It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.
Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.
It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.
It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).
Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or post-flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.
Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?
The historical roots of this belief are not hard to trace. The Judeo-Christian creation story claims that human beings exist in a fallen, sinful state; and Genesis narrates two great acts of revolt against God, the second of which is the first murder. Cain kills Abel, and we inherit the “mark of Cain”, and the myth of Cain — the belief that we are all somehow murderers at bottom.
Until the twentieth century, Judeo-Christianity tended to focus on the first one; the Serpent's apple, popularly if not theologically equated with the discovery of sexuality. But as sexual taboos have lost their old forbidding force, the “mark of Cain” has become relatively more important in the Judeo-Christian idea of “original sin”. The same churches and synagogues that blessed “just wars” in former centuries have become strongholds of ideological pacifism.
But there is a second, possibly more important source of the man-as-killer myth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment — Thomas Hobbes's depiction of the state of nature as a "warre of all against all", and the reactionary naturism of Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. Today these originally opposing worldviews have become fused into a view of nature and humanity that combines the worst (and least factual) of both.
Hobbes, writing a rationalization of the system of absolute monarchy under the Stuart kings of England, constructed an argument that in a state of nature without government the conflicting desires of human beings would pit every man against his…