Ted Grimsrud—April 16, 2023
One of the difficult issues that often comes up in discussions about pacifism is the widely held view that human beings are inherently violent. A common version of this view holds that we are born with a disposition toward violence that is part of our genetic makeup, in part because violence is necessary to successfully compete in the dynamics of survival of the fittest that is characteristic of the human project. Hence, violence is natural, and pacifism is unnatural and unrealistic—and untenable.
Not all pacifists agree with what I will argue for about human nature here. In fact, I first developed the ideas about human nature that I believe fit best with pacifist convictions for a public debate with a pacifist who argued for what I describe below as the “hard-wired view.” My debate partner believed that the call to pacifism that Jesus made was actually a call to defy our basic human nature and make a conscious choice to embrace love. I admire people who take this approach, but I also think that most people who take the hard-wired view draw from it bases for anti-pacifist conclusions. More importantly, I think the more pacifism-friendly view of human nature I will sketch actually fits the evidence we have about human existence better than the other options.
Views of human nature
I will summarize three general viewpoints concerning human nature that I think represent the main options: the “hard-wired view,” the “blank-slate view,” and the “flexible view.”
(1) The hard-wired view posits 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 naturally 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 with the hard-wired view that human nature is a meaningful concept, but would differ from that view by denying that human behavior is in any meaningful sense determined by genetics or, really, by any other unchanging element of human nature.
Christian theology in tension with the hard-wired view
Human nature, and genetic dispositions, do shape what is possible for human beings to do, according to the flexible view—and we do have certain basic inclinations. However, these basic inclinations at most provide us with a sense of direction, a sense of what is possible. They do not determine our specific behavior in any direct sense. For the flexible view, human beings have the capability of violence, the natural flexibility to tend either toward violence or toward nonviolence, depending a great deal on how we are socialized. Part of the reason I do not accept the hard-wired view is that I do not believe that it is compatible with Christian theology—at least the hard-wired view as articulated by writers such as Edward O. Wilson (On Human Nature), Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), and Lyall Watson (Dark Nature). And at least with Christian theology as I understand it.
These are some of the points of tension: Based in part on the first verses of the book of Genesis, in part on confessional statements scattered throughout the Psalms, and in part on Jesus’s attitude, the Christian tradition affirms creation as good, giving it a positive moral value. The universe is not naturally amoral or morally bankrupt, but to the contrary, reflects the love of its Maker. The basic principle of the universe is love. Christians confess that God is love and that the universe is one expression of God’s love. This confession turns the hard-wired perspective on its head. Rather than love being a “recipe for disaster” in a dog-eat-dog universe, as a writer such as Lyall Watson argues, love actually coheres with the most genuine parts of reality.
The most natural way to be human is to be in caring relationships where love is central. These relationships, symbolized by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are the starting point for human beings, not something “acquired” only on top of our innate selfishness. Human beings are created to be loving. What we learn (tragically) is hostility. Human beings are called to live in cooperation with other people, not in ruthless competition. The Bible portrays violence-fostering competition as againstGod’s intent for human life. The Bible portrays the attitude of wanting to “combat” nature and dominate the natural world as self-destructive hubris. The fundamental sin of human beings is transforming the creation call to exercise dominion from that of fostering harmony through stewardship to that of exploitation and domination. The unnatural reality of such exploitation and domination may be seen in their terrible consequences.
Christians confess that to commit to Jesus fulfills their human nature. So, rather than believing that we must defy our human nature in becoming a follower of Jesus, Christians believe that to trust in Jesus and follow him brings us closer to what is most truly human, hence closest to our actual nature. So, from a Christian theological perspective, I fundamentally disagree with adherents of the “hard-wired view.” I believe that selfishness and violence are distortions of our nature. We are not naturally selfish and violent but are born to follow the path of love for others as our most natural, our most truly human path. Are we left, then, with an irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and science, one arguing on empirical grounds for inherent violence and the other arguing on the basis of special revelation for a more peaceable understanding of human nature? Thankfully not.
The violence that matters the most morally
Some scientists do argue for the flexible view. The hard-wired view, while held by many, is not the only conclusion that empirically oriented people draw. Let’s define violence as the willful use of injurious force against another human being (which could be emotional “force” and under some circumstances, also includes the failure to prevent injury). I add another dimension: The violence that has causing harm as its main purpose (which is what I would call war, punishment, fighting, torture, and the like) 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 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). While it did not take a huge change to turn us toward destructive violence, it did take a change. 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 successfully evolved. Our evolution required a tremendous amount of cooperation, not 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 that 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 to recognize 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.
Genetics or environment?
I understand my limits by understanding my biology/genetics. We are 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 influences shape us in our early months, even in the womb, in decisive ways and constrain later choices). We do have a 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.
This last point, I think, makes it clear part of what is practically at stake in this discussion. If we think of human beings as naturally affiliating and needing from the time of conception an environment of care and nurture, we will treat children a certain way consistent with that. If we think of human beings as naturally selfish, domination-seeking creatures, we will more likely treat children a very different way. It seems to me that if one uses violence to restrain what one believes to be inherent violence in children, with tragic irony one will actually be teaching children to be much more violent than they otherwise would be.
For the “hard-wired view,” studies of primate behavior provide crucial information for understanding human behavior. In contrast, while I think studying primate behavior can be one helpful resource for understanding human behavior, it is a relatively minor one. Studies of human violence should by and large focus on human behavior itself. The extraordinarily strong (and scientifically validated) correlation between people who commit significant acts of destructive violence and those who were treated violently themselves gives us a clear clue about the origins of human violence, it seems to me. I find the arguments of anthropologist Ashley Montagu in The Nature of Human Aggression to be suggestive here (corroborated by Mary Clark in In Search of Human Nature and Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History). He starts by asserting that we must always remember in these discussions that we simply do not know, scientifically, why human beings behave as they do. All views, including hard-wired views, are based on speculation to a large extent (no matter how categorically people holding such views state the link between genetics and behavior).
Genes never exist in a vacuum. They always exist in an environment of some kind. Hence, we have no way of isolating genetic factors that could provide a basis for concluding for sure what the impact of genes per se might be on behavior. Montagu resists attempts to extrapolate from animal behavior conclusions about human behavior, especially conclusions that speak to inter-human instinctual violence based on supposed animal instinctual violence. In human beings, for Montagu, the striking thing is the variability and plasticity that characterize their responses. The human way of being in the world and responding to environmental challenges relies on the use of intelligence and learning. Relying on such creative responsiveness, human beings would be ill-served were their behavior genetically determined. In fact, were human behavior primarily instinctive, human beings could never have adapted to their environment.
Human violence could not be a direct result of hard-wired instincts because human behavior is not determined by instincts. If it were, human beings would not have been able to adapt to life on earth. If we could only react and not respond, we would fail as a species. Physiologically, human brain size triples in the first three years after birth, incontrovertible evidence that the basic learning human beings do comes after we are born. That is, the knowledge that matters is mediated through other people and through experience. It is variable, flexible, responsive. Our behavior is much more shaped by such knowledge than by inborn instincts.
It seems problematic to look back at the early human beings and see at the center of their lives high levels of “instinctive” competition and violence. What possible advantages could there have been to a small population resorting to the aggressiveness against their fellow human beings that the innate violence advocates attribute to them? If the thread of cooperation had not been there, or if in its place had been a thread of competition and mutual hostility, our species could never have achieved humanity.
Our sociability is central
Human beings are social creatures, by nature dependent upon intra-species cooperation (way more than upon competition). The most important function of the group in the evolution of the early human beings was in the area of learned behavior. This underscores the fundamental need for cooperation. Only if we are in a cooperative mode are we able to learn from others. Natural selection greatly favored those individuals and groups who would care for their young for extended periods and whose tribal lives were organized on the highly cooperative principle of mutual support between men and women.
My basic argument 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 natures that expect nurture and love. 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 life.
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, that treat them without love and nurture, and that push 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.
Turning toward peace
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 that 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, following Andrew Bard Schmookler in his book The Parable of the Tribes, 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.
6 thoughts on “Are we inherently violent? [Questioning faith #21]”
I find this to be a really helpful examination of violence and its origins, Ted. It strikes me that the fact that we find it so hard to see that violence is not an innate feature of humans is testament to just how powerfully and effectively culture/civilisation has shaped our perceptions about ourselves.
I believe you are exactly right, Rob. Challenging that shaping of perspectives is one of the most important things we can try to do, I think.
Agreed, Ted. It seems to me that most people tend to see themselves as “masters” of culture (autonomous entities who freely shape their culture) rather than as its children, or perhaps even its slaves. And, in my experience, far from being immune to this kind of perspective, Christians are often even more firmly under its spell than most.
I find this a very helpful view of human nature.
I try to look at what it takes to become a leader in a group, particularly in slums or an environment with insufficient resources for everyone. Clearly there is a strong need to collaborate and work together with others, but there is also it is the strong and the violent who end up with the most resources, sometimes just enough resources to survive.
The USA rich get wealth by the strength to force others to work or give resources so that the weak live with very limited resources.
I don’t know what this says about human nature, but somehow I think most groups/societies end up with leaders who are strong using some forms of violence to enforce their power. Culture is such a strong factor and is different than human nature.
My understanding is that it took/takes an act of God’s love to build a society not based on violence of the strong. We were created for love, but current human society rewards violence.
Ted, great article! I especially like the last paragraph. To paraphrase slightly… We do not have to accept that unjust and dysfunctional (for most, especially the “least among us”) social structures must remain. So true and important!
And the concluding sentence is crucial: “We will be freed to resist and to construct alternative systems that do serve life.” I’ve been working, volunteer basis, for almost 6 years on this very matter of alternative systems…; core structural and procedural changes that often do not require changes in current law. And those that do have proven doable (such as ranked choice voting… now in Alaska and certain regions) and open primaries (CA and at least a few other states). Now, there is no “magic” in a couple processes like these, alone.
But combined with other key processes (again proven on small scales) involved in “deliberative democracy” it IS possible to bring out the non-violent tendencies of human nature in settings which lead to solving problems and conflicts, benefitting the most people possible in communities or countries. It can happen through the (un)common wisdom that only a diverse and truly representative group, “authorized” by a majority can produce (but not literal “majority rule” that tends to subdue minorities regardless the effects).
The idea that we now have a “representative democracy” is a ruse. The book “Forward” by Andrew Yang shows this brilliantly. It’s two concluding chapters are compatible with “Jesus values” AND begin to lay out some of the needed and feasible structural changes.
I’m seriously into education. On your points and these I’m sharing, it’s vital. But there has to be strategic planning and action! Two important angles that my colleague, Norlyn Dimmitt, and I are addressing toward this process are these:
1) Get church leaders involved in bringing their congregations into the action on these principles and things like “asset based community development” (it’s an actual academically-defined process and practice, though little known).
2) Unite “silos of compassion” — the hundreds of charitable and cause-oriented agencies (mostly non-profits or parts of “faith-based organizations”) such that there is real synergy and great reduction of redundancy and wasting of time and effort. That is, productive energy that can lead to real cultural and political momentum and resulting in the needed critical mass of involved citizens who do way more than just vote or write/call their congress-person. This may be as low as roughly 10% of our population. We can DO this!
For a periodically-updated outline, mostly by Norlyn Dimmitt, with input or editing by me, see https://CompassionateCitizens.us. There is a good website by the Forward Party at ForwardParty.com also. (We’re not aligned with them in any official way, nor necessarily 100% in agreement.)