The first human civilizations appeared between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago; since then, humans as a species have been completely at peace for approximately 268 years. And as many as a 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 inherent 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 lethal violence was common in the communities of one of our closest living primate relatives: chimpanzees (troglodyte bread).
That suggests that violence may have been part of the human repertoire at least since our last shared ancestor with chimpanzees, which would have lived about 8 million years ago.
Clearly, violence has been prevalent for as long as humans have existed, experts told Live Science.
“Violence is a driver of much of human history,” David C. Geary (opens in a new tab), a cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, told Live Science in an email. “All of humanity’s first 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 spiked skulls,” Pat Barclay (opens in a new tab), an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario told Live Science in an email. That suggests that violence predates complex societies and the rise of civilization.
But on the other hand, rates of violence vary (and historically have varied) enormously between cultures and communities, Barclay said. That suggests that violence can dramatically increase or decrease in our species.
Nomadic peoples, for example.they tend to have lower levels of lethal interpersonal human violence, while eras full of societies bent on plunder and conquest unsurprisingly had higher levels.
“There is a wide variation in the rates of violence, an order of magnitude difference,” Barclay noted. “In some specific registered 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 beget violence, which means that cultures where conflict is common are more likely to experience violence generation after generation, Geary said. In this way, violence is “transmitted” as a contagious disease would be, according to the epidemiologist at the University of Illinois gary slutkin (opens in a new tab).
Nevertheless, brad evans (opens in a new tab), a professor of political violence at the University of Bath in the UK, noted that even people from the most progressive and peaceful communities are capable of violence. “Ordinary, legitimate people can quickly turn into monsters once conditions change; likewise, some who are nastier may end up displaying remarkable acts of kindness. There is no clear formula for why a person acts violently. And it is that’s why it’s such a complex problem,” Evans told Live Science in an email.
Furthermore, according to Barclay and Evans, it can be much easier to carry out violent acts if the person committing the violence is distant from their victims; it’s much easier to push a button to launch a nuclear missile than it is to physically and directly deliver a killing blow.
For example, in the classic Stanley Milgram obedience studies, in which an experimenter told participants to deliver electrical shocks of increasing intensity to other people, participants were more reluctant to shock victims if they were physically closer to each other. near them, Barclay noted.
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). Historically, proactive violence has been associated with 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, despite the fact that violence seems to be an ingrained human characteristic, Barclay is confident that there is room for optimism, up to a point.
“Objectively speaking, any individual is much less likely to experience violence today than in earlier times,” he said. “We are currently in the most peaceful era in history. But that does not guarantee that it will continue like this. Unless we fight climate change, there will be more scarcity, more disasters, more despair and more causes for conflict.”
Originally published on Live Science.