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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




Having suggested a psychology of violence in the previous chapter, we are ready to explore the deep history of violence in humankind. This exploration suggests answers to two critical questions that have long bedeviled discourse around violence and the quest for peace. The first question asks: Are humans essentially violent based on our evolutionary development and genetic endowment? Steven Pinker, for one, strenuously argues that we are—capable of restraining this urge in some limited degree but apt to relapse into violence at any moment absent powerful restraints.  If he is right, then the project of making a predominantly peaceful society, the project of this book, is mere fantasy. We will consider evidence that suggests a much more nuanced view.

The second question asks: Under what conditions are humans most peaceful, and are such conditions sustainable? As we discover, emerging evidence from archeology and ethology suggests that the human species has already run a massive longitudinal study of this question with promising results. If these results prove correct, they also shed important light on the converse question: Under what conditions do humans devolve into greater violence? I argue that the emerging evidence carries unexpectedly powerful implications for addressing our perilous moment in human history. Properly understood, this new understanding offers the challenge and the hope for survival of the present crisis and potentially flourishing in a new, post-violent age.

Evolutionary Origins of Violence

The origins of life are still under intense scrutiny by scientists who hold a range of competing theories. Many of those theories posit that the first organic molecules formed from the ‘primordial soup’ of precursor inorganic compounds floating in the ocean some four billion years ago.  Over time, these molecules organized in ever more complex ways, eventually to produce the cell as we know it today. From there, the ensuing evolutionary process is comparatively well understood.

As we trace the arc of the logic of violence, perhaps it would be well to pause here, at the very beginning, to observe the structure of the situation, one that replays itself continually. The transition from lifelessness to life is certainly the most miraculous and unlikely event in the known history of the universe.  But still, in the fullness of time, it occurred because it was possible. The building blocks of life, by a process of sheer chance, came together, perhaps billions or trillions of times, before they finally, spontaneously produced that line of compounds that form an unbroken chain extending right up to the retinal cell in your eye that fires at this very moment as you distinguish dark marks from the light background of this page.

To consider what odds had to have been overcome for this to have happened leaves us awed and amazed. We are here because the elements and molecules, enzymes and acids, prokaryotes and eukaryotes, plants and animals, fishes and amphibians, insects and mammals, not to mention the seas and the stars, collectively and spontaneously enabled it to be so. If we take the theory of evolution seriously, as I think any scientifically literate person should, we can presume that none of this occurred with the slightest hint of intention or planning. As Daniel Dennett notoriously put it, the whole miracle of life and its myriad elaborations that we behold today are the magnificent result of a “dumb algorithm.”  However it all came to pass, we can fairly presume that it did not occur as a product of intelligent design, but was a purely naturalistic process that reveals something significant about the deep structure of reality itself.  Whatever else we make of this, it seems reasonable to conclude that the universe is not so hostile to life and, in particular, to our own existence as we may sometimes think. Our existence is wildly improbable from a statistical standpoint—in this sense, a miracle. And yet here we are, you and I.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the deep roots of the logic of violence in our evolutionary past. The story of evolution hinges especially on the bottlenecks through which successful species managed to survive—times when resources were perilously scarce and those phenotypes best equipped to prevail outlasted those less so. When resources are scarce and other beings are also dependent on those scarce resources, our survival depends on prevailing over the competition—this is exactly the logic of violence described in Chapter 1. This logic is axiomatic to evolutionary theory and, presumably, encoded in our genes. Our successful forebears did prevail and in many cases, including our most direct ancestors, this was achieved by the use of aggression. The logic of violence dwells deep in our genetic inheritance; this is an immutable fact.

But this is far from the whole story. Tennyson’s characterization of nature as “red in tooth and claw” misses not only that nature can exhibit “peaceful” traits, but that it does so most of the time.  While the animal kingdom abounds with examples of horrific aggression, including cannibalism and infanticide, on balance these examples are exceptions that prove the rule. Apart from predation, in the overwhelming majority of circumstances in the overwhelming majority of species, conflicts are rare, studiously avoided, or settled in nonviolent ways.  This is not to say that aggression does not occur, for it surely does. Rather, we get a distorted view of human nature if we overlook our peaceful inheritance. And this is important. If we fail to appreciate our peaceful traits we might believe ourselves only capable of violence.

Before going any further, let us return to the difference between violence, a moral category perhaps unique to humans, and aggression. Most animals, including mammals, primates, and humans, exhibit behavior in which one being harms another in order to compel the other in some way—that is, they exhibit aggression. Once humans became capable of moral reasoning we could distinguish between necessary and gratuitous aggression or, in other words, between necessary aggression and violence. Prior to this moral awakening, however, there was only aggression. In light of this distinction, I will reserve the term violence for humans, when their aggression meets the definition given in Chapter 1.

There can be no doubt that aggression occurs commonly in many animal species, including some of our closest primate cousins. When scholars try to determine the specific patterns of aggression innate to humans, they have tended to look hard at chimpanzees observed both in the wild and in captivity. Chimps are close cousins to humans, sharing with us almost all of our genes; and they have been studied closely for more than 50 years, so there is a lot of data. As it turns out, chimpanzees exhibit fierce aggression across a range of domains. Efforts to compare chimps and humans show chimpanzees to be more aggressive than humans. A common interpretation of this evidence posits that humans emerged from a much more aggressive past and are fortunate to be as peaceful as we are. In short, we should be happy with the garden-variety violence we find around us; let us not get too greedy and expect any more peacefulness than this.

This narrative has been challenged by a newer thread of research focused on our equally close cousin, the bonobo. Bonobos do display aggression, but it is generally less frequent and less lethal than in chimps (or humans). Moreover, bonobos exhibit a range of novel behaviors to deescalate conflict within groups and between groups. This model suggests that our deep evolutionary past might not be as filled with aggression as the chimpanzee narrative would lead us to believe; or, alternatively, that peaceful practices could have evolved biologically in the intervening millions of years since we split off from our cousins.

Let us take a closer look at the kinds of aggression found in our primate cousins, noting the two broad categories of in-group and out-group aggression. In-group aggression occurs for a limited number of reasons: 1) to establish, enforce, or challenge a social hierarchy; and 2) to settle transient conflicts between group members. The first of these I call hierarchy-oriented aggression. Most cases of in-group aggression, by far, fall into this category, including most obviously struggles for social dominance by alphas (usually large males) to establish a pecking order. The resulting hierarchy organizes social life in a number of critical ways, including access to protein-rich food sources, which may be scarce. It also encompasses the powerful forces of sexual selection known to motivate much aggression in the animal world. For both males and females, the opportunity to mate with a more fit partner enhances the evolutionary fitness of the resulting progeny. In sum, as Liddle, et al., remarked, the “majority” of aggression in the animal world “exists in the context of resource competition.”  I am proposing that resource competition automatically implies hierarchy, and that the aggression employed under these conditions is therefore hierarchically oriented. It determines who gets the prize and who doesn’t.

The second category of in-group aggression, which we may call impulsive aggression, encompasses a much smaller proportion of cases that tend to involve acts lacking in any clear plan, including ones that may even put the aggressor at a competitive disadvantage. In other words, this category encompasses all acts of aggression that are not instrumental in nature. But we must be careful here because many impulsive acts actually serve evolutionary purposes—that is, the ultimate causation may involve evolutionary fitness even if the proximate causation appears random or self-defeating. Many transient conflicts, for example, implicitly challenge the hierarchical structure of the group, and the aggression that ensues serves to re-negotiate that hierarchy, putting it into the category of hierarchy-oriented aggression. Nevertheless, there are surely examples of purely impulsive aggression, such as crimes of passion or the explosive and irrational aggression induced by psychotic states.

Out-group aggression also divides into two closely related categories: 1) a fear of, or animosity toward, unknown conspecifics, what I dub stranger-danger aggression, and 2) warfare. These categories differ mostly in terms of scale. Stranger-danger refers to encounters between one or a small number of individuals of the same species that are unknown to each other, which often results in some form of aggression, usually non-lethal.  Warfare involves “deep incursions and coalitionary attacks” between groups that may or may not include members known to one another.  In the wild, ethologists have recorded abundant instances of stranger-danger aggression in many species. Warfare, however, is extremely rare in the animal kingdom, found among chimps but in few other species.

All told, this scholarship suggests that humans came onto the evolutionary scene some 125,000 years ago with a high probability of carrying a genetic disposition toward hierarchy-oriented and stranger-danger aggression, and a much lower probability of demonstrating aggression of the impulsive or warfaring kind. Certainly, this would have significant implications for our inclination toward violence, once that moral achievement had been realized, as well as our capacity now to overcome whatever violent impulses may quicken our hearts still. Evidence has recently emerged that allows us to gauge more accurately our actual genetic inheritance with respect to aggression. If accurate, this emerging evidence completely revolutionizes our understanding of what we humans are capable of, and how we might attain a dramatically more peaceful world than most of us can imagine.


Homo Sapiens

Although the fields of archaeology and anthropology roil with disagreement, one promising if controversial strain of thinking has argued plausibly that homicidal violence was comparatively rare and warfare nonexistent in humans before 10,000 years ago. If true, this suggests that in our evolutionary environment of adaptedness humans are quite peaceful creatures; that the state of relative peacefulness ardently desired by many today, and advocated in this book, was our natural condition for more than 100,000 years. Although this claim meets with considerable skepticism by some scholars and in the end, of course, is an empirical matter that will presumably be proven or disproven in the fullness of time, let us allow ourselves the possibility that it is true. If so, the implications are so profound for our present moment of crisis as to be impossible to overstate.

Another disputed but less precarious claim offers further revolutionary power to our re-imagining of our deep past and its potential consequences for today. Many scholars believe that humans emerged from the dark evolutionary mists organized in small multi-family bands, each averaging around 30 souls, each with an egalitarian social structure. There was no alpha, no chief, no haves and have-nots. Although complexly organized around necessary tasks and the talents of each member, no hierarchy of power was allowed to form in these groups over tens of thousands of years of human living. These scholars believe, moreover, that this was true across virtually all human bands even as we spread ourselves around the globe and divided into distinct cultures and ethnicities.

These two controversial claims, when taken together, offer the following possibility: Humans are naturally peaceful and egalitarian, and that these two ways of being are totally intertwined. Our peacefulness requires social equity; and social equity thrives in the context of peace. If true, this puts into focus the tragedy of the last 10,000 years, when egalitarian bands gradually gave way to chiefdoms, then states; and when humans gradually devolved into murderous and warring creatures such as the world had never known. I am suggesting that these two woeful trends were a single dynamic at work, and that they offer the promise of a way out of the violence and social injustices that imperil us now.

Looking back to our deep prehistory, we can see how the strands of peacefulness and social equity might have woven together. If the greater part of in-group aggression in our ancestors was motivated by instrumental designs to impose or re-negotiate one’s place in the social hierarchy, it follows that egalitarian groups would provide less occasion for aggression. This does not mean, however, that hierarchy-oriented aggression never occurred. On the contrary, recent studies suggest that egalitarian bands were beleaguered by members who would try to cheat in order to gain some advantage over the others, the inevitable freeloading problem. These designs sometimes involved the use of aggression, and were sometimes met with aggression by the collective.

It remains an open question, however, whether this kind of violence within prehistoric egalitarian societies was less pervasive than violence in our own time. Steven Pinker believes not. With regard to the relatively peaceful Semai people, an extant hunter-gatherer society, Pinker cites one scholar’s estimate of a rate of 30 homicides per 100,000 people per year (the usual metric used by those who measure such things).  Pinker writes that this puts the Semai’s homicide rate “in the range of the infamously dangerous [U.S.] cities in their most violent years and at three times the rate of the United States as a whole in its most violent decade.”  As a comparison, the most recent data show a homicide rate of 4 per 100,000 in the United States.  By this understanding, our ancestors were more than seven times more aggressive than we are. But there are two reasons for skepticism about Pinker’s reasoning here. First, we can doubt both his estimates of violence among hunter-gatherers and his estimates of violence today. His guesses about rates of violence in our prehistory are based on dubious evidence.  As for today, Pinker’s rosy picture fails to account for any kind of structural violence in the modern world. Specifically, he ignores extreme economic inequality—precisely the sort of thing not present in an egalitarian society. According to the World Bank, 35% of the world’s population currently lives on less than $3.10 a day.  Such dire poverty carries with it innumerable kinds of deprivation, from greater infant mortality and worse health throughout life, higher probability of being a victim of crime, including violent crime, greater exposure to pollution, higher stress, and so on. Even in the relatively affluent United States, we have a poverty rate of 14.8%, or 14,800 per 100,000.  If these insults to human life and dignity are counted as forms of violence, which they surely are, then the homicide rate of 4 per 100,000 woefully underestimates current rates of violence.

The second inadequacy in Pinker’s reasoning involves his wonkish failure to see past the statistics into what they might mean to humans in the real world.  Even if we accept his questionable numbers, when we consider how these numbers would impact the lives of people, a dramatically different picture emerges. In a city of 10 million,  a homicide rate of 4 per 100,000 per year yields 400 victims in that city in an average year.  For me, this means that within a few miles of my home and quite near the various routes I take in my daily life there is more than one violent event per day. Even if I am never a victim or otherwise involved, I am likely to experience myself as immersed in a violent world. (The sensationalized media don’t help, either.)

If, on the other hand, I were a hunter-gather living 30,000 years ago in a band of 30 people, a rate of 30 per 100,000 people per year means that a homicide would occur within my band roughly once a century. If we make the assumption that I would have an extended social network encompassing maybe 300 people across several nearby bands, then I would expect, across this whole network, one homicide per decade or so. When we compare the experience of living in a city where homicide occurs more than once a day to living on the savannah where it occurs somewhere between once a decade and once a century, we see how far Pinker’s mathematics has led him astray. Even by his own numbers, the life of the hunter-gather looks quite peaceful next to the grim violence of modern urban life.

Let us now turn to the other branch of aggression we inherited from our forebears, out-group aggression, and it’s two subtypes of warfare and stranger-danger. Scholars generally agree that humans are aggressively territorial and nearly as likely as chimps to attack a lone stranger (stranger-danger) or raid an enemy group wholesale (warfare). The question remains, however, how often these kinds of encounters actually occurred in the lives of our prehistoric ancestors. We know that families would move from to band to band over the course of time, providing sources of intermarriage and opportunities to adjust flexibly to changing environmental conditions. It is probable that some neighboring bands enjoyed better relations than others, and that frictions developed between them from time to time.

We also know that population densities throughout Africa (and elsewhere in the world as humans dispersed) fluctuated sharply depending on environmental conditions, especially climate, and were often very low. Moreover, even in relatively robust times, the nomadic lifestyle of these groups afforded them a natural and peaceful solution to adversarial neighbors—simply to move further afield of one another. Modern ethnographies support the theory that hunter-gatherers typically resort to avoidance rather than aggression in situations of conflict.  For these reasons, it seems likely that out-group aggression would have been quite rare in the lives of these peoples. In this instance, perhaps we did not solve the problem of out-group aggression so much as avoid it most of the time.

Pinker, however, estimates that war-related fatalities accounted for 15% of all deaths in these societies in the millennia before states.  If warfare claimed anywhere near 15% of all people in the period between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago, this would seriously undermine any claim that violence is inversely related to egalitarianism in humans. It is instructive, though not conclusive, that there is no clear archeological evidence of warfare prior to 13,000 years ago.  After that, evidence of warfare continues to be rather scant until closer to 8,000 years ago, and then ramps up quickly.

Careful analysis of the evidence shows that variation in signs of warfare across geography and over time correlate, as R. Brian Ferguson writes, with conditions of “higher populations, more sedentism, foraging concentrated on spatially limited and highly productive sites, food storage, definition of more distinctive social groups, and sociopolitical hierarchy” —all of these, concomitants of agriculture.  Combining the absence of archeological evidence with this strong correlation in what evidence does exist, we might at least provisionally conclude that warfare was quite rare in humans across the Late Pleistocene, that period of at least 100,000 years during which we survived and thrived in small egalitarian bands.

If we are so peaceful and egalitarian at heart, and lived this way for so many thousands of years, how did it come to pass that our history is so rife with violence and domination? As we have just glimpsed, we get a clue to this critical question when we observe that a profound shift in human lifeways took place just before and during the period in which the archeological record shows a dramatic increase in violence. During this time, between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, agriculture was discovered and spread to most of the world by transmission of knowledge or conquest.  The advent of agriculture resulted directly in more sedentary lifeways, surplus nutrition to support an explosion in population, and new, more rigid, divisions of labor—eventually to produce kings and courtiers, generals and armies, priests and prelates, and all the rest. Social hierarchies and violence developed in lockstep as a direct result of agriculture. No longer living in our evolutionary environment of adaptedness, the human experiment took a tragic turn toward a kind of misery from which we have not yet recovered and which may soon overtake us completely.  We will consider this turn in more detail in the next chapter.

Egalitarianism and Shame

Christopher Boehm argues that our evolved tendency to form counter-dominant coalitions, beginning with our common Pan ancestor, constituted a pre-adaptation (or exaptation) for the development of morality in modern humans.  This tantalizing proposal suggests that a crucial feature of evolutionary development in humans was a sense of fairness that made us less prone to submit to alphas than our primate cousins. Instead, we were genetically more inclined to form counter-dominant coalitions to oust the alphas and call the freeloaders to account. If our keen interest in fairness preceded morality and set us up in favor of an egalitarian way of life, it was our capacity to develop cultural norms of conduct and to internalize them—that is, to bring our genetic tendencies into the moral realm—that solidified the pathway to egalitarianism as we find it in the archeological and anthropological record.

Boehm argues that the arrival of morality at least 45,000 years ago (and probably much earlier) was marked by the emergence of shame combined with the articulation of various forms of the Golden Rule (perhaps best known in the form, “do to others what you would have them do to you” from Matthew 7:12).  As discussed in Chapter 2, the social function of adaptive shame is to induct children into prevailing norms, both for the purposes of physical safety and social acceptance, and to keep us in line with those norms throughout life. Boehm writes convincingly that the compunctions of selfishness (in evolutionary terms, the priority to protect one’s individual genetic potency) and nepotism (protecting one’s genetic line more generally) cannot be entirely restrained, and that culturally constructed moralistic pressures would have been necessary to rein in those compunctions sufficiently to make egalitarianism possible over the long haul. Shame was the mechanism by which the culture exerted such moralistic pressure.

According to Boehm, shame was applied in increasingly forceful ways as needed to keep cheaters (freeloaders) and domineering individuals (alpha-wannabes) within the relatively narrow bounds required by egalitarianism, up to and including outright banishment from the band and even death. As we saw in Chapter 2, shame operates on a power gradient, with the transmission of shame flowing downward from the more-powerful to the less-powerful. In truly egalitarian societies, this power gradient exists in only one form, with the whole in the more-powerful position and individual(s) in the less-powerful position. In order to promote an egalitarian structure, then, shame must pass from the whole to the individual when that individual violates, or threatens to violate, essential group norms.

The unity of the whole, according to Boehm, depends on two key elements: the capacity for adaptive shame by all (or nearly all) members of the group, and gossip, whereby members of the whole share impressions and establish moral consensus.  The individual, meanwhile, restrains her cheating or domineering impulses by virtue of the internalization of norms and her natural aversion to the feelings of shame should the group turn against her, especially if it were to involve banishment or capital punishment by the whole.

Given the theory of shame so far advanced, we can assume that different hunter-gatherer subcultures struck different balances between adaptive and maladaptive shame, given the subtleties and complexities involved between the two. But we can also suppose that, across most of these societies and most of the 100,000 years during which egalitarianism prevailed in human cultures, adaptive shame strongly predominated over maladaptive shame. By its very nature, maladaptive shame promotes hierarchical inequalities of power among individual members of a group. Shamed identity produces a persistent emotional tone that generates fears of being unworthy of group membership and, specifically, being less valuable than others in the group. If the associated hostility is directed mostly inward, the individual tends to behave submissively toward others, putting herself below the whole, which often draws rejecting responses from others, only exacerbating the inequality. If the hostility is directed mostly outward, the individual tends to act in a more aggressive or domineering way toward others, which will certainly draw rejecting responses in an egalitarian culture. Either way, maladaptive shame sharpens the problem of inequality rather than solving it.

Adaptive shame, on the other hand, works directly to level inequalities in the social structure. The jolt of shame is intended to remind the errant individual of his own internalized moral compass, evoking adaptive guilt, with the design to encourage the individual to make amends and restore himself to the good graces of the whole. The repair process, fundamental to adaptive shame, brings the shamed individual back into the group’s forgiving embrace, reinforcing the message of belongingness despite whatever infraction may have occurred. I am suggesting that adaptive processes must predominate statistically over maladaptive ones if truly egalitarian social structures are to be sustained across all human cultures over tens of thousands of years, as appears to have been the case.

Returning now to the issue of aggression, in-group hierarchy-oriented aggression in these small prehistoric hunter-gatherer bands would generally occur under two conditions: when an individual was unable to restrain his cheating or domineering impulses and thereby aggressed against another member of the band, or when the whole was forced to exert aggressive pressure on (an) errant individual(s). For obvious reasons, we do not know and may never know what proportion of each type of aggression just named occurred in prehistoric times. What seems evident, however, is that there was considerable pressure on individuals to conform to social norms and considerable reluctance by the whole to use aggression, especially lethal aggression, against nonconformists.

In all likelihood, impulsive aggression within the group occurred at some regular statistical frequency across the 100,000 years of egalitarian social organization among humans. This form would have been constrained by mechanisms of social control, especially shame, and would have been punished in extreme cases with serious aggression, again including, if rarely, capital punishment. To the extent that impulsive aggression is a symptom of mental illness, and that some proportion of such mental illness is heritable, it seems plausible that human societies have always dealt with a certain baseline degree of impulsive aggression as a matter of course. While there is little that is easy about solving the various challenges posed by violence, the problem of serious, heritable mental illness represents what I want to call the Hard Problem of Violence.  By this I mean that we have never known an adequate solution to this problem; we have yet to find a scalable solution that does not involve aggressive responses like incarceration, banishment, or capital punishment. Only in recent decades have we perhaps sufficiently unlocked the mysteries of neurobiology to begin to see a way to address this problem peacefully.

All this leaves us with a tantalizing question. In a well-run egalitarian band of 30,000 years ago, one employing a minimum of maladaptive shame, is it possible that virtually all of the aggression was essentially impulsive in nature? It seems plausible that those individuals who were unable to control their own cheating or domineering impulses to such an extent that they behaved violently and/or drew aggressive punitive responses from the whole were psychologically compromised from the start. If true, it is possible that all, or nearly all, instances of aggression in such a society would represent cases of the Hard Problem of Violence. This would suggest, in turn, that the hierarchy-oriented problem of violence was essentially solved for those 100,000 years. I propose, therefore, that we regard hierarchy-oriented aggression as the Easy Problem of Violence. This is a problem we know how to solve—and we know this because it was solved for thousands of years—at least in our evolutionary environment of adaptedness.

To summarize, I have argued there is sufficient evidence to believe that humankind, for the better part of 100,000 years (if not much longer) was mostly peaceful and mostly egalitarian, with virtually zero hierarchy-oriented aggression or warfare, and with very low levels of stranger-danger aggression. I have argued, further, that our evolved peacefulness and egalitarianism are inextricably linked; that each reinforces and is necessary to the other. I am suggesting that humans are still wired for, and entirely capable of, being mostly peaceful and equitable creatures today—under the right conditions.

But we also know that some 10,000 years ago we veered sharply in a new direction and, as a result, our evolutionary environment of adaptedness was lost forever. A great and terrible revolution in human life burst upon the scene bringing in its wake an explosion of technology, wealth, sublime human achievement, and such carnage and woe that had never before been witnessed in all the world. It is to this development we now turn.