Humans are creatures of circumstance. However, there are those respected voices in the anthropological world such as Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson that contend we are not. Instead, we are slaves to our biological makeup. According to their essay, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, it is difficult to escape our evolutionary past and we are, as a result, forced to act according to our inherent nature. Both Peterson and Wrangham believe that war and human violence exist because of inherited behavioral tendencies. These tendencies are the result of sexual selection where aggressive males typically dominant less-aggressive males, preventing them from mating and passing on their traits. Sure, we can see evidence of this in the Guido tribes of the northeastern United States, but due to rampant steroid use the chances for reproductive success are slim.
Nonetheless, Wrangham and Peterson appear to suffer from monomania, as their argument for an inherent tendency towards violence seems to focus primarily on sexual selection as the driving force behind keeping the aggressive "gene" in our blood. While they conclude that pride is an integral factor in perpetuating violence, primarily among males, it does not prove that humans and chimps are biologically prone to violence. Robert W. Sussman, a professor of Physical Anthropology at Duke University, rebuts Wrangham and Peterson's contention—specifically in regards to their theory on sexual selection—saying that women choosing a dominant or aggressive male as a mate is due to the type of society rather than an innate inclination.
Furthermore, Sussman points out that the decision to mate with a dominant male could also be a mistake, stemming from an irrational need to follow social conventions and obtain a male who would be considered a "good reproducer". Sussman uses the passive, docile, and promiscuous Bonobo chimps as an example, stating:
"However, among pygmy chimpanzees females form alliances and have chosen to mate with less aggressive males. So, after all, it is not violent males that have caused humans and chimpanzees to be their inborn, immoral, dehumanized selves, it is rather, poor choices by human and chimpanzee females."
In fact, women in general tend, or at least claim, to prefer men who are less aggressive and of a kinder nature. Additionally, aggressiveness and strength are not prerequisites for being able to produce healthy kin. Due to the type of society we are currently living in, the need for a male who can protect his female counterpart from outside violence is not as prevalent as it was in previous centuries. Granted, there are exceptions that can be found outside of the United States and seen in other species, but using exceptions as a basis for dismissing the norm is unjustifiable. While interesting to note, the rarity and uncommon occurrence does not give credence to putting exceptions on equal ground with what occurs most often.
Another point, which Wrangham and Peterson argue, is the Selfish Gene Theory. They contend, "The general principle that behavior evolves to serve selfish ends has been widely accepted; and the idea that humans might have been favored by natural selection to hate and to kill their enemies has become entirely, if tragically, reasonable." Fortunately, the tendency to hate and kill are not innate, but are caused by circumstance. Since chimpanzees are considered to be the closest biologically to humans, it is fitting that humans use chimps as a means to determine why we act the way we do. Many behavioral patterns are shared by chimps and humans, and evidence of this can be found in a passage from Sussman's article, Exploring Our Basic Human Nature.
"Just how common is conspecific killing in chimpanzees?...Jane Goodall described the chimpanzee as a peaceful, non-aggressive species during the first 24 years of study at Gombe (1950-1974). During one year of concentrated study, Goodall observed 284 antagonistic encounters: of these 66% were due to competition for introduced bananas, and only 34% "could be regarded as attacks occurring in 'normal' aggressive contexts". Only 10 percent of the 284 attacks were classified as 'violent', and "even attacks that appeared punishing to me often resulted in no discernable injury…Other attacks consisted merely of brief pounding, hitting or rolling of the individual, after which the aggressor often touched or embraced the other immediately."
It is important to note the part referring to competition for introduced bananas. Sussman goes on to explain that the reason why people tend to think humans are inherently violent is because of a cultural desire to think such is the case. In fact, studies have shown that the more people watch or read the news, the more likely they are to view the world as an overly violent place. Nevertheless, humans are competitive beings and this competitive nature coupled with pride can lead to violence depending on the situation. When our situation is one where resources, which enable survival, are scarce, competition—often violent—becomes necessary.
Take for example the following situation. Two men are stranded on an island. Both men are nearing starvation and happen to discover a cache of food and water, which is only big enough to keep one of them alive long enough to attempt escape or be rescued. This would certainly put the men in an unfortunate predicament where one must starve, but how would they decide who gets to eat? At first, they might try to be fair and suggest to draw straws, but the loser would not be able to accept his impending death so easily. The obvious course of action would be to kill the man who has won the food and water. After all, killing is the easiest way to ensure victory, which would allow the man to survive.
While that situation is hypothetical, it illustrates the advantage of killing for scarce resources rather than trying to compromise and split them up into an amount that would not allow for survival—such reasoning can be seen throughout time and in primate societies. The main objective of a species is to expand, and by expanding the population increases, which affects the carrying capacity of the environment. Such expansion will undoubtedly lead to competition between members of the same species as well as other species that inhabit the same area.
Oddly enough, humans have been quite good at displacing and doing away with other species—to the point where most of the competition for land, resources, and other things which allow for survival have been relegated to human vs. human competition. Due to the overwhelming expansion of humans, much of the territory once dominated by primates has dwindled to the point where many chimps and other primates must engage in territorial battles (more than they did in the past). Is this an ominous example of what is to come for our species? Is our seemingly biological desire to expand to the point of overpopulation going to create a human world that is ripe with violence, more so than it is now?
It appears so. However, there are technological advancements such as birth control and vertical farming that can allow humans to reduce population growth and minimize the amount of land used to produce resources—vertical farming is a method of farming that uses vertical, multi-level towers that produce various types of food year-round, including livestock, using greenhouse growing methods. Nevertheless, the ability to produce unlimited resources might actually have an adverse effect on the population, causing it to explode, which would lead to the unwanted situation where land and resources are scarce and must be competed over.
In order to understand why certain people tend to be more prone to violence than others, it is crucial to understand that humans tend to move towards the simplest method of accomplishing a goal. The constant advancement of technology is proof of this, and while certain products of technology might be difficult to understand or learn at first, they prove to make whatever task they are designed for much easier and quicker to complete. In regards to violence, the same concept can be applied. People prone to violence see violence as the easiest method for acquiring what they want.
Nevertheless, violence is not an inherent trait of human beings or primates. Despite the guarantee of reading or hearing about a dozen or more violent acts in the media, violence is not the default response for the average person. While Sussman's argument that violence is the result of culture and society is a credible one, culture is not the sole cause for violence. Innate tendencies such as competition and pride mixed with the way in which a society functions can bring about the need for violent action due to the circumstances of a situation. After all, we are creatures of circumstance. We adapt and react to the world around us, and because of this there are times when we must engage in violent activity. However, we can use culture as a means to create a situation where competitive means for survival are unneeded, but until there is a united effort to reform the way we interact with the world, violence is just an unfortunate consequence.