Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
30 Aug

Violence: An Introduction to a Primal Instinct

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I embrace hate filled testosterone fueled violence fighting is such a rush even when im on the losing end i know i stood up for myself and didnt back down like a punk. i love the chess game while your focusing aggression and using natural instincts to guess your enemys next move and set up your next pain rattaling punch to the guy that in the moment you hate more than anyone and want to destroy! I dont start fights im not going to assualt someone without what i would consider a good reason. i think being hyped up overly aggressive and territorial about what we care about and have is pure in a way cause its primal its not a facade like “civilization” is. Fighting is a good way to settle arguments over mates, politics, money,sports ect i love fighting and bloodsoaked violence in my opinion its awesome and brutal and im not ashamed of it

    Rob Joplin wrote on January 18th, 2012
  2. I think that people don’t want it to happen to them but enjoy seeing it done to orther’s. That’s why they turn there nose up in the air like as if it’s a bad thing but is it really? “I don’t think so” we to are animal’s But we hide behind are intelligence so we can look like the superior specices but the truth of the matter is human nature is revealled in that moment we get upset and we feel like something is taken from us we change back into that animal we have always been in the first place. So it’s like we wear a mask every day trying to be something were not. Now should we give in to it or not that’s up to you! I loved the article I would love to read more.

    klinnikka wrote on February 14th, 2013
  3. I googled this subject because I was wondering about the problem of violence toward women (VTW). It baffles me that some men are drawn to hunting, hurting or even killing women like prey. Are these men only sick & twisted, or are they also deeply frustrated by their unsatisfied ancestral urge to hunt, or both? I would never hunt animals since I’m a ultra-fem chick who digs most of them, but I wonder if some kind of hunting therapy would benefit those men who are violent toward women, akin to extreme play therapy benefits those with ADHD? I’ve been on the bad end of VTW, as I think many if not most women have at one time or another, so I’m not marginalizing it. But I’m wondering if there’s some primal urge that would make men tend to sometimes look at women as prey if their natural instincts aren’t being exercised.

    TamraKat wrote on August 2nd, 2013
  4. I’m a woman and I’m disgusted by violence. I can never understand why people are fascinated by it. It just makes me feel sad and awful. I can’t bear to watch it. I’d rather turn my face away if I see two people fight. I can’t watch violent movies. Yes, I used to fight a lot with my brother and I also really enjoyed martial arts, they called me the girl ninja but I find meditation and yoga much better. I am competitive by nature, that’s why I (used to) love winning but I’m also very empathetic. Other people’s pain makes me feel pain and I can’t bear to watch it because it stays on my mind for days or even weeks. I honestly think empathy is what makes us human. Also, forgiveness. Well, maybe I have too much empathy because it gets on my way but I do believe people can survive without violence between each other but without empathy we are dead and gone.
    The strange thing is as much as I can’t stand violence violent sex is what turns me on. But not brutal kind of sex, more the “I can’t resist you” type of sex. I think many women enjoy being dominated in bed (by an attractive man they trust, not a rapist). I do love it and it’s almost the only way to reach orgasm. I’m also a feminist but that doesn’t change my primal sexual urges.

    Flowers wrote on August 4th, 2013

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