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Race, Testosterone, Aggression, and Prostate Cancer

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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4050 words

Race, aggression, and prostate cancer are all linked, with some believing that race is the cause of higher testosterone which then causes aggression and higher rates of crime along with maladies such as prostate cancer. These claims have long been put to bed, with a wide range of large analyses.

The testosterone debate regarding prostate cancer has been raging for decades and we have made good strides in understanding the etiology of prostate cancer and how it manifests. The same holds true for aggression. But does testosterone hold the key to understanding aggression, prostate cancer and does race dictate group levels of the hormone which then would explain some of the disparities between groups and individuals of certain groups?

Prostate cancer

For decades it was believed that heightened levels of testosterone caused prostate cancer. Most of the theories to this day still hold that large amounts of androgens, like testosterone and it’s metabolic byproduct dihydrotestosterone, are the two many factors that drive the proliferation of cells and therefore, if a male is exposed to higher levels of testosterone throughout their lives then they are at a high risk of prostate cancer compared to a man with low testosterone levels, so the story goes.

In 1986 Ronald Ross set out to test a hypothesis: that black males were exposed to more testosterone in the womb and this then drove their higher rates of prostate cancer later in life. He reportedly discovered that blacks, after controlling for confounds, had 15 percent higher testosterone than whites which may be the cause of differential prostate cancer mortality between the two races (Ross et al, 1986) This is told in a 1997 editorial by Hugh McIntosh. First, the fact that black males were supposedly exposed to more testosterone in the womb is brought up. I am aware of one paper discussing higher levels of testosterone in black women compared to white women (Perry et al, 1996). Though, I’ve shown that black women don’t have high levels of testosterone, not higher than white women, anyway (see Mazur, 2016 for discussion). (Yes I changed my view on black women and testosterone, stop saying that they have high levels of testosterone it’s just not true. I see people still link to that article despite the long disclaimer at the top.)

Alvarado (2013) discusses Ross et al (1986)Ellis and Nyborg (1992) (which I also discussed here along with Ross et al) and other papers discussing the supposed higher testosterone of blacks when compared to whites and attempts to use a life history framework to explain higher incidences of prostate cancer in black males. He first notes that nutritional status influences testosterone production which should be no surprise to anyone. He brings up some points I agree with and some I do not. For instance, he states that differences in nutrition could explain differences in testosterone between Western and non-Western people (I agree), but that this has no effect within Western countries (which is incorrect as I’ll get to later).

He also states that ancestry isn’t related to prostate cancer, writing “In summation, ancestry does not adequately explain variation among ethnic groups with higher or lower testosterone levels, nor does it appear to explain variation among ethnic groups with high or low prostate cancer rates. This calls into question the efficacy of a disease model that is unable to predict either deleterious or protective effects.

He then states that SES is negatively correlated with prostate cancer rates, and that numerous papers show that people with low SES have higher rates of prostate cancer mortality which makes sense, since people in a lower economic class would have less access to and a chance to get good medical care to identify problems such as prostate cancer, including prostate biopsies and checkups to identify the condition.

He finally discusses the challenge hypothesis and prostate cancer risk. He cites studies by Mazur and Booth (who I’ve cited in the past in numerous articles) as evidence that, as most know, black-majority areas have more crime which would then cause higher levels of testosterone production. He cites Mazur’s old papers showing that low-class men, no matter if they’re white or black, had heightened levels of testosterone and that college-educated men did not, which implies that the social environment can and does elevate testosterone levels and can keep them heightened. Alvarado concludes this section writing: “Among Westernized men who have energetic resources to support the metabolic costs associated with elevated testosterone, there is evidence that being exposed to a higher frequency of aggressive challenges can result in chronically elevated testosterone levels. If living in an aggressive social environment contributes to prostate cancer disparities, this has important implications for prevention and risk stratification.” He’s not really wrong but on what he is wrong I will discuss later on this section. It’s false that testosterone causes prostate cancer so some of this thesis is incorrect.

I rebutted Ross et al (1986) December of last year. The study was hugely flawed and, yet, still gets cited to this day including by Alvarado (2013) as the main point of his thesis. However, perhaps most importantly, the assay times were done ‘when it was convenient’ for the students which were between 10 am and 3 pm. To not get any wacky readings one most assay the individuals as close to 8:30 am as possible. Furthermore, they did not control for waist circumference which is another huge confound. Lastly, the sample was extremely small (50 blacks and 50 whites) and done on a nonrepresentative sample (college students). I don’t think anyone can honestly cite this paper as any evidence for blacks having higher levels of testosterone or testosterone causing prostate cancer because it just doesn’t do that. (Read Race, Testosterone and Prostate Cancer for more information.)

What may explain prostate cancer rates if not for differences in testosterone like has been hypothesized for decades? Well, as I have argueddiet explains a lot of the variation between races. The etiology of prostate cancer is not known (ACA, 2016) but we know that it’s not testosterone and that diet plays a large role in its acquisition. Due to their dark skin, they need more sunlight than do whites to synthesize the same amount of vitamin D, and low levels of vitamin D in blacks are strongly related to prostate cancer (Harris, 2006). Murphy et al (2014) even showed, through biopsies, that black American men had higher rates of prostate cancer if they had lower levels of vitamin D. Lower concentrations of vitamin D in blacks compared to whites due to dark pigmentation which causes reduced vitamin D photoproduction and may also account for “much of the unexplained survival disparity after consideration of such factors as SES, state at diagnosis and treatment” (Grant and Peiris, 2012).

Testosterone

As mentioned above, testosterone is assumed to be higher in certain races compared to others (based on flawed studies) which then supposedly exacerbates prostate cancer. However, as can be seen above, a lot of assumptions go into the testosterone-prostate cancer hypothesis which is just false. So if the assumptions are false about testosterone, mainly regarding racial differences in the hormone and then what the hormone actually does, then most of their claims can be disregarded.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Ross et al is a 32-year-old paper (which still gets cited favorably despite its huge flaws) while our understanding of the hormone and its physiology has made considerable progress in that time frame. So it’s in fact not so weird to see papers like this that say “Prostate cancer appears to be unrelated related to endogenous testosterone levels” (Boyle et al, 2016). Other papers also show the same thing, that testosterone is not related to prostate cancer (Stattin et al, 2004; Michaud, Billups, and Partin, 2015). This kills a lot of theories and hypotheses, especially regarding racial differences in prostate cancer acquisition and mortality. So, what this shows is that even if blacks did have 15 percent higher serum testosterone than whites as Ross et al, Rushton, Lynn, Templer, et al believed then it wouldn’t cause higher levels of prostate cancer (nor aggression, which I’ll get into later).

How high is testosterone in black males compared to white males? People may attempt to cite papers like the 32-year-old paper by Ross et al, though as I’ve discussed numerous times the paper is highly flawed and should therefore not be cited. Either way, levels are not as high as people believe and meta-analyses and actual nationally representative samples (not convenience college samples) show low to no difference, and even the low difference wouldn’t explain any health disparities.

One of the best papers on this matter of racial differences in testosterone is Richard et al (2014). They meta-analyzed 15 studies and concluded that the “racial differences [range] from 2.5 to 4.9 percent” but “this modest difference is unlikely to explain racial differences in disease risk.” This shows that testosterone isn’t as high in blacks as is popularly misconceived, and that, as I will show below, it wouldn’t even cause higher rates of aggression and therefore criminal behavior. (Rohrmann et al 2007 show no difference in testosterone between black and white males in a nationally representative sample after controlling for lifestyle and anthropometric variables. Whereas Mazur, 2009 shows that blacks have higher levels of testosterone due to low marriage rates and lower levels of adiposity, while be found a .39 ng/ml difference between blacks and whites aged 20 to 60. Is this supposed to explain crime, aggression, and prostate cancer?)

However, as I’ve noted last year (and as Alvarado, 2013 did as well), young black males with low education have higher levels of testosterone which is not noticed in black males of the same age group but with more education (Mazur, 2016). Since blacks of a similar age group have lower levels of testosterone but are more highly educated then this is a clue that education drives aggression/testosterone/violent behavior and not that testosterone drives it.

Mazur (2016) also replicated Assari, Caldwell, and Zimmerman’s (2014) finding that “Our model in the male sample suggests that males with higher levels of education has lower aggressive behaviors. Among males, testosterone was not associated with aggressive behaviors.” I know this is hard for many to swallow that testosterone doesn’t lead to aggressive behavior in men, but I’ll cover that in the last and final section.

So it’s clear that the myth that Rushton, Lynn, Templer, Kanazawa, et al pushed regarding hormonal differences between the races are false. It’s also with noting, as I did in my response to Rushton on r/K selection theory, that the r/K model is literally predicated on 1) testosterone differences between races being real and in the direction that Rushton and Lynn want because they cite the highly flawed Ross et al (1986) and 2) testosterone does not cause higher levels of aggression (which I’ll show below) which then lead to higher rates of crime along with higher rates of incarceration.

A blogger who goes by the name of ethnicmuse did an analysis of numerous testosterone papers and he found:

Which, of course, goes against a ton of HBD theory, that is, if testosterone did what HBDers believed it does (it doesn’t). This is what it comes down to: blacks don’t have higher levels of testosterone than whites and testosterone doesn’t cause aggression nor prostate cancer so even if this relationship was in the direction that Rushton et al assert then it still wouldn’t cause any of the explanatory variables they discuss.

Last year Lee Ellis published a paper outlining his ENA theory (Ellis, 2017). I responded to the paper and pointed out what he got right and wrong. He discussed strength (blacks aren’t stronger than whites due to body type and physiology, but excel in other areas); circulating testosterone, umbilical cord testosterone exposure; bone density and crime; penis size, race, and crime (Rushton’s 1997 claims on penis size don’t ‘size up’ to the literature as I’ve shown two times); prostate-specific antigens, race, and prostate cancer; CAG repeats; intelligence and education and ‘intelligence’; and prenatal androgen exposure. His theory has large holes and doesn’t line up in some places, as he himself admits in his paper. He, as expected, cites Ross et al (1986) favorably in his analysis.

Testosterone can’t explain all of these differences, no matter if it’s prenatal androgen exposure or not, and a difference of 2.5 to 4.9 percent between blacks and whites regarding testosterone (Richard et al, 2014) won’t explain differences in crime, aggression, nor prostate cancer.

Other authors have attempted to also implicate testosterone as a major player in a wide range of evolutionary theories (Lynn, 1990Rushton, 1997Rushton, 1999Hart, 2007Rushton and Templer, 2012Ellis, 2017). However, as can be seen by digging into this literature, these claims are not true and therefore we can discard the conclusions come to by the aforementioned authors since they’re based on false premises (testosterone being a cause for aggression, crime, and prostate cancer and r/K meaning anything to human races, it doesn’t)

Finally, to conclude this section, does testosterone explain racial differences in crime? No, racial differences in testosterone, however small, cannot be responsible for the crime gap between blacks and whites.

Testosterone and aggression

Testosterone and aggression, are they linked? Can testosterone tell us anything about individual differences in aggressive behavior? Surprisingly for most, the answer seems to be a resounding no. One example is the castration of males. Does it completely take away the urge to act aggressively? No, it does not. What is shown when sex offenders are castrated is that their levels of aggression decrease, but importantly, they do not decrease to 0. Robert Sapolsky writes on page 96 of his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) (pg 96):

… the more experience a male has being aggressive prior to castration, the more aggression continues afterward. In other words, the less his being aggressive in the future requires testosterone and the more it’s a function of social learning.

He also writes (pg 96-97):

On to the next issue that lessens the primacy of testosterone: What do individual levels of testosterone have to do with aggression? If one person higher testosterone levels than another, or higher levels this week than last, are they more likely to be aggressive?

Initially the answer seemed to be yes, as studies showed correlation between individual differences in testosterone levels and levels of aggression. In a typical study, higher testosterone levels would be observed in those male prisoners with higher rates of aggression. But being aggressive stimulates testosterone secretion; no wonder more aggressive individuals had higher levels. Such studies couldn’t disentangle chickens and eggs.

Thus, a better question is whether differences in testosterone levels among individuals predict who will be aggressive. And among birds, fish, mammals, and especially other primates, the answer is generally no. This has been studied extensively in humans, examining a variety of measures of aggression. And the answer is clear. To quote British endocrinologist John Archer in a definitive 2006 review, “There is a weak and inconsistent association between testosterone levels and aggression in [human] adults, and . . . administration of testosterone to volunteers typically does not increase aggression.” The brain doesn’t pay attention to testosterone levels within the normal range.

[…]

Thus, aggression is typically more about social learning than about testosterone, differing levels of testosterone generally can’t explain why some individuals are more aggressive than others.

Sapolsky also has a 1997 book of essays on human biology titled The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament and he has a really good essay on testosterone titled Will Boys Just Be Boys? where he writes (pg 113 to 114):

Okay, suppose you note a correlation between levels of aggression and levels of testosterone among these normal males. This could be because (a)  testosterone elevates aggression; (b) aggression elevates testosterone secretion; (c) neither causes the other. There’s a huge bias to assume option a while b is the answer. Study after study has shown that when you examine testosterone when males are first placed together in the social group, testosterone levels predict nothing about who is going to be aggressive. The subsequent behavioral differences drive the hormonal changes, not the other way around.

Because of a strong bias among certain scientists, it has taken do forever to convince them of this point.

[…]

As I said, it takes a lot of work to cure people of that physics envy, and to see interindividual differences in testosterone levels don’t predict subsequent differences in aggressive behavior among individuals. Similarly, fluctuations in testosterone within one individual over time do not predict subsequent changes in the levels of aggression in the one individual—get a hiccup in testosterone secretion one afternoon and that’s not when the guy goes postal.

And on page 115 writes:

You need some testosterone around for normal levels of aggressive behavior—zero levels after castration and down it usually goes; quadruple it (the sort of range generated in weight lifters abusing anabolic steroids), and aggression typically increases. But anywhere from roughly 20 percent of normal to twice normal and it’s all the same; the brain can’t distinguish among this wide range of basically normal values.

Weird…almost as if there is a wide range of ‘normal’ that is ‘built in’ to our homeodynamic physiology…

So here’s the point: differences in testosterone between individuals tell us nothing about individual differences in aggressive behavior; castration and replacement seems to show that, however broadly, testosterone is related to aggression “But that turns out to not be true either, and the implications of this are lost on most people the first thirty times you tell them about it. Which is why you’d better tell them about it thirty-one times, because it’s the most important part of this piece” (Sapolsky, 1997: 115).

Later in the essay, Sapolsky discusses a discusses 5 monkeys that were given time to form a hierarchy of 1 through 5. Number 3 can ‘throw his weight’ around with 4 and 5 but treads carefully around 1 and 2. He then states to take the third-ranking monkey and inject him with a ton of testosterone, and that when you check the behavioral data that he’d then be participating in more aggressive actions than before which would imply that the exogenous testosterone causes participation in more aggressive behavior. But it’s way more nuanced than that.

So even though small fluctuations in the levels of the hormone don’t seem to matter much, testosterone still causes aggression. But that would be wrong. Check out number 3 more closely. Is he now raining aggression and terror on any and all in the group, frothing in an androgenic glaze of indiscriminate violence. Not at all. He’s still judiciously kowtowing to numbers 1 and 2 but has simply become a total bastard to number 4 and 5. This is critical: testosterone isn’t causing aggression, it’s exaggerating the aggression that’s already there.

The correlation between testosterone and aggression is between .08 and .14 (Book, Starzyk, and Quinsey, 2001Archer, Graham-Kevan, and Davies, 2005Book and Quinsey, 2005). Therefore, along with all of the other evidence provided in this article, it seems that testosterone and aggression have a weak positive correlation, which buttresses the point that aggression concurrent increases in testosterone.

Sapolsky then goes on to discuss the amygdala’s role in fear processing. The amygdala has its influence on aggressive behavior through the stria terminalis, which is a bunch of neuronal connections. How the amygdala influences aggression is simple: bursts of electrical excitation called action potentials go up and down the stria terminalis which changes the hypothalamus. You can then inject testosterone right into the brain and will it cause the same action potentials that surge down the stria terminalis? No, it does not turn on the pathway at all. This only occurs only if the amygdala is already sending aggression-provoking action potentials down the stria terminalis with testosterone increasing the rate of action potentials you’re shortening the rest time between them. So it doesn’t turn on this pathway, it exaggerates the preexisting pattern, which is to say, it’s exaggerating the response to environmental triggers of what caused the amygdala to get excited in the first place.

He ends this essay writing (pg 119):

Testosterone is never going to tell us much about the suburban teenager who, in his after-school chess club, has developed a particularly aggressive style with his bishops. And it certainly isn’t going to tell us much about the teenager in some inner-city hellhole who has taken to mugging people. “Testosterone equals aggression” is inadequate for those who would offer a simple solution to the violent male—just decrease levels of those pesky steroids. And “testosterone equals aggression” is certainly inadequate for those who would offer a simple excuse: Boys will be boys and certain things in nature are inevitable. Violence is more complex than a single hormone. This is endocrinology for the bleeding heart liberal—our behavioral biology is usually meaningless outside of the context of social factors and the environment in which it occurs.

Injecting individuals with supraphysiological doses of testosterone as high as 200 and 600 mg per week does not cause heightened anger or aggression (Tricker et al, 1996O’Connor et, 2002). This, too, is a large blow for the testosterone-induces-aggression hypothesis. Because aggressive behavior heightens testosterone, testosterone doesn’t heighten aggressive behavior. (This is the causality that has been looked for, and here it is. The causality is not in the other direction.) This tells us that we need to be put into situations for our aggression to rise and along with it, testosterone. I don’t even see how people could think that testosterone could cause aggression. It’s obvious that the environmental trigger needs to be there first in order for the body’s physiology to begin testosterone production in order to prepare for the stimulus that caused the heightened testosterone production. Once the trigger occurs, then it can and does stay heightened, especially in areas where dominance contests would be more likely to occur, which would be low-income areas (Mazur, 2006, 2016).

(Also read my response to Batrinos, 2012, my musings on testosterone and race, and my responses to Robert Lindsay and Sean Last.)

Lastly, one thing that gets on my nerves that people point to to attempt to show that testosterone and its derivatives cause violence, aggression etc is the myth of “roid rage” which is when an individual objects himself with testosterone, anabolic steroids or another banned substance, and then the individual becomes more aggressive as a result of more free-flowing testosterone in their bloodstream.

But it’s not that simple.

The problem here is that people believe what they hear on the media about steroids and testosterone, and they’re largely not true. One large analysis was done to see the effects of steroids and other illicit drug use on behavior, and what was found was that after controlling for other substance use “Our results suggest that it was not lifetime steroid use per se, but rather co-occurrring polysubstance abuse that most parsimoniously explains the relatively strong association of steroid use and interpersonal violence” (Lundholm et al, 2015). So after controlling for other drugs used, men who use steroids do not go to prison and be convicted of violence after other polysubstance use was controlled for, implying that is what’s driving interpersonal violence, not the substance abuse of steroids.

Conclusion

Numerous myths about testosterone have been propagated over the decades, which are still believed in the new millennium despite numerous other studies and arguments to the contrary. As can be seen, the myths that people believe about testosterone are easily debunked. Numerous papers (with better methodology than Ross et al) attest to the fact that testosterone levels aren’t as high as was believed decades ago between the races. Diet can explain a lot of the variation, especially vitamin D intake. Injecting men with supraphysiological doses of testosterone does not heighten anger nor aggression. It does not even heighten prostate cancer severity.

Racial differences in testosterone are also not as high as people would like to believe, there is even an opposite relationship with Asians having higher levels and whites having lower (which wouldn’t, on average, imply femininity) testosterone levels. So as can be seen, the attempted r/K explanations from Rushton et al don’t work out here. They’re just outright wrong on testosterone, as I’ve been arguing for a long while on this blog.

Testosterone doesn’t cause aggression, aggression causes heightened testosterone. It can be seen from studies of men who have been castrated that the more crime they committed before castration, the more crime they will commit after which implies a large effect of social learning on violent behavior. Either way, the alarmist attitudes of people regarding testosterone, as I have argued, are not needed because they’re largely myths.

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