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 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.

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 the University of Notre Dame.

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