On the recommendation of a friend, I have been watching Sons of Anarchy, a TV series about a gang of outlaw bikers. It is set in the fictional town of Charming in California. The key protagonist is Jackson (‘Jax’) Teller, the son of the now deceased co-founder of the club, John Teller. The Charming charter is the original charter of the club, known as SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original), although the club has charters spread across the USA, and in Europe and Australia.
Jax is Vice President of SAMCRO. In the early episodes, we learn that the President is Clay Morrow, an ageing, ruthless cad who lets nothing get in the way of what he wants. Clay is Jax’s stepfather; he married Jax’s mother after his father’s death. This Hamletian set-up is the source of some dark psychological drama. This seems to be reaching a climax towards the end of season four, which is where I am currently at, so I won’t say any more about that. In this and a subsequent post, I will explain the evolutionary origins of the aspects of male psychology portrayed in Sons of Anarchy, and their parallels in our close relative, the chimpanzee.
On the face of it, SAMCRO is a motorcycle club made up of Harley enthusiasts. The main cast members you will meet in season one don’t initially seem particularly dangerous or threatening. Piney, the surviving co-founder, has emphysema and carries oxygen with him at all times. He appears to be on his last legs.
Piney’s son Opie looks the part, but seems nervous and sensitive. He has recently been released from jail and is torn between his love of and devotion to SAMCRO and his fear of being incarcerated again. He is also under a lot of pressure from his wife to leave SAMCRO behind.
Bobby dresses up as Elvis. He is not the sharpest tool in the box, and is clearly past his prime. He is also a little lacking in fitness, as is Chibs.
Half-Sack, the Prospect (prospective member), seems a bit soft and his nickname reflects the fact that he has… yeah, one ball.
Clay, the President of SAMCRO, is genuinely menacing and dangerous. Every time I watch him, I see Claudius from Hamlet. His full name (Clarence) hints at this link. He is played brilliantly by Ron Perlman, who manages to make him loathsome, yet utterly compelling. But although Clay is ruthless and diabolical, he struggles to ride due to arthritis in his hands, suggesting his time as President may be nearing its end.
Only Jax (played by Charlie Hunnam, who reminds me of both Brad Pitt and Heath Ledger) and my favourite, the hilariously insane, perverse Tig (played by Joaquin Phoenix lookalike Kim Coates) seem capable of posing a credible threat. Jax is resolute and unflinching in the face of any danger, and Tig is scared of nothing. Well, except dolls – watch it and see! But Jax is struggling with his life in the club after finding a manuscript written by his deceased father, in which he questions the life of violence and crime, and argues that the Sons of Anarchy have lost their way.
Despite appearances, and Clay’s dismissive protestations to law enforcement that, “We’re not a gang, we’re a motorcycle club”, SAMCRO is very much a violent and dangerous criminal gang; they just happen to ride Harleys too. They make their money through running guns, and have close business ties with the IRA. Later they expand into muling cocaine for a Mexican cartel who they are selling guns to. Life in SAMCRO is a relentless blur of crime and brutal, primal violence.
The show is fantastic because it never lets up. The members of SAMCRO rarely deal with one calamity before another arises. Just to give a snapshot, in a fairly typical episode the Sons have violated bail (they are on a federal weapons charge for – mistakenly – charging into a church hall packed with families and brandishing automatic weapons). They have blackmailed an associate into getting them to Belfast illegally in his private plane. They are there to track down Jax’s infant son who has been kidnapped by the IRA because an ATF agent has framed Jax’s mum, Gemma, for the murder of an IRA member. This was possible because Gemma was at the scene, murdering someone else in revenge for rape, that was in itself an attempt at blackmail. While the Sons are busy dodging bullets, beating up corrupt cops, and administering torture and revenge in Belfast, a former member of a rival MC has kidnapped Jax’s girlfriend back in California.
And this is how it goes. Deals, torture, violence, double-crossing, backstabbing, blackmail, gun fights, drive-bys, gory fist fights, murders, revenge. The Sons are forever in conflict with rival gangs and constantly trying to outwit the ATF, who know the extent of their criminal activity but are struggling to prove it. The politics are bewildering. One minute SAMCRO are trying to murder rival MC gang the Mayans, the next they are forming an alliance with them to crush another group or make a drugs deal. This is a fast, fast life.
Despite how extreme it appears, Sons of Anarchy does have some basis in reality. Kurt Sutter, creator of the show, did a lot of research on biker gangs. This year, the History Channel made a miniseries (Gangland Undercover) documenting the story of the real-life Vagos MC. The series is based on the book of an undercover ATF agent, Charles Falco. He recounts a similar lifestyle, and claims that Sons of Anarchy actually offers a romanticised view of it.
The level of risk and danger encountered by biker gangs is immense. Why would anyone live like this? From an evolutionary perspective, Sons of Anarchy is a very precise portrayal of the way in which men form coalitions based on strong bonds with one another (essentially, gangs). Exactly the same phenomena have been documented in chimpanzees. In their book Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson begin by describing how a group of chimpanzees in Gombe silently cross the border into the territory of a neighbouring group. They brutally murder a lone male and former friend, who had been eating alone in a tree.
Wrangham and Peterson claim this was the first time that humans had recorded lethal raiding in chimpanzees. It was a landmark moment because it was the beginning of the deconstruction of the myth of the peaceful chimpanzee. Prior to that, the roots of warfare and violence were largely thought to have arisen from human society and culture. The discovery of the same phenomena in our close relative, the chimpanzee, suggests that gang violence may have originated in our common ancestor, and that its origins are evolutionary rather than social or cultural. Wrangham and Peterson describe male chimpanzee groups quite literally as gangs who defend the territory of their group and raid neighbouring territories. The video below shows a lethal chimpanzee raid. It is easy to compare this with Sons of Anarchy.
After the first attack in Gombe, Wrangham and Peterson describe how the raids on lone males in the neighbouring group continued over a period of years, until all of them were dead. These were chimpanzees who had previously been friends before a group split. The winners expanded their territory, taking that which had belonged to their rivals, but a similar fate befell them as they were attacked by another group.
Defence of territory is essential for several reasons. The territory is a source of food, not just for the males, but for their females. The females also require protection from rival males, and therefore it is important that the territory is secure. This is achieved by border patrols and swift, powerful retaliation against any threat. Invading and conquering a neighbouring territory is not thought to result in an immediate increase in the number of female mates, but it is associated with greater reproductive success as a result of more sexual encounters with resident females, and it does provide the potential to eventually house more females. Thus, the acquisition and maintenance of territory by male-bonded groups is key to reproductive success.
The behaviour of the Sons of Anarchy follows a very similar pattern. SAMCRO see the town of Charming as belonging to them. The local Chief of Police, Wayne Unser, is in their pockets and does their bidding. In exchange, they keep Charming safe (well, in theory!). Rival gangs are not welcome and their presence at best results in a tense stand-off, and at worst, death. Any challenge to the club or its members is met immediately with violent retaliation. Jax sums it up when he says, “Someone hurts us like this, we retaliate – have to”. He knows that any sign of weakness will be quickly exploited by rivals and their hold on the town will be put in jeopardy. Likewise, any attempt by developers or investors to change the town is prevented by any means necessary, including dumping three dead (murdered) bodies on the site of a housing development. This ability to run the town means that SAMCRO can pursue their illegal enterprises and make money. Their status indicates to women that they have resources and the ability to protect. This means that they are easily able to attract high numbers of attractive mates.
In the very first episode, we see that Jax has many female admirers. The girl in the local shop flirts with him, we see his pregnant soon-to-be ex-wife, and we meet his long time love, Tara. In one episode, Jax suggests that he has had sex with over a thousand women. We frequently see the Sons lying unconscious after a heavy night, beautiful women sprawled across them. The reproductive benefits are clear. This is consistent with reports that sexual access to women is one of the primary reasons that men join gangs, and with research showing that gang membership is associated with higher numbers of sex partners, with gang leaders having the most partners of all. This shows that relative status within the group is also important, and I will explore that in Part 2.
It is not just gang membership in itself that provides reproductive benefits. Criminality may be part of an effective mating strategy. One study found that convicted criminals have more partners and more children. Criminality may be one means via which men can accrue status, which is attractive to women, despite protestations to the contrary. Paradoxically, although Jax’s girlfriend Tara desperately wants him to leave SAMCRO, his status in the club is undoubtedly the reason she is attracted to him.
In Part 2, I will explain how gangs such as SAMCRO engender strong bonds between group members, which allow the group to provide fitness benefits for individuals, the importance of symbols such as clothes, patches and tattoos, and the status struggles which occur between group members. I will also explain why some young men are more likely to choose gang membership, and I will use Sons of Anarchy as an example of how the benefits of gang membership may decline with age.