Are humans wired for violence? Evolutionary biology begs to differ (COMMENTARY)

Print More
Flowers and banners are pictured, as a tribute to the victims of Paris attacks at the gate of French embassy in La Paz, Bolivia November 18, 2015. Photo by David Mercado, courtesy of Reuters

Flowers and banners are pictured, as a tribute to the victims of Paris attacks at the gate of French embassy in La Paz, Bolivia November 18, 2015. Photo by David Mercado, courtesy of Reuters

(RNS) Given the terrorist attacks of the last few weeks, one might be forgiven for feeling a bit bleak about the human species, its frequent use of violence and its failure to negotiate solutions. We must be hard-wired for violence. Or perhaps “war is a force that gives us meaning,” as Chris Hedges put it in his 2002 book of the same title.

It turns out, however, that we’re evolutionarily wired not for violence but for cooperation. “The vast majority of the people on the planet,” writes Douglas Fry, “awake on a typical morning and live through a violence-free day — and this experience generally continues day after day after day.”

The real story should be the 13,748 gazillion times human beings default to cooperation and kindness!

So we might want to look a bit closer at aggression and its causes.

For three millennia, the Abrahamic religions have said we’re created — “wired” by God so to speak — for covenantal relationships. Violence is a sin against God.


READ: Pope Francis on interfaith dialogue: ‘It is not something extra or optional’


But in the modern era, some think religion causes violence — though the French philosopher Rene Girard, who died earlier this month, believed violence causes religion.

These causal claims miss the target.

First, the idea that religion causes violence is belied by the staggering amounts of it perpetrated by secular regimes. The mayhem of the 20th century was unleashed by Europe’s economic competition, by Stalinism, and by Nazism.

None of these had the defining feature of faith: a transcendent being whose principles one cannot tweak to suit oneself. We can look also at the violence committed by Pinochet, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Mao, and the remaining roster of faithless murderers. Or we can look to the violence of East Asia, which proceeded for millennia without religion as motive.

In fact, the major faith traditions move us to compassion and understanding.

The first advocates of toleration before the 18th century Enlightenment — Sebastian Castellio, Baruch Spinoza, Roger Williams, and John Locke — were schooled in Judeo-Christian teachings.

With this in mind, blaming religion for human aggression is like blaming adultery on the marriage vows.


READ: The ‘Splainer: Why should we give thanks?


And to the list of modern religious leaders who championed peace (Dorothy Day, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Emmanuel Levinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, etc.) we can add the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and many other Muslims who condemn ISIS and its recent attacks.

So it seems religion doesn’t cause violence. But neither does violence cause religion, as Girard held. The religion scholar maintained that a scapegoat must be found to resolve societal strife. The scapegoat is then expunged in a group rite that releases pent-up aggression and unites the group. This rite, Girard held, is the root of religion and other societal institutions.

Trouble is, Girard’s theory is unsupported by evolutionary biology and anthropology. We are not governed by competition but rather by “hyper-cooperation.”

The evolutionary benefits include improved hunting among cooperative rather than competitive clans and basic survival, as families and communities helped each other rear children. Even war is not genetically hard-wired but emerged through historical/cultural processes that are neither universal nor biologically necessary.

The idea that our gravest aggression is not biological but cultural suggests that we don’t need to alter our cooperative nature but to address perversions of it.


READ: Lord’s prayer ad won’t air before Star Wars sequel in major British theaters


One perversion comes not from competition for what others have but from fear that they will take what we have. This was Hobbes’s point: fear drives people to “us-vs.-them” polarization and to zero-sum thinking. It overrides our cooperative biological-default and yields Hobbes’ famous “war of all against all.”

A second violation of our “reciprocal altruism” is the absence of a life commitment. The search for purpose beyond survival and “lifestyle” pushes us towards our greatest achievements in work, art, and moral conduct. A lack of such meaning — of self-transcendence — is corrosive. It leads to the familiar apathy, substance abuse, crime, suicide, and vulnerability to any “meaning” that comes one’s way.

Millions of people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and immigrant neighborhoods of the West have reasons to feel that what they had (resources, dignity, control over one’s life) has been taken away from them or their societies. Or they can’t see any future opportunities. This is the upshot of longstanding regional problems, political and economic corruption, colonial policies, and globalization that leaves entire economic sectors and socio-economic classes out of the game.

Marcia Pally teaches multilingual multicultural studies at New York University and in the theology department at Humboldt University, Berlin. Her book "Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics and Theologies of Relationality" will be out in early 2016. Photo courtesy of R.S.

Marcia Pally teaches multilingual multicultural studies at New York University and in the theology department at Humboldt University, Berlin. Her book “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics and Theologies of Relationality” will be out in early 2016. Photo courtesy of Marcia Pally

So when a chance for purpose comes along, a chance to belong, to repair wrongs, and work for a cause that gives one status and a sense that one matters, it’s inviting. Self-sacrifice in war or terror can seem the greatest self-transcendence of all.

This is by no means justification for violence, just a bit of explanation of how our cooperative default gets sabotaged and ISIS-type “causes” move in.

Something to think about if we want to halt the violation of our biological good-naturedness so we can get to the 13,749 gazillionth human encounter of cooperation and kindness.

(Marcia Pally teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University and is a guest professor in the theology department of Humboldt University, Berlin. Her book, “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality,” will be out in early 2016.)

  • Pingback: Are human beings are wired for violence? Evolutionary biology begs to differ (COMMENTARY) | Christian News Agency()

  • Homo sapiens are determined by the hierarchy of tribalism: militarism and religion (the ubiquitous church-state), then politics, economics, and culture. Tribes instinctually serve the hierarchy of militarism and religion that is used to organize militarism. Violence occurs through the racism and structural violence intrinsic to growth-oriented tribalism, imperialism, and empire.
    Instinctual fear of snakes, including of strangers and foreign races, causes even women and children to torture captured enemies to death.
    Instinctual sense of fairness and justice, causes even women and children to torture criminal members of their own tribe to death.
    Instinctual authoritarian psychology serves church-state tribalism through empire, fear of foreign races, and a sense of fairness, justice, and severe punishments.
    Cooperation, including economics touted as transcending national boundaries, is highly compromised by the imperial and structural violence required to maintain the…

  • Hi! sorry but that’s not what the research has found. Indeed, if we were as marauding as you say, the species would not have survived. We are aghast at violence because, relative to the trillions of human interactions that occur each day, violent ones are a tiny minority and stun us deeply–because we’re wired against them for our own good.
    In comraderie,
    Marcia

  • Ben in Oakland

    Christianity– especially that very conservative brand of it espoused by otherwise intelligent people posting here– tells us that we are damned by virtue of original sin, that man is fallen, and that violence is just a product of our very nature. In fact, we’re so awful, that we made god kill himself.

    Science tells us that this isn’t true. My experience says it isn’t true.

    Hmmmm. Whom to believe? Whom to believe?

  • Fran

    Violence is something man learns
    (which should be replaced by love), and it started when Cain killed his brother, Abel, way back in the day. It’s been used throughout human existence, but is especially prevalent in our day. However, it won’t be around for much longer since we are living in the last days of having to put up with it (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21; Psalm 37:10,11). ❤️?

  • The option for a continuum of violence was introduced into human evolution when ‘Eve’ gave birth to humanity. The people who carried out the Paris attacks exercised that option at the extreme. http://thelastwhy.ca/poems/2015/11/22/attacks-paris-and-elsewhere

  • GregH

    Kind of disappointing, overall. The title says something about evolutionary biology, but offers no more than a brief nod before moving on to the real issue:

    “Millions of people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and immigrant neighborhoods of the West have reasons to feel that [their] resources, dignity, control… has been taken away… This is the upshot of longstanding regional problems, political and economic corruption, colonial policies, and globalization that leaves entire economic sectors and socio-economic classes out of the game.”

    To me, the rest feels like an unnecessary apologetic for religion in general. I don’t get it: Why the need to promote religion to people who have had enough? There’s plenty of evidence that religious divisions are, if not the direct cause, the milieu for many long-standing conflicts, of which Syria is one.

    I suspect we’d be better off with fewer apologetics and more simple compassion for our fellow humans.

  • Kenton

    “Trouble is, Girard’s theory is unsupported by evolutionary biology and anthropology. We are not governed by competition but rather by ‘hyper-cooperation.’”

    Where to begin with this? To say we are not governed by competition denies a reality that expresses itself quite well this weekend in college football stadia from Columbia, SC to Palo Alto, CA. Find the “hyper-cooperation” in Ann Arbor today.

    Also, I’m not sure we understand Girard the same way. The result of implementing the scapegoat mechanism is communal peace. That’s what – to the extent there *is* cooperation among groups – tempers violence in societies. The cycle is mimesis -> tension -> scapegoating -> unity. The act of scapegoating creates a unity in the group of its members who are fearful that they could be the next scapegoat.

    It is a challenge to the status quo for evolutionary biologists and anthropologists similar to the way Einstein challenged the status quo for Newtonian mechanics. It doesn’t mean…

  • John Cahill

    actually, Hobbes talked about the war of “each against all” not “all against all”.
    His philosophy is riddled with an extreme individualism.

  • Marcia you are wrong.
    Totalitarianism is fundamentally Theocratic.

    “Believe in me or be condemned” – JESUS (Mark 16:16)

    Such fascism is indistinguishable from Hitler and Stalin who
    like Jesus, worshipped tribalism and exclusivity.
    Our protection from such horror and inequality
    is the Atheism within our Laws:
    “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion” – US Constitution

    Thus the USA may not enforce a universal dogma.

  • larry

    The author lost it the moment she made the phony assertion that totalitarian excesses were bereft of faith. It is pure apologia for religious belief. It ignored that dictators replace traditional religion and tropes with their own take on it. Nazis, Soviets and their ilk depended on religious imagery, language and irrational faith for support.

    One need look no further than the most extreme example of totalitarianism today, North Korea. The chief religion is literally worship of the dynastic monarch. State and leaders are bathesd in religious terms with its own brand if theology.

    Most notably, unlike humanism religious and authoritarian morality is entirely relativistic in terms of authority. Any act in religion or under a dictatorship is justified if done in the name of the leadership/faith. “History/God will absolve me”, being a common excuse for atrocity.

  • @larry,

    Exactly.

    Plus, How about this zinger?
    “The first advocates of toleration before the 18th century Enlightenment — Sebastian Castellio, Baruch Spinoza, Roger Williams, and John Locke — were schooled in Judeo-Christian teachings”

    !!!

    As if
    “Execute them in front of me” (Jesus, Luke 19:27)
    was somehow a humanitarian message! LOL!

  • larry

    Spinoza would not be taking the Book of Luke as the basis of religious teaching, being Jewish. Roger Williams is one of the founders of secularism, being of a minority sect known for eschewing official religion.

    Generally minority faiths/sects understand the value of secularism far better than mainstream Christianity.

    Judeo-christian is a nonsense catch all term to pretend certain elements of Christianity are more accepted than reality permits or to take credit for things having nothing really to do with Jewish or Christian beliefs.

  • David Scott

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
    ……………………. Steven Weinberg

  • Debbo

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness in this article Marcia. For me, this is the most salient point:
    “don’t need to alter our cooperative nature but to address perversions of it.”

    Agreed. It’s always the perversions, whether religious or not, which gain all the media attention, throughout history. Cooperation, kindness, and generosity are footnotes, if mentioned at all. History, as it is most widely and universally known, is a chronological listing of wars, conquering, destruction, hatred, violence, generalship, dominance over others, etc.

    If a history of the world were written documenting cooperation, several libraries would be filled top to bottom. The amount of cooperation is the galaxy. Visciousness is Pluto.

    I believe religion, in a wide variety of forms, has often served as a handy and powerful excuse for aggression. It still works like a charm. Witness Daesh, the terrorist at PP in Colorado, the Hindus killing Muslims in northwest India, etc.

  • Debbo

    Max said, “Why let a holy book dictate the answer to that question?”

    A holy book does not dictate anything to me, nor did I say that. In my opinion, when violent aggression occurs, that is a perversion of cooperation.

  • excellent!

  • Be Brave

    Marcia,

    Yours is one of the best articles/posts ever offered on this website.

    I wish that the comments would reflect your point, but as you can see, sadly, hate seems most assuredly to run in the blood of the common human being.

    While it looks like cooperation is also part of the human story, the ubiquity of unnecessary and unreasoned violence makes the “original sin” idea extremely likely. If any major city were to lose electricity for weeks, you would see both those that cooperate with each other and those that prey on the passive eventually gripping violence at its core. There’s no escaping our DNA.

  • GregH

    “Where to begin with this?” Probably not by claiming that football games prove something about competition in human societies. It’s surely just a coincidence that hyper-competitive commercial sports offer such a great metaphor for how humans dragged themselves out of the dirt and built civilization.

  • edward

    Whether this statement is true or not depends on the definitions one attaches to the words religion, good, and evil. Looking at it from a Christian standpoint, it would be more accurate if the second sentence said, “for evil people to do good things takes religion; for good people to do evil things takes the perversion of religion”.

  • edward

    Sue, I do not regard Fran’s posts as spam. While I disagree with what Jehovah’s Witnesses say in predicting the future, in other ways they are certainly much closer to Jesus’ gospel than those denominations that call for blind devotion to the state in matters of war.

  • Larry

    Religion has the most relativistic notion of morality out there. Any and all acts are considered good based on the ends of “in service of the faith”. Hence one cannot use religion for real moral definitions.

    The ability of religion to inspire any kind of acts of devotion and morally justify them is not “perversion”, it is an integral part of it. Be it claiming that following arbitrary rules is an act of moral conscience or acting in self interest out of concern for divine punishment/reward.

  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Love begets love.

  • Pingback: Analyzing America’s vigilante love affair with guns (COMMENTARY) – Religion News Service | Everyday News Update()