gender in evolutionary understanding of violence against men

dead and wounded men

Interpersonal violence among adults in human societies is highly disproportionately violence against men. For example, four times more men than women die from interpersonal violence in the U.S. today. In western Europe about 1400, the life expectancy of men at age 20 was 9.4 years less than the corresponding life expectancy for women. Violence against men accounted for a large share of that gender inequality. Any reasonable understanding of the evolution of violence must consider disproportionate violence against males.

Study of warfare among Turkana nomadic pastoralists in East Africa indicates that disproportionate violence against men spans a wide range of socio-political structures. With life primarily organized around small herds of cattle, goats, camels, sheep, and donkeys, the Turkana don’t have large, formal institutions:

The Turkana are a large ethnolinguistic group with the social organization of a small-scale society. They are politically uncentralized, egalitarian, and economically undifferentiated. They lack formal or centralized institutions of leadership or coercive authority. They reside in nomadic settlements comprised of households that disperse and aggregate seasonally. [1]

Turkana men come together to form raiding parties of several hundred warriors without kin or day-to-day community ties. The raiding parties attack neighboring ethnic groups to acquire cattle and to deter those groups from intruding upon Turkana territory. Such warfare gender-disproportionately shortens men’s life expectancy:

Between puberty and the start of their reproductive period, 14% of Turkana men die in warfare, accounting for 45% of mortality during that life stage. During their reproductive period, 9% of men die in warfare, accounting for 60% of mortality during that period. …  Twenty percent of all male deaths (including infants and children) are a result of warfare. [2]

Social control, including that exercised by women, supports men’s deaths in warfare:

When a warrior’s behavior in a raid deviates from that of his comrades, he is subjected to informal verbal sanctions by his age-mates, women, and seniors. If there is consensus in the community that the act merits more serious sanctions, corporal punishment is initiated. Corporal punishment is severe: the coward or deserter is tied to a tree and beaten by his age-mates. One participant had scars on his torso from being whipped by his age group more than a decade earlier. During this process the violator is told not to repeat this mistake. Corporal punishment often culminates with the violator pleading for forgiveness and sacrificing an animal from his herd. [3]

Third-party sanctions, or more generally culture, explain both disproportionate violence against men and lack of social concern about disproportionate violence against men.

In many societies, violence against men is formally taught to boys. Boys are oriented toward combat through training in military skills, warrior apprenticeship, games and contests to establish martial skills, pain endurance and other endurance tests, and recounting legends and stories to reinforce martial attitudes.[4] Among the nineteenth-centur, North American nomadic hunting-gathering Apache:

Boys are warned that girls will not marry a cowardly or lazy person. Youths are particularly trained in endurance and in running. One test involves running a course with a mouth full of water which may not be swallowed (if the boy swallows the water on the way, the trainer sees that he doesn’t do it a second time). They match youths of the same age and have them engage in running contests and fighting. They were even expected to take on known superior fighters. They also engage in mock fights with slings to learn both attack and defense. Later they fight in teams with bows and arrows, and though the arrows are small, they can inflict severe damage. Later still, they are trained in handling horses, and in long cross-country journeys without food or sleep. [5]

The Jivaro, an primarily agricultural people of northern Peru and western Ecuador, inculcate military duties in boys:

when a boy is about the age of six, he is instructed each morning {by his father} on the necessity of being a warrior and incited to avenge the feuds in which his family is involved. Such admonishment “is repeated every morning regularly for more than five years, until the parent sees that the son has been thoroughly inoculated with the warlike spirit and the idea of blood revenge.” From the age of seven, boys are regularly taken on war expeditions with their fathers and, though they do not actually engage in combat, they get accustomed to the methods of warfare, and learn to defend themselves and not to be afraid. At the age of 15 or 16 the Jivaro youth undergoes an initiation during which he must observe numerous taboos and in which he is given a narcotic drink and tobacco to smoke in order to transfer the power of the tobacco to him. “This power will automatically show itself in all the work and occupations incumbent on him as a male member of society. He will be a brave and successful warrior and be able to kill many enemies….” [6]

In some societies, men can opt out of the duties of war. Yet the pattern of selective service for war that continues in the U.S. today has been prevalent historically in large, culturally elaborate societies.

A recent study of vervet monkeys indicates that females play a key role in generating and supporting violence against males. Intergroup aggression in vervets consists of vocalizations, charging, chasing, and biting. Both females and males participate in such aggression. Females usually take the lead in organizing and instigating intergroup conflict. Adult males, which are about 1.5 times larger than adult females, are stronger fighters. Adult females prod adult males in their group into fighting with both rewards and punishments:

During pauses {in intergroup aggression}, females selectively groomed males that had participated in the previous aggressive episode, but aggressed male group members that had not. In subsequent (i.e. future) episodes, males who had received either aggression or grooming participated above their personal base-line level. Therefore, female–male aggression and grooming both appear to function as social incentives that effectively promote male participation in intergroup fights. [7]

Vervets are socially sophisticated primates. Group members observe males being rewarding for fighting and punished for not fighting. Those actions plausibly have broader social implications:

Grooming and tolerance (i.e. the lack of aggression) are important services exchanged in the formation and maintenance of social bonds in primates, and it is possible that punishment and rewards have a disproportionate impact on male behaviour because these social interactions influence the quality of male–female social relationships. That is to say, receiving punishment could  damage the target male’s social relationship(s), either with the female actor(s) directly (i.e. experience based) or with other female group members who have observed the social incentive (i.e. reputation or information based). Conversely, receiving rewards could improve bond strength and potentially signal to other female group members that the target male is a valuable social partner.

More elaborate culture in humans plausibly enables such social effects to be more powerful. Greater cultural development seems to be associated with more disproportionate violence against males relative to violence against females.

Human culture provides significant, under-appreciated evidence of women’s social power and its relation to violence against men. The 2009 elite scholarly study Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans and the current elite consensus that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world” cannot be understand apart from symbolic power. Pre-Islamic Arabic tahrid poetry and modern social shaming of men into combat provide close analogs to the behavior of female vervet monkeys. Given vastly increased human tools of violence, the fate of human civilization may rest on the possibility of developing sophisticated, humane self-consciousness of the social manipulation of men.

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[1] Mathew & Boyd (2011) p. 11375.

[2] Id. p. 11376. Id. defined “reproductive period” thus: “The reproductive period {for men} begins with marriage or the birth of a child and ends when a person no longer sires children.”

[3] Id. p. 11377-8. Inter-personal violence is much more common among humans than among other species of mammals and is deeply rooted in human evolution. Gómez et al. (2016). A set of human hunter-gather skeletons recovered from Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana, from about 10,000 years ago, indicates disproportionate violence against men. Out of nine securely sex-typed skeletons indicating evidence of having died violently, six were males. Mirazón et al. (2016).

[4] Goldschmidt (1988) p. 53. In Goldschmidt’s survey of the ethnography on 27 pre-state, non-literate societies, 12 reported pain endurance tests for boys.

[5] Id. p. 54, based on Opler (1941).

[6] Goldschmidt (1988) pp. 54-5, quoting Stirling (1938) p. 51 and Karsten (1935) p. 242.

[7] Arseneau-Robar et al. (2016) Abstract. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 6. The factual characterization of vervet monkeys in the above paragraph is also from id. On the social sophistication of vervet monkeys, Cheney & Seyfarth (1989).

[image] Gassed. Men killed and wounded in gas attack in World War I. John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1919. Item Art.IWM ART 1460 in Imperial War Museum (UK). Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Arseneau-Robar, T. Jean Marie, Anouk Lisa Taucher, Eliane Müller, Carel van Schaik, Redouan Bshary, and Erik P. Willems. 2016. “Female monkeys use both the carrot and the stick to promote male participation in intergroup fights.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 283 (1843): 20161817.

Cheney, Dorothy L. and Robert M. Seyfarth. 1989. “Redirected Aggression and Reconciliation Among Vervet Monkeys, Cercopithecus Aethiops.” Behaviour. 110 (1): 258-275.

Goldschmidt, Walter. 1988. “The inducement to military conflict in tribal societies.” Ch. 3 (pp. 47-65) in Rubinstein, Robert A., and Mary LeCron Foster, eds. The Social dynamics of peace and conflict: culture in international security. Boulder: Westview Press.

Gómez, José María, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías, and Marcos Méndez. 2016. “The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence.” Nature. 538 (7624): 233-237.

Karsten, Sigfrid Rafael. 1935. The head-hunters of Western Amazonas. The life and culture of the Jibaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador and Peru. Commentationes humanarum litterarum, 7. Helsingfors.

Mathew, Sarah, and Robert Boyd. 2011. “Punishment sustains large-scale cooperation in prestate warfare.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (28): 11375-80.

Mirazón Lahr M, F Rivera, RK Power, A Mounier, B Copsey, F Crivellaro, JE Edung, et al. 2016. “Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya.” Nature. 529 (7586): 394-8.

Opler, Morris Edward. 1941. An Apache life-way; the economic, social, and religious institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Stirling, Matthew Williams. 1938. Historical and ethnographical material on the Jivaro Indians. Washington: U.S. G.P.O.

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