Are Humans Violent By Nature?

bonobos2When several readers suggested I read Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate for a different perspective on human nature and violence, I was glad to oblige. When I discovered that Pinker is a psychology professor, I should have realized I would find the book annoying, and I did. It’s massive and muddle-headed, and full of some truly bizarre rants. If you’re looking for a good book on ‘nature versus nurture’, there are much better choices.

Hobbes made Pinker’s point on human violence four centuries earlier: He argued that humans, like one of our two closest ancestors, the chimpanzees, are inherently violent, for three (later to be recognized as Darwinian) reasons: competition, fear, and reputation, and that it has always been so. The argument is that:

  • Resources are always scarce, and the strongest will survive by hoarding a larger share, using violence when necessary.
  • The best Darwinian defense is a good offense, and tribes that preemptively slaughter their neighbours will avoid being slaughtered themselves (and get some extra land and slaves in the process).
  • Females like the most successful males as mates, and violence is as good a way as any to achieve that successful ‘edge’.

There is great debate about whether prehistoric humans were violent, or whether, as with most other animals, widespread human violence occurs only as a response to extreme scarcity that nature’s normal checks and balances have been unable to remedy, and in rare psychopathic individuals who (in natural environments anyway) usually eliminate each other from the gene pool. I’ve said before that I find the scientific arguments that violence is a stress-reaction quite compelling and well supported, and the myth that early humans lived nasty, brutish and short lives to have been convincingly refuted.

But in addition to the Hobbesian arguments, we often hear that today’s remaining indigenous peoples live incredibly violent lives, that many aboriginal peoples throughout history kept other humans as slaves, and that many treated other animals, especially the large mammals hunted to extinction, with thoughtless savagery, not reverence. And while the bonobos, our matriarchal free-loving cousins, appear to live peaceful lives, our other cousins, the male-bonding chimpanzees, have quite a penchant for violence, and are likely to survive after the bonobos have been rendered extinct by human slaughter and encroachment. My belief in the inherent ‘goodness’, or at least peacefulness, of the human species is therefore not entirely intact.

That belief is based on the illogic of murder and violence as a means of successful survival. Except for rare periods of climatic peace and warmth (like the last 5,000 years — the warmest and stablest in the planet’s history, to the best of our knowledge), our often-inhospitable planet keeps throwing curve balls at life all across its thin, fragile biosphere. We living creatures have usually needed to focus our attention on surviving ice ages, meteor strikes and volcanic holocausts — the history of life on Earth is riddled with extinction events. It therefore makes Darwinian sense that we — all life on Earth — would pull together, and success for each of us would depend on the success of the whole. We are all biophiliacs — we intuitively love every precious life that struggles with us to survive. This has nothing to do with morality: The principles of evolution would suggest that a highly diverse, interdependent and mutually supporting biosphere would survive better than a melee of competitive creatures constantly fighting each other to the death. We’ve had hundreds of millions of years to ‘learn’ this.

In periods of great stress, however, as biologists have confirmed, these peaceful, cooperative rules give way to an often-violent culling of the weakest members of the community to conserve resources for the strongest to hunker down, without upsetting the balance of the rest of the ecosystem. This, too, is a ‘learned’ behaviour of the global life organism — we behave that way because it’s been proven to work best — to optimize the health of life collectively on our planet.

One of the arguments made for human male violence is that you don’t need as many males as females to optimize the health of a human community, and that if strong males kill off weaker males and keep harems (as is allegedly done in some chimp communities), that will make the community as a whole more successful. I think this is preposterous — if that were so, we would have evolved to produce more female babies than males, to make the killing unnecessary.

I don’t understand why psychologists and sociologists have this need to come up with a complicated explanation for human violence that vindicates our pathetic ways of dealing with it — executing and locking up the perpetrators and other expensive, devastating and ineffectual deterrent laws, that no other animal species has any need to introduce, when it seems obvious that what is driving it is our grossly excessive and unsustainable human population and wasteful and extravagant overconsumption of increasingly scarce resources — billions of needlessly struggling souls crowded into unnaturally small areas, totally dependent on others for their survival, angry, helpless, stressed-out, humiliated, living lives of political and wage slavery, reduced to mere consumers of crappy, unhealthy products. Even the students of chimpanzees have admitted that if chimps were jammed into spaces and living conditions like those of our human civilization, they would quickly slaughter each other to extinction.

But I guess if we were to acknowledge this, we’d have to admit that our species isn’t really that special after all, and that we are so invested in the one, fragile, teetering civilization culture left on this planet that we wouldn’t know where to begin to dismantle it and replace it with asociety that is workable, sustainable — and relatively violence-free.

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9 Responses to Are Humans Violent By Nature?

  1. FishEpid says:

    Dave wrote: “If you’re looking for a good book on ‘nature versus nurture’, there are much better choices.”Such as? Tnx.

  2. Great post. I agree much of this has to do with crowding.

  3. Rayne says:

    Dave, it’s a matrix of reasons why humans are the way they are. Ditto for the rest of the animal and plant worlds. It would be so easier to think it was one set of absolute either-ors or another to which we could attribute our behavior, but frankly, that wouldn’t be sufficient to hedge our bets. Were we also to look at all behavior as celluar automata (scripts or programs) running in the hundreds of thousands or millionth iteration, the output appears quite random — like violence that is unexplained by any external or internal motivation. I buy the concept of crowding contributing to some violence, but violence appeared in even the most uncrowded of cultures (like human sacrifies among Pacific Islanders a millenia or two ago). I think we’re at a point where we must evolve and embrace post-humanity; we don’t have to be violent humans any longer, do we, if we are now capable of building our own operating system?

  4. cindy says:

    Would you agree that we copy voilent? For example all those violent movies we are provided on TV and movie houses? The recent cartoon incidents that spread all over the world? What if there is no TV, no internet, no mobile phones that can take pictures, no faxes … would they (the middle east region especially) know about the cartoons to start with? Secondly I think the resulted street violence spread because of copy-cat of what they saw on TV? 15 years ago before I left for the US, NL was a peaceful nation. There hardly a murdered case. These days murdered is no longer news. We have them almost every week (holland is small and only with 16 millions inhabitants). These past 2,3 years there were so many cases of fatal child abuse or husband/wife killed the kids and spouse then committed suicide. I don’t think these people suddenly became so brave, neither is because of crowding. I am more of the opinion that they copy what they saw on TV soap or news.

  5. Alice says:

    We always compare humans to chimpanzees as if they are the only ape relative we may have, sometimes it feels that we enjoy associating with them because we need to feel that our violence is somehow justified in its existence prior to us in evolution. We study their violent nature as some sort of proof we too are animals and that our kindness is an element of our evolutionary superiority, our ‘humanity’ not our ‘animality’. Constantly looking at the violent nature of our society seems like a rational for our own violent feelings and behaviours instead of accepting that we too are compassionate and focusing on our potential for kindness and our ability to influence our future human evolutionary tract in a more positive direction. In the past couple of years there has been a welcome surge of writings on the Bonobo chimpanzee and it is noted that not only do we share genes with them they are also known for there matriarcal societies, sex positive behaviour and gift societies. It feels that we will take any excuse to remain in ignorance rather than accepting change and take responsibility for the choices we make.

  6. medaille says:

    How can humans be violent by nature if I’m not violent by nature?

  7. Jack Yan says:

    In the words of the great philosopher, poet and artist, Benny Hill:

  8. dave says:

    Dave,Why don’t you just admit that Pinker destroyed your world view (he’s got a table of pre-modern violence that shows primitive humans were brutal and violent to a degree that killed a much larger % than modern societies) and that wasn’t even a study done by him! You should just admit that he’s smarter than you, he’s done more research than you and that your worldview is devastated by his book. The fact that it took you this many years to address him and that you simply rejected him is evidence that you don’t know how and cannot refute him. OWNED.

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