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The Testosterone Threat: Where Sociobiology Meets National Security


Continuing son preference and the widespread practice of sex-selective abortion of female fetuses in India and China are leading to ever more skewed sex ratios in those populations. This is certainly an extremely serious problem with many negative ramifications, especially for women and girls. But does it pose a threat to national and global security?

This is what Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M den Boer argue in their book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population. Recently released in paperback by MIT press, the book has circulated widely in academic and policy circles and its arguments have attracted the attention of media pundits as well as the CIA. “Women’s issues, so long ignored in security studies, could well become a central focus of security scholars in the twenty-first century,” the authors write. But precisely how will they become a focus? If Bare Branches is any indication, there is cause for concern. The book not only reinforces deeply problematic gender stereotypes, but grounds much of its analysis in sociobiological explanations of difference. These in turn help to naturalize broader social and economic inequalities and pathologize migration and political resistance.

The book’s central thesis is that a sizeable surplus of young, unmarried adult males in a population poses a potential threat to security. These ‘bare branches’, a Chinese expression for males who lack a spouse and offspring, are more likely to be poor, transient, uneducated and most importantly, prone to violent crime, substance abuse and collective aggression. In order to control them, governments become increasingly authoritarian and while suppressing violence at home, export it abroad through colonization or war (the case of China). Countries that are more ethnically heterogeneous like India tend to experience civilian strife directed against minority groups. In other words, bare branches, more than the fascistic organizing strategies of the Hindu Right, are behind recent anti-Muslim violence in India. Lest they appear too deterministic, the authors venture this metaphor: “The mere presence of dry, bare branches cannot cause a fire, but when the sparks begin to fly, those branches can act as kindling, turning sparks into flames.”

Bare Branches is a new variation on the older theme of the ‘youth bulge,’ another ‘demography as destiny’ national security theory that became popular in U.S. defense and intelligence circles in the mid-1980s and is still widely used today to explain violent conflict in the Middle East and Africa. If over 20 percent of a country’s population is comprised of young people, this ‘youth bulge’ supposedly makes it more vulnerable to political instability. The unemployed young males of the youth bulge, in particular, are easy recruits to terrorist causes. According to Anne Hendrixson, a twin set of images bolsters youth bulge theory in the post 9/11 period: pictures of angry young men of color as potential terrorists and veiled young women as victims of repressive regimes. “The implied dual threat – of both explosive violence and explosive fertility – provides an apparently seamless racially- and gender-based rationale for continued U.S. military intervention and U.S.-promoted population control initiatives in other countries.” (See Anne Hendrixson, “Angry Young Men, Veiled Young Women: Constructing a New Population Threat,” The Corner House, December 2004, http://www.thecornernhouse.org.uk.)

Bare Branches goes even further than youth bulge theory in embracing sociobiological assumptions about men. Male human reproductive behavior is presented as a link on an evolutionary chain that includes not only monkeys but song birds. Testosterone ‘T’ levels tell all. Because T levels are ostensibly lower in married men than bare branches, “the larger the number of men who are unable to marry, the higher their circulating T, and the greater amount of violent and antisocial behavior they will exhibit.” (Interestingly, the authors avoid talking about violence within marriage). The authors also confidently pronounce that low-status males commit more violence than high-status ones. (What about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, or for that matter, Osama bin Laden, scion of a rich Saudi family?) In support of this statement, they cite a study where unemployed males had the highest T levels among males categorized according to occupation.

They also draw on the work of York University researchers Christian Mesquida and Neil Wiener who claim that the “coalitional aggression” of young males is an advantageous inherited trait because it is the way men gain enough resources to attract a mate. It follows then that the more young men there are in a given population, the more possibility for conflict and war. Mesquida and Wiener’s theories have also been taken seriously by the security community. At a 2001 symposium at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Wiener told the audience that war “is a natural phenomenon, in accord with human nature and part of human nature.” Showing pictures of insurgents from various countries, Mesquida emphasized their commonality as young men. “We see Somalis when, in fact, we should see young men.” (See Woodrow Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Project Report, No. 7, 2001).

Biological determinism of this nature reinforces rigid gender definitions, not only for men but for women who by contrast are the weaker, passive sex. It reinforces heterosexism too. But it also plays a more subtle ideological role in naturalizing and rationalizing class differences and neoliberal supremacy. Hudson and den Boer show their political cards when they talk about how reducing social and economic inequalities could reduce the resentment of poor young males and hence intrasocietal violence. Alas, however, they note, “this option is virtually impossible to achieve in a free market economy.” And lest we feel bad about that, we should remember that even if incomes were equalized, surplus males still wouldn’t be able to find spouses. A la World Bank, they argue for a few targeted safety nets.

Indeed, a critical subtext of the book is fear of popular resistance to social and economic injustices. Migrants, who are pathologized throughout the book as ‘transients’, are particularly scary. In addition to their high T levels and low-life habits, ‘transients’ in China, for example, have had the audacity to engage in strikes and other protests over labor grievances. This kind of bare-branch “disruptive behavior” threatens the established social order.

It remains to be seen just how long-lasting this book’s influence will be in security circles. Though conservative, it plays to liberal interests concerned about the very real problem of distorted sex ratios in Asia. Therein lays the danger. In the name of women’s rights, it could make more palatable the continuing stereotyping and scapegoating of young men in the global south and migrants in the global north. Just the term ‘bare branches’ is deeply dehumanizing, robbing young men of both identity and agency and reducing their behavior to a function of testosterone.

State violence often depends on such dehumanization. In France during the recent riots, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy referred to the young males involved as “la racaille,” a derogatory term which is worse than scum, denoting subhuman and inherently evil and criminal. Sarkozy said he planned to “karcherize” them – sand-blast, water-blast them off the face of French society. “To apply this term to young human beings and proffer it as a strategy is a verbally fascist insult and, as a policy proposed by an Interior Minister, is about as close as one can get to hollering ‘ethnic cleansing’ without actually saying so,” writes Doug Ireland. (“Why is France Burning?” November 6, 2005, http://direland.typepad.com). In Chechnya, meanwhile, the International Helsinki Federation has charged the Russian army of abducting and murdering young males in a deliberate process of “thinning out a population of young men.”

In India, many progressive activists are fighting against son preference and sex selection, and the population control policies that reinforce them, because they violate the human rights of women and girls. They do not employ the dangerous rhetoric of ‘bare branches’ or appeal to spurious national security fears. Their struggles deserve international support and that includes openly challenging the premises of this disturbing book.

Betsy Hartmann is co-editor with Banu Subramaniam and Charles Zerner of Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). She directs the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.

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