Are human beings violent by nature?

Ted Grimsrud—April 12, 2012

One of my classes recently discussed the issue of human nature and violence—a perennial vexing discussion. Are we genetically determined to be violent as expressed in much contemporary writing by biologists, et al, as well as political thinkers? If so, is pacifism simply unrealistic, terribly naive, even problematically romantic?

Of course, we did not resolve the issue. It’s something I keep thinking about. I think it is important to state the case for human beings as not inherently violent.

Three viewpoints

We may speak of three general viewpoints concerning human nature, what I will categorize as the “hard-wired view,” the “blank-slate view,” and the “flexible view.”

(1) The “hard-wired view” asserts that human behavior is largely determined by a quite thick reality of human nature. One main focus of many with this view is on our genetic make-up, asserting that our behavior is profoundly shaped by our genes.

As concerns violence, the “hard-wired view” tends to see human beings as naturally violent. We are born violent, we tend toward violence, our work of minimizing violence should focus on finding relatively non-harmful outlets for these natural violent tendencies. At best, we may redirect violent tendencies, but we cannot hope to live without violence.

(2) At the opposite end of the spectrum from the “hard-wired view,” we may speak of the “blank slate view.” This view asserts that it is meaningless to posit a “human nature;” we are all born with “blank slates,” and human behavior is totally shaped by our environments and is variable and non-determined.

(3) A second alternative to the “hard-wired view” we may call the “flexible view.” This view, which I hold, agrees that “human nature” is a meaningful term, but would differ from the “hard-wired view” by denying that human behavior is in any meaningful sense determined by genetics or, really, by any other unchanging element of human nature.

Empirical bases for the “flexible” view

There are scientists who argue for the flexible view. The hard-wired view, while held by many, is not the only conclusion that empirically oriented people might take.

I define violence as the willful use of injurious force against another human being (which could be emotional “force” and, in some sense under some circumstances, could also include the failure to prevent injury). I also add another dimension, and that is that the violence that has causing harm as its main purpose (which is what I would call war, punishment, fighting, torture, etc) is morally the central issue for human beings.

I agree that as long as carnivores have existed, violence in the sense of one animal willfully hurting another animal also has existed. Human beings from the time they became hunters and not just gatherers have been violent toward other animals for the purpose of getting food to eat or for self-protection. So it is not as if human beings had a “golden age” where all were Tolstoyan total pacifists.

However, to me the violence that matters in our discussions is the violence that emerged at some point in history that I would call purely destructive violence. There is a kind of violence in nature that by and large sustains the larger web of life. What is new with human beings, and I believe human beings at a stage in our development after our evolving biologically to be fully human, is the practice of destructive violence that actually injures the larger web of life.

Our physiology and psychology clearly indicate that we did not evolve by being (or to be) violent predators; it is very difficult for a human being to kill another human being (or any sizeable animal) with our bare hands (and it is also very difficult emotionally to kill another human being). However, it did not take a huge change to turn us toward destructive violence. But it did take a change, because we are not naturally inclined to be violent in the sense of destructive violence. It does not seem that we possibly could have been and still evolved. Our evolution required a tremendous amount of cooperation, more than destructive violence.

Because the changes that turned us toward destructive violence were not recorded, we have to speculate as to when and how they happened. It makes sense to me that at some point humans came to the place of developing culture beyond simply our biological needs. Once the ball started rolling, then cultural evolution broke from our biology and pushed us inexorably toward social dynamics that (in the short run) have rewarded destructive violence (in a way that is actually unnatural for human beings).

So, one big issue here is recognizing that we are shaped by two distinct kinds of evolution – biological and cultural. Certainly, biology provides necessary data for understanding ourselves, but it, as it were, gives insights only into the raw potential we have, not into what we actually do. Our actual behavior is a combination of biology and culture, with the latter playing by far the major role.

I can understand my limits by understanding my biology/genetics. We are all born with different aptitudes and potentials. But what we do with our raw material is mostly due to environmental influences (though some of the most profound of these influences shape us in our early months, even in the womb, in decisive ways; hence, our choices later in life may well be fairly constrained depending on our environment early in life).

We do have a very crucial element of human nature that plays a major role in destructive violence. This is that we are born with a strong drive to be loved; we are “pack animals” who require a great deal of nurture. When this nurture is not forthcoming, the result is profound damage to our psyches, frustration, and most likely a proclivity to destructive violence.

The basic argument: We are by nature not violent

The basic argument I would like to make concerning violence and human nature is that we biologically evolved to be cooperative more than competitive, affiliating more than antagonistic, peaceable more than violent. To foster cooperation and affiliation, we are born with human natures that expect nurture and love. And during the many, many years of our biological evolution, this human nature was selected for – and it remains our nature today. This also coheres with how the Bible portrays human beings.

However, when human beings reached a certain level of intelligence, we were able to exercise more freedom in relation to our natures than other animals. Ironically, as we developed socially, our choices (the original ones hidden back in our pre-history) fostered social dynamics that ended up evolving in ways that put human society in tension with human nature. Human culture (“civilization”) has evolved in ways that frustrate our innate need for nurture and love. So, the terrible dance begins. Human beings often are born into environments that frustrate them, treating them without love and nurture, and pushing them toward violence.

All this is to say, violence is an element of human life extrinsic to our innate human nature. When we are exposed to violence, we tend to respond with violence. Our cultures tend to reward violent behavior. So we are in a spiral pushing ever more away from our natural ways of being.

Our best strategy for resisting the death-dealing dynamics of coercive power and selfish, environmentally wasting economics is to turn toward our basic human nature, not against it. I disagree with Freud, who posited that human nature pushes us toward violence and civilization is a bastion against the consequences of this nature (setting up an almost certainly hopeless project of forcibly fighting against what we most naturally are driven towards). I would say, to the contrary, that civilization is the problem.

The most fundamental instinct of genuine humanness is the quest for life. This quest provides our core criterion for evaluating our human systems. Do they serve life or not? And if we recognize that our most distinctively human characteristic is our ability to make choices, we then will be able to realize that we do not have to simply accept fatalistically that our social structures that do not actually serve life must remain in place. We will be freed to resist and to construct alternative systems that do serve life.

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5 thoughts on “Are human beings violent by nature?

  1. Ted, provocative stuff. not sure that you’re any more wrong than freud. i was writing this poem concurrent with your post. not sure where it fits into your typology. hoping it does and doesn’t quite.

    passing the peace

    we mistook the dream
    for the opposite of what was sent:
    we crossed the bridge
    with a cudgeled crucifix.
    violence sniffs the open neck.
    gethsemane’s lips snuff the holy kiss.
    the house cat snares the singing bird.
    always this has been
    and always this will be.
    the miracle, then,
    of love’s chicanery.

    david l myers

  2. Thanks for sharing this, David. I am glad you are still writing poetry.

    I’m not quite clear, though, on the poem’s perspective. Is this a version of “nature red in tooth and claw”? I suppose a key is what you mean by “chicanery.”

    I remember when my mon got a canary that she just loved and was heartbroken when one of our cats ate the bird. The cat realized she was upset and brought her a bird it had killed the next day to try to make up.

    1. chicanery in the sense of the cross being a stumbling block and foolishness, not Constantine’s cudgel. not sure of the poem’s perspective. maybe that love is a trickster that on the face of it will always be overtaken by violence through misinterpretation, misappropriation, guilelessness, but that again and again keeps greening regardless of the forces against it. violence and the open neck is the nature red in tooth and claw; the house cat represents violence that has been civilized/domesticated but that cannot abide too much individual freedom–an image of your statement that civilization is the problem. i don’t think it’s that simple though: been reading Blood and Thunder (third time) and Empire of the Summer Moon. Much in both books about the south to north movement of the Spainards in 16th-19th Century and the westward movement of whites in 19th century, the clash of cultures, etc. BUT, also an sickening amount of violence between tribes long before the Europeon and Manifest Destiny pushes. So though I agree that “civilization” in the Western sense fuels violence, your optimism about humanity’s bend toward cooperation is true only within the tribe. that’s the transormative perspective of the Good Samaritan story, not?

  3. Thanks. I really enjoyed this post. I hope you’re right that there is no natural predisposition toward violence in humans. I tend to agree, and further agree that even if there is, it is not so powerful that it cannot be resisted or overcome. Good, thought-provoking stuff.

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