The Multifaceted Problem of Human Violence – A Sociobiological Perspective

Currently research regarding the expression of violence, concentrates on the individual’s particular circuits and neuronal layouts, trying to ascertain with some success who is prone to it and how to predict it.(1)   Nevertheless, important aspects on the subject in comprehending the expression of violent acts,  are  unaddressed.

Studying individuals alone, in an effort to discern mechanisms in the expression of their social behavior, generally with some exceptions, is as unproductive as  studying an individual starling in the effort to understand the phenomenon of murmuration.(2)  Such studies are particularly so, when they relate to expressed violent acts taken out of the context of the community the individuals live in, interact with, respond to and being responded in return.  It is readily apparent, when together individuals often create emergent group phenomena relating to criticality, as i.e.suddenly a group turning  into a lynching mob, or  a panicked community, after being the victims of a small terror attack, turning mindlessly  xenophobic threatening violence of their own, or again, a  like -minded group in a political rally turning  in collective frenzy, ready to express violence against a group of protesters .

Individual humans in general cannot be understood for most of their behaviors out of the context of the rest of their network of the community they live in. The reason; we are social species in the meaning of eusociality as defined by E.O.Wilson and associates (3).  In fact our evolutionary success depended on it. (4)(5)   A poignant example:  It is easy to understand the sequence of events of a twenty year old autistic angry boy, who using automatic weapons, killed 20 young  students along with some adults in  in the Sandy Hook Elementary School  in, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The very ones that the mother intended to volunteer to teach, then killing the mother who possibly threatened to abandon/commit him, then killing himself; the killer.  All perfectly logical actions following his irrational perceptions – possibly  the product of malignant narcissism – but the tragedy would not have happened if the guns, collected by a mother, would not have been readily available.  Again, the tragedy would not have happened if we had more rational commitment laws which are at present lacking, in an ill-conceived effort to protect the ‘civil rights’ of individuals, who  then ironically  the latter readily are criminalized in their community for misbehaviors, ending up in prisons. The prisons  are functioning at present in fact, as gruesome versions of the State hospitals of old – a problem our profession woefully neglects addressing it.  Significantly, thousands of children conform to the very clinical profile of the Newtown  killer and yet they do not kill, since these tragic occurrences are  probabilistic, as the triggering social factors are mostly unknown,  with some exceptions like the possible effects of witnessed discord and harshness between the  parents leading to divorce or lack of structure in the upbringing  – again a woefully neglected subject for study for the  contributing and triggering factors in  the expression of acts of violence-.

 Again the tragedy and many others, would not have happened, and still happening,  if the obsession with guns in our society is not currently interwoven with feelings of frustration and racial rancor, expressed as an irrational  felt insecurity and fear;  Presently, as it were, thousands of our fellow citizens, are holding assault rifles waiting behind doors for  expected intruders that never come – to use a metaphor that may often be  an actual reality.  In fact, armed intruders who were thwarted with use of a gun by the occupant, is an extreme rare occurrence versus the thousands killed in family quarrels, accidents, or suicide by the guns.  Other fellow citizens  are equally prepared to fend off with their guns an irrationally feared “coup” of our country by our own government!  In fact the constitutional and structural safeguards are successfully  in place for over two hundred years in our country and are the best in the world.  Thousands of our fellow citizens are at present in such felt state, – the results of strife, and tribal discord– promoted by some of the self serving political leaderships who for power and profit are unscrupulously using  slogans made up of inane code words and sentences like  “Them …” whether  Muslims,  jews, Latinos, indians , Chinese -as the occasion dictates –  successfully, as this words , resonate  emotionally  to our tribalism and xenophobia.  In addition, certain politicos also are  misdirecting the frustrations, arising from the present egregious economic disparities.

Importantly, human beings are not natural born killers.(4)(6)   Aggression which easily can be expressed as a collective readiness to kill on certain circumstances such as protecting territory and family.  It can be redirected, suppressed, sublimated, in fact is becoming  rare among civil social groups, like Sweden whose citizens have  guns aplenty but without the emotions and irrational  fears attached to them.  Aggression  also is in competition with empathy, altruism, cooperation and philodendron (Gr. =readiness to help  a stranger)  all part of our evolutionary dual  nature. They  exist side by side, and un -amalgamated -hence our conflictual nature of ours.   Although humans are perfectly capable to kill, as we already have stated – when mobilized, especially as a group, in war when we  are threatened for the safety of our  homes, families, and children or when are mobilized for an aggressive rapacious territorial acts.  Again -thanks to our tribal traits -our mobilized desire to kill is augmented by the leadership, who are often charismatic and able, and are also vested with safeguarding perpetuating and exercising their own treasured power.  They are assisted with the supporting functionaries and groups for their own power and profit.

In addition temperamental variability in individuals (7), creates among other variants, vulnerable individuals as candidates for possible expression of violence, even though they are not overtly mentally ill.  For instance a “schizoid” individual who tend to “think the world” rather than “feel it,” deficient of the protective altruism, compassion, or empathy – the latter part of our social traits which are in fact often somewhat unevenly distributed among humans ( 5)(6) (7) – can then become possibly killers in “moral indignation” compelled by the talion law “an eye for an eye” which is embedded in all of us, as a kind of retaliatory instinct.  The occurrence of such violent acts by  them, are amenable to prediction only by statistical methods.  An example: the killer McVeigh – a inner directed  intelligent intellectual, acted “morally” in retaliation for  the gross ineptitude of the then attorney general.  Her inept actions resulted in the death of several dozen children members of a runaway cult in Waco Texas.  McVeigh, took upon himself -irrationally  equating her with “THE” government – to retaliate by exploding a homemade bomb of ammonium nitrate, killing almost 200 innocent people whom he called  “collateral damage” thus confirming his  dearth of the protective empathy and compassion.   Conversely individuals with unusual temperamental intensity or impulsivity – who are the subject of our single current worthy efforts to study violence,- as we begin discerning recently possible culpable circuits for its occurrence of violence – during moments of felt ‘paraphora’ (Greek for being ‘besides oneself’), do perform acts of violence.  Nevertheless they are triggered by events agitating them  – brief strifes and quarrels do erupt  frequently among family members, (a neglected subject worthy of serious studies).   But such brief fights by intense ready to explode individuals , will not end up in tragedies  without the facilitating presence of guns and the current  rancorous zeitgeist.

Further people forming groups with a common bonding and identity for their own survival, whether members of the Roman legions, or of the gangs in alienated and disadvantaged sections of “ghettos” can kill “the enemy” whether these enemies are members of a competing gang or of the surrounding alienated to them “others,”  while themselves maintain between each other members, their humanity and loyalty and affection, though are all hardened warriors.  Similarly the, alas too frequent recently, killing of unarmed citizens by our policemen who belong themselves to their own exclusive group/fraternity, would not have occurred – at least in its alarming frequency – if the enabling as well protective attitude of their leadership was not in place, as well the pervading “air of mutual racial tension and animosity” energizing our police officers – who themselves feel they belong to another tribe as well  feeling  besieged and threatened – all  these factors enabling them to readily kill troubling or troubled citizens, than consider alternative resolution to a developing trouble.  The later being their assigned task as officers of the peace.

The massive incarceration of unemployed very young adults  whose small infractions result in long sentences and at a cost of anywhere between 30-40 thousand dollars a year per prisoner, only to graduate them as hardened ready for violence unemployable young adults, is a folly and should be addressed as such.  This in not solely a political problem, in its irrationality.  It is a public health problem of massive proportions, since it results in the increase of the  incidence of violence and criminality in our society.  It is imperative that medical profession  should address these public health problems than solely concentrating on the outcomes of studies in molecular genetics and MRIs in alone specific individuals .

Nevertheless there exist a group of individuals who are at present completely undetectable as there are civil, and even charming in their social behavior,  who commit repeatedly gruesome acts of violence often for years.  They are the serial killers who are a complete tera incognito to our profession and they should be very much worthy of detailed studies if and when caught.

It is also a worth mentioning an additional difficulty in the form of a trait embedded  in all of us, which like a background noise interferes with the study of these very phenomena!  It is  the  “blind spot” in acknowledging that tribal phenomena apply to our own individual behavior, as well as our individual tribe.  They are identical to those of adjoining and periodically named “enemy” tribes.  Unfortunately we are ready to notice the mote in the adjoining tribe’s and members’ eye,- who we have now named enemy, – than to notice the stick in our own.  This blind spot may have had evolutional usefulness in the past, by facilitating the conflictual elements of our nature, thus, making easier to carry on with our diverse tribal tasks.  This faculty perhaps corresponding to the ‘unconscious’ of Freud in its usefulness.   Both modern realities demand we may have to take this defect into account while scientifically studying the phenomena of violence with its  multivariate causes.   A poignant example will suffice:  Horror and indignation mixed with anger engulfed all of us following the tragedy at San Bernadino, – including  this writer, – where two individuals imbued with ideological and retaliatory rage, abandoned an infant daughter and cold-heartedly killed fourteen innocent fellow humans and associates.  It resulted in their own death (thus expressing yet another peculiar phenomenon; the biblical Sampson syndrome – i.e., the readiness to bring the temple down on one’s head as well as on the enemies in ideological rage.)   Nevertheless we ourselves are unable to imagine how the members of their own tribe have felt as more than 200,000 bombs rained over their heads for over ten years.  The result of actions of our own tribe!

Just as the  medical profession in the recent past, successfully addressed the toxic effects of tobacco as a public health problem, in spite of the politics and vested interests involved then  with them, similarly, we should address the phenomenon of human violence in its multifaceted nature, and it should be the very determined concern and study by our profession in an effort to reduce the havoc it brings in suffering and cost.

In a broader sense it will be vital  in enabling us to deal with the cascade of problems pilling up demanding solutions, for  fending  off our very demise as a species.

[1.] White SF , VanTieghem M , Brislin SJ , Sypher I , Sinclair S , Pine DS , Hwang S , Blair RJNeural Correlates of the Propensity for Retaliatory Behavior in Youths With Disruptive Behavior Disorders.The American Journal of Psychiatry [2016, 173(3):282-290]

[2 ]. Brandon, Keim. The science of murmuration  SCIENCE

[ 3] Nowak, M.A., Wilson, E.O. and Tarnita, C.E. (2010) The Evolution of Eusociality. Nature, 466, 1057-1062.

[4] Wilson, E.O. (1978) On Human Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[5] Wilson, E.O. (2012) The Social Conquest of Earth. Pub. Liveright Corp., New York.

[6 ]On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz (1966,
Harcourt, Brace and World)

[7:] Pediaditakis, N. (2016) Revisiting the Major Mental Disorders and Updating the Nosological Schema:

A Synthesis. Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science, 6, 93-98.


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