Are We Innately Violent?

woman in leather holding a gun with a silencer

This week’s news includes the fatal shooting of 18 apparently random people in a bowling alley and restaurant in Lewiston, Maine. The perpetrator, a man named Robert Card, may or may not have mental health issues.

While unprovoked, apparently motiveless mass murders are relatively rare, violent attacks on groups of people are not. In fact, this event marks the 36th mass killing in the United States in 2023, with more certainly on the horizon. The United States is an unusually violent place, particularly so because guns are so prevalent. According to ABC News, as of Oct. 26, at least 35,275 people died from gun violence in America in 2023.

This type of event tends to raise the question for many: are human beings innately violent? That is, are we physically and/or psychologically built to injure and kill one another?

Certainly there is a case to be made that aggression has always been part of human nature. But there’s a huge chasm between speaking your mind assertively (which some might experience as aggression) and taking out dozens of innocent people with a submachine gun.

Researchers have attempted to make a connection between our physical bodies and a propensity for violence. The shape of our fists and feet, for example, could potentially suggest a need to hit, kick, or run. And it seems that our direct ancestors–primates, rodents, and hares–are far more likely to kill members of their own species than are other mammals.

By the same token, however, members of organized human societies are, in general, able to channel or curb their violent tendencies–at least to the degree that most people, in most places, feel reasonably safe leaving their homes on a daily basis, sending their children out into the world, and generally living their lives. We assume, usually correctly, that the rules with which we surround ourselves will be followed by the vast majority of our peers.

Are events like those that took place in Maine simply abberations? Or are they reflections of our true nature? Is our apparently peaceful day-to-day life the norm? Or are our peaceful interactions just a veneer covering our basically hostile and violent natures?

Many authors have explored this question in fiction, with books like Lord of the Flies and movies like Mad Max suggesting that underneath our civilized exteriors we are all killers.

What’s your perspective on this question? Are human beings violent by nature? And, if we are, do we have the capacity to manage our violent tendencies?

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