Terror in India

Is terrorism really “unnatural”?

I watched in sadness but, alas, not in shock, as India suffered its own 9/11. Casualties were far fewer but the impact was similar because the action was brilliantly as well as savagely executed.

The young mass murderers in Mumbai dominated world news throughout America’s Thanksgiving weekend, ensuring that many families would find little to be thankful for. India is humiliated, state officials have resigned, and tensions between it and Pakistan–both nuclear-armed and about five minutes apart by missile–have been heightened. The world was perplexed and dismayed.

When I say I was not shocked, I still weep with the victims. But my view of terrorism and of human violence in general sees them as deeply engrained in our nature, and likely to emerge from time to time. Everyone who knows anything about terrorism expected more events after 9/11, and indeed we had the mass murders by bombing in Madrid, London, and Bali, as well as the foiled plot to bring down ten full jumbo airliners with liquid explosives, before we got to Mumbai.

There will be more. As I wrote when war broke out between Russia and Georgia, we should feel the tragedy, but we should not be surprised. Why? Because surprise implies stupidity and leads to unpreparedness.

The stupidity lies in not knowing by now that violence is part of the natural order of things, like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. The unpreparedness lies in failure to do whatever can be done to reduce the damage when it happens.

When buildings in an earthquake-prone area are not designed with earthquakes in mind, tens of thousands die instead of thousands. When levees are not high enough or strong enough, thousands instead of hundreds lose their homes. And when there is no network of earthquake detectors appropriately deployed throughout the oceans, a single tidal wave can drown hundreds of thousands.

Others are pointing out the ways in which India was unprepared, and indeed the ways in which more advanced countries can do much better. I want to explain why terrorism, even more than war, is a part of the human condition, and as always I explain it in an evolutionary context.

Chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and they resemble the apes we evolved from. Repeatedly now over many years they have been found to assemble a critical mass of males within a group who become excited and go out looking for trouble. They pass up hunting opportunities to go to the edge of their territory, and if they find a lone chimp from  a neighboring group within striking distance, they assault, hit, bite, kick, and stomp that victim to death.

Humans do it in more complex ways, even in the simplest societies. Ilongot headhunters went out in male groups looking for victims, often when they themselves had recently experienced grief. Cultures like the Dani or Enga of highland New Guinea or the Yanomamo of highland Venezuela had perennial ambush raids back and forth with their hated neighbors, an endless exchange of homicides. Even hunter-gatherers known for their peacefulness, like the !Kung Bushmen I lived with for two years, are descended from similar people known to have carried out deadly raids.

Male humans especially are unfortunately designed for this. They have the genes, the hormones, the neural circuits, the developmental patterns, and the mindset. X-chromosome deficiency and the resulting testosterone poisoning lead to this and many other defects.

Classic experiments in social psychology show that it is almost trivially easy to turn boys or men (and to some extent women) into in-groups that hate out-groups, even when at the outset there is no difference between them. Add the dynamics of ideology, follow-the-leader, and emotional contagion, and you have a recipe for disaster.

But most men in the modern world don’t do this; there must be a cultural context. Consider the Jewish fanatic who murdered Yitzhak Rabin when he was an Israeli prime minister making peace; or the Christian fanatics who bombed a federal office building in Oklahoma city; or the Hindus who have rioted against Muslims, murdering many. This is not the province of one particular religion, but it does require a certain type of belief.

It also requires a group process. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and intelligence analyst who has studied all accessible recent terror networks, finds no evidence of psychopathology or religious indoctrination. What is needed is a group of young men with time on their hands, a need for mutual respect, and a shared belief that evil is being done by someone different from them, and that killing that someone will be good, even purifying. Fame is a bonus.

This process resembles the dynamic in male groups throughout the range of human cultures, identified long ago by Lionel Tiger in his classic, Men in Groups. In addition, in a religious context, sacrificing your enemy and perhaps also yourself is a bloody ritual like that involved in primitive sacrifice. René Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, pointed out this link; and every further sacrifice makes your cause more holy.

Thus our animal instincts derived from apes like chimpanzees are transformed by language, ideology, and ritual into something that looks right to some groups of young men who-inspired by older ones safely ensconced on videotape-bring tragedy and tears to hundreds or thousands of innocent others.

Be saddened, of course, but don’t be shocked. Instead be resilient, resolute, and above all, vigilant. Build a better early warning system, a stronger levee, an earthquake-resistant edifice, and watch for the next assault.

Note: I appeared on CNN last Friday to talk about the Jewish victims of the Mumbai attacks, which I had written about on my other website, www.jewsandothers.com.


  1. Ono No Komachi says:

    Somehow the vast majority of the 1/2 billion male people in India managed to live their entire lives without blowing up any hotels, despite only having one X chromosome and having testosterone poisoning. How could this be? This is as much a part of the human and male condition as terrorist acts. Why aren’t people blowing themselves up in Sweden? I supposed I should find this heartening and conclude that eventually peace might break out in Iraq.

    Males as a population are more violent than females as a population , partly for biological reasons. Everybody really does know that (except for a few people hidden away in academia). And? What light does this really shed on the tragedy in India? What insight does this give anyone who is actually trying to solve the problem of terrorism? Is there any practical solution suggested by this knowledge? None that I can see.

    It’s about as helpful as telling NASA the ultimate cause of space shuttle crashes is gravity.

  2. Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein says:

    “It’s about as helpful as telling NASA the ultimate cause of space shuttle crashes is gravity,” says Ono No Komachi. Truth is that NASA would not survive a single day without such knowledge. The question is not whether this knowledge is of value; it is. The question is rather how widely the knowledge should be spread and to whom. While many in the academia are aware of the biological origins of human’s violence, I am not sure that it is otherwise widely known. But if we are ever to overcome it, we have to better understand it.

    As Mel teaches us, the evidence for the biological nature of violence is substantial. Nonetheless we humans have succeeded in sublimating the need for war to non-violent forms of competition. Games are one such example, with war-like passion, yet without war. Individual competitions, professionally and financially, seem also to satisfy the need for war, but they lack the group dynamic.

    There are examples of how group dynamic supports new definitions of a group. For many scientists and scholars, an important group is the one that includes their colleagues and collaborators across nationality, geography, religion, age, and gender. This is often true in commerce as well. So it seems we can form new groups to which we are loyal even when they cross deeply-rooted boundaries.

    The burden then is on education. As a society we need to provide additional alternatives and tools to define “my” group. Typically a group draws its strength from providing meaning and purpose to the individual’s life as well as the joy and satisfaction of camaraderie. In this, the terrorists have been quite successful. Maybe if we harness our (still embryonic) understanding of the biology of groups and of violence we would find ways to reduce violence and compensate for its need otherwise. This might give us an advantage over terrorism and ultimately would serve us all, including the terrorists.

  3. I could not do any better than Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein in answering Ono No Komachi’s interesting post. I would only add that for NASA, understanding gravity is not an end, but it is a beginning. It is not just “well, things fall to earth,” but “bodies in space attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses and the inverse of the square of the distance between them.” (with a relativistic correction as needed). And if I can try to improve the metaphor even more, under a Ptolemaic view of planetary motion (corresponding to the non-biological view of violence), NASA could not exist.

  4. Feiruz says:

    On person’s terrorist is another’s pacifist.

    Dear Mel,
    I find your article about terrorism and its anthropological roots quite interesting though lacking scientific consistency.
    I do not agree with you when you compare humans to chimpanzees. Our diet is more varied then theirs smilies/cool.gif
    Also you have made no attempt to distinguish between terrorism and counterterrorism.
    It is a thorny issue which has palgued the world since Abel and Cain and which you seem to have simply skimmed over based on your own preset convictions.
    Let me present with this (rather philosophical) scenario: Imagine yourself in Spain, in a bullfighting arena taking a seat on the stand. Enter the bullfighter with his red cape. The bull is then let loose and is exposed to the red cape… and, sure enough, he charges with all his might.
    Question: who is the terrorist: the bullfighter, the bull , or the person at the stand…. ? Or a combination?
    Terrorism is in my view, Dear Mel, not within anyone. It is outside of everyone, if you see what I mean. Just like the bull, it is the red cape and the bullfighter wagging it that make him charge.Otherwise the same bull would have been more than happy saving his energy on the nearest haystack smilies/smiley.gif

  5. Ono No Komachi says:

    You guys have a point, but I’m still not totally buyin’ it.

    The knowledge that humans are sometimes violent is so general that in practical terms, it’s almost useless.

    Also, I’d like to see some hard data that the general population (as opposed to those with an ideological or religious reason to deny it) does not believe that violent behaviour is a part of human nature. Actually, many religious people would not argue with the idea that humans are innately prone to evil (although they might quibble about the cause) – I’m sure you’ve heard of Original Sin.

    I’m a pharmacist (not even a crappy one). I had to take classes in organic chemistry and physical chemistry. The profession of pharmacy could not exist without organic or physical chemistry. Nevertheless, I don’t need to use this knowlege at all to get my job done, and it would actually make no difference if I’d never learned these subjects (although I did enjoy learning about them).

    What I’m really talking about is the practical applications of knowledge of ulitmate vs. proximate causes of events like the Mumbai bombings. 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?

    As I pointed out, humans can be peaceful, too. I think it’s a mistake to consider human nature as a core of rotten behaviours covered with a veneer of “civilized culture”. Getting along with others is as much a part of human nature as fighting others. Under certain circumstances, very diverse groups of people can get along and cooperate and under other circumstances, groups which to outsiders seem almost indistinguishable try to wipe each other off the planet. The trick is to understand why, and there isn’t going to be any simple answer or one that applies to all situations.

    And , how about those Bonobos? smilies/wink.gif

  6. Emily says:

    Dr. Konner: Still Teaching Important Lessons, I See!

    I found this post by Dr. Konner (as I referred to him when I was his student at Emory) to be useful (and not just because I was a student of his at Emory). His point is merely that terrorism exists, and will continue to exist. Our job is not to eliminate terrorism, but to minimize its effects. I actually heard these words at the World Summit on Global Counter-Terrorism, held in Herzliya, Israel at the International Institute of Counter-Terrorism, as spoken by Matt Levine, who directs the Stein Program on Counter Terrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    The shock that reverberated across the world signifies a type of naivite, that in this day and age groups do not exist that harbor the amount of rage and resources that made the Mumbai attack possible. Dr. Konner simply stated that we should not feel “surprised,” and goes on to explain why, from an evolutionary perspective – a rather convincing one.

    This article made me miss sitting in on Dr. Konner’s classes where he explained the various seemingly bizarre things humans do, in the context of their biologically-ordained path of evolution.

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