Murder Ballads


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.