Is Testosterone to blame for the Boston Bombings?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19.

Why did they do it? It's a familiar question we're asking in the aftermath of the Boston bombings; the only variation is that with Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we're talking about murderous brothers instead of a homicidal lone wolf.

Was it radical Islamism, or Chechen nationalism, or a growing disaffection with American materialism that drove these young men to kill and maim so many last week? While pundits debate these possibilities, they're missing the real answer, writes Lisa Miller in New York Magazine.  That answer, she claims, is the testosterone that courses through young men's bodies, driving all to distraction and some – like the Tsarnaevs – to unspeakable violence.

“Evil may not have a single face, but it can be reliably found within one kind of body: that of an angry man in his late teens or 20s,” Miller writes, referencing US killers such as Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, Jared Lee Loughner, James Eagan Holmes and Seung-Hui Cho.

An updated FBI wanted poster of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

An updated FBI wanted poster of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Photo: AP/FBI

In exploring why virtually all mass murderers are young men, Miller suggests we think of testosterone, “the aggression drug”, as “perhaps the only place to start” looking for an answer: “[The] male proclivity to assert power through violence has been true for males, and not for females, for millions of years, which is why when you give your four-year-old daughter a toy sword to play with, she may just turn it into a fairy wand and go on with her day.”


Like so many who rely nearly exclusively on biological explanations for human behaviour, Miller sees sex differences as a dichotomy, rather than a spectrum. In reality boys are as different from each other as they are from girls – and girls are capable of remarkably enthusiastic violence.

(I don't know if Miller actually has a four-year-old daughter, but I'm blessed with just such a creature. I guarantee you that if I were to hand Heloise a toy sword, she would not, as Miller writes, 'just turn it into a fairy wand and go on with her day'. My four-year-old would soon smite her baby brother a mighty blow. She has tea parties with her dollies, and when she's done, she not infrequently smashes them to bits. She lacks impulse control not because she's “boyish” but because she's four.)

Those who insist on rigidly gendered explanations for tragedies like Boston don't just posit young men as helpless in the face of a testosterone tempest. They also refuse to recognise that girls, despite much lower levels of that “aggression drug”, also have a very real capacity for anger, irrationality, and lust.

Miller claims that “men are likelier than women to act out vengeance, partly because their brains do not propel them to seek help, to pick up the phone or see a shrink, when enraged”. This is the classic error of mistaking cultural conditioning for biological predisposition.

From Chechnya to Cambridge, Massachusetts, boys are raised to see “seeking help” as something feminine, and therefore to be avoided. When boys are beaten and mocked for showing weakness, they hide their vulnerability.

When they're praised for aggression and taking foolish risks, they learn that recklessness and violence are key to establishing their masculine credentials. Our young men are not consumed with anger because they're at the mercy of their hormones, but because they've been denied access to any emotion other than rage.

You don't have to believe that “nature” has no impact on human behaviour in order to argue that “nurture” (how we raise our children) offers an equally important influence. Hormones are part of our human hardwiring, but socialisation is what teaches boys when and how to direct the aggressive, protective, sexual urges that testosterone creates.

Impulses may be rooted in biology, but how those impulses manifest has everything to do with culture. Create a culture in which boys have options other than violence and they will become less violent; create a culture in which women can pursue intellectual, sexual, and sporting ambitions, and they will become far more frank about what it is they want and how badly they want it.

In his best-selling The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a compelling, well-documented case that violence has been on the decline for centuries.

While conceding that in both past and present it is young men who commit the overwhelming majority of killings, Pinker argues that the “civilising influences” of urbanisation, marriage and even women's empowerment have radically reduced the incidences of male violence around the world. Young men still have testosterone coursing through their veins, but culture has the demonstrated power to determine what kind of behaviours that “aggression drug” will actually cause.

While we don't yet know all we need to know in order to understand what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers, we do know that what causes terrorism isn't testosterone. The source of such appalling violence isn't what flows inside young men's bodies. The source of the violence is the cultural straitjacket that suppresses and shames any sign of weakness and any plea for help.


  • When I wonder about our humanity, I remember this quote:
    “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”
    ― Robert Ardrey, 1967

    Date and time
    April 24, 2013, 7:43AM
    • I agree with the sentiment of the article. I've got a couple of mates that have always been a bit macho/reckless and do things like speed when driving. Often in group activities I find I'm the one trying to defy the entire group and their peer pressure to do things that might endanger ourselves or others. Decent people need to show backbone and speak up loudly for what's right even when it's hard or awkward.

      One of them recently said how another in the group went skiing in Perisher for the first time and broke a little girls jaw when he lost control. Tried to brush it off as "just one of those accidents". My response was, no it isn't, when you make a choice you should think about how it might impact others if it goes wrong. Being reckless and endangering others is immoral. Unnecessarily endangering a child makes the person scum in my view. When my mate told me this his 15 year old daughter in-law was laughing about it while on twitter. What a scumbag. Seems a lot of young girls today are nasty pieces of work. Perhaps even more than boys surprisingly. At least some males feel protective/compassionate of those weaker than themselves. Girls don't seem to have this fail safe. So often now you hear of young girls being involved with violence. I think when that starts to happen it's a clear sign that a society is crumbling.

      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 9:34AM
      • Started out well when you mentioned the importance of resisting peer pressure, but then I don't know where you went with the whole young girls are nasty and violent while males are compassionate and gentle thing.

        Date and time
        April 24, 2013, 11:05AM
      • What happened started off with 'men lack impulse control' and finished up with 'girls are all just nasty and violent'... perhaps you meant to say, people can be douchebags regardless of what you find between their legs, and arbitrarily labelling a gender with douchebag traits is stupid.

        Date and time
        April 24, 2013, 1:16PM
      • So they "speed while driving", or "do speed while driving" ?

        Date and time
        April 24, 2013, 2:47PM
    • Millions of males have testorone yet only a handful commit horrendous murder. "The source of the violence is the cultural straitjacket that suppresses and shames any sign of weakness and any plea for help" also does not wash with me - it seems rather to be the flawed ideology that they follow or are indoctrinated with that drives these people to commit unspeakable acts, and reflect so poorly on those who follow the same faith but in a non violent way. Let's not find excuses for these thugs, they are not victims - let's rather spend time to think about the real victims who have suffered at their hands.

      Date and time
      April 24, 2013, 9:44AM
      • I'm raising a young boy only about age 5 and I'm still torn on this question:

        Do I raise him to be as non-violent as possible, the way I was taught to be as a child, and for which I of course suffered, or do I instill in him a sufficient familiarity with violence that other children will not instinctively pick on him incessantly, they way they always do to other children they know will never retaliate?

        Date and time
        April 24, 2013, 10:02AM
        • Christian

          Wait until your son is 6 before sending him to Kindy. The extra year at preschool will help his confidence socially. Find a good school if you can. Ask about their bullying policies if you're concerned.

          All children have things said to them at some stage. When it happens, your son doesn't need to be violent in response. Arm him with verbal responses, or the best one is to ignore any teasing with a shrug of the shoulders, a 'whatever', and walking away. Bullies thrive on getting a reaction. If teasing continues don't hesitate to approach your son's teacher, and go higher if necessary,to resolve the issue. You're teaching your son how to deal with bullies, because chances are he will come across some as an adult as well. Organisations take bullying seriously now and have mechanisms in place to deal with it. Teach your son how to use them if the need arises. In the end,an organisation that allows bullying to persist creates a toxic environment and isn't worth working for anyway.

          If you still feel uncertain, there are child psychologists you can see for advice and parenting programmes you can attend (eg Parent Effectiveness Training and Triple P). Your GP should be able to help you.

          Date and time
          April 24, 2013, 10:40AM
        • My personal opinion? Do neither.

          Raise him with three core ideas:

          * Non-violence is always the preferred option for any situation.
          * Sometimes, though, non-violence is not the best option, and that physical action, while the last resort, is necessary.
          * When necessary, the absolute minimum level of violence should be used, and used as a deterrent, not as a solution.
          * Everyone needs to find for themselves the point where you cross that line, nobody can tell you a set of 'rules' for when such action is appropriate. Teach him the strength and self-confidence to learn and make his own choices.

          That probably all sounds trite, but I think it's true.

          Date and time
          April 24, 2013, 10:52AM
        • The problem I have seen with many parents who have raised their children to be non-violent is that they have also inadvertently raised them to be timid/passive and non-confrontational. They are then easily intimidated, and unable to even stand up to verbal insult and abuse, let alone physical. This more than any physical traits/deficiencies were what attracted bullying.

          I don't see that teaching a child non-violence and educating them about violence are things that need to be mutually exclusive.
          I'd even say that raising a child without the knowledge that while violence is wrong, that will not always stop others from doing the wrong thing, is raising them without one of life's most vital lessons.

          Date and time
          April 24, 2013, 10:57AM

      More comments

      Comments are now closed