Are human beings inherently violent? According to a recent study by researchers of the Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (Experimental Station of Arid Zones) and the University of Granada, yes, we are, but to the extent that some other mammal species are. It turns out that the most violent mammal—the ones that most often kill members of their own species—is the meerkat. Yes, the adorable town-dwellers of the Kalahari. Many primates are on the top thirty list, as are members of the order Carnivora, but so is the California ground squirrel.
The debate about the degree to which our violent acts come from our genes has been going on for a long time. One example is the discussion over our two closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. A while ago, the latter species achieved popular attention as a group of apes that are remarkably peaceful and sexually promiscuous—the hippies of the African rainforest. Chimps live in a territorial, aggressive, male-dominated society, while bonobos favor social bonding and are lead by the females. The fact that we’re related to both has been used by people trying to advocate a side, but too much of this has only served to obscure the questions of who we are and what we should do about it.
We have to consider what we mean by violence. The word expresses the use of force—in Middle English it meant, “having some quality so strongly as to produce a powerful effect.” It’s also derived from the same root as “violate.” Violence isn’t merely force; it’s the use of force that crosses boundaries, that takes what isn’t ours. Driving a nail into your own wall to hang a picture is forceful, but not violent. Hammering that nail into your neighbor’s wall or skull without just cause would be.
These days, we use “violence” to refer to harm being done to someone. That harm can be a crime, such as murder, or it could be necessary to protect innocent life, as in the case of self-defense. These actions are the subject of much case law and ethics classes. But what if we consider violence instead for its disruptive effect on settled orders?
Return to the bonobos and chimps. Bonobos are not tool users in the wild, though they can use them in captivity. Chimpanzees do employ tools in the wild, however. And in this, perhaps we see an illustration of how violence as a trait is like any tool in that its use determines what moral quality we judge it to have.
Take one tool used by chimps, a stick to poke into a termite nest. That’s an act of breaking through a boundary, and the doing of it, along with many other such acts over the generations by our ancestors in our own unique line of development, led to the world we have today.
Violence can be literal, and at times, it’s necessary to protect the lives of innocents. But it can also be symbolic, a shaking up of traditions, a questioning of assumptions, a competition against established ideas. Are we a violent species? Yes. But that violence doesn’t have to be in literal blood. It can be the driver of future progress as we learn more, expand out in to the cosmos, and push toward the perfection that is always somewhere down the road.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.