Speaking Volumes: Homicide

February 17, 1995

Anne Campbell on Martin Daly and Margo Wilson's Homicide .

I confess. I was, for a time, awe-struck by verbal sophistry. It began when a reviewer described one of my books as "refreshingly free from jargon".

Everyone knows that this is academe-speak for simplistic, naive and far too accessible. Entranced by slippery concepts and arcane vocabulary, I began my flirtation with social constructionism. It was a club whose members identified each other by obscure turns of phrase like "otherness", "reflexivity", "emergent properties" and "inserting the agent". I soon learned to stop asking for definitions and appropriate empirical methods because these questions were met with the sort of awkward silence that follows the worst kind of politically incorrect remark. They revealed me for what I really was - an epistemological reactionary in deconstructionist clothing. Any kind of cause-effect explanation was "extra-discursive" and so dumped in the garbage can of the irrelevant and pre-enlightened. Soon I was sneering with the best of them and post-scripting every other discipline with the obligatory "reductionism" -- cognitive reductionism, statistical reductionism, economic reductionism.

Imagine my smug expression then at an American Society of Criminology meeting, when two Canadians took the floor and announced that the explanation of youthful male violence lay in evolutionary psychology. Before the words "biological reductionism" were fully formed in my head, they were showing slides of Detroit homicide data and, without a hint of embarrassment, explaining the relevance of drosophila reproductive strategies. And this was not naivete -- it was downright, astonishing chutzpah. Here were two Darwinian Daniels facing 4,000 post-modern criminological lions. So gob-smacked was I by their audacity that I could barely take in what they were saying but I did notice one thing: they were speaking English. It was perfectly comprehensible.

When I got home I rushed to the library and took out Homicide by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. The linchpin of the idea was parental investment. Children charge mothers a higher price than fathers in terms of time and energy. Eggs and milk are expensive to produce, costly to the mother's own biological needs and slow to make. Sperm are two a penny. Women put a ceiling on a man's reproductive success. They are the gatekeepers of his genetic immortality. In a polygynous species (one where male fitness variance is greater than females') as we were in the Pleistocene, men had to compete for women. Consequently, at this crucial time when our brains and bodies were evolving, the sexes became dimorphic. Males were slower to reach puberty, had shorter lives, and were physically larger and more muscled than women. Men had to compete for women because to opt out was a kind of genetic suicide. Those males who were most successful in dominating other males and attracting females came out the winners and left behind equally successful sons. Bravery, fearlessness and risk taking were the masculine currency of fitness.

Could these qualities have been preserved as a specific strategy in the minds of young men even today? Because of concealed ovulation, men could never be certain of their own paternity. What strategies might have evolved in the male psyche to increase the chances that all his parental effort was not being wasted on another man's DNA? The fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory were wheeled in to explain the most daring form of behaviour that Daly and Wilson could have picked - homicide. Carefully they made their predictions and wheeled in their confirming data; young men should kill more than older ones over all cultures and all historical periods, male-male homicide should be the most common pattern, it should occur most in unemployed groups, men should be acutely attentive to signs of infidelity in their wives to the point of treating them as chattels and children should be at more risk of injury and death from step-fathers than from biological fathers. You get the picture.

What is amazing about the book is its directness, accessibility and its power. It walks right into mainstream sociology and accuses them outright of being biophobic and - worse - that their biophobia is the result of widespread ignorance. Sociologists who might grudgingly admit that evolution has shaped our bodies for some reason draw the line at brains. Even those that will admit evolution may have had something to do with the development of our massive cortex will allow only that it has given us the "capacity for culture" rather than specific problem-solving strategies. Stubbornly, sociologists continue to cling to their untenable but necessary assumption that culture is wholly constructed and infinitely variable. By seeing cultural diversity everywhere ("mothering is understood differently in every culture and social class") they deny the obvious universals (everywhere children demand and receive more care, time and attention from mothers than from fathers).

But be warned: evolutionary theory has the same compulsive and eye-opening appeal as Marx and Freud. Once you buy Darwin, you see him everywhere. Because he was writing about the mechanisms and meanings of life and death, he addressed the most profoundly emotion-laden events of our lives. I can no longer talk about jealousy, love, mothering, anger and altruism in quite the same way again. I have found a theory that speaks of big issues in a language I can comprehend. Or maybe I have just found a new discourse.

Anne Campbell is a senior lecturer in psychology, Durham University.

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