Chimpanzee Riding On A Harley: Sons Of Anarchy And Male-Bonded Coalitions of Violence (Part 2)

In Part 1, I explained how gangs like the motorcycle club in Sons of Anarchy (SAMCRO) have clear parallels in our closest relatives, chimpanzees. They also form male-bonded groups who defend territory and raid the territories of rivals. Territory provides resources and access to females, and the same benefits of gang membership are evident in Sons of Anarchy. Status within the group is also important, because high status is attractive. In this post, I will use SAMCRO to explain how gangs engender and strengthen bonds between men to increase the fitness of their members, but I will also consider the status struggles that occur within gangs. I will also explore why gang membership might be more attractive to some men than others, and why the benefits may decrease as men get older.

SAMCRO is held together by extremely strong bonds between its members, to the extent that it comes before anything else in their lives. Chimpanzee groups are often formed around kin relationships. Likewise, there are kin bonds in SAMCRO, as sons follow in their father’s footsteps. Jax and Opie were born into the club their fathers formed. We see both Jax and Clay putting Sons of Anarchy hats onto the heads of Jax’s baby sons, essentially baptising them into SAMCRO. You will probably have witnessed the same behaviour in football fans. Have you noticed new parents posting photos of their newborns on facebook, wearing the football shirt of their chosen club? When there are not kin bonds in SAMCRO, pseudo kin bonds are invoked in order to strengthen the ties. Note how the Sons constantly refer to each other as “brother” and “son”.

Clothes and symbols (such as tattoos and patches) are important in reinforcing and maintaining group bonds. The members of SAMCRO are very rarely seen without a SAMCRO branded gilet, hoodie, jacket or t-shirt; they wear this ‘uniform’ at all times. They all have identical Sons of Anarchy tattoos across their backs. Patches indicate the charter to which they belong (e.g. Redwood Original). The uniform and patches are sacred and serve to enhance group identity and to signal membership of the group to others. Anyone found to be a traitor or defector is immediately stripped of these symbols and must have the tattoo removed or blacked out. Membership of many groups is signalled through similar means. The parallels with Cubs, Scouts, and football teams are clear.

Individuals cooperate with their groups because being a member provides fitness benefits, for example, by allowing them to acquire territory and status more effectively than they could alone. But often occasions will arise when an individual can benefit from a behaviour that is detrimental to the group as a whole. However, to function effectively, the interests of the whole group must come before the interests of any individual member. This is largely achieved by instilling the belief that commitment to the group is paramount, and by ensuring that any violations are met with extreme punishment. For most of the members of SAMCRO, their commitment to the club comes before anything else. Given their criminal activity, the success on the club depends on trust, and the worst thing anyone can ever be is a rat. However, success is frequently threatened by circumstances which force individual members to choose between their own best interests and the interests of the club. These conflicts of interest result in suspicion which leads to extreme consequences for Opie following Clay’s mistaken belief that he had betrayed the club. We also see some genuine betrayals. Punishment is usually delivered without hesitation or second thought, and it is harsh. One former member landed Opie in jail due to his cowardice. After expulsion, he was found to still have the Sons of Anarchy tattoo on his back. He had a choice: have it removed by knife or fire. He chose fire and the resulting scene was horrific. But his punishment was perhaps relatively lenient as betrayal is often punishable by death.

Such behaviour seems extreme, but it helps to ensure commitment. One of the key conflicts between individual interests concerns status within the group. Just like male-bonded groups of chimpanzees, SAMCRO has a status hierarchy. This is signalled through patches, which indicate for example, the President, Vice President, Sergeant at Arms (responsible for security and guarding the President), and ‘First 9’ (a badge worn only by the nine founding members). Prospects have the lowest status and are not permitted to wear the symbols of membership. They wear only a plain black gilet with the ‘Prospect’ patch. There are patches which recognise the extent of commitment to the group and they enhance status. The ‘Men of Mayhem’ patch, for example, is worn by members who have been recognised as going beyond the call of duty (usually by murderous means) and the ‘Unholy Ones’ patch is worn by members who have shown they will fight to their last breath for the club.

As President in the early seasons, Clay is the alpha male. He struts around like a male silverback gorilla, and he has the privileges that accompany this status. He has the most influence over the direction of the club, and he has first choice of women. In one episode, he humiliates Half Sack by insisting that the girl Half Sack genuinely loves takes him to bed instead (this is punishment because he once overheard Half Sack referring to his own wife as a MILF).

As I mentioned in Part 1, higher status within the group is associated with greater reproductive success and also greater control of resources, so lower status members are motivated to challenge higher status members. And as alpha males get old and begin to lose their grip (as happens quite literally to Clay, who struggles to ride with his arthritic hands) they do face challenges. There is a lot of acrimony between Clay and Jax, largely because Jax wants to run SAMCRO. Although Jax believes his motives for challenging Clay are more about the philosophy of the club (and there is some truth to this), Opie also calls it correctly when he says to Jax: “It’s about you pushing to be king. You gotta back down, get in line”. But Jax finds it hard to back down, and there are brutal fights as he challenges Clay.

The complexities of the status hierarchy extend beyond the alpha male and his younger challenger. Each has their allies, and some of the allies also have their own ambitions. Sometimes the conflicts are so great that SAMCRO seems at risk of imploding, something Bobby seems to worry about a lot. Status differences are marked in relation to the Prospects. Prospects are typically young men who desperately want to be full members, but they usually face at least a year of proving themselves before this can occur. Initiation into the group involves hazing, which includes humiliation, performing degrading tasks and accepting abuse. One study suggests that more severe group initiation processes result in group members valuing membership more highly. Hazing also serves as a means of testing the commitment of the Prospects to the group before full membership is conferred. Although Half Sack is given degrading tasks and is the butt of many jokes, for the most part, the hazing is good humoured (with the exception noted above where Clay has sex with the girl who Half Sack loves). We get the sense that he is almost part of the group and may have already proven himself. In season 2, the members seem inclined to patch him. However, in later seasons we see some far more serious tests of new Prospects. In one episode, two Prospects have to put a gun (loaded only with one round) to their heads and pull the trigger to prove that they did not steal cocaine. For the Prospects, the benefits of belonging to SAMCRO clearly outweigh the risks.

You may wonder why some men would choose to become part of a gang whilst many do not. If there are reproductive benefits, why don’t all men seek gang membership? The ultimate reason is that sexual selection has resulted in the evolution of more than one successful mating strategy. However, the strategy adopted by a particular man will depend to some extent on environmental circumstances. Harsh and unpredictable environments favour what is referred to as a fast life history strategy, characterised by early and rapid reproduction, often with multiple partners. Because survival prospects may be limited in such environments, it is adaptive to produce as many offspring as possible early in life. When many offspring are produced, investment in each is limited, but it is likely that some will survive. Fast strategies are associated with high levels of risk as men compete to acquire status, which allows them to attract mates. The routes to high status in such environments are typically dangerous as they involve crime and fighting. In more affluent environments, men can pursue status by safer means, such as success in education and career. But as Jax notes when contemplating leaving SAMCRO, he has no skills, no means of making money other than the club. This is his only route to status and resources. And this is precisely why gangs are most likely to form in areas of socioeconomic deprivation.

The axiom ‘live fast, die young’ accurately sums up the potential consequences of a fast life history strategy. In almost every episode of Sons of Anarchy, there are violent deaths. Choosing gang life means that chances of surviving to old age are severely diminished. For those who do survive, their minds and bodies are often broken. In one notable scene, we witness a meeting between incarcerated SAMCRO member Otto and another old player called Lenny the Pimp. Otto is psychologically disturbed. His wife has been murdered while he has been in jail, and he is almost blind as a result of multiple attacks related to his membership of SAMCRO. Lenny is wheeled into the meeting in a wheelchair, and has to cover a tracheotomy with his hand in order to speak. These men appear to have nothing left, and it gets worse still for Otto.

Whilst a fast life history strategy can be adaptive in youth, once a man has reproduced perhaps several times and continues to survive, switching to a slower strategy can be beneficial as it reduces risk and means investment can be directed towards existing offspring to ensure their reproductive success. But this means leaving gang life. The typical gang career typically lasts less than two years, so it is clearly a short term affair for many. For both Jax and Opie, there soon comes a point when they are forced to choose between continuing in the club, and their wives and families. This is a difficult decision because remaining in SAMCRO may lead to higher levels of reproduction overall, but the cost may be the loss of guaranteed reproductive access to a committed long-term partner, and the ability to offer protection and investment to current offspring. Jax and Opie are tortured by the incompatibility of their loyalty to the club (which represents the evolved urge to philander) and their love of their families (which represents the evolved urge to provide and protect).
It is clear that remaining in SAMCRO is incompatible with having a wife and children. Almost all of the middle-aged and older members are estranged from their wives and families because of their commitment to the club, and the younger members know that this will happen to them too if they stay. From the point of view of a long-term female partner, continued commitment to SAMCRO really signals infidelity because SAMCRO provides access to porn stars, prostitutes and other young, attractive women, and membership of the club means that it comes before everything else. So although women may initially be attracted to high status gang members, they rarely want them to remain in their gangs.

Sons of Anarchy is surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of the challenges faced by young men of relatively low status in achieving reproductive success. It demonstrates how, just like chimpanzees, they form highly bonded groups which allow them to acquire status and consequently, reproductive success. Gang culture is often viewed as a symptom of a sick society. This view is misleading. It is actually a product of evolved male psychology and is adaptive in certain circumstances. If we want to solve the problems caused by gang violence, we first need to understand that the origins of gang culture lie not in human society, but in our evolutionary history. However, whether gang membership is the chosen means to reproductive success does depend to a large extent on environment, but understanding why particular environments are likely to favour gang membership requires this evolutionary approach. One investor tells SAMCRO, “I’m afraid the twenty-first century has come to Charming”. Unfortunately he doesn’t realise that ancient adaptations for reproductive success still have a powerful influence on human behaviour.

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