Why is the Human Primitive Warrior Virtually
Always the Male of the
by J.M.G. van der DENNEN, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies,
University Groningen, the Netherlands.
Cultural and/or historical
analyses of male and female gender role-bound phenomena, such as the male
roles of warrior and soldier, may provide some insight into the complex
interactions between culture, society, the military, and the respective
sex differences in gender roles. Such analyses, however, are likely to be
restricted to what in the language of evolutionary biology is called a
proximate explanation. The high degree of pan-cultural similarity
(i.e. the universality) of these sexually differentiated roles, role
stereotypes and role demands, suggests the possibility of an
ultimate evolutionary rationale behind them. It is highly relevant
in this context that in chimpanzee 'wars' (Goodall, 1986; Goodall et al.,
1979), it is exclusively the males who do the raiding.
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In this paper, I
shall briefly discuss three theories which attempt to explain why in
'primitive' societies the role of the warrior is virtually confined to the
male of the species.
societies, wars, raids and feuds are primarily or exclusively male
'occupations' and obligations, although exceptions to this general rule
have been documented (e.g. 'Warrior Queens': Fraser, 1989). The famous or
notorious Amazons of South America and classical Greece are probably not
entirely mythical. The female of the species seems to have engaged in
fighting or warlike exploits in Angola, Canary Islands, Valley of the
Amazon, Patagonia, Central America, California, Hawaii, Australia,
Tasmania, Arabia, Albania, and among the Ainu and Apache (Q.Wright, 1942;
see also: Davie, 1929; Turney-High, 1949). In most of these cases,
however, the role of the women is confined to company, sutler and
entertainer, supporter and 'cheerleader', prostitute and nurse, for the
benefit of the hard core of male warriors. The Dahomean women-soldier
garrisons, on the other hand, have been reported to fight more bravely and
more cruelly than their male counterparts (e.g. Sanday, 1981).
that the warrior role is, in primitive societies, virtually confined to
the male, is so obvious, or 'natural', that very few scholars have
considered it worthy of contemplation or scientific enquiry. Those few
theorists who have tried to formulate a (tentative) answer, will be
briefly discussed in this paper.
I will not give too much attention to
the voluminous body of literature which has pretended to find the answer
in the propositions that
(a) Males are (biologically) expendable;
(b) Males are preadapted as hunters to be warriors.
are 'aggressive' by nature, and therefore (predisposed to) wage
These, and similar, propositions are not so much false or
trivial - in fact, they are not -, but they're just begging the question.
Male expendability and predatory preadaptations may have been necessary
conditions, they can in no way be regarded as sufficient explanation.
Similarly, I do not endorse the simplistic equation of aggression and
belligerence. Nor will I seriously consider the proposition that there is
some perverse (or degenerated, or malicious) streak in human maleness, as
has been argued by some feminist writers.
The relative male
expendability argument is so common (most recently e.g. Mukhopadhyai &
Higgins, 1988) that it deserves some consideration. What is the argument
and what is wrong with it? "Because fewer of them are needed to produce
and maintain offspring, from a population maintenance perspective, males
are more expendable than females" (Mukhopadhyai & Higgins, 1988). As
Rodseth et al. (1991) have explained: First, the argument is vulnerable to
all the criticisms of group selection first articulated by Williams
(1966). But even if a 'relative expendability' argument were
evolutionarily sound, it could not account for the fact that males seem
equally expendable in savanna baboons and many other primate groups, yet
females in these groups regularly engage in violent competition with other
females. Only an investigation of hominoid evolutionary ecology and the
resulting patterns of human psychology is likely to answer the question of
why males seem to monopolize violence in human societies and not in
those of most other primates (Rodseth et al., 1991).
question remains: Why are males warriors? Why is collective violence
(group aggression, coalitional aggression), in the forms of warring,
raiding and feuding, the virtually exclusive domain of the human (and
chimpanzee) male? Why is there, in so many cultures, an association
between manhood, warriorhood, virility, and sexual prowess and privileges?
(The corollary question why the women in so many cultures prefer the
ferocious macho warrior as sexual and/or marital partner, will not be
considered at the moment).
Let us consider some common
sociobiological propositions about the optimal reproductive strategies of
males and females, which are supposed to have universal validity (at least
for sexually dimorphic species in which the female is the principal
(1) The ultimate limiting resource for males is
females, while the opposite is not the case; (2) The principle of female
choice, and male sexual possessiveness and acquisitiveness, among other
factors, guarantee that only a proportion of males mate; (3) Consequently,
there is fierce competition among males for the sexual favors and
reproductive potential of females, the only resource that can convert his
fitness into 'evolutionary currency'.
These propositions go far in
explaining intermale competitive and agonistic behavior, they do not,
however, explain why collective violence is predominantly a male
Now let us consider another set of rather commonly accepted
propositions, as recently formulated by Chagnon (1988): (1) Organisms are
expected to maximize their inclusive fitness; (2) Conflicts of interest
are inevitable; (3) There is competition over material resources and
reproductive resources (i.e. mates); (4) Individuals or groups will
attempt to appropriate material and reproductive resources from neighbors
whenever the probable costs are less than the benefits.
casually added 'or groups' in this last proposition is not particularly
helpful, because, as will be seen later on, cooperative, coalitional
aggression is conspicuously absent in the animal world. Only very few
species have mastered the art.
In the human species, "males
cooperate to compete, both socially and physically, against other males in
all human societies. In Wrangham's (1982) terms, men universally engage in
'interference mutualism', such that two or more individuals benefit by
cooperating against another individual or group. This is to be
distinguished from 'noninterference mutualism', in which cooperation reaps
a benefit but not at the expense of any other individual. In many nonhuman
primates, especially Old World monkeys, females are prone to engage in
violent interference mutualism against other females (Wrangham, 1980;
Cheney, 1987). Human females, in contrast, are striking in the extent to
which they refrain from such violence. Nowhere on earth, as far as we
know, do women form war parties to attack other women. This is not to say
that women are incapable of being warriors... While individual women use
violence against both men and women, they apparently do not form
coalitions for purposes of violence against their own sex in
the way that men do everywhere" (Rodseth et al., 1991).
philopatry and collective cooperation in conflict
al. (1991), Manson & Wrangham (1991), Van Hooff & van Schaik
(1992), among others, have noted the association between male philopatry
(or female dispersal) in both humans and chimpanzees on the one hand, and
the ability to cooperate more or less collectively in order to compete
(violently) on the other hand. Small wonder that these authors have
proposed evolutionary explanations on the basis of this phenomenon. In the
words of Rodseth et al. (1991):
"In the human social pattern, then,
with a few possible ethnographic exceptions, males remain with
consanguineal kin (in the sense that they maintain important social
relationships with them, whether or not they live with them), while
females usually do as well but are sometimes isolated from those kin by
extreme patrilocality, patriarchy, or warfare. The majority of primates,
by contrast, follow a pattern of male dispersal and female philopatry:
males migrate from their natal group at sexual maturity, leaving a set of
female kin as the core of the society (e.g. Wrangham, 1980, 1987; Pusey
& Packer, 1987). Unrelated males may in turn join the group to breed
but remain generally antagonistic toward one another, usually forming
temporary coalitions if any. By and large, then, the only enduring kinship
links are among females, and only females participate in enduring
Only in those few species with
female-biased dispersal - chimpanzees, hamadryas baboons, red colobus, and
perhaps spider monkeys - are there known or suspected to be enduring
affiliative relationships among males. Cooperative relationships among
females, accordingly, are attenuated or absent in these groups...
nonhuman primates, then, neither social relationships with genetic kin nor
cooperative alliances with nonkin are generally maintained among members
of the dispersing sex: philopatry, consanguinity, and cooperation tend to
coincide. In humans, however, dispersal patterns predict patterns of
kinship and cooperation only weakly, if at all. In this connection, four
trends across all human societies are particularly striking: (1) Males
maintain consanguineal kin ties, even with matrilocal residence. (2)
Females usually maintain consanguineal kin ties, even with patrilocal
residence. (3) Males cooperate in conflicts, both social and physical,
against other males. (4) Females also cooperate but rarely do so in
physical conflicts of females against females."
Social control of sex is a cultural universal
(Murdock, 1949; Money & Ehrhardt, 1972). It is accomplished by means
of a gamut of subtle to crude and cruel ways: slander, rumor, malicious
gossip, humiliation, derogation, moral invectives, scandal, ostracism,
incarceration, mutilation, and death.
But, because most societies also
have a 'double standard' in matters sexual, women generally suffer more
from these sanctions than men do.
Collins (1971) has proposed a
conflict theory of sexual stratification, which is based on 2
propositions: (1) Human beings have strong sexual and aggressive drives;
and (2) Males are physically dominant over females. Men will generally be
the sexual aggressors, women will be the sexual prizes for men. The basic
feature of sexual stratification is the institution of sexual property:
male ownership of females. And the ultimate basis of sexual property
rights is male violence. In most societies, women are exchange property,
as already suggested by Lévi-Strauss (1949). The ideal of female chastity
(including premarital virginity) is an aspect of male property rights and
regarded as enforceable only by males. Women are regarded as amoral,
unclean and lacking in honor, and hence to be controlled by force.
these considerations may be added the 'sexual constellation' theory
proposed by Nissen (1961, 1971). In brief, his theory states that the
forced sexual abstinence of the young male cohorts, (due to the older
males' sexual possessiveness and female choice in selecting older
and more powerful males as partners) leads to a bitter and inveterate
resentment toward women. This ambivalence of attraction and resentment
will color the male's entire life. As older and sexually weaker, for
example, he will seek to control sex by striving for social and political
power. The sexually frustrated young males are controlled by the men's
club and the cult of masculinity: an institution most suited for
Freedman (1967), among many others, has pointed
out the fierce possessiveness males have for their women and the
simultaneous importance of not being outdone or cuckolded by another male.
Thus, being made cuckold is perhaps the most frequent cause for
within-group murder over the entire world. In many cultures, one can also
witness the importance of male bragging sessions about the number of women
one has had, and in some societies the relationship between status and
number of women possessed is openly acknowledged.
Furthermore, if we
bear in mind that in many primitive societies a man is not considered
marriageable before he has 'bloodied his spear', or taken a head or scalp;
and that in many societies the successful warrior enjoys considerable
sexual privileges (Mazrui, 1975); and, lastly, that in many cultures the
display of masculinity pays off as (a) direct sexual access to women, and
(b) as a deterrence to potential competitors (anti-cuckoldry device); it
will be somewhat easier to understand why in so many cultures, manhood is
equated with warriorhood (and belligerence and violence in general), as
well as with sexual virility and masculinity.
Why is coalitional
aggression absent or rare in women?
Tooby & Cosmides (1988)
suggest some answers, which may be summarized as follows:
Coalitional aggression evolved because it allowed participants in such
coalitions to promote their fitness by gaining access to disputed
reproduction enhancing resources that would otherwise be denied to
(2) Very few species manifest coalitional aggression because they
lack the cognitive sophistication necessary for the multi-individual
cooperation involved in such an enterprise.
(3) The optimum level of
direct participation in coalitional aggression by human males is extremely
sensitive to the probability of success, and the relationship between
these variables may help explain why males will engage so readily in
warfare when they are confident of success. It can be shown that given (a)
certainty of victory, (b) the assurance of a random distribution of risk
of death among participants, (c) the assurance of a relatively 'fair'
allocation of the benefits of victory, and (d) efficiency in the
utilization of reproductive resources on a zero-sum basis, selection
will favor participation in the coalitional aggression regardless of the
existence or even the level of mortality (within broad limits).
Within a polygynous system with certain formal properties (e.g. access to
females being the limiting resource for male reproduction; male labor
being comparatively unimportant to female reproduction, etc.), the deaths
of some members of a coalition will not decrease the average
reproduction of the members of the coalition.
(5) Natural selection
weighs decisions on the basis of their average consequences to
individuals, summed over evolutionary time; consequently, these factors
explain why males can so easily be induced to go to war, despite its
lethal effects on many of them. Coalitions of males, when they assess the
relevant variables indicating that they are larger or more formidable than
any local competing coalitions, should appear to manifest an eagerness and
satisfaction in initiating warfare and an obliviousness or insensitivity
to the risk they run as individuals, in terms of their individual somatic
(6) This approach also predicts the striking asymmetry that
exists between males and females in coalitional aggression: females are
rarely limited by access to males, so that the net reproduction of a
coalition of females would drop in direct proportion to the number of
females killed. In a curious fashion, males may be so ready to engage in
coalitional aggression because it is reproductively 'safer' for them to do
so. Females have more to lose, and less to gain, and such differences in
consequences should be reflected in psychological sex differences in
attitudes towards coalition formation and coalition-based
Nutritional versus reproductive
Symons (1979) contrasts 'nutritional competition'
with 'reproductive competition', noting that the former is not inevitable,
since nutritional adequacy can be specified in absolute terms, but that
the latter is inevitable, since reproductive success exists only in
comparison. This contrast must be taken into account to understand the
evolution of the psychological mechanisms that determine both what
constitutes a 'resource' and when a resource is felt to be 'scarce'. Since
it is necessary to life, food always is a resource, but it is not always
scarce, and hunger can be fully satisfied. Male- male competition for
wives, on the other hand, while undoubtedly exacerbated by anything that
reduces the number of available women, is the result, not of skewed sex
ratios or polygyny, but a male psyche that makes women always a resource
and always in short supply. As Lévi-Strauss (1969) writes about the
universal polygamous (if not promiscuous) tendency of the human male:
"This deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes
the number of available women seem insufficient... Hence, the demand for
women is in actual fact, or to all intents and purposes, always in a state
of disequilibrium and tension" (Lévi-Strauss, 1969; p.38).
as the proximate cause of fighting and primitive
Fighting for women among exogamous tribes is common
(Wright, 1942; Davie, 1929). Sex is closely linked with the entire social
organization of primitive people in which blood relationship plays an
important role; thus war for maintaining the solidarity of the group is,
among the most primitive people, hardly distinguished from war in defense
of the family. Breaches of the sex mores - rape or adultery - by
nonmembers of the group are perhaps, together with murder of a group
member, the most common causes of feuds and wars. A Maori proverb is said
to assign women and land as the chief cause of warfare. And Jenness &
Ballantyne (1920) report of the D'Entrecasteaux Islanders that "..some
question of food or of women lies at the root of most of their
hostilities". "The causes for warfare [among the Murngin] are the killing
of a member of a clan by man belonging to another clan, and interclan
rivalry for women. This latter cause is usually the primary reason for
most killings" (Warner, 1930).
Among many people successful warriors
and head-hunters acquire prestige without which they are frequently
ineligible to marriage. These types of war are often directly encouraged
by the women. Pondo women accompanied the army and encouraged the
warriors, whom they watched from neighboring hills, by singing salacious
songs and tucking their skirts around their waists, thus exposing
themselves (Hunter, 1936).
If reproductive success is always
directly at stake in male combat, in a sense women are always at least
indirectly at stake, and ethnographic evidence indicates that women often
are the proximate cause of fighting (e.g. Yanomamö: Chagnon, 1968 et seq.;
Queensland tribes: Lumholtz, 1889; Tiwi: Hart & Pilling, 1960; Eskimo:
Rasmussen, 1931; Graburn, 1972; Balikci, 1970; Bushmen: Lee, 1969;
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1974; Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tchambuli: Mead, 1935. As a
Maori proverb says: "Women and pigs are the roots of war".
the evidence supports Berndt & Berndt's (1951:22) view that "the
majority of arguments in an aboriginal society are directly or indirectly
brought about through trouble over women".
An intriguing feature of
Yanomamö social life is the constant fighting over women and
Chagnon (1988) observes that many anthropologists tend to treat
warfare as a phenomenon that occurs independently of other forms of
violence in the same group. However, duels may lead to deaths which, in
turn, may lead to community fissioning and then to retaliatory killings by
members of the two now-independent communities. As a result many restrict
the search for the causes of war to issues over which whole groups might
contest - such as access to rich land, productive hunting regions, and
scarce resources - and, hence, view primitive warfare as reducible solely
to contests over scarce or dwindling material resources. Such views fail
to take into account the developmental sequences of conflicts and the
multiplicity of causes, especially sexual jealousy, accusations of
sorcery, and revenge killing, in each step of conflict escalation.
fights begin over sexual issues: infidelity and suspicion of infidelity,
attempts to seduce another man's wife, sexual jealousy, forcible
appropriation of women from visiting groups, failure to give a promised
girl in marriage, and (rarely) rape.
The rationale of revenge
At first glance, raids motivated by revenge seem
counterproductive. Raiders may inflict deaths on their enemies, but by so
doing make themselves and kin prime targets for retaliation. But
ethnographic evidence suggests that revenge has an underlying rationality:
swift retaliation in kind serves as a deterrent over the long run. War
motivated by revenge seems to be a tit-for-tat strategy in which the
participants' score might best be measured in terms of minimizing losses
rather than in terms of maximizing gains.
What is gained and
precisely who gains (in the currency of inclusive
First, kinship groups that retaliate swiftly and
demonstrate their resolve to avenge deaths acquire reputations for
ferocity that deter the violent designs of their neighbors. The Yanomamö
explain that a group with a reputation for swift retaliation is attacked
less frequently and thus suffers a lower rate of mortality. They also note
that other forms of predation, such as the abduction of women, are
thwarted by adopting an aggressive stance. Aggressive groups coerce nubile
females from less aggressive groups whenever the opportunity arises. Many
appear to calculate the costs and benefits of forcibly appropriating or
coercing females from groups that are perceived to be weak.
Clausewitz suggested, (modern) warfare is the conduct of politics by other
means, in the tribal world warfare is ipso facto the extension of kinship
obligations by violence because the political system is organized by
Second, men who demonstrate their willingness to act violently
and to exact revenge for the deaths of kin may have higher marital and
reproductive success. The higher reproductive success of 'killers' is
mainly due to their greater success in finding mates, either by
appropriating them forcibly from others, or by customary marriage alliance
arrangements in which they seem to be more attractive as mates then
'non-killers'. Among the Yanomamö, 'non-killers' might be willing to
concede more reproductive opportunities to 'killers' in exchange for a
life with fewer mortal risks and fewer reproductive
ethnographic reports may sometimes have an androcentric bias that obscures
the subtleties of female-female competition, it is certain that intense
competition evidenced by organized fighting and killing - as is common
among men - occurs nowhere among women.
When women do compete for a man
it is not to acquire sexual access, or even a husband, but to protect a
substantial and probably irreplaceable investment in a man (Symons,
What is selected for in a milieu of
Available data on preliterate peoples strongly
suggest that during the course of human evolution males regularly fought
over females and other fitness- promoting resources. In such a milieu
selection is extremely unlikely to favor simple male belligerence,
aggressive drives, or territorial imperatives. Human violence usually is a
complex group activity.
Good judgment, not simple belligerence, seems
to be adaptive in a state of chronic violence.
If the evidence of
living peoples can illuminate human evolution, it suggests that during the
Pleistocene sexual access to women was in part dependent on achieving
positions of leadership. Selection probably favored political abilities,
such as judgment, oratory, and persuasion, abilities to conceive and carry
out complex plans, and skills in cooperative violence, including the
evaluation of violent situations and the taking of calculated risks. It
seems likely as well that in a milieu of complex, cooperative violence,
selection would favor a male who was able to induce other males to take
risks for his benefit. To these skills and abilities might be added:
hunting-prowess, and capacities as seducer and/or lover.
Thus, as with
most animal species, "At every moment in its game of life the masculine
sex is playing for higher stakes" (Williams, 1975).
suggests, then, that for millions of years hominid males and females
pursued substantially different reproductive 'strategies' and typically
exhibited very different behaviors: throughout most of human evolutionary
history, hunting, fighting, and that elusive activity, 'politics', were
highly competitive, largely male domains. It is not a simple question of
high female parental investment and male competition for females: males
and females invested in different ways. Not only did males hunt
while females gathered, but, if warfare was often over land and other
scarce resources from which the winning males' offspring benefited, male
fighting was in part parental investment; that is, like hunting and
gathering, fighting and nurturing were part of the human division of labor
by sex. Far more than in any other animal species, natural, sexual, and
artificial selection were intertwined and perhaps inseparable during the
course of human evolution (Symons, 1979).
Having established that the
conduct of war is quintessentially a male occupation, Kroeber &
Fontana (1987) provide an interesting psycho- social theory, which, they
state, is rooted in the evolution of human culture. They point to the
Neolithic revolution - the domestication of plants and animals - as a
principal generator of warfare as a cultural institution. Before that
time, males, as hunters and as gatherers who worked the distant perimeters
of their group's territory, were essential partners in the maintenance of
family and community life.
With the advent of farming, however, it
became evident that women often could perform most or even all essential
community chores: tend the hearth, bear and raise children, and plant,
cultivate, and harvest the calories needed to stay alive. The worth of
males, their dignity as human beings, their existential validation,
was challenged to the utmost. A major response appears to have been a
shift from man the hunter (and killer) to man the warrior (and
While population increase, land-hunger, and accumulation of
agricultural products have been proposed as tentative explanations for the
tremendous upsurge of warfare in late Neolithic times, Kroeber &
Fontana believe that a deeper reason - and one that might help explain the
persistence of warfare as a modern phenomenon - may lie in the
disequilibrium in the sex divisions of respected societal roles which
resulted when males became less essential (or all but useless) as hunters
Kroeber & Fontana are not suggesting that warfare is
a necessary result of agriculture. Fabbro's (1978) list of peaceful
societies attests to this. Other male statuses than that of 'warrior'
might adequately substitute for those of hunter and far-wandering gatherer
in sedentary societies. Indeed, it is less likely that 'agriculture' is
the key concept than 'sex division of labor', 'sex division of valued
status positions' or 'sex division of energy allocation'. Whatever the
forces may be causing severe maladaptation in this relationship, be they
farming, animal husbandry, equestrian nomadism, intensive fishing, or
other economic activities, it is the imbalance in the relationship
that matters. Males had to revalidate their status as dignified human
beings by becoming warriors.
Population control, preferential
female infanticide, the male supremacist complex, and primitive
A theory of population control in primitive society
involving the effects of preferential female infanticide and warfare has
been developed by Divale (1970 et seq.), Harris (1971 et seq.), and Divale
& Harris (1976). The theory holds that every human society must take
steps to control population growth. This is especially the case in
primitive societies because their simpler technology places greater limits
on their ability to expand food energy production. The manner in which
most primitive societies regulate their population is postulated as
follows: "Infanticide is practiced on both males and females for a variety
of reasons. However, since there is a general preference to have a boy as
the first child, and since the ratio of males and females at birth is
almost equal, many more girl infants get killed. In terms of population
control this is significant because excess females are eliminated before
they reproduce. The effect of selective female infanticide is that many
more boys reach maturity than do girls and a shortage of marriageable
women exists among young adults. The women shortage leads to adultery,
rape, and wife-stealing which in turn lead to frequent disputes over
women. Deaths which result from these disputes lead to blood-revenge
feuding and warfare in which the excess male population is eliminated. In
the childhood generation boys greatly outnumber girls because of female
infanticide. But in the adult generation the ratio between the sexes is
balanced because males die in warfare. However, even though the adult
ratio is about equal a relative women shortage still exists due to the
practice of polygyny. The older and more influential males have several
wives, leaving younger males wifeless. The constant warfare of these
societies creates a constant need for warriors and it is this need which
causes the cultural preference for a boy as the first child which begins
the process in the first place.
The root of this entire system is a
culturally produced women shortage. Female infanticide and polygyny create
a shortage of women which leads to wars which in turn favor male infants,
etc. The cycle is continuous and each generation creates conditions which
perpetuate the process in succeeding generations. The next effect is the
control of excess population" (Divale, 1974). There seems, according to
the same author, to be a direct correlation between population density and
the forms of violence (feuding, raiding, open battle) that occur. Bands of
very low population densities, such as the Central Eskimo, practiced
mostly feuding, conducted raids only infrequently and engaged in an open
battle only once in a century. Among tribes which had a higher population
density than bands, feuding was important, but took a second place to the
raiding or war party type of warfare. Feuding was also the primary process
through which groups fissioned or split apart. A feud within a village
tended to split the village along lines of descent and marriage ties with
the smaller faction usually moving away to found a new village. Even among
the more densely populated fully tribal peoples, such as in highland New
Guinea, feuds played a much smaller role than raids and battles. It is not
suggested that war caused female infanticide, or that the practice of
female infanticide caused war. Rather, it is proposed "that without
reproductive pressure neither warfare nor female infanticide would have
become widespread and that the conjunction of the two represents a savage
but uniquely effective solution to the Malthusian dilemma" (Harris,
Furthermore, warfare functions in this system to sustain the
so-called 'male supremacist complex' (social practices such as
patrilocality, polygyny, marriage by capture, brideprice, postmarital sex
restrictions on women, sexual hierarchy with female subordination, sexual
privileges for fierce warriors, male machismo, masculine displays,
dangerous and competitive sports and martial skills, militancy, the
warrior cult; and in general war-linked, male-centered institutions,
prerogatives and ideologies - because the survival of the group is
contingent upon the rearing of combat-ready males) and thereby provide the
practical exigencies and ideological imperatives for postpartum cultural
selection against female infants (Divale & Harris, 1976). The males
have a price to pay for all this: they constitute the bulk of the victims
of warfare in preindustrial societies (Harris, 1975). Finally, the theory
explains that peoples like the Yanomamö, Dani, Maring, and Maori attribute
their wars to disputes over women. Although, Harris (1975) warns, such
explanations cannot be accepted at face value; the belligerents who lose
their lives in armed combat seldom accurately understand why they do so.
"Excessive warfare is an ecological trap into which humanity has probably
fallen again and again" (Harris, 1975). He concludes that "war has been
part of an adaptive strategy associated with particular technological,
demographic, and ecological conditions", but that this does not require us
to "invoke imaginary killer instincts or inscrutable or capricious motives
to understand why armed combat has been so common in human history"
War and the Male Supremacist Complex
There remains the question of how men are to be trained to
be fierce and aggressive so that they will risk their lives in combat.
Since the preference for rearing males over females means that there will
be a shortage of women as marriage partners, one way to insure that men
will be aggressive in combat is to make sex and marriage contingent on
being a fierce warrior. Logically, one might suppose that the solution to
the problem of a shortage of women would be to have several men share a
wife, but actually polyandry is extremely rare. Indeed, just the opposite
occurs: in prestate societies practicing warfare there is a strong
tendency for men to take several wives, that is, to be polygynous. Thus,
instead of sharing women, men compete for them, and the shortage of women
is made even more severe by the fact that some men have two or three
wives. This leads to much jealousy, adultery, and sexually charged
antagonism between men and women, as well as hostility between men and
men, especially junior 'have nones' and senior 'have severals' (Harris,
1980; Divale & Harris, 1976; 1978a,b; Divale et al., 1978; Cf. Howe,
1978; Lancaster & Lancaster, 1978; Norton, 1978).
Note that this
theory relates the intensity of preindustrial male supremacist complex to
the intensity of warfare and the intensity of reproductive pressures. It
predicts that wherever the intensity of warfare and reproductive pressure
are low, the male supremacist complex will be weak or virtually absent.
This prediction conforms to the widely held view that many hunter-gatherer
band societies had both low levels of warfare and high sexual parity or
sexual autonomy, and that both warfare and sexual inequality increased
with the development of agriculture and the state.
However, it also
accounts for the reported occurrences of strong male supremacist complexes
in warlike hunter-gatherer band societies as, for example, in Australia.
Not all band societies confronted similar ecological conditions and
similar degrees of reproductive pressure.
In short, wherever there is
intense preindustrial warfare, groups that develop the male supremacist
complex are likely to rout and displace groups that do not (Harris,
Masculinity, War, and the Oedipus Complex
above explanation reverses the causal arrows in Freudian explanations of
warfare. Freud regarded the aggressivity and sexual jealousy of males to
be instinctual. He saw both war and the Oedipus complex as products of
this aggressive instinct. There is much evidence, however, to indicate
that the aggressive and sexually jealous male personality is itself caused
by warfare, whereas warfare itself is caused by ecological and
Similarly, the Oedipus complex itself can
be seen not as the cause of warfare, but as the consequence of having to
train males to risk their lives in combat. Wherever the objective of
child-rearing institutions is to produce aggressive, manipulative,
fearless, virile, and dominant males, some form of sexually charged
hostility between the junior and senior males is inevitable. But this does
not mean that the Oedipus complex is an inevitable expression of human
nature. Rather, it is a predictable outcome of training males to be
combative and 'masculine' (Harris, 1980).
The theory exposed above
has met some severe criticism, as far as it pretends to be a theory of the
origin of primitive war, the causal role of preferential
infanticide in this process, and the empirical evidence the authors
marshall to corroborate the theory. In this context, however, it is more
important to note that the theory envisages the possibility that the
institution of war itself is the basis of the male supremacist complex, or
that the two mutually and synergistically reinforced each other: the
existence of war leading to warrior-type personalities, and the existence
of warrior-type personalities leading to the continuation and further
institutionalization of war practices.
the foregoing I have discussed some theoretical considerations regarding
the differentiation of the sexes in relation to early warfare: 'Krieg als
Geslechtsphänomen' par excellence. One might object that these
considerations are quite irrelevant to the contemporary situation: after
all, a modern soldier is not a primitive warrior. Furthermore, women have
been successfully integrated in the military institutions, not only in
supportive and administrative roles and functions, but actually as combat
units: e.g. in the armies of Israel and Norway.
What the primitive
warrior generally lacked was (a sense of) obedience and discipline. These
are relatively late and recent - on the time scale of cultural evolution -
developments. It is doubtful, however, whether these developments are for
the better, because, as we know, obedience and discipline can rather
easily be distorted (or hypertrophied) to the point of
There is furthermore evidence that women in the
instrumental and agentive roles of e.g. terrorist, police officer, or
concentration camp guard, approximate men in committing violent,
destructive and cruel acts and other disengaged death-dealing behaviors.
In these cases, the social role demands probably obfuscate whatever
psychobiological sex differences might exist.
Origin of War (1995) for an extended evolutionary and
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