Murdering your enemies’ children an evolutionary strategy?
Ever have the urge to inflict pain and even kill? If not, you’re a bit abnormal. As Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, wrote: “In every man a demon lies hidden--the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain…”
Chechen rebels attack a school. 368 die, well over half of them women and children; American and British guards torture, rape and murder prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison; in Sudan, militia conduct a campaign of rape, pillage and murder, killing thousands. Are these the acts of depraved individuals? Or, could these killers be your friends, your neighbors, your kin, with the restraints of civilization peeled away?
Controlled experiments argue that the instinct for inflicting injury, pain, and death lies just under the façade of every friendly smile. In the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a dozen students were paid to participate in a psychological study of how normal people act under prison conditions. Student volunteers were assigned randomly to be either guards or prisoners. As the experiment progressed, and in spite of being instructed not to do so, the guards steadily increased their coercive aggression, humiliation, and dehumanization of the prisoners. As was the case with Abu Ghraib, the worst abuses occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching. The planned two-week experiment had to be ended after only six days because the student ‘guards’ became dangerously sadistic and the student ‘prisoners’ became pathologically depressed.
In an earlier experiment in the 1960s, Harvard researcher Stanley Milgram recruited college students to help ‘teach’ slow ‘learners’. They were told by a white-coated ‘experimenter’ to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to a learner each time the learner made a mistake. In spite of believing the shocks were real, two-thirds delivered the highest level of shock labeled "danger - severe shock," even though they watched the learner writhe in (pretended) pain. In a similar study conducted in Germany, over 85% of the subjects administered what they were told would be a lethal electric shock to the learner! The imprimatur of approval from higher authority dissolved the cultural taboo against torture, and released the hidden pleasure of inflicting pain.
When human tendencies are widespread and consistent among the population, science has discovered that the basis is neural-wiring assembled through natural selection. In the case of the tendency to murderous violence, this genetic wiring preceded Homo sapiens split from other species. Male langurs, our distant primate cousins, attack and kill males of other langur bands, then methodically kill the infants. Homo sapiens closest primate cousins, chimpanzees, engage in the mutilation and killing of other chimpanzees, including infants. In a frenzy they smash them against trees and the ground, bite their heads, and crush their skulls. Murderous rage and infanticide rise up the primate tree, and out onto our branch. The Yanomamo men of the Amazon sneak up on neighboring villages, kill or chase away the men, beat infants against the ground or bash their brains out on the rocks, then spear the older children. Remorse? To the Yanomamo, this is exhilarating entertainment—something to brag about. The message seems clear: The chilling bloodlust of primates, from langurs to the Yanomamo hunters, and right up to the Abu Ghraib guards, has been wired into primate DNA from the beginning.
Evolutionary psychologists speculate that the urge to kill an enemies offspring evolves because the animal that kills its rivals and its rivals offspring gains a reproductive advantage. Females are captured, inseminated, and the victor’s genes are propagated. Thanks to the success of this strategy over mammalian history, the urge is wired into us, emerging when circumstances put individuals in positions of power over others, and societal restraints are removed.
What do such hard-wired instincts portend for the future of our species? In the earlier environment of evolutionary adaptation, where status, hierarchy, and the primal instincts of violence were implanted in the gene pool, an individuals ability to kill was limited by the primitive weapons of tooth and claw. Today, thanks to higher intelligence and the evolution of technology, vast force is at the disposal of individuals, who remain susceptible to the primal instincts for aggression.
When individuals achieve power, the demons emerge. As Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
There is little expectation that the urge to torture and kill will be expunged from the gene pool. Therefore, the only hope for an end to the long history of human carnage will be the development of a social system that blocks the concentration of power.
Most believe that government is the means of controlling man’s demonic nature. Unfortunately, government is composed of humans, and every form of government yet conceived has merely concentrated power into the hands of soldiers and politicians, all of whom are infected by evolutionary demons, and all of whom are corrupted by their power.
All people will forever remain under constant threat from violence and oppression because of the combination of genes embedded in Homo sapiens DNA that are unleashed the authority of government. Each individual’s challenge is to shield from this folly, fraud, and tyranny. The good news is that our higher intelligence is steering us inevitably toward systems of social order that will end the archaic idea of empowering governments with the to chain the demons within our DNA.