Sex, Violence and The Male Warrior Hypothesis

Throughout the history of human civilization, wars have a common feature of being practiced primarily by males. This group aggression by males is a persistent trait of human behavior, seen across different continents among civilizations that have developed independent of each other.

Also, experimental evidence suggests that compared to females, male behavior and psychology is more inclined to aggression. Men are relatively more aggressive in inter-group games and display stronger ingroup loyalty in the presence of an inter-group threat. This idea is referred to by anthropologists as the male-warrior hypothesis. This general hypothesis leads to the prediction that men “have behavioral propensities to engage in male coalitional violence”. This is perhaps a product of a long evolutionary history, in which males who engaged in such behavior produced more genetic descendants than males without such propensities. Male coalitional violence is also exhibited by our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. Such behavioral propensities did not evolve in females of either species.

Since females in all cultures have greater parental investment than males in their offspring, engaging in openly aggressive acts to acquire resources, either individually or as part of a group, will be physiologically and genetically costlier for women. The mother is more critical to the offspring’s survival than is the father. If a mother wants her children to survive, then she must be equally concerned with her own survival. Because of this, it is believed that women would have evolved a psychology in which the costs of physical danger would have been weighted higher than that of a male.

Recognizing that our biological heritage has produced very different behavioral propensities in human males and females, can also lead to a solution of decreasing violence and warfare in modern times. Although the propensity for violence may be genetically programmed into the human brain, it can be controlled through cultural and social means. Behavioral genetics research on violence shows high heritabilities, suggesting that a substantial amount of genetic variance exists in such behavioral propensities within populations of human males.

By empowering women to be leaders in cultural, social, and political spheres, the violent propensities of men can be restrained, and perhaps men can learn to be less violent themselves. Public investment policies should also recognize that men with poor economic prospects have higher incidence of engaging in violence and being recruited into violent extremism.

Although war is a complex subject and a definitive understanding of coalitional violence is still lacking, women’s empowerment and a greater participation of women in the political arena could be the way for a more peaceful world.


Kaplan, H. (2009). Sex, War (and Ecology) Science, 326 (5950), 232-233 DOI: 10.1126/science.1176071

Van Vugt, M., De Cremer, D., & Janssen, D. (2007). Gender Differences in Cooperation and Competition: The Male-Warrior Hypothesis Psychological Science, 18 (1), 19-23 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01842.x

Campbell, A. (1999). Staying alive: Evolution, culture, and women’s intrasexual aggression Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X99001818

  • Hmmmm. Didn’t you see “Mean Girls?” Also, much of it is culturally determined, and girls today can be just as aggressive as boys at times. As some females have moved into a life determined by their aspirations, beliefs, and intellect as much as by their biology, painting in such broad brushstrokes becomes less useful.

    Historically, girls have been more aggressive verbally, harassed and bullied each other socially rather than with their fists. However this is changing. Girls often physically assault each other these days. I worked in my youth with impoverished girls from very rough neighborhoods and some of them concealed razor blades in their hair and used them on rivals…

    I grant you that mothers who nurse exclusively have higher prolactin levels and are as a result more patient, nurturing, and calmer than they might have otherwise been (chemical mothering enhancement) but this is a temporary condition. Prolactin levels can also rise in males who take care of infants a lot, so one might argue that male warriors who carry their infants around a lot might lose their fighting edge…We live in a chemical stew, but it is always influenced by our values and our beliefs, as well as by our individual character and personality.

    Furthermore, there are always individual exceptions. A young woman in my family who has considered a career as a military officer would be deeply offended by your sexual stereotyping. When she took self defence in high school, the other girls whined “Make her work out with the boys, she hits too hard.” There are plenty of female warriors, and they are not all butch or man-haters or cruel and unhinged.

    Most women would resort to whatever acts were necessary to defend their children (including violence). But many women would also be aggressive if it seemed necessary to defend some of the other things that women love and dedicate themselve to. Including their God and their country. Sadly, the flip side to this is that disturbed and cruel women may be likely to be physically violent (tho apparently not at the same rates as men).

    It is certainly true that some human beta females tend to challenge alpha females more than beta males challenge alpha males. One could argue from sociobiology that in general, male groups and warrior bands might start out more effective than some female ones as, once a leader’s dominance is established, there is less intra group bickering and challenging in a typical male group, so they can accomplish a mission. Sadly, many females back stab, betray and eternally compete with each other. This is why there are so many bad female bosses, and so many bitchy female offices. But there are plenty of exceptions to this, obviously. Female solidarity (particularly amongst blood relatives, and amongst professions who have trained together) can accomplish a great deal.

    Why don’t you go see what some female West Point cadets think of your theories? They might expand your point of view…Politely, but firmly.

    • Anonymous

      Likewise, maybe you can find someone to help modify your opinion that there are large numbers of bad female bosses running around and that bitchy females dominated offices. Sounds like you prefer broad stereotyping as much as the author.

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  • The Male Warrior Hypotheses is widely criticized, foremost by evolutionary biologists but also by philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists. It is also a loser in the courts. Retriever has a very good point: the evidence often has more to do with culture than genes. All the scientific research has shown that males and females are equally good at parenting, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: If one parent dies, the other will be there to pick up the slack. The values system behind the theory is one of strong individualism, emphasizing the importance of women over men in child-rearing. Such emphasis is a cultural lens, and therefor lacks objectivity.

    For most of evolutionary history, humans raised children communally. Only in times of severe scarcity did the mother have to care equally for herself and her child because her extended family, tribe, or community played a significant role in helping her. This gave us an evolutionary advantage over other primates, who are less communal in child-rearing. Furthermore, in nearly every pre-industrial culture, boys were raised primarily by men after age 7 (6 in some cultures) lifting the burden of rearing male children from women almost entirely. This picture changed greatly only after the onset of the industrial and mass urbanization.

    From a political standpoint, the Male Warrior Hypothesis has been one of the most counter-productive theories in the social sciences. Many notable authors consider it akin to Eugenics in the sense that it can be used to make the case for building prejudices into governmental, educational, and military systems. It is notable that amongst women’s studies faculties who have faced legal challenges from students over discrimination, it is the most commonly cited theory (in Canada, the US, and the UK). There is not a single case where it has been used successfully as part of any legal defense or prosecution.

    Finally, many of the conclusions are erroneous according to philosophers who have commented on it. Perhaps the largest problem with the theory is that it does not account for different behavioral tendencies which are observable at different stages of growth and development in humans. Cultural factors can have the effect of “stalling” people in the processes of psychological maturation. Where a person is stalled in the process, the individual’s diet, and use of intoxicants are all far more accurate predictors of violent behavior than the Male Warrior Hypothesis. This is true both at the individual and group levels.

  • Interesting thoughts to be sure. I, for one, don’t hold much hope for any appreciable decrease in violence. I believe the influence of our cognition, greed, the media, and any measure of insight re a purpose or meaning in life are doing us in. I know this sounds pessimistic, but someone convince me otherwise.

  • interesting feedbacks, however, the point of the article has been missed totally, it does not reinforce gender streotypes in any way, nowhere does it say that women are ‘paragons of virtue’, only that in general there way of expressing aggression is less physical (the reference by A Campbell elaborates how). also the 4th paragraph states what you have pointed out-that such tendencies are culturally controlled. therefore, the aim of the article was to point out that an increased role of women in politics could perhaps decrease armed conflict (and not alleviate all suffering from the globe). after years of womens movement, female participation in politics remains absymally low, even in ‘developed countries’.
    thats it !!!

  • Margaret Thatcher was such a dove, and Ghandi such a hawk.

    This genetic determinism is falsified by all kinds of evidence
    the great variation in violence across cultures to name just one.

    This sentence doesn’t make sense:
    Since females in all cultures have greater parental investment than males in their offspring, engaging in openly aggressive acts to acquire resources, either individually or as part of a group, will be physiologically and genetically costlier for women.
    Women are quite capable of competing with other’s children for the advantage of their own. You could as easily argue that the greater parental investment is likely to make them more violent.

    This argument from genetics is dangerous: it can lead to justifying the violence. “Men are just born that way.” The argument can also lead to social darwinism – war (and economics and social hierarchies and the current arrangements of various cultures) are somehow genetically determined. For some reason I doubt that the voting patterns of contemporary Australian society (where I’m from) are encoded in any chromosomal pairs.

  • The model of power implied by the theory is faulty, largely because it is based on an overly-simplistic conception. It allows for only three social roles: Victims; Persecutors; and Rescuers. This sentence: “By empowering women to be leaders in cultural, social, and political spheres, the violent propensities of men can be restrained, and perhaps men can learn to be less violent themselves,” is essentially arguing that women would be justified in controlling men in order to rescue society. Society, particularly women, are the victims, while men are the persecutors of everyone including themselves.

    Dr. Mathur is arguing is for the participation of women in the making of rules – a political point which will find few dissenters outside of organized religion. Such a solution would certainly be more enlightened than just letting men persecute with immunity due to their social position. Sadly, she her argument perpetuates a social hierarchy – one that justifies placing more women on top. But the historical record just simply does not support her suggestion that humans somehow become less likely to war when women are in power. The problem with Dr. Mathur’s assertion is that it tries to put women into roles which would open them up to act just like the men who had them in the past. And in point of fact, this exactly what has happened historically: The introduction of women leaders in “cultural, social, and political spheres” has not proven any different than putting men in the same positions.

    A more constructive, less combative, approach that Dr. Mathur could take is to examine the interconnections between people that are supportive of her goal of reducing violence and war. A brief study of complexity theory quickly reveals how the adaptiveness and connectedness of agents (in this case, all humans) affects the stablility and safety of social situations.

    Those who engage in the politics of gender are just as likely to be sexists as those who engage in the politics of race are to be bigots. I’m afraid, Dr. Mathur, that you come dangerously close to crossing the line when you assert that men need to be controlled because there is something inherantly violent about them. There is little wonder that your readers have responded this way.

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  • anthony

    well im 16 and being in high school i see more fights that invole girls then guys. this a dumb idea because of the fact that girls can be just as agresstive and tormenting as some males. it really has to do with the enviorment the person grows up in.

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  • The Standford primatologist Robert Sapolsky, has written a very good article for Foreign Affairs on this.

  • Adam

    RE: “investment policies should also recognize that men with poor economic prospects have higher incidence of engaging in violence and being recruited into violent extremism”

    Almost all of the radical Muslims who have taken part in the 116 terrorist acts committed against the U.S. since 9/11 have been educated and middle class, according to the WSJ (2/12/10)

    But one could easily imagine how in Fill-in-the-blank-istan, your statement might have some truth to it.

  • Kate

    Hmm…I agree with the first part of this article wholeheartedly, the thesis that males tend to be more physically aggressive. The majority of the responses disagreeing with this claim have relied heavily on anecdotal evidence (“Thatcher was a dove, and Gandhi was a hawk”…”MY friend in school was a girl who fought”)These examples are completely irrelevant to the initial claim of higher aggressiveness in males, which is solely determined by statistics over a wide section of time and space, not individual women and men!…if anyone can demonstrate that war casualties throughout history were caused equally by males and females, then maybe I would change my mind.

    Unfortunately though, the author makes the same mistake as her critics when she tries to argue, from her initially sound premise that men on the whole have been more agressive, that therefore women’s participation in leadership will lessen violence. Leaders in modern societies represent a subset of individuals who possess specific traits that helped them get to where they are, and tend to be more aggressive than average. The extreme stress of large-scale leadership roles, the intense competition for these roles, coupled with the fact that women are still in the minority in this field, practically ensures that the average, relatively nonaggressive and family-focused woman will NOT be the one filling these positions. Actually, the same can be said for men.

  • Kate, nonsense. Stats tell us about what is and what has been at the behavioural level.

    The idea that males are more aggressive innately is something that can be tested and can be falsified with one piece of evidence (that is the way science is meant to be done – though rarely is of course).

    That a group has acted aggressively may be due to innate aggression but may be due to other factors. This is what can be sorted out from experiment and evidence.

    If males are innately more aggressive then it is not possible for them to be less so. And women everywhere always will be less so. But this was not true is some cultures – Celts for instance. And because the warrior hypothesis is so wide ranging it is falsified by this one example (there are many history books about this if you care to inform yourself).

    Likewise there are some places where men are less likely to be aggressive than others. The warrior hypothesis can’t take account of these variations (so it is falsified – can’t take adequate account of the data).

    The problem with stuff like the male warrior hypothesis is that it is so reductionist it is useless to real life – where genes and learning are mixed to make up our behaviour. The application of it to individuals or individual instances of behaviour is just not suitable (the hypothesis has no explanatory force – that is, not useful).

    You need a wider sampling of history – that takes in warrior women and societies that are more and less peaceful. The hypothesis is easily falsified.

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  • Vasilisa

    Does this justify domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse done by men on women?

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  • Ashigeru

    Hmmm… As a trained martial artist, I can tell you that your theory is completely false. In over 30 years of training, I have fought many women, most of whom are far more aggressive “warriors” than their male counterparts. My warrior training has led me to be less aggressive, and to use far more restraint than many of my untrained friends. I haven’t used my training unless it was for self-defense only, while some of my untrained friends have frequently sought out fights…

    To use stereotypes in order to form your hypothesis makes it’s flaws obvious. I suggest you actually study warrior culture mores, codes of honor, and ethics, before jumping to conclusions. “non-warrior” cultures do not contain the same restraining social structures on behaviors, which would indicate that there would be less social restraint on aggressive/violent behavior, and less of an outlet for it.

    Also look into the data of female on male abuse in relationships. The data suggests that women are almost as abusive as men…

    If women were the saints that you seem to suggest, then there would be no women’s prisons. We have also seen women politicians that have been far less than honest, some have even been corrupt. Neither women, nor men are paragons based merely on their sex. Having one sex in charge will not make anything any better, despite some people’s pipe dreams…

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Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.

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