Sunday, July 22, 2007

When did humans first start to murder?

{ Podcast this essay } I have often wondered when murder actually started. Is it something basic to the primate genome? I suspect it is. Chimps will go on raiding parties and kill one another:
It was only [in the 1970s] when researchers learned that one aspect of this shared behavior [with humans] is the proclivity of adult male chimps to attack, maim and kill other adult male chimpanzees whom they discover near their territory. Like gangsters during Prohibition or bounty hunters in the Wild West, male chimpanzees will organize raiding parties to seek out isolated members of other chimpanzee bands and then move in for the kill. In ways that eerily suggest human behavior, life for male chimpanzees is a continual jockeying for status and power.[1]

Bonobo monkeys, who are slightly more removed from humans in evolutionary development, have a different tactic of interaction than chimps:
Bonobos are the Barry Whites [cit.] of the primate world, dedicating their lives to peace, love and, above all, sex. "Bonobos use sex for much more than making babies [...] They have sex as a way of making friends. They have sex to calm someone who is tense. They have sex as a way to reconcile after aggression." Like the members of some adventurous free love commune of the 1960s, bonobos have frequent homosexual sex and condone sex between adults and children. When a bonobo group meets a group of unknown bonobos, they generally mate and socialize with them rather than try to kill them.[1]

Researchers Wrangham and Peterson go on to theorize that millions of years ago, subtle changes in food sources and feeding patterns "allowed the bonobos to stay together in larger communities on their side of the river."[1] Also to the social advantage of bonobos was the ability of female bonobos to hide their ovulation patterns. This ability made it difficult for bonobo males to detect the mating cycle of the female.[1] This, along with longer-term social bonds and the resultant tempering of aggressive urges of males, lessened the need for use of violent behaviors among males to establish dominant mating access.

Chimpanzees, however, did not gain such advantages in food access, and were forced by their environment to "break off into small parties to hunt for their favorite fruit and meat sources."[1]

Not unrelated to the plight of Chimpanzees in their environment, is an article recently posted over at The Center for Science Writing Blogs, which gives a short overview of when the first archaeological evidence for (human) murder was noted. There is discussion on why murder occurred then (around 20,000 years ago) and not earlier, since there were still plenty of humans around. Here's a selection toward the end of the excellent article which essentially reviews professor Sale's thesis:
[I]t is important to see that this kind of interpersonal violence and murder comes rather late in Sapiens development. In fact, for 90 per cent of our time on earth there is nothing to indicate that humans ever reached the extreme state of knocking each other off. It was a reaction to an extreme crisis, it got to be a familiar response to the increased tensions in a time of scarcity and competition, and once established it seems to have continued on. But not because it was in our human nature. Rather it was in the conditions of our life. And therefore the obvious lesson is that we can’t just shrug and say some people are just “born killers,” or “it’s in the blood.” It’s not, and was not for 175,000 years.[2]

This seems to me to parallel the Chimpanzee issue noted above; humans default to one kind of standard primate behavior under certain conditions of scarcity. Until we come up with a cheap energy source to manufacture food and shelter, we can expect this built-in violence proclivity to regularly crop-up in human affairs in the near future. Naturally, as fresh water management and farming patterns are quickly (and adversely) changed by global warming, that nasty part of our genome shared with Chimpanzee heritage will regularly re-assert itself, leading to regional wars for resources.


[image] Cezanne, Paul The Murder (Le meurtre) c. 1870 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

[1] Daniel Pinchbeck "Men, Monkeys And Mayhem" Washington Post (Accessed 7/22/2007).

[2] Kirkpatrick Sale "Is Murder Human Nature" Center for Science Writings Blog (Accessed 7/22/2007).


Labels: , , , ,


At 9:49 PM, Blogger Padraic said...

I thought the first murder was when Cain killed Abel, and that was only six thousand years ago

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I don't feel so optimistic knowing that the first human murder occurred "only" 20,000 years ago. Even though murder's late entry into the human catalogue of behavior entails that it is not a necessary behavior, it does not entail that this particular behavior can be easily discarded. All learned behaviors have a tendency of sticking once acquired. And with patterns of behavior like violence the ability to unlearn the pattern is reduced with every repetition (in individuals and, even more, in groups). If human history shows anything it is that violence begets violence. When one member of a group utilizes violent means, the most natural and, contrary to the hopeful claims of "Just Peacemakers," often, the most effective response is a violent one.

At this point in the human lineage it would appear that "simply" removing the current scarcity of necessary resources will not cease the human tendency toward violence. What began 20,000 years ago as an attempt to secure the survival of an idividual or group has now escalated to the various holy wars and ideological conflicts proliferating today. These conflicts do often involve an attempt at acquisition (for instance, the U.S. invasion of Iraq probably had something to do with oil), but the vast majority of the persons involved in these conflicts fight because they are doing God's will, fighting for freedom, annhilating a hated enemy, etc. Thus, the theology and/or ideology used to justify the conflict often ensures its longevity beyond the community's attainment of some necessary resource.


Post a Comment

<< Home