A young boy in Kyrgyzstan
In a 2009 post called Is it the "Religion" Gene or the "Tribal" Gene They Should be Worried About? I explored the accusation made by the most prominent of the New Atheists that religion is the primary motivation behind human violence, or at least for war. I doubted this, and was more inclined to think that the primary motivation for war was a tribal instinct bequeathed to us by our evolutionary past. Looking at the raiding behavior to be found in pre-literate, hunting-gathering societies, and in our chimpanzee cousins, I cited author William F. Allman in making my case:
A comparison of the warfare patterns in forty-two foraging societies worldwide reveals that when people live near vital resources such as fertile land or watering holes, the group-against-group aggression is typically over control of these physical resources. Yet, ultimately, these resources are also tied to access to females: Those individuals in the society who accumulated the most wealth typically had the most wives, and so gaining resources is an important factor in access to women.Recently I’ve been reading a book called Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, by Malcom Potts and Thomas Hayden. Echoing William Allman, Potts and Hayden propose that the male of the human species is primarily to blame for warfare, and that human males have evolved to define, or, as primatologist Jane Goodall would put it, “speciate” between in-groups and out-groups, and that out-groups can become the dehumanized targets of our “team aggression.”
Human warfare and terrorism require a special sort of violence in men, which we will call team aggression. This behavior is not limited to humans and we will document how in a handful of social mammals, a highly specialized behavior has evolved in which teams of adults—almost always males—attack and kill individuals of the same species. In the process they enlarge their territory and increase the resources available to the group to which they belong, with the side benefit of eliminating potential sexual competitors. In the case of chimpanzees and human beings, the chief practitioners, males are the primary beneficiaries of this kind of team aggression.Well, there you have it, and who can really argue with this? Perhaps St. Augustine had it mostly right in spite of the ever-increasing proof and acceptance of evolutionary theory. If evolution really did mark our DNA with a kind of “original sin,” it all basically comes down to the sex drive after all, just like Augustine thought (although he may have actually laid more of the blame on women than on men).
Anyway, one of the most intriguing things I’ve seen in the book so far is the assertion made by Potts that certain warlords of history have had a rather outsized effect on the gene pool. If it's true, no wonder we’re so warlike.
Ultimately, the evolution of every living thing has been driven by competition. It is a simple, universal fact that all living things, from bacteria to giant redwoods, reproduce more rapidly than the resources in their environments can support. And thus all living things must compete against not just other species, but also their own kind in order to survive. Competition was there, at the molecular level, when life first began literally billions of years ago, and it has continued to shape the evolution of life in increasingly complex ways ever since. Evolution as a result is a painful, callous process of separating winners from losers, driven by what Charles Darwin called the “war of nature.”Actually, there are some evolutionary psychologists and primatologists such as Frans de Waal who would dispute this, saying that cooperation and empathy count as much as competition, but this is Potts’s theory we're exploring for the moment…
In complex animals, such as birds or mammals, this competition for survival is frequently associated with violent behaviors. This occurs between species, within species, and even between males and females of the same species. Nowhere is this war of nature made more explicit than in the battles males of many species must win in order to mate. The male deer or bull elephant seal that competes successfully against his brethren and impregnates many females will pass his genes on to future generatlions; his losing competitors will not. Human behavior is considerably more complex than that of deer or seals, but for our species, too, it appears that more competitive, aggressive males have often made outsized contributions to the gene pool—a contribution that inevitably reinforces our warlike tendencies.I’m just going to butt in for a second... If Genghis Khan really had that many descendants, I’ll venture to guess that one of them was certainly not John Wayne, who was horribly miscast as Genghis Khan in the 1956 film The Conqueror. What was “Duke” thinking in taking on this role? I can’t think of a worse case of Hollywood miscasting off the top of my head, except maybe Marlon Brando as a Nazi SS officer in The Young Lions.
Take Genghis Khan. In 2003, an international team of geneticists published a DNA analysis of central Asians. Remarkably, the authors found, 8 percent of the men in central Asia have virtually identical Y chromosomes. Much more than a curious biological footnote, this finding offered a profound insight into our collective past. The Y chromosome defines maleness, and men who share a Y chromosome are all descended from the same man.
The fact that one in twelve men in Central Asia has the same Y chromosome can mean only one thing: At some point in history probably within the last thousand years, one man had a vast number of offspring. And Genghis Khan, Mongol Emperor from 1206 A.D. until his death in 1227, is the one historical figure who fits this role.
Still revered as a great leader in parts of Central Asia and reviled elsewhere as the ultimate barbarian, Genghis Khan presided over one of the greatest military expansions of all time. In just over twenty years, he united the tribes of the Central Asian Plateau, and extended the reach of the Mongol Empire from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Caspian Sea some 6,000 kilometers to the west. He reinforced loyalty by sharing out the spoils of war—including vanquished women—after every battle, but the Great Khan saved the most beautiful women for himself, and he boasted of the pleasure of violating other men’s wives and daughters.
Just a century after his birth, a Chinese historian claimed that Genghis Khan already had 20,000 descendants, and whether that was an exaggeration or not, modern science suggests that today the number of his descendents has grown to 16 million worldwide. Put another way, fully one in 200 of all men now alive on this planet are likely descendants of Genghis Khan.
Sez the Duke to Susan Hayward: Dance, Tartar woman!
I digress. Potts continues….
If Genghis Khan is the most dramatic example of this ‘founder effect,” he is hardly the only one. Another recent Y chromosome study, conducted on almost 800 men in Ireland, found that 20 percent shared a common genetic signature thought to show descent from a Middle Age king called Niall. In all, the study’s authors estimated that as many as one in twelve people in Ireland—and perhaps two to three million people worldwide— could be descended from King Niall...
If evolution judges success by the number of an individual’s progeny, then Genghis Khan, King Neill, and other, lesser warriors are among the most “successful” men in history (None of them lived long enough ago to be credited with the evolutionary invention of aggression or war, however. They, like all of us, were the products of evolution occurring over millions of years before their time on Earth.) Fortunately, human beings have also evolved as social animals capable of empathy, altruism, and love. But even if most of us would prefer to live in a world where the Genghis Khans do not win, we can’t begin to understand the raids and wars that still permeate our present world without understanding why they so often won in the past.
Throughout history and across cultures, rich and powerful men typically have had more sexual partners, and thus more offspring, than those lower in the social hierarchy The Bible tells us that King Solomon had 700 wives, and 300 concubines. Large harems were the order of the day for the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Aztec Kings, the Turkish Sultans, the African Kings, and the Chinese Emperors. Idi Amin, the Ugandan despot of the 1970s, had four wives and thirty children. Queen Victoria’s son, later King Edward VII, had several mistresses and many short affairs. From his box in a theater he would survey the women in the audience and send his equerry to invite the most attractive to join him—one hundred years later heavy metal bands echo the strategy, with roadies taking the place of squires. President John F Kennedy had several long-term extramarital sexual relationships and many one-night stands, aided by a kind of cultural acceptance that Bill Clinton must surely have envied.
Even if not all generals rape as did Genghis Khan, and not all kings and presidents are promiscuous—nor all philanderers violent—we still need to explain why in every society, across time and space, men on average are much more violent than women. We argue that our evolutionary history is the key, and that while. the different behaviors of men and women in relation to sex and violence are modified by our upbringing, they are also written in our genes.
The standard social science paradigm tells us that the differences between the sexes are almost entirely determined by culture.
An evolutionary paradigm, in contrast, recognizes biological differences in male and female behavior, put in place over millions of years of evolution.
This is not an argument that nature necessarily triumphs over nurture, nor that culture is unimportant and genes omnipotent: It is simply a recognition that humans are subject to the same biology as every other living species.
History demonstrates that a behavioral predisposition is not predestination, because we can choose to express the impulses and tendencies we have inherited in many ways, some of them peaceful or creative. Our genes certainly help to set our personalities and temperaments, but our behavior can be molded by our families, environment, and cultures—and by our own decisions—in a rich variety of ways.