Some Questions About Violence

Why we need a science of war and terror

Today I will try to address some of the comments about biology and violence that were provoked by my recent postings, and perhaps clarify how I think about these things. It is right to ask whether we gain anything from saying that humans are innately violent,

or that males have testosterone poisoning, or that chimpanzees are violent and we are closely related to them.

Reader Ono No Komachi believes we gain little or nothing from this, and challenges my claim that many people do not accept the basic violence in human nature. Of course, this is an empirical question, and I don't think we have much real data on it. But certainly it is a widespread belief among American and European academics that there are no biological tendencies toward violence. 

This was expressed strongly by critics of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, by the Seville Statement on Violence (still republished as truth by UNESCO and other organizations), and by distinguished historians such as Howard Zinn, who himself flew bombing missions in World War II that he later called atrocities. 

It is also a common view among liberal Americans and Europeans, especially in mainstream Protestant churches, that there is no need for much military spending since the tendency to violence in human nature is a myth. A number of European nations and Japan have gained greatly in economic terms from their refusal to build up military power; intriguingly, they have relied for decades on America's military might to protect them while at the same time criticizing American militarism.

I believe this kind of naïve view is very dangerous. Nevertheless it is right to ask how talking about the biology of violence can help us. Isn't it just like telling NASA to remember gravity? 

As I said several weeks ago, mentioning gravity is only the beginning; Newton set forth a mathematical law of gravity which was very precise, but which later had to be corrected by Einstein under circumstances that matter to NASA a great deal. 

We are at a very early, I would say pre-Newtonian stage of understanding human nature, and we cannot expect to know in full how this will help us, but we have to make a beginning. It is also right to point out, as Ono does, that half a billion males in India do not perform terrorist acts despite what I call their X-chromosome deficiency.

However, those half billion males are far more likely than their female counterparts to commit every form of violence, including much more common forms like spontaneous fighting, partner abuse, and road rage. They are also far more likely to support the political machinery that leads to war; if there turns out to be a military confrontation between Pakistan and India over the recent Mumbai tragedy, it will be promoted, precipitated, supported, and carried out overwhelmingly by men.

Let me try a different analogy, one that I think is more helpful than gravity.

Geologists are interested in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, which are very rare events. Nobody says it is irrelevant to call those events natural. Nobody says "They can't be natural, because most mountains, even most volcanoes, never erupt, and most places on earth, including geological fault lines, are stable and not quaking." In fact, we could not even begin to understand and predict these devastating events if we continued to think of them as divine acts as our ancestors did.

So we set about to investigate the underlying nature of everyday, ongoing, long-term, evolutionary processes underneath the earth, starting with the premise that they are not only natural, but orderly, and that even the tragically disorderly events we call volcanoes and earthquakes are the products of that underlying order.

Until the mid-twentieth century—after we humans had tried to understand earthquakes for a hundred thousand years without success—we realized that the crust of the earth is always active, that vast plates in the crust move against each other, sometimes shifting suddenly, and that underlying these movements are convection currents in molten rock much like the convection currents in viscous fluids that we see in laboratories.

Did these insights lead to a cure for earthquakes? Of course not. Did they lead to a better ability to predict them? Absolutely.

What did we gain from this? Well, we know how to pinpoint places around the planet where continental plates press against each other and may slip. We measure the movement and the slippage. We build our dwellings in different ways in those places. And in the case of volcanoes we know when to evacuate people to save lives.

Ono asked in one comment, "What would be more useful knowlege – understanding that males fight or what exactly the reason was that the Indian coast guard stopped the boat carrying the terrorists and then let them go on their way?" It is a reasonable question, and my answer is that they are connected.

Every analyst of the Mumbai events thinks that India was insufficiently prepared, that its guard was down, that it were not vigilant enough. Why? I would say partly because of complacency, a failure to understand that violence is natural and expectable. That it is never a question of "whether" but only of "where" and "when."

What do we think of a meteorologist who has the responsibility to alert us to hurricanes before they strike, but who fails in a way that leads to tragedy? What do we think of the Bush administration and the governments of Louisiana and Mississippi that were so woefully unprepared for Hurricane Katrina? And after the tsunami of 2004 killed over 200,000 people, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was set up—but with greater respect for the underlying natural processes, it could have been set up in 2003.

In fact, the Bush administration's failure to predict the extremes of violence following its invasion of Iraq is very similar to its failure to predict the consequences of Katrina; both resulted from a complete lack of respect for the processes of nature.

I do not attribute war and terrorism to some simplistic violent instinct; my own views of the problem are much more complex, and I have described them in various writings. There is an aggressive instinct, mainly male, but it is probably less important in the causal chain of violence than other tendencies in human nature, including fear of strangers, dichotomizing the social world, emotional contagion, obedience to authority, and the peculiar dynamics of men in groups.

We need a science of human violence that is as good and thorough and precise as our sciences of earthquake and volcano and hurricane prediction. We need to begin with the fundamental truths about the underlying processes and trace them through their causal chains to the outcomes we want to avoid. 

We will never have perfect prediction in any of those sciences. But we have made great advances in understanding the nonhuman natural world. When will we take seriously the need to do the same for the part of the natural world that is human?

One comment

  1. Ono No Komachi says:

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments.

    I would like to make clear that even if the study of the ultimate causes of violence has no immediate practical applications does not mean I believe it should not be studied. Most people do science because they want to understand the way the world works as an end in itself. This may not fly in grant proposals, which is actually too bad, partly because no one can predict in advance what knowledge may have great use in the future.

    I’m familiar with Gould, Lewontin, and the Seville statement. In fact, if I start reading something about behavioural biology with and discover Lewontin had any part of it, I stop reading. When it comes to that subject, I don’t consider him part of the reality based community. What I’m not so sure of is that the general population of the U.S. holds those same beliefs, let alone members of the Indian government. It would be interesting to see some data on that.

    As far as Japan not building up military power, I believe that their post WW2 constitution (at least for a long while) actually forbade them from doing so.

    As far as the European nations are concerned, it’s not clear that these countries failure to build up military power was due to some belief that humans are naturally peaceful rather than the fact U.S. was already doing the job for them (at least during the Cold War), so they felt they needn’t bother. It makes perfect evolutionary sense to freeload off of someone else’s resources rather than expending your own if you can get away with it.

    Similarly, it’s not clear that the Mumbai tragedy was in any way facilitated by some belief held by the Indian Government that humans are naturally peaceful, or don’t have a “nature”, or their coast guard wasted time stopping boats filled with females while they could have been questioning men.

    After all, the Indians built nuclear weapons, which I doubt they would have bothered with if they were operation under the belief that their neighbors were not capable of violence.

    In fact, India can’t get too complacent about female violence, because of their close proximity to Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger terrorist group, who have employed a fair number of female terrorists (one of whom killed Rajiv Ghandi in a suicide bombing).

    Terrorism is more unpredictable that unexpected. The Indians most likely knew they were going to be struck somewhere, sometime. The difficulty is in knowing the exact when and where, and for that purpose intelligence and preparation are perhaps more useful than evolutionary biology. Societies also have to decide how much freedom they are willing to trade for security.

    The Bush administration’s failure to predict the violence that erupted in Iraq was the result of a complete lack common sense, period.

    Postwar Iraq probably offers the best example of a stupid policy decision which might have been avoided if someone, somewhere had read one book on behavioral ecology. Suddenly disbanding the Iraqi army and throwing a bunch of young men who had been trained to kill out on the street with no prospects = really bad idea. The Bush administration could have called someone who had done nothing but study rhesus monkey colonies and been told this was probably a really bad idea.

    I highly recommend the book “Dying to Win – The Logic of Suicide Terrorism”. It doesn’t delve into ultimate causes, but does a pretty good job with proximate ones.

Leave a Reply