The recent tragic shooting of Christopher Lane, an Australian student in the United States on a baseball scholarship has attracted attention for a number of reasons. He was a young man with a promising life ahead of him and the crime itself seemed particularly senseless. Out running, the shots came from a car with three teenage boys inside. For some, the interest comes from a young life lost. For others, it’s a platform for gun control. For others, a chance to focus on race and racially motivated crimes.
What’s missing in these discussions of whether race was a factor and whether we need more gun control is why this crime occurred at a very basic level. The boys arrested in this murder are teenagers and it should not be a surprise that they were male teenagers. One of the best predictors of the level of violence in a country is the number of young males and we should be asking ourselves why. And when we truly understand why young males are more likely to commit violent crimes, we need to craft solutions that address these root causes.
Many researchers with an evolutionary perspective have explored what is sometimes referred to as “young male syndrome.” The fact is that young men with their whole lives ahead of them are most likely to be victim and perpetrator in male-male violence. Some of the scientists who have studied these questions include: Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, David Buss, Joshua Duntley, and Todd Shackelford among others and for the details of their work, I’d suggest checking out their books and papers.
One of the main points is that male violence and aggression has been part of human history since before we were human and while Steven Pinker has argued that we are living with some of the lowest death rates from violence today that we have ever experienced over recorded history, male on male violence is still with us because it solved adaptive problems we faced in our ancestral past. And it may still solve some of those same problems today. If we want to reduce levels of violence, we need to address factors that make males more desperate to compete with such strategies. Those include factors like economic inequality (when some men are very successful economically and in terms of reproduction and others are not this sets up a situation where men have little to lose and much to gain through violence and aggression toward other males). In addition, cultural groups where males expend little in parental effort and devote most of their effort to chasing mating opportunities and status competition (think inner city gangs etc), lead to young males and females who tend to follow a fast life history strategy (see A.J. Figueredo’s work for an in-depth discussion of life history). If you level the playing field, violence should decrease. Just don’t expect everyone to want that playing field leveled. The ones doing really well are usually happy with the status quo for one. Another way is to create a culture where male parental investment is the norm, not a rarity.