I’m going to disagree with Ed Brayton, who reposted an article by Joe Herbert that blames toxic masculinity on testosterone. It starts out with facts that are rather inarguable:
Young men are particularly liable to become fanatics. Every dictator, every guru, every religious leader, knows this. Fanatics have an overwhelming sense of identity based on a cause (a religion) or a community (gang, team), and a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group. They will risk injury, loss or even death for the sake of their group. They regard everyone else as outsiders, or even enemies. But why are so many of them young males?
In a world of nation-states, young men fought the wars that formed most countries. The same goes for tribes, villages and factions. Young males have qualities that specialize them for this essential function. They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable to environmental influences, such as the prevailing culture in which they happen to live, and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent. If they didn’t have these properties, they would be less willing to go to war, and therefore less able to fulfil one of their essential sociobiological roles.
That’s a good question, and it is a real problem. But the first hint that the answer is going to go awry is that phrase, “essential sociobiological roles”. Uh-oh. And then it plunges deeper into overly simplistic complexity: it’s because of testosterone. It’s differential development of the frontal lobes. It’s male genes.
Ugh. No, it’s not. I have all of those things, but somehow have avoided fanaticism and obedience to authoritarian leaders and war mongering. Tomi Lahren lacks all of those things, yet somehow exhibits all the properties Herbert is labeling as masculine. You cannot simply go shopping for correlations and label them as causal by ignoring all the evidence against your hypothesis.
I could argue, for instance, that if we look at warriors throughout history, they all have arms that can hold weapons, and language even synonymizes “armed” with “holding a weapon”. Therefore, possessing forelimbs is the explanation for aggression and violence. I think everyone would agree that hypothesis is nonsense. But somehow, we’re going to be less critical of a hypothesis that having testicles is synonymous with violence?
There will be predispositions caused by hormones and cortical development, but they are going to be far less specific than “join the army, follow a charismatic leader, and have happy times killing people with your boomstick”. Testosterone makes people more aggressive? Sure. But it depends on the dose, and how it is expressed is going to be culture-dependent. Whether it makes you want to kill things or whether it makes you want to dance or create art or make love is going to be a product of your history and social environment. Testosterone is not the villain here, no more than arms are the bad guys causing wars.
I happen to like my testosterone, and I consider the role it played in shaping my biological history to be a good one — it made me who I am, in small part. I think being a man should be a good thing, just as being a woman is a good thing, just as being any of the diverse patterns of expression of our human selves is a good thing. To blame behavior on the size and shape of our frontal lobes is a phrenological kind of error.
Besides, did you know young women readily identify with their group, form close bonds with its other members, and are prone to follow a strong leader? Herbert makes the mistake of thinking general human qualities are special to one sex in order to make his essentialist argument. It’s wrong.
Becca Stareyes says
This strikes me as one of those places where talking to women would be essential, because it would quickly emphasize PZ”s point in the last paragraph.
PZ Myers says
Testosterone prevents us from talking to women.
Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- says
I currently teach young Syrians, most of them young men.
Occasionally there will be fights. It’s a mixture of young men being all on their own, cultural factors and also trauma. Here’s one thing: When this happens, all the others intervene. Nobody stands around in a circle and encourages them. To the contrary, ten to twelve guys will separate the fighters, regardless of their personal risk and gently calm them. Afterwards the fighters will reconcile, hug, kiss and often be best friends.
The way they care for each other, do emotional labour for each other and give support is very different from what I’m used to from Western men. Do those guys have different genes? Some special sort of testosterone?
Also cooties, fear of.
“It’s always the old that lead us to the wars; always the young to fall.” — Phil Ochs
I really don’t understand the desire to simplify human behavior down to one single reason, usually a specific hormone (testosterone this, estrogen that). why are there so many people who refuse to acknowledge that human behavior is complicated?
Even I can say that, and I’m one of those who’s relatively convinced that we humans really aren’t unique in any aspect from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Sure, a mix of hormones will play roles in our behavior, but society, culture, how we grow up, who we grow up with, the way we’re raised, etc, all play important roles, as well.
It’s why we always say: you have to be taught bigotry. No one is born that way.
What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says
Slightly off topic: “arms” (the appendages) and “arms” (weapons) ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root meaning something like “fit, join”, but come down to us through different roots. The body part comes to us in direct descent through proto-German, while the weapons meaning comes from Latin, where it meant “tools, implements (of war) via Old French.
Ain’t etymology fun?
I wouldn’t dismiss biology when it comes to violence, considering how violent rape is almost exclusively done by males.
Mark Dowd says
I seriously doubt that this is true. While someone might need to be taught the specifics of who is culturally appropriate to discriminate against (Mulsims, women, LGBT, etc), the phenomenon is ubiquitous enough that it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s an inbuilt psychological urge to separate people into groups. Us and them. Friends and enemies. Your saying smells like tabula rasa.
PZ’s argument that the way these traits are expressed doesn’t help any, because the culture can act to suppress these kinds of urges. Just because a trait is malleable by cultural factors doesn’t mean the biology has 0 influence on it.
I do agree with the main point that too much emphasis is given to biological determinism, but this post overshoots the mark just a bit too much for my comfort, especially with PZ bringing out an anecdote about himself. I am also an extremely non-aggressive and timid young man, but that doesn’t mean anything significant either. The plural of anecdote is not data.
That young men are not savage beasts, and are actually intelligent and compassionate people that care about their peers is not exactly the discovery of the century. But the question needs to be asked: do the women also get into fights like that, or just the men? If it’s just the men, why? What factors are pushing them towards that type of altercation? I assume you would answer “culture”.
So patriarchal culture is a massive influence on how people express themselves. Again, no argument from me. Now let’s wonder about the higher level issue: why are cultures patriarchal? For what it’s worth, Wikipedia has these sentences in the articles about patriarchy and matriarchy:
If these statements are accurate, this seems to me like a HUGE pattern that demands an explanation. Why are so many societies so patriarchal? Why are matriarchies so rare or even nonexistent? I think it’s too pervasive to just be considered an accident of history, a cultural version of “genetic drift” that was “fixed” into our history. The fact that it matches so well with how animals behave (males fight over females) reinforces the idea that current cultures were influenced by underlying biological aspects.
Cultures do not exist in a vacuum, they only exist where there are people. A “cultural” influence is really just the influence of a large number of people. I also don’t think cultures could spring from nowhere. It’s most probably that we would have inherited some cultural baggage from our Australopithecus (I’m amazed I spelled that right on the first try) ancestors, which would have been continued into the future through normal cultural inertia.
Our highly intelligent and plastic brains are a very recent evolution. The pre-human lineage stretches back literally hundreds of millions of years, and while we have greater ability to override our instincts than ever before, I don’t believe those instincts just went away.
chigau (ever-elliptical) says
If you can blame your hormones, you can avoid personal responsibility.
chigau (ever-elliptical) says
If there is “an inbuilt psychological urge to separate people into groups”, there must be an equally powerful urge to form groups.
Males fighting over females ≠ patriarchy.
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
Testosterone maps most closely to dominance, and it does that job in both male and female people. What we have is a society that differently regulates how and when male and female people assert dominance. It also let’s male and female people get away with certain behaviors or ignores certain behaviors related to dominance more or less often. The reason it is rational to focus on male people and aggression+dominance is because of a lifetime of developmental alterations. Alterations that can continue to be adjusted, practiced, and controlled in both sexes throughout ones lifetime.
I don’t know PZ, hacking off the arms of fanatics does sound like a plausible way to reduce violence.
As opposed to the non-violent kind? What the fuck?
You know what else men have in common, besides testosterone? An entire culture given them a social license to rape.
Ya think that might factor in?
Do you think this (and the fact that in all societies I’m aware of, most violent acts are performed by young men) possibly be due to the fact that men – especially young men – are generally physically stronger than women – something that there is very good reason to think has a hormonal basis – and therefore are simply more likely to be able to get what they want through violence? That’s still biology, but quite different from the notion that mens’ psychology is determined by testosterone levels.
Derek Vandivere says
Which you could argue inherited its license from the male tendency to violence, which was in turned reinforced by – and it’s turtles all the way down. Whatever biological differences are probably so interwoven into human culture as to be inseparable – so after rewriting this sentence four times I’m going to agree with you and say it really just makes sense to focus on the culture, since that’s something we can do something about.
KG, I don’t think it’s just a matter of body size as we don’t see a pattern of larger women physically attacking smaller women. There’s definitely a link between testosterone level and violence, as is seen in the link with violence and steroid use, and that not just because of physical size but of the effect on behavior.
Robert M Sapolsky makes the point in ‘The Trouble With Testosterone’ that testosterone is involved in violent behaviour but it doesn’t cause it. Testosterone helps to increase muscle mass and raise energy levels which are helpful to someone already inclined to violence of some other reason. The testosterone is released as a reaction to a violent situation. It can just as easily be utilized to help you run away.
Mark Dowd says
If this is in response to me, it is wrong. I am in favor of being aware of our own inherent biases, not so that they can be excused but so they can be consciously opposed. Do not make it seems like I am arguing the naturalistic fallacy when it is the exact opposite of what I believe in and when no part of my post contained any excuse for or approval of partriarchy, only an attempt at explanation.
Yes there is. Do you argue otherwise, that humans do not have an urge to form groups?
Of course a modern cultural convention and an animal courting ritual are not equivalent. My parenthetical was meant to provide only a single example of a similarity. I did put quite a lot of thought an effort into that post, and to pick at one possibly badly chosen example while ignoring the rest of it is a bit of a disappointment.
I agree with that as well. Culture is probably the larger influence. Whatever psychological or physical difference it is that biases us towards patriarchy are probably small compared to culture, but that bias also forms the basis of culture and so gets positively reinforced. The way to fight it is not to pretend that we’re blank slates, but to push for social justice.
” I think being a man should be a good thing, just as being a woman is a good thing, just as being any of the diverse patterns of expression of our human selves is a good thing. ”
Any of the diverse patterns of our human selves? I do not think you mean quite that.
What about patterns of anti-social behavior, psychopathic behavior?
Essentialism is the root of all evil.
consciousness razor says
Where is the “biological reductionism” in the article? I have a hard time seeing it. Herbert implies several times in several different ways that this is not the sort of view he’s proposing. For example, here (with my emphasis in all quotes):
Not all of it; part of it. Then throughout this entire passage:
However, at this point I should note that the conclusion that we can’t do anything about “undoing” social factors is irrelevant at best. Of course we can’t undo those and can’t undo biological mechanisms either, and it’s not a question of what our situation is “so far” but that we’ll never do anything like that. The interesting question is what we can legitimately do to prevent such things in the future, and whatever that may be all falls squarely under the banner of improving the social environment. Modifying our genes is just plain out of the question, but to pretend that we can’t (yet) do anything constructive about poverty (for example) is just plain idiotic. So I have no clue what the point is supposed to be there — maybe there’s some reading of it that actually makes some kind of sense, but I don’t see it.
Weird that we don’t also have a propensity to form bonds with women, because it couldn’t be more obvious that we do especially in the context of a discussion that has anything to do with biology. The amorphous “groups” which follow don’t all consist of males and are definitionally a social phenomenon. But anyway, he’s saying this is some sort of propensity, not necessarily something that according to his theory reduces simply to biological mechanisms as opposed to social ones.
“Increasing his susceptibility” and “making him prone” is not a particularly reductionistic way to talk. There’s so much wiggle room in it to readily admit that social factors are also at play, which may affect how much it is increased and how prone a person may be in different social contexts.
Could that be any clearer?
The implication is that he doesn’t have in mind a full-fledged biological theory that in fact it arises in a way which he believes reduces to biological factors, because that’s a task he sets out, as a kind of research program or a social imperative to comprehend them, which has not already concluded and which isn’t limited to understanding biological factors. He certainly does have something to contribute to that project as a neurobiologist, and he hasn’t been saying nobody else can contribute anything else because it falls entirely in his domain.
As opposed to the non-violent kind? What the fuck?”
I guess your point is that rape always involves violence or the threat of violence but there is no doubt a big difference in the effects of rape depending on whether there is violence and also the level of violence, just as the effects of sexual abuse of children varies widely from not traumatic at all to devestating. I get the reference to he effects of sex abuse a little later.
After having handled livestock all my life, which of course includes male livestock, I must concur that this is cultural.
Traditionally male livestock have been considered to be very dangerous and if you show them, only people above a certain age are allowed to handle male livestock because of the potential danger. And to be honest, male livestock do indeed kill human handlers on occasion. Yet. Every single day, I safely handle male livestock and have done so my entire life, but that is ONLY because I taught them proper behaviour. If I had to handle unfamiliar animals, I would be extremely cautious. Many people raise a male animal (bull, stallion, buck etc.) by standing outside the pen and throwing feed and water in, and never handling that animal and insisting on proper behaviour. Then they are stunned when the buck (or stallion etc) goes after them when they try and take away a female from them. Or, they allow some aggressive behaviour and never stop it, and then one day… they end up in the hospital.
I’m reminded of a story of a little girl being knocked down by a little boy while both sets of parents were present, and the little boy’s parents, instead of explaining to the boy that this behaviour is not acceptable, smile indulgently and tell the parents of the little girl that he must “like” her. Or, that boys are so “different”. No. They are not different. It is that in this culture, we are accepting this behaviour from little boys, and so, not very surprisingly, they grow up thinking it is OK to hit girls or show violence towards them.
Respect is a two-way street and that means treating young children fairly and with respect, while teaching them respect for others. If you don’t teach it to your young children, you should not be surprised that they don’t grow up into respectful adults.
Rape is violence.
consciousness razor says
Yes. In my case, as a teenage boy a time long ago, the two assholes were not doing anything other than ganging up on me and behaving violently. Fortunately I was able to fight them off and leave before it got any worse, but that is all it was.
Other than differences in strength, you may also attribute it to opportunism based on the fact that an erect penis is such that it can be used as a weapon in a way that a vagina cannot. It’s not a voluntary response, so it’s not as if a man can’t be raped by a woman (especially when considering other acts of rape that don’t involve that sort of penetration, sexual abuse or harassment, and so on). But as a male aggressor it is directly up to how your own body is already (or will be) responding to the situation, instead of an expectation (if you know at all) that you may be able to exploit another person’s responses. You may not be too motivated to even attempt it, if it’s not obviously up to you but may only accidentally happen to harm the person you intend to harm.
THANK you. This has been bugging me ever since I read it over at Dispatches earlier today.
Why trash biological reductionism? There is nothing wrong with that truth. PZ, your mind is the result of electrochemical activity among complex interacting biological neural networks. Indeed you are a complex bipedal carbon based neural network that is a product of natural selection and shaped by the interplay of genes, environment and chance. There is no ghost in the machine. The whole is not somehow magically greater than the sum of its parts. There is no woo.
I think what you probably mean is biological determinism. Testosterone is important for a lot of things and not solely responsible for gender. Indeed, the androgen receptor is implicated in certain forms motor neuron disease. It is simplistic and stupid to claim that if testosterone then masculinity. Herbert likely has little or zero understanding of cognitive neuroscience.
I saw a very similar thing in Cairo. It was fascinating: in my eyes, a very dangerous situation, where the aggressor was about to beat the living daylights out of his victim. Instead, the aggressor was throwing air punches for exactly long enough for people to have time to restrain him, and only then was he pushing towards the other guy. The other guy started to play along as soon as people got over to him to restrain him. And the restraining wasn’t vigorous at all. I was confused. My sister rolled her eyes and mentioned to me it was just a ritual. The feelings are real — frustration, anger, whatever; the fighting is as fake as the WWE.
Another fascinating bit of Cairo culture: we saw someone trying, alone, to put a mattress on the roof of his car. Half a dozen people helped him. I thought nothing of it: of course when you go pick up a mattress, the friends you showed up with would help you. My sister noted that the guy with the mattress almost certainly knew none of his helpers; it was just how things worked.
Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says
My recollection is that higher testosterone levels correlate to higher levels of fighting and violence in male rats…and a tendency to make fairer offers in game scenarios in female humans.
To me, this suggests that testosterone may tend to motivate status-seeking behavior, where the actual nature of that behavior is highly contextual…
Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
Testosterone may be a factor, but I think it takes a back seat to social and cultural programming. American men don’t have any more or less T than men anywhere else, but America is somehow the leading example of “Hold my beer and watch this” stunts.
In Classical Athens it was thought that women were naturally lustful, irrational, chaotic and prone to excess. The plays of Aristophanes frequently trade on these stereotypes for laughs (when women are alone they only ever think about getting drunk and having sex), and Aristotle explains this as a product of the colder, wetter, female constitution. Thus it was considered right and natural that women’s violent excesses be governed by the calmer rational natures of men.
In late 18th century Europe, particularly among evangelical nonconformists, it was generally thought that women were calmer, gentler, less sexual and possessed of a higher moral seriousness than men – who only ever thought about getting drunk and having sex if you left them alone. The sermons of early Methodists frequenty return to this theme. Thus it was considered right and natural that men’s violent excesses be governed by the gentler, feminine natures of women.
Me -I guess your point is that rape always involves violence or the threat of violence
Dunc-Rape is violence.
OK,but there are different kinds of violence and degrees of physical violence. usually trauma will be greater where there is more violence. If “violent rape” is a bad or innacurate term is there a better one?
Sent from my iPad
Needless to say, not all men have penises and women vaginas, and everybody has a hole (and vulnerable external genitalia) and there are plenty of rapists who employ inanimate objects to rape, mutilate, destroy, and murder even when they themselves are fitted with a perfectly adequate, working penis, erect or not. That’s because, just as with sex, not all rape is P-I-V and oriented around male orgasm. It’s sexualized violence we’re discussing, not violent sex.
As for the notion that “nature” demonstrates “male members of species fighting each other over access to female members of the same” as a constant: nope, that’s your heteronormative patriarchy talking, making unwarranted assumptions. Rape is not universal, female choice exists, and other animals do not necessarily form nuclear families or monogamous partnerships. Nor is the bulk of sexual contact between and among most other animals recreational rather than procreative or an exercise in bonding.
Any of the diverse patterns of our human selves? I do not think you mean quite that.
What about patterns of anti-social behavior, psychopathic behavior, timewasting pedantry, and so on.
A fair point.
No one is soliciting your personal hierarchy of rape. Please stop assigning levels to instances of it based only on what you perceive to be categories of physical trauma and, in general, please stop suggesting we rank them.
Gregory Greenwood says
There is another problem with Herbert’s attempt to simplistically link testosterone to violence in young men – it strikes me as sailing dangerously close to the old ‘boys will be boys’ excuse as a form of gender essentialism. The logic goes ‘those poor men, so poisoned by testosterone, really aren’t responsible for whatever harmful behaviour they may engage in. I mean, who is the real victim here?’ – it is an old excuse for everything from alcohol fueled hooliganism to misogyny, and it all comes back to the notion that men, especially young men, are somehow biologically predisposed to such behaviour and so there is nothing to be done about it and no one is at fault, least of all the actual responsible parties.
That is a dangerous mindset that offers almost unlimited licence to a certain segment of society to ignore the mores of society and even aspects of the law, and all because of the myth that testosterone somehow absolutely rules one’s brain, leaving one powerless to resist it – a passenger in your own body while the evil hormones have their way. It is unsurprising that society fails to extend similar laid back tolerance to women, whether young or not, who break the rules, given the different ways gender is socially constructed in our society. And that is what is really going on here – the reality is one of enculturation, testosterone is merely the convenient biological fig leaf.
Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- says
Not to mention the high levels of gun violence and death that are completely unknown in any other western country. Either somebody argue that the average American dude is biologically fundamentally different from the average German or British or Italian guy or there’s something else.
Also: What about the large majority of dudes who never actually get involved in violence other than a schoolyard brawl (which this feeeeemale has had as well)
EVERYONE has testosterone, and EVERYONE has estrogen — just different levels. Also, the role of testosterone in emotion is widely misunderstood: aggressive behavior (which doesn’t have to be violent or unkindly meant — witness roughhousing, joking around with friends, playing sports, racing) is frequently an attempt to RAISE one’s T levels, because a drop in T levels makes one cranky and a rise makes one feel better.
Jessie Foster says
That may have more to do with the easy availability of guns in the US. We have the highest number of guns per capita in the world: 112.6 per 100 residents. Literally more guns than people. The UK, for example, only has 6.6 guns per 100 residents.
Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- says
Yes, thank you for making my point…
Morgan!? ♥ ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ says
I originally read this as “existentialism”.
“a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group. They will risk injury, loss or even death for the sake of their group. They regard everyone else as outsiders, or even enemies. ”
…wait, like tend-and-befriend, the whole oxytocin thing? That’s more active in females. Women risk injury and loss for the sake of the group on an everyday basis and nobody thinks twice about it. The effect of increased affection for ingroup and disdain for outgroup is seen in both men and women under the influence of exogenous oxytocin.
Testosterone does not cause aggression. Quite the opposite… as irene @40 points out, aggression causes testosterone. Yeah, there’s ‘roid rage… which only happens at androgen levels hundreds of times higher than you’d naturally find in a human body.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
Because other western countries have sane gun laws.
By American standards, those aren’t Real Men™, obviously. *eyeroll* Honestly, I’m just amazed that more American men haven’t gone off the rails.
Pressure to play, or at least like, an alleged sport requiring the wearing of armoured suits which, despite its common name, rarely involves the ball making contact with the foot, and most often involves waiting for the advertising break to end. This alleged sport, clearly a brutal selection criteria to eliminate the sane, is largely unknown in much of the rest of the multiverses, even on planet Earth.
M Steinberg says
Geneticist Jerry Coyne has some comments on this.
“One distressing characteristic of the Left, at least as far as science is concerned, is to let our ideology trump scientific data; that is, some of us ignore biological data when it’s inimical to our political preferences. This plays out in several ways: the insistence that race doesn’t exist (and before you accuse me of saying that races do exist, read about what I’ve written here before: the issue is complex), that there are no evolutionarily-based innate (e.g., genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between ethnic groups, and that there are no such differences, either, between males and females within humans….
To claim that there are no evolutionary differences in behavior and psychology between men and women is fatuous. The data show otherwise, though of course for most traits we don’t know if it’s genetic. But the default hypothesis, based on observation of other species (especially primates) is that at least some psychological and behavioral differences will be based on genes that evolved via selection in our ancestors. Why is the brain immune to evolved, sex-specific differences but the body is not?
Thus, to claim, as does P.Z. Myers in a new post, that higher testosterone levels in males have minimal influence on their aggressiveness compared to the effects of culture, is a claim based not on data—which show that he’s wrong—but on ideology. And so he and his commenters try to refute the testosterone-effect notion using anecdotes: some males aren’t aggressive, Myers himself is not aggressive (!), aggression is due “mostly” to cultural difference (the “patriarchy”) rather than to biological differences, and so on. To read the comment thread is to see a bunch of progressives desperately squirming to avoid the obvious….
Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- says
Really? I do not deny differences in behaviour and psychology, but I’d like to see evidence for the “evolutionary” part.
Again, which data confirms the “evolutionary” part of the claim. As Coyne admits himself, no evidence for the differences being “genetic”
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
So. Much. This.
Thank you for kicking so much asafoetida, Giliell.
Hj Hornbeck says
M. Steinberg @47:
And it’s a terribly strange and anti-scientific comment, too. Our best evidence suggests that testosterone has little-to-no effect on aggression in humans. Ironically, most of that evidence comes from Evolutionary Psychologists! I’ve forgotten why they dismiss the testosterone-aggression link, but I do remember that back in the 1970’s researchers were grappling with the observation that boys became less aggressive after puberty, when testosterone was at an all-time high. Coyne doesn’t cite a single source on the testosterone-aggression correlation, and its telling that he quickly does a bait-and-switch to the link between dimorphism and behaviour.
He claims he’ll have a citation-filled rebuttal up sometime today. I doubt it’ll be much of an improvement, but we’ll see.
 Maccoby, Eleanor E., and Carol Nagy Jacklin. The psychology of sex differences. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1974. Pg. 351-2.