Ever been in a bar fight? Maybe you sized up your romantic competition, acting out the question evolution planted in your DNA: “Can I beat up these dudes to get the girl?” Your eyes lingered too long, and words were exchanged that threatened your masculinity. Then came the fists.
In the local watering hole, behind the middle school, in the orangutan pen, the ritual is the same: Males fight. But why? That’s what English prof Jonathan Gottschall sets out to discover in his compelling book The Professor in the Cage.
“[Fights] help men work out conflicts and thrash out hierarchies while minimizing carnage and social chaos,” says Gottschall, whose research on fighting, which he calls the “monkey dance,” led him to investigate everything from the latest psychological studies to the writings of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who dueled Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. (Let’s just say it didn’t go well for Hamilton.)
“Without the restraining codes of the monkey dance, the world would be a much more violent place,” the author says.
In other words, men have codified fighting, creating unwritten rules against cheap shots and cheating. They’ve also made it competitive, taking it to the ring or the cage—which is where the pudgy academic immersed himself in MMA, training two years for his own amateur match. (It didn’t—well, read the book to see how he fared). In the end, he concluded that men fight not to kill each other but to maintain order and hang on to their honor.