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On the Nature of Violence

Pat Shipman

The question of the nature of violence has been forcibly brought to my mind lately. It is not a thing I enjoy thinking about. Terrorist acts designed to hurt and terrify the ordinary populace of a region make no sense. Wanting to commit such acts of violence seems unimaginable; wanting to do so badly enough to spend years in preparation defies comprehension. Try as I might, I cannot put myself in the mind of someone who hates so deeply and thoroughly that he aspires to murder thousands of innocent people. I cannot understand.

Because I am trained as an anthropologist, I cannot help but take an evolutionary perspective in my drive to understand, to find some meaning in these events, or some logic, however warped. Why did our species evolve such a terrible capacity for violence? Is a propensity for violence against our own kind genetic? Are human beings irrevocably "ugly" apes? And how can someone disconnect so utterly from our species that a political or religious ideal seems more valuable than the lives of others? Even when the acts of a person or group seem incomprehensible, the anthropologist in me is reminded that these are indeed the acts of my species, the one to which I belong, the one whose evolutionary history I attempt to study and know.

We can say a few basic things about our primal selves. Human beings are fundamentally primates, and primates are fundamentally prey (rather than predator) species. We started our evolutionary life as beings who were neither very large nor particularly ferocious, who fed mostly on plants and looked over our shoulders in fear at every rustle in the tall grass or shadow in the sky. For millions of years, our ancestors were far more worried about being eaten than about killing something to eat, which came later. We clung together in social groups for mutual protection and aid. Knowing who is kin, knowing who is in your social group, has a deep importance to prey species like us. We need to know whose alarm call is meant for us, who might aid us in time of need, who is looking out for us. There is a life-and-death urgency about being social, about knowing your own group and sticking close to it.

This is why people do not, in the general course of things, live alone. The stories of those few individuals who find themselves without kin, without a hint of a social group, have become classics. One known to every beginning student of anthropology is the story of Ishi, the last member of a tribe of California Indians who finally, in despair, stumbled into a farm in a rural area. Imagine his plight. Imagine having no one in the world who could speak your language, no one who had any social obligations or blood relations to you, no one who cared if you lived or died, no one who knew you existed. Such aloneness is horrifying.

I would like to say that people helped Ishi and made a place in the world for him, but it was a poor imitation of a kin group. Anthropologists were found who could speak languages related to Ishi's, so that in time he could communicate with others. He was given food and clothing and a place to live, which was for years the anthropology museum at the University of California, Berkeley, where he demonstrated his native arts and was intensively interviewed by anthropologists. Sadly, I do not think he ever loved again or was loved again. And the pity and empathy we feel for Ishi and others like him shows us how much we need those comforts of love, family, social group and safety. These are not optional luxuries, they are the stuff of survival.

With this evolutionary background, how are we to understand a group of people who share no empathy for us and find it acceptable—maybe even admirable—to bring fear and suffering to people throughout our land? These terrorists have erected a barrier between Us and Them and declared there will be no talking, no trading, no communication and no mercy across this barrier.

But why? Why have they cut Us off from Them, or themselves off from us? Why have they rejected our common humanity—and in favor of what? These are hard questions that I must ponder for the rest of my life.

Kin, Clan, Conflict

I do know that humans, like the smart apes they are, have an elaborate hierarchy of affiliations. There is kin—immediate and extended family—and close behind that, neighbors, members of my social group, people to whom I can turn in need, people like me. Because we live a largely sedentary lifestyle (as opposed to being constantly nomadic, that is), this "neighbor" group is often defined by various kinds of physical proximity: living next door, going to the same schools, working in the same office, or shopping in the same grocery store. As we travel, go to work, go away to school, move here or there for various reasons, we add new layers of relatedness beyond those who occupy our original home turf. Going home is a terribly important concept to Americans, but lots of us have multiple "homes."

And finally, being clever primates with large brains, we add layer upon layer of fictive kin or neighbors based on abstractions. We regard as close to us those who share our beliefs or our interests, whose hobbies, music, sports, religions, passions and occupations coincide with ours. And here is where things get complicated.

Once upon a time about 40,000 years ago, two new phenomena appeared that were to leave traces in the long archaeological record of our past. The first was a new kind of entity called an aggregation site. For the first time ever, bands of humans (loose affiliations of related individuals) began to meet with other such bands regularly. Archaeological sites preserve remains of gatherings of unprecedented size, where lots of groups came together and stayed for a period of time. It is not difficult to imagine these aggregation sites as being the remnants of events much like swap meets or flea markets prolonged into weeks or maybe months. We know from the preserved artifacts that people came from many miles around, presumably to exchange the valuable goods local in their area for ones found in another. And we imagine that some hoped to find mates from another group that was appropriately distant (not incestuous) and yet acceptably close (not too foreign). Before the appearance of aggregation sites, population densities were apparently so low that bands would run into perhaps only one or two other local bands in an individual's entire lifetime. The appearance of aggregation sites marks a real change in the experiences of individuals and in the extent to which they experienced novelty.

Because humans began to see strangers for the first time, the second phenomenon appeared. That took the form of items of personal adornment: crude jewelry, probably body paint and tattooing, and utilitarian objects and clothing that were decorated in the style of one's home group. These objects were ways of declaring an affiliation with a particular group; wearing them was a way of saying "I am from the people who hunt reindeer at the river crossing in the cold woods" or "I am a shoreline person who gathers mollusks for food and makes their shells into adornments." There was no need for such emblems—colors, in the modern parlance of urban gangs—when you never met anyone who had not known of you or your kin from the time of your birth. Once there were strangers, there was a new need to strengthen and publicly proclaim affiliations. These were the first steps to war.

Anthropologists have argued that war itself arose only after humans were tied to the land, after the invention of agriculture. A family who has cleared a field, seeded it, and tended and watered the growing plants has a large investment of time and energy in that particular piece of land, and that crop. There is a reason for defense of territory far beyond the need experienced by hunter-gatherers who travel regularly over large ranges. But long before the invention of agriculture at about 12,000 years ago, there were social groups and strangers, there was Us and Them. Making that distinction lies at the heart of all violence within our species. It is a much more ancient propensity than agriculture. Even chimpanzees and other primates at times resort to fatal violence against their own kind.

Toward a Greater "Us"

That violence and exclusiveness lie so deeply in our biological heritage, intertwined with the nurturing concepts of kin and affiliation, home and neighbor, is a grim thought. Humans have been fighting and killing other humans for years, and years and years. Over time, we have shifted the identity of those for whom we will fight. It is no longer simply kinfolk or immediate neighbors; it is vast groups like "those who proclaim themselves citizens of this thing we call a nation" or "those who follow the practices of this holy man." Perhaps we can shift the identity of Us still further, extend the boundaries still more widely until there is no longer a Them to fight, but only an Us who must survive together or not at all. If violence is in our nature, as it seems to be, there is no other hope.

I remember some relevant words from the classic movie The African Queen. They were spoken by Katharine Hepburn, who played a missionary spinster, Rosie, to Humphrey Bogart's ragtag steamboat captain, Mr. Allnutt. Sitting with her spine straight and proud, her expression resolute, and without lifting her eyes from her devotional reading, Hepburn proclaimed:

Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

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