowledge and applying them to seemingly intractable problems. I know I'm biased, but Tom is a seriously talented writer and he has done a beautiful job with this book. And his coauthor, Malcolm Potts, is venturing into territory broached by far too few scientists, by trying to synthesize his own expertise with other types of human knowledge to better understand the world. Together they have written a far-reaching and engrossing work that will change the way you think about humanity.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by William (new)

William a very thoughtful and well-written review that makes me want to read the book. it sounds like an interesting argument. and the examples seem like they would be entertaining. i'm sure i will be arguing with the authors as i read some parts. but that's the purpose of a serious book -- to get people thinking.


message 2: by Alex (new)

Alex Personally, I choose my books on the hotness of their authors.


Erika Alex wrote: "Personally, I choose my books on the hotness of their authors. "

next time i'll just cut to the chase!




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