Reengineering Human Nature: Violence

The Problem: Many religions, including Christianity, teach that unjustified anger and violence are sins that risk the offender’s eternal soul. The Ten Commandments order people not to murder – usually a crime committed in the throes of anger – while Jesus says that even a momentary outburst of anger can lead to damnation: “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca [an Aramaic insult —Ebonmuse], shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22).

But humans are violent creatures. Nations and peoples have been pitted against each other since the time of our oldest written records, and countless millions have died in the wars, invasions and rebellions that fill our history. Hunter-gatherer societies, often caricatured as peaceful savages, actually have even higher rates of murder and warfare than modern industrialized states. On the individual level, as well, there are millions of short-tempered people who think little of responding to any provocation with fury and violence. For most of human history, for example, and in many places still today, beatings were considered an acceptable method of keeping wives in line.

The Solution: Some human beings are natural pacifists, shunning war and violence. The question is, why aren’t we all like that? Instead of giving us an impulse to violence and then commanding us never to use it, why wouldn’t God simply create humans such that violence is unthinkable to us?

There are several plausible ways to implement this in human neural wiring, and the easiest one that I can think of is through the sense of disgust. Human beings have an intrinsic sense of disgust: we instinctively recoil from things like rotting food, diseased animals or excrement. This is an adaptation to protect us from disease and pathogens by making us physically nauseated at the thought of coming in contact with things that are likely to transmit them.

A creator with the freedom to design human psychology as he sees fit could have discouraged us from doing violence by connecting those circuits to the sense of disgust. With this change, the idea of doing physical harm to another person, whether up close and in person or at a distance, would fill us with revulsion and nausea and would make it all but impossible to actually carry out that impulse. (We could specify that this deterrent triggers based only on the intent of an action, not its effect, so it wouldn’t interfere with doctors giving shots or performing surgery so long as they genuinely want their patient to get well.) Humans would then quickly find that diplomacy and negotiation, rather than bloodshed, would be the only feasible way to solve our disagreements.

The Real Explanation: The problem with this possibility, in evolutionary terms, is that it’s an unsustainable equilibrium. If all people were peaceful and non-violent, and then one mutant appeared who could use force to get his way, the rest of us would be helpless against him and he and his descendants would rapidly outcompete us. There’s no evolutionary advantage to the individual in being a pacifist. The benefits are only to the species as a whole, and natural selection doesn’t work at that level. Thus we expect that evolution would make us violent animals, to defend ourselves from all the other violent animals who stand to benefit from doing the same.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
Atlas Shrugged: Welcome to Atlantis
Marital Rape in the Bible
Atlas Shrugged: The Cobra Commander Dialogues
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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