The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer

By Knapp, John V. | Style, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer


Knapp, John V., Style


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.

I.

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).

II.

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). …

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