Richard Moore

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Jason Godesky at anthropik.com has taken issue with the 'violent chimps vs. 
peaceful bonobos' debate, pointing out that Jane Goodall's misbehaving chimps, 
for example, were coerced (with food bribes) into proximity with her research 
team over years of study and hence might no longer behave 'naturally' but rather
in a 'civilized' manner. He's also pointed out research that suggests that 
orangutans, though genetically less similar to us than either chimps or bonobos,
behave much more like humans than either.

What all this suggests to me is that:

€ Most creatures are peaceful whenever they can be (in natural environments of 
abundance and sustainable population density), but violent when they must be (in
environments of scarcity and overcrowding). Hall's studies of mouse behaviour 
certainly bear this out.

€ We are a product of both genetics and culture. As Beamish's studies of whales 
have indicated, and the recent work on the pirahã people has substantiated, 
natural environments of abundance and sustainable population density favour 'now
time' cultures of leisure and joy, in which instinctive and sensory forms of 
knowledge and learning (and hence of cultural evolution) prevail, whereas 
environments of scarcity and overcrowding favour civilized, frenzied 'clock 
time' cultures of intensity, stress and hierarchy, where emotional and 
intellectual forms of knowledge prevail. If one or the other type of environment
prevails over long periods of time, the culture of the species in it will evolve
accordingly. And culture evolves much faster than genetics.

So the answer to the question "Are We Violent By Nature" is yes and no: 
Genetically (so far) we are peaceful creatures (our bodies handle stress quite 
badly, especially when it is protracted), while culturally (for the last 30,000 
years of scarcity and overcrowding, anyway) we have evolved, as we had to in 
order to survive, to be violent creatures.

I have hypothesized that our modern obsession with violence and crime is an 
instinctive attempt to make our bodies (including our minds) more resilient to 
stress by inuring (=habituating to something undesirable by prolonged 
subjection)  ourselves to it, so it doesn't hurt (as much) any more -- a kind of
'self-hazing' behaviour. Not very successfully, however -- our culture can never
compensate for the weaknesses of our genes, which is perhaps why technophiles 
are so fond of trying to escape our bodies and their genetic codes entirely, 
into an artificial shell (which would nevertheless be subject to much different 
vulnerabilities, like rust).

We discharge stress and its complications (personal illness) by removing the 
cause of the stress, either peacefully or violently. Since stress was, until 
30,000 years ago, rare and brief, our bodies have evolved to discharge it 
violently: fight or flight. Meditation, rationalization, chemical 
self-tranquilizing, 'turning the other cheek' and other modern vehicles of 
passively resolving more chronic stress are not intuitive. We are not, by 
nature, pacifists, because until 30,000 years ago we had no need to be, and so 
have not evolved genetically to be. It is not who we are. That doesn't mean we 
are violent by nature. It just means we are when we have to be. And alas, in our
modern, horrifically overcrowded world of scarcity, most of the time, we have to

I think about this a lot now, when I lose my temper, when I feel depressed 
(which is, I think, a form of internalization of that natural propensity for 
violence by those who would like to be pacifists, if only it were in their 
nature). This is who I am. I can no sooner deny or sublimate my anger than flap 
my wings and fly. The fact that, in our terrible world, this violence no longer 
serves any useful purpose, is of no consequence. The fact that it makes us 
physically and mentally ill is tragic, but unavoidable.

I take, reluctantly, some comfort in knowing that our civilization is in its 
last century, that the experiment with letting the apes run the laboratory for 
awhile will soon come to an abrupt (and unfortunately violent) conclusion. 
Because the alternative is even more horrifying: That we will find some way to 
escape our bodies in some sustainable manner (I can't and don't want to imagine 
how) so that the physical stress of our civilized world no longer cripples us; 
and find some way to escape our emotions so that an artificial, desolated world 
no longer causes us distress. If we could do that, we would no longer be human, 
we would be machines, unfeeling, immortal (at least until the shells into which 
we'd evolved broke down).

I can't conceive of such a disconnected life. I'm not sure it even meets the 
definition of life. I am sure I wouldn't want to experience it, even for a 
moment. I'll take this damaged and irrationally violent life, as a flawed part 
of the staggeringly wondrous all-life-on-Earth. I'll do what I must.

Category: Being Human

© Copyright 2007 Dave Pollard.
Last update: 03/05/2007; 9:30:35 PM.

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