Rachel's Reviews > Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

Demonic Males by Richard W. Wrangham
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Oct 07, 2007

liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction
Recommended for: naked apes
Read in November, 2007

Lots of books have disappointing endings and this one is no exception. These guys would do well to read up on political theory and rewrite parts of the later chapters. Still, there's lots of interesting stuff to ponder in here, fo sho.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Demonic Males.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-38 of 38) (38 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:59PM) (new)

matthew yikes! there's a loaded title!

message 2: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:59PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel I know. It was recommended by my anthropology professor. I think she was concerned I was having too many warm feelings about bonobos. Anyway, it's up my alley, as it's about both apes and violence: two of my favorite topics.

message 3: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:59PM) (new)

matthew I'M concerned you're having too many warm feelings about bonobos! godless creatures!

message 4: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:59PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel Some would say *you* are a godless creature, Matthew.

message 5: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:59PM) (new)

matthew sadly, they'd be mistaken. i am not, alas, the ubermensch. yet.

message 6: by Lesley (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:32PM) (new) - added it

Lesley My psychodynamic professor mentioned bonobos in class last week and I was really proud I knew what the hell he was talking about. Bonobos, like all mammals, experience REM sleep cycles and there is evidence that bonobo dreams contain imagery much like human dreams.

message 7: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:32PM) (new)

matthew there's at least anecdotal evidence (i'm too lazy to cite an actual study, though the question is being seriously looked into) that dogs' dreams contain "human-like" imagery. certain birds can, also, apparently, teach other birds to use tools. as you, of all people, should know, lesley, unless you're being taught utter crap (and lack critical faculties of your own), we barely know anything about the human mind; to imagine we know more about the minds of animals is hubris at its finest. there. that fulfills my self-righteous vegetarian statement quota for the day. y'happy, jessica?

message 8: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:32PM) (new)

Jessica Bonobos are famous for doing something that's gross and sexual and/or violent, but I forget what it is and for once I'm actually too busy/tired to wikipedia it.

message 9: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:32PM) (new)

matthew well, they do fuck a lot. i'm too tired, myself, to look into it further than that.

message 10: by Lesley (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:33PM) (new) - added it

Lesley Rachel told me they have oral sex. A lot. Like right there in front of everyone else!

message 11: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:33PM) (new)

matthew i'd really like to insert a joke about someone's mother, here (NOT ANYONE IN PARTICULAR!), but i shan't.

message 12: by Samantha (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:33PM) (new)

Samantha Wikipedia say: "Sexual intercourse plays a major role in Bonobo society, being used as a greeting, a means of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation, and as favors traded by the females in exchange for food. Bonobos are the only non-human apes to have been observed engaging in all of the following sexual activities: face-to-face genital sex (most frequently female-female, then male-female and male-male), tongue kissing, and oral sex.[15] In scientific literature, the female-female sex is often referred to as GG rubbing or genital-genital rubbing, while male-male sex is sometimes referred to as penis fencing.[16]

Sexual activity happens within the immediate family as well as outside it, and often involves adults and children, even infants.[17] Bonobos do not form permanent relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by gender or age, with the possible exception of sexual intercourse between mothers and their adult sons; some observers believe these pairings are taboo. When Bonobos come upon a new food source or feeding ground, the increased excitement will usually lead to communal sexual activity, presumably decreasing tension and allowing for peaceful feeding.[18]"

Hope that helps!

message 13: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel There is some controversy surrounding bonobos' sexy/peaceful reputation. A lot of that stuff in the Wikipedia article comes from a primatologist named Frans de Waal, who has studied captive bonobos extensively. De Waal has published a bunch of popular books that emphasize the differences between common chimpanzees and bonobos (aka pygmy chimps). He would like us all to belive that while chimps are nasty and violent, bonobos are peaceful and compassionate. It is true that captive bonobos engage in a great deal of sexual behavior, and behave like the hippies of the primate world. However, little is known about bonobo behavior in the wild.

message 14: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:33PM) (new)

matthew you're so clever, rachel.

penis fencing!

message 15: by Ariel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:34PM) (new)

Ariel Everybody should read this book:


message 16: by Lesley (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:41PM) (new) - added it

Lesley Regarding our conversation the other day, how come east coast/New England/New York boys seem so much more violent than west coast or mid-western boys? I mean, I know boys fight everywhere but the tendency toward that sort of behavior seems so much more ingrained out here. I mean, Red Sox fans? Jesus. Even my dad commented on the difference.

message 17: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:41PM) (new)

matthew i've noticed a difference in merely verbal violence. i often get in trouble, out here, for speech that is considered friendly, on the east coast. it's a pain. californians are so namby-pamby.

message 18: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel Well, certainly culture is a major factor. Aggressive behaviors are taught and learned. They are, no doubt, socially transmitted in the right field bleachers and the taverns of the Fenway.

The thing about this book is that it critiques the widely held notion that the cultural basis for human violence is independent of evolutionary biology. The authors make what I think is a very good and important point: that nurture versus nature is a false dichotomy. In fact, nurture and nature are more like compliments than mutually exclusive opposites. Violent human cultures are rooted in our complex mental and emotional systems. We are, by virtue of our evolved anatomy, predisposed to do a lot of learning, and that includes learning how to be violent.

message 19: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new)

matthew does it, by any chance, let slip that we're violent by very nature?

message 20: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel I really don't know what you mean by "by nature."

message 21: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel The whole point of the book is to explain that our "natural" inclination toward violence is neither purely biologically nor culturally determined. Both biological systems and culture can be considered "natural."

message 22: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new)

matthew i mean does he ever say we're hardwired for violence. i know you say he talks of the complimentary nature of nature and nurture, but i'm curious if he ever kind of lets out that he believes humans are biologically predisposed to violence, period.

message 23: by Lesley (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:42PM) (new) - added it

Lesley Despite the catch phrase "nature vs. nurture," I don't think I've ever been under the impression that anyone considers the two mutually exclusive. Nobody is free from the influence of both at every single moment. Everything we do is some combination of nature (what we are capable of doing) and nurture (what we have learned to do/what we are rewarded for doing). Violent acts are no different.

I have been witness to violent acts, both real and cinematic. I am reasonably confident that I am physically capable of some, though not all, of those violent acts myself. Barring a very real danger to myself or someone I love, however, I understand there would be nothing in the way of reward (respect, social standing, etc) for engaging in such acts. So I don’t. Plus, I’m squeamish (blood, needle, and injection phobias are thought to be more biologically based than many other phobias). For some people in different circumstances, the influences of nature and nurture may show themselves different ways.

From a purely biological perspective, however, I do think that we possess an innate survival instinct that kicks in under extreme duress and is capable of surprising each and every one of us. I believe this survival instinct, if triggered by ‘unorthodox’ threats and turned outward, can look very much like violence for violence’s sake.

Essentially, I think we are predisposed to behaviors of all kind, violent and otherwise, and we learn which behaviors work for us and which don’t. And if we’re all born with the same innate drives and similar potentiality, I think the difference between boys on the east coast and boys on the west coast is a terrific argument for the social learning component as the deciding factor. They’re just the same human boys, after all.

message 24: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

matthew hunh. that was very nicely summed up, lesley; you will make a fine alienist, i'm certain. i was looking for an excuse, but, then, i was brought up in a violent environment, anyway, so i have an out, as is. after the first bar fight i got into, i called my father, thinking he'd be proud of me (he'd always encouraged me to fight, as a lad). he asked if i'd won the fight. i didn't know (later, a poll [and the evidence - my opponent screaming "get this guy off of me!" - he really really started it...] showed that i had, but i hadn't considered this aspect of the situation, previously). my father proceeded to hurl invective at me. i called 'im when i got my staples, as well ('cause i KNEW i'd won that one!), and he yelled at me, some more. i no longer give my father fight updates. instead, i have recurring dreams of trying to kill him with a shovel, unsuccessfully. i may've strayed from my point... oh! i've often wondered if my fear of needles (which NLP, of all things, helped to cure me of!) wasn't, somehow, fairly intrinsic. getting stuck with steel just isn't right!

message 25: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Jessica She doesn't have her alienist license yet, Matthew.

message 26: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel I can't report with great authority the thesis of this book because I have only read the first half of it. But from what I have read, I am guessing (and hoping) that what will come out of it is this: that humans are predisposed to violence, but that we are also particularly well-suited (with our enormous forebrains) to learn how to live without it.

Naturally, it's difficult (and probably stupid to try) to sum up a 300-page book in a couple of paragraphs. I'll mention here that obviously we are not the only animals that attack or kill other creaures. This book defines and discusses a very specific category of violent behavior that we humans share with several other species, including chimpanzees.

I think the point I was getting at in my previous comment is a bit subtler than how I made it seem. I probably should not have written "mutually exclusive," but still, let's not ignore the "versus" in "nurture versus nature." In spite of our intelligent qualifications, we still understand it as a dichotomy. Although we can easily understand that both of these things exist, we also tend to try to separate them. For instance, the example about a survival instinct that kicks in under certain circumstances assumes a distinction between biologically- and culturally-determined behavior. In one circumstance, we rely on one, and in another, the other. I don't know how well my view corresponds to that of the authors of the book, but I would argue that both biology and culture are at work (in an interrelated manner) all the time, in absolutely everything that we do.

message 27: by Samantha (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Samantha dudes, i inject people with needles all the time! it's sick!

message 28: by Lesley (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new) - added it

Lesley Regarding my example, I think the survival instinct is biological and the perceived dangers and resulting behaviors are culturally determined. They work in tandem, but are two distinct influences.

I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel's assertion that "both biology and culture are at work (in an interrelated manner) all the time, in absolutely everything we do." That's precisely what I meant when I said "Nobody is free from the influence of both at every single moment."

And honestly, while I'm quite interested in reading the Demonic Males book, I find this conversation extremely interesting regardless of whatever it is Dale Peterson will ultimately conclude.

message 29: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Jessica The real question being, am I genetically pre-programmed to put everything off until the absolute last minute? Or did I somehow learn along the way that this was a really fun thing to do?

I have until 9am Wednesday morning to write the rough draft of my seminar paper (14-20 pp; I currently have six, but zero structure or outline, and I haven't written the lit review, and didn't take very good notes when I was reading, but I'm thinking "rough," you know?) and a five page CBT paper (BLEAGH), which could be a little bit of a headache as I haven't read anything since the midterm.... That's like, 34 hours, right? Which should be plenty of time, except if you subtract eight tomorrow for work (I'm going to try and sneak out early, so I'm not adding the commute), which leaves only 26 hours, which is still fine unless you take out 16 for sleep, which only leaves ten, which just really will not do at all, now, will it?

You know, this is fine. Totally fine. I just won't sleep tomorrow night, and Lesley can write my CBT paper for me, just like how she always used to do my physics problems sets for me so I'd say hi to her in the halls of Berkeley High!

See, this is why Carl Hiassan's next hilarious bestseller will be about me, and will be entitled Nurture Girl.

message 30: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)


message 31: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

Jessica Actually, I thought I had six pages, but it turns out one of them is all references, and another one is the title page.


(Um, sorry I'm not really contributing to this smart conversation. You can all pretend I'm like a weird, confused little monkey that somehow stumbled through your gathering on its way to the banana bush. Just like, don't throw rocks at me or whatever.)

message 32: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

matthew "like"? jessica, i suspect this is learned behaviour, but we're here to dismiss that notion, no? i said lesley "will make" a fine alienist - this is the future (something or other - i always want to say "perfect", but that's more a function of how i want my understanding of grammar [and, sadly, this is just one example] to be) tense. sleep is for the weak. i'm the weak. can you take a personal day (i feel bad enabling you)? i am, with panic disorder (i have papers for this, people!), the textbook example of the disconnect between true threats to survival, and contemporary simulacra (fucking firefox's dictionary sucks), thereof (papers due, as an example). hallmark commercials, and comic books, make me believe (fer realz) i'm in life threatening danger (feel, not think). i take a certain comfort in knowing that chimps share my irrational violent behaviour... though i shouldn't (as i was repeatedly told, this evening). you're contributing just fine, messica - YOU'RE A STAR! and, if you don't finish you papers, you have a promising career as a literary critic and/or gossip columnist to look forward to (i know i shouldn't encourage you. evil voice!).

message 33: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

matthew oh. though i know, intellectually, that there is no nature/nurture divide (except, perhaps, regarding rather specific things... like cerebral palsy), i go on feeling it, not unlike the mind/body divide. humans separate things into (often, opposing) categories, perhaps as a function of a deep structural grammar (also, it'd be a bitch if we didn't. [with hippies!])!

message 34: by matthew (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:43PM) (new)

matthew what the hell is it you do, samantha?! IN AUSTRALIA. does the blood of the people, thar, circulate in the opposite direction from that of the people in the northern hemisphere? this is my idea of a joke. I GET ALL THE LADIES!

message 35: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:44PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel Jessica, are you going to post your social work paper in the "Jessica's Writing" section of your Bookface page?

message 36: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:44PM) (new)

Jessica This paper is not amusing. There is nothing amusing about this paper. It's also very badly written. If I were to post it on Bookface, I'm sure many of my beloved Booksters would instantly abandon me.

Have you ever unfriended anyone on here? It's funny. A little box comes up and says: "Jessica must not be a very good friend! Or maybe she's not intellectual enough for you, is that it? Or you just think she's lame because she still hasn't put The Kite Runner on her to-do list, and has never read one single book by Cormac McCarthy... Are you sure you don't want to be friends with poor, simple Jessica anymore?" And then you click a little box, "yes" or "no."

message 37: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:45PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel I am considering posting my Neanderthals-as-victims-of-genocide paper, but I'll have to see how it comes out first. I mean, I haven't actually written it yet.

Lesley, when you read _Demonic Males_ you can go to Dr. Wrangham's office hours and ask him questions!

message 38: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:45PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel Back to the nature v. nurture question, I'd like to point out that there are very many clever academics in the nurture camp. As a reasonably well-informed feminist, I myself find the notion that we live in a world of social constructs to be extremely compelling. Generally "human nature" is a pretty lousy, overused, badly defined term. And a lot of the time when people attribute yucky behavior to some biological reason, (e.g. men rape women because they haven't been getting enough BJ's) it's pretty dubious. I think it's very sensible to focus on the ways that people learn those behaviors from society. So, even though I have always understood that humans are animals, too, I do think there is something to be said for the no-such-thing-as-human-nature approach to making sense of our world. The complexity of human culture truly does set us apart from other creatures.

However, I do think it's possible to make too much of this difference. As I keep mentioning, we certainly have a lot in common with some of the great apes. And, as we've been discussing, the organization of human society is not really distinct from evolutionary biology.

Anyway, so far I think this book does a good job of discussing the feminist view intelligently.

back to top