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The Evolution of Violence

by Ezra Niesen Sunday, Nov. 05, 2006 at 12:19 AM
Tylermaudib at

The field of evolutionary psychology offers no end of insights into the origins of social problems, and also into why they’re so hard to solve. The War on Terror and the invasion of Oaxaca are just two more repetitions of the same pattern of aggression and violence that has repeated itself throughout history all over the world.

The Evolution of Vio...
ezra_niesen_05.jpg, image/jpeg, 240x350

In 1987, some scientists began studying of the evolutionary origins of human behavior. It has long been understood that all human behavior revolves around the attempt by the individual to preserve the survival of his or her DNA by the most effective means perceivable to him or her. The big mystery has been the origins of people’s perceptions and why they are so often misled.

As it turns out, all human behavior can be traced to an interaction of five characteristics of the Homo sapiens species: The instincts for survival and reproduction, and the abilities to imagine, to remember, and to communicate ideas among our species.

Many patterns of behavior repeat themselves whenever people act upon what they feel to be right. These patterns repeat themselves in different ways, on different scales, all over the world, all thoughout history, because no matter who they are, the people creating these patterns all share those five chararacteristics. But by recognizing these patterns of behavior and the problems they cause, we can break out of those patterns. One good example is violence and aggression.

The following is taken from my free online lecture, which can be read or downloaded in audio format from . The lecture is presented as a direct opposition to religious fundamentalism in America, but in a broader scope its contents are a direct opposition to the oppression of anyone anywhere.


One very efficient way to preserve the survival of your DNA is to eliminate your competition.

Dr. Steven Pinker devotes a chapter of his book The Blank Slate to the evolutionary origins of violence and aggression. Thomas Hobbes identified three causes of aggression in his book Leviathan, back in the 17th century, which hit the evolutionary nail on the head. They are: Profit, safety, and reputation.

First, you can use aggression to get something out of the deal, whether it’s material resources, emotional satisfaction, oil, or whatever else.

Second, you can use aggression for self defense.

So far, this all very straightforward. You can see the first two parts of aggression everywhere you look in the animal kingdom.

Aggression for reputation is a product of intellect. Many animals have enough intellect to use this one too, but humans use it a lot more. That turns aggression into a real mess for humans, because it leads to what’s known as the Hobbesian cycle of aggression.

One way to threaten people is to inflict so much violence on someone that no one else will dare to oppose you. That could save you the trouble of having to use violence for profit on a number of people individually, because when they find out what you did to the first person, they’re going to remember it, they’re going to imagine it happening to them, and they’re going to tell other people about it.

Likewise, one way to keep yourself safe is to inflict so much violence on someone that no one will dare to attack you. That would save you the trouble of having to use aggression for safety on a number of people individually. Once again, people are going to remember it happening to someone else, imagine it happening to them, and tell other people about it.

Here’s the problem: Everyone else is capable of doing all those things also. Building up your reputation depends on your defeating someone else. That means that the only way you can build up your reputation is by harming someone else’s reputation. Then, the only way for the other person to reclaim his reputation is by challenging you to a rematch. But if he wins the second round and rebuilds his reputation, he harms your reputation. And then it turns into a cycle of aggression.

I think the Hobbesian cycle of aggression is pretty easy to recognize among street gangs in America.

Of course, European nobility also dueled each other with swords and pistols for centuries in the exact same way.

Think a little harder about people who try to make everyone else not dare to threaten them, and you’ll notice the Islamic terrorists and the U.S. War on Terror. A lot of Muslims are trying to make everyone live in fear of them, and a lot of Americans are trying to make everyone live in fear of us. What else do you call it?

When the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, they threatened the United States. After that, the two sides spent a lot nerve wracking days trying to threaten each other into backing down, but people on both sides realized that if they backed down they would be admitting defeat. President Kennedy and President Kruschev both realized they were caught in a Hobbesian cycle of aggression, and both of them knew they had to find a way out, because if they started a nuclear war, neither side would win. However, even though everyone in America and the Soviet Union had already seen what atom bombs did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both presidents faced a lot of opposition from their advisors and their citizens, who kept insisting that declaring an all-out nuclear war was preferable to backing down from an enemy.

That illustrates just how deeply ingrained of an instinct aggression for reputation is. It also illustrates how much more powerful of motivators emotional instincts are over intellect. When people all over the world can see what atom bombs did to cities but lots of people still feel that getting into an atomic war is a preferable course of action to backing away from a challenge, it’s a serious problem. Our emotions evolved to make whatever courses of action lent themselves best to the preservation of our DNA feel like the right course of action. But our emotions evolved back when people were fighting wars with clubs. So this is a good example of how people acting on what they feel to be the best course of action can be disastrous in the modern world.

This is also a good example of just how deep some social problems can be, and how ignoring them or accusing people of just being too dumb to solve them won’t make them go away. For a few weeks in 1962, people all over America and the Soviet Union were ready to whip out their nukes and throw down because someone was threatening their reputation. So if a bunch of poor inner city kids are still doing the same thing today with whimpy little pistols and submachineguns, anybody who’s alive because President Kennedy and President Kruschev ignored all their advisors and citizens and backed away from a threat while they still had the chance, is really in no position to point their fingers and call these kids a bunch of savages. We are not inherently better people than them, we’ve just learned an important lesson that they haven’t yet.

…But of course, now the United States is caught up in a War on Terror that people are predicting will go on forever, because nobody knows how to win it. Well if Americans and Arabs are still trying to keep themselves safe from each other in the same way the Cripps and the Bloods try to keep themselves safe from each other, is it any wonder? So maybe we didn’t learn anything from the Cuban Missile Crisis after all.

My website, including my free audio book, can be found at: .

This lecture can be found at: .

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