A bit of biffo

The capacity for human violence is virtually unparalleled in the animal kingdom

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On December 10, 2011, around 5.30 in the morning, Phillip Cottrell knocked off work as a Radio New Zealand journalist and headed home along Wellington’s Boulcott Street.

Before he could get there, gang associate Nicho Allan Waipuka knocked Cottrell to the ground and stomped on his skull so violently that it shattered. A kick broke Cottrell’s arm. After visiting more of what a High Court judge later described as “recreational violence” upon him, Waipuka then stole the journalist’s wallet, pocketing $80.

In Wellington Hospital the next day, surgeons decided Cottrell’s body could do no more, and turned off his life support. Assault became manslaughter, and it was eventually revealed that Waipuka had an extraordinarily violent disposition and history.

Are humans just bad to the bone? It’s long been fashionable to characterise ourselves as the demonic ape, the bad apple. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once defined civilisation as the ever-expanding circle of those whom we do not kill. Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel-winning Austrian zoologist, proposed in his 1963 treatise, On Aggression, that all of us—or males, at least—harbour a hard-wired killer instinct, which we variously suppress or succumb to.

But aggression is a harsh fact of life right across nature. The better we get to know our close relatives, the chimpanzees, for instance, the less there is to admire: for nine years, researchers from the University of Michigan studied a group of chimpanzees—the Ngogo­ in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. In that time, they regularly saw large groups of males mount furtive, single-file patrols around the bounds of Ngogo territory. The sorties often turned violent when the males encountered their neighbours. With disturbing application, they employed co-ordinated attacks, sometimes killing adults, but more usually juveniles of both sexes. Chimpanzee mothers were beaten even as the raiders snatched and murdered their offspring.

On the evolutionary tree, we and these belli­cose primates practically share the same sprig. Some 98.7 per cent of our genome is identical to theirs, so you might agree with Lorenz that violence is some intrinsic, if disagreeable, facet of the human condition: it’s just the way we’re made. For such a sweeping—some might say offen­sive—sleight, Lorenz’s theory has escaped with little empirical scrutiny, possibly because human males routinely appear to confirm it. But genetically, we cannot carry a predilection: we can only bear a trait, honed by evolutionary pressures. And to date, researchers have not found any one gene that expresses specifically for aggression. We don’t even possess any dedicated physiological or neurological system for processing it. All we know is that when we get mad, a cocktail of certain neurotransmit­ters (serotonin, monoamine oxidase A) and steroid hormones such as testosterone starts to stir in our brain—the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. But these organs also process dozens of other emotions and hundreds of different responses. Aggres­sion is not a default setting; rather it seems to be highly contextual.

Besides, if it were to work for us as a routine strategy, aggression would have to prove its worth in reproductive success, but so far, researchers cannot point to any evidence that aggressive men have more luck with the ladies, or unduly prevail over competitors for status. In fact, the All Blacks who most elicit a wistful sigh from women are typically the ones who don’t retaliate. Contained aggression—latent power—is a far more potent indicator of a male’s, well… potency.

So what of the much-vaunted ‘warrior gene’ then? That would be monoamine oxidase A, a version of which has been linked to hyper-aggression in males. But even then, the gene’s expression appears to be dependent on childhood stressors and life experience: the percentage of violent adult men among those with the ‘aggres­sive’ version of monoamine oxidase A is only slightly higher than among those men who don’t carry the gene at all. What’s more, plenty of gentle, untroubled men still carry the ‘warrior gene’ through life without raising so much as their voice.

The graphic above collates data from those human conflicts with estimated death tolls of more than 600,000, including deaths of soldiers in battle, massacres and genocide—though the WWI figure does not include fatalities due to the Spanish Flu despite it being propagated through trench warfare. No other animal kills its own in such numbers as humans, which have engaged in more than 3000 wars in recorded history. Just 30 are represented here.

Neither is the fossil record any help. There’s very little to suggest that our far distant forebears practised any violence beyond the requisite hunting and self-defence of their times. Ironically, perhaps, it was only when we formed settlements and societies that violence became something of a cultural recourse. Only when we created the concept of possession could inequality or injustice begin fuelling conflict.

On balance, the advent of society and commerce fostered far more co-operation and negotiation than it did hostility, but never­theless, most countries still maintain armies, and many still fight wars. And therein lies our other unique connection to Pan troglodyte, the chimpanzee. Chimps can prosper only as a group, and their society is a complex flux of hierarchy, bluff, posturing and ritualised violence. Alone, a male is vulnerable and impotent, so he is compelled to form stra­tegic alliances simply to stay alive, like some primate Mafia.

Among the higher vertebrates, only humans and chimps team up to wage war on strangers of their own species. Some have suggested that the human tendency to rally around conceptual flagpoles such as religion, nationality, political persuasion or even sports team affiliation (witness the ritualised violence of Milwall supporters) is a vestigial trait from times when we lived much like P. troglodyte still does.

But here’s a thing: there is another great ape with which we share practically the same overwhelming proportion of genetic commonality. The bonobo, Pan paniscus, is a smaller, more lithe and infinitely more chilled close relative of both us and chimpanzees. We all shared a common ancestor, and humans split away from chimps and bonobos only between five and seven million years ago.

Bonobos live only in the Congo Basin, and biogeographers think that because they’re amateurish swimmers, the Congo River decided their speciation from chimps some two million years ago. If chimps are the testosterone-enslaved product of nature, bonobos are an advert for nurture. In their isolation, they have instead evolved a peace-loving, co-operative, matriarchal society that has seen them branded vari­ously as the hippies of the great apes and “a belated gift to the feminist movement”.

 Bonobos don’t make war, they make love—lots and lots of it.

Sex is the social currency of most transactions—greeting, social bonding, conflict resolution, and recon­ciliation. This libidinous social contract has made bonobos the most accomplished and multi-talented sexual practitioners besides humans: they are the only non-human animal known to engage in face-to-face genital sex (apart from our own stitchbird), tongue-kissing and oral sex.

Bonobo love is about as free as it can get without condemning the genome to inbreeding. Males will not mate with their mothers, but practically anyone else—of either gender, and most any age—is a prospect, both within the immediate community and without. Females routinely indulge in mutual stimulation, which researchers believe reinforces female social ties. In fact, the bonds of sisterhood of bonobo society predominate all social inter­action, even the advances of males.

Given that mating rights are the supreme prize of chimp society, and therefore the cause of much violence, bonobos have defused that tension by making sex freely available. They’ve evolved a strategy that substitutes violence for congress.

Ironically, bonobos follow their peaceful, if carnal, existence in a region synonymous with human violence and cruelty: in 1994, Hutu army and militia groups began a genocidal rampage against the minority Tutsi people across the border in Rwanda. The army executed all 68 Tutsi and moderate Hutu opposition leaders, and murdered transitional Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Her United Nations bodyguards were tortured, sexually mutilated, then killed. The Minister of Labour was cut into three pieces and used as a roadblock.

Red Cross refugee camps were, in fact, no refuge at all. Tutsi men, women, and children were massacred. Doctors could only watch as Tutsi patients and staff were hacked to death with machetes in a hospital. Cowering Tutsi families were blown up with hand grenades, then doused with gasoline and set alight. Along the muddy Rusumo River, reported one Newsweek journalist, “piles of corpses bobbed like rag dolls”. The estimated death toll from just 100 days ran to between 500,000 and a million people—20 per cent of the Rwandan population.

Hard-wired or not, humans have a sobering talent for cruelty.

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