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The most dangerous animal in the human environment is not a bear, a wolf, or a lion: It is other humans.
Written by Alexander Riley
[Elements of this argument are borrowed from my 2021 book Toward a Biosocial Science: Evolutionary Theory, Human Nature, and Social Life].
In a TEDx talk at Notre Dame titled "It's Not All Sex and Violence," the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes presents a warm, cheery view of humans. Peaceful cooperation and tolerance define our species, while competition and conflict are morbid distractions from the central theme of human history.
This is an encouraging story, one many of us would like to believe. And Fuentes is a charming and persuasive storyteller. But his presentation ignores or downplays copious evidence of a darker side of human nature, and he caricatures a perspective about humans that is more nuanced and more consistent with the evidence than his own.
Of course, humans do cooperate; and they cooperate quite well. The evidence for this is everywhere. Two hundred humans enter a plane, and two hundred humans exit without bruise or battle a few hours later, almost without exception. The same would not be true of many other animals. No modern scholar denies this cooperation. But a complete understanding of humans also requires recognizing that humans compete against each other, often vigorously and sometimes violently.
As part of his case for the pacific nature of humans, Fuentes forwards a headline whose widespread misinterpretation he claims is caused by our dark and distorted image of humans. The headline is "4 Killed Over Weekend in New York City." He then claims that a different headline is equally true, though it would never make the news, "8,399,996 Got along over Weekend In New York City."
In one sense, the point is correct: Extreme violence is rare in modern societies. But the why of that fact is far more complex and less flattering to myths about our innocent natures than Fuentes suggests. Also, the second headline is false.
First, the basic math is off. Counting the killers and the killed among those who did not pass a peaceful weekend is necessary. So even in his framework, there are at least twice as many individuals as he counts engaged in aggression, and more if there are cases in which victims perished at the hands of more than one assailant.
Second, and more importantly, it omits a large number: The people in New York City who were not among those killed or killing but who were perpetrators or victims of thefts, robberies, extortions, kidnappings, rapes, assaults, domestic abuse, and squabbles of sundry kind—thousands and probably more. Apartments in New York have locks for a reason!
Competition, conflict, and aggression are much more common than Fuentes suggests. And the reasons are related to the evolutionary forces that forged our bodies and brains.
This is a TED talk, not a book or a scholarly article, so Fuentes' treatment is necessarily brisk and superficial. Thus, skeptical listeners should be charitable. However, there are serious problems that should be addressed and that are not the unfortunate result of limited time.
For example, he dismisses the Hobbesian position that centralized political authority is necessary for curbing perpetual war of all against all (or, put in modern terms, a condition rife with conflict and fear). But in cities, when police disappear, this is precisely what happens. Looting and violence and terror.
He asserts that evolution could not have selected for aggression because it's too varied. Yet he also argues that the capacity to cooperate and "be social" is "wired" into us, despite that this is equally varied! One must accept either that complex predispositions could be the target of natural selection or not. One cannot have it both ways, rejecting the idea when convenient for another theory but accepting when convenient for one's own theory.
He points to the ‘way we parent’ as evidence of our selflessness, but this is a tendentious example. Parents, of course, often lovingly look after their young; and they sacrifice considerably for them. But they also pick favorites among them, abuse them, abandon them, and even kill them.
The competition between parent and child begins even before birth. Half of human pregnancies fail because humans have invasive placentas. Implantation of an embryo is aggressive and invasive; it allows the fetus to override the mother's interests, and the cost to the mother is a higher risk of pre-eclampsia and metastatic cancer because the invasive stem cells in the placenta are like metastatic cancer cells. The subtle forms of cooperation and competition between a mother and her fetus are complicated; they only become more complex after birth. In other words, Freud was right: Parent-offspring relationships are rife with conflict.
Fuentes's goal is to undermine accounts of humans as sometimes aggressive and violent because of evolved propensities, which he often caricatures as obsessed with the most sanguinary aspects of human nature. Yet the cooperativeness of humans is primarily a result of evolutionary pressures for competition. At first, this might sound paradoxical. But it's not, for cooperation enhances the humans’ ability to compete.
The most dangerous animal in the human environment is not a bear, a wolf, or a lion: It is other humans. Warring, raiding, and conquest extend to our origins, even if the nature of such conflicts has changed with more sophisticated technology. In the absence of a machine gun, the best protection against another human or group of humans is numbers. The larger one's tribe, the safer and more formidable it was. Thus, intergroup competition is directly related to intragroup cooperation. As groups grow and better coordinate, they become more dangerous to other groups. And therefore the other groups are pressured to grow as well, which encourages within-group cooperation. Richard Alexander summarized the situation:
No other sexual organisms compete in groups as extensively, fluidly, and complexly as humans do. No other organisms at all play competitively group-against-group. Most important, so far as we know, in no other species do social groups have as their main jeopardy other social groups of the same species—therefore, the unending selective race toward greater social complexity, intelligence, and cleverness in dealing with one another (Alexander 1987:80).
Our cooperative abilities are indeed formidable and impressive. On this, Fuentes is right. But the assumption that this is just a deep aspect of our nature and that aggression is not such a feature is unconvincing. We are built both for aggression and cooperation, and the existing and powerful presence of the former enabled the shift toward the latter in the modern world. Indeed, the very moral systems that emerged to help limit intragroup conflict in the context of broader intergroup conflict have sometimes served to exacerbate the latter, as in the case of international disputes and wars driven by religious differences.
We should avoid building scientific theories or political philosophies that would give short shrift to aggression, which is still omnipresent even in our largely pacified modern social worlds.
Alexander Riley is a Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
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