Are humans pre-programmed to be violent?

By: Richard Osbaldiston, Ph. D.

If you read or watch any news media, you will see headline after headline about the bad side of humanity: violence, murders, terror, and war.  And many of the most popular prime time TV shows and movies are built around plots that typically include the violent deaths of people.

What is it about humans that we kill each other?  Why are there so many killings?  Are we, as a species, pre-programmed to be violent?  Is violence part of human nature?

If the answer to these questions seems like a “yes” to you, then it might be interesting to consider a different perspective.

Augustin Fuentes, an anthropologist from Notre Dame who spoke on EKU’s campus as part of the Chautauqua lecture series, has examined the fossil record of humans going back to about 2 million years ago.  Although the further back in time you go, the fewer fossils there are, Fuentes says that there is very little evidence of human-to-human violence until about 5,000 years ago.  However, in the last 5,000 years, there is a lot of anthropological evidence that humans killed each other.

Maybe we are a “new breed” that is recently predisposed to violence.  After all, our ancestors didn’t face the same population pressures that we do.  Maybe we kill each other because we all live in close contact.

Fuentes has a different take on it.  From an evolutionary perspective across centuries, humans are one of the least physically-equipped animals for survival.  We have no sharp claws, big teeth, or tough hides, and we can’t run, climb, or dig effectively.  Human babies are virtually helpless for the first couple of years after they are born.  We would be evolutionary toast if we had to survive on our physical abilities.

How did we survive?  Fuentes says that the predominant traits of humans are creativity and cooperation.  For every one act of violence that you hear about, there are perhaps millions of acts of creativity and cooperation that you don’t hear about.  He gives this great example.  It wouldn’t surprise you to see a headline that says “Four people murdered in New York City today.”  But the headline that you don’t see is “8.3 million people got along fairly well today.”  The actual murder rate in New York City is less than one person per day. 

Humans have successfully evolved and become a dominant species on earth because of our ability to be creative and cooperate.  Because we have very limited physical abilities, we had to rely on our cooperation and creativity to survive; we had to become the ultimate problem-solvers.  But a by-product of creativity and cooperation is that occasionally we solve problems by resorting to violence. 

How did we develop sharpened points for arrows and spears, how did we develop gunpowder for cannons and muskets, how did we develop high tech weapons like fighter jets and nuclear warheads?  That was all done using our almost infinite human creativity.  And not by acting alone.  There is practically no instrument of violence that one person can build by him- or herself.  And when we employ those tools—be they handguns, shotguns, or tanks—we are using them to solve some problem.  You can argue about the justification or morality of their use, but practically every time there is an act of violence, the perpetrator of that act perceives that he or she is solving a problem.   

Fuentes says, “Maybe it isn’t all about violence.”  Violence is just one of the products of creativity and cooperation, and we are making a mistake if we over-focus on the violent side of humans and ignore the millions of cooperative acts we engage in all the time.

Published on July 07, 2016