Are Human Beings Violent By Nature?

One of the big issues pacifists face today is the issue of human nature. Are we genetically determined to be violent as expressed in much contemporary writing by biologists, et al, as well as political thinkers? If so, is pacifism simply unrealistic, terribly naive, even problematically romantic?

Or is it possible, with scientific credibility, anchored in the actual experience of human beings in the world, to argue for an understanding of human nature more compatible with pacifism?

This debate deserves the attention of all people concerned with the problems of violence, oppression, warfare, and militarism in our world today—that is, all people of good will. I spent significant time a number of years ago reflecting on these issues, teaching a class called “Violence and Human Nature” several times. In March 2006, I arranged a public forum with my friend Carl Keener, professor of biology emeritus, at Eastern Mennonite University. Here is the presentation I made. I hope to give this issue more attention in the not-too-distant future.

Ted Grimsrud – EMU forum – March 29, 2006

We may speak of three general viewpoints concerning human nature, what I will categorize as the “hard-wired view,” the “blank-slate view,” and the “flexible view.”

(1) The “hard-wired view” asserts that human behavior is largely determined by a quite thick reality of human nature. One main focus of many with this view is on our genetic make-up, asserting that our behavior is profoundly shaped by our genes.

As concerns violence, the “hard-wired view” tends to see human beings as naturally violent. We are born violent, we tend toward violence, our work of minimizing violence should focus on finding relatively non-harmful outlets for these natural violent tendencies. At best, we may redirect violent tendencies, but we cannot hope to live without violence.

(2) At the opposite end of the spectrum from the “hard-wired view,” we may speak of the “blank slate view.” This view asserts that it is meaningless to posit a “human nature;” we are all born with “blank slates,” and human behavior is totally shaped by our environments and is variable and non-determined.

(3) A second alternative to the “hard-wired view” we may call the “flexible view.” This view, which I hold, agrees that “human nature” is a meaningful term, but would differ from the “hard-wired view” by denying that human behavior is in any meaningful sense determined by genetics or, really, by any other unchanging element of human nature.

Problems with the “hard-wired view”

Human nature, and genetic dispositions, do shape what is possible for human beings to do, according to this view – and we do have certain basic inclinations. However, these basic inclinations at most provide us with a sense of direction, a sense of what is possible. They do not determine our specific behavior in any direct sense. For the “flexible view,” human beings have the capability of violence, the natural flexibility to tend either toward violence or toward nonviolence, depending a great deal on how we are socialized.

Part of the reason I do not accept the “hard-wired view” is that I do not believe that it is compatible with Christian theology – at least the hard-wired view as articulated by writers such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Lyall Watson. And at least with Christian theology as I understand it.
These are some of the points of tension:

Based in part on the first verses of the book of Genesis, in part on confessional statements scattered throughout the Psalms, and in part on Jesus’ attitude, the Christian tradition affirms creation as good, giving it a positive moral value. The universe is not naturally amoral, or “morally bankrupt,” but to the contrary, reflects the love of its Maker.

The basic principle of the universe is love. Christians confess that God is love and that the universe is one expression of God’s love. This confession turns the hard-wired perspective on its head. Rather than love being a “recipe for disaster” in a dog-eat-dog universe, as a writer such as Lyall Watson argues, love actually coheres with the most genuine parts of reality.

The most natural way to be human is to be in caring relationships where charity is central. These relationships, symbolized by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are the starting point for human beings, not something “acquired” only on top of our innate selfishness.

Human beings are created to be loving. What we learn (tragically) is hostility. Human beings are called to live in cooperation with other people, not in competition. The Bible portrays violence-fostering competition as against God’s intent for human life.

The Bible portrays the attitude of wanting to “combat” nature and dominate the natural world as self-destructive hubris. The fundamental sin of human beings is transforming the creation call to exercise dominion from that of fostering harmony through stewardship to that of exploitation and domination. The unnatural reality of such exploitation and domination may be seen in their terrible consequences.

Christians confess that conversion to Christ is the fulfillment of human nature. So, rather than believing that we must defy our human nature in becoming a follower of Christ, Christians believe that in trusting in Christ and following him we become closer to what is most truly human, hence closest to our actual nature.

So, from a Christian theological perspective, I would fundamentally disagree with adherents of the “hard-wired view.” I believe that selfishness and violence are distortions of our nature. We are not naturally selfish and violent, but are born to follow the path of love for others as our most natural; that is our most truly human path.

Empirical bases for the”flexible view”

Are we left, then, with an irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and science, one arguing on empirical grounds for inherent violence and the other arguing on the basis of special revelation for a more peaceable understanding of human nature? Thankfully not.

There are scientists who argue for the flexible view. The hard-wired view, while held by many, is not the only conclusion that empirically-oriented people might take.

I define violence as the willful use of injurious force against another human being (which could be emotional “force” and, in some sense under some circumstances, could also include the failure to prevent injury). I also add another dimension, and that is that the violence that has causing harm as its main purpose (which is what I would call war, punishment, fighting, torture, etc) is morally the central issue for human beings.

I agree that as long as carnivores have existed, violence in the sense of one animal willfully hurting another animal also has existed. Human beings from the time they became hunters and not just gatherers have been violent toward other animals for the purpose of getting food to eat or for self-protection. So it is not as if human beings had a “golden age” where all were Tolstoyan total pacifists.

However, to me the violence that matters in our discussions is the violence that emerged at some point in history that I would call purely destructive violence. There is a kind of violence in nature that by and large sustains the larger web of life. What is new with human beings, and I believe human beings at a stage in our development after our evolving biologically to be fully human, is the practice of destructive violence that actually injures the larger web of life.

Our physiology and psychology clearly indicate that we did not evolve by being (or to be) violent predators; it is very difficult for a human being to kill another human being (or any sizeable animal) with our bare hands (and it is also very difficult emotionally to kill another human being). However, it did not take a huge change to turn us toward destructive violence. But it did take a change, because we are not naturally inclined to be violent in the sense of destructive violence. It does not seem that we possibly could have been and still evolved. Our evolution required a tremendous amount of cooperation, more than destructive violence.

Because the changes that turned us toward destructive violence were not recorded, we have to speculate as to when and how they happened. It makes sense to me that at some point humans came to the place of developing culture beyond simply our biological needs. Once the ball started rolling, then cultural evolution broke from our biology and pushed us inexorably toward social dynamics that (in the short run) have rewarded destructive violence (in a way that is actually unnatural for human beings).

So, one big issue here is recognizing that we are shaped by two distinct kinds of evolution – biological and cultural. Certainly, biology provides necessary data for understanding ourselves, but it, as it were, gives insights only into the raw potential we have, not into what we actually do. Our actual behavior is a combination of biology and culture, with the latter playing by far the major role.
I can understand my limits by understanding my biology/genetics. We are all born with different aptitudes and potentials. But what we do with our raw material is mostly due to environmental influences (though some of the most profound of these influences shape us in our early months, even in the womb, in decisive ways; hence, our choices later in life may well be fairly constrained depending on our environment early in life).

We do have a very crucial element of human nature that plays a major role in destructive violence. This is that we are born with a strong drive to be loved; we are “pack animals” who require a great deal of nurture. When this nurture is not forthcoming, the result is profound damage to our psyches, frustration, and most likely a proclivity to destructive violence.

What is practically at stake?

This last point, I think, makes it clear part of what is practically at stake in this discussion. If we think of human beings as naturally affiliating and needing from the time of conception an environment of care and nurture, we will treat children a certain way consistent with that. If we think of human beings as naturally selfish, domination-seeking creatures, we will more likely treat children a very different way. It seems to me, if one uses violence to restrain what one believes to be inherent violence in children, with tragic irony one will actually be teaching children to be much more violent than they otherwise would be.

For the “hard-wired view,” studies of primate behavior provide crucial information for understanding human behavior. In contrast, while I think studying primate behavior can be one helpful resource for understanding human behavior, it is a relatively minor one.

I am convinced that studies of human violence should by and large focus on human behavior itself. The extraordinarily strong (and scientifically validated) correlation between people who commit significant acts of destructive violence and those who were treated violently themselves gives us a clear clue about the origins of human violence, it seems to me.

I find the arguments of anthropologist Ashley Montagu in his book The Nature of Human Agression to be suggestive here (corroborated much more recently by Mary Clark in her book, In Search of Human Nature). He starts by asserting that we must always remember in these discussions that we simply do not know, scientifically, why human beings behave as they do. All views, including hard-wired views, are based on speculation to a large extent (no matter how categorically people holding such views state the link between genetics and behavior).

Genes never exist in a vacuum. They always exist in an environment of some kind. Hence, we have no way of isolating genetic factors that could provide a basis for concluding for sure what the impact of genes per se might be on behavior.

Montagu resists attempts to extrapolate from animal behavior conclusions about human behavior, especially conclusions that speak to inter-human instinctual violence based on supposed animal instinctual violence. In human beings, the striking thing is the variability and plasticity that characterize their responses.

The human way of being in the world and responding to environmental challenges relies on the use of intelligence and learning. Relying on such creative responsiveness, human beings would be ill-served were their behavior genetically determined. In fact, were human behavior primarily instinctive, human beings could never have adapted to their environment.

Human violence could not be a direct result of hard-wired instincts because human behavior is not determined by instincts. If it were, human beings would not have been able to adapt to life on earth. If we could only react and not respond, we would fail as a species.

Physiologically, human brain size triples in the first three years after birth, incontrovertible evidence of how the basic learning human beings do comes after birth. That is, the knowledge that matters is mediated through other people and through experience. It is variable, flexible, responsive. Our behavior is shaped by such knowledge, not inborn instincts.

It seems problematic to look back at the early human beings and see at the center of their lives high levels of “instinctive” competition and violence. What possible advantages could there have been to a small population resorting to the kind of aggressiveness against their fellow human beings that the innate violence advocates attribute to them? If the thread of cooperation and mutual aid had not been there, or if in its place had been a thread of competition and mutual hostility, our species could never have achieved humanity.

Human beings are social creatures, naturally dependent upon inter-species cooperation (way more than upon competition). The most important function of the group in the evolution of the early human beings was in the area of learned behavior. Thus underscoring the fundamental need for cooperation. Only if we are in a cooperative mode are we able to learn from others. Natural selection greatly favored those individuals and groups who would care for their young for extended periods and whose tribal lives were organized on the highly cooperative principle of mutual support between men and women.

The basic argument: We are by nature not violent

The basic argument I would like to make concerning violence and human nature is that we biologically evolved to be cooperative more than competitive, affiliating more than antagonistic, peaceable more than violent. To foster cooperation and affiliation, we are born with human natures that expect nurture and love. And during the many, many years of our biological evolution, this human nature was selected for – and it remains our nature today. This also coheres with how the Bible portrays human beings.

However, when human beings reached a certain level of intelligence, we were able to exercise more freedom in relation to our natures than other animals. Ironically, as we developed socially, our choices (the original ones hidden back in our pre-history) fostered social dynamics that ended up evolving in ways that put human society in tension with human nature. Human culture (“civilization”) has evolved in ways that frustrate our innate need for nurture and love. So, the terrible dance begins. Human beings often are born into environments that frustrate them, treating them without love and nurture, and pushing them toward violence.

All this is to say, violence is an element of human life extrinsic to our innate human nature. When we are exposed to violence, we tend to respond with violence. Our cultures tend to reward violent behavior. So we are in a spiral pushing ever more away from our natural ways of being.

Our best strategy for resisting the death-dealing dynamics of coercive power and selfish, environmentally wasting economics is to turn toward our basic human nature, not against it. I disagree with Freud, who posited that human nature pushes us toward violence and civilization is a bastion against the consequences of this nature (setting up an almost certainly hopeless project of forcibly fighting against what we most naturally are driven towards). I would say, to the contrary, following Andrew Bard Schmookler in his book The Parable of the Tribes, that civilization is the problem.

The most fundamental instinct of genuine humanness is the quest for life. This quest provides our core criterion for evaluating our human systems. Do they serve life or not? And if we recognize that our most distinctively human characteristic is our ability to make choices, we then will be able to realize that we do not have to simply accept fatalistically that our social structures that do not actually serve life must remain in place. We will be freed to resist and to construct alternative systems that do serve life.

5 thoughts on “Are Human Beings Violent By Nature?

  1. phil wood

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thanks. There are so many directions to travel in talking about human nature. When I was at Leeds University I benefitted a great deal from Alastair McFadyen’s work. His ‘Call to Personhood’ opened my eyes to a much more ‘networked’ view of self. I tend towards your flexible view but suspect there are considerable variations for each person – dependent on social settings or genetic makeup. In some situation I suspect there might be little ‘wiggle room’. I have always thought myself an unlikely pacifist. I reflected on this elsewhere in a little piece called ‘Why Peace is Not for the Peaceful’ ( In the end I believe that for Christians the character and disciplines of a local Christian congregation make a huge amount of difference in developing the possibilities and potential of their members.

  2. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    I appreciate the thoughts, Phil. And the reference to McFadyen. I am not familiar with his work, but a quick look at Amazon makes me think I should try to change that.

    It seems to me that everything you say here fits with the “flexible view”!

  3. bruce hamill

    Thanks for this framework, Ted. It reminds of John Milbank’s attempt to paint Girard’s position as a ‘violent ontology’. In fact Girard has a version of your own ‘third view’. Humanity is formed dynamically, but mimetically, so socialization tends to be undergirded by inherently violent processes. Jesus offers an alternative socialization and therefore a new humanity

  4. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    I have wondered a lot about Girard, Bruce. Some Girardians I know would strongly agree with most of what I advocate. I think you’re probably right. He’s certainly a lot closer to my “third view” than Milbank!

  5. Pingback: Living in a Violent Society | Living in a Violent Society

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