Murder Ballads

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This may be old hat to those who (unlike me) pay attention to evolutionary biology, but University of Texas Psychology Professor David Buss has an interesting op-ed in today's L.A. Times saying that his research leads him to believe that "our minds are designed to kill," that "mating is inextricably intertwined with murder," and that "murderer's genes prevailed over those of their unfortunate victims, and we are their descedants." This conclusion also leads him to praise modern law, and condemn some modern criminology:

If we all have mental mechanisms designed for murder, why don't more of us kill? For one thing, killing is so costly for victims that natural selection has fashioned finely honed defenses—anti-homicide strategies—designed to damage those who attempt to destroy us. We kill to prevent being killed, so attempting murder is a dangerous strategy indeed. Second, we live in a modern world of laws, judges, juries and jails, which have been extremely effective in raising the cost of killing. Homicide rates among traditional cultures lacking written laws and professional police forces are far higher than those in modern Western cultures. Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered.

It may be disturbing to think of killing as evolutionarily adaptive and part of human nature, but this does not mean approval or acceptance of murder. I would suggest instead that those who create myths of a peaceful human past, who blame killing on the contemporary ills of modern culture and who cling to single-variable theories that have long outlived their scientific warrant are the ones who tread on dangerous moral ground.

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  1. in praise of civilization.

  2. The evolutionary biology premise is sound, but one should add that we have been subject to the same evolutionary selection to preserve and protect our close kin. I suspect that this would hold true with the Yanomamo and Gebusi as well, but it would be interesting to see some data.

    If it were not for Eve, the serpent, and that darn apple….

  3. Blame it on my having some slight sense of morality, or blame it on my being a member of a modern western culture, or simply blame it on my being female, but the whole thing doesn’t square with my introspection nor my observations of everyday life.

    Of course people have always killed each other mercilessly and inexplicably in wars and that’s something modern society and the modern state seems no closer at all to eliminating. And of course, they often have little desire or incentive to do so.

  4. Kudos on your Nick Cave reference.

  5. Do we really need a professor of psychology to tell us humans are natural born killers?

  6. Margaret Mead once said that every culture in history has had the law “Do not kill another human being,” but for most of history “human being” was defined as “Me, my family, and the other guys in my tribe.” Everybody else was considered fair game for murder. In that regard, you could say that the growth of civilization corresponds with the growth in the number of people considered “human” for purposes of murder.

  7. “. . .And I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I
    wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and
    guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill,
    KILL, KILL.” And I started jumpin up and down yelling, “KILL, KILL,” and
    he started jumpin up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down
    yelling, “KILL, KILL.” And the sargent came over, pinned a medal on me,
    sent me down the hall, said, “You’re our boy.”

  8. This guy is a fool. Plain and simple.

  9. I’ve been reading Michael Shermer’s recent book The Science Of Good And Evil, about the evolutionary basis for behavior and morality. If you’re interested in the subject I recommend it highly.

  10. Napoleon Chagnon demonstrated that Yanomamo men who kill get to spread their seed around a lot more than those who don’t – not least because they take their victims’ wives. I submit that you don’t have to look particularly far back in any culture’s history to find a time when violence conferred similar benefits.

  11. “something modern society and the modern state seems no closer at all to eliminating.”
    -femme fatale

    It seems odd to make this point without adressing:

    “Homicide rates among traditional cultures lacking written laws and professional police forces are far higher than those in modern Western cultures. Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered.”
    -from the article

  12. mixed bag here.

    The Dr. is correct in noting that you shouldn’t blame violence on single factors.

    But then he goes on to blame it on the single factor of biology…and compounds the problem by claiming that law restrains behavior. I’m not with that. One needs only look at the murder rate of black male adolescents in our country – with the same laws that, say, geriatric white women have – to see that law (and by extension government in general) doesn’t have much impact on restraining behavior (place gratuitous WoD reference here).

    Personal values play such a large part that it drowns out almost everything else. And personal values are derived from so many places that it is pretty meaningless to try to continue past that point.

  13. I concur with trainwreck.

    There’s nothing about this research that isn’t already obvious.

  14. Sometimes we need research into what some people consider obvious, not least because other people don’t know it or don’t believe it.

  15. Now it can be told! The Beginning Was the End. Intelligence can be eaten! The cannibalism of his ancestors still preys upon the conscience of Man and has caused him to lose his innate powers of extra-sensory perception!

  16. “Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered.”

    I thought all savages were noble and only the western white guys were bad?

    I having trouble seeing how this is Bush’s fault but I sure somebody will figure out a way to blame him.

  17. To follow theCoach’s riposte to femme fatale, the modern state is indeed much closer to eliminating war.

    In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker cites anthropological findings from the book War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley: 15-60% of male deaths are due to warfare in hunter-gatherer societies, while only 2-3% of male deaths are due to warfare in the U.S. and Europe in the 20th century, a figure that includes both world wars.

  18. Jim Walsh,
    I’m going to follow your advice. Thanks for the tip.

  19. Btw, My immediate take on this notion was that the most violent members of the our ancient societies went out and killed each other leaving the more level-headed amongst us to carry on the species. But that seems to be the opposite of what this guy is saying.
    I think my way makes more sense. Am I kidding myself?

  20. “War is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers … but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill today!”

    “A Taste of Armageddon”, stardate 3193.0

  21. Mk-
    The evolutionary argument is that it doesn’t matter how long you live; it matters how many kids you sire before you croak. A warrior prince who dies in battle at age 30 but leave ten kids behind is a bigger evolutionary success than a celibate man who dies of old age at 90.

    The most violent members of ancient societies were also the most likely to become leaders, or at least have lots and lots of sex.

  22. Of course people have always killed each other mercilessly and inexplicably in wars and that’s something modern society and the modern state seems no closer at all to eliminating. And of course, they often have little desire or incentive to do so.

    Good point, but Howard Bloom seems to have explained the state’s payoff pretty well in the book, The Lucifer Principle.

    The too short summary: Super states push their neighbors economically and politically until the smaller power bloc lashes out. At that point, the stronger group moves to ‘remove the threat’ posed by the smaller player and once the group’s leadership has been eliminated, the victors assume control over the defeated’s breeding stock and resources. And so it goes…

    The most violent members of ancient societies were also the most likely to become leaders, or at least have lots and lots of sex.

    Kinda explains women’s architypical facination with Bad Boys too, doesn’t it?

  23. Jennifer – maybe the more violent members went off to fight, leaving behind the peaceful, horny members.

    Dead warriors, peaceniks with lots of babies = less war

  24. Mark-
    It could also explain why People magazine once named Norman Schwarzkopf, or however the hell you spell his name, as the “Sexiest Man of the Year” back during the first gulf war.

    I read the Lucifer Principle, too. Brilliant book.

  25. Psychology = BS

  26. Dave,

    I agree with you.
    Psychology = BS
    but

    Psychology + Evolution = insightful

    Solyom

  27. What a load. He picks the Yanomamo, the most notoriously violent culture on earth, as an example of a typical “traditional culture”.

  28. Evolution = Common Sense

    Psychology + Evolution = insightful
    insightful = media coverage
    media coverage = book deal
    book deal = $$$
    $$$ = Economic Motives (nothing wrong with that, but I am not buying his ideas no way to prove them)

    Simplified

    Psychology = BS

  29. I totally disagree with the article. He makes absolutely no mention of the extremely important evolutionary factors due to the clan (laws seemingly sprang from nowhere!), and I would think that clannism would dominate individual reproductive success in the arena of murder.

    A hundred thousand years on the savanna has honed human behavior to favor the clan in interpersonal relations. Being a threat to everyone you meet is a quick way to find yourself killed by the clan. Yes, leaders are made from the threat of murder, but they have to be competent in wielding it, or they’ll get ostricized and killed themselves.

    As Jennifer mentioned, the advancement of civilization can be seen as the growth of the clan’s scope. The wider the definition of clan, the more likely you will not feel the need to kill the person you meet and the more likely you will seek ways to cooperate with her.

  30. Not trying to turn this into a religious war, but to find support for this theory just look at the first five books of the Old Testament. Lots of noble sentiments in there–don’t kill, don’t steal–but in context this clearly applies only to other members of the nomadic tribe of Yahweh-worshippers; everything else involves obeying “God’s” orders to invade other tribes, kill as many members as you can, steal as much booty as you can carry off, and either rape or kill the women, depending upon how many breeders you need at the time. The Old Testament forbids the killing of human beings, but in the early days very few people qualified as such.

    There actually are evolutionary reasons to want to keep your tribe going while wiping out as many others as you can; the whole point of the evolutionary game is to get your DNA into the next generation, and it’s easier if you don’t have to deal with competition from others.

  31. Natural selection operates on the level of the individual, not the clan or tribe.

    In order for there to be evolution, there must be a “murder gene” (or combination of genes) that can control that behavior, and be inherited.

    The author hasn’t really provided an “evolutionary biology” perspective. It’s pop psychology with a biological veneer.

  32. Natural selection operates on the level of the individual, not the clan or tribe.

    In order for there to be evolution, there must be a “murder gene” (or combination of genes) that can control that behavior, and be inherited.

    uh…that seems to me to be the point of this sentence from the article: “Murderer’s genes prevailed over those of their unfortunate victims, and we are their descendants.”

  33. bobderfisch: I’m trying to correct some bad biology.

    Saying that we are decendents of murderers is not the same thing as saying there is a genetic basis for committing murder.

    He is trying to be provocative by stating things like “our minds are designed for murder.”

    Evolution has given us big brains: brains that can come up with a whole range of behaviors. Killing another person is simply one of a variety of behaviors that can be expressed in any given situation.

    We are all capable of committing murder, just as we are all capable of non-violent action. Both behaviors have adaptive advantages.

    Would he sell as many books if his premise was “peace is in our blood”?

  34. but for most of history “human being” was defined as “Me, my family, and the other guys in my tribe.”

    In at least some AmerIndian tribes, they called themselves something like “the people” and others “the enemy”.

    The Old Testament forbids the killing of human beings,

    It forbids murder. Not all killing.

  35. that seems to me to be the point of this sentence from the article: “Murderer’s genes prevailed over those of their unfortunate victims, and we are their descendants.”

    And the dispute is that the article is rubbish because that is not the only gene that people pass on, and human behaviors are better described by the other genes.

    In particular, the “all of us in the clan think that freak is a murderer — we better kill him so I can reproduce” gene is highly likely to wash the murderer gene out in a few generations.

  36. This discussion brings to mind the “Iceman”, who was shot by an arrow from behind, dying several days later. He had the blood from four other people on his clothes and weapons. The arrowheads were of a type used for war, not hunting (this applies to his arrows as well as the one that he was shot with).

  37. In particular, the “all of us in the clan think that freak is a murderer — we better kill him so I can reproduce” gene is highly likely to wash the murderer gene out in a few generations.

    The men who lead the clan likely are the most succesful at murdering those outside the clan. At least, that was typical among many AmerIndian tribes. What you describe basically means that we were not “selected” to engage in random murder, but rather to join our buddies and murder “the other”.

  38. In at least some AmerIndian tribes, they called themselves something like “the people” and others “the enemy”.

    Examples:

    1) They called themselves “Haudenosaunee” — “people of the long house.” But the Algonkians called them “Iriquois” (Frenchified spelling) –“dangerous snakes.”

    2) They called themselves “Dineh” — “the people.” But the Zuni called them “Apache” — “enemy.”

    3) They called themselves “Inuit” — “the people now alive.” But the Algonkians called them “Eskimo” — “eaters of raw flesh” (intended to be an insult).

    I am struck by how many of the best-known names for Amerindian peoples are actually deragotory terms coined by other Amerindians. This is especially puzzling since it was my understanding that American Indians lived in enviable peace and harmony with Nature and each other until ol’ Columbus showed up.

    (mild sarcasm)

  39. And the dispute is that the article is rubbish because that is not the only gene that people pass on, and human behaviors are better described by the other genes.

    More likely, it isn’t one gene, but many, that results in various levels of inclination to engage in homicide, depending upon how they are combined.

    Humans engage in a lot of homicide, and this seems particularly true among primitive tribes.

    Interestingly, chimpanzees also engage in murder, as well as the hunting of other animals (although they are not good at it, they have been known to hunt baboons). Several points about hunting chimps:

    1) It appears to be an exclusively male activity.

    2) The succesful hunter becomes dominate with respect to his kill, eating first, etc, despite his social standing. This is in contrast to gathering, say, bananas, where the animal that is typically dominate will take the food away if he/she sees it.

    We share about 98% of our DNA with chimps; we are closer to them than tigers are to lions (and they reproduce, although I think the offspring are typically steril). It is thought that we evolved from a “generalized chip” some 4M years ago.

  40. “mating is inextricably intertwined with murder”

    Andrea Dworkin lives on in someone’s memory.

  41. Sharon Begley, the WSJ’s science editor, has a rather weak rebuttal of Buss’ arguments in today’s paper. Kind of embarrasing to see how someone with her soapbox has such a poor understanding of evolution.

    I happen to think that Buss et al. are more right than wrong but then I studied Physical Anthro. in college and I would say that wouldn’t I? 🙂

    Anecdotally speaking:

    I beat the piss out of some dude that had hooked up with my ex-GF once when I was out of town. Sent him to the hospital. My insane, non-thinking rage probably would have killed him had I not been peeled off of him by buddies of mine.

  42. If you are looking for a “murder” gene, you’ll probably find the closest thing to it on the Y chromosome, as there is a strong correlation between XYY and incarceration.

    The fact that XYY isn’t dominant in the ‘pool’ should demostrate the problems with this ‘science’.

  43. I met a little girl in Knoxville.

  44. Quasibill–
    The problem with your theory is that women murder, too.

  45. Jennifer –

    I agree, and that is the point I’m trying to make – while biology probably has some correlation to tendency to violence (hence the XYY correlation), it is small, and only one of many. To say that we are predestined by our genes is just a tad foolish, IMO.

  46. Big Daddy, Idi Amin, the Butcher of Africa killed more than two hundred thousand and fathered over forty children. Genghis Khan’s practice of killing his male enemies and inseminating the females he conquered may have produced several million descendants alive today. Killers enjoy a strong evolutionary advantage.

  47. Does natural selection operate at the clan level? Not directly. One can argue that it does not work directly at the individual level either. Natural selection operates at the level of genetic material.

    My kin share a greater proportion of my genetic material than non-kin, so if for whatever reason we choose to preserve and protect one another our genetic material will be more successful at reproduction. In this sense, one could say that natural selection operates indirectly at the clan level.

    Similarly, if for whatever reason individuals murder non-kin, and eliminating this competition results in the murderers’ greater reproductive success, the genetic material of the murderers would pass to future generations. In this sense our genetic material has been passed to us by successful murderer/reproducers, so natural selection has favored genetic material that manifests itself in individuals with THE CAPACITY to murder.

    I believe that’s what the science says. It does not say anything about being predestined to murder, or that we do not have any free will. It does say that the genetic material that manifests itself in vehicles (individuals) most successful at reproducing wins, and that if murder has been a successful reproductive strategy we have inherited the genetic material of those murderers.

  48. I should also add that getting murdered before reproduction does not pass genetic material along, so we also have the genetic material of those who were good at not being murdered. And if cooperation (in finding food, finding shelter, defense, eliminating competitors, or whatever)led to reproductive success we have genetic material enabling that as well.

    Back to Matt’s original sentence, it is old hat to those who follow evolutionary biology. It can also prove very counter-intuitive to those who do not, like much of the field.

  49. Quasibill-
    Being influenced by our genes isn’t the same as predestination.

    Think of this: all kids, without being taught this by their parents or older siblings, go or went through a phase when they were terrified of the dark, and absolutely convinced that a monster lurked under their bed or behind their desk or wherever the shadows were. They’re afraid that this monster will ‘eat them up.’ And, all by themselves, the kids invent the exact same set of rules for dealing with this monster–lie in the middle of your bed. Be perfectly quiet. Stay perfectly still. Don’t move, don’t make a sound, and for God’s sake don’t allow any part of your body, however small, to stick out over the edge of the mattress.

    Every kis in the world comes up with the exact same fear, and follows the exact same rules to deal with it. And with good reason, too. This is the very primitive animal part of our brain talking to us, and out in the wild there really are monsters that want to eat baby animals. And since the animals are just babies, too slow to run to safety and too small to fight back, there only hope is to not be noticed. Stay perfectly quiet. Remain perfectly still.

    Of course, the kid’s own imagination colors a lot of this, but the basic fear seems encoded in our brains. So certainly our genes influence us, but this does not preclude free will.

    I had the fear of monsters like any other kid, but I, like all kids eventually, also had enough free will and primitive reasoning abilities to remember thinking the matter through on a few nights and realizing that the danger I faced from any hungry monsters was much smaller than the danger I’d face from my mom if I wet the bed because I was too scared to go to the bathroom. So I took a heroic flying leap off the bed (to land far enough away that the monster couldn’t grab me), sprinted to the bathroom and back, and re-leapt back into bed from halfway across the room, landing smack in the middle of the mattress, well out of reach of any tentacles.

    I wore out a box spring almost every year, but didn’t turn myself into a stinky icky mess, as a lesser baby animal would. Behold, the progress of the evolution of free will over the evolution of prewired emotional responses.

    We’re wired to have murderous and other impulses, and whether or not we’re branded ‘evil’ depends upon whether or not we give in to these impulses, and how much self-control we have. I’m not evil when I have the impulse to throttle the deliberately stupid DMV clerk, but I’d be evil if I acted upon it.

    Animals always perform behaviors we’d consider evil in a human–stealing food from each other, killing each other, males raping females, and so forth. Humans eventually evolved an advanced cerebellum, in which lies the conscience and other niceties, but the old reptilian brain is still buried underneath.

  50. Jennifer-

    I think we’re talking past each other here. I agree with what you’re saying. My point is just that, far from being determinative of our behavior, our biology is merely a starting point.

    For instance, the post about Genghis Khan and Idi Amin: the logic only works if you assume that their behavior is completely or majoritatively dependent upon genetics. If, on the other hand, they became proficient murderers and reproducers because of the environment and values they were raised with, only someone who believed in LaMarckian genetics could argue that their murderous behaviors would somehow influence the gene pool.

    Evolution is much more complex than what the model this psychologist is proposing would seem. Sometimes, adaptive mutations die out through chance encounters. Sometimes, maladaptive mutations survive due to non-natural factors (take the well-known maladies of the European royal families). It just isn’t as simple as saying – murderous people have historically reproduced more, therefore ‘murderousness’ must have evolved into our makeup. There at least three assumptions built into that line of reasoning. And scientists should (unless they are political hacks, which is common in social sciences) be very, very, careful when they make that many assumptions.

    Getting back to my original point – this psychologists’ major problem is evident from the synopsis: he criticizes (rightfully so) those who try to establish causality for propensity towards violence in one singular variable such as “descendant of slave” or some such, but then he immediately does exactly the same thing and tries to establish causality for propensity towards violence as a genetic factor that we have supposedly been selected for. (and then compounds it by attributing the lack of violence today to government – that in itself should have rang alarm bells on this site)

  51. “Homicide rates among traditional cultures lacking written laws and professional police forces are far higher than those in modern Western cultures. Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered.”

    Yes, these two societies are perfectly representative of “traditional cultures” … not. This guy is a moron: murder rates in so-called “traditional cultures” show even more extreme variation than they do within Western societies, with both the highest and the lowest rates to be found amongst such peoples. His thesis is nothing more than a “just-so story” calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the sorts of morons who like to call people from other cultures “savages”, or to seize on any story whatsoever to engage in chest-beating about how Western cultures aren’t the only ones to engage in mass murder (as if “they do it too!” were any kind of rational defense).

  52. Quasibill–
    We’re omnivorous creatures, descended from predators. So of course killing and aggression are in our DNA! If the planet’s dominant species had evolved from rabbits, maybe this would be a peaceful world. On the other hand, it’s doubtful that too much intelligence would evolve from a plant-eating animal, because the brainpower needed to successfully hunt and kill an animal is much greater than the brain power needed to see a threat and simply run away. Foxes and dogs are much smarter than rabbits, after all.

  53. Jennifer –

    Yes, we are omnivorous. Therefore, when we are hungry, there is probably alot of biological drive to kill prey animals.

    Guess what? We still do – even when we’re not really hungry.

    The omnivorous drive, however, has little to do with how we treat others in our species. Other top end predators tend not to feed on their same species (of course, there are exceptions, and of course, some abberrant behaviors). So our drive to murder, and make war, etc., are better traced to other areas.

    Again, I’m not contesting that there may be some genetic component to this behavior. However, I’ve seen no evidence that genetics predestine our behavior. To the contrary, I’ve seen a lot of evidence that ‘environmental’ influences can swamp out our biological start points, and so trying to argue that we are all murderers by genotype is not something I can swallow. In fact, the evidence would tend to suggest otherwise – the vast majority of this world does not commit murder casually, and the very fact that murder is almost universally condemned (at least at the individual level – collectivist thinking is something else altogether!) leads me to believe that we don’t have a genetic drive to murder each other.

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