Planet of the Apes

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch BY Jonathan Gottschall. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

The cover of The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch

I STARTED TAKING MUAY THAI in the spring of 2008. This was a full four years after Stanley Crouch walked up to me in a West Village restaurant and, in what can only be described as a bitch move, shook my hand and slapped me in the face. Despite the interval, many of my friends seemed to think I was plotting vengeance for what had been, after all, a pretty humiliating encounter. But the duller truth is that it had never occurred to me to hit Crouch back—not when he slapped me, nor in the following weeks.

Don’t get me wrong: I was pissed. Crouch slapped me, after all. At a restaurant. In front of a friend. On my birthday. And though he reportedly told ZZ Packer, his lunch companion, that he “shouldn’t have done that,” he had a gay old time painting himself as the avenging angel of the literary world. But it was only four years later, after I started taking Muay Thai, that I actually imagined the two of us facing off. Whenever someone told me that Crouch and I were scheduled to attend a pending event, the same picture would pop into my head: Crouch would call me out, but this time, instead of asking him to leave, as I’d done at Tartine, I’d egg him on until, inevitably, he threw the first punch, at which point I’d respond with a single roundhouse kick to his knee. Crouch’s sixty-year-old knee would snap like the proverbial pretzel stick, after which I’d saunter over to the bar for another cosmo—or limp, probably, or crawl, since I’m pretty sure I would break my ankle with the blow (assuming, of course, I managed to land it).

Cover of Man’s Life, January 1957. Illustration by Will Hulsey.
Cover of Man’s Life, January 1957. Illustration by Will Hulsey.

IT'S BEEN YEARS SINCE I took Muay Thai; years, too, since I thought much about Stanley Crouch. Nevertheless, this was my obvious point of entry to Jonathan Gottschall’s The Professor in the Cage, which the author describes as “part history of violence, part nonfiction Fight Club, and part tour of the sciences of sports and bloodlust.” In fact, The Professor in the Cage is a straightforward work of popular science bookended by what Gottschall himself calls a “memoir stunt”: One day in his late thirties, Gottschall, a “cultured English professor,” decided to join the mixed-martial-arts gym that had opened across the street from his campus office, with the ultimate goal of engaging in at least one professional fight. By Gottschall’s account, the decision was motivated by dissatisfaction with his job as an adjunct teaching freshman composition, but the subsequent narrative complicates this explanation. Gottschall refers to his 2012 fight as “the culmination of a [two-year] journey,” yet he seems to have been “fascinated by fighting,” at least since the mid-’90s, when he watched a video of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s inaugural bout, between Teila Tuli and Gerard Gordeau. At the end of that twenty-second bloodbath, “Gordeau left the cage with . . . one of Tuli’s front teeth broken off inside his foot.” Gottschall likens the experience to watching porn for the first time. He was “sickened” by the spectacle but “couldn’t look away,” and “in the ensuing months I frequently visited the video store, where I guiltily lurked through the section that included UFC tapes.” Finally there is the admission that “from grade school through high school, I attracted bullies.” But lest you pity the younger Gottschall, he hastens to tell readers: “I probably would have behaved the same way if I’d had the fangs and the claws for it. I wasn’t a good kid, just a weak one. In high school I occasionally managed to identify someone even weaker and more isolated than me, and I did my small part to make his life even harder and sadder than it already was.”

In college he “hit the weights,” building himself into “a 210-pound heavyweight who could bench-press more than 300 pounds”; afraid that strength alone wasn’t enough, he “took up karate” and studied it for more than fifteen years.

Thus by the time one of his MMA buddies tells him, “You do have a dark side . . . but you are so nice that you probably don’t know it,” the assessment feels a little off. Gottschall seems to want readers to believe that, yes, he has “a dark side,” but that he was unaware of it until MMA put him in touch with his all-too-human violent urges. What actually comes across is a literary critic looking for a personal exegesis that will justify certain aspects of his character that have troubled him since childhood. “If it sounds like I’m captive to a barbaric version of masculinity, I plead guilty. My only defense is that I’m not alone. As we’ll soon see, this barbaric masculinity is typical of our species, not just our culture.”

The justification for Gottschall’s “barbaric version of masculinity” comes by way of evolutionary psychology, whose tenets inform the larger portion of The Professor in the Cage. The simple truth, Gottschall tells readers, is that men are violent because it’s “etched in the DNA of our species.” But although Gottschall refers frequently to “studies” and “science,” these terms function more as talismans than signifiers; he never says which genes, chromosomes, or protein strings regulate the propensity for violence. Rather, he beads together a welter of anecdotes and factoids about a variety of bellicose behaviors in humans and other primates and, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, concludes that the human behaviors must be evolutionarily derived from animal forebears. From “duelly eyes” to “dominance hierarchies” to “nothing fights,” it’s all a version of “the monkey dance,” a sweeping term for “all of the wild and frequently ridiculous varieties of ritualized conflict in human males.” The monkey dance’s many forms, though cloaked in complex and often esoteric idioms across history and cultures, run “perfectly parallel to animal versions,” he insists.

Forget for the moment that Freud told us a century ago that human beings were simmering pots of rage just waiting to boil over, and that second-wave feminism has spent a good fifty years diagnosing the cultural evolution of patriarchy. Never mind as well that if Gottschall’s etiology were true, society would be run by a few silverback eastern gorillas, and that it’s pretty well established that human success isn’t a product of our physical strength or our wonderfully opposable thumbs but rather our brains: our ability to learn, communicate, and adapt an extraordinary range of behaviors—an ability that no other species comes close to. Gottschall’s leap from behavioral similarity to genetic causality is based on nothing more than a selective catalogue of circumstantial evidence—as scientific reasoning goes, it’s on a par with Jenny McCarthy’s assertion that vaccines cause autism because her son manifested symptoms of autism after he got vaccinated. But this appears to be evolutionary psychology’s preferred dialectic, which is perhaps why biologist and blogger PZ Myers calls it “garbage science”: “a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence.” I can’t claim to have read much evolutionary psychology, but Myers’s assessment seems an accurate description of what’s going on in The Professor in the Cage.

To take just one example: Chimpanzees, Gottschall writes, “love to kill,” and so do many soldiers, who “experience war as a thing near to heaven.” Chimpanzees are our nearest genetic relative: Ergo, bloodlust must be in our genes. What Gottschall fails to mention is that bonobos, who are genetically identical to chimps but separated from them by the Congo River (neither species swims well), don’t love violence, which lends credence to the theory that chimps’ warlike behavior is contextual rather than genetic. What’s more, spider monkeys, a New World species, perform raids that, in the words of Erin Wayman, an evolutionary anthropologist and science writer, “sound a lot like chimpanzee attacks.” But spider monkeys, Wayman cautions, “are separated from chimpanzees and humans by about 35 million years of evolutionary history and plenty of peaceable primate species,” so it’s hard to conclude that the three species “engage in violent behavior because of common ancestry.”

This predilection for just-so stories gets Gottschall into even bigger trouble as his book progresses, because The Professor in the Cage isn’t only concerned with “why men fight and why we like to watch,” as the subtitle has it: Gottschall also wants to know “why, especially when it comes to violence . . . do men differ so sharply from women.” The dismal and, alas, unsurprising answer is that female submissiveness is the natural complement to male aggression. But don’t blame patriarchy for this phenomenon, or even Homo sapiens. “The basic foundations of masculinity and femininity are much older than humanity” and in fact “extend across diverse animal species,” Gottschall tells his readers. The success of these presumed heritable behaviors has made modern men not just more “competitive and aggressive” than women but stronger too—and even slimmer! “Nature has fattened women up not only to maintain their fertility but also for the sheer sensory delight men take in women’s shapeliness. The artful distribution of female fat . . . is the essence of women’s physical beauty.” But it’s worse than that. “Men have ruled the world,” Gottschall writes,

not because they are smarter or wiser than women (they are not), but because they have been more likely to live life as an endless string of competitive monkey dances. High-achieving men—politicians, CEOs, Wall Street wolves—experience life as an open-ended dominance contest, with all its bluster and high blood pressure and sawed-off life expectancy. Far fewer women understand how to monkey dance or are interested in learning. Far fewer women feel that a life of endless, often silly, striving represents a good model of a life well lived. For many feminists conceding that men care more about sports by nature would be too much like conceding that the average man is more competitive across the board. And if this is the case, if worldly success comes down to a fanatic willingness to live in monkey dances, then the dream of a society in which power is fairly shared between the sexes may be exactly that—a dream.

Gottschall’s argument has, up until this point, confined itself to physical manifestations of aggression and competitiveness, yet in a single inductive leap he declares these behaviors a proxy for all forms of human endeavor—from architecture to politics, from finance to bricklaying, from software design to literature to gardening. Neither the parenthetical apology (“they are not”) nor the weak protests (“sawed-off life expectancy,” “silly striving”) with which he peppers this breathtaking generalization temper its noxiousness, nor do the equivocal addenda in the next paragraph: “Some commentators argue that a new era is already dawning, one where traditionally feminine virtues—the ability to cooperate, to reach consensus, to steer around conflict—will allow women to outcompete men, and to bring a close to the ‘age of testosterone.’” This feels perfunctory at best. Gottschall gives more deferential, and frequent, voice to the formulaic syllogisms of evolutionary psychology (“It’s simple biology: men seek out fertility cues; women seek out strength cues”), and it should come as no surprise that his book concludes with an unrepentant celebration of male violence on both the personal and social level:

A fight sets up conditions of harrowing adversity that calls forth heroism. It gives men the opportunity to suffer so they can show their bigness. Without fighting, some of the poetry would go out of life. Without war—without the widows, orphans, and wasted young lives—there could have been no Iliad. Without war, Hector would have had no proper outlet for his valor, or Odysseus his guile, or Penelope her shrewdness or steadfastness. Without war, they would have had no reason to cultivate those virtues in the first place.

MY MUAY THAI PRACTICE ENDED the day I walked into the gym and my trainer, Luca, told me mischievously that he’d arranged for me to spar with the client of another trainer. My opponent was a decade younger than I was, and a good four or five inches taller, but Luca pointed out repeatedly that my technique was better than his. He was fast but clumsy; I was slower but stronger, and, thanks to my flexibility, I had the ability, at least theoretically, to kick him in the face, whereas he would’ve been hard-pressed to get his foot above my abdomen. Even so, I had no desire to spar with this guy, because I knew he had one thing I didn’t have: namely, the desire to hit another person. He came straight for me when the bell rang, throwing sharp jabs and the occasional simple cross or low kick. I could hear Luca and the handful of observers yelling at me to hit my opponent this way or that, to kick him here or there, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. It just felt wrong. Adults don’t hit each other, and especially not the first time they meet. I kept reminding myself that we were mutually consenting participants in a controlled exercise, but it didn’t help. All I could manage to do was block his punches or, stupidly, turn to my trainer and mumble “I’m sorry” around my mouth guard. My opponent took this as an opportunity to punch me in the nose.

Finally I managed to throw a kick. It took my opponent’s legs right out from under him, and he sprawled across the mat. And what did I do? I mumbled “I’m sorry” again and reached a hand down to help him up, at which point he punched me in the nose again. Although I didn’t realize it at the time—good old adrenaline—my nose started streaming blood, and at the end of the round, after I’d refused to throw more than the occasional jab, my trainer stopped the match. The look of disappointment on his face was crushing, compounded by the fact that his limited English made it impossible for me to communicate to him how I’d felt in the ring. After two years of close camaraderie, he lost interest in me. He was as passionate about Muay Thai as I was about writing. He wanted to teach people how to fight, not help them lose a few pounds, and in the following days our sessions became mechanical and vaguely antagonistic. When the month ended, I declined to re-up.

What saddens me is that someone like Jonathan Gottschall will probably interpret my performance as a “submissive” gesture: I refused to fight because I knew I was going to lose, and so allowed my opponent to establish “dominance” over me without the risk of serious injury to either of us. But the only person I felt I failed was my trainer, just as my first clear thought when Stanley Crouch slapped me was: I just won. I’d already shown that Crouch was a terrible writer, and now he’d let everyone know he was a terrible person as well. All I had to do was wait for him to get bored and leave, after I’d asked him to, which, soon enough, he did. This didn’t feel cowardly to me, let alone submissive. Nor, for that matter, did it feel manly or brave. I simply felt no desire to hit him.

It was only after I took up Muay Thai that I began to fantasize about knocking Crouch down, and these fantasies went away after I stopped training. Is this proof that the desire for violence is something men are taught rather than instinctual? Probably not. But it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.

Dale Peck’s twelfth book, Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS, will be published by Soho Press in April.