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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://twitter.com/Arduinnae Arduinnae

    I’m going to have to disagree. What we see in educated, affluent societies is that violence is disappearing. People are communicating to resolve their differences, and the crime rate has been steadily decreasing. That we are “wired for violence” is a fable, I think.

    We’re wired for adaptability – that’s what gave us an edge when we didn’t have sharp teeth and claws. In a social structure where violence was necessary to maintain your social pecking order, individuals adapt and become pre-disposed to violence. For much of our history, that was probably the only possible form that society could take because the pacifist village would quickly be the conquered village.

    But then technology happened. We can start to afford to be pacifists as long as we have sufficient defences to discourage any conquering. We’re now free to adapt to a society that values communication and community, while feeling disgust at the thought of violence.

    So I don’t think that either violence or pacifism is “wired” into us (maybe a little bit, but I think the much stronger connection is communication vs frustration over an inability to communicate). We’re just adaptable.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    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

    Shades of A Clockwork Orange

    I partly agree with Arduinnae in that culturally we are less disposed to violence now, but I think it’s a thin veneer. Witness how quickly people lose their inhibition to violence when drunk or on amphetamines, or just plain ratty and over tired. There are levels of physical violence too that are not always on society’s radar, like domestic violence for example.

  • K.Simon

    I’m also going to have to disagree with Arduinnae, yes it might seem as if on the surface we are less prone to violence but the defenses that we create is basically that we have so many more ways to kill you than you do for us so back off, its like pointing a gun at someone to deter them from doing the same and eventually it will back fire into a war, and even with individual cities where technology is at its peak they tend to have a high crime rate. I don’t personally believe that violence was mutated into us through natural selection but I do believe that the need to be “on top of the food chain” so to speak was placed there just like every other being and for us violence is one of easier ways to obtain this.

  • Valhar2000

    Arduinnae: Violence is inherent in human beings. If a simple look out the window does not make this abundantly clear to even the meanest intelligence, psychological research will show it be so. You can read the writings of Steven Pinker, among others, for more on this.

    You are half-right, however. Humans are intelligent (yes! really!) and adaptable, and thus we can realize that pacifism works better as a whole, in the long run, and attempt to practice it. The attempt often breaks down, of course, but as the beneficial effects of the practice become more and more noticeable, its benefit becomes more apparent, and as it gains popularity it becomes easier for the individual to learn it and do it, and so it keeps gaining popularity.

  • AnonaMiss

    Can I have your source for statistics on violence in hunter-gatherer societies?

    I believe you, just would like to have a source when it inevitably comes up in discussion among my friends!

  • http://www.ceetar.com Ceetar

    The problem with that Valhar, is that every ‘attempt’ to practice it exposes us to that mutant tyrant that would take advantage. And there never will be a situation where this isn’t the case. Take any group of people and there are going to be smart/angry people near the bottom that realize if they shove their neighbor down the cliff they can take his money, house, wife, whatever and become infinitely better/happier.

    The problem here, and why a god would likely not create people that are pacifists (not that I presume to know what supreme beings think, other than they don’t seem to like the Cubs) is that the idea of justifiable anger is extremely subjective. And that mutant that would take advantage isn’t always a mutant, or doing it willfully. Someone even slightly violent/angry/aggressive naturally maybe find coworkers or subordinates or service people that are more pacified heeding to their wishes more easily. This only supports the behavior that may just be their natural tendency. Take a customer that always complains about price increases at Starbucks, and tends to get cashiers to give him free things or a discount. Now maybe one cashier gets angry about this and refuses to deal with said customer. (Is this an eye for an eye or should he be turning the other cheek?) The angry customer makes out well, the angry barista makes out because he doesn’t have to deal with it and the pacifists are walked all over.

  • Katie M

    I’ve read about an interesting theory for pacifism (don’t know how valid it is, but it seems to apply to me). I consider myself a pacifist-I hate war and violence, and even hate getting into arguments. However, I’m quick to anger, and sometimes I want bad things to happen to people I don’t like. Once in an argument, I’m liable to start yelling. The theory is that some people who become pacifists aren’t that way by nature, but are just trying to rein in their own violent emotions.

  • Zietlos

    Ceetar, you’re mistaking pacifism for meekness. I’m a pacifist. I’m also almost six and a half feet tall, huge, and speak in a guttural baritone. I don’t need to be violent, I just ask politely and people acquiesce to my wishes most of the time. Likewise, few people ever try to bother me, regardless of knowing I’m a pushover or not. But still, I do not seek to do violence to others. Hence, I am a pacifist, but not a pushover. It is not mutually exclusive.

    In the coffee scenario, I would probably advice the customer to the nearest Tim Horton’s, since Starbucks prides itself on high prices, so if they want something cheap, they can go there. That isn’t violent; I’m suggesting a viable alternative that fits their needs, and at the same time, they would likely shout at me once more, and would, in fact, leave. A similar strategy for smaller people (realizing intimidation is likely part of my ability to be a pacifist), would be to be annoyingly cheerful, to the point where others want to stab themselves. You would be surprised how well being chipper can combat being angry. They will blow up, completely, and be forced from the store by security, if not by other customers. And you have done nothing wrong but be “SUPER HAPPY ILOVETHEWORLDANDTHEWORLDLOVESYOU FUNTIME!

    Atheists should be used to the latter attempt. It’s the passive pacifist hostility whenever a Xian opens their argument with “Well I’ll pray for you, and Jesus loves you, and me, and everyone else too!”. And yes, it annoys the, well, hell out of you. Imagine needing to argue with that, as a brick wall, for an hour, for a 50 cent discount on coffee, every day. You’d quickly realize it isn’t worth your time or effort, and fall into line on that minor issue.

    So either enough power to be pacifist (I believe this was Russia’s strategy for a while), or otherwise be so cheerful no one can stand you (Canada in the 80s and 90s). It is possible.

    As for the angry barrista, you REALLY think a mad person would take being scolded, passively (when he is definitely not a pacifist)? He’d make the angry barrista’s life a living hell, calling the manager, making formal complaints to the branch, franchise, and global offices, I’ve dealt with those kinds of people before, the best thing to do is be cheerful to them. They generally have more free time than you, and are more than willing to argue all day long just for something to do.

  • javaman

    As humans became meat eaters (which increased brain size) in our distance evolutionary past, the only way this feat could be accomplished was to violently stab, crush,and hack large game to death. Hunting and killing animals is how we got here today.Once your skill level as a hunter increased ,killing humans (who are animals) in my opinion would seem easy. Today we still have a three floor brain structure, with a robust reptile base , and an animal limbic system in the middle. These two areas still control much of our behavior. We still fight for resources , mating and alpha status in our packs.

  • TEP

    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?

    Except he didn’t command us never to use it; there are a far greater number of Bible verses condoning violence and killing than there are condemning it.

  • Ed

    Pinker’s Ted talk on violence seems apt here especially since he claims violence has been decreasing steadily since the time of the hunter gather and he details 4 reasons for why this may be happening.

    http://blog.ted.com/2007/09/steven_pinker.php

    Just because we are wired for something doesn’t necessarily mean much- Pinker for example was “wired” for baldness (80% chance). http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11Genome-t.html?ref=magazine&pagewanted=all

    We are all “wired” for language but we all are not born speaking french, nor are we born with a poet’s skill or sensibility. Even if certain traits and behaviors are wired, environment influences them a great deal. Donald Hebb is said to have once answered a journalist’s question of “which, nature or nurture, contributes more to personality?” by asking in response, “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?”

  • Wednesday

    @TEP in #9:

    That’s true. There’s a reason the commandment is Thou Shalt Not Murder – there’s lots of God-sanctioned and -mandated killing throughout the OT.

    Still, an omnipotent being could easily adjust this disgust tendency to exclude divinely mandated executions. Say that so long as an executioner was not acting out out of rage or malice, but saw it as a sad necessity, much the same as we view euthenizing seriously ill or injured animals, it wouldn’t be triggered. This wouldn’t keep us safe from the violence committed by brainwashed law enforcement in a propaganda-heavy police state, sure, but it would allow for limiting violence except for what’s demanded by God in the OT. Well, wars aside.

    @Ceetar in #5:
    Okay, so make it so disgust doesn’t kick in if you’re acting in self-defense or in defense of another. Again, not a problem for an omnipotent creator.

  • http://www.ceetar.com Ceetar

    Bah, had a long reply that the internet ate.

    Anger/violence is part of what makes us humans though. I wonder what else we’d lose of we somehow managed to engineer it out.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    And, Ceetar, if god created us this way, then it’s part of what makes us human according to how god created us. Had god created us in a different way, we’d think that was “part of what makes us human.” This is close to an is/ought fallacy.

  • Kevin Morgan

    Violence is a human interpretation of the naturally evolved need to survive. Animals (including us) survive by taking in nutrients for energy used in repair and development of our bodies and all the other “stuff” we do. The act of killing another creature for its resources is the way nature works. As we evolve social structures that becomes less necessary. We have soy products and vegetables and no longer “need” to eat the protein from living creatures, at least those of us living in developed countries like the U.S.A. If you live somewhere with less resources, or if you either can’t afford or get access for whatever reason to those other resources, then you hunt, trap or farm for yourself and your family.

    If you are threatened by a lack of resources, whether the threat is a real imminent one, a perceived one, or one projected for the future (or you’re just a bunch of greedy fucks) you do violence to those with the resources (this can be physical or economic) to gain them for yourselves.

    It’s just nature. It isn’t right or wrong except inside our evolved psychology. Unfortunately I don’t see much changing without crisis. History tells us that the course the U.S. is on is unsustainable and will end as all empires do unless large changes in policy and attitude happen and that’s not likely (in my opinion) without some crisis forcing it on us. It’s the whole herd, alpha dog, father figure (pick your poison) thing.

  • L.Long

    The human animal has, as a rule, always been and always will be violent or capable of it.
    Any pacifist are existing only thru the protection of the ‘normal people’. Why were, and are, the amish here and not in russia or africa?? They have no real affection for the USA. If you could take up everything they have and set it down almost anywhere else and they would loose everything fairly quickly. Pacifists exits only thru the voluntary support of the culture.
    But if pacifist is defined as someone who does not initiate violence as one commenter said above then being this type is OK. As most martial artists will tell you that initiating violence puts you at the disadvantage of someone who is willing to protect himself.
    But the amish style pacifist or the ‘poor little girl/boy who can’t hurt a flea’ type pacifist had better have a strong support system.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    You miss the point. The world could’ve been made so that violence isn’t necessary. Why is that not the case, given an allegedly omnipotent, omnibeneficent god?

  • Jerryd

    @Wednesday #12 “That’s true. There’s a reason the commandment is Thou Shalt Not Murder – there’s lots of God-sanctioned and -mandated killing throughout the OT.”

    I disagree, the reason it is “Thou shalt not murder” is that later versions of the Bible were changed to that, I assume when the editors realized the folly of saying “Thou shalt not kill.”

    The King James Version says in Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.” And in the New Testament, Matthew 5:21, “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:”

    Merriam-Webster online defines kill as “to deprive of life; to cause the death of.” This doesn’t limit the action to humans. So in the strictest interpretation of the KJV of the O.T., God would be demanding that humans avoid killing anything that is alive, which would include microorganisms, animals, plants, etc. I assume those editing the Bible in later versions concluded “murder” was an easier term to justify in that Merriam-Webster online defines this as, “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.” Thus making it a very specialized form of killing pertaining only to humans.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    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 a movie from years ago with Sylvestor Stallone, Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock that is something like that. Snipes was a violent criminal and Stallone was the cop who arrested him or something. For some reason, they were both frozen and reawoken years later in a society without crime and where everone was peaceful. Snipes goes on a crime rampage and the authorities are powerless to stop him, which of course is were Stallone comes in.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Jerryd

    I disagree, the reason it is “Thou shalt not murder” is that later versions of the Bible were changed to that, I assume when the editors realized the folly of saying “Thou shalt not kill.”

    The King James Version says in Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.” And in the New Testament, Matthew 5:21, “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:”

    The KJV is well known to be a bad translation with multiple errors and issues.

  • Scotlyn

    Actually, in reference to OP, disgust has been interestingly linked to the development of moral values. This paper discusses.


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