Violent Humans Are Animals, but Not Behaving Like Animals

It's about time media and others get the behavior of nonhuman animals right

Posted Jun 24, 2015

"If animals could protest, they would sue us humans for slander"

Each time there's a violent incident involving human animals ("humans") there are far too many snippets in various media and other outlets claiming something like, "They're just animals." The use of the word "animals" always refers to nonhuman animals and this is a radically misleading and dismissive claim. Biologically, it is so: humans are animals. However, the humans involved are not behaving like nonhuman animals ("animals") and ample and detailed data show this to be so.

An excellent example of an incorrect reference to the behavior of nonhumans can be found here, where it is stated, "Humans are supposed to have evolved and be civilized with high intelligence—that is what separates humans from animals. These men are behaving like animals." Another can be found here, where it is claimed, "Rape is not just a women's issue. It's about men who stop behaving like human beings & start behaving like animals." So, Jacob Koshy is correct, "If animals could protest, they would sue us humans for slander.

The recent horrific and tragic murders in Charleston, South Carolina, along with violent gang rapes in India, come to mind, and the alleged shooter and rapists, while human animals, did not behave like nonhuman animals, so fast and superficial statements such as "They're just animals" are vacuous. I've written about this general topic before and absolutely nothing has changed about what we know about the behavior of the diverse lot of animals who have been studied. Indeed, a growing database continues to show that positive behavior patterns such as greeting, grooming, and social play, for example, predominate in daily interactions.

While nonhumans do on occasion fight, harm, and kill one another in same-species social interactions, these sorts of encounters are extremely rare when compared to more positive social interactions and they often occur in unique social situations and ecological conditions. To wit, consider what world renowned primatologist Jane Goodall wrote about violence in wild chimpanzees in her landmark book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: " . . . it is easy to get the impression that chimpanzees are more aggressive than they really are. In actuality, peaceful interactions are far more frequent than aggressive ones; mild threatening gestures are more common than vigorous ones; threats per se occur much more often than fights; and serious, wounding fights are very rare compared to brief, relatively mild ones" (p. 357). The same is true for many carnivores, a point made by the late ethologist R. F. Ewer in her book called The Carnivores. In our long term field studies of coyotes, violent interactions were extremely rare. 

Dr. Goodall has also noted that chimpanzees "have a dark side just as we do. We have less excuse, because we can deliberate, so I believe only we are capable of true calculated evil." Furthermore, because there's only one known chimpanzee war, a point made by Duke University's Joseph Feldblum who, with a number of colleagues, analyzed this unique event, claiming we inherited our widespread destructive behavior from "them"—other animals—is not a credible conclusion.

Along these lines, Robert W. Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues Paul A. Garber and Jim Cheverud, reported in 2005 in an essay called "Importance of cooperation and affiliation in the evolution of primate sociality" in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology that for many nonhuman primates, more than 90 percent of their social interactions are affiliative rather than competitive or divisive (see also Origins of Altruism and Cooperation for an update on what we're learning about cooperation in other animals). The abstract for this very important essays reads: "The idea that competition and aggression are central to an understanding of the origins of group-living and sociality among human and nonhuman primates is the dominant theory in primatology today. Using this paradigm, researchers have focused their attention on competitive and aggressive behaviors, and have tended to overlook the importance of cooperative and affiliative behaviors. However, cooperative and affiliative behaviors are considerably more common than agonistic behaviors in all primate species. The current paradigm often fails to explain the context, function, and social tactics underlying affiliative and agonistic behavior. Here, we present data on a basic question of primate sociality: how much time do diurnal, group-living primates spend in social behavior, and how much of this time is affiliative and agonistic? These data are derived from a survey of 81 studies, including 28 genera and 60 species. We find that group-living prosimians, New World monkeys, Old World monkeys, and apes usually devote less than 10% of their activity budget to active social interactions. Further, rates of agonistic behaviors are extremely low, normally less than 1% of the activity budget. If the cost to the actors of affiliative behavior is low even if the rewards are low or extremely variable, we should expect affiliation and cooperation to be frequent. This is especially true under conditions in which individuals benefit from the collective environment of living in stable social groups."

Let's not blame our violent ways on other animals

So, do animals fight with and otherwise abuse one another? Yes. Do they routinely engage in cruel, violent, warlike behaviors? Not at all -- they're extremely rare. Thus, we can learn a lot about who we really are from paying attention to what we are learning about the social behavior of other animals, and harness our own innate goodness to make the world a better place for all beings. University of California psychologist Dacher Keltner's wonderful book called Born To Be Good clearly shows that positive emotions lie at the core of human nature just as they do for other animals. 

As I noted in an interview with the Huffington Post, there’s much new research showing that across cultures humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for. It’s a relatively few who wage wars, kill people, and harm children, and they get in the news. However, probably 99.9 percent of the people in the world are nice, kind, generous, and beneficent people, and that’s what we’re discovering in nonhuman animals. I teach a course at the Boulder County Jail (see also) on animal behavior and conservation and so when an inmate says to another prisoner, "You’re acting like an animal," I always say "You just complimented him!" and this leads to a fruitful discussion about what we know about the social behavior of other animals.  

We need a science of non-violence and peace 

We all must work together for a science of peace and build a culture of empathy, and emphasize the non-violent, positive and prosocial (voluntary behavior to benefit another) side of our and other animals' character. It's truly who we and other animals are and it's about time we focus on the good side of human and animal nature. As renowned primatologist Frans de Waal reminds us, nature offers many lessons for a kinder society (see also The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates). Blood shouldn't sell. 

It's essential that we pay close attention to what we know and push aside misleading sensationalist media that misrepresents us and other animals. I encourage people to contact media and others when they hear these sorts of misrepresentations and hope that by doing so facts about the behavior of other animals will prevail and we won't continue blaming "them" for our violent and evil ways. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservationWhy dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (; @MarcBekoff)