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Men's Voices, Men as Allies

Excerpt from Violence:
Reflections on a National Epidemic

By James Gilligan

The following has been excerpted with permission from Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic by James Gilligan.

Young Men Are the Most Violent:
Is This Biological?

The only two innate biological variables that do appear to be among the determinants of violent behavior are youth and maleness. These patterns are universal across cultures, historical epochs, and social circumstances. So it is difficult to assume that they result purely from cultural, social, or individual psychological causes. This pattern is also seen across a wide variety of species, including our closest primate “relatives.” For example, in all mammalian species (including the human), males are reported to be the more aggressive sex. Among chimpanzees, who are the most closely related to us of all other primates in the evolutionary branch from which we evolved-for example, 99 percent of the DNA of humans and chimpanzees is identical-males have been described as significantly more aggressive than females.

It is the positive correlation with male’s sex hormones or androgens, especially testosterone, and the negative correlation with female sex hormones, that appear to correlate most closely with the greater levels of violence observed among males, compared with females, and with youth. Testosterone facilitates and stimulates aggressive responses to environmental stimuli, just as estrogens and progestogens inhibit them.

If one compares a chart of the average level of circulating testosterone, with another chart plotting the average rate of committing murder, as they each vary with age over the life cycle, the two charts are astonishingly similar: relatively low amounts of each before puberty, then a sudden dramatic increase in each at puberty, with the levels of both remaining high throughout adolescence and young adulthood, then diminishing gradually but steadily together from middle age onwards. It strains the imagination to believe that this similarity is simply a coincidence, given the wide variety of collateral data that indicates that androgens stimulate aggressiveness.

The opposite appears to be true of female sex hormones, according to both clinical experience with humans, and animal studies involving chimpanzees and other mammalian species. There is an increasing amount of evidence that the neurotransmitter serotonin is another biological inhibitor of violent behavior, both homicidal and suicidal. It may be relevant to the sex differences in the frequency of both of these types of violence that men on average appear to have lower levels of serotonin than women do.

Thus, men would seem to have larger amounts of the male sex hormones that stimulate aggression, and smaller amounts two classes of inhibitors of aggression. However, while these findings do suggest a biological cause of sex differences in violent behavior, we should not forget that psychological and social factors are also determinants of whether or not a given individual or group will engage in violent acts; in fact, these latter determinants can be even more powerful than the biological ones. For example, Marvin Wolfgang’s detailed study of criminal homicide rates among black and white men and women in Philadelphia found that while men in each racial group committed several times more homicides than did women of the same race, black women committed three times more homicides than did white men. In other words, the social determinants of violence were far more powerful than were the biological determinants. This suggests that even women, if they are exposed to more shaming than men, can become more homicidal than men; and as the evidence reviewed in the previous chapter shows, there is good reason to think that blacks as a group are subjected to substantially more frequent and intense humiliations, slurs, slights and insults than are whites as group.

One the whole, I think we would have to conclude that biology does not cause violence except to say that there are higher indices of violence among young men than there are among males of other ages and females of all ages, a matter which has far more to do with the cultural construction of manhood than it does with the hormonal substrates of biology.

If we replace the outmoded concept that violence is “instinctual,” we must remember that violent behavior, like all behavior, can only occur in a psycho physiological and anatomical matrix that creates the potential to engage in violent behavior. Bringing our understanding of this psycho physiological matrix into line with the more recent ethological thinking, we could say that the potential to engage in violent behavior is built into the very structure and functioning of our central nervous system, which can be “triggered” by the social environment. Unless it is triggered, this potential will remain dormant and quiescent. I believe that the most effective and powerful stimulus of violence in the human species is the experience of shame and humiliation, and that feelings of guilt, where the capacity for them and sensitivity to them exists, can further alter the resulting psycho physiological situation, transforming it from one primarily oriented toward the destruction of others into one focusing on the destruction of one’s own body.

But the fact that human violence only erupts when there are triggers form the social environment, which act on personality that has been sensitized to shame, can be illustrated most simply, perhaps, as follows. If we were to maintain that the causes of violence were biological factors such as instinct, heredity, or brain damage, then we would have to assume that during the century between 1815 and July 1914 the young male population of Europe was blessedly free of those instincts, genes, or brain lesions; but that in August 1914 they suffered a sudden epidemic of one or all of them, which lasted without pause until November 1918, when they were suddenly cured because a physician finally discovered the right prescription to write for them-called a peace treaty!


James Gilligan is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the Medical School, an Adjunct Professor in the Law School, and a Collegiate Professor in the School of Arts and Science at New York University. Before that he was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for 35 years, where he was Director of the Institute of Law and Psychiatry and directed mental health programs for the Massachusetts prison system and the prison mental hospital. He was President of the International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy, and a consultant to the prosecutorial staff of the World Court's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in support of their petition to declare the systematic mass rapes that occur in wartime as "War Crimes" and "Crimes Against Humanity" rather than merely individual crimes of rape. He was awarded the 2004 Achievement Award of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and is the author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, as well as Preventing Violence (Prospects for Tomorrow) (2001).

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