Are Men's Angry Cavebrains to Blame for War?

Sometimes our planet's constant wars can seem as senseless and brutish as a bunch of Neanderthals throwing rocks at each other, and according to one team of scientists, that's what they are: an outgrowth of men's instinct to defend their mates and territories against outsiders. Are you skeptical? Good.

In a paper published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Melissa M. McDonald, Carlos David Navarrete, and Mark Van Vugt lay out the "male warrior hypothesis," the idea that "humans, particularly men, may possess psychological mechanisms enabling them to form coalitions capable of planning, initiating and executing acts of aggression on members of outgroups (with the ultimate goal of acquiring or protecting reproductive resources)." These mechanisms, they argue, could be at the root of many of today's wars. By way of evidence, they offer an overview of research into men's attitudes. They write,

Across cultures, time and samples, self-report survey research has consistently demonstrated that, on average, men display more xenophobic and ethnocentric attitudes than do women. Men also display a tendency to use danger-relevant stereotypes about outgroup members when faced with ambiguously threatening situations, such as when primed by ambient darkness. Men are also more likely than women to dehumanize outgroup members, such as by describing them using animal-typical words, which may help ease the psychological discomfort that might otherwise be associated with harming others during violent intergroup conflict.

In addition to survey data, McDonald et al cite a bunch of lab studies, like this one:

In a recent experimental study, researchers found that men, but not women, were more likely to endorse statements supporting war after they had been primed with attractive members of the opposite sex relative to unattractive members of the opposite sex. These results are consistent with the notion that, for men, intergroup conflict may serve the ultimate purpose of securing reproductive resources.

The authors conclude that "our evolutionary history has shaped the human mind in ways that tend to perpetuate intergroup conflict" and that may be why human beings (especially, in their view, guys) keep making war. They do offer some suggestions for taking the warrior out of the male:

When outgroups pose a coalitional threat, interventions might be targeted specifically at male-to-male interactions because they are the most likely perpetrators and targets of intergroup prejudice and aggression. In terms of their objectives, interventions will be particularly successful when they eliminate the sense of threat associated with particular outgroups altogether. Attempts must be made to individuate members of such outgroups, for instance, by accentuating their individual needs, ambitions and goals rather than those of the cultural groups they represent.

Teaching people that members of "outgroups" are individuals, not just parts of a monolithic Enemy, seems like solid advice whether you buy its evo-psych underpinnings or not. And there may be value to considering the psychological roots of aggression when working against, say, racism. But the study authors' recommendations break down a bit when you try to generalize them to all the world's wars. For starters — as they acknowledge — it's not entirely clear that humans have been at war for our entire history. The evidence of violence among hunter-gatherers is both mixed and spotty. So the line between cavemen fighting over caveladies and countries fighting over land may be far from a direct one. Also, guys' behavior in lab studies doesn't necessarily explain their actions in the world.

Another limitation — and one the authors don't really address — is the fact that lots of wars are precipitated by actual geopolitical problems. For every war that starts because somebody shoots an archduke, there's one that takes place over much-needed food or land, or much-wanted money. You could argue that this is just more male-on-male competition over resources (though this would ignore the increasing number of female soldiers in war), but that doesn't mean the conflicts aren't real. And teaching men to just get along isn't going to do shit if we don't have a good system in place for resolving these conflicts and for apportioning things that everybody wants and that nobody has enough of (money, food, land, etc.). Chalking up war to men's ancestral bloodlust may look elegant from afar, but we live in a complicated and ugly world, and teaching guys to make nice isn't going to fix all our problems.

Male sex drive 'to blame for world's conflicts' [Telegraph]
Blame men for the world's problems? Oxford study says ‘male warrior' behavior is root of conflicts [NY Daily News]

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