The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer. By Jonathan Gottschall. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2008. xii, and 223 pp. $34.99 paper.
This double issue of Style seems an especially appropriate place to review Jonathan Gottschall's new book. Almost as a retort to some of the respondents in this issue who demand what could be called a variation of "show me the money," Gottschall employs adaptationist thinking to investigate what are perhaps the most widely discussed literary works in western culture: Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Gottschall's book started out about ten years ago as a dissertation under the direction of the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, who has since founded the exciting interdisciplinary program in the evolutionary studies of the humanities and sciences (EvoS) at SUNY Binghamton, and if even only some of their graduates produce books as interesting as the one under review, then both they and we may look forward to some fascinating times ahead. Gottschall quotes the Homeric scholar, John Myres, as "savoring his understatement [that it] is not easy to say anything new about Homer ... after more than 2,500 years" (2), but the former continues by suggesting that, if it is to be done, the novelty must come from one of two places: "discoveries of new evidence, or applications of new perspectives" (10). The Rape of Troy is one of the latter, and "analyzes Homeric conflict from the perspective of modern anthropology and evolutionary biology; it is best described as an evolutionary anthropology of conflict in Homeric society" (3). In his account, "Homeric society" "refers not so much to Homer's fictional construction as to a specific scholarly reconstruction of the real world from which the epics emerged" (3; emphasis in the original).
Summarily stated, The Rape of Troy (RT) begins by noting how close to "sudden violent" death Homeric men (and women) habitually lived during what Gottschall calls the "Late Dark Age" of Homeric society (11), the period of time following the collapse of Mycenaean culture in the late thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC, or roughly between 800 and 650 BC (22). His arguments comprise three major issues: I) The "patterns of conflict in Homeric society converge beautifully with those described by anthropologists and ethnographers across a strikingly diverse spectrum of non-state societies" of the kind typically found in the "small, poor villages" of the Dark Age Greeks (3, 23). For Gottshall, "all forms of Homeric conflict result from direct attempts, as in fights over women, or indirect attempts, as in fights for status and wealth, to enhance Darwinian fitness in a physically and socially exacting ecological niche" (3).
His second argument states that "patterns of violence in Homeric society are tantalizing consistent with the hypothesis that Homeric society suffered from an acute shortage of available young women relative to young men. The institution of slave-concubinage meant that women were not equally distributed across the circum-Aegean world [but were] concentrated in certain communities" and often within the "households of powerful men" (4). Later in the book, Gottschall supports this claim by pointing to some basic biological facts: males have "small, cheap sperm" in contrast to females' "large, nutritious, and expensive eggs," and the consequence of this imbalance for sexually reproducing species is the "fundamental shortage of female reproductive capacity relative to male demand" (44-5) under any circumstances. When the absolute number of females generally is held artificially low, the "value" of a female's reproductive capacity thereby "rachets up ... [as does the] costs that males are willing to "pay" for access to it, measured in the currency of risky competition and/or other costly physical and behavioral traits" (45).
His third argument claims that "this model helps to illuminate the origins of specific features of Homeric philosophy: [an] oppressive miasma of fatalism and pessimism pervades The Iliad and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, The Odyssey." While "the desirability of peace is obvious, Homeric men--like their fathers and grandfathers before them--feel that they are doomed to perpetual conflict" (4).
This almost sounds like a wonderful metaphor for literary critics and scholars. To help contribute to the un-ending controversies in Homeric studies, Gottschall draws on what he calls the "promiscuous interdisciplinary ... science of antiquity," thus placing his work "in an old and illustrious tradition of Homeric scholarship" (5). Citing such well-known scholars as Ullrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, and later Millman Perry and Alfred Lord (15-21), Gottschall argues that Altrerurmswissenschaft (science of antiquity) had as its goal no less than to "revivify and reconstruct every facet of classical civilization" and demanded "unfettered disciplinary miscegentation" (5). He intends much the same, bringing "Homeric studies into contact and conversation with the large and vibrant areas of intellectual ferment from which they have been isolated." However, since his intended audience is the general reader and the "interdisciplinary community of scholars using evolutionary theory and research," he can "only skim the surface of some deep controversies in Homer studies, evolutionary biology, and anthropology," relegating "specialist material to the notes" (7).
The first two chapters cover material already mentioned above: the dating of and reconstruction of when and how the two epics were created, and a brief history of what Gottschall calls the Late Dark Age of Greek antiquity in the post-Mycenaean age, and a short ethnographic description of Homeric society. In a world rather like the Caucasian area currently under conflict among the Georgians, the Ossetians, and the Russians--with multiple, mutually incomprehendable languages divided up among relatively isolated ethnic groups highly suspicious of one another's motives and ambitions--"Homeric Greeks lived in semi-isolation from each other" (27), separated by mountain walls and the vasty ocean deeps. Living in small villages (the use of the word, Polis, was appropriate for city-states some centuries later), people in each settlement "were headed by a group of influential males" known as basileis (singular, basileus), a kind of chief whose "position of dominance was tenuous and limited," based on his "personal leadership capacity rather than hereditary status" (32-33). These leaders relied on their "powers of persuasive speech," second in importance only to their "military powess." Lacking dictatorial rights, the basileis relied on persuasion, "charisma, and a subtle tongue" (34). These skills were important because the Greeks of the "Late Dark Age were involved in nearly constant low-level raiding and feuding with other Greeks, punctuated by rare larger-scale wars" (37). From an early age, young men were taught military skills; hence, taking revenge for wrongs was a cultural imperative, with the revenger being "lionized" rather than disapproved. Gottschall intends to demonstrate how, "from an evolutionary perspective, these many proximate causes of intense and pervasive conflict among and between groups of Greek males were ultimately nootered in reproductive rivalry," the "main objective of this book" (38-39).
Chapter Three is a lengthy discussion of the evolutionary biology and anthropology of male violence. Gottschall reminds us that "anthropology has revealed no aboriginally peaceful peoples, much less the prelapsarian world of primitive harmony envisioned by Rousseau and his many followers" (41). Indeed, all "evidence indicates that lethal intergroup conflict has been part of the human condition for at least tens of thousands of years." The question of why males are more violent has been touched upon above: "the fundamental shortage of female reproductive capacity relative to male demand" makes males "who are better able to compete for access to scare female reproductive capacity," in whatever form the competition takes [peacock plumage; Olympic gold medals; seven houses to call home, etc], pass on genes more effectively than rivals (44-45).
Males need only invest a bit of time and some cheap sperm. For female mammals (who tend to be highly discriminating in selecting mates), their minimal costs arc far more extensive, include forgoing mating opportunities while in gestation, and all the costs--in about 95% of mammalian species--of fostering young. Because female mammals invest so heavily in reproduction, that investment is, for males, "a precious resource worthy of competitive risk-taking." Hence, Gottschall quotes Robert Trivers who argues that "the terms male and female are not essential properties of "maleness" or "femaleness" but properties of low or high parental investment" in their offspring (46).
Thus, from a Darwinian perspective, "sexual selection has shaped men to compete for women and for concrete material resources and for intangible social resources because they arc all reproductive resources" (49; emphasis in original). Gottschall makes clear, it should be noted emphatically, that his book attempts to "integrate biological and socio-cultural analyses, not to enshrine one over the other. The evolutionary approach cannot replace approaches operating a different analytic levels: the best it can do is complement them" (50). To summarize, the "unremitting cycles [of violence among Greek males] may help to illuminate both the tragic elements of the Homeric world view and the frequently cruel and capricious natures of the gods and late" (55).
In the next chapter, Gottschall complicates any critically dismissive ideas of simple sexual desire on the part of males as singular motives for the Trojan war. He revisits the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over the slave girl, Briseis, arguing that tensions between the two--both political and sexual threads--cannot be disentangled. The "political dispute escalates dangerously precisely because it hinges on rights to a desirable woman that one of them loves" (60). His basic idea in this example illuminates The Odyssey as well: "men attempting to gain sexual access to women claimed by other men" is the reason for the primary conflicts in both epics (63). Gottschall turns for corroboration of his claims to the "entire Cycle of epic poetry, of which Homer's poems were initially only a small part" (73). The picture that "emerges from the tatters of the Cycle is one of strife in foreground and background narratives: of murders, wars, raids, and abductions and rapes of women." When the Greeks sack a city, the patterns is virtually always the same: city looted and destroyed, men killed, women carried off into concubinage and bondage. The symbolic relationship between toppling of citadels and the violation of women within is expressed in the [Greek] words, kredemnon luesthai (to loosen a veil), which can either mean to sack a city or to breach a woman's chastity" (75).
In Chapter five, Gottschall discusses the "proximate" reasons for Greek touchiness, that "men are socialized to strive hard for altitude in the dominance hierarchy ... governed by the dictum" always be the best and superior to others" (82). As top dogs in the pack, so to speak, "higher ranked individuals receive a larger share of precious, contested resources, including mating opportunities, than lower ranked individuals" (85). These resources in Homeric Greece especially include those associated with simple food "in the face of climatically induced shortfalls in production" (89). Hence, partly as a result of the ever-present threat of hunger, capturing the enemy's livestock is a prime goal of all Homeric raids" (90). Likewise, the worth of a potential bride required that the suitor "must first be able to afford a substantial transfer of resources to the potential bride and her family--the more desirable the bride, the more substantial the transfer" (93). Thus Homeric conflict "flows from three [major], proximate sources--competition for women, social prestige, and wealth--all feeding into the ultimate goal of enhancing reproductive success" (94-95).
Warriors are willing to take the risks of deadly competition for resources not only for the positives entailed but also because they wished to "avoid the social consequences of failing to take the risk." All the sweeter then the victory because they shoulder "great risks in combat," while the battle shirker would have to "live with the disdain of women, who demand courage and respect courage in men" (98-99).
Chapter six examines closely the roles and issues of women in Homer's world. While their strategies "for surviving and reproducing are different from men's--most striking in that they are less likely to entail violent aggression--they are no less complex, effective, or potentially Machiavellian" (100). Although in general, beauty was, at least initially, a woman's greatest asset, they also used "the few tools their society [could not] deny them--sharp intelligence, manipulative stratagems, and sexual allure--to defend and promote their interests in spite of their muscular and political disadvantages" (107). Thus, making a "good marriage was by far the most important challenge a Homeric woman faced in negotiating her fitness landscape" (108). Homeric marriage customs appear to be of the most common anthropological type" where the interests of daughters and families are substantially (but not perfectly) aligned, and so the family and bride "negotiate" the ultimate choice (112).
Gottschall's next chapter goes to the heart of skepticism about his major thesis: that "intense male competition was the result of a persistent and pervasive shortage of available young women relative to young men" (120). Although I will not rehearse his detailed arguments in this review (cf. pg. 138), he lists several reasons why what he calls "sex-ratio manipulation"--including the greater productive value and hence cultural preference of sons--resulted in what Gottschall calls "excess female mortality (EFM) "and the large and often violent numbers of males "competing for the opportunity to bear of fruit" of sexual needs.
If one assumes the plausibility--Gottschall calls it "playing an educated hunch" (138)--of these arguments, then his last full chapter captures what he thinks is the tragedy of the Homeric epics: Homer's insistence that "every glorious victory forces inestimable sorrow on a man and his entire family" (144). While he acknowledges the important differences between the two, "equally important commonalities are downplayed" (147). Homer's "neat ending" of The Odyssey belies what Gottschall sees as a recognizably Homeric "tone, and texture of morality, philosophy, and outlook" as Odysseus tells Penelope that "their trials are not over--measureless toil, long and hard, awaits them" (149). The key question is asked: why in the midst of the "blessings of peaceful existence" do they squander this beauty? Why, even when they seek out peace, do they so often find war?" (150).
Gottschall uses the metaphor from game theory called "the Prisoner's Dilemma" (PD), one too familiar to readers of Style for me to rehearse here. Suffice to say, that when a society's sex-ratios are strongly masculinized (favoring males), that this practice "engenders a vicious cycle: "manipulation of the sex ratio ... creates shortages of females, which creates an incentive to raid for women, which leads to violent retribution, which exacerbates the need for warriors, which increases pressures to manipulate the sex-ration in favor of males, which exacerbates the shortage of women, which increases the incentive to raid, and on and on" (151). "Prisoner's Dilemma. at its core, describes a tragic paradox produced by the pursuit of individual good over collective good" and those caught up in its dilemma are themselves "prisoners of nothing so much as vaunted human rationality and natural sell" interest (153). In its radically simplified form, PD captures "the essence of many Homeric conflicts" where "individuals cannot safely behave differently," hence the emphasis on the tragic fate (155, 158).
Gottschall's conclusion draws parallels between lions and men. He asserts that "the evolutionary view of human potential is appreciably more rigid than the liberal philosophical paradigms that have dominated intellectual life since the Enlightenment. In place of utopian visions ... evolutionary theory offers only the hope of some unspecified level of diminishment of human suffering and malfeasance" (163-64). He says that "we are what we are--magnificent, gentle, bloody-toothed--and there may be limits to how much we can change" (164).
Nonetheless, as I hope this review has intimated, the first step for the human race is self-understanding, and one of the largest reasons for studying the humanities and the past generally is that we are aware--in ways Homer's heroes could not--that sacking a city now holds far more danger for the planet that it ever could have back then. One could argue that evolution has not been in arrested development over the last 3,000 years and that--so far at least--we have lived with some forbearance in a world of assured atomic mutual destruction.
Gottschall's book is a fascinating step toward understanding the past with the intellectual tools of the present and is well worth the attention of both the general reader and the Homeric specialist alike.
John V. Knapp
Northern Illinois University…