Wed January 12, 2011
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

The Killing Instinct (Revisited)

In the aftermath of the tragic events in Tucson, I find it timely to revisit last week’s discussion here at 13.7, where I argued that we humans have a long way to go toward what could be claimed to be a highly civilized species. I called our disgraceful propensity to kill our equals our “killing instinct.” The choice of using “instinct” next to killing was shocking to many people and my friend and co-blogger Ursula argued against it. Perhaps calling it the killing “impulse” would have been better, although the issue remains the same: we kill each other.

Indeed, taken at face value, “instinct” is associated with a natural tendency, an urge, a drive, a compulsion; usually, an innate pattern of behavior in response to a certain stimulus which is not learned but inherent, somehow imprinted in the animals’ behavioral code, probably due to eons of natural selection. So we talk of maternal instincts as mothers protect their young, of sea turtles that once hatched at the beach automatically move to the ocean, of the amazing courtship rituals among birds, of the building of nets, etc. There may be fine points to each of these examples, but let’s not lose focus here.

Predators kill to survive. No animal, as far as I know (and I’m sure people will give me counter examples – and I will consider them anomalies) kills for the pleasure of killing. The reason is simple: in Nature, saving energy is key to endurance. To kill usually takes a lot of work and to do it for no reason wastes energy. I’ve seen leopards driven to exhaustion trying to catch gazelles in the African savannah. They didn’t seem to be having a good time at all. I’m sure they’d love to have a rifle to avoid all that running around. But because they don’t, they know what it takes to kill. So, they only do it when they need to eat or feed their young.

Humans are the exception. Sure, we do kill to eat, in very sophisticated ways. But we don’t kill only to survive. We, being highly evolved animals, kill for many reasons. Some of them were pointed out in the excellent comments following last week’s posts. We can be manipulated into killing by fear, as many under brutal dictatorships have claimed (“either kill or be killed”), we can kill moved by a sense of patriotic duty or tribal affiliation (and “tribal” here can mean many things, from religious killings to gang-related crimes), we can kill to steal someone else’s money, or because we’ve been influenced by someone or something we watched or read. We can kill because we are so blinded by ideology that we see anyone not sharing our views as mortal enemies: the world will be a better place without “them.”

Is hatred a purely human emotion? Even if there are examples of animals that have something that looks like hatred, I’m sure we are the champs.

Now, why is that?

We are capable of the most remarkable acts of charity, the most remarkable acts of compassion and love, of creating works of great beauty and integrity. And yet, if only to prove that we cannot escape life in a kind of dialectic prison, we are also capable of senseless killings, completely remorseless. I’m constantly horrified by how young children of the Brazilian slums, manipulated by powerful drug lords, covet their first gun so that they can prove themselves worthy to the gang by killing someone with absolutely no second thought. And what happens there is not unusual, as we know from young belonging to killing militias all over the world.

So, would a leopard with a gun kill when not hungry?

That a 22-year-old could have possession of a semiautomatic Glock 19 pistol and, for reasons still not quite clear, would remorselessly shoot away at people, attests to our inability to make sense of who we are. Finger pointing usually heats up after tragedies like this. However, there are too many examples of shootings and bombings in recent history to think about them in isolation: the high-school shootings in the late 90's, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the Unabomber …

If there is a common thread among all of these tragic events, it is that the perpetrators feel threatened: by bullies, by overachievers that confirm another's lack of self-worth, by the fear of being manipulated by powers beyond their control, by being manipulated by powers beyond his control, by a sense of inadequacy and unfairness.

So, if I am right and these actions are triggered by uncontrolled fear reactions, what are we to do? Clearly, as Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post reminded us in her recent article, we always fall into the same pattern: disbelief, outrage, finger pointing, short term action, and then back to normal until the next time it happens.

If being threatened triggers the killing impulse (I will refrain from calling it “instinct” as it’s clearly not widespread in our species and is also not an unlearned response to stimuli), the only way to alleviate it is to address the causes of the fear. There won’t be a simple formula here since, as the examples listed above illustrate, the causes are many. However, if we are going to do something about it, we should perhaps start by increasing our level of mutual respect and dignity. “Mean people suck,” as the popular bumper sticker proclaim. And they can be deadly. We need a global campaign against “meanness.”

Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, all say one thing in common: be gentle to one another, be respectful, be compassionate. The hatred that we hear everyday — on the Internet, on talk radio, on all media venues — from so many self-proclaimed opinion formers who feed on people’s fears to incite them into action against those who think differently from them, is a sad page in our collective history. Hatred is a fast-growing weed. To keep on manipulating people’s fears to create an army of hateful individuals will only make us sink deeper into our collective shame. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related Program