The Better Angels of Our Nature (2012) takes a close look at the history of violence in human society, explaining both our motivations to use violence on certain occasions and the factors that increasingly restrain us from using it – and how these factors have resulted in massive reductions in violence.
In the first five blinks, let’s look at what motivates humans to commit violence – our so-called “inner demons.”
The first of these is rooted in the fact that violence is a simple way to gain an evolutionary advantage.
Through natural selection, all organisms have evolved to compete with one another for the survival of their genes.
In this competition, organisms are sometimes forced to oppose one another – for instance, when resources are limited or there’s a short supply of potential mates. Using physical force is an effective way of securing those resources, so organisms prone to violence do have an advantage. This kind of instrumental violence is called predation and it’s a pragmatic means to getting what we want.
For humans, too, this violent tendency is natural and commonplace. In fact, it can even be seen in young children: studies have shown that the most violent stage of development is toddlerhood, when children express behavior like biting, kicking and hitting.
The tendency persists as we mature, too: in a survey of university students, up to 90 percent of men and 80 percent of women admitted that they’d fantasized about killing someone in the past year.
This violent streak seems to have a neurological basis. Studies have found that artificially stimulating a certain area of the brain known as the “rage circuit” triggers feelings of aggression.
But even though we have a natural propensity for violence, from an evolutionary standpoint our instincts for violence need to be kept in check, because acting on them is often a bad idea:
Harming our kin, for example, would be counterproductive because they have inherited our genes.
Also, violence is risky, because even if a particular organism wins a battle, it may still suffer injuries which could lower its chances of surviving and passing on its genes in the long run.
For this reason, humans tend to employ violence selectively.