A Symptom, NOT a Cause

For years and years people have debated over what causes us to be violent. Psychologists, psychiatrists, social scientists, and so on have tried to figure out the cause(s) that drives us to beatings, murders, rapes, and other atrocious crimes against fellow humans. Most recently however, journalists and perhaps other social analysts have shifted the blame towards the mass media.

It is undoubtably true that many of our films, books, video games contain some sort of violent content. It is not difficult to find a story in which a protagonist massacres dozens and dozens of humans or monsters to achieve whatever is deemed to be a sense of victory. And indeed it could be quite disturbing to see children play out these fantasies on their latest video game consoles; creating the illusion that these kids are learning to be violent, or are being made to see violence as the only solution to their problems.

One of the most recent cases of black-sheeping video games is when a grandson fatally shot his grandmother after playing the latest Grand Theft Auto game -in which you play as three murderous, criminal characters, hell-bent on causing destruction and mayhem. The link seems to be clear: The child saw the actions of the characters in GTA and applied them in real life. But this is simply not true, for a number of reasons.

Firstly we must consider the philosophical question of “did the chicken come before the egg, or is it the other way around?” Did the video games, comic books, novels, we consume increase our appetite for violence, or are they manifestations of our inherently destructive nature? The answer can easily be found in the theory of evolution and the fields that branch from it.

Violence is an evolutionary trait we inherit from our ancestors. It is a way to solve problems before the invention of law, regulations, and similar modern deterrents. Imagine if you will, living in a tribe of fellow kinsmen, where you belong to an in-group of extended families, and everyone outside this circle of blood are proven to be hostile -due to the fact that conquerors can easily benefit from pacifists. Do you greet visitors from other tribes with smiles and feasts, or do you prepare your stone axes just in case they try to steal your land, food, and wives? If indeed the visitors prove to be invading tyrants, the first solution would guarantee your tribe’s demise; thereby eliminating your genes from the gene pool, or at least contaminating them with those of the invaders. But the latter solution could improve your odds of survival, it could minimize the damages caused by the raiding tribe, or prevent the raid from ever happening in the first place through intimidation or stalemate-driven negotiations; this in turn ensures the survivability of your genes and, by extension, your preference for violence. Other tribes who adopt the violent route are more likely to survive as well, as they open the way for safety and cooperation.

We can see now that violence is a strategy for optimizing our survival in the game of natural selection. Without it, we would’ve been wiped out by other species, or our descendants would’ve been eliminated by competing homo sapiens -after all, not all humans can have an equal amount of resources necessary for ensuring their health and reproductive needs. Competition is inevitable, and violence is one of the many ways to surmount it.

Hence, we can clearly see that humans are indeed predisposed to violence. Thankfully nowadays we have institutions and governments that take away the need for spilling blood, something inaccessible to our long-gone ancestors. Even now we can see that violence has been comparatively diminished from the time of the hunter-gatherers, where casualties of war can easily be more than half of a “victorious” tribe, and when combat could happen more often than it is now (as archeological and anthropological researches have shown, there is no such thing as a wholly peaceful culture, and their feuds are bloodier than our homicides and serial killings).

Having understood that violence is an essential part of human nature, let’s ask ourselves the question once again: What causes it? I can confidently tell you that I have almost no idea what makes people commit violent crimes, except that it is a byproduct of our evolutionary road. I believe that it is a mixture of the genetic structure of people’s brains -higher testosterone levels are a useful indicator for a tendency to be violent, damaged inhibitory sensors of the brain give rise to psychopaths, et cetera- and circumstance -arguments, defending one’s honor, poverty, and other hypotheticals that try to explain the origins of criminal behavior.

One thing that I can tell you for sure though, the violent tales portrayed in mass media are not a cause for violence. They are a manifestation of our urges to harm, and sometimes to kill. We have all imagined killing a colleague we don’t like, punching the face of that one driver who seems intent on running you off the road, and a number of likewise scenarios. Shootings, stabbing, eviscerations, in film, print, and interactive entertainment are a mere extension of these fantasies. They are a way for us to play out our more primitive urges without actually harming one another.

If you remain unconvinced, consider how violent we were in medieval times: A period where comic book, video games, television, were completely nonexistent. Measure those years’ violence levels with ours, and compare how much media consumption they had -by speculative statistics- with our peoples’.

What does this all tell us? One, that violence in the mass media is a mere manifestation of our instinct, and two, that having a violent mind isn’t necessarily a condemnation, or proof that we are endlessly driven to pillage our neighbors. Just because we can be violent doesn’t mean it is the only way we solve problems or derive entertainment. Violence is a tool, not more influential than logic or grammar. We may need to use it sometimes, sure, but it doesn’t drive us the same way our urge to consume food does -in fact, it is often driven by the need for food in the culture of hunter-gatherers. We can choose to kill or to spare, the same way we can choose to think rationally or believe in fairy-tales.