In a comment on my last blog post, Larry Carter Center wrote:
Thank you for a thorough analysis of religious implications from murder suicide perpetrators who are Christian.
What you did not discuss is the culture of violence which is broadly validated from childhood on with toy guns, war & cowboys/indians movies, video games & the prevailing policy of our country, to arm Israelis & any country that props up exploitative companies to steal natural resources for massive profiteering.
Larry is right. I wish I had the time to post a thorough scientific treatment of the issue right now, but I don’t. Instead, I’ll highlight some general principles about evolution and human nature, and try to give the reader some context from which to examine the issue.
Human males are naturally agressive and violent
I get annoyed at utopian thinkers. There are those who believe that violence is something that can be weeded entirely out of human nature. It can’t. The reason it can’t is because it’s about sex. Human sexual preference is a very complicated phenomenon, and it would be foolish to try to make a blanket statement about what females really want. The fact is, intelligence, physical strength, loyalty, aggressiveness, competitiveness, symmetry, empathy, wealth, and at least a dozen other traits are all attractive to females, and as a result, are cultivated in males.
Here, I need to dispel one popular notion. Much is made about “artificial selection” in this age of genetic science, and to be sure, there’s a difference between engineering a plant in the lab and the evolution of man. One is guided natural selection, and one is unguided. But let’s be clear about one thing — selection is selection. Females have made males into what they are, just as much as man has made poodles into abominable little creatures only fit for field goal practice. That is not to say we should blame women for men’s violence, as some cultures have done. Natural selection isn’t about blame. Still, we must not pretend that a thing isn’t so because we fear addressing the cultural implications of it.
The ability and propensity for violence is undoubtedly a survival trait. It’s not called “fight or flight” for nothing. We are programmed to do either, as the situation demands, for our own survival. But violence is also a trait that is attractive to females, for a male who can defend a female and her offspring from other males, predators, and outside invaders is a valuable mate.
Violence is also evolutionarily necessary between male humans. We have a complicated mating strategy: For the females to have a pool from which to select, they must attract a number of males. For males to be selected, they must prove themselves superior to other males in the available pool. Males compete with each other in many, many ways, and violent competition is common. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious signs of mating quality. A male can lie about how much money or influence or land he controls, but when it comes down to a physical competition with another male, there’s usually a clear winner. Of course, we all know that intellect can defeat physical strength in some ways, and empathy can triumph over competitiveness, and so forth and so on. As I said, it’s complicated. Nevertheless, we would do well to understand and embrace the idea that humans are violent animals.
Violence Need Not Be “Bad.”
With this in mind, we can attempt to look at human nature and try to find ways to channel our aggression into activities that are not destructive to society as a whole. Sport is the most obvious example of how this can be done. Whether you like sports or not, it’s undeniable that sports stars get selected by a lot of women, and usually, by very attractive and desirable women. In America right now, sports are one of the only available career paths for underprivileged minority men, and there are lots of great stories about troubled teens who rose above their upbringing to become sports heroes. This is a good example of how humans redirect violence and aggression into socially acceptable, and even beneficial, pursuits.
Where there is a lot more controversy is in the media. I was recently joking with a friend that I don’t like Hollywood movies anymore because they’ve taken out all the sex and left in all the violence. All joking aside, this is a real trend, and we are right to be concerned about it. We know that we are products of our environment, and it’s absolutely shocking how many acts of extreme violence and aggression are witnessed by children today. The video game industry is dominated by first person shooters, in which killing is the goal.
The question is this: Where is the line at which healthy channelling of violence becomes fixation, and when does our obsession with violent entertainment actually promote real and societally destructive violence? As I said in the beginning, Utopians annoy me. We cannot (and should not) rid TV and movies of all violence. Nor should we discourage children from competitive sport. However, I believe we owe it to ourselves to investigate this question scientifically, and we should not be afraid of the answers we find, whatever they may be.
Personally, I think the key to downplaying violence in society is building a society in which violence is the least effective way to accomplish most ends. Conveniently, the most obvious way to do this is to stress education. It’s no coincidence that Bill Gates is a wuss. He spent his whole life building his brain, and now he’s one of the richest men on the planet. Steve Jobs looks like a sissy. Carl Sagan… sissy. Albert Einstein… sissy.
I hope you catch my sarcasm, but the point should not be lost. Some of the most admirable and successful people in history have been brainy, and when we pursue education and learning, there simply isn’t enough time to cultivate and develop dangerously violent practices. Our culture doesn’t value education. We leave children behind all the time, and we are more concerned with teachers not losing their jobs over standardized test scores than raising genuinely smart critical thinking children. We exempt sports stars from class, and turn a blind eye when they graduate high school without basic reading skills.
I can’t help but notice that as I skim the internet for statistics on violence and education, the two seem to be mostly inversely correlated. That is, in societies that rank very high on education of all citizens, violence seems to be a relatively minor problem, and in societies where education is a low priority (like the U.S.) violence is rampant.
As I said in the beginning, human mating is complex and there are a lot of traits women find attractive. The way to downplay one is to emphasize another, and in America, it’s clear that we prefer violence over intelligence. We can change this, but it must be a change in individual people. You can’t legislate cultural change. If you want to help solve our problem of violence, be a part of the solution by becoming an activist for education, science, and critical thinking. Do something. Don’t just bitch.