Minds Designed For Murder?

The notable evolutionary psychologist David Buss thinks that Murder is in our blood. Specifically that homicide isn’t a rare pathology, or the product of social forces, of culture, poverty or poor parenting – but is an evolutionary adaptation that we all share. He’s saying that in the right circumstances we will all kill, because ancestors of ours who killed had greater reproductive success.

Emotive stuff. I’d be interested to hear what readers of mindhacks.com have to say on it. Here are a few of my first thoughts:

As an observation, this is as old fashioned as original sin. What would make this interesting to me, is detailed, rigourous, demonstration of the psychological mechanisms behind murderous behaviour. Self-styled ‘Evolutionary psychology’ tells a plausible story about the context of murder, but I don’t think there’s much content to disagree or agree with until the experimental work has been done.

Related to this, Buss maligns theories that social forces/parenting/culture/poverty are behind killing while at the same time (in the penultimate paragraph) using them to explain why the rate of murder is so much lower in modern society compared to stone-age civilisations (“Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered” remember that next time someone trys to force a declension narrative about the collapse of society upon you). The thing about, say, the theory that parenting style produces murder is that at least it is a specific theory – both with regard to the factor and the mechanism. You may not agree, but at least you have something to disagree with (maybe it isn’t that particular style of parenting? maybe it isn’t parenting at all but peer group involvement? etc).

Evolution is an essential theoretical background to psychology, but it only provides hints and allegations – the real work still has to be done. Alas, you can’t derive your answers from the calculus of reproductive success, but need to go collect data to test your each hypotheses against.

10 thoughts on “Minds Designed For Murder?”

  1. This is silly. Let’s just assume that “murder is in the blood.” Great. Of course, for the vast majority of people, this potential decision is put through a cavalcade of decision-making processes and the decision to kill (in the absence of obvious threat to one’s own existence) is abandoned for a more reasonable decision.
    I think the ability to arrive at a non-tragic decision is a much stronger instinct since the cavepeople had to work together to survive.

  2. Sure, we’ve had lots of evolutionary time to develop instincts for murder. We’ve also been through an evolutionary pressure cooker in the past 10,000 years since the development of agriculture and the rise of cities. The need to get along with your fellow human beings has been receiving a lot of selection pressure, right along with the ability to survive plagues. So the really interesting study here is: which cues trigger our cooperative and violent behaviors? How can we reinforce the ones that trigger cooperation and be watchful for the ones that trigger violence? (I wouldn’t be surprised if the cooperative cues are already used by public speakers and advertisers to manipulate their audience.)

  3. This is very much like the argument that Robin Baker put forward in his book Sex Wars. Except was talking about rapists.
    If you count of all of the children and adults that are alive today who were born from a racist attack, you’ll find alot. The children and ancestors of those people are the decendents of rape.
    Likewise, if you look back in history you probably (Robin Baker does the maths better than me) you only need to go back 7 to 10 generation (on average) before you find rape in your own family tree.
    Hence we are all sons and daughters of rape, so by this illustration we can see that rape is an evolutionary succesful trait.
    I can see how this is similar to the murder case.

  4. Of course we are all capable of murder. While we may never have to face that side of our psyche personally, it is in there. What if your child or spouse or parent was in danger? If it was kill or be killed? Would you turn the other cheek? Or survive? Most of us, even those with a spiritual basis to our existence, will choose self preservation over everything else, even if it means killing to do so.
    Think about every army on the planet, they can take a random selection of the population and after 8-12 weeks of relatively basic behavior modification techniques there will be a large percentage of that group that is capable, (and willing) to kill other human beings for virtually no money or personal benefit (other than shelter and clothing). If this ability to kill was not inate and just underneath the surface of all of us, there would be no armies on this planet. It would be too difficult to get people to be willing to kill, the process of getting humans wired up to do this would be laborious, complicated and lengthy. But it appears that no matter what culture, no mattter what race, humans are able to be nudged in this direction with some basic techniques in a relatively short amount of time.
    Does this article classify murder in the context of self defense as murder, or are they talking about killing without provocation? (also within us all I believe).
    We are predators after all. Top of the food chain.

  5. The evolutionary origin of our murderous tendencies is not exactly a new idea. It’s been known for some time that chimpanzees, our closest cousins, have violent and even murderous streaks too. However like us they also display lots of altruistic and reconciliatory behavior.
    That said however, I’d hesitate to say that the murderous tendencies is selected for evolutionary trait.
    One of the main reasons that we are so successful as a species is our generalist traits: we’re omnivorous with a generalized dentition, our limbs support multiple forms of locomotion, etc.. Additionally our social behaviors show a massive amount of variation. As such, it’s more likely that what was selected for was a generalized and highly adaptive range of behavior — a wide spectrum that includes the ability for violence and murder but an obviously greater tendancy for joy and humor.

  6. Wall Street Journal columnist Sharon Begley wrote a column on May 20 about David Buss and his ideas about men killing their wives.
    “As evolutionary theory, this is ludicrous. Killing the owner of the uterus that is your only current chance to get your genes into the next generation (the evolutionary imperative), especially if she is caring for your current children and has a father or brothers who take exception to your uxoricide, is an excellent way to a dead end personally and genealogically. Being the target of angry in-laws, not to mention life imprisonment or lethal injection, tends to limit one’s reproductive opportunities.”

  7. Charm,
    I think David Buss would have two comebacks to the piece you quote
    1. He’d say he wasn’t claiming that murdering your wife is *currently* adaptive (as the comments about lethal injection and life imprisonment imply), or even that it was always adaptive in the past (which is patently ridiculous, obviously), rather that it can, and has, confered selective advantage sometimes
    2. He might also use the ‘Doomsday device’ argument for violent emotions that Pinker brings up in How The Mind Works. Essentiallly this is that a threat to retaliate loses some of it’s power if retaliation can have no benefit to yourself (eg launching a nuclear counterstrike, or killing your spouse for infidelity). Rationally, once you’ve been wronged, what’s the point in retaliating? But for the threat of retaliation to carry any weight it needs to be believed. So, Pinker argues, we’ve been equiped (by evolution, of course) with responses which we cannot control. That way, in the grand iterative game of life people know that we will retaliate even though it is of no benefit, or even harmful, to ourselves and this certainty of retaliation acts to stop people acting to evoke that response (ie they try to avoid wronging us).
    Or maybe that’s what David Buss would say. I like Pinker’s argument a lot more than what is in the oritinal LA Times article because it posits specific psychological processes, and thus a foundation for the actual investigation (cf speculation) of the mechanisms behind (say) murderous rage.
    Re: the discussion in general – I was passed this link about the flaws common in evolutionary explanations of behaviour.
    I strongly recommend that everyone who has got this far down the comments check it out.

  8. A reader wrote to me to say:
    Hi, I read your post on Buss and evolutionary psychology today with interest. Although evolutionary psychology is well outside my area of study (Aristotle), I did once T.A. a philosophy of science course on evolutionary psychology. I came away very sceptical about large parts of the project of (extrapolative) evolutionary psychology, and also about Buss’s work in particular.
    Some of my reservations about armchair evolutionary psychology are outlined here:
    Buss is a professional, so his views are less crude than the ones attacked in that post, but they’re still pretty crude. For two great critiques of some of the problems with (extrapolative) evolutionary psychology, here are the two best papers I’ve seen:
    –Boyd, Richard. “Reference, (In)commensurability and Meanings: Some (Perhaps) Unanticipated Complexities”, in P. Hoyningen-Huene and H. Sankey (eds.). Incommensurability and Related Matters, 1-63. (c) 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
    –Sober, Elliott. “Evolutionary Altruism, Psychological Egoism, and Morality: Disentangling the Phenotypes.” In M. Nitecki and D. Nitecki (eds.), Evolutionary Ethics, SUNY Press, 1993, pp. 199-216.
    The first may be a bit tricky to get your hands on, but it is really very good, and, I think, essential reading for anyone interested in evolutionary psychology.

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