For a guy that people don’t usually reference when talking about the ancestral health community, Tucker Max gave a fantastic talk on the importance of violence a couple weeks ago at the symposium. It was on the importance of violence in human evolution, and it centered on what he’d learned about himself since joining a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym several years back. His slides are now available, so I’d recommend taking a quick glance at them. The real meat was in the talk itself, though. Check out the video (and stick around for Seth’s talk, too). Hat tip to Tucker for stoking my thoughts on this topic.
We have a weird relationship with violence, especially in the 21st century. For the most part, we live in a time of unprecedented peace. Although with civilization and government come new challenges to personal freedom, most of us aren’t in immediate danger of being robbed, raped, assaulted, murdered, or dragged into war. Physical violence is easily avoided, and yet we are drawn to it. It fascinates us even as it horrifies us. We condemn those who engage in it while sneaking peeks and wondering what it would be like to fight.
But here’s where we run into trouble: violence is bad, right? Torture, rape, murder, serial killers, genocide, war… these are not nice things, and they’re all examples of violence. Anyone and (mostly) everyone will agree that these are absolute negatives. Laws against murder are universal (if selectively applied), and any reasonable culture considers rape to be a monumental crime. War is sometimes necessary, but it’s not a pleasant endeavor for anyone, neither victor nor loser. “War is hell,” remember. Torture is craven (and from what I’ve read, ineffective) and cruel, while genocide is the ultimate evil (even if some people somewhere support it).
If violence is bad, why are we drawn to it? You say you’re not? Okay – what happens to you when you see two people duking it out on the street, or preparing to do so amidst tough talk? Two things, if you’re like most people. You think “someone should break this up,” and you might even try to break it up yourself. Fighting’s wrong, talking is better, call the cops, etc. At the same time, though, you can’t look away. You might crowd around and crane your neck to get a better look. When the first punch is thrown, a thrill passes through you. You don’t mean to feel it, you might even feel ashamed, but you can’t ignore the excitement. It’s “wrong,” someone is probably going to get hurt, but just the same, something feels very “right” about this. I remember as a kid in elementary school, any time a fight or scuffle jumped off at recess, kids would come running from all corners of the playground as if they could sense it (the kids yelling “fight, fight, fight!” didn’t exactly keep it secret, either). I was right there with them. This was before ultra-violent video games, television, movies, and music were around to get the blame. Nope – this was interest in violence for violence’s sake. No outside influences.
Longtime readers will know that inherent human traits or behaviors pique my interest. When people seem instinctually drawn to something – playing with dirt, sunbathing, delicious animal flesh – I go looking for an explanation, because more often than not, there’s evidence of a benefit to the activity. There’s usually some deep-seated “reason” couched in our evolution as animals. Kids eating dirt introduces novel bacteria to young immune systems, sunbathing provides vitamin D, animals give us fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals. What does violence give us? Broken bones, black eyes, and bruised egos aside, I can’t help but wonder if fighting is somehow good, or even necessary for us. At the very least, our apparently instinctual proclivity to violence suggests that violence isn’t a product of civilization, but that it’s much, much older. That there is an evolutionary adaptation to violence. That the potential for it exists in all of us as a holdover from our prehistory.
If you examine our history, it’s obvious that early man knew violence. I won’t say “he was violent” or ascribe a degree of violence, because we just don’t know enough. What we do know is that evidence of human-to-human violence exists in the fossil records and confirms that life in the paleolithic wasn’t auroch milk ice cream and rainbows all the time. Skeletons with stone arrows embedded in chest plates, bones with blunt trauma fractures… it wasn’t necessarily a regular occurrence, but violent death certainly occurred.
It may have even been rare; as one recent article suggests, inter-group conflict most likely occurred due to resource scarcity and territorial infringement (that’s usually why conflicts arise between groups of chimps and there’s plenty of evidence suggesting the same for preagricultural humans) and given the low human population densities of the paleolithic, regular full-scale war didn’t really make sense. The authors do note that the potential for violence probably always existed in hominids. There’s even evidence (PDF) that moderate aggression, which might be described as the potential for violence, was a selective adaptation, since the aggressor would have a better chance of procuring resources and, thus, mates to bear his offspring.
So while most modern humans are largely divorced from violence (at least in any physical, active way), we are drawn to it, and it was a contextual feature of human evolution. Tomorrow, we’ll explore whether we should banish violence outright, or whether we ignore it to our peril. For now, though, I want to hear your thoughts on violence. Have you been in a fight? How do you see violence – is it an absolute negative or is there possible good in it, too?
Thanks for reading, and be sure to leave a comment.