Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mass Murder, Mass Rape

Anyone who has read Niall Ferguson’s book, The War of the World, or my discussion of it, will be aware of mankind’s capability to go on sprees of deadly violence. What might be less obvious is that these episodes of mass murder are often accompanied by incidents of mass rape. Ferguson points this out and ponders over the meaning of this combination, but he does not try to offer a definite conclusion. I have no definite conclusions to draw either, but I agree with Ferguson that it is an interesting subject over which to ponder.

Let us start first with the obvious tendency to respond with violence to the appearance of a strange creature. This intruder might be physically quite similar, but from another tribe/clan/family, or it might have recognizable physical differences but still be recognized as being of the same species, or it could be of a different species entirely. Let us ignore this latter case as being irrelevant to the question of why humans are willing to kill other humans. We must also make the assumption that we are the result of our evolutionary history and that natural selection has bred into us characteristics that were useful for survival.

If we take a round number of 1M years for the timescale for human evolution, we have about 50,000 generations under our belt. If we assume that mankind has spent the last 10,000 years trying to live together in a community, we then have about 500 generations of what might be referred to as civilization. Recognizing that evolution proceeds by incorporating modifications to an existing structure, it becomes apparent that behaviors imprinted during the first 49,500 generations are likely to still be lurking within us.

The tendency toward violent response to a stranger is relatively easy to envisage. A group of hunter gatherers will tend to grow until it reaches the limits of its food supply. Therefore any new person or group instantly becomes a threat to their existence. Animals and humans will also form chains of dominance. A leader will emerge who will see any intruder as a threat to their dominance and respond accordingly. The real question is the role that sex plays in the equation.

If one views the hunter-gatherer existence as one fraught with mortal threats, particularly for children, then a possible response to meeting another group would be to kill the males and capture the females for breeding purposes. Since people don’t normally like being captured, the breeding part could easily require violence to accomplish. Thus we have a possible survival-favoring response combining murder and rape. There could be something as simple as this operative, and buried within us is the tendency to respond in this way.

Ferguson suggests that something more subtle may be operative.
"The most murderous racial violence can have a sexual dimension to it, as in 1992, when Serbian forces were accused of a systematic campaign of rape directed against Bosnian Muslim women, with the aim of forcing them to conceive and give birth to ‘Little Chetniks.’ Was this merely one of many forms of violence designed to terrorize Muslim families into fleeing from their homes? Or was it perhaps a manifestation of the primitive eradicate ‘the other’ by impregnating females as well as murdering males?"Ferguson adds an additional thought for consideration.
"Sure enough, there is strong empirical evidence to suggest that ‘optimal outbreeding’ is achieved with a surprisingly small degree of genealogical separation. A first cousin may actually be biologically preferable as a mate to a wholly unrelated stranger."This reasoning suggests a less obvious, but powerful evolutionary imperative for mating with "the other." We are at a stage now where there is very little genetic difference between the various races. That may not have always been the case. The need to breed with whichever females are available will always be with us. The breeding would become more efficient as gene pools mixed and became homogenized, and any physical characteristics signifying "the other" would be diluted. Thus one could argue that there was evolutionary value in males attempting to breed with any females they encountered. And, of course, the more physically aggressive the male the more likely he would produce offspring, thus propagating the trait.

Men, if you have ever been made to feel ashamed of your "anyone, anywhere, anytime" approach to sex, take some comfort from the thought that you may just be following Mother Nature’s orders.

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