By Joe Herbert
Young men are particularly liable to become fanatics. Every dictator, every guru, every religious leader, knows this. Fanatics have an overwhelming sense of identity based on a cause (a religion) or a community (gang, team), and a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group. They will risk injury, loss or even death for the sake of their group. They regard everyone else as outsiders, or even enemies. But why are so many of them young males?
In a world of nation-states, young men fought the wars that formed most countries. The same goes for tribes, villages and factions. Young males have qualities that specialize them for this essential function. They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable to environmental influences, such as the prevailing culture in which they happen to live, and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent. If they didn’t have these properties, they would be less willing to go to war, and therefore less able to fulfil one of their essential sociobiological roles.
Why are young men like this? Part of it seems to depend on testosterone, acting on their brain during early foetal life. Exposure in the womb ‘masculinises’ the brain – giving it certain properties, including sexual identity as a male, as well as a preference for play patterns that involve physical contact and even play fights. We know this because girls exposed to abnormal levels of testosterone during this time show similar behaviour, but much less otherwise. At puberty, there is another surge of testosterone acting on this already-prepared brain: this not only awakens sexuality, but encourages various strategies for competing for a mate – including the use of aggression and risk-taking behaviour. But testosterone is far from the only factor in making a fanatic.
Picture: SPC ERIC HUGHES (http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil; VIRIN: DA-SD-01-05995) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons