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Why We're So Violent

In the wake of the recent Connecticut elementary school massacre--as well as similar massacres in the US over the years--some people are wondering if violence is in our genetic makeup or if it resides in our culture (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this talk). Since we share over 90% of our genes with chimpanzees, primatologists are studying animal violence in order to try to answer this question.

In the January 5-6 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson quote animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff as saying that harsh aggression is "extremely rare" in nonhuman animals, while violence is merely an odd feature of our own species, produced by a few wicked people, and if only we could "rewild our hearts," we might harness our "inborn goodness and optimism" and thereby return to our "nice, kind, compassionate, empathic" original selves.

But not everyone agrees, and one of the primary DISagreers is Jane Goodall, who has spent a lifetime studying primate behavior. The authors quote her as saying about a group of chimps she studies in Tanzania: "Ferdinand [the alpha male] is rather a brutal ruler, in that he tends to use his teeth rather a lot (and) a number of the males now have scars on their backs from being nicked or gashed by his canines. The politics in Mitumba [a second chimpanzee community] have also been bad. If we recall that: they all killed alpha-male Vincent when he reappeared injured; then Rudi as his successor probably killed up-and-coming young Ebony to stop him helping his older brother Edgar in challenging him, but to no avail, as Edgar eventually toppled him anyway."

This sounds like human politics, although we have at least advanced from killing our opponents to putting nasty lies about them into TV ads.

Chimp carnage is quite extreme: The authors tell us that "the average 'conservatively estimated risk of violent death' (in chimp communities) was 271 per 100,000 individuals per year. If that seems like a low rate, consider that a chimpanzee's social circle is limited to about 50 friends and close acquaintances. This means that chimpanzees can expect a member of their circle to be murdered once every seven years. Such a rate of violence would be intolerable in human society."

They add that "chimpanzees and humans are not the only species that form coalitions for killing. Other animals that use this strategy to kill their own species include group-living carnivores such as lions, spotted hyenas and wolves. The resulting mortality rate can be high: Among wolves, up to 40% of adults die from attacks by other packs."

One person who understood human violence was MOTKE: When he burst into Whitley's hotel room in 1998, he told him that we are stuck on this planet because the parents of the child who would have given us the ability to travel into space was killed in the holocaust!



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