Mankind’s propensity for lethal violence may have been inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, according to a new study in the journal Nature. During the course of their investigation, the researchers found that roughly 2 percent of all deaths occur at the hands of other people, which is similar to the proportion of “murders” seen in other closely related primates.
Fortunately, all may not be lost in the struggle for world peace, as while the study authors did find that people are probably genetically predisposed to occasionally kill each other, they also point out that levels of lethal violence have decreased with the advancement of civilization, suggesting that culture can interfere with our natural inclination to bump each other off.
The team compiled data relating to more than 4 million recorded deaths among 1,024 species from 137 taxonomic families, in order to determine levels of lethal violence in various animals. At the same time, they scoured the archaeological and ethnographic records to discover the most common causes of death in 600 different human populations, ranging from 50,000 years ago to the present day.
Evidence of murder was found in around 40 percent of all species, with a total of 0.3 percent of deaths having been deliberately caused by another member of the same species. Using phylogenetic methods – which refers to the tracking of certain traits back through the evolutionary tree – they were able to discern that the percentage of human deaths caused by lethal violence is similar to that of our ancestor primates and apes.
In contrast, fatal conflicts were virtually absent in certain other clades such as bats and whales. Based on this information, the researchers conclude that “a certain level of lethal violence arises owing to our position within the phylogeny of mammals.”
However, the study does end on an encouraging note, as the authors explain that while the amount of killing among ancient humans living in tribes and clans was very much in line with the expected figure, lethal violence in modern state societies is actually lower than the phylogenetic inference. As such, it is safe to say that we aren’t completely doomed to continue killing each other, as the advancement of culture appears to be having a civilizing effect on us.