Getting away with murder requires a great deal of sinister scheming, malicious machination and odious organization, but new research suggests that serial killers may also rely on pure instinct when committing their crimes. Appearing in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, the study indicates that the different methods used by male and female serial killers could represent redundant evolutionary behaviors that stem from our hunter-gatherer past.
More specifically, the researchers note that male serial killers tend to “hunt” their victims, roaming far from their homes to stalk and eventually annihilate strangers, while female mass murderers prefer to “gather” resources by killing those close to them for financial gain.
While most of us now prefer to microwave our dinner rather than hunt it, the fact remains that for the vast majority of human history, ambushing animals and plucking plants was essential to our survival. Marissa Harrison from Penn State Harrisburg, who co-authored the paper, said in a statement that “historically, men hunted animals as prey and women gathered nearby resources, like grains and plants, for food. As an evolutionary psychologist, I wondered if something left over from these old roles could be affecting how male and female serial killers choose their victims.”
Harrison and her colleagues used media sources to collate data on 55 male serial killers and 55 female serial killers who committed their crimes in the US between 1856 and 2009. Results showed that just two of the femme fatales chose to stalk their victims, compared to two-thirds of the male murderers.
Furthermore, men tended to kill victims over a relatively large area, which the authors say is “reminiscent of the geographic dispersion needed for hunting,” while almost all of the women killed people they knew and were six times more likely to murder a relative.
Females were also three times more likely to kill for profit, suggesting that they “seem to be gathering resources as a result of their killings,” while male murderers were 10 times more likely to have a sexual motive.
According to the researchers, many of these male killers appear to be engaging in “an aberrant form of mate-seeking,” given that killing a mate prevents the passing on of genes. Yet in spite of this, they insist that “the pursuit of the victim follows evolved tendencies.”
They explain this by pointing out that in our ancestral environment, it made sense for men to seek as many mates as possible in order to disperse their abundant seed, while women were more concerned with securing resources for themselves and their offspring.
Fortunately, Harrison stresses that “evolution doesn't mean you're predetermined to do certain things or act a certain way,” which means we aren’t all destined to indulge our murderous inner hunter-gatherer. However, she says that understanding the evolutionary psychology of serial killers could help police to build a profile for a suspect when murders occur.