Saturday, October 01, 2016

Bloody legacy

A new article in a top-ranking scientific journal (Gómez, J. M., M. Verdú, A. González-Megías, and M. Méndez. 2016. The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature19758, Published online, 28 September 2016) deals with the tendency of humans to kill other humans in evolutionary perspectives. It is discussed extensively by Prof. Jerry Coyne at his site, from where I learned about it.

Using data from other published articles, the authors calculated for more than 1000 animal species the proportion of deaths that are due to killing by other members of the same species. They found that related species had similar levels of such "lethal violence", and that it was higher in social and territorial species such as carnivores and (especially) primates.

Levels of deadly violence were also estimated for different human populations - more than 600, dating from the Paleolithic to the present. According to the authors, the ancestral human condition corresponded to about 2% deaths caused by other humans. However, depending on the social organization, this proportion could be moved both up and down. Some primitive societies, esp. those that are still retaining their primitive organization, were found to have higher levels of violence, while states have lower levels.

I know that we cannot hope ever to build a society completely free of lethal violence. The bloody legacy of our evolution is inscripted in human genes and cannot be erased. However, we can and must try to control it. We must strive for a society that discourages killing in every possible way. We have already advanced on this path, and this gives hope. We must continue. Every life that is preserved is worth the effort.


Charles N. Steele said...

Wow! I read your piece and the post from Prof. Coyne, both very interesting. I will download the Nature article from my college computer and read it as well. Very interesting, although not surprising overall.

I think ethics and politics evolved as ways of coping with violence; have "kind of" thought this for along time, and this certainly seems to be evidence in support. I wonder what the response from libertarian anarchists will be, since they come close to claiming that violence would end if we could just abolish the state.

Regardless, in my History of Economic Thought class we discuss Malthus as a response to Godwin's utopian anarchism. I'll cite this research as relevant to the issues.

Charles N. Steele said...

Maya, is my blog visible to you? (I assume you are in Bulgaria.) Let me know either here or with a message on it. Thanks, Charles

William MOulton said...


I have always assumed we are stuck with human on human violence, at least until the Martians arrive. Then we can vent our frustrations out on them. Look out little green men!


Maya M said...

Thank you, Charles and William!

Charles N. Steele said...

William, are you suggesting we can eliminate violence by taking it out on the Russians?

I think you may be on to something!

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