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Killer Instincts.
What Can Evolution Say About Why Humans Kill--And Why Do We Do So Less Than We Used To.

Dan Jones; NATURE; 31 Jan 2008; Vol 451; Issue 7178; Pg 512.

Article Review - Harry Rosenberg

Editors of the world's foremost science periodical are not usually given to hyperbole. This article is no exception for it makes a solid case for a genetic origin of our murderous instinct. That murder was common in human prehistory there can be no doubt. So also in certain primitive societies in recent history. Aggression is equally common, and can lead to murder. But how does one separate an instinct for aggression, that just happens to lead to murder, from a separate and independent instinct for murder? This issue and others are discussed at length by Jones. Among the important points Jones makes are the following:

  • Chimpanzees are just as warlike and murderous as we are; our patterns are very similar.
  • The Homo sapiens trend toward more peaceful living with time in Europe cannot be due to Evolution, there has not been enough time.
  • Living in small groups, humans found competition harmony within (quoting Robert Hinde, zoologist, Cambridge University, UK.)
  • Ideology, propaganda and denigration of the out-group can harden the barrier between "us" and "them." (Quoting Hinde again.)
  • A person's moral fabric is often not strong enough to overcome Hinde's barrier. This is entirely consistent with:
    There is excellent agreement across the disciplines of biology, zoology, sociology, and psychology. Human violence is innate, a product of evolution.

    Jones, looking at the past, is optimistic for the future. Beginning in the 16th Century, the European murder rate dropped dramatically through the 20th Century by a factor of 23-29 fold. Natural evolution had nothing at all to do with the drop. Furthermore, the trend downwards began long before professional police forces were deployed throughout Europe. This is illustrated in the following table.

Murder Rate in Europe Per 100,000
Multiple of today

Social evolution seems to be part of the answer. Reductions in social inequalities in "life circumstances and prospects" seem to be an important element and Jones cites the work of Daly and Watson in that regard. Jessica Stern's direct observations are consistent--she found social humiliation and alienation are both important motivators in today's terrorists. Jones quotes Daly & Watson: "In places like Sweden where every cabbie drives a Mercedes, people don't bother to kill so often."

Another part of the answer, Jones points out is "better provisioning of life's necessities" reduced the need to fight over resources. This also follows from both simple logic and observations. Why risk a fight with neighbors when one has secure food supplies and shelter all year around?

For serious scholars, this is a very important scientific review of social evolution. For the rest of us, it hits the main features. So what does this say about the US? It says that with our murder rate of 4.3 per 100,000, we are still early 18th European Century in our social development.

Two centuries! Think about that for a moment.

Gun control laws are part of the answer. Drugs are another. It seems American society is perverse. Like the war on terror, our heavy handed approach to each issue only serves to fill out prisons and graveyards, not to solve the basic problem or problems.

Question for the people of the greatest maritime empire ever to command the seas:
Are our faulty "cures" for the problems associated with guns and drugs a mark of shame, decline, or what?
References Cited by Jones:

1. Daly, M. & Wilson, M. Homicide (Aldine de Gruyter, New York,1988).
2. Duntley, J. D. & Buss, D. M. in The Innate Mind (eds Carruthers, P., Laurence, S. & Stich, S.) 291-304 (Oxtord Univ. Press, Oxford, 2005).
3. Sear, R.& Mace, R. Evol. Hum. Behav. 29, 1-18 (2008).
4. Archer, J. Rev. Gen. Psychol. 8, 291-322 (2004).
5. Davidson, R. J., Putnam, K. M. & Larson, C. L. Science 289, 591-594 (2000).
6. Raine, A, Buchsbaum, M. & LaCasse, L. Bioi. Psychiatry 42, 495-508 (1997).
7. Raine, A & Yang, Y. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 1, 203-213 (2006).
8. Williams, J. M., Oehlert, G W, Carlis, J. V. & Pusey, A. E. Anim. Behav 68,523-532 (2004).
9. Wrangham, R. W, Wilson, M. L. & Muller, M. N. Primates 47, 14-26 (2006).
10.Burbank, V. K. Hum. Nature 3, 251-277 (1992).
11. Choi,).-K. & Bowles, S. Science 318, 636-640 (2007).
12. Pinker, S. The New Republic 236, 18-21 (2007).
13. Eisner, M. Br. J. Criminal. 41, 618-638 (2001)


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