Is Male Sexuality to Blame For War?

In a bizarrely credulous article, the Telegraph has answered the question of what causes war. That’s right! You guessed it…it’s boners. Not economics, resource scarcity, ethnic and racial prejudice, acquisitive and incompetent political leaders, short-sightedness or failure to learn from history. Nope! It’s just plain boners, pure and simple. They’re bad.

Here’s how the Telegraph puts it, in an article titled “Male sex drive ‘to blame for world’s conflicts’.”

The male sex drive is to blame for most of the world’s conflicts from football hooliganism to religious disputes and even world wars, according to scientists.

The “male warrior” instinct means that men are programmed to be aggressive towards anyone they view as an outsider…In evolutionary terms an instinct for violence against others helped early men improve their status and gain more access to mates, but in modern terms this can translate into large-scale wars.

In contrast women are naturally equipped with a “tend and befriend” attitude which means they seek to resolve conflicts peacefully in order to protect their children, researchers said.

The “tribal” attitude of men, ultimately aimed at boosting their chances of reproducing, is similar to the territorial behaviour of chimpanzees, it was claimed.

The study also examined evidence which suggests men have a stronger sense of group identity than women, and that they will develop closer ties with others in their group if they are in competition with rivals.

Although men’s hostile responses most likely evolved to combat the threat from outsiders, they “might not be functional in modern times and are often counterproductive,” experts said.

Over time this has resulted in full-scale wars between countries and empires, and also in scraps and skirmishes between rival groups of football supporters and urban gangs.


My bullshit detector goes ding-ding-ding whenever I read journalists writing about human behavior by drawing such broad strokes. “Full-scale wars between countries” and “skirmishes between…football supporters and urban gangs” is a ludicrous generalization. The study itself actually goes even further — and includes fights between rival groups at high schools. Talk about the shotgun approach…

You can point to all the data you want; there are too many moving parts to wars, and even to urban gangs, to claim that violence is caused by one source, like male sexuality. What’s more, there are a lot of moving parts to male sexuality. Treating men as simple beasts is insulting, and treating our sexuality as nothing more than the Boner Patrol is so simplistically sex-negative it boggles my mind that it still exists in this day and age.

But there’s a more insidious side to “research” like this. Treating wars as the inevitable side-effect of boners is de facto sex negative, yes. And if the data supported it, I’d be all for it. But the authors of the study rely on comparing apples and oranges, tossing in everything from tribal societies to chimpanzee behavior to terrorism, and using it to draw enormous conclusions about history.

That’s where I think the study turns truly dangerous. It’s a way of cheapening the malfeasance that actually causes wars — oftentimes deliberate malfeasance on the part of politicians. War literature is filled with humankind’s helplessness to change its destiny. Maybe individual combatants are helpless sometimes. But at a macro-level, human beings don’t get into wars because they’re helpless puppets dancing on evolutionary strings. They get into wars because some people deliberately act like assholes. Specifically, powerful people (usually men) abdicate their responsibility to safeguard their constituents’ well-being. Do the Telegraph’s editors — or the researchers — really want to winnow Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Tahrir Square, or World War II down to outdated human behavior patterns caused by “men trying to reproduce?” In a world where lopsided economics, racial and ethnic prejudice, homophobia, sexism and misinformation play such a role in most forms of violence, why does male sexuality have to get a bad rap?

The answer is, again, that male sexuality should indeed get a bad rap — if the argument supports it. But I don’t see a damn thing in this article that convinces me any real research has netted such a result. The arguments are too glib and general, the reported conclusions too explosive.

What’s more, the Telegraph presents the article as a “study,” which may be technically accurate in terms of a sociology journal, but is a gross misrepresentation when reporting on something as specific as the connection between war and sexuality. It is a study of the existing literature. That means it’s basically what’s called a review article, in which authors have come to conclusions. This is very different than, for instance, a “study” in which X drug was tested on patients and found to have greater impact on libido than Y drug. This is armchair science at best.

Here’s an example of how general the thinking is in the article. This is a summary quote from one of the authors. Incidentally, I don’t think he’s actually the study leader as the Telegraph reports — at least, he’s not the first author, he’s the last author; that usually means he’s a mentor or senior member of the team, not the leader. In fact, the Telegraph using that term implies to me that they might be misunderstanding the important distinction between the use of the term “study” in social vs. biological sciences. Anyway, here’s the quote:

Prof Mark van Vugt, who led the study, said: “A solution to conflict, which is an all too common problem in societies today, remains elusive. One reason for this might be the difficulty we have in changing our mindset, which has evolved over thousands of years…Our review of the academic literature suggests that the human mind is shaped in a way that tends to perpetuate conflict with ‘outsiders’.

Oh, no you di-n’t. “The human mind is shaped in a way that tends to perpetuate conflict with ‘outsiders’”? That’s science? That results in an indictment of male sexuality as the source of war? The Telegraph’s shooting-fish-in-a-barrel examples could as easily be representative of a million other arguments:

There are several historical examples linking the male sex drive and conflict, such as Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan who studies suggest has 16 million direct male descendants today as a result of his appetite for women.

Vikings also left a strong genetic fingerprint in areas like the Scottish Western Isles, the Isle of Skye and Iceland because raiding parties would take local wives as a reward for successful raids.

Genghis Khan and the Vikings are favored examples pulled out in pseudoscientific comparative history, so I’m not surprised to see them here.

Here’s the full text of the original article, published in the current issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B — yes, that’s the journal’s real name. This is one of the two currently publishing versions of the oldest scientific journal in the world, which was founded in 1665 (!) and in 1887 split into two journals, “A” serving the physical sciences and “B” serving the life sciences. The article in question is tagged as a research article, “Evolution and the psychology of intergroup conflict: the male warrior hypothesis,” by Melissa M. McDonald, Carlos David Navarrete and Van Vugt. (It’s Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B March 5, 2012 367 (1589) 670-679, in case you were wondering.)

This is a theme issue, titled “The Biology of Cultural Conflict,” including such articles as “The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences” and, interestingly, a review article titled “The puzzle of monogamous marriage,” which should be Newt Gingrich’s casual reading this week.

With this piece, we’re once again in the field known as evolutionary psychology. If you’re familiar with the field, then you’ll know it holds a seductive power over members of the news media. Evolutionary psychology is known for some practitioners who tried to explain why who let blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices not just taint their thinking, but guide it. The news media love to report on evolutionary psychology “findings,” because it offers easy “answers” to why people behave the way that they do. And, as might be expected, a large amount of the evolutionary psychology the news media finds “sticky” just happens to be about sex.

But much of the time evolutionary psychology “findings” on sexuality tend to reassert strangely familiar racist and sexist clichés — like the “idea” that white women are more sexually attractive than black women, as Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa claimed last year. Actually, what Kanazawa did was to take as accepted fact that black women were sexually less desirable than women of other races. He then set out to explain why.

In my experience, a lot of evolutionary psychology has a suspiciously similar reliance on “conventional wisdom,” and much of the research ends up reasserting what plenty of people think they already know.

Although some evolutionary psychologists claim that such prejudiced thinking is not representative of the field, plenty of us don’t buy it. Personally, I’m still holding out for some valuable contribution to come from the world of evolutionary psychology. But the more bullshit trotted out by scientists who try to explain complex systems with glib soundbites so the boneheaded media can report it, the more evolutionary psychology founders, in my eyes. Dr. Stanton Peele claims that the entire field is not just tainted but represented by Kanazawa and his racist ideology. I agree with Peele that too often, evolutionary psychology “findings” look like the repetition of an idea that researchers have decided is true…then find half-assed science to dubiously explain it. It’s absolutist thinking, in total opposition to a truly descriptive approach.

Since the ’80s, I’ve been told again and again that male sexuality was responsible for all violence, particularly war. Back then, the argument was made by a broad spectrum of people, from radical feminists to radical queer activists to apologists for rape. I thought it felt glib then, and I’ll think it feels glib until someone makes a convincing argument for it. Throwing chimpanzee behavior, tribal societies, urban gangs and high school hooligans at the wall isn’t going to do that.

Now, just for the record, those of you about to skip to the comments and mansplain to me why male sexuality being responsible for war is a perfectly reasonable conclusion… skip it. My problem is not with the suggestion that human males and human females show certain evolutionary patterns both sexually and in terms of social interaction. Feel free to argue that’s the case; that’s not what this is about.

The question here is not whether humans can find a pattern anywhere, but whether that pattern, in a complex system, is more compellingly argued than other patterns, after allowing for observer bias. I submit that such argument has not been made, or even seriously attempted. Instead, the authors of this “study” have merely helped add another turd to the septic tank that is mainstream reportage on psychology, sociology, anthropology and human behavior in general.

My problem with the media’s reporting on human science is the rampant obsession that scientists and the media show for finding soundbite explanations for incredibly complex systems like sexuality and war.

What do sexuality and war have in common? They’re both fantastically complicated matters. I feel confident in saying that three scientists reading the existing literature didn’t just figure both war and sex out while sitting in corner offices at universities.

Image: Vintage Gay Media History.

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  • Ocean

    Firstly, the Telegraph is a dreadful paper. Every article in it is total rubbish. Don’t encourage them. However, surely the link between testosterone and aggression is totally proven? Sure, war is complex. Queen Boudicca was pretty good at killing Romans. And evolutionary psychology may risk oversimplifying things, but to be honest football thugs and war hungry politicians (or even any politicians) are primal beings being driven by instinct not intellect. Alan Moore’s book ‘25,000 years of erotic freedom’ gives historic examples of how civilised society has countered this, as the title says.

  • Dav

    You might be interested in a new book called Debt: the First 5000 years. It is an economics book but written by an anthropologist. From an anthropological view money seems to come from a history of violence. Slavery, rape …. honor and degradation. The chapter I am on right now is tying coinage (the invention of coins) directly to war in a self-perpetuating triangle of war, slaves and mints.

    I think parts of this article may be drawing simplified conclusions from the same sources, but this book makes dramatically goes much deeper.

  • Dr.C

    My take-away from reading through the source article was this: “if you use a methodology that reduces everything to being about procreating, then everything is about procreating.”

    Ah, EvPsych. Don’t go changing.

  • Trevor

    Oh hell yeah. You got my respect from this article.

    I’m tired of blatant sexism against males, but it’s never challenged because it’s a “feminist perspective.” If there isn’t a clear logical argument with specifics to support the claim, then the media piece fails…. regardless of the position.

    Also, as a man…. with a penis… and a brain… I can confidently say: some of us have the mental capacity to be far complex and contemplative than we are given credit for.

  • Steve

    You got this one right Violet. So why do we keep electing assholes?

  • Daemon

    I am reminded of the time a bunch of women stopped the local armed conflicts by refusing to have sex until it got peaceful. And I don’t mean the ancient greek play…

  • t

    Well, I’ll contribute that if we spent more focusing on sex, there would definitely be less war making.
    Love these sort of studies for a good laugh.