The biology of male aggression, and why it’s not all “socialization”

While I’ve long been a critic of evolutionary psychology, I’m not stupid or woke enough—unlike some bloggers I won’t name—to dismiss the entire field as worthless. While it’s hard to test whether some behaviors in our species have evolved by natural selection, there are degrees of confidence we can get, and predictions one can make, to judge the likelihood that these behaviors are indeed “darwinian.” While nobody argues that behaviors like preferring your own children over others aren’t products of natural selection, there are those who claim that behavioral differences between men and women are not—and in fact cannot—be based on genes installed in our species by natural selection.

The two sex differences I find most evolutionarily convincing involve human sexual behavior—in particular the observation that males tend to be relatively indiscriminate in choosing someone to mate with, while females are pickier—and the fact that males are more aggressive than females. I feel that these behavioral differences are likely, at least in part, to be the result of sexual selection in our ancestors. I won’t talk about sexual behavior today, as I’ve written about it before, but I do want to highlight an article from last April discussing the evolution of male aggression. It’s by Steve Stewart-Williams, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and appeared online in in Nautilus. It’s a short but good summary of why the greater aggressiveness of men than of women almost certainly reflects, at least in part, natural selection in our ancestors. Click on the screenshot to read it, and you should:

I should first emphasize that while Stewart-Williams and I share the view of the evolutionary roots of some male aggression, we both agree that males can also be socialized into being more aggressive by being expected to conform to stereotypes of “masculinity” (remember the car race in Rebel Without a Cause?); and that even if males are more aggressive than females because of natural selection, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make them less aggressive—also by socialization. Any geneticist knows that, for nearly all traits, heredity is not destiny, and the environment can make a big difference.

Nevertheless, the SJW view of differences between men and women’s behavior is that all of those differences are due entirely to socialization, with no moiety due to genetics and evolution. That is an ideological stand that, in view of the substantial morphological differences between men and women, is pretty insupportable.  And that view comes from the fear that if we do find evolution-based differences, it will lead to discrimination—usually against women. My own view is that any genetic differences we see cannot support any moral or legal inequality between the sexes, which is a philosophical position that shouldn’t depend on biology.  (If it did, equality would change as our knowledge of biology changed.)

So I deplore those who try to pretend that differences either don’t exist, or can’t have an evolutionary basis, simply because it’s inconvenient for their ideology. (They always pretend that their criticism is based on science, but they don’t fool anybody with two neurons to rub together.) That’s why the same people who will admit that men are bigger and stronger than women because of genetics and evolution will also assert that there can be no behavioral or psychological differences due to genetics and evolution. 

The caveats duly presented, Stewart-Williams gives several lines of evidence for an evolutionary origin of this behavioral difference. I’ll summarize them briefly; the indented sections are Steve’s writing.

1.) The behavior is consistent across different cultures, when one would expect different degrees and kinds of socialization.

An initial line of evidence is that it’s not only in the West that we find sex differences in aggression. Wherever in the world we look, men are more violent and aggressive than women, especially with other men. The clearest and most persuasive evidence for this comes from homicide statistics: In every country, without fail, men commit the vast majority of homicides (and are more likely to be the victims of homicide as well). If the sex difference in aggression is just an arbitrary product of culture, why does it rear its ugly head in every human group?

Now there are those, says Stewart-Williams, who argue that the difference in aggression is just a non-evolved byproduct of differences in size and strength. If you’re bigger and stronger (presumably for evolutionary reasons), then you can benefit by being more aggressive, and you get pigeonholed into social roles that involve more strength and aggression. But that raises the question of why men are bigger and stronger than women! While you’ll see social-justice warriors trying desperately to explain size and stength differences without invoking sexual selection, a reasonable explanation, based on observations below, including the behavioral differences in sexual behavior as well as parallels from animals like seals and gorillas, is that part of the size/strength differentiation involves men competing for women: to the stronger goes the reproduction.

The avoidance of sexual selection as an explanation is because that implies that there could be behavioral differences between men and women as well (sexual selection involves behavior), and to the Authoritarian Left that idea is to be avoided at all costs.

Here’s how Stewart-Williams rebuts the “byproduct” explanation for differences in aggression:

It’s a clever argument, and one worth taking seriously. On balance, though, I don’t think it flies. To begin with, the Eagly–Wood theory raises some awkward questions. Why wouldn’t natural selection create psychological sex differences as well as physical ones? The mere existence of the physical differences tells us that human males have been subject to stronger selection for aggression and violence than females. Why would this selection pressure shape our muscles, our skeletons, and our overall body size, but draw the line at our brains? And why would natural selection give men the physical equipment needed for violence but not the psychological machinery to operate it? This would make about as much sense as giving us teeth and a digestive system, but not a desire to eat.

That is a strong argument, and one that I haven’t seen rebutted by the haters of evolutionary psychology. Why are our brains the one organ that can’t be differentiated between men and women by selection?

2.) We don’t find, as expected under the socialization theory, larger amounts male aggression in societies that have stricter gender roles and less gender equality.

On top of that, if sex differences in aggression were all down to gender roles, the differences would be larger in cultures with stricter gender roles and greater gender inequality. That’s not what we find, though. On the contrary, it seems to be the other way round. A recent large-scale, multinational study revealed, for instance, that sex differences in adolescent physical aggression are smaller, rather than larger, in less gender-equal nations. Culture clearly matters when it comes to sex differences in aggression—but the effect of culture is apparently very different than the social role theory would lead us to expect.

3.) Males are more aggressive than females from the very beginning of childhood, presumably before they’ve had a chance to be socialized.

. . . the sex difference in aggression appears very early in life—usually before children take their first bite of their first birthday cake. From the moment they can move around under their own their steam, boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play than girls. The same sex difference is found in other juvenile primates, and appears to be related to testosterone exposure in the womb. In humans, the sex difference shows up long before kids understand that they’re boys or girls, so it can’t just be that they’re conforming to social expectations about how boys and girls ought to act. In any case, children are terrible at conforming to social expectations, as any parent who’s tried to persuade their progeny to sit nicely and quietly in a restaurant will readily confirm. And not only does the sex difference in aggression emerge early, it remains static until puberty. Absolute levels of aggression trend downward for both sexes; however, the gap between the sexes barely budges. If socialization creates the sex difference, why doesn’t continued socialization before puberty pry the sexes apart?

And here I should add that testosterone has a positive effect on aggression, whether injected or naturally circulating in people with abnormal levels of the hormone for their sex. That, too, points to an evolutionary explanation.

4.) The pattern of male aggression conforms to what we expect if it evolved to promote competition for females.  Stewart-Williams reports that early differences in aggression remain static until puberty, when males suddenly become much more aggressive and much more willing to take risks.  This would be expected because male aggression would be most adaptive when the reproductive benefits are greatest—during early reproductive years (in our relatives, of course, who probably began reproducing much earlier than modern humans). As Stewart-Williams argues:

How would the Nurture Only approach explain the violence gap that opens up between the sexes at puberty? Is there a sudden surge in gender socialization—a surge which, for some unknown reason, happens at exactly the same stage of life in every culture and in many sexually dimorphic species? Is it just a coincidence that this alleged surge in socialization comes at the same time as the massive surge in circulating testosterone that accompanies puberty in males?

He adds that after early adulthood, male aggression goes down steadily for the rest of a man’s life, something that the socialization hypothesis doesn’t explain but the evolutionary hypothesis does: why be aggressive when you get little reproductive payoff but risk being killed or injured by other, younger males?

5.) In many species of animals, including our closest relatives, males are more aggressive than females. If you have a “socialization” theory, you’d have to claim that what everyone accepts in other species as evolved differences in behavior just happen to be the nonevolved products of socialization in humans. What a remarkable coincidence!

A final line of evidence that sex differences in aggression have biological underpinnings is that these differences are not unique to human beings. Indeed, in some cases, the parallels across species are striking. Consider humans and chimpanzees. Among humans, males commit around 95 percent of homicides, and are around 79 percent of homicide victims. Among chimps, on the other hand, males commit around 92 percent of “chimpicides,” and are around 73 percent of chimpicide victims. In short, the sex difference in lethal aggression in the two species is remarkably similar in size.

That’s all I’ll say for now, except to add one more argument that is mine: the aggression difference also goes along with the sexual “choosiness” difference that has been repeatedly observed in psychological studies. Both bespeak a form of sexual selection in which males compete for females and females are choosy about who they select as mates.

I’ll also warn readers that many people who argue against any evolved behavioral difference between men and women are people who likely have an ideological agenda. And they often pretend that they don’t.

At the end, Steve tells us that it’s important to understand the roots of male aggression because it helps us reduce male violence that is harmful in today’s world (my emphasis):

None of this implies, by the way, that we’re necessarily stuck with male aggression, or stuck with aggression in general. As the psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrated in The Better Angels of Our Nature, levels of violence and warfare have fallen steadily over the decades, centuries, and millennia, despite the fact that aggression is part of human nature. In various ways, from policing and government to trade and moral norms, we’ve managed to pull ourselves, to a significant extent, out of the vortex of violence and bloodshed that characterized our species for the bulk of its tenure on Earth.

If we want to continue on this trajectory, however, or ideally to hasten our progress, our best bet is presumably not to delude ourselves about the true causes of our behavior. As policy wonks like to say: Wrong diagnosis; wrong cure. Let’s get the diagnosis right so that we can maximize our chances of curing the scourge of human violence.

I agree with the malleability bit in the first paragraph, but am not so much on board with the idea that we need to understand what causes our behavior because it will help us alter our behavior. After all, whether male aggression be due to socialization, evolution, or a combination of both factors, the treatment is the same: socialize men to be less aggressive!  The reason I want to know what causes our behaviors is pure curiosity.

68 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Posted December 19, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Agree. Socialize men to moderate their aggressiveness.

  3. stuartcoyle
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    It seems that society once had rules and norms that took into account the fact that men tend to be more aggressive. The word “gentleman” in itself seems to hint that we appreciate those men who could be gentle despite their nature.

    If we deny that there is any natural tendency to aggression we risk missing the appropriate response and teachings to moderate that tendency.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted December 19, 2019 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Not sure about that. As Wikipedia points out, ‘the term gentleman captures the common denominator of gentility (and often a coat of arms); a right shared by the peerage and the gentry’.

      It’s a term of social stratification, in other words: a divide between those who worked and those who didn’t. As the radical priest John Ball said in about 1381:

      ‘When Adam delved and Eve span,
      Who was then the gentleman?’

      • max blancke
        Posted December 19, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        I have yet to drag out the OED and see what it has to say about the word, but I agree with stuartcole on the basic concept.
        A large part of the rules of any civilized society were developed to deal with the baser parts of human nature, and allow peaceful coexistence. Obviously not all such solutions are what we today would consider acceptable ways to live.
        But they were attempts to address universal problems, and largely developed incrementally by people who did accumulate some experience in human nature.
        I think it is a terrible idea to just disregard all of that accumulated knowledge on the basis that people today are smarter and morally superior to any who have gone before us. We just end up making the same mistakes over again, and often end up inventing the same solutions that in place before we tore everything down.

        • puddleg58
          Posted December 19, 2019 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          In law, what you are describing is known as Chesterton’s Fence.

          • max blancke
            Posted December 19, 2019 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

            Not just in law. In archaeology, it was a useful concept as well. The answer to the question of “why did they build this in this fashion?” was almost never “Because they were primitive idiots” or “because they wanted to oppress someone”.
            (Sometimes it was literally about a fence, since my field of study was military and industrial archaeology.)

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted December 20, 2019 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        ‘Gentleman’ has been used in the vernacular to describe thoughtful considerate men, or
        ‘a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior’
        For many years.

  4. merilee
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  5. Posted December 19, 2019 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    For the long game i think is is essential to know what causes the behaviour. I believe it will help formulate strategies if need be, e.g. to educate, not to fall into traps and hijacked sideshows.
    Muscle power is irrelevant as we have seen, to piloting, building the ISS, driving huge trucks, to flick the switch on a missile packed drone (trible aggression may apply here, which all are prone to)
    The difference at this stage of human evolution is clear to me but where are we going?
    As monsieur Pinker writes we lurch and heave from side to side, forward and back, for me perhaps understanding SS in male aggression keeps the line of sight a little straighter.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I cannot see anyone arguing much with any of this post. One additional reason why maturity leads to being less aggressive could be the mature brain. We know this generally takes place between 21 and 25 years old. This is why auto insurance goes down on the males at 23 or 25 years of age, the insurance companies are not stupid. It is also why the military likes to get the new recruits at 18 or 19, not 25 or 26. They too have made the connection.

    • Janet
      Posted December 19, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Excellent points

    • Posted December 19, 2019 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      Heheheheheh. Also, don’t forget, teenagers are passionate and gullible, and easily led around by cynical and skilled adults. In earlier centuries teenagers were much more likely to have adult tasks and responsibilities, and therefore more adult experience to learn from. Infantile adults were much more rare in those days, too.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 19, 2019 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      “It is also why the military likes to get the new recruits at 18 or 19, not 25 or 26. They too have made the connection.”

      It is quite evident in their recruiting materials. The younger set won’t spend much time thoughtfully contemplating why the U.S. military is in, e.g., Ukraine.

      Christina Hoff-Sommers, something of a conservative and not sympathetic with the SJW crowd, laments the insufficient attention given boys. From my experience in the classroom, certain ones are much more behaviorally high-maintenance than girls. I wonder what her position is on the genetic precursors of male aggression.

    • Hunt
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Military recruitment age preference probably also has a lot to do with the fact that 18 or 19 is when a lot of young men are thrashing about trying to decide what to do with their lives. If they’re not college bound, then they’re either going to dedicate themselves to some trade or begin unskilled labor.

      Anyway, 18 is when public school ceases to be an option, and an opening for the military to grab them.

  7. GBJames
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  8. Posted December 19, 2019 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Another demonstration that there is a biological basis for these trends is that transgender people who convert from female to male experience a lot of testosterone related behaviors once they start the injections. It would be very contradictory indeed for the biology deniers to dismiss that one.

    • Posted December 19, 2019 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget that “transgender” people voluntarily *choose* to become more like the opposite sex. They *work* at it. This is a lot different from natural behavior.

    • Posted December 20, 2019 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      Wouldn’t that be an argument against there being genetic differences between male and female behaviours? Could it be that the brains are the same but the behavioural differences stem from the fact that male brains are in contact with more testosterone?

      • GBJames
        Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Because the differential presence of testosterone isn’t governed by genetics?

        You’re confusing proximate and ultimate causation.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        No, because, even if brains were identical, the high level of testosterone is genetically determined in cisgender males. People can’t be socialized into raising their testosterone levels. Human behavior is not just a function of a brain in isolation. The whole bodily environment, including hormones generated elsewhere in the body constitute the behavioral setting of the organism. On the other hand, I think average brain structure can be seen to differ using imaging tools.

        • Posted December 21, 2019 at 6:02 am | Permalink

          That kind of seems like cheating to me.

          If the answer to the question “is behaviour at least partly genetically determined?” is “yes because the mix of chemicals from other genetically determined parts of the body affects behaviour” seems to me to be trivially true.

          If injecting females with testosterone turns their brain into a “male brain” and depriving males of testosterone turns their brain into a female brain, then the conclusion must be that male and female brains are not differentiated, it all comes from elsewhere.

          This is not a view I subscribe to, by the way, I think there probably is sexual dimorphism between male and female brains.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 21, 2019 at 7:13 am | Permalink

            I see what you mean. The effect of testosterone alone might suggest there are no other differences. I take testosterone as simply a minimal case of genetic influence. But, I agree there are structural differences as well that presumably affect behavior. Cause and effect would have to be established.

          • Filippo
            Posted December 21, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

            I’m reminded of reading in the NY Times several months ago (wish I could document it – it’s in a stack of papers) of a type of gender identity which had the word “revolving” in its name. The example given was that ones gender identity could vary according to the day of the week.

            Why restrict oneself to days of the week? The possibilities seem endless. Why not, e.g., the color of ones chemise? Electric Blue one day, Distressed Pumpkin another. How about the weather and/or length of daylight? Or what one eats at a given meal (depending also on what libation is served with it)?

          • puddleg58
            Posted December 22, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            Hormones play a role in developing the sexual dimorphism of the brain, but given that the brain has evolved for hormones to operate on differentialy during development, it does not seem plausible that hormone-free male and female brains, as evolved targets of different hormone actions, would be identical.
            Sex hormone action in the development of sexually dimorphic brain areas is not simplistically binary. Testosterone plays a critical role in the early development of the female sexually dimorphic brain areas. The oestrogenic effect of soy isoflavone inhibits this testosterone pulse, so that girls fed soy formula play more like males. But later in life soy estrogen exposure is associated with early sexual development.
            This – a masculinized brain plus early female puberty – seems to me like a formula for female gender dysphoria, which is increasing at a much faster rate than male gender dysphoria.
            A mad scientist trying to create a modern, sexualised version of the experiment in Bergman’s film The Serpent’s Egg would pick a toxin like soy isoflavone.
            Of course there are also plausible cultural explanations for female GD.

            • rickflick
              Posted December 22, 2019 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

              Are you sure about the soy connection? I’ve read superficially on this over several years and the last I saw the idea that soy had a masculinizing effect had been debunked. The initial study was done in Brazil and followup work has left it’s conclusions in serious doubt. Let us know if you’ve discovered some new evidence.

  9. Posted December 19, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t you forgetting something?

    First, it’s impossible right now to tell how much of behavior in higher (i.e. with some intelligence) animals is genetic, because we’ve only begun to find out how much *the expression of genes is influenced by the environment*. This is particularly true of social animals.

    Second, it’s almost impossible to tell how much of human behavior is cultural, because almost everybody in the world today is influenced by the dominant cultures of Europe, the Americas, and Asia. You have to hunt up really obscure societies to find anybody free of that influence.

    Third, where we see male aggression in nature, it’s most noticeable among *social* animals, is usually designed for ritual combat with each other for dominance, territory and breeding-rights, *and is almost never fatal*. When two stags — or elephants, or wolves — duel during the mating-season, they’ll wrestle until one or the other gains the clear advantage, whereupon the loser will surrender and run away, and the winner will *let him*. Truly murderous aggression is almost exclusively a human characteristic, which argues strongly for cultural causes.

    Fourth, there are (a few) social animal species and human societies in which the females are dominant over the males, and among these it’s the females who are noticeably aggressive.

    So just how much of “male aggression” is nature and how much is nurture is a complex question which we’re in no position to answer today.

    –Leslie < Fish

    • Posted December 19, 2019 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but you’re implying that all cultures are identical or very similar in gender roles because they’re “influenced by the dominant culture.” I don’t buy that.

      And you can look at the heritability of behavior, which tells us what proportion of the variation we see in the population is due to variation in genes.

      Third, all that matters for sexual selection is that you gain a reproductive advantage by being bigger, more aggressive, and so on. You don’t have to die.

      Yes, a “few” societies, perhaps, although you name none of them. There are matriarchal societies, but those don’t necessarily have more aggressive females.

      In short, you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about, but you come over here to give lectures based on ignorance.

      And you’re forgetting civility with that initial snarky question

      • Posted December 20, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Heritability analysis only works if the environment is constant. I do not know what counts as “the same environment” here, so I do not know if the Sarkar-Lewontin point about heritability of social traits is applicable or not.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 4:21 am | Permalink

      Murderous aggression seems to be well known in chimp societies.

      Also it is common for males in many species to kill the offspring of rival males in order to bring the mother into oestrous.

    • KD
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      One difference between humans and other primates is that humans form anonymous complex societies, like insects, and fight organized wars of extermination against other societies, like insects. This would be “cultural” because the society identity markers are usually “cultural” rather than based on smell (like in ants).

      https://www.the-scientist.com/daily-news/war-zone-43300

      The “cultural” factor around identity while being as arbitrary as the proper pheromonal “smell print” in the argentine ant, is undoubtedly downstream of genetic and evolutionary factors. Perhaps enough so that you can prop up an illusion of socially engineering warfare and violence out of existence with a minimum of cognitive dissonance, if you are really truly committed to believing in idealistic nonsense.

      Also, “cultural” behaviors like division of labor, vocational specialization, assembly line production, social hierarchy that are not found in other primates are all prevalent in complex insect societies.

      The Human Swarm by Mark Moffett is a recent book looking at the nature of societies in humans and non-humans, and is very interesting.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      “So just how much of “male aggression” is nature and how much is nurture is a complex question which we’re in no position to answer today.”

      Sure but is not obvious that males are biologically more aggressive than females?

      The problem is that many liberal academics are against biological/evolutionary sex differences in principle.

  10. Posted December 19, 2019 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I think the key issue here isn’t the specifics of male aggression vs female, but the fundamental nature vs nurture argument of which the question of male vs female aggression is a sub-set. The likely answer, of course, is ‘both factors apply’ – but the point of debate then becomes the balance involved between them, and the extent to which ‘nurture’ can shape ‘nature (and vice-versa). That said, it seems to me that certain general behaviours are, indeed, hard-wired into humanity as a result of biological evolution. This is clear to me through my professional historical work where it’s evident that, while history itself doesn’t repeat, human behaviours usually do. It’s always intrigued me how otherwise unrelated societies and civilisations keep falling into the same general traps across history; and the idea that some of this may well reflect a basic set of hard-wired ‘ape’ behaviours seems compelling.

    • KD
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      Nurture is over-rated. Most behavioral traits are heavily heritable (50%+) and there are large effect sizes for genetic factors, and most environmental factors have small effect sizes, and in aggregate contribute less than 30% for most behaviors. Its also important not to ignore the “nature of nurture”, for example, highly educated parents with verbal facility read to their children, while parents with low education and minimal literacy generally do not, but guess whose kids have better education and verbal facility when they grow up? Is it because first set of parents read to their brood?

      For the most part, environment limits genetic potential, so if you drop your infants on their heads, they may grow up with much lower IQ than if you hadn’t dropped them on their heads. But short of child abuse, malnutrition, and other extreme environmental impacts (lead poisoning), environment is not the driver in human behavior.

      Plomin’s book, Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are, from MIT Press has a good discussion from the standpoint of psychology.

  11. puddleg58
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I think you have missed an important evolutionary advantage of the male-female aggression difference when you attribute it to mate competition,
    It is not in the interests of a species with long gestation, long lactation, and slow maturing of its young that females should be as aggressive as males. The function of aggression is obviously better borne by the sex that is not bearing and less likely to be holding or attracting a child.
    Males are more aggressive because they needed to fight for two or three. Females are less aggressive because this arrangement is more protective of reproductive success.

    • max blancke
      Posted December 19, 2019 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      The ability of a human population to grow or even remain stable is directly related to the number of healthy females in the population. The number of males is almost irrelevant, except in their ability to provide protection and nourishment to the female population and the children.

      • puddleg58
        Posted December 19, 2019 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        Exactly, and aggressive females are overall less likely to stay healthy or have healthy young who survive to reproduce, increasingly as more of their time is invested in reproduction.
        If males can do the aggressive stuff on their behalf, we can afford longer gestation, infants that seem to take forever to grow up, and so become a more evolved species that one day looks at itself and finds the males unaccountably scary,

    • A C Harper
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      A further complication of the nurture/nature debate is the effect of sexual selection. Although perhaps politically incorrect, women may select their men for their aggression, thus ensuring that relevant genes are passed on.

      One data point: In a rough tough steel making town near me the men and their woman would go drinking at night and the women would encourage their men to fight with others. I hypothesise that a man’s social status with men reflects on a woman’s social status with women. But it does suggest a terrible unguided tangle of natural selection, sexual selection, and social selection (nurture).

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        “women may select their men for their aggression”

        Makes perfect sense, because women are vulnerable during pregnancy and having to take care of small children

        b.t.w. it is telling that women overwhelmingly prefer taller men.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 21, 2019 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        ” . . . women may select their men for their aggression, thus ensuring that relevant genes are passed on.”

        OK enough, I suppose. So long as the men don’t impose their aggression on their pregnant wives/significant others (who create a life support system in the womb for those genes) by beating them. Of course, that never happens.

        • Filippo
          Posted December 21, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          I also meant to say that women may necessarily have to be more aggressive to the extent necessary for protecting themselves from males beating them.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      “It is not in the interests of a species with long gestation, long lactation, and slow maturing of its young that females should be as aggressive as males.”

      Good point

  12. rickflick
    Posted December 19, 2019 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    In high school there was a boy who was always on the lookout for anyone who might challenge him as the toughest kid in the school. When a new boy came in from another district and had any kind of physicality about him, there would be a fight behind the building after school (he always won). This went on for the years I attended the school. Looking back, a striking factor was that though he was the same age as the rest of the class, he showed signs of early sexual maturity and stronger masculine appearance – judging from what we could see in the shower after gym class. I can only speculate that he was endowed with a higher than normal level of testosterone. Social factors were also present. He was from a low socioeconomic family, and there were rumors that his father had aggressive tendencies. He was not the kind of person you’d expect to be successful in life, but he went on to become a highly respected athletic coach.

    • EdwardM
      Posted December 19, 2019 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Athletics has the virtue of being able to harness natural aggression and channeling it into something positive. To my mind that, and important lessons on failure, tenacity, discipline and working towards a goal are why children should be encouraged to play sports, especially if they cannot get those lesson else where.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 19, 2019 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

        I agree. It’s good for personal development, as long as the competition isn’t taken to extremes.

        • max blancke
          Posted December 20, 2019 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

          the advantages of participating in team sports are myriad.
          Not just learning leadership skills under stress, but cooperation and learning to win or lose gracefully.
          When my oldest was applying for military scholarships for med school, it was surprising to me how many questions they asked about his participation in team sports.
          I suspect that most of the data needed to answer the questions posed here exists within the structure of military recruitment, testing, and evaluation.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 20, 2019 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

            I’d never thought of that link. Sound right.

          • Filippo
            Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            “Not just learning leadership skills under stress, but cooperation and learning to win or lose gracefully.”

            I wonder if that also includes resigning oneself to gracefully dealing with one or more life-long injuries from playing sports.

            I notice coaches like to yell and scream on the field and court. Slip in a shove or two. If that’s such a wonderful modus operandi, perhaps it should be extended to the K-16 classroom to increase academic achievement.

            • max blancke
              Posted December 21, 2019 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

              “life-long injuries from playing sports” Not all participation in team sports result in such injuries.
              When one enlists in the military, it is expected that one will encounter some raised voices. One learns to not take it personally. Winning and losing gracefully means the ability to put everything into competition, then be able to switch the aggression off, and to not take it personally.
              The military needs to know a great deal about aggression, self control, and managing stress. Many people are not cut out for the physical or mental stresses of military duty. It is a great advantage to be able to predict who will fail before the investment of months of time and thousands of dollars. For people receiving advanced military scholarships, there is a huge investment made in the potential of that individual. So there are intense physical and psychological tests, and a review of the candidate’s history for relevant activities. I mentioned that they asked about my son’s participation in sports. What I did not mention is that they were mostly interested in sports leadership. I don’t remember the number, but I remember them saying that they “like to see that candidates led or captained xx number of sports teams in junior high and HS.
              But I am confident that there are statisticians and all sorts of behavioral specialists constantly compiling data on how to select the best candidates, and what sort of training leads to success.

              “perhaps it should be extended to the K-16 classroom to increase academic achievement.”
              If that results in people better able to cope with stress, possibly.

              I went through one particular training course, which involved running through a series of poorly lit and confusing spaces, with targets that pop out at you, some of which were enemy combatants, others were civilians or hostages. We were required to make very quick assessments and employ appropriate force. You go through the course knowing that it is not real, and that the stakes are low. The targets are not going to shoot back or die on the way to the medic. To make it a little more real, when I ran through the course I had a training NCO running along with me, literally screaming inches from my ear the whole time. It was pretty effective. I have been told that a lesson learned under heavy stress is likely to be remembered.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 19, 2019 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      His choice of a career is not terribly surprising.

      Did anyone ever whip his butt? He would deserve it.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 19, 2019 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know for sure if he was ever defeated, but one of his best friends said, if he didn’t take you the first time, he’d be back for more.

    • Hunt
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      Maybe you went to my high school because there was an almost identical boy there.

      I often wonder what institution houses him today. Hopefully he fared well…but I doubt it.

  13. Posted December 19, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m just reading The Triumph of Sociobiology by John Alcock, 2001.

    Excellent book and covers in some detail the opposition and hostility to the idea that behavior in humans is substationally the result of natural selection. Including male/female differences.

    Of course the opposition is ideological. And therefore incoherent from a scientific point of view.

    I recommend the book for people interested. It’s not just about the opposition to the idea, it also covers the success of the idea in explaining what we observe and making testable hypotheses.

  14. Hunt
    Posted December 20, 2019 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    I just note that the ideologues who condemn evo psych will often say that they do so because they find so much of the lay use of it objectionable, or that evo psych is “used as a tool” to abuse science, and so on.

    The telling thing is that they never admit that nearly every discipline, including their own, has been abused in some unscientific way, for instance Evolutionary Biology itself (creationism, anyone). Yet they will rarely attack their own discipline in the same way.

    • KD
      Posted December 20, 2019 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      The basic problem is that generalizations are dangerous, not in the sense that generalizations can be used politically to create harmful political outcomes (although that is true), but that generalizations are much easier to spout than they are to develop a large body of empirical data to establish their soundness.

      Unfortunately, the greatest generalization about human beings in currency is the idea of the blank slate (and that human differences are solely the result of oppressive social institutions). Ironically, people attack generalizations about say men or women in the name of an even bigger generalization about human beings, and its a generalization for which there is no evidence.

      • GBJames
        Posted December 20, 2019 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        “The basic problem is that generalizations are dangerous”

        I’m not sure this is generally true.

        • KD
          Posted December 20, 2019 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          Certainly, not all generalizations are dangerous!

  15. Micha Evartz
    Posted December 20, 2019 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Be careful. The same arguments you use could be used for the differences in aggression among races.

    • Posted December 20, 2019 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      What are you on about? We are talking about predictions from evolutionary theory as well as experimental results, none of which exist for racial differences in aggression (and I know of none). Which races are you talking about and what are the differences. At any rate, your admonition that I should “be careful” is duly noted and rejected.

      I’m tired of people like you who don’t understand the evidence and still admonish me about it.

  16. Posted December 20, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    The EP critics I know would say about the point about the brain : the danger of saying what it is prematurely is what they are always on about.

  17. Steve
    Posted December 20, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I think that the problem with your position is that the term “aggression” is both vague and ambiguous. If you mean only that males are more likely to engage in physical violence or play violence, then okay, that seems likely to have a biological basis. But, the word aggression is used in many other contexts to mean “assertive,” “confident,” “forward,” etc. I think that you can rail against the social justice warriors all you want, but when vague language that refers to disparate behaviors some good and some bad is being attributed a biological explanation that will in turn be given an interpretation that it is “innate,” they have a point.

    • Posted December 20, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Okay, fine: define it as tendency to engage in physical violence or roughhousing or yelling. In fact, just use the dictionary definition. You will get the same result.

      The SJWs claim that NO behavioral difference between males and females is innate/evolved. So when I say that some are, what, exactly, is their point?

      You may consider my argument vague because I don’t precisely define terms (I just did above), but you don’t seem to think that the claim that there are no biological differences in any behavior between men and women has merit. It doesn’t. All they can do is quibble, as you have, about definitions.

      And, by the way, choosiness is well defined in the psychological literature.

      • Steve
        Posted December 20, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        It is not a quibble. I agree that there are biological differences between men and women, of course there are. Some of those differences must lead to differences in the frequency of certain behaviors. That obvious fact, without a more robust theory does not permit inferences about what actual behaviors I should expect to see in a male in today’s society. I can’t predict whether a women will be good at a particular job that requires them to be “aggressive.” But, those sorts of inferences are exactly what people expect from a scientific theory. What is actually being explained by a theory that says, men are more aggressive than women in part because of biology. Should we give up trying to raise boys to curb their aggression. No. So, what is the point of the “theory.”

        • Posted December 20, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          This is the last time I will explain. Once you define aggression as physical aggression, roughhousing, and so on, the theory explains that it has evolutionary roots, and makes predictions or retrodictions, like the aggression will peak at puberty and then decrease, that it is the result in part of differences in testosterone, and so on. The theory is sufficiently robust that it explains all the observations in Steve Stewart-Williams’s paper.

          Your sentence saying “what is actually being explained” answers itself. What is being explained is why males are more aggressive. It doesn’t tell us what to do about aggressive males. Somehow I don’t think you understand evolutionary psychology.

          But you’ve had your say now.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 13, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Sex differences should, like height differences, be complicated multi-gene traits. The idea raised here, that testosterone may be a mediator on social interaction such as aggression is likely fraught with complexities.

    I found little in the standard Wikipedia on general problems with testosterone science, but some in the Swedish. Run through Google Translate:

    “It is also believed to be linked to aggression, but may also have other effects as there are studies on women who have been administered testosterone who have come to the conclusion that it appears to have improved social interaction. [13] [14] Because testosterone is a precursor to estrogen, it is difficult to do psychological experiments on the hormone. Depending on how quickly the individual is able to convert it to estrogen, a dose of testosterone may instead lead to increased estrogen levels. The hormone appears to be linked to status consciousness, [15] with concern for its social reputation, and with competition instinct. It is also possible that testosterone only affects the correlation between provocation and aggressiveness, the aggression of injustice. [16] Instead, in particular, low expression of serotonin has been shown to induce aggression, but especially in combination with high levels of testosterone, [17] as well as possibly a changed balance between testosterone and cortisol person’s aggressiveness. [18] Testosterone is secreted at times when social status and reproductive opportunities are challenged, but for some also by looking at violence where individual variation may be due to differences in the autonomic nervous system. [19]”

    [ https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testosteron ; my bold]

    A reasonably large study on empathy, which couples to use of aggression, show no relation [ https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/does-testosterone-make-men-less-empathetic-a-new-study-says-no ] – but should labor unders the same difficulty as above.

    The paper on fighting isn’t persuasive on its biology. It is true that, which the paper found, that locally the general frequency of violence is two times among men. But the frequency of violence in relationship is equal (whether or not socialization overlay that).

    It’s complicated, and I don’t think we know much about links between biology and social traits that transfer from other species to ours. We are possibly self socialized – some early evidence for that now – and have evolved hidden estrus to inhibit sexual conflict.


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