Violent riots outside and inside the US Capitol Building. World leaders exchanging nuclear threats across the Pacific Ocean. Police brutality, peaceful protests turning violent – or, in the case of Charlottesville in 2017, starting out with the intent of violence. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria (to name just a few). Mass shootings at massage parlors, schools, outdoor concerts, places of worship, and public gatherings, stretching from America to New Zealand. Terrorism, both domestic and international.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is the natural order of things and that humanity is doomed to eternal conflict because this is just who we are: an innately violent species, still controlled by primitive urges. In fact, the debate around whether we have a built-in predilection for violence has raged among scholars for centuries, and the answer is far from a foregone conclusion.
Here are three arguments suggesting we are naturally violent, and three suggesting we are not.
Humans are ‘naturally’ violent.
Our closest relatives are very violent
Since “wars” between chimpanzee communities were first described in the 1970s, there has been speculation about why these conflicts take place, and what they can teach us about our own capacity for violence. Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that attacks by groups of male chimpanzees on smaller groups increase their dominance over neighboring communities, improving access to food and mates. Ancestral men might have similarly established dominance by killing rivals from other groups, thus securing greater reproductive success and endowing our species with a desire for violence.
We are molded by conflict
In his 2002 book The Blank Slate, psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that human bodies and brains have “direct signs of design for aggression,” and that men in particular bear the marks of “an evolutionary history of violent male-male competition.” As such, men are seemingly more likely to go to war, to murder, or to assault. Moreover, distinguishing anatomical features, such as greater physical strength, could well be adaptations for inter-male fighting. But does this mean that men evolved to be violent? Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon asserted in 1968 that for the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil, men who kill have more wives and therefore father more children. This has been described as evidence of selection for violence in action.
Humans have always been like this
The 17th-century thinker Thomas Hobbes famously described the lives of humans in their “natural condition” prior to the development of civil society as “nasty, brutish, and short.” The idea that humans are more violent without the architecture of the state to control them is supported by both archaeological and contemporary observations. The chances of dying at the hands of another human is generally higher in non-state societies, and one widely quoted estimate by psychologist Steven Pinker places the death rate resulting from lethal violence in ancient non-state societies, based on archaeological evidence, at a shocking 15% of the population. This is compared to 3% in the modern era.
We do not have a tendency toward violence.
We are related to peaceful apes
Primatologist Frans de Waal reckons that primate behavior has been cherry-picked to suit a more violent narrative for humanity. While chimp behavior may well shed light on human male tendencies for violence, de Waal points out that the other two of our three closest relatives, bonobos and gorillas, are less violent than us. It is plausible that instead of descending from chimp-like ancestors, we come from a lineage of relatively peaceful, female-dominated apes, like bonobos. Chimpanzees might be ultra-violent outliers.
Not all humans are violent
While it may seem that violence is universal, our perception can be biased. Biological anthropologist Agustín Fuentes makes the point that while we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the headline “4 Killed in New York City Today,” we’re unlikely to ever read one declaring “8,299,996 People in New York City Got Along Today.” Most people aren’t violent, so why do we think violence is innate? Similarly, while most assume that all human cultures are violent, the anthropologist Douglas Fry has documented over 70 societies that don’t make war at all, from the Martu of Australia, who have no words for “feud” or “warfare,” to the Semai of Malaysia, who simply flee into the forest when faced with conflict.
Cooperation, not conflict, is the key to our success
Contrary to the suggestions of psychologist Steven Pinker and others, there is actually very little archaeological evidence for group conflict in our distant past. This suggests that war only became common as larger, sedentary civilizations emerged around 12,000 years ago. Many anthropologists dispute the notion that non-state societies today provide evidence that conflict is part of the human condition, accusing academics like Napoleon Chagnon of distorting results to suit their ideologies. Humans have been responsible for terrible acts of violence throughout our history, but the study of human cultures past and present shows that we are defined far more by cooperation and the avoidance of conflict than by violence. Otherwise, we would not have got where we are today.
The Bottom Line: No one would deny that humans are capable of immense violence. The US Capitol, Oklahoma City, 9/11, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Parkland, Christchurch, and all the other attacks in between and since, not to mention the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the list of incidents of mass violence seems to only grow longer. But is the solution to accept violence as part of human nature and look for ways to deal with it, or do we need to rid ourselves of this misguided notion altogether?