Is violence in our souls?
Last week my boyfriend and I walked to the dog park near Chelsea Pier. While there, we watched all kinds of dogs running, frolicking, rolling around, yapping. Some dogs stood atop asphalt mounds like kings dominating the landscape. Others wrestled playfully with each other, tongues lolling out. For the most part, the interactions were peaceful.
But from time to time altercations broke out. My boyfriend’s dog, a male King Charles spaniel named Max, did not get along with a female poodle mix who wanted to play with him. He growled and barked angrily, pushing her to the ground. Some dogs joined his barking; others ran away in fear. The poodle submitted willingly to Max’s aggression, rolling over on her back and almost relishing his violence.
Eventually we stepped in to stop the fray. We civilized humans had a duty to stop such wanton violence.
Afterward I thought about what I had seen. I found it interesting how quickly the dogs changed from frolicking playmates into vicious beasts. One minute they had all been playing. The next minute they were howling and battling as if their lives depended on it. What was it, I thought, that caused the change?
Then I thought, “I’m a mammal, too. I have warm blood like these dogs. I was born live, just like them. I have emotions that swell and ebb, just like them. I even have body hair like they do, though certainly not as much.” Sure, I walk on two legs instead of four and I can organize my thoughts into language. But taken as a whole, I share plenty of biological similarities with my four-legged mammalian friends.
A dark thought occurred to me: Humans, for all our claims to civilization and restraint, can be just as vicious as Max was in that dog park. In fact, we can be a lot worse.
We don’t just get angry and attack our fellow men from time to time because we don’t like them. We fight wars in which millions die. We torture members of our own species. We let people die so we can profit.
We even launch campaigns to eradicate entire races. Genocide, according to human archaeologists, is as old as our genes. Many hypothesize that our Cro-Magnon ancestors achieved world ascendancy by systematically slaughtering their Neanderthal predecessors about 20,000 years ago.
Put simply, we humans stem from a legacy of savagery.
This might be an uncomfortable thought, but any honest look at history reveals it to be true. Just like dogs, human beings can rapidly switch from peaceable harmony with their fellows into pure brutality.
Civilization has, of course, tempered the frequency with which we do this. The demands of life within an organized community, along with the gnarled moral codes that pass between generations, impel us to restrain our violent impulses. We craft laws to deter wanton violence, mostly because we value our own lives: We want to lessen the risk that our fellow men will club us to death in the street, so the law threatens arrest and execution for indulging violent impulses. And because most people do not want to be arrested or executed, they restrain themselves.
Put another way, civilization checks violence by placing non-violence in our self-interest. We condemn murder, infanticide, manslaughter. World religions work with secular laws to remind us that wanton violence is bad and that we must restrain ourselves from it. Thou shalt not kill, says the Old Testament.
But human beings have been just as violent with civilization as they were without it. In fact, civilization has simply rechanneled and recategorized human aggression. It is wrong to intentionally kill your neighbor, but it is perfectly fine to slaughter your country’s “enemies” in a war. It is wrong to strangle someone who insults you, but it is perfectly fine for the State to take your life for causing the same result yourself. And you are free to kill anyone who is about to kill you.
Violence, in other words, is not categorically wrong. Civilization simply relabels it and makes it right when it says so. We cannot expel violence from our being. It is too deeply ingrained.
Civilization even countenances genocide under certain conditions. Consider what happened in the Western Hemisphere following Europe’s discovery in the sixteenth century. Spanish explorers systematically obliterated several Central and South American races, both through murder and disease. Why? Because their civilization and religion authorized it.
In my hometown of Mystic, Connecticut, genocide also cleared the way for European expansion. In 1637, the Pequot tribe presented problems for English Puritan settlement in the region. Less than a mile from the house where I grew up, a party of English settlers and their Native allies, the Narragansett and the Mohegan, surrounded a Pequot encampment. Unable to take the stockade by direct assault, they besieged it, sealed the exits and set it on fire. Over seven hundred Pequot, mostly women and children, burned to death. Afterward, the English and their allies systemically hunted down the remaining Pequot and slaughtered them.
Why did this happen? Clearly English laws in 1637 forbade murder. But just like the Spanish a century before, the killers’ civilization and religion authorized the violence here. The Pequot were an inferior, heathen race, so it was perfectly fine to wipe them out.
Does civilization, then, really condemn violence? Or does it merely accommodate it? If genocide is so morally wrong, why does recent history show us the Russian pogroms of the nineteenth century, the American wars against the Sioux, Navajo and Apache, the Armenian slaughter of 1915, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Serbian attempt to eradicate the Bosnians? In each case, one civilization permitted its members to kill people simply because they did not look, behave or believe as they did.
These vicious campaigns occurred in advanced civilizations, with long histories of culture and refinement. Yet culture and refinement did not bar systematic violence from happening in these cases; far from it: in each case, civilization actually sanctioned the violence.
So how civilized are we? Should we be surprised that terrorists bomb gatherings? Viciousness is as old as our genes. Surely, moralists in civilization will always take a stand against violence. But this is somehow affected; our history undermines any real claim that we “civilized humans” recoil from violence.
Even our so-called modern American civilization is plenty violent. We kill thousands in foreign wars, through embargoes and sanctions, with unmanned aircraft. We do not advertise how much we kill, but we surely kill a lot. Yet we justify our killing by relabeling it, just as civilizations always have: To protect ourselves; to protect our trade interests; to exact retribution for violence done to us. There is nothing new here.
All in all, I find it perplexing that we seek always to distinguish ourselves from our baser mammalian ancestors. Just like the dogs in the dog park, we are capable of astounding violence toward our fellows. Our impulse to violence might be glossed with the demands of civilization, but it is as strong as ever. Violent thoughts always bore into our minds when we’re angry: road rage, drunken brawls and spousal infidelity killings come to mind. Only the law checks our urge to become savagely violent in everyday life.
But that does not cure our savage nature. We will always be savage. Our species derives from savagery. Human history is marked by it and civilization harnesses it for its own purposes. We rarely get a chance acknowledge our savagery; civilization admonishes us to renounce it in our daily lives. It punishes us when we indulge it.
Still, we know savagery when it overtakes us. It feels completely natural. And in those moments, our untrammeled, mammalian nature breaks through. Just like the dogs in the dog park, we humans, too, can swiftly devolve into brutality in the blink of an eye. It’s just who we are.