Why would anyone deliberately kill young children? Many of us have wrestled with this question in the aftermath of the tragic killings in Newtown, CT.

In times of war, great or local, the children of enemies are often killed to prevent them from growing up into the sort of people (however that is defined, often by looks, language, or beliefs) their parents are.  And while we may excuse the killing of adults in such cases, treating children is considered barbaric since they are non-combatants. Warfare often involves a belief that certain groups of people are either intrinsically evil or simply nonhuman. From this root springs the proliferation of derogatory terms for the enemy (“Hun”, “gook”, or “round-eyes” to name a few). If the enemy is not human, you may treat members of that group literally inhumanely.

Are violence and killing, then, an inevitable byproduct of differences among people?

Thinking closely about this issue reveals something else. Though the differences provide the anchors for hatred, they are not necessarily its true root. The differences are an excuse for hatred and dehumanization, which in turn provide an excuse for violence.

But lest we turn suspected mental illness or even autism – a developmental disorder and not an illness – into odious anchor for hatred of possible mass murderers, let us stop and consider.

What we know of Adam Lanza, the killer in this instance, is that we was a loner, perhaps virtually friendless, living with his mother after high school. Some media have reported that his mother was urging him to leave the house to attend school or work or was possibly seeking to have him committed to a psychiatric facility shortly before the massacre.

The problem here may have been a disorder or difficulty harder to put a label on than Asperger’s syndrome, suggested by some media to have been Adam Lanza's problem. If the comments in the media are correct, then Adam Lanza was isolated from the rest of society with the possible exception of his mother. And if there is one characteristic that typifies the human species it is that we are intrinsically social animals. To put it another way, humans are social to the core, in our bones and in our DNA.  Isolation is unnatural, even torture for a social animal.

Notwithstanding the existence of humans who are less social than is typical, there is a good evolutionary reason why being “put in isolation” is a severe punishment for humans.  Isolation is an environment to which we are not adapted. Isolation makes us uneasy and anxious and makes us feel we are vulnerable because we do not have the comfort of the group around us.  As is true of individuals of other special species, isolated human does not have the benefit of warnings from others for protection. An isolated individual does not have the soothing touch, sound, or simple companionship of others.  An isolated individual has a heightened sense of personal danger.

I would guess that Adam Lanza’s life was a torment, swinging from fear of connecting with others and being hurt to fear of being horribly alone and in danger.

Was this Adam Lanza? I don’t know.

 Something kept him from making connections with others. Something led him to become murderously enraged with his mother, apparently his sole connection. Or was he really angry at the groups she belonged to when he did not – the school teachers or administrators, the children of whom she was reportedly fond?

They became his targets, the ones who had what he so desperately needed – the ones who laughed and played, made friends, lived connected to society. The 26 people he killed were human in a way he could not seem to be. And yet it was his very humanity – his deep, evolutionary need to be a social animal – that led him to behave inhumanly.

Is there a lesson in all this? Yes, several.

-       Humans are not meant to be isolated and those who are need help. 

-       Humans suffering deep psychological pain feel themselves in danger and are dangerous to themselves and others.

-       Humans in deep pain become more dangerous when they have access to automatic weapons and it is unreasonable to expect those who trade in guns to evaluate the psychological condition of potential customers. 

How do we stop these massacres?  Ease the pain, make help available and affordable, and take automatic weapons out of circulation.  Would that these measures were easy to effect.

About the Author

Pat Shipman, Ph.D.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is a writer and paleoanthropologist who writes about science and evolution for non-scientists.

You are reading

The Animal Connection

When is a Wolf Not a Wolf?

When it's a dog.

The Pain of Autism

Why is there so little help available?

Abortion and Contraception: Maryann's Lesson

What it was like living without reproductive options.