[Paleopsych] CHE: David P. Barish: Red in Tooth, Claw, and Trigger Finger

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CHE: David P. Barish: Red in Tooth, Claw, and Trigger Finger (fwd)
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.8.12

    I well remember an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo when I was a child. (It
    has since been copied by zoos throughout the world.) It offered a view
    of the "world's most dangerous creature," and was, of course, a
    mirror. No reasonable person -- least of all anyone with environmental
    sensibilities -- can doubt the veracity of that assertion, intended to
    shock the zoogoer into a healthy degree of eco-friendly
    self-reflection. Nor can anyone doubt that human beings are dangerous
    not only to their planet and many of its life-forms, but, most of all,
    to themselves.

    Homo sapiens has much to answer for, including a gory history of
    murder and mayhem. The anthropologist Raymond Dart spoke for many when
    he lamented that "the atrocities that have been committed ... from the
    altars of antiquity to the abattoirs of every modern city proclaim the
    persistently bloodstained progress of man." An unruly, ingrained
    savagery, verging on bloodlust, has been a favorite theme of fiction,
    including, for example, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and William
    Golding's Lord of the Flies, while Robert Louis Stevenson's The
    Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde developed an explicit notion
    of duality: that a predisposition to violence lurks within the most
    outwardly civilized and kindly person.

    There even seems to be a curious, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like ambivalence in
    humanity's view of itself. On the one hand, we have Protagoras'
    insistence that "man is the measure of all things," linked
    theologically to the biblical claim that "God made man in his own
    image." The upshot: Human beings are not only supremely important but
    maybe even supremely good. At the same time, however, there is
    another, darker perspective, promoted not only by environmental
    educators but also by certain Christian theologians as well as
    nonsectarian folks who so love humanity that they hate human beings
    -- largely because of what those human beings have done to other human

    In extreme cases, the result has been outright loathing, often
    stimulated by the conviction that humanity is soiled by original sin
    and is, moreover, irredeemable, at least this side of heaven.
    According to the zealous John Calvin, "the mind of man has been so
    completely estranged from God's righteousness that it conceives,
    desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul,
    impure, and infamous. The human heart is so steeped in the poison of
    sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench."

    Misanthropy can also be purely secular, as in this observation from
    Aldous Huxley:

      The leech's kiss, the squid's embrace,
      The prurient ape's defiling touch:
      And do you like the human race?
      No, not much.

    In a similar vein, human beings stand accused of being not only
    murderous but uniquely so, an indictment that has been largely
    transformed into a guilty verdict, at least in much of the public
    mind. Writing in 1904, William James described man as "simply the most
    formidable of all the beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that
    preys systematically on its own species." A half-century later, that
    view was endorsed by no less an authority than the pioneering
    ethologist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, who popularized the
    idea that lethally armed animals (wolves, hawks, poisonous snakes) are
    also outfitted with behavioral inhibitions that prevent the use of
    those weapons against conspecifics. Human beings emerge as the sole
    exception, since our lethality is "extrabiological," rendering us
    anomalous in our uninhibited murderousness. Paradoxically, such claims
    have been widely and even warmly embraced. "Four legs good, two legs
    bad," we eagerly learned from George Orwell, not least because Homo
    sapiens is supposed to be uniquely branded, among all living things,
    with this mark of Cain.

    There appears to be a certain pleasure, akin to intellectual
    self-flagellation, that many people -- college students, it appears,
    most especially -- derive in disdaining their own species. Maybe
    anathematizing Homo sapiens is a particularly satisfying way of
    rebelling, since it entails enthusiastic disdain of not merely one's
    culture, politics, and socioeconomic situation, but one's species,
    too. At the same time, such a posture is peculiarly safe because
    species-rejecting rebellion does not require casting aside
    citizenship, friends, and family, or access to one's trust account;
    having denounced one's species, nobody is expected to join another.

    In any event, Cain is a canard. We have no monopoly on murder. Human
    beings may be less divine than some yearn to think, but -- at least
    when it comes to killing, even war -- we aren't nearly as exceptional,
    as despicably anomalous and aberrant in our penchant for intraspecies
    death-dealing, as the self-loathers would have it.

    The sad truth is that many animals kill others of their kind, and as a
    matter of course, not pathology. When the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy
    first reported the sordid details of infanticide among langur monkeys
    of India, primatologists resisted the news: It couldn't be true, they
    claimed. Or if it was, then it must be because the monkeys were
    overcrowded, or malnourished, or otherwise deprived. They couldn't
    possibly stoop to killing members of their own species (and infants,
    to make matters even worse); only human beings were so depraved. But,
    in fact, that is precisely what they do. More specifically, it is what
    male langur monkeys commonly do when one of them takes over control of
    a harem of females. The newly ascendant harem-keeper proceeds,
    methodically, to kill any nursing infants, which, in turn, induces the
    previously lactating (and nonovulating) females to begin cycling once
    again. All the better to bear the infanticidal male's offspring.

    We now know that similar patterns of infanticide are common among many
    other species, including rats and lions, as well as other nonhuman
    primates. In fact, when field biologists encounter a "male takeover"
    these days, they automatically look for subsequent infanticide and are
    surprised if it doesn't occur.

    The slaughter of innocents is bad enough (by human moral standards),
    although not unknown, of course, in our own species. But from a
    strictly mechanistic, biological perspective, it makes perfect sense.
    It might also seem more "justifiable" than, say, adults killing other
    adults, if only because the risk to an infanticidal male is relatively
    slight (infants can't do much to defend themselves), and the
    evolutionary payoff is comparatively great: getting your genes
    projected into the future via each bereaved mother, who would
    otherwise continue to nourish someone else's offspring instead of
    bearing your own. But the evidence is overwhelming that among many
    species, adults kill other adults, too.

    Lorenz was right, up to a point. Animals with especially lethal
    natural armaments tend, in most cases, to refrain from using them
    against conspecifics. But not always. In fact, the generalization that
    animals -- predators and prey excepted -- occupy a peaceful kingdom
    was itself greatly overblown. Maybe some day the lion will lie down
    with the lamb, but even today lions sometimes kill other lions, and
    rams knock down (thereby knocking off) other rams. The more hours of
    direct observation biologists accumulate among free-living animals,
    the more cases of lethality they uncover. Indeed, a Martian observer
    spending a few weeks among human beings might be tempted to inform his
    colleagues, with wonderment and some admiration, that Homo sapiens
    never kills conspecifics. She would be as incorrect as those early
    reports that wolves invariably inhibit lethal aggression by exposing
    their necks, or that chimpanzees make love instead of war.

    In fact, wolves do kill other wolves, showing little mercy for
    outliers and other strangers. And chimpanzees make war.

    Of course, if one defines war as requiring the use of technology, then
    our chimp cousins aren't warmongers after all. But if by war we mean
    organized and persistent episodes of intergroup violence, often
    resulting in death, then chimps are champs at it. Jane Goodall has
    reported extensively on a four-year running war between rival troops
    of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, in Tanzania. Similar accounts
    have emerged from other populations, in the Budongo and Kibale
    forests, in Uganda; Mahale Mountains National Park, in Tanzania; and
    Taï National Park, in the Ivory Coast. Chimpanzee wars are not an

    As to why they occur, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham explains
    that "by wounding or killing members of the neighboring community,
    males from one community increase their relative dominance over their
    neighbors. ... This tends to lead to increased fitness of the killers
    through improved access to resources such as food, females, or
    safety." These episodes typically involve border patrols leading to
    organized attacks in which a coalition (composed almost exclusively of
    males) will attack, and often kill, members of the neighboring troop
    (once again, almost exclusively males).

    At this point, some readers -- struggling to retain the perverse pride
    that comes from seeing human beings as, if not uniquely murderous,
    then at least unusually so -- may want to backpedal and point out that
    chimps are, after all, very close to Homo sapiens. But lethal fighting
    -- if less organized than chimpanzee warfare -- has been identified in
    hyenas, cheetahs, lions, and many other species. In one study, nearly
    one-half of all deaths among free-living wolves not caused by humans
    were the result of wolves' killing other wolves.

    Even ants are incriminated. According to Edward O. Wilson, America's
    supreme ant-ologist, "alongside ants, which conduct assassinations,
    skirmishes, and pitched battles as routine business, men are all but
    tranquilized pacifists." In their great tome of ant lore, Wilson and
    Bert Hölldobler concluded that ants are "arguably the most aggressive
    and warlike of all animals. They far exceed human beings in organized
    nastiness; our species is by comparison gentle and sweet-tempered."
    The ant lifestyle is characterized, note the authors, by "restless
    aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of
    neighboring colonies whenever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons,
    they would probably end the world in a week."

    The primatologists Alexander Harcourt and Frans de Waal (the latter
    having written extensively about "natural conflict resolution," and,
    if anything, predisposed to acknowledge the pacific side of animals)
    conclude that regrettably but undeniably "lethal intergroup conflict
    is not uniquely, or even primarily, a characteristic of humans." The
    bottom line: Our species is special in many ways, and we may even be
    especially accomplished when it comes to killing our fellow human, but
    insofar as same-species lethality goes, we are not alone.

    Jonathan Swift was no sentimental lover of the human species, verging,
    and sometimes settling, on outright misanthropy. Thus, during one of
    Gulliver's voyages, the giant king of Brobdingnag describes human
    beings as "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that
    nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." Swift
    himself wrote, "I hate and detest that animal called Man, yet I
    heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth." It is Gulliver's
    final voyage, however, to the land of the admirable, rational, equably
    equine Houyhnhnms that constitutes what is probably the most
    sardonically critical account of humanity, in all its Yahoo nature,
    ever written. Sir Walter Scott wrote that this work "holds mankind
    forth in a light too degrading for contemplation."

    Especially degrading -- for Swift, Scott, and, as the story unfolds,
    the Master of the Houyhnhnms -- is the human capacity for lethal
    violence, especially during war: "Being no stranger to the art of war,
    I [Gulliver] gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets,
    carbines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges,
    retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, seafights;
    ships sunk with a thousand men; twenty thousand killed on each side;
    dying groans, limbs flung in the air: smoke, noise, confusion,
    trampling to death under horse's feet: flight, pursuit, victory,
    fields strewed with carcasses left for food to dogs, and wolves, and
    birds of prey; plundering, stripping, ravishing, burning and
    destroying. And, to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I
    assured him that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in
    a siege, and as many in a ship; and beheld the dead bodies drop down
    in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of all the
    spectators." Omitted, for obvious reasons: machine guns, submarines,
    mustard gas, mechanized artillery, land mines, fighter planes,
    bombers, cluster bombs, nuclear warheads, and other weapons of mass
    destruction (and this is a woefully incomplete list), not to mention
    the use of commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction, or the
    use of lies about weapons of mass destruction to justify an invasion
    that results in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

    Let's face it, human beings are a violent, murderous lot, destructive
    of each other no less than of their environment. But let's also admit
    that such misdeeds, grievous as they are, derive less from a
    one-of-a-kind bloodlust than from the combination of all-too-natural
    aggressiveness with ever-advancing technology -- which is itself
    natural, too.

    Tennyson was correct, after all. Nature really is red in tooth and
    claw -- not always, to be sure, but more often than a romanticized
    view of the animal world would have us believe. And not only when it
    comes to predators' dispatching their prey. Also, not merely in tooth
    and claw, but in antler and horn and stinger and tusk, and in butcher
    knife and Kalashnikov. We aren't so much separated from nature as
    connected to it, for worse as for better, empowered by our culture to
    act -- often excessively, because of the potent technological levers
    at our disposal -- upon impulses that are widely shared. And so, one
    and a half cheers for Homo sapiens, the world's most dangerous
    creature, whose dangerousness resides not in the originality of its
    sin, but in the reach of its hands.

    David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of
    Washington. His most recent book, written with Nanelle R. Barash and
    based on an article originally appearing in The Chronicle Review, is
    Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature (Delacorte,

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