All man’s troubles arise from the fact
That we do not know what we are
And do not agree on what we want to be
–Vercours (You Shall Know Them)
Like all of you, I’ve been reading and viewing with horror the crimes of IS (Islamic State). Recently, for example, there was the video of captured Iraqi soldiers being herded in crouched chain formation, later ordered to get down in a shallow ditch, hands tied behind their backs, then shot. Human Rights Watch estimates between 560 and 770 were executed, though IS boasts it executed nearly 1700 soldiers after overrunning Camp Speicher near the city of Tikrit in Northern Iraq.
And then there have been the two recent IS videos showing the beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. In the latter, the video ends with displaying Sotloff’s severed head lying beside his body.
IS has also been killing minority Christians and Yadzidis who refuse to convert along with Shiite Muslims, whom they regard as heretics. In one instance, 500 Yadzidis were buried alive.
IS atrocities are not isolated phenomena in the long list of “crimes against humanity” (International Criminal Court) in recent decades. Consider, for example, Rwanda in 1994 with the Hutu majority’s massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in just 100 days. Or Cambodia with its 2,500,000 dead at the hands of the communist Khmer Rouge regime in the late 70s.
But what makes for the forfeiture of humanity in atrocities such as those I’ve noted here? How is it that we can lose every sense of identity with our fellows? Is aggression, singular or collective, something innate, a legacy of evolutionary genetics compelling us to eliminate any perceived threat? Are we any better than warrior ants, the most warlike of any known insect group, who instinctively pursue extinction or enslavement of rival insect communities, are territorial, have a caste system, and are often suicidal in their assaults?
Here I turn to sociobiology, with its emphasis on biology as the catalyst in shaping social behavior among all organisms, including humans.
To begin with, things are not all bad about ourselves, genetically speaking. Yes, we seem to have genes that dispose us towards altruism, and we see such behavior demonstrated repeatedly in daily life right down to the motorist who allows you into his lane. At its most acute level, we see it played out on the battlefield when a soldier falls on a hand grenade, for example, to save the lives of his fellows.
The problem with genetic altruism is that self sacrifice would seem to run contrary to the notion of natural determinism, or the survival of the fittest, ensuring the likelihood of offspring, or evolution’s ultimate purpose. Surely, culture also intervenes here and refines genetic disposition as well.
Overall, however, altruism among social organisms is primarily carried out through “kin selection,” including ourselves. The net result is that the group, or family, survives. In short, even altruism can have its selfish component. Altruism, then, isn’t necessarily the angelic side of ourselves. But at least it’s a better option.
As for there being genes that prescribe aggression, as with altruism, none are known to exist . Behaviorally, however, genes confer a capability to develop a repertoire of aggressive responses, given stressed environments. Otherwise, aggression isn’t likely. For instance. the social history of the Hopi Indians, an agricultural tribe, exhibits minimal aggressive behavior, In fact, hopi means “peaceful.” On the other hand, the Apaches were often given to battle to protect their land and buffalo herds from intruders.
Similarly, I surmise that genetic disposition, or capability, might help explain the high incidence of crime among some marginalized, or disadvantaged, groups in a given society.
While culture can modify genetic attenuation, it cannot eliminate it. Evolution ultimately imposes limits on malleability of behavior.
The diabolic, however, breaks loose when a fanatical few entice the many to exact violence in contexts of societal duress such as in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia following upon the end of the Great War.
In the hands of ideologues, often in political or religious guise, all bets are off when it comes to humane resolution of social tensions, given–not genes as such–but their genetic disposition for either peace or war. Set loose, humans are capable of every vile act conceivable.
And so with IS and the danger it poses for all of us.