Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > Article Detail


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.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist