Are Humans Inherently Violent?

image: creative commons CC0 license from pixabay

Ask scientists the question about our inherent nature, and you will unearth a spectrum of answers, with most clustered at two poles: That we are inherently a violent, covetous, acquisitive and war-prone species, or that we have naturally evolved to coexist and collaborate with each other and with other creatures, and only engage in sustained acts of aggression in times of stress, crowding and scarcity.

We can never know, but you’ll probably not be surprised to hear that my research inclines me towards the second viewpoint.

Why then is history replete with endless stories of conquest and war? Partly this can be explained by the “headline news” phenomenon: That wars, bloody rituals and genocides are attention-grabbers, being sensational, and large in both scale and impact, so the history books dwell almost exclusively on them, and on the conquerors’ and defenders’ (usually inflated) hero-stories.

And partly it can be explained by the relative paucity of evidence of how humans actually lived for our first million years on earth, so all the evidence and conjecture is focused on what’s been unearthed about how we supposedly lived (and fought) during the last 10-30 millennia, just 1-3% of our species’ total history, a period which for many reasons may be completely unrepresentative of our behaviour for almost all of our “pre-civilized” history.

Scientists tend to presume, in the absence of anthropological evidence, that our apparent behaviour over the past 10 millennia must be our behaviour for 1000 millennia that preceded them, even though skeletal remains suggest that the further back we go in time the less indication there is of human-inflicted trauma.

There is abundant evidence that we were, for most of our history, vegans, consistent with our physiological lack of fangs, sharp claws, and speed, and that only after we invented killing technologies like arrowheads and spears, did we, probably of necessity as we expanded to areas where our natural diet was no longer available, begin to capture and kill other animals. Prior to that we simply did not have the means to injure and kill other humans at any scale, and, with low population density relative to resources, we didn’t have the motivation to do so, either.

It’s been suggested that our propensity for violence emerged at the time we began to domesticate ourselves ie to breed and train our children and communities to believe and obey what they are told. As I wrote about this a couple of years ago:

In his remarkable 1994 book Rogue Primate, the late Canadian naturalist John Livingston argued that humans have domesticated ourselves, possibly because our species appears to have all the qualities needed for easy domestication: docility and tractability, a pliable or weak will, susceptibility to dependence, insecurity, adaptability to different habitats, inclination to herd behaviour, tolerance of physical and psychological maltreatment, acceptance of habitat homogeneity, high fecundity, social immaturity, rapid physical growth, sexual precociousness, and poor natural attributes (lack of speed, strength, and sensory acuity). We share these qualities, he argued, with most of the creatures (and many plants) we have domesticated. The only difference is, we domesticated ourselves.

Domesticated creatures, he said, are by definition totally dependent on a prosthetic, disconnected, surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being. Such creatures see the world through this artificial prosthesis, instead of how it really is, and this self-domestication is what we call civilization.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that self-domestication is both a precondition and a motivator for organized violence. Once we’re docile, dependent, and disconnected from our true, wild nature, we become far more easily conditioned and malleable by the mostly-psychopathic “leaders” who have directed most of the conquests, wars, genocides, crusades and other large-scale violence that has characterized our species since settlement and civilization became our predominant culture.

Rutgers’ anthropologist R Brian Ferguson, who’s spent his career trying to uncover what’s behind our propensity for war, writes:

The preconditions that make war more likely include a shift to a more sedentary existence, a growing regional population, a concentration of valuable resources such as livestock, increasing social complexity and hierarchy, trade in high-value goods, and the establishment of group boundaries and collective identities. These conditions are sometimes combined with severe environmental changes. War at Jebel Sahaba, for one, may have been a response to an ecological crisis, as the Nile cut a gorge that eliminated productive marshlands, eventually leading to human abandonment of the area. Later, centuries after agriculture began, Neolithic Europe—to take one example—demonstrated that when people have more to fight over, their societies start to organize themselves in a manner that makes them more prepared to go ahead and embrace war…

Simple hunting and gathering characterized human societies during most of humanity’s existence… Broadly, these groups cooperate with one another and live in small, mobile, [peaceful] egalitarian bands, exploiting large areas with low population density and few possessions…

Warlike cultures… became common only over the past 10,000 years—and, in most places, much more recently than that. The high level of killing often reported in history, ethnography or later archaeology is contradicted in the earliest archaeological findings around the globe.

He concludes, based on decades of studying chimpanzees, which are often described as sharing our warlike proclivities:

I conclude that “war” among chimpanzees is not an evolved evolutionary strategy but an induced response to human disturbance. Case-by-case analyses shows that chimps, as a species, are not “killer apes.” This research calls into question as well the idea that any human tendency toward bellicosity might be driven by an ancient genetic legacy from a distant ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.

Of course, we cannot know. Without substantive evidence, we will be inclined to believe what we want to believe about inherent human nature, wherever that falls on the homo rapiens / peaceful-species spectrum.

So I am inclined to believe that it is recent self-domestication, and the commensurate disconnection from the rest of life on earth, that enabled the emergence of abstract language and other essential attributes of human “civilizations”, and hence the possibility of organized human violence, and that the subsequent explosion of population and exhaustion of resources has moved that possibility into a chronic certainty over the past 10-30 millennia.

And, of course, that at a personal level we have absolutely no choice about where our beliefs fall on this spectrum, or about how we feel or what we do about the predicament our species now finds itself in. As pacifists, warriors, soldiers, enablers and sympathizers, we’re all just doing our best, the only thing we can do.

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7 Responses to Are Humans Inherently Violent?

  1. Very impressive, a lot of buts there though. Many anthropologists romanticise the cooperative aspects of hunter-gatherer societies. But I note they are all warriors. In Tim Flannery’s ‘The Future Eaters’ he looks at the Maoris who landing on bounteous Aotearoa cooperated for centuries and he crunched the numbers re birthrate and carrying capacity of land and sea relating to the evolution of predatory clans, forever at war who arrived at a steady state thanks to murder and scarcity by the time Cook arrived and all without projectile technology.
    The ‘ogres’ were cannibals already in Europe when our predecessors arrived although they mightn’t have been eating each other and according to legend even the little hobbits on Flores were exterminated for predating children of us later arrivals. It’s all in the exponential mathematics of population growth and the moment technology bestows mastery of the environment there is only one thing standing between you, desirable mates and ‘ecologically sustainable growth’ and it’s the other guy.

  2. Really interesting. I remember a teaching from Sto:lo Elder Herb Joe in which he translated the halkomelem word for “person” as “poor weak human beings” which points at our lack of physical prowess when compared to other animals but he said that this lack means that we are built for learning. Learning is what we do better than or animal kin and in that respect it makes sense that our social history has been one largely based in collaboration and curiosity.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    George: Yes that’s true, except that if Jaynes’ Entanglement Hypothesis is correct it’s only in the past few thousand years that the human brain has been able to abstract the idea of “the other guy”.

    Chris: I’m looking forward to learning more of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (dialect of halkomelem) language spoken where I am now residing, in kʷikʷəƛ̓əm, the land of the red salmon. A language that lacks the artificial strictures of nouns, verbs and adjectives and which has no class-conscious upper case, has tremendous possibilities for understanding what we’ve never understood, and perhaps informing those of us who live constrained by our more impoverished languages. Though I am most taken by languages that lack gender (like Georgian kartuli) or lack possessives (like Welsh Gymraeg). I wonder though if we are really built for learning. We modern humans learn by creating models of reality which are absurd simplifications of what really is, and then trying to apply, and even live within, those models. I think there’s compelling evidence that our species is actually one of the worst at learning, with tragic results for the planet.

  4. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Humans Are Genetically Predisposed to Kill Each Other

    The rate of lethal violence is 7 times higher than the average for all mammals.

    ““Step back and view our species objectively from the outside, the way a zoologist would carefully observe any other animal, or see us the way every other creature perceives human beings. The brutal reality could not be more evident or more horrifying. We are the most relentless yet oblivious killers on Earth.

    “Our violence operates far outside the bounds of any other species. Human beings kill anything. Slaughter is a defining behavior of our species. We kill all other creatures, and we kill our own. Read today’s paper. Read yesterday’s, or read tomorrow’s. The enormous industry of print and broadcast journalism serves predominantly to document our killing. Violence exists in the animal world, of course, but on a far different scale. Carnivores kill for food; we kill our family members, our children, our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our cousins and in-laws. We kill strangers. We kill people who are different from us, in appearance, beliefs, race, and social status. We kill ourselves in suicide. We kill for advantage and for revenge, we kill for entertainment: the Roman Coliseum, drive-by shootings, bullfights, hunting and fishing, animal roadkill in an instantaneous reflex for sport. We kill friends, rivals, coworkers, and classmates. Children kill children, in school and on the playground. Grandparents, parents, fathers, mothers–all kill and all of them are the targets of killing…” — R. Douglas Fields, Why We Snap, p. 286, 2016.”

    The claims humans were once vegans (until Eve plucked the fruit?) are bunk – ideology.
    Humans are omnivores & scavengers & sometimes, the worst of times, cannibals. How many of us alive today are alive because our ancestors, in an act of final desperation, ate another human.

    This is a dead debate as far as I’m concerned. I could dismantle most of your points & logic (the further back we go there is less evidence for EVERYTHING) but so could you if you were not being so selective with the ‘evidence’ you are looking at.

    You can ban if you need to, but it looks to me like you desperately want to believe we were once vegans who lived like the ‘I’d like to buy the world a coke’ commercial.

    Evidence of 430,000-year-old human violence found

    “Researchers examined one skull from a site called the Pit of Bones, which contains the remains of at least 28 people.

    They concluded that two fractures on that skull were likely to have been caused by “multiple blows” and imply “an intention to kill”.

    The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

    As well as providing a clue as to why the bodies were in the cave, scientists say the study provides grisly evidence that violence is an intrinsic part of the earliest human culture. ”

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Gee, DrS, I thought I was a pessimist. I think we believe what we want to believe. I read the articles you cite, and did not find them as compelling as the ones I cited. There has been considerable “walking back” of some of the stories about prehistoric human violence, when it was pointed out that there are other explanations for many markings on ancient skeletons, including that they were made by the creatures who ate them, rather than by other humans. But as I keep saying, we can never know. Some of the bizarre things we believed just 20 years ago have now been convincingly debunked, and that will continue to happen. I think it comes down to what subset of research is most consistent with the worldview each of us has built up over a lifetime, as I tried to explain in my “All the Things I Was Wrong About” post. Our worldviews continue to evolve as we, and science, acquire more evidence, and new ideas. I’m inclined to believe that large scale human violence is a “recent” phenomenon, a result of ecological and endemic psychological problems exacerbated by stress, and not our million-year-long basic nature. But ask me again in ten years.

  6. Philip says:

    Violence is innate. Probably the reason we have left handedness, a mutation for advantage in conflict. The difference in sexual dimorphisim -80% suggests a long history of violence. Only 4% Neanderthal DNA in Europeans Sapiens suggests competition at the expense of an entire species. Children (with no stress) play with a propensity for future violence. Definitely refined since agriculture arrived tho. Bit more stress, bit more tension.

  7. I think we are good at learning but I don’t think our cognitive skills have kept up with the scale of side effects we have created. We have produced problems that have outpaced our ability to address them.

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