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Human Violence and Evolutionary Consciousness – Gorelik, Shackelford and Weekes-Shackelford

April 29, 2013

This is a truly interesting article!

Advancing an evolutionary perspective on human violence, Gorelik, Shackelford and Weekes-Shackelford write:

“Students of history are well aware of the ubiquity of human brutality and sadism throughout the ages. Warfare may have existed early in human evolution, as anthropologists have uncovered mass graves of mostly male skeletons exhibiting blunt-force trauma dated to around 200,000 BP (Keeley, 1996). In Provence, France, a rock etching dated to about 22,000 BP portrays a human figure embedded with projectile weapons (Guilaine & Zammit, 2005), [and the list goes on].” (p.343)

“Modern history is bloodied with the horrors of WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, Soviet purges and gulags, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Cambodian Killing Fields, the first Gulf War, genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few.
Although death rates due to war, homicide, and other forms of violence have declined throughout the Western world in recent centuries (even if we include the bloody conflicts of the 20th century; Pinker, 2011), the human capacity to destroy its own species and the rest of the ecosystem is unprecedented. Thus, our penchant to inflict unimaginable harm on one another has kept pace with advances in medicine and innovations in nutrition yielding technologies. Unless violence is understood with the empirical and conceptual tools of modern science, and evolutionary science in particular, the near future of our species looks bleak.” (p.344)

“…we speculate about the applications of evolutionary science to moral and practical choices within the personal domain, which may help one to develop what we term an evolutionary consciousness. The application of scientific findings to practical matters of human life is not without peril, and the misuse of science to support racial, political, or religious movements is not unheard of. Nonetheless, findings within the evolutionary sciences can inform and guide individual and collective decisions regarding acts of physical and sexual violence. An evolutionary perspective provides a useful heuristic for scholars wishing to understand human violence because humans are biological beings who are related to, and have coevolved with, one another and with other species. Likewise, an evolutionary paradigm can enrich one’s understanding of oneself and one’s context.” (p.344)

“From single-celled organisms competing for nutrients or hosts to complex multicellular eukaryotes such as plants competing for sunlight, evolutionary success is synonymous with the acquisition and use of resources needed for survival and reproduction, across many levels of analysis.” (p.344)

Reproductive success may be achieved by means other than direct reproduction. For example, helping genetic relatives to reproduce increases the likelihood that copies of one’s own genes are passed on to the next generation, regardless of whether one has offspring (Hamilton, 1964). This phenomenon may help to explain instances in which individuals sacrifice their lives for relatives and pseudorelatives (or “fictive kin”) in times of conflict and war, or during acts of terrorism on behalf of one’s actual (or nominal) brothers and sisters.” (p.344)

“In this article,” the authors explain, “we apply concepts from evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to examine some of the evolved functions of the human mind that are manifested as violent behaviors. Our underlying theme is that violence served the function of enabling organisms to acquire reproductively relevant resources in ancestral environments. For our ancestors, possession of resources served to foster two related, though somewhat orthogonal, reproductive goals. The first was to survive long enough to reproduce. Some of the resources needed to fulfill this goal are food, shelter, and safe environments. Thus, much of violent conflict in ancestral and modern humans, both within and between groups, can be traced to the scarcity of such resources, all essential for survival. Not so obvious (except to students of evolutionary biology) is the second goal that the acquisition of resources fostered: the chance to acquire a mate—a resource in itself. Resources needed to fulfill this goal are numerous and vary across time and place. Examples of such resources are territory, allies, social dominance, status, weaponry, precious natural or human-made objects such as diamonds, body decorations and accessories, and currency. The reason that organisms compete for resources that are seemingly inessential for survival is attributable to sexual selection, a concept from evolutionary biology that posits that survival is not the only hurdle that organisms must surmount to reproduce; they must also defeat their reproductive rivals and attract members of the other sex. Defeating rivals often entails the evolution of traits supporting physical strength and social dominance (which may explain why men are, on average, larger and more violent than women; Buss & Shackelford, 1997; Kolbert & Crothers, 2003). Such traits may also be considered attractive by members of the other sex. Thus, although human violence is mostly perpetrated by young men against other young men, the fact that many women find dominant and aggressive men attractive suggests that no one sex is to blame for the evolution of violent behavior in our species.” (p.344)

“Because there are differences between the environments of our ancestral past and of our own present, our ancestrally selected adaptations may no longer be adaptive, and even if human violence serves an evolved function in modern environments, this does not make it morally defensible. Nevertheless, if we take a cursory look at current local and global conflicts, most are waged over resources.” (p.345) “…human violence may result not only from struggles over material resources but also from struggles over symbolic resources.” (p.345)

As humans mature through juvenility and adolescence, contexts for resource acquisition increasingly become peer oriented. It is during this formative period that an individual’s personality and interaction style develops. Our social adaptations do not arise ex nihilo but depend on life experience for their emergence. Thus, interaction with one’s peers during childhood provides stimuli and responses that affect the development of our social adaptations. A host of factors contribute to this development, including genes, rearing influences, ecological factors, developmental history, and the contexts of group interaction. If a group of unacquainted children are made to interact with one another, hierarchical stratification based on dominance occurs rather quickly (Plusquellec, Francois, Boivin, Perusse, & Tremblay, 2007; Savin-Williams, 1976). This stratification emerges via a bottom-up process and does not require centralized planning. Thus, some children become popular, others get shunned, and most find themselves in the middle of the social status hierarchy. A child’s position in this hierarchy leads to the development of conditional adaptations (Boyce & Ellis, 2005) that furthered the reproductive success of human ancestors who found themselves in such hierarchical positions in past environments. Because a child’s hierarchical position is determined relative to the position of his or her peers, most children develop a combination of submissiveness and dominance oriented adaptations, as each child encounters settings in which they are either more submissive or more dominant relative to their peers (e.g., school, camp, karate class, etc.). Inherited characteristics and contextual factors are also responsible for the formation of stable personalities and dispositions across contexts (Weiss, King, & Figueredo, 2000). The processes of hierarchical status formation and the development of personality traits specific to one’s position within that hierarchy can be framed in the language of game theory and evolutionary biology as the development of “evolutionarily stable strategies” (Axelrod, 2006; Dawkins, 1976).

A child’s hierarchical position determines his or her access to survival-related or (for older children and young adults) reproductively relevant resources. In Western cultures, in which food, clothing, and shelter are generally available, children mostly compete for the approval of their peers. Peer approval is important for the formation of long-term cooperative relationships and the future exchange of resources. Likewise, social popularity in childhood may be predictive of future reproductive success in adolescence (Pellegrini & Long, 2003; Veenstra, Lindenberg, Munniksma, & Dijkstra, 2010). Children employ a host of strategies to acquire material and social resources within peer groups. One of these
strategies is bullying, or the repeated harming of a weaker individual by a more powerful individual (Volk, Camilleri, Dane, & Marini, 2012).” (p.346)

An important paradigm for studying the relationship between evolution and development is life history theory (LHT; Hill & Kaplan, 1999). LHT posits that every developmental stage of an organism is characterized by different reproductive costs and benefits. What this means is that individuals may develop new adaptations and grow out of old ones as they mature. For example, the most immediate concern for an infant is to acquire nutritional resources. Thus, infants develop adaptations such as lovability, cuteness, and eye-gazing, all designed by selection to assist them in acquiring nutritional and social resources from their caretakersAs individuals approach puberty, they develop adaptations designed to acquire reproductive resources (i.e., mates). In addition to species-typical reproductive development during puberty, both sexes develop secondary sexual characteristics; most men develop increased body hair, upper body strength, aggression, and an interest in casual sex, whereas most women develop breasts, hips, and a desire for long-term relationships. Some childhood adaptations may still be present and functional (e.g., eye-gazing), while others disappear (e.g., infantile features associated with “cuteness”), but puberty marks the emergence of new adaptations designed for mating and child rearing.” (p.347)

Ref: Gregory Gorelik, Todd K. Shackelford and Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford (2012) Human Violence and Evolutionary Consciousness. Review of General Psychology Vol. 16, No. 4, 343–356

Abstract: The evolution and development of adaptations results from the gradual selection of traits that enable organisms to acquire and maintain resources needed for survival and reproduction. We argue that instances of individual, regional, and global violence are rooted in our adaptations to seek, acquire, maintain, and utilize limited resources, regardless of whether such adaptations are currently successful at doing so. However, violence is not the only strategy employed by organisms to acquire resources; cooperation, reciprocity, and social bonding are behaviors that likewise may prove useful in this endeavor. We speculate about how individual adaptations and their byproducts may interact with the adaptations of other individuals and with societal and cultural phenomena, both violently and nonviolently. Finally, we discuss how individual decisions can affect higher level regional and global violence. Individual decisions carry moral weight for the individual in question and for society as a whole. We argue that individual decisions and behaviors can have far-reaching consequences on the well-being of others and that an evolutionary consciousness may help us to understand the effects of our personal choices on the existence of individual and group-level violence.”


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