Are humans wired for violence? Evolutionary biology begs to differ 

Marcia Pally | November 27, 2015

(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.

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.

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.

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 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.)

 

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