Testosterone, the Power Hormone

Biology meets history in a new book on revolution, riot and the sex hormone testosterone. Author Karin Kneissl explains

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What do the Arab Spring, religious Crusades and Europe’s revolutions of 1848 have in common? All were fueled by a surplus of hapless young men, according to Karin Kneissl — an Austrian academic, author, and political analyst. In her new German-language book, Testosteron macht Politik (crude translation: “Testosterone Makes Politics”), Kneissl lays out her case for the primary male sex hormone as a driver of world affairs.

She spoke with TIME about the book. An abbreviated version of the conversation follows:

TIME: So far your book is out only in German, so I suspect most of our readers won’t have heard of it before. How would you explain it to them?
Kneissl: I started to work on the idea last year, while watching the first [images] of revolutionaries in Egypt. I thought that maybe one of the factors triggering that wave of violence, disobedience or riot was a biological one. My hypothesis is the following: a young man who has no possibility to channel his energy — or his testosterone — is able to disregard risk. All humans have testosterone, but of course men have a higher level of it.

I also talked with historians of, for example, the [European] revolutions of 1848, and of the Crusade times. In these chapters of riot and revolution, we always have the problem of angry young men that you can’t channel otherwise. I’ve been a teacher in some Arab universities and I remember lots of young men complaining in the last 10, 15 years that they simply can’t afford to marry. For those men, not getting married means no access to a girlfriend, a woman, because of rigid social morals — and you have a number who remain bachelors against their will. Because of social and economic reasons they can’t find work. They have no opportunity to channel that energy they have, and one outlet can be social riot.

So I try to make my argument with references to the Arab world. I don’t reduce my argument to those events, but I was able to interview a large group of people involved. The last time such a big revolution happened was decades ago; here, I could ask people, “How did you react?” “Would you accept this kind of interpretation?”

Tell me about the role of the hormone testosterone itself.
Testosterone is often connected with dominance and aggression, but testosterone also has a lot of positive aspects, such as [imbuing] a sense of responsibility, and being a protector. When I interviewed young men in Egypt last year about their roles in their revolution, they said, “We could be somebody, not just hanging around in front of the computer and not having anything to do.”

For a revolution you always need people who are ready to go to the very end, who are ready to stand up when the tanks arrive, when violence breaks out. The young women I interviewed told me, “Yes, we were there…for the first five or six days. We had a role in the demonstrations.” But the moment the tanks arrived, the women in their early 20s [mostly] ran away, while hundreds of thousands of young men stayed. This attitude, disregarding the risk and saying,”we are ready to sacrifice our lives” — they are willing to go to the very end.

I also spoke with endocrinologists, experts on the hormone. We’ve had lots of studies about testosterone. On Wall Street, for instance, in the 1990s, [a study showed that] people who took higher risks had above average testosterone levels. And we see it with prison populations — [a link between testosterone and] physical crime.

In the U.S. there’s been a lot of news lately about a mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado, and one of the things that’s come out of that is that, apparently, inside the movie theater, a number of the young men threw themselves in front of their girlfriends to protect their partners. Do you think this ties into your thesis as well?
Yes, of course. As I said, we usually associate testosterone with aggression and dominance — bully behavior. But it also has this other aspect that you just described: protecting. Think of men in fire departments or volunteering in relief agencies.

Your Ph.D. is in international law. Did it feel like a departure to write a book that’s largely about hormones?
Well, endocrinology has always been an interest for me. I’ve never regretted studying law, but I could have imagined myself studying medicine as well.

I originally planned to work on this book with an endocrinologist, who in the end backed out. So I had to get into the topic myself. I read textbooks, and I interviewed a lot of [doctors]. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I really wanted to raise a different viewpoint. I have been intrigued by colleagues from international relations who have a tendency, I think, to overinterpret the rational aspect of international relations. I worked in the cabinet of a minister for two years and, having come from academia, I was often amazed by the importance of visceral behavior — how people interact on, let’s say, a purely chemical level. Is there good chemistry between two people? When it comes to international relations, the biological — or when we talk about hormones, the biochemical — has so far been a little bit underestimated.

Do you have any plans or hopes for an English translation of the book?
I hope so!

And how would you most likely translate the title of the book into English?
The German title is nice because it’s really a play on words. “Testosteron macht Politik” is “Testosterone Makes Politics.” But the word macht also means “power,” so it’s “Testosterone Power Politics.”

In English? Well, an ad hoc proposal would be, “Testosterone Brokers Politics.”

8 comments
paulsmith1988
paulsmith1988

Ask most doctors about testosterone, and they might tell you that this hormone helps transform a boy into a man. And if Germans are playing politics on it then let them play it.

bzelbub
bzelbub

Well then can you explain why so many women were also protesting in Egypt? And don't tell me it is because they were looking for some free testosterone on the street corners.

Seleukos
Seleukos

@bzelbub Did you read the interview really? It states among others the sentence: The young women I interviewed told me, “Yes, we were there…for the first five or six days. We had a role in the demonstrations.” But the moment the tanks arrived, the women in their early 20s [mostly] ran away, while hundreds of thousands of young men stayed.

oldprofessor
oldprofessor

This is the flip side of why there are so many unwanted pregnancies...hormones drive human behavior.

DuckBeach
DuckBeach

The "Arab Spring" was engineered by foreign powers. 

You pay a few bucks US to an Egyptian dude and he'll proclaim his love for the state of Israel and even dance the jig.   Throw a few thousand around and you can buy an Egyptian crowd to put on a Riverdance coup for you.

Ali Kadri
Ali Kadri

Don't tell this to the feministssss

Shahid Hussain Raja
Shahid Hussain Raja

And we thought that there were three Gs --Gold  (economic interest ),Glory (power projection) and God (moral values ) which had been the drivers of all conquests and colonialism throughout the history and all over the world. Now  it transpires that there is one T also ! Good research.

ERenger
ERenger

Four Gs --- add Gonads.