Five thousand years ago a middle-aged man got into a fight in a village, suffered a defensive wound (and probably killed his attacker) and had to flee for his own safety. He was, unfortunately, stalked, ambushed and killed in what seems to have been a revenge killing. The tale of Otzi, the “Iceman” reads like a modern-day murder mystery.
It highlights the fact that violence has become so closely associated with humanity that we assume it is a normal if somewhat deplorable way to behave. In America, the leading cause of death is violence.
When all we are and ever will be springs from the brain understanding why we are sometimes capable of engaging in violence may become key to finding ways to control it. The neuroscience of violence has a history that predates modern advances in looking at the brain by at least a couple of hundred years which signifies, perhaps, our deep preoccupation within finding better ways to control it than just hope.
Despite the grim statistics violence may be declining in our species. This is something that is given credence to by Steven Pinker who talks about it in his TED Talk. If violence is an aberrant neurobiological response rather than the normal way of things we would expect perhaps to see it spread amongst communities in the same way that other factors spread like disease and ideas. Dr. Gary Slatkin suggests that this is exactly what is happening which may, then, also provide a means to combat it the same way we combat infectious diseases and (maybe) bad ideas.
Because violence, in any form, can reach so many in so many different ways philosophy has been looking at it too. On The idea of violence is so ingrained in the cultural fabric that the arts play a critical role in its analysis, understanding and maybe prevalence (as some suggest). This was the key disagreement between Plato (who wanted to excise depictions of violence from art forms) and Aristotle (who thought that there is real catharsis to be had in seeing it).
That’s a conversation that eerily echoes modern discussions that explore the aestheticization of violence especially in video games which have been the subject of an on-going controversy for a very long time.
The scholarly approach to violence, why it happens and what we can do about it is underpinned by a direct belief in our ability to better manage our mental, psychological and emotional resources to control our behavior.
Paradoxically, those who are trained to use violence seem most skilled at also controlling their behavior maybe because they are all too aware of the ramifications of violence. In interviewing over 100 snipers for the writing of The Sniper Mind I was impressed by their aversion to conflict in any form as a poor solution to any problem.
Quite possibly we are on a trajectory of evolutionary development where the “better angels” of our nature, brought to the surface by the constant development of our cognitive skills are giving us the means to not just understand but also control the inner demons we still harbor inside us.
This is a conversation that’s far from over and one that we all are an integral part of with distinct roles to play.
Hopefully without the need to resort to conflict you’ve procured what’s necessary: Coffee aplenty, donuts, croissants, cookies and chocolate cake. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.