Times 2 - features

September 03, 2002


The killer instinct

The liberal belief that violence is learnt from our environment is wrong. We are all innately aggressive, says Steven Pinker in the first of a two-part series on human nature. In fact, violence has an evolutionary logic and we should be asking not why it occurs, but why it is so often avoided.

WHEN it comes to explaining human thought and behaviour, the possibility that heredity plays a role still has the power to shock. To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, greed, reactionary politics and neglect of children and the disadvantaged. Any claim that the mind has an innate organisation seems not a hypothesis that might be incorrect, but a thought that it is immoral to think.

The refusal to acknowledge human nature distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse and our day-to-day lives. Logicians tell us that a single contradiction can corrupt a set of statements and allow falsehoods to proliferate through it. The dogma that human nature does not exist, in the face of evidence from science and common sense that it does, is just such a corrupting influence.

The denial of human nature has not just corrupted the world of critics and intellectuals, but has done harm to the lives of real people. The theory that parents can mould their children like clay has inflicted unnatural, sometimes cruel, child-rearing regimens on parents. It has distorted the choices mothers face as they try to balance their lives. and multiplied the anguish of parents whose children have not turned out the way that they had hoped. The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people’s enjoyment of ornament, natural light and human scale, and forced millions to live in cement boxes. The romantic notion that all evil is a product of society has justified the release of dangerous psychopaths who promptly murdered innocent people. And the conviction that humanity can be reshaped by massive social engineering projects has led to some of the greatest atrocities in history.

THE reduction of violence is one of our greatest moral concerns. We ought to use every intellectual tool available to understand what it is about the human mind and human social arrangements that leads people to hurt and kill so much. But as with many other moral concerns related to human nature, the effort to figure out what is going on has been hijacked by an effort to legislate the correct answer. The politically correct answer is that violence has nothing to do with human nature, but is a pathology inflicted by malign elements outside us. Violence is a behaviour taught by the culture, or an infectious disease endemic to certain environments.

“ All of us know,” it is repeatedly said, “that the conditions that breed violence are ignorance, discrimination, poverty and disease.” But this mantra is not based on any sound research. Wild swings in American crime rates — up in the 1960s and late 1980s, down in the late 1990s — continue to defy any simple explanation. And the usual suspects for understanding violence are completely unproven and sometimes patently false.

For example, aggressive parents often have aggressive children, but people who conclude that aggression is learnt from parents in a “cycle of violence” never consider the possibility that violent tendencies could be inherited as well as learnt. Unless one looks at adopted children and shows that they act more like their adoptive parents than like their biological parents, cycles of violence prove nothing. Similarly, the psychologists who note that men commit more acts of violence than women and then blame it on a culture of masculinity are wearing intellectual blinkers that keep them from noticing that men and women differ in their biology as well as in their social roles. Children are exposed to violent role models, of course, but they are also exposed to clowns, preachers, folk singers and drag queens; the question is why children find some people more worthy of imitation than others.

The American conception of maleness, inculcated in childhood, is often blamed for the excess of violence in the US. But Spain has its machismo, Italy its braggadocio and Japan its rigid gender roles, yet their homicide rates are a fraction of that of the more feminist-influenced US. The archetype of a masculine hero prepared to use violence in a just cause is one of the most common motifs in mythology, and can be found in many cultures with relatively low rates of violent crime.

James Bond, for example — who actually has a licence to kill — is British, and martial arts films are popular in many industrialised Asian countries. In any case, only a bookworm who has never seen an American movie or television programme could believe that they glorify murderous fanatics such as Timothy McVeigh or teenagers who randomly shoot classmates in high school cafeterias. Masculine heroes in the mass media are highly moralistic: they fight bad guys.

Among conservative politicians and liberal health professionals alike it is an article of faith that violence in the media is a chief cause of American violent crime. But psychologists who have recently reviewed the literature have concluded that exposure to media violence has little or no effect on violent behaviour in the world. Reality checks from recent history suggest the same thing. People were more violent in the centuries before television and movies were invented.

Canadians watch the same television shows as Americans but have a fourth their homicide rate. When the British colony of St Helena installed television for the first time in 1995 its people did not become more violent. Violent computer games took off in the 1990s, a time when US crime rates plummeted.

What about the other usual suspects? Guns, discrimination and poverty play a role in violence, but in no case is it a simple or decisive one. Guns surely make it easier for people to kill and harder for them to de-escalate a fight before a death occurs and thus multiply the lethality of conflicts large and small. Nonetheless, many societies had sickening rates of violence before guns were invented, and people do not automatically kill one another just because they have access to guns. The Israelis and Swiss are armed to the teeth, but have low rates of violent personal crime; among American states, Maine and North Dakota have the lowest homicide rates, but almost every home has a gun.

As for discrimination and poverty, again it is hard to show a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Chinese immigrants to California in the 19th century and Japanese-Americans in the Second World War faced severe discrimination, but they did not react with high rates of violence. Women are poorer than men and are more likely to need money to feed children, but they are less likely to steal things by force. Different subcultures that are equally impoverished can vary radically in their rates of violence, and in many cultures relatively affluent men can be quick to use lethal force. Though no one could object to a well-designed programme that was shown to reduce crime, one cannot simply blame crime rates on a lack of commitment to social programmes. These programmes first flourished in the 1960s, the decade in which rates of violent crime in America skyrocketed.

There can be little doubt that some individuals are constitutionally more prone to violence than others. Take men, for starters: across cultures, men kill men 20 to 40 times more often than women kill women. And the lion’s share of the killers are young men, between the ages of 15 and 30. Some young men, moreover, are more violent than others. According to one estimate, 7 per cent of young men commit 79 per cent of repeated violent offences.

Psychologists find that individuals prone to violence have a distinctive personality profile. They tend to be impulsive, low in intelligence, hyperactive and attention-deficient. They are described as having an “oppositional temperament”: they are vindictive, easily angered, resistant to control, deliberately annoying and likely to blame everything on other people. The most callous among them are psychopaths, people who lack a conscience, and they make up a substantial percentage of murderers. These traits emerge in early childhood, persist through the lifespan and are largely heritable, though nowhere near completely so.

But if sadists, hotheads and other natural-born killers are part of the problem of violence, they are not the main part of the problem. Wars start and stop, crime rates yo-yo, societies go from militant to pacifist or vice versa within a generation, all without any change in the frequencies of the local genes. Today’s docile Scandinavians descended from bloodthirsty Vikings, and Africa, racked by war after the fall of colonialism, is much like Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Any ethnic group that has made it into the present probably had pugnacious ancestors in the not-too-distant past.

The reality is that while the brain may be equipped with strategies for violence, they are contingent strategies, connected to complicated circuitry that computes when and where they should be deployed. Animals deploy aggression in highly selective ways and humans are, of course, even more calculating. Most people today live their adult lives without ever pressing their violence buttons.

So what is the evidence that our species may have evolved mechanisms for discretionary violence? Contrary to some romantic anthropological legends, violence is universal across human cultures. Moreover, boys in all cultures spontaneously engage in rough-and-tumble play, which is obviously practice for fighting. They also divide themselves into coalitions that compete aggressively. And children are violent well before they have been infected by war toys or cultural stereotypes. The most violent age is not adolescence but toddlerhood: in a recent large study, almost half the boys just past the age of two, and a slightly smaller percentage of the girls, engaged in hitting, biting and kicking.

Violence continues to preoccupy the mind throughout life. All cultures take pleasure in thinking about killings, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, crime dramas, spy thrillers, Shakespearean tragedies, biblical stories, hero myths and epic poems. People also enjoy watching the stylised combat we call “sports”, which are contests of aiming, chasing or fighting, complete with victors and the vanquished.

Almost everyone recognises the need for violence in defence of self, family and innocent victims. Moral philosophers point out that there are even circumstances in which torture is justified — when a captured terrorist has planted a time bomb in a crowded place and refuses to say where it is, for example. More generally, whether a violent mindset is called heroic or pathological depends on whose ox has been gored. Freedom fighter or terrorist, Robin Hood or thief, guardian angel or vigilante, martyr or kamikaze, general or gang leader — these are value judgments, not scientific classifications. I doubt that the brains or genes of most of the lauded protagonists would differ from those of their vilified counterparts.

The first step in understanding violence is to set aside our abhorrence of it long enough to examine why it sometimes pays off in personal or evolutionary terms. This requires one to invert the statement of the problem: not why violence occurs, but why it is avoided. Morality, after all, did not enter the universe with the Big Bang and then pervade it like background radiation; it was discovered by our ancestors after billions of years of the morally indifferent process known as natural selection. If an obstacle stands in the way of something an organism needs, it should neutralise the obstacle by disabling or eliminating it. This includes obstacles that happen to be other human beings — ones that are monopolising desirable land or sources of food, for example. Even among modern nation-states, raw self-interest is an important motive for war.

Cannibalism is so repugnant to us that for years even anthropologists failed to admit that it was common in prehistory. It is easy to think: could other human beings really be capable of such a depraved act? But, of course, animal rights activists have a similarly low opinion of meat eaters, who not only cause millions of preventable deaths but do so with utter callousness: castrating and branding cattle without an anaesthetic, impaling fish by the mouth and letting them suffocate in the hold of a boat, boiling lobsters alive. My point is not to make a moral case for vegetarianism, but to shed light on the mindset of human violence and cruelty. History and ethnography suggest that people can treat strangers the way we now treat lobsters, and our incomprehension of such deeds may be compared with animal rights activists’ incomprehension of ours.

The observation that people may be morally indifferent to other people who are outside a mental circle immediately suggests an opening for the effort to reduce violence: understand the psychology of the circle well enough to encourage people to put all of humanity inside it. The moral circle has been growing for millennia, pushed outward by the expanding networks of reciprocity that make other human beings more valuable alive than dead. Other technologies have contributed to a cosmopolitan view that makes it easy to imagine trading places with other people. These include literacy, travel, a knowledge of history and realistic art that helps people project themselves into the daily lives of people who in other times might have been their mortal enemies.

Adjudication by an armed authority appears to be the most effective general violence-reduction technique yet invented. Though we debate whether tweaks in criminal policy, such as executing murderers versus locking them up for life, can reduce violence by a few percentage points, there can be no debate on the massive effects of having a criminal justice system as opposed to living in anarchy. The shockingly high homicide rates of pre-state societies, with 10 to 60 per cent of the men dying at the hands of other men, provide one kind of evidence. Another is the emergence of a violent culture of honour in just about any corner of the world that is beyond the reach of the law. The inverse is true as well. When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing and petty warfare among gangs, warlords and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and parts of Africa in the 1990s.

The generalisation that anarchy in the sense of a lack of government leads to anarchy in the sense of violent chaos may seem banal, but it is often overlooked in today’s still-romantic climate. Government in general is anathema to many conservatives and the police and prison system are anathema to many liberals. Many people on the Left, citing uncertainty about the deterrent value of capital punishment compared with life imprisonment, say deterrence is not effective in general, and many oppose more effective policing of inner-city neighbourhoods, even though it may be the most effective way for their decent inhabitants to abjure the code of the streets. Many on the Right oppose decriminalising drugs, prostitution and gambling without factoring in the costs of the zones of anarchy that, by their own free-market logic, are inevitably spawned by prohibition policies. When demand for a commodity is high, suppliers will materialise, and if they cannot protect their property rights by calling the police, they will do so with a violent culture of honour. Schoolchildren are being fed the disinformation that people in pre-state societies were inherently peaceable, leaving them uncomprehending, indeed contemptuous, of one of our species’ greatest inventions, democratic government and the rule of law.

Many intellectuals have averted their gaze from the evolutionary logic of violence, fearing that acknowledging it is tantamount to accepting, or even approving, it. Instead they have pursued the comforting delusion of the Noble Savage, in which violence is an arbitrary product of learning or a pathogen that bores into us from the outside. But denying the logic of violence makes it easy to forget how readily violence can flare up, and ignoring the parts of the mind that ignite violence makes it easy to overlook the parts that can extinguish it. With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.

Extracted from
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker, to be published by Allen Lane on September 5, £25. Available from The Times Booskhop for £20, plus £1.95 p&p, 0870 160 8080.

© Steven Pinker 2002