The Evolution and Ethology of Terrorism: We Are Unique, Violence Is a Dead End, But There Is Hope

Recent events across the world make it clear that human animals are capable of horrific within species violence. A number of people have asked me questions about the evolution and ethology of terrorism, and I consider that to be questioning whether or not we can we explain human terrorism and violence by looking for their roots in the behavior of nonhuman animals (animals). And, if not, is this one arena in which human exceptionalism reigns free?

"Oh, they're acting just like animals"

I've written on this topic before and always come back to the conclusion that humans are indeed unique and exceptional in the area of within species -- human-human -- violence. I get sick and tired of people saying things , "Oh, they're acting just like animals," when talking about recent and past events involving incredible harm and death to humans by other humans. They are not "acting just like animals" and ample data show this to be the case. Yes, nonhumans can and do harm and kill one another but there is only one observation of what might be called an "animal" war ("Only known chimp war reveals how societies splinter") and this occurred in the 1970s in chimpanzees. (In what follows I am not considering predator-prey interactions because while they can be violent, they are different evolutionarily from non-food related encounters.)

In an essay called "Humanlike Violence Is Extremely Rare in Other Animals," I noted that when discussing violent behavior in humans newscasters and other people quite often refer to those who commit these acts as "animals" or say they're "acting like animals." Blaming our violence on other animals is based on an utter lack of knowledge about the latest scientific research on animals that clearly shows that individuals of many species are far more cooperative, peaceful, kind, compassionate, and empathic, than previously thought. However, regardless of mounting scientific evidence that nonhumans are predominantly cooperative, peaceful, and fair and on occasion display social justice, media hype continues to portray other animals as being far more violent and war-like than they really are. I also noted that positive emotions lie at the core of human nature just as they do for other animals (references can be found there). And, updates since then show this to be the case.

"[Chimpanzees] have a dark side just as we do. We have less excuse, because we can deliberate, so I believe only we are capable of true calculated evil" (Jane Goodall)

Cooperation is not "merely a thin moral veneer over an otherwise nasty biology" (Frans de Waal)

In light of what I wrote above, consider also what world renowned primatologist Jane Goodall wrote about violence in wild chimpanzees in her classic book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: " . . . it is easy to get the impression that chimpanzees are more aggressive than they really are. In actuality, peaceful interactions are far more frequent than aggressive ones; mild threatening gestures are more common than vigorous ones; threats per se occur much more often than fights; and serious, wounding fights are very rare compared to brief, relatively mild ones." (p. 357, my emphasis)

Along these lines, in an essay published in the New York Times titled "Quitting the hominid fight club: The evidence is flimsy for innate chimpanzee--let alone human--warfare," James Horgan also concluded, "All told, since Jane Goodall began observing chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe National Park in 1960, researchers have directly observed 31 intergroup killings, of which 17 were infants.... researchers at a typical site directly observe one killing every seven years..." (my emphasis)

Welcoming in the "compassionocene" and the ethology of peace in an era of anomie

As renowned primatologist Frans de Waal reminds us, nature offers many lessons for a kinder society (see also). We need to pay attention to what we know and push aside misleading sensationalist hype that misrepresents us and other animals. So, do animals fight with one another? Yes. Do they routinely engage in cruel, violent, warlike behaviors? No. They're extremely rare when compared with positive prosocial behaviors that benefit others. Thus, we can learn a lot about who we really are by paying attention to what we're learning about the social behavior of other animals and harness our own innate goodness, as some claim it to be, to make the world a better place for all beings (please see for example, Dacher Keltner's excellent book called Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life).

In September 2014, world renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham, the Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, noted, "I certainly wouldn't want to say that chimps have anything much to say directly about what's going on in Syria." In the same essay Washington University's primate expert Dr. Robert Sussman stressed, "War has nothing to do with what chimpanzees do."

Humans are a remarkable k-selected mammal, we are incredibly diverse, and there are far too many of us on our magnificent planet and we don't know how, or haven't yet evolved, social mechanisms for resolving conflict in an era that is characterized by incredibly destructive anomie. While we do many horrific things, we also engage in wide-ranging behaviors characterized by compassion and empathy for others. We're living in the anthropocene -- the age of humanity -- and it's about time that we work hard to make this epoch the "compassionocene" and stop blaming our violent behavior on other animals.

Let's give peace the attention and chance it truly deserves. Nothing will be lost and much will be gained. Cooperation, empathy, and peace will prevail if we allow them to. We do not have to choose to go to war. Let's hope that future generations will seriously ask, "What were wars?", and that we stop justifying them because violence and war are inevitable because "that's who we are."

Moving into the future: The value of evolutionary and ethological research

So, in evolutionary and ethological research, rather than looking for reasons for our violent ways we should be looking to other animals for learning how to resolve inevitable conflicts peacefully, for this is what they're incredibly adept at doing. It is not "natural" to be violent and we are not simply acting out our "animal nature." We are unique in the arena of violence and we can learn a lot about the ethology of peace (please also see) from other animals. It's high time we do just this. By personally rewilding, we will come to learn just who other animals are and use this information as we move into a future that will be far more challenging than current times.

Moving out of the vortex of violence for future generations: We are not inherently a violent species and violence is a dead end

Surely, we do not want our children and theirs to casually accept that violence is natural and that's all there is to it. Despite all that's happening today, I remain hopeful if we also embrace what humane educator Zoe Weil stresses, namely, the world becomes what we teach, as part of her wonderful vision of what education can and must become for the sake of our children and the world they are inheriting.

One characteristic of k-selected animals is that there is a long period of parental and adult care during which youngsters learn what they need to become "card carrying members of their species." Why have children if they're doomed for a future riddled with chaos and violence? For sure, if we teach them well, their lives and those of future generations will benefit because there likely will come a tipping point of no return, when violence will rule and attempts to resolve wide-ranging conflict will not work. I don't think we're there quite yet, but who knows when the time will come. And, in a world that is so globally and deeply technologically interconnected, it seems as if never-ending "in-group/out group" violence is really a dead end and history will continue to repeat itself until it cannot -- endless cycles of violence, quiet times, more violence, more quiet times -- because we will not evolve the necessary social skills for implementing peacemaking among groups with radically different world views.

It's an easy but also a regrettable and self-destructive out to blame other animals or to accept that we're inherently a violent species and to move on lamenting that we'll always be a violent mammal and there are no alternatives because it is an inevitable evolutionary endpoint. As the most powerful species to have ever existed, we owe it to ourselves and to other animals to embrace the power of peace and to reject violence if we and they are to flourish on our magnificent planet. I still think there's a way out of this vortex of violence but time may not be on our side. So, let's get on with it right now and just say "no thanks" to violence and war.