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“The Professor in the Cage”: Can Gottschall Bring Science to the Study of Violence?

Johnathan Gottschall's Professor in the Cage. 2015.

Jonathan Gottschall’s Professor in the Cage. 2015.



A Surprise at the Bookstore


A remarkable thing happened on the way to the airport. Knowing that I would be spending a disturbingly large amount of my summer on various airplanes, I decided to make the most of it by getting caught up on some light reading. This called for a visit to a local bookstore. Out of habit I found myself walking past the martial arts shelf on the way over to “New Science Fiction.” Needless to say, I did not really expect to find anything interesting.

I respect “how to books” more than most of the experienced martial artists that I know. For me they are an easily observed indicator of the economic strength of the martial arts marketplace and the fodder for future generations of historians and cultural studies students. Still, titles like 101 Warrior MMA Workouts or Tai Chi for Everyone are not exactly the sorts of books that were going to propel me across a couple of continents.

Yet as I passed by the section my eye was immediately caught by a crisp white human skull with a disjointed jaw set against a black background. I knew that this was the cover that Penguin had used for Jonathan Gottschall’s latest popular book The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight, and Why we Like to Watch (2015).

The volume had been languishing somewhere near the middle of my mental “to read” list for a couple of months. It seemed like the sort of thing that I should get to, even though it was not immediately relevant to my current research projects. What most outsiders do not realize is that academics is all about greed, and our most valuable commodity is time. So any book needs to promise quite a lot to get promoted to the top of the pile.

In this case what struck me was less the relevance of Gottschall’s project than what surrounded it on the nook sized shelf that had been carved out for martial arts books. The store had stocked at least eight copies of his book, each displaying a leering skull on its spine.

Nor were the self-help books and beginners guides nearly as numerous as I had remembered. Of the 30 or so titles that were being carried six were basically literary discussions of martial arts and biographies of important practitioners. Another four books were translations of ancient Chinese or Japanese military classics. Bruce Lee continued to be well represented with four titles of his own, and another three seemed to be dedicated to various meditation practices. Only four of the titles fell into the classic “how to genera” with another three books being dedicated to conditioning workouts. In short, the selection was skewing strongly towards books about the martial arts rather than of the martial arts.

This struck me as a potentially significant moment. Is it really true that the hunger for nuanced discussions of these fighting systems is expanding at a quick enough pace that it is displacing the more traditional “how to” genera which has dominated the page of Black Belt magazine’s advertising sections since the 1960s? Obviously we have seen a gratifying increase of interest in martial arts studies as an academic project. But is this mirroring a broader trend in the martial arts marketplace?

I was suddenly struck by the realization that if someone walked into a bookstore looking for a more intellectual (if not actually scholarly) discussion of the martial arts, there was at least a possibility that they would actually find something on the shelf. This particular store even carried a copy of Shahar’s Shaolin Monastery. This is vastly different from how things were when I was growing up.

And if they were to enter the store now, the book that they would find first would be Dr. Gottschall’s Professor in the Cage. So what would they learn? What sort of impression of the academic engagement with the martial arts would they walk away with?

Suddenly this volume vaulted to the top of my mental “to read” list. I grabbed a copy and walked towards the registers at the front of the store. As I waited in line I looked over only to be greeted by another stack of laughing skulls. Apparently someone had decided that a strangely confessional story of an adjunct English professor being repeatedly mauled after taking up MMA would qualify as an “impulse buy.” “Good clean fun” I thought to myself.


Jonathan Gottschall. Source: Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jonathan Gottschall. Photo by Gilberto Tadday.  Source: Chronicle of Higher Education.



Broken Promises


I was once asked by a reader why I review so many books that I dislike. I can understand where this question comes from, but it is not actually all that accurate. Generally when I really dislike a book I do not bother to write a review at all. In truth I only sit down and seriously engage with a text when I think that it will be worth my (and by extension your) time; again, greed and all of that. I may like a work, or see serious problems with it. But if I am talking about it on Kung Fu Tea, it is because I think that there is something really interesting that is worth pushing on a little harder.

In general that push takes the form of criticism as we probe to find the limits of an argument. Or to discover exactly how much work a theory can do for us. Perhaps to question the substantive significance of an author’s finding. Being criticized is not the worst thing that can happen to you in academics. It simply means you are part of the discussion. Being ignored, however, is a different matter. That is deadly.

Gottshall’s recent work was one that I was very tempted to ignore. As I talked with some of my friends and colleagues who also engage in the academic study of the martial arts, that was basically their thought as well. This is a work that is so profoundly flawed, both theoretically and empirically, that it is difficult to engage with. I thought very seriously about just taking their advice.

Still, something about it did not sit right with me. Once I decided to read this book I had approached it with rather high hopes. While a highly controversial figure in his field, Gottschall has graced the pages of the New York Times and other major publications, earning the status of a “public intellectual.” Coming out of graduate school he noted the declining fortunes of the humanities in comparison to the STEM fields and declared that it was time for a change of approach. Or more properly, a shift in both the fundamental questions that scholars of literature should be asking, as well as the methods that they must employ in investigating them.

Drawing on fields like sociobiology and evolutionary psychology Gottschall argued that human beings are first and foremost animals, and that the stories that they tell are often best understood as expressions of the evolutionary pressures that shaped us as a species. The best way to test this theory and to explore its implications was by dumping the bloated and increasingly unwieldly frameworks of critical theory, feminist theory and various sorts of social constructivism that dominate the study of literature in favor of actual science and math.

Needless to say, his approach found little support among the professors of literature that he was attempting to convince, and Gottschall has never managed to find a foothold in the academy. For a summary of his larger academic battles and a discussion of his current place in the field, check out this recent article in the chronicle of higher education.

Not that any of this is fatal to his current project. The American academic system produces vastly more PhDs than it does tenure-track teaching positions. It is not all that odd to find an adjunct somewhere doing really interesting and potentially important things, and it is likely to become increasingly common in the near future.

Nor is a shift towards quantitative methods and assumptions the worst thing in the world. My PhD is in political science, and while the humanities appear to have decisively rebuffed this trend, it has been very influential throughout the social sciences. Most young scholars of international relations graduating today spend more time studying matrix calculus, game theory and advanced statistics than they do on German or French. “Methodological triangulation” is the watch word of the day.

In fact, my first big article revolved around predicting when political conflicts might emerge over free trade by using data based on the careful coding of keywords in party platforms, and then running all of that through a complex statistical model to generate a very precise measurement of a party’s position on a theoretical left-right spectrum. In some ways this wasn’t really all that different from what Gottschall had attempted to do in one of his more controversial publications promoting the coding and analysis of literary works. He probably would have fit right in at a sociology or political science department. But he proved to be on the wrong side of his field’s own methodological divide.

Still, Gottschall cannot blame all of his problems on his ideological enemies. Part of this trouble has been convincing skeptical allies that he actually has something interesting to say which is not derivative or trivially true. And while some have welcomed the attempt to bring formal scientific methods into the world of literature, they have been less enthusiastic about what they see as Gottschall’s attempts to move scientific debates or establish fundamental “facts” though his reading of literature. And as any reader of the Professor in the Cage will already know, Gottschall can be a difficult person. That probably did not make it any easier for him to win the most favorable hearing for his ideas.

In the current volume Gottschall attempts to take a step away from these controversies to write a purely popular book, largely devoid of explicit or sustained theoretical discussions. Drawing on some of his prior interests, and what can only be described as a midlife-crisis MMA attack, he decided to embark on a wide-ranging study of violence in both history and literature.

To get a better handle on the reality of violence he began a program of regular training at a local mixed martial arts school, while desperately attempting to line up the big final cage fight which was apparently needed for his book contract. Unsurprisingly most of the local fight promoters seemed uninterested in having him on their cards.

Gottshcall’s book at first appears to fit squarely in the growing literature on “carnal sociology.” As is typical for the genera we see the author mixing ethnography and some larger set of questions about the structure of society. The difference in this case is that Gottschall stuck to his ideological and theoretical guns. Rather than following Wacquant’s famous advice about such research projects (“go native, but also go armed” with an appropriate body of theory to help one interpret and make sense of this overwhelming experience) Gottschall continued to believe that the meaning of most things (certainly anything worth writing a book about) can be found solely in the Darwinian struggle for survival.

I have nothing against sociobiology as a field. Certain international relations scholars have done some interesting things with it. But after reading Gottschall’s latest work, it is pretty clear that this background did not prepare him to speak to the vast variety of social violence seen throughout human history, or to make sense of his personal experiences while training in an MMA gym.

Gottshcall’s book is not frustrating because it fails. In truth most books do that to one degree or another. The real problem is that his project started with such promise.

The idea of tying a personal engagement with the martial arts to an exploration of the larger problems of violence is a fundamentally sound one. His various critics are absolutely incorrect to dismiss this move as “stunt journalism.” There is a long history of empirically driven scholars doing just this.

Unfortunately Gottschall does not seem to be any more aware of their work than are his critics. The contributions of Wacquant and those who came after him probably fall too far outside his disciplinary interest. The real problem seems to be that, not grasping the possibilities for serious academic discovery, Gottschall treats his own project as a self-indulgent stunt to attract a book contract rather than as a serious research strategy.

Likewise the idea of bringing some math and scientific rigor into the study of social violence (and even the literature surrounding it) is a potentially important one. Martial Arts Studies is an inherently interdisciplinary project. This is practically mandated by the nature of the problems that we face. In truth a combination of methods and approaches are going to be the best way to get at this set of questions neglected by the traditional disciplines.

But this neglect does not mean that the questions are unimportant. Perhaps the most disheartening thing about this book was that Gottschall turned to the study of the martial arts and violence at the same time that he was moving away from more rigorous academic inquiry. He even goes so far as to describe the project as a sort of career or intellectual suicide.

Again, this sells what could have been a very interesting project short. Specifically, the sort of work that we see in Martial Arts Studies not only pushes disciplines to consider the adoption of new methods and theories, but as it asks different questions it begins to challenge some of the more fundamental (and artificial) boundaries separating the disciplines to begin with. But rather than engaging with this larger trend Gottschall’s eyes remain firmly fixed on his opponents and oppressors in English departments around the country.

While Gottshcall talks a lot about science, and he has footnotes to a fair number of studies of one sort or another, another big problem with this volume is that it does not actually do anything “scientifically” at all. Rather than constructing a tightly focused theory and using it to derive a set of hypotheses, Gottschall instead employs a wide range of preexisting theories as “just so” stories to help explain away the various problems that emerge through the course of a rambling book. In short, what he offers his readers is basically science as a metaphor and an appeal to authority rather than as a method to be rigorously explored and tested.

Of course one must immediately wonder whether this is a fair criticism. As I mentioned, this is not an academic work. While it is a text that the author uses to attack his academic enemies and rail against the injustices of the academy, it is basically a popular book that was never intended to plow new ground or make any novel discoveries. Don’t all such popular works basically use science as a “just so” story, to explain something about the reader’s life or daily reality?

Possibly. Yet many of the problems with Gottschall’s arguments are so basic that I am not sure that they can be defended by claiming that the author does not have to show his math. His treatment of both gender and culture will no doubt stand out to most readers as the most disturbing aspect of this work. Gottschall himself has nothing but scorn for those who doubt the essential, and to his mind genetically given, nature of gender. (In point of fact most of his discussions of culture also seem to go back to a very simplistic reading of Darwinian pressure which, if you spend even a few moments considering that proposition, should strike you as very strange).

Rather than seriously engaging with these debates he magisterially explains to his readers (with a few highly selective endnotes thrown in for good measure), that men are brave and women are weak (at one point he even seems to imply emotionally unstable) because of our genes. The fact that men love to fight and women tend not to be “real sports fans” (no matter what they say on surveys) can be totally understood through genetics. The pressure for survival is used as an explanation for duels, as well as the existence of left handed individuals. Gottschall even evokes it as an explanation for the popularity of team sports.

One could write an entire review article just of the problems found in any one of his chapters. Yet we can pretty much sum up this sad situation with the following axiom, something that should be familiar to most students who have actually taken a statistics class. “A constant cannot explain a variable.”

The real problem with Gottschall’s book is that it attempts to move beyond autobiography and meditation on the dark side of human violence. These would be perfectly respectable things for an English professor to write a book about. One could even do so using nothing but the the critical theories and qualitative methods that Gottschall seems to have such trouble with.

Yet once you take a step into the world of “science,” and dedicate yourself to the use of quantitative and empirical methods, you are basically moving into the realm of causality. Your task, as a scientist, is to explain what causes variations in outcomes across time and space. And to explain these differing outcomes, you generally turn to a set of factors known in these sort of discussions as “variables.”

Gottschall’s entire problem is that all of the talk of science notwithstanding, he seems to have no motivation to actually explaining anything of interest. To begin with, he appears to be incapable of seeing all of the variation that his own case studies (as short and poorly developed as most of them are) actually reveal.

Human genetics are a constant. They do not change all that much over the short term. But in 1790 men in Europe fought duels and by 1890 they did not. The basic evolutionary situation did not change over the course of this period of time. So what did?

Practically everything else. Forms of social organization evolved, the strength of religion diminished, literacy levels went up, health was generally better, economic growth and trade expanded. And governments were vastly stronger in 1890 than they were in 1790. Gottshcall discusses dueling in terms of an honor system that was necessary to maintain one’s prospects for sexual reproduction in a lawless world. He basically dismisses culture as being epiphenomenal to people’s behavior in this case.

Yet when noting the very rapid decline of dueling, he blames the growth of strong states for this turn of events. Would that not then imply that rather than focusing on the question of Darwinian fitness in the first half of his chapter, something which does not change, we should have instead been looking at the interactions between the state and society? These structures change, sometimes quite rapidly. And they seem more than capable of explaining the periodic rise and fall of dueling in human societies without any need to pontificate about our most ancient ancestors and their disturbing excess of semen.

Gottshcall would likely retort that the genetic codes which we all carry are what makes it possible for behaviors such as dueling to arise in the first place. We are, after all, just animals. Hence his contention that violence is, and must, be universal. Yet in reality this position explains nothing while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the existence of much more interesting questions.

My basic genetic code has also allowed me to develop an interest in classical Spanish guitar music. Why some societies give their 15 year old boys guitars while other give them dueling swords and pistols (and yet others give them both) is a genuinely interesting question. Gottschall’s razor focus on a narrow interpretation of evolutionary biology draws him to the “constant possibility” of violence while dismissing the much more interesting questions of its many forms (and even occasional absence) as unimportant. Yet real science involves the explanation of variance rather than its ad hoc dismissal at the end of every chapter.

Another clear example of this dilemma arises at the end of chapter 5, titled “Survival of the Sportiest.” After an long and involved discussion of why men are not only better at fighting than women, but that they also enjoy it more, Gottschall is forced to confront a disturbing trend within the modern combat sports. Simply put, the number of female kickboxers and MMA fighters is increasing rapidly, as is female audience engagement with these sports. He even has to acknowledge the reality of one such athlete when Jena “Jenacide” Baldwin spends some time at his gym as an instructor.

The weakness of the ethnographic component of this work is evident in the shallowness of his engagement with the sudden appearance of a high level female fighter. It doesn’t appear that this new and potentially important development had any shaping effect on Gottschall’s beliefs about gender and the roots of participation in combat sports.

So does this trend suggest that we will see more women entering spaces traditionally defined as male (such as team and combat sports) in the future? And will the acquisition of new skills in these areas have any impact on the ability of these women to navigate their way through other traditionally male dominated areas of society?

Gottschall is skeptical on all fronts. Rather than admitting that a future may exist in which we see greater female participation in the Mixed Martial Arts he instead opinions that we are entering a new feminized age in which traditionally “female” virtues, such as the ability to cooperate and avoid needless violent conflict, will “allow women to outcompete men, and to bring about a close to the ‘age of testosterone.’”

There are a number of problems with these pages, but at the most basic level, if the “close the age of testosterone” really is possible, and all of this can happen through purely social and economic shifts, than maybe we should have spent the last chapter discussing the economic and social underpinnings of MMA (and other violent sports) rather than evolution and sociobiology. By his own admission this prior set of variables are the ones that are actually defining how society works in the current age, and when you get right down to it there is no good reason to assume that they were somehow unimportant in even the very recent past. Gottschall’s inability to explain observed change using his primary theory, his constant reliance on exogenous variables, indeed his inability to recognize an interesting research puzzle when he sees one, seriously undercut this work.

It goes without saying that this is a work without academic merit. That was never the point of this book. Yet I doubt this work is really going to do much to advance the popular discussion of the martial arts either. Rather than bringing his readers into a richer and more interested world (something that the combat sports and traditional martial arts have generally done) Gottschall instead leaves them locked in a shadowy and narrow Hobbesian cell. Luckily, if one were to push back against the prison walls it would quickly be discovered that they are much less secure than they first appear. Of course the trick is first seeing through the illusion of compelling prose.

We currently sit at an interesting moment in time. Rarely in the past has there been enough interest in the martial arts for publishers to support and heavily promote a book such as this one. I personally am very excited to see some of the academic work on violence and the martial arts being brought together and made available to the broader reading public. And there are many things about the basic structure of this project that are admirable. Yet I am deeply disturbed by the idea that this book might be taken as the public face of martial arts studies.

While energetic and engaging, the ideas behind this book are problematic. Not only does this volume fail to give readers a systematic framework for understanding the changes that they are seeing in the world today, ironically, it turns its back on this most basic of “scientific” tasks.


Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports

Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports



Five other Books to Consider


Simply telling someone that you do not like a book is not really all that helpful, especially if they find themselves standing in a bookstore wondering what they can read to deepen their appreciation for the martial arts and social violence. As Lakatos reminds us in his discussions of the scientific method, we do not dismiss a theory simply because its flawed. All theories are born flawed as, by their very nature, they are simplifications of realty. This is the original sin of the scientific method. Rather, we only dismiss something once we have found a better alternative. Or to put it another way, what should we be reading instead?


Recommended Readings


1. Autobiography and the Martial Arts:


Matthew Polly. 2011. Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts. Gotham.

Polly must be a bit of a headache for Gottchall and his marketing team. A very engaging writer he also had a similar idea for a book and he got his out first. Like Gottschall Polly had a background in the traditional martial arts, and then turned to MMA in his late 30s. He presents a more tightly focused (and nuanced) narrative about the development of this sport and the UFC. Readers who are primarily interested in martial arts biography or the current combat sports scene will probably enjoy this work.

Polly was not the first author to write something like this. As Gottschall points out, this is actually something of an established genre among sports writers. So if you are looking for some additional reading, one of my favorites has always been Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pajamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons from the Tokyo Riot Police, (IT Books, 2000).


2. Culture, the Martial Arts and Social Violence:


D. S. Farrer. 2009. Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009.

In many ways D. S. Farrer presents a nice point of engagement for those interested in Gottschall’s work. Farrer understands anthropology as a social science and his work is rigorously empirical. This volume, stemming from his extensive ethnographic fieldwork on Malaysian Silat, will help to illustrate the many ways in which culture, rather than simply biology, has impacted the expression of social violence around the world.

My only hesitation about this monograph stems from its price, which is truly epic. It is definitely something you will want to order from the local library. But I have it on good authority that we can expect a second (more reasonably priced) edition sometime soon. If you are looking for some additional reading that you can actually afford to order from Amazon, consider Phillip B. Zarilli’s 2000 Oxford University Press monograph, When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art.


3. Reality, Violence and the Martial Arts:


Sgt. Rory Miller. Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence. Ymma Publications Center, 2006.

This book is pretty well known in hand combat circles, and you will want to take a look at it if you have not already done so. It presents a number of comparisons between real world violence (which for Sgt. Miller does not mean a cage fight) and martial arts training.

Anyone interested in Gottschall’s extensive use of “the monkey dance” concept will be especially interested in this work. The term was actually coined by Miller, and one might as well go straight to the source to see what he actually had to say about it.

So how does culture interact with criminality? There are both universals and differences. For more on this topic see Boretz’s book Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (Hawaii UP, 2010) in which he looks at the life of petty thugs and toughs in Southern China and Taiwan. While an academic book this volume is pretty accessible. It is also a nice example of an important contribution being made by someone outside of the academic mainstream.


4. The Social Sciences, Violence and Quantitative Methods:


James W. Tong. Disorder Under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty. Stanford UP, 1991.

One of the things that makes me uneasy about Gottschall’s work is that he tends to conflate his ontology (a sort of basic evolutionary reductionism) with his epistemology (scientific and quantitative methods). While often related, these are not the same thing. Specifically, social scientists have spent decades using formal methods to develop models of violence that do not boil down to genetics.

Students of martial arts studies may even find some of these to be quite interesting. Consider checking out James W. Tong’s Disorder Under Heaven. This book actually employs many of the methods that Gottschall has championed to investigate patterns of violence in Late Imperial China. Yet this author concludes that geographic and political variables are the most relevant.

This book is unapologetically academic in nature, but if you are actually interested in learning more about how quantitative methods have been used to investigate the causes of violence, that will probably not come as a surprise.


5. Gender, Combat Sports and the Martial Arts:


Alex Channon and Christopher R. Matthews. Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors around the World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

This is a topic that Gottschall has some strong opinions on. Obviously sex and reproduction are issues that are critical to sociobiology. Unfortunately it does not seem that the author spent much time dealing with female martial artists or attempting to understand their actual (rather than simply their theorized) experiences with violence and competition.

It might be wise to get a second opinion on these matters. Luckily there is a new book out this week to help you do just that. The authors of this edited volume consider many of the same questions that Gottschall does while making numerous contributions of their own.

Unfortunately as a new academic book, this one is also going to be pricey. Bug your university library to buy a copy. In the mean time you might also want to check out Stephanie T. Hoppe’s (now classic) volume Sharp Spear, Crystal Mirror (Park Street Press, 1998) While the articles in this book are autobiographical rather than social scientific, it might be a great way to get acquainted with the personal narratives of actual female martial artists. It is also possible to find used copies of this book floating around at great prices.



If you enjoyed this review and want to further explore “scientific” approaches to martial arts studies, you might also want to read:  Why do difficult and expensive martial arts thrive?




4 thoughts on ““The Professor in the Cage”: Can Gottschall Bring Science to the Study of Violence?

  1. Thank you for providing such a well-structured review of this book. I was hopeful when I saw the book on the shelf but a quick flip-through left me, in a word, disgusted. While it could have been an interesting work on social themes as framed by combat, the attempt to apply evolutionary explanations as the central thesis made me leave the book on the shelf and walk away.

    PhD biology
    BaguaZhang & XingYiQuan

    Posted by Robert R. | August 22, 2015, 11:17 am


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