Review of "Evolutionary Psychology and Violence"

By Richard W. Bloom and Nancy Dess (Editors)
Praeger Publishers, 2003
Review by Jack R. Anderson, M.D. on Oct 6th 2004
Evolutionary Psychology and Violence

To begin with, I feel I should warn you that reading this book might be hazardous to your equanimity. As you study the exceptionally well-written and well thought out chapters you may question some of your own basic ethical, moral and philosophical tenets and consequently experience increasing levels of anxiety and depression. Nevertheless, I hope a lot of you read the book, including public policymakers—those who are literate of course. It contains not only penetrating analyses of the root causes of the violence that is threatening to destroy our civilization, but also some promising violence-reduction strategies.


The book's thirteen contributors and editors possess an impressive level of expertise in the fields of psychology, sociology, evolution and forensics. Eleven of them are Ph.D. level professors of psychology and the other two are working on their doctorate degrees.


In the preface and first chapter the editors acknowledge the resistance that can be expected to be raised against their book or any book containing psychological hypotheses related to evolutionary theory. Religious fundamentalists have long argued that the principles of evolution contradict the sacred truths of creationism and are therefore sinful. Then there's the history of Hitler raising even more opposition to the subject of evolution by basing the Nazi race theory on social Darwinism. And in the free will-determinism controversy the free will advocates have resisted evolutionary concepts as leaning toward determinism.

The writers believe that another source of opposition to evolutionary theory is duly constituted authority. "Legitimate violence reduction efforts might only be tolerated in carefully constrained areas where political power is unthreatened or enhanced."


A key concept in relating evolutionary psychology to violence is that of "adaptation." The writers give us an example of the history of an adaptation: "A motive to strive for status may have evolved through a tortuously long causal chain involving (a) propulsion up the social ladder, (b) the consequent gaining of access to certain resources, (c) rendering the bearer more attractive to the opposite sex, (d) producing more bountiful mating opportunities, (e) eventually being chosen as a mate, (f) which in turn leads to sexual behavior that produces offspring." That a behavior leads to sexual behavior that produces offspring is essential to its being adaptive. Natural selection teaches that "the sole criterion preventing evolutionary oblivion is successful gene replication."


One of the forms of violence the writers discuss as having evolutionary roots, is rape. Dimorphism is common to mammals, with primates among the most dimorphic of orders. Great ape males are known to use their superior size and strength to force females into intercourse, just as humans do. The writers point out that during the Middle Ages, marriage by rape was not uncommon, and in communities where women are in short supply, rape might be a "last-ditch" means for an unattractive male to gain sexual access to otherwise unapproachable females.

One suggestion for reducing the frequency of rape is to educate both men and women regarding the differences in their attitudes toward sex.  Without this emphasis, men, who "inhabit a more sexualized world than women do," are apt to interpret ambiguous body movements as sexual signaling or even sexual invitation. Another suggestion is decriminalizing both prostitution and pornography, so that males have more acceptable access to non-violent methods of sexual satisfaction.


Another form of violence discussed by the writers is homicide. They mention that, within the US, nearly 20,000 individuals are murdered each year, and homicide is the third leading cause of death, worldwide, for 15-44 year old men.

Killing members of one's own species is widespread in insect, mammalian and primate species. The authors write: "The idea that humans might have evolved adaptations whose dedicated function is to murder other humans seems to be so abhorrent that it has not been seriously entertained, scrutinized, or examined. In contrast, we have proposed a theory that appears to be radical in this context—that humans have evolved not one, but many adaptations whose proper function is to produce the death of other humans."  They go on to list some potential evolutionary benefits of killing other people, such as: eliminating sexual rivals; gaining material resources; building a macho reputation to deter others from aggression; self-defense; and the elimination of resource-absorbing infants or children. From an evolutionary view, considering all of the possible benefits derived from killing other people, it is surprising that homicide is not more prevalent.

The public policy implications of the evolutionary perspective on homicide are broken down into two approaches. The first approach is "…to identify the circumstances in which evolved homicide mechanisms are most likely to be activated and to direct special efforts at educating people about these circumstances." The second approach involves using the evolved antihomicide mechanisms that humans possess. Identifying their fears and other emotions that are danger signals and training people to attend to them could decrease their risk of being killed.


One of the main points of the book is that if the evolutionary perspective on violence is to save civilization from man's inhumanity to man it will have to inform the public policymakers who make decisions about international conflicts and terrorism. Since "international" frequently includes "intercultural," the authors provide us with an evolutionary definition of "culture": " humanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality shared by individuals in groups," and an evolutionary explanation of how and why cultures were developed.

Language, art, body ornamentation and ritual burial appeared simultaneously in the middle/upper Paleolithic period, 30,000-50,000 years ago. The authors believe that the development of language was motivated by the need to construct myths of creation to mitigate the "paralyzing dread of death." "Only human beings, by virtue of consciousness, are simultaneously alive and aware they are alive." And with this self-awareness—otherwise a powerfully positive adaptation—comes the explicit awareness that the natural conclusion of every life is death.

Terror management theory proposes that culture "serves to assuage the terror engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death and, in so doing, to preserve consciousness (in its present form) as a viable form of mental organization." "Culture serves to reduce anxiety about death by providing the possibility for individuals to perceive themselves as persons of value in a world of meaning, and hence qualified for immortality." 

People living in one culture are apt to regard other cultures as threats to their own worldview and their hope for immortality. This leads to anxiety and threats against the other cultures. We tend to derogate those who do not share our worldview and threaten them with "holy wars." In effect, we say: "We and our god will kill you and your god." Terms like "Evil Empire," "Great Satan," and "Axis of Evil" are angrily exchanged.


The authors make some suggestions for reducing global levels of intercultural anxiety and hostility and hopefully avoiding the currently threatening nuclear holocaust. One suggestion is to effect broad public dissemination of facts that support the evolutionary aspects of terrorism and intercultural hostility. Up to now the public policy arena has been relatively impervious to input from research. Another is to use informational channels to shift all people toward a focus on our shared humanism rather than our cultural differences.


    The authors note that currently in the world there are two ethologically oriented political systems in national governments. One is the despotic chimpanzee model, an alpha male system; the other is the egalitarian band/tribal model in which decisions are made by consensus and alpha rulers are excluded. Unfortunately, most current governments, including super-powers, favor the alpha male system and intercultural conflict is apt to result in violence; while the band/tribal model, which requires consensus for important decisions, would favor diplomatic negotiation over war. 

Our two attempts at world government—the League of Nations and the UN—have both been impotent as enforcers of world order and peace because they have not been given the right of taxation to support a military force that could defeat any national military force and to distribute needed aid to impoverished nations.

The authors conclude that the current emphasis on sovereignty in the super-powers will make it more than difficult—practically impossible—to establish an effective world government that could enforce a global rule of law. However, in Chapter 7's Concluding Comments there is an expression of hope for mankind:

"As a special kind of primate, it is in us to be small, bigoted, insular, and backward looking. However, it also is in us to be expansive, wise, inclusive, and forward looking. For all their intransigence, primate societies do change. Let us use policy informed by an understanding of human nature to change our societies to the mutual benefit of hosts and others."

A start in this direction would be for as many people as possible to study Evolutionary Psychology And Violence. I recommend you go directly to your bookstore or library and get a copy. If you belong to a book club, bring it to their attention. If you know any public policymakers, send them a copy. Time is getting short, so hurry!


Link: Publisher's web page for book


© 2004 Jack R. Anderson


  Jack R. Anderson, M.D. is a retired psychiatrist living in Lincoln, Nebraska


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