Jonathan Gottschall was an adjunct English professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, frustrated and creeping toward middle age, when he got up from his cubicle, looked out the window, and laid eyes upon the MMA gym across the street. Many months of training and one amateur fight later, Gottschall had a narrative arc for The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch (Penguin Press). But instead of another year-in-the-life-of-a-fighter memoir, Gottschall's latest book explores the science of why men participate and spectate in all forms of ritual combat, whether it's with gloved fists, words, pistols, or stern looks. Fightland spoke with Gottschall about how organized fights keep society from blowing a gasket, the so-called Monkey Dance hypothesis, where women fit into ritual combat, and that time he couldn’t hide a black eye from his students.
Jonathan Gottschall: If you've watched a nature video and you've seen a couple of goats squaring off on a hillside, running at each other and cracking skulls, biologists call that ritual combat. It's a way that different animal species have developed to figure out who's bigger, tougher, stronger, fitter, without the risks of fighting to the bitter end. People are animals too. We seem to like to forget that—we're complex, cultured animals, but we're still animals.
It'd be one thing if you just found ritual combat in primates, but you find it all over the place in mammals, in mantis shrimp, in beetles. Incredibly old and diverse evolutionary lineages get involved in this behavior because it works.
The Monkey Dance is my name for human versions of ritual combat—everything from deadly duels, to verbal duels, to the play fights of boys, to sports, even combat sports like mixed martial arts, boxing, and football. The key thing about the monkey dance is oftentimes these Monkey Dances will look ridiculous, silly, and pointless, but on the whole they're good things: they generally manage to channel aggression, conflict, and competition down relatively safe channels.
One area that helped clarify things for me was the formal duel. That seems pretty far away from prizefighting, but I think there's a continuum across these different forms of contests. Dueling seems like just about the most barbaric and benighted activity people could engage in: these are men of high status, intelligent men, men with a lot going for them who are risking their lives over gossip, little insults, someone looks at somebody the wrong way. It's barbaric in some ways, but really it's about containing violence and locking it up in rules that are as crisp and clear and tight as the rules of tennis. And if you violate the rules, you're deeply dishonored. Realizing that the duel was a form of the Monkey Dance that's about containing violence, not giving it free reign, opened up the rest of the book to me.
I found [MMA to be] very compelling viewing for almost 20 years before I started working on the book. Initially I went to it because I was a karate student and I was trying to figure out what worked in fights. And it was just this education: Holy shit, everything we're being taught in the dojo is irrelevant, worse than useless, maybe even dangerous.
[Before I started training] I had the stereotypes that a lot people do, that MMA fighters are savage maniacs. Then I go across the street, find a bunch of ordinary and mainly young men, and I find out they're nice guys—some of the nicest guys I've met. I don’t think most of them are like, "I want to hurt some people and this is a legal way to get my fix." For the most part, the guys I met wanted a test, a challenge, a quest in their lives, and MMA gives it to them. If you abolished fighting, they'd be free climbers or do motocross or try to swim the Atlantic Ocean.
I don’t think barbarism or bloodlust is the main part of the appeal. You probably don’t sit around watching ISIS torture and murder videos. If all you wanted was blood and guts and pain and suffering, you'd sit around watching ISIS videos all day—you wouldn't pay to watch the tame violence of a boxing match or an MMA fight. Something else is drawing us to this.
This is a genetic fact: human males, and males in most other species of mammals and primates, have always had a harder time reproducing than females. Throughout history, most women manage to reproduce, and the studies show that most men did not. How could that be? It's because some guys were always hogging more than their fair share of the women. What that means—again, it’s a genetic fact, not a theory—is that the evolutionary contest for reproduction has always been substantially more intense for males than for females. That contest has shaped men: it's why men are bigger than women, it's why men are stronger than women, and it's why men—even athletes—have substantially better cardiovascular capacity. It's also shaped our behaviors and our psychologies: it's why men are more aggressive than women. It's why men all around the world, without exception, are way more prone to taking way more stupid, idiotic risks. And it's why men are more physically violent.
I'm not saying that women are inferior. All you have to do is look at the massive changes in women's lives and roles over the last 100 years and you know that biology is not destiny. And in most ways, there's a great argument today that women are superior biologically. These differences where men outstrip women are in things we generally don't like about people: violence, aggression, taking stupid risks, being a domineering asshole. Men have those tendencies, while women are much better cooperators, much better at diffusing conflicts, and much more nurturing than men. People will read me as saying "Women aren't as good as men." That's not at all what I'm saying. In general, what I'm talking about is what might be called the darker side of human nature, and it's a darker side that men almost have a total monopoly on.
A lot of people will ask me, "Don't you know about this Ronda Rousey lady and that women fight too?" When I started the book, the whole boom in women's mixed martial arts wasn't on the horizon at all. And the book's focus on men was because I was interested in mixed martial arts, but really, I was interested in why do men fight, why do men dominate every form of violence and apparently have across cultures since the beginning of time. If you're going to explore human violence, it really needs to be mainly about men.
When I started doing MMA, it was still renegade enough where I felt that I could conceivably be fired over doing it. By the time the book came out, I thought, that's crazy, why did I think that? But I stayed in the closet about it.
I finally had to confess when I came into class and tried to teach with giant sunglasses on. My students were laughing at me because they were the $4.99 sunglasses I bought at the gas station on the way to class, and at some point, someone just asked me, "Why do you have those on?" I took them off and everyone just sort of gasped: it was this ugly black eye, this giant liverish blob of yellows and blues and greens, all swelled up and ugly, my eyeball was bloodshot. I'd already come in on crutches, I'd had a walking boot for a few weeks, and I'd tell a half-truth: "Oh, I got injured exercising." But I couldn’t hide it anymore. Once I told them, they were fascinated, and it's a small college so I knew everyone would find out. My colleagues were cool about it, to be honest. They've known me for almost 10 years, so they know I'm not a violent maniac.
I'm a lot more beat up, a lot more rickety, than I was going in. I basically started accumulating a lot of old-man injuries: a general pervasive inflammation, basically a full-body tendonitis. That's on top of Achilles tendonitis, arthritis in my toes—talk about fuckin' old-man injuries. I tore my groin, tore my rib cartilage, fucked up my neck. And I think there will be career costs to doing the book, too. I don’t think I'll be an English professor when I grow up.
Fighting was an important rite of passage for me. I didn’t come into any size or strength until college, and I was pushed around a lot as a kid and backed down from a lot of fights. It made me feel horrible—it's about 15 to 17 years since those events, and if I think about them, I can still make my blood burn. It's amazing to me that those moments carry so much weight in my life. So there was a bit of a redemption narrative for me: am I actually a coward, am I completely incapable of bravery? That's one of the things I wanted to find out. MMA was and is, to some degree, still a viscerally terrifying experience. They lock you up in a cage with a trained killer, and the only way out is through him. I didn't become the toughest or bravest guy in the world by any stretch, but I was at least able to tamp down my fear enough to function.
I think the proper way to view a fight is with ambivalence. If we're empathetic at all, we should be thinking about the price these guys are paying and the costs of doing it. Especially professionally, these guys are taking an enormous amount of damage in fights and in sparring. On the other hand, I'm absolutely drawn to the heroism, the courage, the grace, the stamina, endurance, perseverance—all of these things we really admire most in humans are really drawn out by a fight. It's this weird thing: the worst angels of human nature are there to watch the fight, but the best angels of human nature are there too.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.