How Murder Conspiracies Made Us Human

Research helps explain the deep evolutionary roots of social anxiety.

Posted Jan 27, 2020

Soren Hedberg/Flickr
Source: Soren Hedberg/Flickr

In the ancestral environment, people who were viewed as threats were ostracized, outcast, or outright murdered. The renowned Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham discusses this at length in his recent book The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution

A key idea is the “self-domestication hypothesis.”

In short, humans domesticated each other. Wrangham describes how early human communities selected against reactive aggression: arrogance, bullying, random violence, and the monopolizing of food and females.

Over time, early humans eliminated those who were overtly aggressive against members of their own community. Essentially, males within these small-scale societies formed conspiracies to commit collective murder against those they deemed as threats to the social harmony of the group.

Still, if humans are supposedly “self-domesticated,” why are there so many violent people among us today? The fact is, humans are not nearly as violent as our nearest evolutionary relatives.

Wrangham compares the level of within-group conflict among hunter-gatherers to that of chimpanzees. He found that chimps were 150 to 550 times more likely than humans to commit aggression against their peers. 

We humans are far nicer to members of our own group than chimps are. Thank our ancestors and their ability to plan organized murder.

Kindness and Anxiety

The evolutionary psychiatrist Randy Nesse makes a similar point in his fascinating recent book Good Reasons For Bad Feelings:

“Even before systematic breeding, people preferred some dogs and cats to others…A few hundred generations later, our pets exemplify exactly what we most value: they are loving, loyal, affectionate, adorable, and eager to obey—well, dogs at least…We humans have also been domesticated thanks to choices made by other humans. We choose partners and friends who are honest, trustworthy, kind, generous, and, when possible, wealthy and powerful…Social anxiety and constant concern about what others think about us are the price we pay for deep relationships.”

This is the flip side of Wrangham’s self-domestication idea. To take dogs as an example, humans selectively bred nicer dogs (and killed the meaner ones). This made dogs very social, loyal, and fun to be around. Especially compared to their more wild ancestors.

Humans did this too. Humans, on average, tend to choose mates who are nicer and have babies with them. And the babies of nicer people are more likely to survive. Furthermore, early humans often killed those within the group who did not get along with others. 

But it is likely that any individual who threatened group cohesion, not just the aggressive ones, contributed to the “domestication” of Homo sapiens by being targeted and killed by the group.

If you are a member of a group, and you criticize that group, that group will question your loyalties. Especially if the group believes it is vulnerable.

This is why people are reluctant to speak out against their peers. It’s risky. The discomfort we feel when taking a stand against our group is there for a reason.

Modern humans are the equivalent of domesticated canines; hyper-social animals who respond powerfully to loyalty, love and affection. We seek to obtain these social rewards.

There were early humans who felt no anxiety about what others thought of them. Those humans are not our ancestors.

Loyalty and The Alliance Model of Friendship

Dogs are perhaps the most loyal animals, which humans instilled in them via selective breeding and killing. Clearly, humans assign a high value to loyalty. 

Consider the alliance model of friendship discussed in this study led by developmental psychologist Alex Shaw:

“The alliance model of friendship holds that friendships function as alliances, analogous to international alliances that oblige nations to support each other in conflicts. Thus, people value most those friends who they can count on to support them over an opponent in a conflict. From this perspective, a friend who remains neutral in a conflict is like a nation that abandons its ally, and so neutrality damages and weakens the relationship.”

[...]

“In sum, research based on the alliance model suggests that people care about how their friend ranks them compared to others and that side-taking is an essential part of being a good friend...the alliance model predicts that remaining neutral will damage friendships because an ally's neutrality is threatening...An ally who stays out of a conflict is abandoning a friend when they are needed the most. Moreover, a person's close ally occupies a premium slot in their relative rankings, which is a valuable and limited resource since a person can offer only so many others their reliable loyalty...Hence, a skilled alliance-builder should seek to demote allies who remain neutral in order to promote others who provide more reliable support.”

The key finding in this study, titled "Whoever is not with me is against me: The costs of neutrality among friends" is that participants responded just as negatively to a friend who remained neutral against an opponent as a friend who actively took the opponent’s side.

Say your friend gets into an argument with an outsider. Your friend looks to you for support. You simply stay out of it, choosing not to side with your friend. Results from this study suggest your friend would react as if you’d actively sided against them.

Dogs always have our back. They're man's best friend. Our best friends, though, are only human.