The Dark Side of Man: Tracing the Origins of Male Violence. (Book Reviews: Human Evolution)

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GHIGLIERI, MICHAEL P. The dark side of man: tracing the origins of male violence. xii, 323 pp., table, notes. Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1999. [pounds sterling]17.95 (cloth)

This book claims to uncover the roots of homicide, war, and 'terrorism'. Since the author is a well-known primatologist -- described on the dust-jacket as 'a protege of Jane Goodall' -- I expected a controversial but at least scholarly account. I was wrong.

Each chapter -- 'Rape', 'Murder', 'Genocide', 'War', etc. -- begins with a tabloid-style sensationalist account of pathological violence. In the case of the 'rape' story, this is particularly harrowing, leaving few details to the imagination. As its climax approaches, the narrative suddenly breaks off, whereupon Ghiglieri -- now donning his 'scientist' mantle -- elaborates on the inescapably violent sexual urges of the human male.

'Murder is coded in our DNA', Ghiglieri tells us, 'just as it is in the genes of our close ape cousins' (p. 154). Mountain gorillas are 'natural born killers' (pp. 129-33). The great apes lead lives 'shaped by instinctive social "rules" that are violent, sexist, and xenophobic' (p. 8). Among apes, 'not only does "might make right", but superiority in combat is the only sure road to reproductive success' (p. 12). Humans share with our mammalian relatives the same 'basic biology', hence the same political drives -- explaining why 'ten times more men than women worldwide are politicians' (p. 26).

Ghiglieri is no social or economic historian. For him, a male is a male is a male. Osama bin Laden, Idi Amin, an assortment of psychopaths and rapists, wild-living mountain gorillas, and !Kung Bushmen are lumped together as case-studies -- the latter counting as war-like' rather than 'harmless' on the basis that they 'defend waterholes and foraging areas' (p. 164).

Having dealt with hunter-gatherers (he himself having been an 'international wilderness guide among remote and primitive tribesmen', p. x), the author warms to his theme. 'Now we return to the big question: are men born to be lethally violent? The answer is yes. Aggression is programmed by our DNA' (p. 30). War 'is a male reproductive strategy' (p. 165). 'Human murder is no accident. Instead, murder is encoded into the human psyche' (p. 133). 'Wars erupt naturally everywhere humans are present' (p. 163; author's italics throughout).

So what cure does Ghiglieri recommend? 'To stop violence', he writes, 'we must decide that our justice is lex talionis justice' (p. 256). The 'we' invoked here is - transparently - the United States. Ending terrorism requires a 'leap': 'This leap must propel us to patriotic loyalty within our national community and carry us beyond it toward global cooperation between nations' (p. …