Historically, there has been a debate among intellectuals about the source of violence in humans. Some have believed that humans are animals, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it; or as Thomas Hobbes had it, life outside civilization was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Others have believed that civilization, especially individual ownership of property, made humans more violent, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views. One side saw violence as inherent in human nature; the other saw the noble savage living in Eden. One side thought we could find salvation only in an afterlife; the other thought we could “get ourselves back to the garden.”
The Rousseauian view is still alive and well in politics and the culture, but in the sciences specifically dealing with the problem, the natural violence of humans is largely accepted. The debate has moved on to the question of “What sparks human violence: tangible resources, such as food; or intangible things, such as jealousy, cultural differences, and revenge?” And conversely, if humans have a latent violence that can be elicited by some things to create inhumane terrorism but that can be moderated by other things to create peaceful order, what are the things that create peace and order?
The partial answer is that it is not all a matter of food and shelter. Humans are more often drawn to violence by abstract ideas and perceived deprivation. This is obvious when you look at war between Western states in the past few centuries, but it is surprisingly the case when anthropologists study primitive tribes. Food is not the driving factor; stealing women, and revenge, is.
Starvation will eventually lead an individual or group to violence, but under normal circumstances humans don’t wait until starvation is on them to kill. We seem to have an imaginative brain that has evolved to rely on violence when we think our options are shrinking.
This argument over the sources of human violence goes back to the dawn of history, but its more recent incarnation is as a war of statistics. Rates of violent death are marshaled to prove or disprove each side’s case. I’m not a statistician, but several articles and books have tumbled over my desk recently, and I want to post them if only to have a record of the information they contain.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (pay wall unfortunately), Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham, and Dale Peterson wrote that the average “conservatively estimated risk of violent death” among chimpanzee populations in Africa was 271 per 100,000 individuals per year (though not all chimpanzees are so aggressive. And bonobos do not hunt in groups and have a very low rate of violent death).
There are many early societies that academics believe may have been peaceful (the Tiwanaku, a precursor of the Inca in South America, for instance).
Steven LeBlanc, in Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, makes a thorough case for the natural violence of animals and humans, specifically noting that the highland New Guinea tribes, before contact with civilized humans, had a violent-death rate of 25 percent among their men.
War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, by Lawrence H. Keeley (1996), uses archaeological evidence to argue that prehistoric societies were generally more violent than modern societies. He also cites anthropological data on existing tribal societies.
Steven Pinker referred to this graph in The Blank Slate. The tribal statistics range from 8,000 per 100,000 individuals per year to 60,000 per 100,000 individuals per year. That is massively more than the rate among the chimpanzee population, but also much more than deaths caused by warfare in the 20th century in the United States and Europe (World War I and World War II).
Modern warfare at its worst (Paraguayan War of 1864-70) killed at an average rate of 14,000 per 100,000 individuals per year, or toward the low end of the tribal-society range. But wars in tribal societies occur regularly, while wars in the modern world are rather rare, although much more lethal. The wartime violent-death rate during WWII for Europe was roughly 500 per 100,000 per year for seven years in a row. For the United States it was only 80, and for only four years. This beats the chimps. Moreover, the peacetime violent-death rate for the United States and Europe is closer to six per 100,000 per year, and that rate has held throughout my lifetime.
The most violent “peacetime” country today is Guatemala, which has a rate of 75 per 100,000 per year-- considerably lower than the chimpanzees in Africa.
It looks as though we have not eliminated violence but, rather, channeled it into short periods, interspersed with longer periods of relative peace. Between wars we have gotten more and more peaceful over the centuries…
In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), Pinker writes that “Violent deaths of all kinds have declined, from around 500 per 100,000 people per year in prestate societies to around 50 in the Middle Ages, to around six to eight today worldwide, and fewer than one in most of Europe.”
When I was researching Native American tribes back in college, I found only one that seemed to have discovered the way to have a civilized culture and no war: the Hopi Indians. But pushed to the limit by Spanish oppression and attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Hopi and Pueblo groups united to massacre the Spanish, killing the converted Hopi men, removing the women and children, and completely destroying the pueblo of Awatovi, where the conversions had occurred. Apparently there are limits to “turning the other cheek.”
There it is. I have no resolution to the debate, but I would say this: My opinion is that humans are naturally aggressive, and will tend to expand and dominate the world around them until something serious stops them. A tribe or civilization that is deeply dedicated to peace and sacrifice will probably be conquered or destroyed by their more aggressive neighbors.
We in the West seem to be of two minds about our own civilization. At times we think we are the civilization, embodying rationality, beauty, technology, and life. At other times we think we are the source of all evil, embodying madness, ugliness, brutality, and death.
Of course, we are correct. We embody all of that, in all its glorious complexity and gory madness. We are the killer ape, with the biggest killer brain; but we are also the organizing ape, with the biggest contemplative, compromising brain. The way we balance, channel, and rationalize these opposing drives is what makes us the complicated, charming, and dangerous animal that we are.
We are stardust.
Billon year old carbon.
We are golden.
Caught in the devil’s bargain.
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
- Joni Mitchell