Busting Myths About Human Nature

Race, monogamy, and other lies they told you.

It’s Not All Sex and Violence

Violence and sex are important, but ignoring what we do most is dangerous.

Here is the sort of headline we expect to see:  4 killed and 20 raped in New York City today   

Here is the headline we never see: 8,299,976 people got along in New York City today

This contrast is even more dramatic when you consider that in 2012 there were 417 homicides and 1,441 reported rapes in NYC, with resident population of ~8,300,000 plus 50,900,000 visitors in 2012.

Both headlines could be accurate, but why is it that violence, even a small amount, gets much more attention than enormous amounts of “getting along”?   If you peruse the work products of many journalists, novelists, television programmers and video game designers you might get the impression that humans, at their very core, are really all about sex and violence. 

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Even a quick look through the blog posts here on Psychology Today reveals that sex and violence have a particularly strong pull on our interest.  Psychologists and Anthropologists alike have a long history of focusing on these topics and many key figures in the field built their careers on them.  Take second and think about what titles or themes pop into your head when you think of Freud or Margaret Mead?

Does this mean that sex and violence the most important parts of being human? No, it does not. Cooperation, compassion, and plain old getting along (without sex) are as characteristic of being human as violence and sex…but almost never get the same kind of attention.

There is a popular suite of assumptions invoked to support our fascination with sex and violence arguing it is the way we are in the world:

  1. 1.       Competition is central to the human experience
  2. 2.       Humanity is inherently violent (at least males are),
  3. 3.       Competition between the sexes (or between males for females) is at the root of much (most?) behavior. 

In short, we assume sex and violence are at the core of human nature.  Unfortunately, this suite is often presented a as package produced by our evolution.

Turns out that is not the case.  Obviously violence and sex are important.  Violence can be dangerous and harm us, and sex is a core aspect of social and evolutionary processes…however, neither of these two aspects of being human are as prevalent or as dominant in what humans do as many would have us believe. Violence and sex are only a small portion of what we do day in and day out and over our entire evolutionary history.  

What do we know about the current outcomes of human evolution? Well, we are wired to be highly social, competition and cooperation are both central to the human experience, but cooperation is more common than conflict, and while we have a great potential to commit violence, it does not appear to be the base of what made us such a successful species.

These statements might seem to fly in the face of what many researchers, and the media, publicize about human nature.  But if you actually look at the data available for humans, our ancestors, and our closest relatives you see they are supported.

Any in-depth analysis of the fossil record from the earliest possible human ancestors about 6 million years ago through humans today shows the same pattern.  There is little evidence of extreme or organized violence at all for 6-2 million years ago.  But what we do have shows that hominins (human ancestors and closely related forms) were subject to substantial predation by large cats, hyena and eagles, but not each other.  Once our genus (Homo) shows up about 2 million years ago we can see little evidence, aside from maybe some post-mortem cannibalism, of inter- or intra-group violence.  Obviously some occurred, but it was clearly not common or a basic pattern in our lineage. That is, until recently.  In that last few minutes of our evolutionary history (the last 15,000 years or so), there is a steady increase in evidence for violence between groups and death at another human’s hand becomes a fairly common outcome in some areas (but not all)…as is true today.

So despite the popular assumption (shared by many academics)  that our ancestors were brutal and warlike, that part of our reality become prevalent, and possibly adaptive, only with the complexities of agriculture, structured social inequality and increasingly large populations.  This is not to say at all that our ancestors were peaceful and egalitarian, they weren’t.  But severe violent conflict (that results in death) was rare and apparently not a viable strategy in most human groups.  

Despite the recent attention to chimpanzee warfare, the broader primatological research supports a rarity of violence. Most primates fight, but lethal inter- or intra group conflict is extremely rare (even in some chimpanzee populations).  In fact, recent work demonstrates that primates expend much more effort getting along than they do in fighting (and that most fighting, while potentially risky, does not have a evolutionarily relevant outcome).

The fossil and archeological record, alongside with modern day ethnographic records, show us that there is broad scale support for notion that humans largely succeeded, evolutionarily, in the world by getting along and solving problems together.

When it comes to sex, humans have a lot of it for sure.  However, most of what we do day in and day out is not directly connected with finding sex partners and having sex.  Sex is a critical part of our social repertoire, more so than in many other mammals or even primates, but rather than seeing it as a separate entity we are better served by seeing it as an integrated component in the incredibly complex social lives we lead. 

Being human is not all about sex and violence it is all about being really, really social.  And mixing complex sociality with all sorts of political, historical, economic, psychological, and biological realities can sometimes (maybe even increasingly) produce explosions of sex and/or violence.   The real question is no so much “is it all sex and violence” but rather why do we see particular patterns sex and violence, or not, in any given scenario.

Violence and sex can be important, but ignoring what we do most of the time in our daily lives and throughout our evolutionary history is dangerous. This is not to say we should ignore sex and violence, just that an overemphasis on it, relative to other aspects of human life, can obscure the more interesting realities of being human.

Agustín Fuentes, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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