Violence and human nature

Do we need to be reminded that human beings have violence in our natures?  Audiences apparently like the continual announcement of this fact, given the “if it bleeds, it leads” nature of the six o’clock news.  But as much appeal as this has, we also labor under the mythology of the “noble savage,” a term that comes from the Enlightenment and attempts to explain the origins of civilization, but has been with us as a concept for a long time.  One characteristic of these paragons of humanity is their supposed pacifism—see Disney’s sociological studies as illustrations of this view.

And then reality comes around to demonstrate how much this notion is a fantasy.  One example of this is the announcement recently of human remains discovered on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya.  These skeletons exhibited injuries from blunt force and from projectile weapons.  At least one, a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy, was likely tied up before being killed.  This may sound like current events, but in fact the incident occurred some ten thousand years ago.

The explanation for this incident isn’t clear.  It took place before settled agriculture and therefore prior to the beginnings of civilization—in other words, before people had anything approaching real estate.  This raises the question of what groups of people may have had to fight over, though access to resources isn’t a problem unique to the Age of Oil.

In fact, if Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is to be believed, our ancestors were much more violent than we are today.  In the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he presents extensive documentation to show that war and murder were the frequent activity of ancient peoples and that this propensity has been on a steady decline over time.

His explanation for this involves multiple lines of reasoning, but one in particular is significant for readers of this magazine—namely the general acceptance of the concept of human rights.  As the evidence from Lake Turkana shows, weapons have been with us for a long time.  What is new is the idea that you can be armed and I can be armed without there being any obligation for the two of us to fight.

This is an example of the democratization of power.  The temptation to violate the rights of others is stronger and easier to carry out when those doing the violating have power concentrated in their hands.  Spreading power out among the whole population—this means information, economic participation, ability to petition and change government, and yes, guns—is a key action in building a free society.  The acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the twentieth century stand as a warning of how fragile civilization can be and how important is it for us to promote the general exercise of rights, rather than favoring one group above others.

The message of gun rights has to be a steady declaration that we are acting in the interests of all rights, that we do not want violence, but instead are seeking only to make sure that good people have the ability to stop violence directed against them.  The victims of the massacre ten thousand years ago at Lake Turkana show the human tendency toward aggression.  The work we have done in the millennia since shows how that tendency isn’t destiny.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of