Anthropology Magazine
Op-ed / Debate

Why Are Humans Violent?

From fights over a parking space, to marauding bands of outlaws, to global conflicts, we seem to be a violent species. What lies behind these episodes?
One MMA fighter pounds another fighter who is limp, laying flat on the mat, while a referee attempts to intervene.

From fights over a parking space, to marauding bands of outlaws, to global conflicts, we seem to be a violent species. What lies behind these episodes of violence?

It is tempting to try to answer this question by invoking biology and genetics, arguing that humanity is wired to be violent. This point of view asserts that we may have an innate tendency toward aggression and warfare. Perhaps, some have argued, our intelligence and systems of culture, such as laws and social norms, are all that are holding that innate violence in check.

 

The Debate

But these arguments miss the mark. Anthropological research demonstrates that we are more complicated creatures than this bipolar view supposes. Yes, we have the capacity for aggression—but also a propensity for compassion. Yes, culture can help to tamp down violence, but it also has aided the evolution of collective violence. The same forces that have driven the evolution of empathy may be responsible for violence too. Even the most modern cultural structures meant to suppress violence don’t always work as intended.

Humans are neither naturally bad nor naturally good; we have a range of capacities and possibilities. A deeper understanding of how and why violence emerges, or doesn’t, might help us achieve a less violent future—or at least one in which we can better comprehend and manage our violence.

Agustín Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. He focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors, and a few other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. Earning his B.A./B.S. in anthropology and zoology and his M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, he has conducted research across four continents, multiple species, and 2 million years of human history. His current projects include exploring cooperation, creativity, and belief in human evolution, multispecies anthropologies, evolutionary theory and processes, sex/gender, and engaging race and racism. Fuentes’ books include Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, and Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

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