In two recent posts I enquired about the cause of human cruelty and violence. Now fellow Canadian blogger abuddhas memes points to a possible answer in an article by neuropsychologist James Prescott: a combination of neglect or abuse in early childhood and pre-marital sexual repression.

The article studies many different human cultures and correlates proclivity for violence with a host of environmental factors, and these two seem to account overwhelmingly for the (in my view) aberrant behaviour that perverts our whole society. It suggests that societies that show great physical and emotional affection for their young, and don’t ban sexual expression from adolescence to young adulthood, tend to be virtually violence-free. In the whole nature-versus-nurture debate, Prescott seems to be suggesting that nurture is the root cause of violence, and that we are all born innocent but can be perverted either directly by one of these deprivations in our own childhood or secondarily corrupted by having the violence of one of these depraved individuals inflicted upon us. In other words, violence stems from childhood deprivation and then begets more violence in adulthood.

I have some reservations about the study, which goes on to present some fairly strident and unsupported conclusions, but let’s assume for a moment that the basic thesis, which seems to have some credible empirical support, is valid. What would Darwin have to say about all this? While the article suggests that this violence is counter-Darwinian, I think it misses a critical point. There are, on the surface, two Darwinian ways of looking at the above correlations, both of them suspect:

  1. Ferocity increases the likelihood of survival, so our 30,000-year-old violent Western culture, perhaps rooted in salvationist religions that (a) encourage ‘eye-for-an-eye’ violence, (b) prohibit premarital sex, (c) encourage stern disciplinary treatment of children, and (d) tolerate substantial and prolonged separation of children from their parents as a means of ‘teaching independence’, is successful because it is violent. Non-salvationist cultures, which are ‘by nature’ peaceful, just can’t compete. This seems to me completely counter-intuitive, since, as a look at Western history and current events indicates, this violence breeds war, ethnic hatred, and retaliatory violence that threatens our survival, rather than advancing it. You might argue that what is in our survival interest in the short term (violence) is not in our survival interest in the longer term (self-annihilation), and that therefore Darwinian ‘rules’ are imperfect. But given the remarkable sustainability of evolution for tens of millions of years, such a massive flaw in the rules seems highly improbable.
  2. Human violence is a survival response to violence in nature. Hence survival of the fittest becomes survival of the most violent. This frightened view of nature implies that nature is itself violent, brutish, and destructive, and that humans had no alternative but to fight force with force, violence with violence. The problem with this view is that there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support it.

However, if we reverse cause and effect, and see the violence and its behavioural causes as a response to critical environmental stress, the logic is more tenable and both the end-state and some possible solutions become evident. The prevailing view of nature is that it is profligate, wasteful, and relies on checks and balances to counteract the ‘natural’ instinct to breed and expand and eliminate other species without limit. But there is another view that is, while more recent, more sensible and more consistent with the geological and biological evidence. This alternate view is called the ‘Gaia hypothesis‘ and posits that the Earth is, like the body of any living creature, a single self-regulating organism, and, just as the body’s organs work to sustain the health and integrity of the whole body, Earth’s ecosystems work to sustain the health and integrity of our planet.

Under this hypothesis, regulation of the ecosystems is not attained by introducing counter-balancing forces (like epidemics), which would tend to lead to wild whip-sawing changes and disequilibria of life on Earth, but rather by self-regulation. Indeed, studies of many animals and birds have indicated that as population in a particular community increases, fertility drops. Perhaps this is a stress reaction, perhaps it is an ‘instinctive’ reaction (analagous to the ‘knowledge’ of the body’s organs when to stop growing), or perhaps there is a ‘program’ at work that we haven’t yet learned to recognize that sends the overpopulated species a biochemical signal to cut back procreation. Whatever the cause, perhaps our human culture’s reduction in population growth rate in the last century in many countries is a manifestation of the same self-regulatory impulse, rather than a conscious decision or outcome of improved birth control. If so, it is too little, too late to achieve anything like equilibrium.

What happens in nature when the natural checks and balances and self-regulation fail? There must be another mechanism short of ecological upheaval, since nature is constantly evolving new mutations and testing their viability and hence challenging the entire Gaia equilibrium. A student of the University of Colorado named Eli Meier cites a study by “Hall, 1969” (if anyone can find more info on this, please let me know) which says that in addition to reducing procreation and fertility, overcrowded rats exhibit these six anti-social behaviours (emphasis mine):

  1. a minority display aggressively dominant behavior
  2. passive males avoid both fighting and sex
  3. hyperactive subordinates rape females and eat or kill children
  4. pan-sexual males will have sex with both males and females
  5. some males withdraw from sexual and social intercourse and are active when others sleep
  6. female rats generally react by acting absent minded, having disorganized nests, and by either eating or neglecting their children

The impact of this psychotic behaviour on young rats sounds to me awfully similar to Prescott’s ‘childhood deprivation’. It’s certainly an effective way to put population control in ‘overdrive’ when the overcrowding is extreme. And yes, it seems cruel, but perhaps it is less so than the suffering that would otherwise occur through starvation, and disruption of the entire ecosystem of which the overpopulated group is a part. And because of the trauma inflicted on the children, this internal violence has a ‘memory’: it will endure at least a generation or two, continuing to suppress procreation, perhaps just to ensure the extreme overpopulation doesn’t recur.

At any rate, the six psychotic behaviours listed above sound frighteningly like the human behaviours that are in evidence everywhere on our planet, especially in areas where human overcrowding is most extreme.

What emerges from all of this is a compound hypothesis that I’ll dub the “Self-Imposed Population Control Hypothesis”. And it is:

  1. Communities/species that are moderately out of ecological balance instinctively and temporarily reduce their population
  2. Communities/species that are severely out of ecological balance reduce their population and also exhibit psychotic behaviours (violence, rape, cruelty, bullying, greed, depression, suicide, megalomania) that accelerate, and draw out the period of, population reduction
  3. These two self-imposed population control mechanisms are Darwinian, helping to restore balance with the minimum amount of disruption to the rest of the ecosystem, and the mimumum extent of suffering
  4. A combination of human technologies introduced in the last 30 millennia has defeated the effectiveness of these mechanisms, perpetuating and institutionalizing the psychotic, violent behaviour that has made modern human society dysfunctional, mentally disordered, and brutal

Well, it’s just a hypothesis, but it makes more sense to me than any other explanation I’ve heard, rational, psychological, religious, scientific, social or moral, for the epidemic of human violence in our society. And the list of six anti-social behaviours above seems to perfectly describe the actions of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Perle and the whole psycho gang in the White House.

What’s troubling is that there doesn’t seem to be any human answer, now that we’ve irreparably screwed up these mechanisms. I don’t think we’ll be saved by gods or aliens, and I don’t believe we’ll wake up and find out this is all a bad dream. Deus ex machina, anyone?

P.S. Thanks to Rob Paterson for his advance thoughts on this article.

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  1. judith says:

    i am pretty sure that the “Hall, 1969” citation would be Edward Twitchell Hall’s “The Hidden Dimension”, a book i am sure you would like to have in your library dave, here it is on amazon:

  2. Philip says:

    I doubt that GWya et al fit the profile of abused underpriviliged children who are psychotic as a result. Their misadventures are pure human nature. Greed.We can take care of these idiots at the ballot box (hopefully).30,000 years of Western Culture? Are we including Atlantis here <smile>? As you say I will take the rest of the sociology/anthropolog/psychology offline as there is just too much here at odds with my own understanding.The industrial revolution is a huge change for the human race. It cannot be managed by any single individual, government, or school of thought. It has a tremendous price to pay but it also has returned tremendous dividends (not the least of which is this wonderful means of communication). It’s a haphazard journey we are our own guides.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Judith: Thank you! I hoped someone would be able to solve the mystery of who “Hall, 1969” was/is. Some things you just can’t find with Google. “Proxemics”, eh? The science of psychological space. Veeeery interesting…Philip: There’s more than one way to abuse a child. I wonder whether because of their conservative/reserved/dictatorial upbringing, the Bush Gang might be psychologically neglected. The parents of Dubya don’t seem to me to be the type that would show much physical affection for their children. And I think it’s possible that Dad might have spanked, berated or isolated a none-too-bright underachiever and notorious brat in his youth. If I’d been brought up by Bush I, I think I’d have been warped. As for the rest of the gang, I think it’s very conceivable that they were neglected, ignored, bullied, berated, browbeaten as children. They all have that kind of hollow, distant, unengaged look that never really connects with anyone or anything.

  4. Stentor says:

    30,000 years of Western Culture? Are we including Atlantis here <smile>? Well, it all depends on where you draw the line. No culture has ever started entirely from scratch, so all cultures have continuity with something before them, all the way back until “culture” gets lost in animals’ instinct.

  5. Paul Siegel says:

    The big divide is between competitive and cooperative behavior. Conservative Republicans, ruled by fear, are super-competitive. Liberal Democrats, ruled by hope, are a little more cooperative. They think more of community.Two points I make in my book, We Don’t Agree, But… How to Live in an Age of Terrorism:1 – Darwin is being maligned. He did not speak of the “survival of the competitor” but “survival of the fittest.” The “fittest” are those who learn to cooperate.2 – Cooperation is decidedly more beneficial to you and to society as a whole in the long run than competition. Competition leads to terrorism and cooperation leads to harmony.

  6. Mike says:

    Call me ignorant, but I have difficulties in general with population-reduction based scenarios. I note dryly that I’ve never met a pop reduction proponent who did the quick and easy thing to reduce population. The green paradise line in the forecast graphic seems very tempting as resources once used by billions are now available to only millions, indeed, in the old SimEarth game I noticed how overheating the planet and boiling off the oceans invariably increased the happiness of the (very few) survivors. Where the chart is green I see green goo; mass coerced sterilization isn’t gonna cause that paradise line itself, a few thousand neutron bombs would sure help, eh?Without kids, all that energy would feed back into itself; a planetful of unprocreative near-immortals combining delusions of godhood with debasing of actual life smacks of something even a machine society would abhor.I’m all for reducing population *on earth* and making of it a garden, but let’s do it via space colonization and let that total human pop line continue to soar. We may have the same problem in some billions of years; the solution might come from tales like Greg Egan’s _Disaspora_ or even Bear’s _Blood Music_.As I said, I’m ignorant, but show me a pop reduction scenario that supports life, allows for change and growth, and enhances freedom. Without some singularity transform and/or space colonization, it seems more likely all such will be crypto-fascist in nature…

  7. Raging Bee says:

    I second Mike’s emotion: let’s hear it for exploration, expansion, and colonization! The more people living off-Earth, the more opportunities to use off-Earth raw materials in off-Earth industries, and thus reduce the burden on Earth’s ecosystem. Also, new colonies in new places means more chances to experiment with new social, political and economic institutions and practices.Dave P.: I’d be careful about questioning the mental health of politicians we don’t like. It’s an easy way to avoid necessary public discussion, and it’s way too similar to the old Soviet practice of locking up dissidents in “mental hospitals” run – or at least infiltrated – by the KGB.

  8. Raging Bee says:

    Besides, if we do it to them, what’s to stop them from doing it to us? They have the power to do it, you know.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Stentor: I’m referring to the start of agriculture as the start of ‘Western’ culture. I should have been more precise and said ‘post hunter-gatherer culture’.Paul: Makes a lot of sense to me. Mike: Both the science and the science fiction writers agree that space travel won’t be the deus ex machina that will get us out of this mess. And I agree with you that we need to find a non-coercive solution. Coercive solutions would almost certainly make the situation worse. When I said ‘I don’t see any human answer’, that’s what I meant. Dave the PTW: I question the mental health of all politicians, not just the ones I don’t like. It may be easy to criticize them, but the fact so many of us do it almost instinctively suggests to me that there may be something to it. Kurt Vonnegut has written about this, with more scientific backup based on work by Cleckley. See this post for more on that.

  10. Raging Bee says:

    “It may be easy to criticize [politicians], but the fact so many of us do it almost instinctively suggests to me that there may be something to it.”It may also suggest that people find complaining easier than working or sacrificing for the common good, or questioning their own preconceptions or priorities. When something goes wrong, everyone’s first instinct is to complain, then try to find someone else to blame. And since no serious policy is ever totally painless, someone will always have cause for complaint.People generally behave responsibly, if given the chance, but not 24/7, and not without grumbling.

  11. Mike says:

    Dave Pollard: Unfortunately I quite agree with you about space travel.It would be terrible indeed if the ‘Great Filter’ is something as seemingly trivial as just learning to get along in an approaching era where the possibilties for destruction seem to overwhelm those for creation.I can imagine space colonization being nothing like the typical scifi scenario, for example, humans crammed like sardines into towed barges for a long miserable trip to Mars, and then, after inflating large balloons, crash-landed on the surface. Even with only a partial chance of survival I can see the possibility of us becomming that desperate.Nonetheless, although I can’t think of a ‘human answer’, at least not one that arrives in time, one can have hope in our apparent ability to deal with adversity and survive to this point. Maybe it’ll come in the form of a few billion boat people. Too bad it seems we’ve endangered the food in the oceans thru overfishing.If you might consider emailing me offline I have a question for you. Thanks.

  12. I’m also all for colonizing space – *that* is the future of humanity, unfortunately I feel that the “right” would tend to think that it’d cost way to many taxes and the “left” would think that the money would be better spend on keeping children from starving in Kirzigistan. OK it’s extra simplified, just a short review of the impressions I got from people around me in France.The problem about space is that it won’t be likely to relieve population, since I’d imagine the people travelling would be quite small. (though hmmm … the crash land on Mars thing seems almost plausible). But it may have the good effect of relieving the demand on raw materials and allow to do some highly polluting industries somewhere where nobody gives a fuck.

  13. Raging Bee says:

    Emile: the population-relief benefits, if any, won’t come for a long time. In the foreseeable future, most of the emigration will be by people who are well enough off to afford it themselves, or who are needed as part of a large-scale program. After they start building large, expandable and reasonably pleasant habitations, then the large-scale emigration by people with no choice will begin.

  14. DavidByron says:

    The killing of offspring is usually related to the problem of paternity. That is to say, when a new male partner arrives, it makes little sense for their genes to work for the genes of a prior father. So it is in the interest of the mother and the new father to eliminate the old offspring and start from scratch. Now that applies to animals that tend to have long term partners of course.It’s controversial but there’s socio-biological evidence that this happens with humans too. Child abuse increases a great deal whenever there is an unrelated male in place of the natural father. Some studies say it’s 100x. Sometimes this abuse is the new male and sometimes the mother. The violence is least likely in households where the natural father is present (apparently holds even after trying to control for things like economic / social status).

  15. Interesting post and interesting comments. The Hall (1969) reference triggered for me this memory from 25 years or so back watching this segment on overcrowding on “60 Minutes” when I was a child. Part of the segment focused on “Ratopolis” — an experimental environment in which the rat population was allowed to explode, leading to overcrowding, and the behaviors that you describe. I like the way you turn the flow of causality on its head. As a social psychologist with interests in human aggression I tend to look at the more proximal causes of aggressive behavior (variables such as provocation, media violence, etc.). What your post reminds me is that these causes in turn occur in a much larger context (for lack of a better way of wording it these proximal causes have meta-causes such as overcrowding). Thought-provoking stuff.

  16. Norma says:

    It seems to me that the root cause of violence is fear, coupled with the idea that violence will solve the problem and empower the person who resorts to it. Remember the old Chinese proverb that the first to raise one’s voice, loses? This shows that we begin to become angry when we think we’re at a loss and when we become angry, we’re most likely to resort to verbal violence.People who know their own power are not fearful and have no need to use force.The idea that violence solves anything is false. At best, it provides a short-term resolution, followed by numerous long-term problems.Look at the problems that the violence of war generates: the vanquished are angry and humiliated, detrmined to become the vanquisher. Those who vanquish become psychologically damaged with post-traumatic stress disorder, among other maladies.Or so I believe.

  17. Interesting article. I tried to develop the ideas even further in my post: thing to remember is that it is silly to point the finger at one thing that is the cause of society’s problems. Whether it is fear or overpopulation, etc. Our society trained us to be convergent thinkers, so it is easier for us to fixate on one thing and hope it will solve everything. The truth is that there are numerous contributors to the current state of society. Sometimes, when we find the cause of the problem, it may actually be not a cause but a result of some even deeper problem.

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