The first human civilizations appeared between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago; since then, humans as a species have been entirely at peace for about 268 years. And up to 1 billion people may have perished as a direct result of the war, according to “What Every Person Should Know About War” (Free Press, 2003)
Violence is clearly not a modern phenomenon, but is it an integral part of being human? Have we evolved to be aggressive?
It turns out that the answer is not simple. A 2014 study published in the journal Nature (opens in a new tab) noted that deadly violence was common in the communities of one of our closest living primate relatives: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).
This suggests that violence may have been part of the human repertoire at least as far back as our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, who would have lived around 8 million years ago.
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So it’s clear that violence has been prevalent for as long as humans have existed, experts told Live Science.
“Violence is the engine of much of human history”, David C. Geary (opens in a new tab), a cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, told Live Science in an email. “All of mankind’s earliest empires were built through intimidation and violence.”
“There is also evidence of assault before recorded history: bones with evidence of violent death, such as embedded arrowheads or sunken skulls,” Pat Barclay (opens in a new tab), an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Guelph in Ontario told Live Science in an email. This suggests that violence preceded complex societies and the rise of civilization.
But on the other hand, rates of violence vary (and have historically varied) enormously across cultures and communities, Barclay said. This suggests that violence can be greatly increased or reduced in our species.
Nomadic peoples, for exampletend to have lower levels of lethal interpersonal human violence, while eras filled with societies bent on looting and conquering, unsurprisingly, had higher levels.
And modern times american culture is more violent (opens in a new tab) than most of those in Europe.
“There is a wide variation in rates of violence – order of magnitude difference,” Barclay noted. “In some specific recorded societies, up to half of all men die violently at the hands of other men. In other societies, physical violence is very rare, such as in modern Japan.”
Why do people become violent?
Violence tends to breed violence, which means cultures where conflict is common are more likely to experience violence generation after generation, Geary said. In this way, the violence is “transmitted” like a contagious disease, according to University of Illinois epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. (opens in a new tab).
However, Brad Evans (opens in a new tab), professor of political violence at the University of Bath in the UK, pointed out that even the most progressive and peaceful community members are capable of violence. “Ordinary, loyal people can quickly turn into monsters once conditions change; likewise, some of the most hateful people can end up showing remarkable acts of kindness. There is no clear formula as to why a person is acting violently. And that’s why it’s such a complex issue,” Evans told Live Science in an email.
Moreover, according to Barclay and Evans, it can be much easier to commit acts of violence if the individual who commits the violence is distanced from his victims; it is much easier to press a button to launch a nuclear missile than to physically and directly deliver a killing blow.
For example, in Stanley Milgram’s classic studies of obedience, in which an experimenter told participants to deliver electric shocks of increasing intensity to other people, participants were more reluctant to shock victims if they were physically closer to them, Barclay noted.
And historically, the acts of the genocide occurs after the dehumanization of the perpetrators (opens in a new tab)or create a psychological distance, between them and those of a different race or ethnicity.
Types of violence
There may also be “two types” of aggression in human evolution (opens in a new tab): proactive and reactive, Richard Wrangham (opens in a new tab)research professor in the Department of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, reported in 2017 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (opens in a new tab). Proactive violence has always been linked to conquest, when one group is determined to take another’s resources or land. Reactive violence, on the other hand, can be described as the direct response to such aggression.
However, although violence appears to be an ingrained human characteristic, Barclay is convinced that there is room for optimism – up to a point.
“Objectively speaking, any individual is far less likely to experience violence today than in previous times,” he said. “We are currently in the most peaceful era in history. But that does not guarantee that it will remain so. Unless we fight against climate change, there will be more scarcity, more disasters, more despair and no more reasons for conflict.”
Originally posted on Live Science.
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