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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Young Men: Seeking to Conquer

Air Date: Week of October 16, 1998

We usually think people fight wars over political ideologies, or religion or ethnicity. But two researchers at York University in Toronto say there's something even more basic operating. Psychology professor Neil Weiner and his protégé Chris Mesquida (mes-Queet-ta) contend that the presence of young, unmarried men can help steer a society toward a war of aggression. According to their controversial theory, young men seek the resources they need to start and maintain a family, and often they believe they must go to battle to secure them. Professor Weiner explains that the critical factor is not just the numbers of young men in a society, but their proportion in the population.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We usually think people fight wars over political ideologies or religion or ethnicity. But 2 researchers at York University in Toronto say there's something more basic to the bellicose. Psychology Professor Neil Weiner and his protege Chris Mesquida contend that the presence of young, unmarried men can help steer a society toward a war of aggression. According to their controversial theory, young men seek the resources they need to start and maintain a family, And often they believe they must go to battle to secure them. Professor Weiner explains that the critical factor is not just the numbers of young men in a society, but their proportion in the population.

WEINER: Although all societies have young men, not all societies have war all the time. That is, if we look, wars are kind of episodic. That is, for long periods of time societies may be quite peaceful, And then there will be periods when there are, when there's conflict, when there's war, either external or civil. And so, the question for us was, if young men are the major perpetrators of all kinds of mayhem including war, why isn't war continuous?

CURWOOD: Okay. And the answer is?

WEINER: Well, we looked in this century and in the last century and at tribal groups and whatever historical data we could find. And we found that what seems to be significant is the ratio of males 15 to 29 versus males 30 and above. When the number of men between 15 and 29 equals about 60% of the size of the men in that society over 30, then you start to have real problems.

CURWOOD: Now is this dispositive? In other words, is this the reason why societies go to war? Or is this just a major contributing factor, as far as you're concerned?

WEINER: Well, we've looked at all sorts of other factors trying to see what correlates with war, and what may correlate with the ferocity of it. We've looked at economic factors and tried to find other factors. And this one, the ratio of younger to older males, seems to account for much more of the event than anything else than we've looked at. We've looked across -- we've got 156 countries in the last decade or so, we've got stuff that numbers in the earlier part of the century, the 19th century. So it seems to hold across time and space.

CURWOOD: You're telling me, then, that biology is destiny here.

WEINER: Well, not really. If we consider that war is an attempt to gain resources for marriage or for forming families. If there are alternative ways of doing it, then I think people prefer that. Because when we look at the data, there are some outliers, some cases where places have been relatively peaceful even though they've had for a period of time a high ratio of younger men to older men. Under those conditions, we find there's usually opportunities for young men to emigrate, to leave the country to gain resources, so immigration is a possibility. Or we find that there's a frontier for one reason or another within the country, that as technology allows the exploitation of a distant territory. Or some other circumstance in which economic opportunities are available.

CURWOOD: So, does your theory explain war more in more Aboriginal, primitive, tribal situations, or in our modern industrial society?

WEINER: Well, it does both. One of the things that I think sometimes people confuse about this idea, it would appear that war is something that breaks out in less developed societies. But that's because at this time in history, the less developed societies show this ratio of, a high ratio of younger men to older men. But once upon a time, in the last century, for example, it was the European countries that showed this ratio of, a high ratio of younger men to older men. Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, France had a very high ratio of young men to older men. It was a very young society. So, in my view, the Napoleonic Wars were essentially wars of the young Frenchmen against others in Europe.

CURWOOD: Wait a second, here. Just wait a second. Possibly, one of the crankiest wars the planet has ever seen was started in Germany.

WEINER: Uh huh.

CURWOOD: And the population demographic after World War I doesn't give you a whole bunch of young men.

WEINER: Well, I have an explanation for that. The Nazi Party itself, if we look at the demographics of the Nazi Party --

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

WEINER: -- was very young. The Nazi Party was a party of young men. And that's been recently documented. The second thing is, remember resources are part of my equation. And what happened in Germany after the war was, there was hyper-inflation, And then there was a depression. Both of those things really restricted the economic opportunities of young men. And in fact, I believe, in a sense it kept them younger than they really were chronologically. I think by delaying or prolonging their youth or delaying their ability to acquire resources, we kept them psychologically younger, And therefore more belligerent.

CURWOOD: I'm going to ask you to stick your neck out. Looking at the world right now, using your theory, where do you think the hot spots are and where they're going to be?

WEINER: The hot spots are clearly large portions of Africa. I would also say that India and Pakistan are going to be real hot spots. And clearly the Middle East; there's going to be trouble there for the foreseeable future. And I mean the ratio of young men to older men in places like Gaza are quite incredible. They're among the highest if not the highest in the world.

CURWOOD: Isn't this a rather dangerously simplistic way of trying to understand human behavior?

WEINER: Well, I think it is simple. I don't know if it is simplistic. Looking at these ratios, they do seem to account for what in statistics are a good part of the variance. But perhaps a lot of things in the world are simpler than we thought.

CURWOOD: Neil Weiner is a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

WEINER: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

 

 

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