Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World

Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World

by Malcolm Potts, Thomas Hayden


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, February 21

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935251705
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 06/22/2010
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 951,441
Product dimensions: 6.46(w) x 9.04(h) x 1.24(d)

About the Author

Malcolm Potts, MB, BChir, PhD, FRCOG, is the Bixby Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. A graduate of Cambridge University and trained as an obstetrician and research biologist, his profession has taken him all over the world. Potts led a medical team into Bangladesh immediately after the War of Liberation in 1972, and he has worked in many other war-torn places including Vietnam and Cambodia, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Liberia, and Angola. His most recent books are Queen Victoria’s Gene and Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality.

Thomas Hayden is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about science, medicine, and culture. Formerly a staff writer at Newsweek and US News & World Report, his articles and reviews have appeared in more than 20 publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and The Washington Post. He is coauthor of On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story, a 2007 national bestseller. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and fellow writer, Erika Check Hayden.

Read an Excerpt



Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we were put on this earth to rise above.

— KATHARINE HEPBURN as Rose Sayer, The African Queen, 1951

THE MINISTER OF HEALTH threw the keys across the table with the words, "And second gear doesn't work." I had not requested that an ambulance be parked outside the house we had turned into a nursing home for the raped women. I merely wanted to know how I would find one if a surgical complication arose. But this was Bangladesh in 1972, after the War of Liberation, and I was an honored visitor doing a difficult task, so I was given a converted Land Rover as an ambulance, along with a driver. The Minister was right about second gear.

My most harrowing confrontation with warfare, in a life too filled with exposure to its consequences, was to witness the result of what may well have been the largest systematic rape of women in the history of the world. Pakistan had begun in 1947 as a single nation in two parts, West and East, separated by one thousand miles of largely hostile Indian territory. The two parts shared the same Muslim religion but were deeply divided by language and culture. When East Pakistan sought independence as Bangladesh, the ethnically mixed West moved troops to the mostly Bengali East to prevent secession, and a particularly bitter war followed. The Pakistani soldiers targeted civilians, shooting the men and raping the women. India entered the war on the side of East Pakistan and an independent Bangladesh came into being in December 1971 when the West Pakistan army finally surrendered. Shortly afterward, I led a team of doctors from India, Bangladesh, Australia, the U.S.A., and England who sought to provide what help we could to those women who had survived the mass rape and were pregnant as a result. We offered them abortions, and performed hundreds of the operations over several months. The pain, humiliation, and sheer human suffering I witnessed during that time have stayed with me ever since, and continue to help shape my thinking about sex, war, and human nature.

This book is about war. It is about terror, and cruelty, and the biological origins and long, brutal, vicious, and destructive history of organized aggression. Perhaps most importantly, it is about not just the depths to which human beings can sink, but also how we came to be this way and what we can do about it. We will show that killing other members of our own species — a rarity in the animal kingdom — is a male behavior that evolved early in our history, because those individuals who manifested such a predisposition were more likely to transmit their genes to the next generation than those who didn't. War and violence, then, are indelibly linked to sex and reproduction. This does not mean that human beings are inherently murderous, however, nor that war is inevitably as much a part of our future as it is a fixture of our past. In fact, we will show that humanity can take control of its most destructive impulses to build a safer, more secure world. Indeed, we have already begun to do so; despite our fiendishly effective weaponry and the very real and vicious presence of war and terrorism in the modern world, we are actually more at peace today than we have ever been.

In the pages that come, we will show that for most of history and prehistory, small groups of men who were prepared to attack their neighbors and steal their resources, and who could seduce or coerce women for sex, ended up having more offspring. Women, meanwhile, were more likely to improve their reproductive success — to have more children survive to reproduce themselves — by aligning themselves with successfully violent men rather than by joining raids and risking death themselves. Women will certainly fight courageously to protect themselves, their children, and their communities, but unlike men, they do not seem to band together spontaneously, go out, and attack and kill other people. Fortunately, humans have culture as well as biology. Our genes may provide violent impulses, but our minds, our hearts, and our laws and social standards are often quite good at tempering them. We will argue that while evolution has linked sex and violence over millions of years, civilization has given us the tools to separate the two again, and that this opens an important pathway toward making the world a safer place. To understand how, we must look closely at war and its impacts from a biological perspective. What we see when we do so can be distressingly ugly.

Of my foreign colleagues in Bangladesh, Dr. Geof Davis from Australia stayed longest after the war. He visited every hospital in the country, and estimated that 100,000 women had been raped during the nine-month conflict. Many of them were girls, hardly past puberty. They were malnourished and their pregnancies were well advanced by the time we arrived to try to help them, and unfortunately we did have the sort of medical complication I had feared would require an ambulance. Sometimes when a fetus dies in the womb, either spontaneously or during an induced abortion, the protein that makes blood clot accumulates around the dead tissue. Doctors call the condition afibrinogenemia, and it was the reason one of the women we were treating began to bleed copiously as we were trying to deliver her dead fetus.

We needed the ambulance — fast. But the driver had chosen that precise moment for lunch and had wandered off, taking the ambulance keys with him. After a harried search and much lost time we found the driver and the keys and set off for the hospital, now in desperate need of a blood transfusion for our patient. The young girl died as I cradled her head on my lap, traveling the potholed road from our nursing home to the hospital.

In a highly conservative Muslim society such as Bangladesh, to rape a woman is to destroy her. As we will see, there are biological reasons why men often strive to control women's reproduction, and rape during wartime — a disturbingly common phenomenon — may be an extreme example of that tendency. Regardless, the systematic campaign of rape tore Bangladeshi society apart from within. If a woman had been a virgin when she was attacked, she became unmarriageable; if already married, she was abandoned by her husband as unclean. The women brought to us came from various parts of Dhaka, the capital, and they lay motionless on the iron beds we had found to furnish the little nursing home. They never talked to us, or to one another, and even our Bengali colleagues could discover very little about them. Sometimes we did not even know their names. It took some time just to find out who our dead girl was and where she came from.

The Bengali doctors were deeply worried when they heard she had been raped not by a Pakistani but by a member of the Bihari ethnic group living in Bangladesh. The Biharis, originally from the neighboring part of India, were especially hated because they had sided with the West Pakistanis in their efforts to prevent the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. Moreover, while the Pakistani military had gone home after surrendering on December 16, 1971, the Biharis had been rounded up and put in a camp for their own protection, out of fears that their neighbors might seek revenge. My Bangladeshi friends feared that news of the girl's death would ignite a retaliatory attack on the Bihari camp. "Would you come to tell the girl's parents she has died?" they asked, thinking that if the news came from me, there might be less chance of community violence. I was not sure at all how a young English doctor could help quell a riot, but we all piled into the Land Rover for a second journey.

We ran out of fuel on the way to the girl's house, and by chance we were exactly opposite the Bihari camp. Some sort of disturbance was already taking place and a fire had started. By the time our driver plodded back with a can of diesel it was getting dark. We finally found the girl's home by asking the mullah at a nearby mosque as he was closing up after evening prayers. To reduce the risk of a riot, my colleagues had decided to tell the girl's mother that her daughter was very ill, and to bring her back to the clinic. The lane to her home was too narrow to take the vehicle, so we were parked at the end, where she met us. The girl's mother explained she needed to run back to the hut where she lived to get some things. We waited in the dark for her to come back.

The dead girl's mother never returned — she knew her daughter's condition, even if she did not know she was dead. If her daughter had died from any cause other than a pregnancy resulting from rape, my colleagues' fears of a riot most likely would have been realized. But the disgrace of rape was compounded by the stigma of abortion, which at that time in Bangladesh was regarded as so shameful and secretive that the girl's mother, likely assuming her daughter had had one, simply ran away rather than confront the situation. Women suffered thrice over in this war: they were raped, they became pregnant, and they endured shame and anguish over abortion. The despair and pain of sexual violence are all too common in war. But unlike the rest of the shock and awe of warfare, these torments are hidden from public view. They must be borne by each woman alone, one by one.

Systematic rape is one of the most hideous, and most explicitly male, expressions of warfare, but it is hardly the only one. All wars are extraordinarily costly in material terms and grotesquely painful in human terms. Yet wars are so much a part of the human experience that we don't always pause to realize that one of the most astonishing aspects of war is the very fact that we so regularly go out and deliberately kill members of our own species.

Even in the now-peaceful West, we do not have to go back very far in most families to find the marks of war. Often, we celebrate the courage of those who fought. My wife's uncle Douglas Campbell was the first American-trained flying ace in World War I. He shot down eight German planes in the spring of 1918, before he himself was wounded. My own father was in the British Royal Air Force the day it was founded in 1919, and again in the early days of World War II. My elder brother was a professional soldier who fought in Korea. I was a child in Cambridge, England, during the Second World War. I remember an occasional bombing raid, and my mother would sometimes invite clean-shaven American flyers from the nearby bomber base to dinner. I was too young to understand what it meant for tens of millions of men to be involved in cataclysmic global conflict, but I can still remember the unanimity of the British commitment to the war effort — and the universal hatred of Germans. Today, among my closest friends are Germans living in cities which the Allies bombed repeatedly in World War II. They confirm that the animus ran deeply in both directions, and I hate to think of the results had our families somehow met during the war. What drives such strong divisions between "us" and "them," and makes us so ready to kill our fellow human beings?

North Americans and Europeans today have lived through several decades of unprecedented peace in their own lands. People in the West no longer experience bombs falling on their houses or tanks rolling through their streets, and war has become something most of us see only on television. But that certainly doesn't mean we've lost interest. Many men especially never tire of reading war stories, and spend their time visiting battlefields or collecting memorabilia from conflicts long past. (Most women I have known have a strong sense that much of history is a catalogue of male destructiveness, and they tend not to want to spend as much time reading about tactics or heroic acts.) Wars and violence invade our fiction. The fantastic well-loved landscapes of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord ofthe Rings and brilliant cyber images of George Lucas's Star Wars series are not really about hobbits or intergalactic empires. They are about us: the human sense of justice and injustice, and our ready hatred of the "other" and blind love for loyal kin. There are reasons that we thrill to the spectacle of handsome young warriors defending some symbol, or rescuing nubile women — "nubile" meaning, literally, "suitable for marriage" — from an evil enemy. These stereotypes tap into readily identified volcanoes of human emotion and human biology. And they provide strong hints as to why we spend so much time fighting, often with immense courage, and trying to kill other members of our own species — sometimes in the most deliberately painful ways possible.

What I saw in Bangladesh shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but it was. I had traveled through West Pakistan extensively, studying family planning, and as a result I knew something about the towns and villages from which the Pakistani soldiers came. These rapists were not some subset of pathologically evil men — they were proud fathers who would gladly have laid down their lives to protect their own wives and daughters, and they came from a society with strict rules forbidding premarital and extramarital sex. Neither was the cruel link they forged between sex and violence an anomaly; their behavior was not a sign of a sick culture. Indeed, when a sample of American men was asked what would they do if they found themselves in a situation where they could rape a woman and know they would never be caught, over one-third said they would rape — and it's hard to imagine that as many men or more weren't so honest as to admit that truth. It does seem that human males — and this must include the male authors of this book, had they been dropped into a different set of circumstances — have an intrinsically nasty side.

Social scientists have studied all this, of course, and have come up with expansive descriptions of human violence in all its varieties. But explanations for that behavior seem to be in short supply. As a doctor, I am trained to believe that a list of symptoms simply isn't enough. We have to look for root causes if we are to make a proper diagnosis and find an effective cure. Fortunately, we do have many of the intellectual tools and scientific data we need to begin solving the conundrum of organized human violence; pulling them together is one of the key purposes of this book.

Sex and War might just as easily have been called Biology and War — at its heart, this book is about the biological roots of warfare and terrorism. We take the view that human behavior can only be truly understood through the lens of human biology, including the several million years of human evolution. And so it makes sense that one promising route to understanding ourselves is to look at other mammals, our biological relatives. We test our drugs on mice and dogs, and tens of thousands of people are alive because they have had a pig's valve sewn into their hearts. But despite the obvious connections in our biology, when it comes to human behavior many people are strangely reluctant to look at animal models. And yet we can learn a great deal about ourselves by taking a closer look at our mammalian cousins, through both our similarities and our differences. Dogs, pigs, and monkeys are all just as interested in sex as we are, and they too manifest violent behaviors; understanding why they generally do not set about obliterating their own kind, for example, may be a key to understanding why we do.


Ultimately, the evolution of every living thing has been driven by competition. It is a simple, universal fact that all living things, from bacteria to giant redwoods, reproduce more rapidly than the resources in their environments can support. And thus all living things must compete against not just other species, but also their own kind in order to survive. Competition was there, at the molecular level, when life first began literally billions of years ago, and it has continued to shape the evolution of life in increasingly complex ways ever since. Evolution as a result is a painful, callous process of separating winners from losers, driven by what Charles Darwin called the "war of nature."

In complex animals, such as birds or mammals, this competition for survival is frequently associated with violent behaviors. This occurs between species, within species, and even between males and females of the same species. Nowhere is this war of nature made more explicit than in the battles males of many species must win in order to mate. The male deer or bull elephant seal that competes successfully against his brethren and impregnates many females will pass his genes on to future generations; his losing competitors will not. Human behavior is considerably more complex than that of deer or seals, but for our species, too, it appears that more competitive, aggressive males have often made outsized contributions to the gene pool — a contribution that inevitably reinforces our warlike tendencies.


Excerpted from "Sex and War"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Sex and Violence 1
2. The War of Nature 17
3. The Missing Link 39
4. We Band of Brothers 63
5. Terrorists 99
6. Women and War 119
7. Raids into Battles 147
8. War and the State 175
9. War and Technology 213
10. War and the Law 241
11. Evil 265
12. The Future of War 283
13. Women and Peace 303
14. Stone Age Behaviors in the Twenty-First Century 333
15. C ivilization at Its Best 365
To the Reader 385
References 389
Index 411
About the Authors 457

What People are Saying About This

Randy Olson

In this impressively comprehensive treatment, Potts and Hayden step as far back as possible from the human race to assess the root causes of social upheaval. (Randy Olson, author and director, Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus)

Sean B. Carroll

Will transform your outlook on war, peace, and what needs to be done to secure a safer world. (Sean B. Carroll, author, Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Making of the Fittest)

Jane Goodall

Potts and Hayden make an important contribution as they explore our evolutionary origins and make suggestions as to how human society might reduce warfare in the future. (Jane Goodall, primatologist and environmental activist)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Grady1GH More than 1 year ago
SEX AND WAR: HOW BIOLOGY EXPLAINS WARFARE AND TERRORISM AND OFFERS A PATH TO A SAFER WORLD is a long title that may put some readers off as a sensationalist treatise. But excellent authors physician/women's reproductive rights activist Malcolm Potts and award winning scientist Tom Hayden have managed to create a book that not only informs but also entertains. This is a book that reads like a fine novel - only the writing is all based on research and peppered with photographic images that heighten the controversies it contains. Though the book is hefty at over 450 pages, the chapters are plotted with a keen eye on maintaining the momentum of the message: war is innately a virile reaction, a male behavior, and the only hope to ending the cycle of constant war and terrorism is to introduce the nurturing effect of the feminine psyche. Change is a must and the manner in which the authors explore their thesis is rich in thought and touching in the manner in which it is written. They are brave enough to write controversially: 'In an increasingly dangerous world we need to analyze future scenarios as objectively as possible, using the best evidence. But we are becoming more religious, not less so. In democracies, religious fundamentalists are influencing policy and in the Muslim world fundamentalists are filling shortfalls in education. Fundamentalist teachings, whether Christian, Muslim, or any other religion, end up restricting and controlling women, which in turn makes wars and terrorism more likely. The twenty-first century is seeing a clash of cultures, but that clash is not between Islam and Christendom. Rather, it is between fundamentalism and reason. Reason's child, science, may entice us with new ways of killing one another, but it also teaches us to rein in our most aggressive tendencies.' There is much to learn from the vantage of both Potts and Hayden, and gaining their insights is as entertaining as reading a truly fine novel! Grady Harp
Olathe More than 1 year ago
Great read!
buchowl on LibraryThing 7 months ago
"If you want peace, understand war" (Basil Liddell Hart). This book makes sense of the senseless. A little background on me first, I'm first generation German and my 'significant other' is a retired career Marine (I knew him for several years before he joined the Corps so I have a before/after comparison of him). I've never been able to understand how reasonable, logical men could consider war a good thing and/or how they could be trained to kill/torture other human beings. This book has presented an argument/theory that makes sense of this. The author is an OB/GYN who has worked in war torn countries and who can give a first hand account of what happens war situations. Pulling no punches and making no apologies, the author explains how the psychology/physiology of young men makes war/conflict all but inevitable without mitigating influences. But this book is not only an explanation of the war instinct (with sex being the driving motivator) but also presents a well thought out solution to helping peace 'break out'. Ignoring the issues of over population, resource depletion and the subjugation of women at our own peril we can choose to make a more peaceful future by addressing solutions. The situation is not hopeless but it requires action; inaction could cause the same kind of catastrophe as happened on Easter Island but on a global scale. A very important read, recommended to and for everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago