To begin with,
I feel I should warn you that reading this book might be hazardous to your
equanimity. As you study the exceptionally well-written and well thought out
chapters you may question some of your own basic ethical, moral and
philosophical tenets and consequently experience increasing levels of anxiety
and depression. Nevertheless, I hope a lot of you read the book, including
public policymakers—those who are literate of course. It contains not only
penetrating analyses of the root causes of the violence that is threatening to
destroy our civilization, but also some promising violence-reduction
book's thirteen contributors and editors possess an impressive level of expertise
in the fields of psychology, sociology, evolution and forensics. Eleven of them
are Ph.D. level professors of psychology and the other two are working on their
the preface and first chapter the editors acknowledge the resistance that can
be expected to be raised against their book or any book containing
psychological hypotheses related to evolutionary theory. Religious
fundamentalists have long argued that the principles of evolution contradict
the sacred truths of creationism and are therefore sinful. Then there's the
history of Hitler raising even more opposition to the subject of evolution by
basing the Nazi race theory on social Darwinism. And in the free
will-determinism controversy the free will advocates have resisted evolutionary
concepts as leaning toward determinism.
writers believe that another source of opposition to evolutionary theory is
duly constituted authority. "Legitimate violence reduction efforts might
only be tolerated in carefully constrained areas where political power is
unthreatened or enhanced."
key concept in relating evolutionary psychology to violence is that of
"adaptation." The writers give us an example of the history of an
adaptation: "A motive to strive for status may have evolved through a
tortuously long causal chain involving (a) propulsion up the social ladder, (b)
the consequent gaining of access to certain resources, (c) rendering the bearer
more attractive to the opposite sex, (d) producing more bountiful mating
opportunities, (e) eventually being chosen as a mate, (f) which in turn leads
to sexual behavior that produces offspring." That a behavior leads to
sexual behavior that produces offspring is essential to its being adaptive.
Natural selection teaches that "the sole criterion preventing evolutionary
oblivion is successful gene replication."
of the forms of violence the writers discuss as having evolutionary roots, is
rape. Dimorphism is common to mammals, with primates among the most dimorphic
of orders. Great ape males are known to use their superior size and strength to
force females into intercourse, just as humans do. The writers point out that
during the Middle Ages, marriage by rape was not uncommon, and in communities
where women are in short supply, rape might be a "last-ditch" means
for an unattractive male to gain sexual access to otherwise unapproachable
suggestion for reducing the frequency of rape is to educate both men and women
regarding the differences in their attitudes toward sex. Without this
emphasis, men, who "inhabit a more sexualized world than women do,"
are apt to interpret ambiguous body movements as sexual signaling or even
sexual invitation. Another suggestion is decriminalizing both prostitution and
pornography, so that males have more acceptable access to non-violent methods
of sexual satisfaction.
form of violence discussed by the writers is homicide. They mention that,
within the US, nearly 20,000 individuals are murdered each year,
and homicide is the third leading cause of death, worldwide, for 15-44 year old
members of one's own species is widespread in insect, mammalian and primate
species. The authors write: "The idea that humans might have evolved
adaptations whose dedicated function is to murder other humans seems to be so
abhorrent that it has not been seriously entertained, scrutinized, or examined.
In contrast, we have proposed a theory that appears to be radical in this
context—that humans have evolved not one, but many adaptations whose proper function
is to produce the death of other humans." They go on to list some
potential evolutionary benefits of killing other people, such as: eliminating
sexual rivals; gaining material resources; building a macho reputation to deter
others from aggression; self-defense; and the elimination of resource-absorbing
infants or children. From an evolutionary view, considering all of the possible
benefits derived from killing other people, it is surprising that homicide is
not more prevalent.
public policy implications of the evolutionary perspective on homicide are
broken down into two approaches. The first approach is "…to identify the
circumstances in which evolved homicide mechanisms are most likely to be
activated and to direct special efforts at educating people about these
circumstances." The second approach involves using the evolved antihomicide
mechanisms that humans possess. Identifying their fears and other emotions that
are danger signals and training people to attend to them could decrease their
risk of being killed.
of the main points of the book is that if the evolutionary perspective on
violence is to save civilization from man's inhumanity to man it will have to
inform the public policymakers who make decisions about international conflicts
and terrorism. Since "international" frequently includes
"intercultural," the authors provide us with an evolutionary
definition of "culture": " humanly constructed beliefs about the
nature of reality shared by individuals in groups," and an evolutionary explanation
of how and why cultures were developed.
art, body ornamentation and ritual burial appeared simultaneously in the
middle/upper Paleolithic period, 30,000-50,000 years ago. The authors believe
that the development of language was motivated by the need to construct myths
of creation to mitigate the "paralyzing dread of death." "Only
human beings, by virtue of consciousness, are simultaneously alive and aware
they are alive." And with this self-awareness—otherwise a powerfully
positive adaptation—comes the explicit awareness that the natural conclusion of
every life is death.
management theory proposes that culture "serves to assuage the terror
engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death and, in so doing, to
preserve consciousness (in its present form) as a viable form of mental
organization." "Culture serves to reduce anxiety about death by
providing the possibility for individuals to perceive themselves as persons of
value in a world of meaning, and hence qualified for immortality."
living in one culture are apt to regard other cultures as threats to their own
worldview and their hope for immortality. This leads to anxiety and threats
against the other cultures. We tend to derogate those who do not share our
worldview and threaten them with "holy wars." In effect, we say:
"We and our god will kill you and your god." Terms like "Evil
Empire," "Great Satan," and "Axis of Evil" are angrily
authors make some suggestions for reducing global levels of intercultural
anxiety and hostility and hopefully avoiding the currently threatening nuclear
holocaust. One suggestion is to effect broad public dissemination of facts that
support the evolutionary aspects of terrorism and intercultural hostility. Up
to now the public policy arena has been relatively impervious to input from
research. Another is to use informational channels to shift all people toward a
focus on our shared humanism rather than our cultural differences.
The authors note that currently in the world there are two ethologically
oriented political systems in national governments. One is the despotic
chimpanzee model, an alpha male system; the other is the egalitarian
band/tribal model in which decisions are made by consensus and alpha rulers are
excluded. Unfortunately, most current governments, including super-powers,
favor the alpha male system and intercultural conflict is apt to result in
violence; while the band/tribal model, which requires consensus for important
decisions, would favor diplomatic negotiation over war.
two attempts at world government—the League
of Nations and the UN—have both been
impotent as enforcers of world order and peace because they have not been given
the right of taxation to support a military force that could defeat any
national military force and to distribute needed aid to impoverished nations.
authors conclude that the current emphasis on sovereignty in the super-powers
will make it more than difficult—practically impossible—to establish an
effective world government that could enforce a global rule of law. However, in
Chapter 7's Concluding Comments there is an expression of hope for mankind:
"As a special kind of primate, it is in us to
be small, bigoted, insular, and backward looking. However, it also is in us to
be expansive, wise, inclusive, and forward looking. For all their
intransigence, primate societies do change. Let us use policy informed by an
understanding of human nature to change our societies to the mutual benefit of
hosts and others."
A start in this direction would be for as many
people as possible to study Evolutionary Psychology And Violence. I recommend
you go directly to your bookstore or library and get a copy. If you belong to a
book club, bring it to their attention. If you know any public policymakers,
send them a copy. Time is getting short, so hurry!
web page for book
© 2004 Jack R. Anderson
Jack R. Anderson,
M.D. is a retired psychiatrist living in Lincoln,