Approaching Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson’s popular 1996 book Demonic Males from today’s perspective is a crash course in the convolutions and confusions underlying the ‘culture wars’.1

Like the Middle East, culture wars — particularly the battles over ‘nature vs. nurture’ — are at first glance fractiously polarised. Loosen the grip of polarisation a bit, and dig deeper, and strange alliances and disavowed affinities proliferate.

This is my first Wrangham book. In my rough map of this culture war, his assertion of innate brutality allies him with controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon (who argued that Yanomami people are chronically violent, and demonstrate that male violence is an adaptive human trait2 ) and Steven Pinker (whose liberal neo-Victorian grand narrative sees civilisation as categorical progress away from a Hobbesian ‘nasty, brutish and short’ state of nature3 ).

Imagine my surprise to learn that Wrangham’s a pacifist vegetarian feminist.

Wrangham is a primatologist, a student of Jane Goodall, whose ground-breaking observations of wild chimpanzees transformed our view of these, our closest relatives. Goodall was shattered to discover that chimps were prone something she, along with everyone else, thought was a uniquely human trait: pro-active violence between groups. ‘War’, if you will.

Some4 have argued that this observation was tainted by Goodall’s interference. She’d started making her job easier by luring wild chimps to her camp with supplies of bananas. This, some claim, disrupted their natural foraging habits and contributed to — perhaps created — the conditions for ape war.

Wrangham counters that such violence has also been observed where bananas weren’t thrown into the mix.5 Further, it seems that the close relative of the common chimpanzee (and ourselves) — the bonobo or ‘pygmy chimp’ famed for its peaceable, sex-loving, female-dominated social ways — was not goaded into inter-group violence by human-provisioned food supplies.6 If the disruption of environmental ‘nurture’ was the cause of the chimp violence, why did the ‘nature’ of bonobos not also succumb?

Of course the key takeaway here is that nature and nurture are mutually interactive, not competing causal explanations. Common chimps seem to possess a genetic capacity lacking in bonobos, which requires particular environmental conditions to manifest as behaviour.

Wrangham generally concurs with this sensible view. However, his rhetorical focus is a battle against a real or perceived over-valuation of environmental factors. So, as his work filtered into popular discourse, it was inevitably tarred as being an over-valuation of innate factors.

The title is clearly the key culprit in creating this perception. The religious rhetoric of evil and demonism is freighted with heavy essentialist baggage, baggage which can carry simplistic Darwinian theory as readily as it can carry simplistic moralism. You can point your finger at the publishers for questionable attention-grabbing like this, but this rhetoric is sustained throughout the text. And commercial attention-grabbing has a seamless border with the academic impetus to carve a space in popular consciousness for your pet research angle.

That said, there’s a certain metaphorical justification alongside this inflammatory religious language. Perhaps setting out to kill without provocation is as deserving of the label ‘evil’ as anything else. However, if we think of evil as a peculiarly human thing — the infliction of suffering above and beyond utilitarian animal violence — then this doesn’t quite fit with the argument here, that pro-active violence against neighbouring groups does have a utilitarian evolutionary (‘adaptive’) purpose. And if we look from the other direction, seeing ‘evil’ acts like war and rape as being in some way adaptive, we begin to overlap with murky rhetorical territory best suited to perpetrators of those acts, and contrarian anti-social blowhards. Either way, it’s unclear that the rhetoric of evil helps anything in a pop science work but book sales.

Assessing the popularity of sides of the debate is another area where we can see Wrangham’s idea of redressing the balance against Rousseauian nurture advocates slip into see-saw polarisation. He discusses the discovery in the 1970’s of the Tasaday, an apparently peaceful, isolated group of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, who were lauded as innocent primitives in National Geographic articles and a bestselling book.7 It turned out that the Tasaday were actually poor farmers, paid by a man in league with President Marcos to fraudulently claim timber and mining rights in that area. Wrangham says: ‘Their Pleistocene innocence was an invention of unscrupulous exploiters, schemers from the urban elite of a modern nation who knew exactly what would sell to the outside world.’

I’ve no qualm, of course, with the condemnation of this hoax. But it’s disingenuous to paint the Rousseauian image as the only one that ‘sells’. Those who attack Rousseauian images are caught (wilfully or not) in a partial understanding of the word ‘romantic’. Perhaps its association with romantic love leads them astray? But love is the site of angst, conflict, and intense violence as well as blissful idylls. As anthropologist Ter Ellingson has noted:

There has been some tendency in the literature on the Noble Savage to equate ‘romanticism’ with ennoblement, that is, to assume that to romanticize is to exalt or eulogize, ignoring or minimizing the tendency of romanticism to seek extremes of every kind, from the highest to lowest, the most exalted to the most degraded of human emotions.8

Besides the saccharine romance of natives living in Eden, there is the colonial romance of the noble white anthropologist risking life and limb to document the lives of savage brutes in the depths of the dark forest.9 And the Hobbesian vision of a war of all against all is romanticised in the cold fascist passion for competitive violence. Wrangham is a million miles from this icy romanticism, but the weaponised rhetorical targeting of warm, airy romanticism risks blindness to the undoubted and problematic appeals of this other brand of romantic wares. Too often people like Wrangham comfortably position themselves as rational realists fighting naivety, sidelining their potential naivety about the role their rhetoric plays in cultural discourse.

Well, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that hard science folk are a bit tone-deaf to the turmoil of cultural conversations. The career of Richard Dawkins is an object lesson in this respect. But what of the hard science here?

The pivot of Wrangham’s argument appears to me to be the bonobo. How did this species, separated for millions of years from common chimps by the River Zaïre, become so unlike their bellicose cousins? Wrangham contends that the gorilla is the key. Gorillas are found north of the Zaïre, alongside chimps, but not to the south with the bonobos. Gorillas mostly feed on young leaves and stems of herbs — which also form a significant part of the bonobo diet, alongside the fruits and occasional meat which chimps rely on. Apparently the fact that gorillas monopolise much of this plant food — which is easy to snack on as your group wanders — means chimps don’t have much access to it, and must range further to seek out fruiting trees. Because of their easy access to these eat-while-you-wander resources, bonobos sustain larger, more stable groups than chimps do, and here rises the opportunity for females — often burdened with their young — to spend more time together, and form coalitions which mitigate against male dominance. While Wrangham steers clear of essentialising the problems of violence with male-led hierarchies, the fact that these problems are generally masculine ones is of course a major contention here. Bonobo female-dominated hierarchies tend to be non-linear, and mediated more by sex than by violence.

Female alliances, then, seem to be crucial to curbing the destructive excesses of male aggression. This seems like a strongly feminist lesson to draw from the study of our close relatives. The customary feminist objection to Wrangham’s take attacks his emphasis on the innate genetic basis for both female alliances (the bonobo) and male brutality (the common chimp). It’s understandably seen as undermining the scope for a cultural shift away from the masculine violence endemic to our civilisation’s inheritance.

What struck me here, though, is the extent to which — emphasis on genetic innateness aside — Wrangham’s argument sits comfortably with the contemporary feminist notion of ‘toxic masculinity’. The book’s title speaks of an emphatic agreement with this idea. Of course, the social constructionist retort is that highlighting any innateness to brutal male dominance acts culturally as an ‘excuse’, of the ‘boys will be boys’ variety. This is important, but I think we need to go past the polarisation of ‘genetic’ and ‘cultural’ arguments about the source of male violence, into an honest assessment of the complex interactions of these entwined causal factors.10

That said, Wrangham certainly overreaches in constructing an image of a brutal state of nature for humans. He takes common chimps to be ‘surprisingly excellent models of our direct ancestors’.11 The archaeologically mysterious expanse of the bulk of Palaeolithic human life is quickly filled in by drawing a straight line from chimps to the emergence around 7000 BCE of a walled fortress at Jericho,12 leaving us with the narrative of a ‘continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression.’13 Again, it’s important that we challenge the other naive idea, of late Palaeolithic / early Neolithic conflict entering as a novel stain on an entirely peaceful hunter-gatherer past. But diametrically opposed theories are only moderately useful, as very blunt instruments to challenge their counterparts. And it’s important to remember that in terms of serious scholarship, Wrangham’s reminder that there are ‘no truly peaceful foraging people’14 in the ethnographic record is largely dealing with a straw man emerging from the realm of outdated anthropology and popular idealism.

This erring on the side of the common chimp as our most direct predecessor is odd, given that Wrangham fully embraces the very different social tendencies of the bonobo, and our equally close relationship to them. (In fact, the latest research suggests we’re marginally more related to bonobos.15 ) But despite overtly fighting on the side of the ‘innatists’, and emphasising the prevalence of domineering patriarchy in known human societies, ultimately for him ‘patriarchy is not inevitable.’16 At a time when many question the very existence of ‘patriarchy’, to name it, decry it, and peg it as non-inevitable even if its foundations have some genetic component, seems like a radical position.

Overall, this book falls into a category which I’m increasingly used to: an important work which culture wars renders superficially objectionable to me, but which close engagement with results in fascinating and productive thoughts. I by no means agree with all of Wrangham’s speculations, but his primatological work deserves more attention than culture war allegiances might sometimes allow. A little more dialogue, shedding absolutist demands reminiscent of physical war, seems in order, to avoid the ideological entrenchment which can become a trigger for the destructive actual conflicts which most of us want to mitigate or avoid.