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How Testosterone Drives History

A new book by a German researcher explores the role that the hormone, which is more present in males, plays not just in mindless aggression, but also the kinds of real-life revolutions that change history.

Protesters in Tahrir Square (Maged Helal)
Protesters in Tahrir Square (Maged Helal)
Fanny Jimenez

Whether in Cairo, Tunis or Tripoli, media images showed that it was mainly men who rose up against those in power. The presence of so few women in Tahrir Square had less to do with Islamic values than it did with sexual frustration. Or at least that's according to a new German-language book by Karin Kneissl called "Testosterone macht Politik" (Testosterone Makes Politics). The hormone, the author says, is the reason why there are more male than female revolutionaries.

Men have nearly 10 times more testosterone than women, which makes them far more prone to risk-taking and acts of aggression. And the younger the man, says Kneissl, the more testosterone floods his body -- which is why men fearlessly throw themselves into the front lines whereas women fighting for freedom are more likely to choose lower-profile ways to do so.

Testosterone is an effective catalyst that collects all the frustration generated by different areas of life and focuses them on a single political foe. Kneissl says the main source of frustration channeled in this way is sexual – sexuality that has no outlets. This was the case in Egypt, where a strict moral code forbids any type of sex outside of marriage. And yet marriage is extremely costly and quite simply beyond the means of many men, writes Kneissl, an Austrian journalist, lecturer and analyst with a PhD in international law.

The author believes that on February 12, 2011 in Tahrir Square, it wasn't a coincidence that crowds chanted: "We're free again! Now we can marry!" The sexual frustration, particularly on the part of young men, that Kneissl believes lies behind the chants was also a key force in fueling the revolution.

Revolution from the gut

Scientifically, it is no news that there is a link between testosterone and aggression, and that the hormone influences our daily behavioral decisions. But Karin Kneissl's thesis is unusual in this context. If the hormone is frequently linked to economic developments, it is not usually associated with political analysis, she writes, where what prevails is a view of mankind as driven more by reason. However, history amply illustrates that while violent uprisings may be born in the brain, it's gut energy that drives their implementation.

Kneissl uses many historical examples to shore up her theory that sexual frustration can fuel aggression, including the European Revolutions of 1848 and in our own time the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. In both instances, she says, young unmarried men with a lot of testosterone in their blood were central players.

The author also stresses, however, that testosterone is not a "macho" hormone. It also plays a role in feelings of social responsibility, the common good and justice – all qualities needed in leaders.

If one subscribes to the idea that an excess of young men raises a culture's proneness to violence and risk-taking, then the future looks worrisome indeed. According to Kneissl, the dramatic lack of girls in East Asia, due to selective abortion and one-child policies, means that many young men may have to go through life without a woman at their side.

Already now in China, there are 130 men of marrying age for every 100 women. If dissatisfaction with the political system should grow, that's a recipe for revolution, Kneissl believes. Her point of view is in line with the "youth bulge" theory, according to which a disproportionate number of 15-25-year-old males is a main cause for wars and uprisings.

Kneissl says her thesis as a new approach to analyzing political upheaval, and an open call to her scientific colleagues. She stresses that even though male testosterone is the focal point of her book, biological determinism is foreign to her. Nor does she have the intention of pulling the rug out from under the concept of free will. Behavior is not determined by hormones alone -- but it is important, she believes, to question just how much reason and rationality drives Homo sapiens, and whether feelings and emotions count more than we once thought.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Maged Helal

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