Anthropology / Everything Human

Why Are Humans Violent? Compassion Sets Humans Apart

Debate: Why Are Humans Violent?

Compassion Sets Humans Apart

When considering the question of whether humans are a naturally aggressive and violent species, it might be good to take a deep breath and have a look at the other side of the coin.

Yes, there is evidence of interpersonal violence in our ancient history. But actually there is far less of it than one might assume. There is, in fact, far more evidence of interpersonal care: of people who have tended to the injured and ensured that the sick or lame were kept alive. This tendency—for kindness, compassion, and care—is far more unique to the human species than our tendency to lash out. Many animals respond to threats by fighting back. Very few animals tend to their wounded friends, and only humans do it consistently.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, only two known cases of likely interpersonal violence in the archaic species most closely related to us, Neanderthals. That’s out of a total of about 30 near-complete skeletons and 300 partial Neanderthal finds. One—a young adult living in what is now St. Césaire, France, some 36,000 years ago—had the front of his or her skull bashed in. The other, a Neanderthal found in Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraq, was stabbed in the ribs between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, perhaps by a projectile point shot by a modern human.

The earliest possible evidence of what might be considered warfare or feuding doesn’t show up until some 13,000 years ago at a cemetery in the Nile Valley called Jebel Sahaba, where many of the roughly 60 Homo sapiens individuals appear to have died a violent death.

Evidence of human care, on the other hand, goes back at least 1.5 million years—to long before humans were anatomically modern. A Homo ergaster female from Koobi Fora in Kenya, dated to about 1.6 million years ago, survived several weeks despite a toxic overaccumulation of vitamin A. She must have been given food and water, and protected from predators, to live long enough for this disease to leave a record in her bones.

Such evidence becomes even more notable by half a million years ago. At Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones), a site in Spain occupied by ancestors of Neanderthals, three of 28 individuals found in one pit had severe pathology—a girl with a deformed head, a man who was deaf, and an elderly man with a damaged pelvis—but they all lived for long periods of time despite their conditions, indicating that they were cared for. At the same site in Shanidar where a Neanderthal was found stabbed, researchers discovered another skeleton who was blind in one eye and had a withered arm and leg as well as hearing loss, which would have made it extremely hard or impossible to forage for food and survive. His bones show he survived for 15 to 20 years after injury.

At a site in modern-day Vietnam called Man Bac, which dates to around 3,500 years ago, a man with almost complete paralysis and frail bones was looked after by others for over a decade; he must have received care that would be difficult to provide even today.

All of these acts of caring lasted for weeks, months, or years, as opposed to a single moment of violence.

Like food sharing, health care was part of life for our ancestors—a major aspect of how they worked together to survive hard times. Humans have an instinctive reaction to provide care and empathy for those who are sick or hurt; it works to our evolutionary advantage. It is only higher-level cognition that stops us from helping in some instances. Even infants show a desire to comfort those who are in pain.

Stories about violence and aggression naturally draw our attention; we evolved to pay particular notice to potential threats for the good reason that doing so kept us alive. As a result, the news is filled not with stories of everyday kindness but with those that are visceral and scary—they seem more significant because they are frightening. It is easy to think of ourselves as “violent apes.” But on the whole, a better descriptor would be “compassionate apes.” After all, it is our tendency for kindness that sets us apart.

Up Next: Could Group-Organized Violence Be Rooted in Empathy?

  • Jesus Ruiz

    why are you printing grey on white, i’m having difficulty reading.. Could you print black on white???? I would very much appreciate it..

  • Scuppernong

    I would suggest that Dr Spikins read two books written by archaeologists and get back to us about human compassion.

    War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence Keeley

    Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Steven LeBlanc and Katherine Register

    The archaeological record is filled with examples of warfare and brutality and the authors of the two books demonstrate that interpersonal violence and warfare were far more prevalent in prehistory than today. LeBlanc and Register extend the argument to include evidence that humans never have lived in ecological balance with nature which has been the cause of much of the conflict.

    • And I might suggest that you read what she wrote, before patronisingly urging her to read the books that you read. Her comment was directed to such claims and all she said was “Yes, there is evidence of interpersonal violence in our ancient history. But actually there is far less of it than one might assume. There is, in fact, far more evidence of interpersonal care: “

  • ngrealy

    The notion humans are violent is tied directly to the false notion that masculinity is “toxic”.

    “Care and compassion” — or more neutrally “cooperation” — is a (genderless, or at least male-inclusive) trait in humans that is far, far from secret. Someone once said “Take all the humans in New York City and replace them with chimpanzees, and you’d get a bloodbath.”

  • RogerSweeny

    Questions like, “Are humans naturally aggressive or compassionate?” have always struck me as silly. Obviously, we can be both. As an overgeneralization, we are compassionate to “our people” or “people like us” and more likely to be aggressive or violent toward “those people.”

    • Giovanni Tagliabue

      This is just what I was going to write as a comment. I would only specify that, since the separation between “us” and “them”, i.e. the ingroup-outgroup dynamics, is so deep-routed in
      our evolved brains, this is the biggest obstacle to the hopes for “universal morality” – see the final sentence of Barry Bainton’s post.

  • Barry Bainton

    Violence and aggression are behavioral responses toward others and/or other objects. That is, the emotional expression (present or absent) is the same when directed at another human, an animal, or object on the individual level. Motive and morality are human responses to the negative results (theoretical or existential) that comes from such behavior. Morality is an axiological absolute (Yes/No) for judging whether a behavior is good or bad. As anthropologists we have been taught that morality is culturally defined. As such, it is ethically relative to the context of the behavior.
    Morality is thus egocentric on the one hand and ethnocentric on another. It is a struggle that takes place between the individual human animal and the society in which she/he experiences events. To be totally egocentric creates a morality that judges the use of violence/aggression in personal terms; to be totally ethnocentric creates a morality that judges the use of violence/aggression in collective terms. The former looks to a supernatural authority for justification, while the latter looks to the group for justification.
    The above discussion, relevant to Violence/aggression, is also applicable to the morality in a compassionate and/or cooperative behavioral response to the same stimulus. If we are to understand and explain to others the human rationale for what may appear as conflicting behavioral and their meanings, as anthropologists, we must, on some level, maintain our own neutrality on an issue such as violence/aggression. From such understanding one would hope we can contribute to a universal morality that might eventually emerge.

  • myfin

    How can they determine someone was deaf from examining skeletal remains?

  • Tony Sloane

    Hi Penny, I agree that the history of human compassion is long and distinguished. The one aspect I would take issue with is the uniqueness of it. From what I follow in Primatology the evidence for high levels of compassion in Bonobos seems to be mounting to a significant level. What are your thoughts on this?

  • hello world

    **sigh** If you want to lift your head above the parapet, since you appear never to have done so, you could start here:

    Even a list like this does not begin to encompass all the low-grade (work-place, schools) bullying and competitiveness that cause such alienation and sorrow now and seemingly forever among man. Look at our suicide rates, the addiction/opioid crises, number of prescriptions for antidepressants etc( in the west at any rate).

    None of that is the product of a sane, compassionate species. There will always be many, many *individuals* who are sane and compassionate, but they are just that, the minority. For the great majority, it is “me me me”, my little patch, my family, my country, my job, my fulfillment, my satisfaction, my social media profile that’s destitute of anything but pictures of me and my little group.

    So no, the random acts of compassion of the few does not set us apart. Thinking sets us apart. The imagery of thought/memory, which is of the past, creates the illusion of a separate self, separate from the other selves. To go into that is a whole other matter. But it is that creation of a spurious psychological self and all the conflict that results from that, one people killing another over their invented differences, that “sets us apart”.

    And I have not even mentioned that man kills in the order of 70 million factory-farmed animals a day, many of whom in their concrete prisons have never seen the sun or felt the grass under their feet a day in their lives, and that most people are aware of this to some extent and, far from giving up or reducing mean consumption, would not even spend the extra to buy free range or organic. It is a system where the level of suffering involved is beyond all bounds.

    So please, please, reconsider what you are saying. It is perpetuating suffering.