Language, evolution and violence?

Where there’s language, there’s Pinker. I’ve always been a fan of his, and there’s not a doubt in this world he’s got a solid grasp on logic. To boot, in this case his reasoning is based in some sound logic, with long established theories as a premise. This article,  Human Nature’s pathologist, and the book it references makes for an interesting read. Check it out on the New York Times’ website:

The flip-side? There are plenty of fairly elaborate counterarguments – backed by research – to a lot of the established theories on the evolution of violence in human society. An interesting book I’ve recently read, Sex at Dawn, happens to have several chapters detailing some of the lesser known theories on human evolution that would seem to indicate that we haven’t necessarily gotten less violent. Or perhaps, we were less violent as hunter-gatherers, but along with agriculture came an unprecedented need for competition in order to survive (and possess). I haven’t had the opportunity to delve too much into the material referenced by the authors yet, but it certainly grabbed my attention. Were cavemen really the violent, competitive creatures modern anthropology often makes them out to be? Could we have gotten the science wrong?

I’m a long way off from answering those questions, but I’d like to be one of the people asking it? Perhaps, in the end, it’s more nuanced: humans were less violent and more cooperative as foragers and hunters, then following the advent of agriculture and the concept of “ownership” we became extremely violent. Finally, nonetheless, over time, this violence has become less necessary as growth and production have come to meet our needs more adequately. Maybe? I think a detailed reading of both Pinker’s work and some of the suggested readings in the bibliography of Sex at Dawn is in order.



Posted on November 30, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Mark,
    I read the article too but I haven’t read Pinker’s newest book yet. I just actually procured a copy of The Language Instinct. I like your point about being on the side that asks the questions.
    I see the argument that humans are violent and that we are not and I have not yet made up my mind. I know that I try to be very pacific but there are times when my blood boils and the thought of violence crosses my mind. Luckily I have been able to curb these instances (except in HS when I punched a wall of two) but I have come a long way since then.:)
    Optimistically I say that overall we do a good job keeping everyday violence at bay, however, the violence that we do see in the world in the forms of war and genocide more than outweigh the collective lifetime of peace that I have experienced in myself and those around me.

    • Punched walls in high school? I think pretty much everyone can remember one or two of those. All the better it was a wall and there was no one in the way of that aggravating piece of brick.
      I’d really recommend reading Sex at Dawn. It’s not about the history of violence, but actually about humans are naturally monogamous, but a good portion of the argument takes the author down the road to prehistory and strongly held preconceptions about human nature that may not necessarily be true.
      If the topic of “free love” doesn’t speak to you, then another time I could take a look at the bibliography and find the names of the major works referenced with regards to violence in prehistory and before the advent of agriculture. Some of the studies the author talks about actually call into question the idea that chimps are innately violent, pointing to a sort of “turning point” in Jane Goodall’s initial research where chimps behavior changed drastically, precisely at the moment when others involved in her research began supplying boxes of bananas to the chimps. The introduction of a “limited but guaranteed” food supply seems to have caused them to go ape, so to speak. Prior to that, when they had to forage in the trees, the species in the wild appeared much more cooperative. The warlike behavior displayed by the chimpanzees might very well have arisen in conditions similar to those created by humans. Anyway, I’m simplifying what’s actually a fascinating read. Again, the book is Sex at Dawn. If you’re not into that, I can get you the bibliography with the references, but honestly I doubt the original authors make it nearly as entertaining a read.


  2. Thanks for the suggested reading. Whereas I am interested in the history/innateness/tendency toward violence, my real passion lies more in the linguistic side of the equation. Though, regarding the chimps whose switch was flipped upon the arrival of a “limited but guaranteed” food supply, I find that correlation to be fascinating. To me, that survival hinged on the suggested cooperation of a troops’ members when there was no guarantee parallels what we see in humans when we succumb to natural disasters and the sort: a coming together with international cooperation to aid and make sure that as many people as possible survive because if we don’t a generation might be in danger. On the other hand, we (developed world, first world–nomenclature notwithstanding) have this “limited but guaranteed” source of–anything, really. And what we see mirrors more of a dog-eat-dog, me first mentality in the world. I am sure that I am over simplifying and generalizing but that’s OK in the comments’ section 🙂

    I will add “Sex at Dawn” to my long list of books to read. Presently, I am reading “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” with its take on the origins of “meaningless do” and the “verb-noun progressive”. Quite interesting as well, but I have a feeling you’ve probably read it. If you have, your take? If not, well, there’s one for your list. 🙂

    • It’s an excellent read. Obviously there’s a lot more detail in it than my three-sentence summary. It’ll certainly leave you with more questions than answers, though.

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