Ending the Violence, Part 2

My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

As I discussed in last week’s blog post, human violence has some specific biological causes: kin selection, territoriality, and lack of empathy.

We are created in God’s image spiritually, but our bodies have the same biological nature as lower animals. We can choose what we do, but our choices are biased by our biology. To counteract that bias, we must make ourselves aware of it.

Kin selection is an evolutionary mechanism that inclines us to trust, help, and cooperate with those we perceive as genetic relatives or members of our group. It inclines us to distrust and attack those we perceive as genetically unrelated to us, since they compete with us and our kin for food, living space, and mates. It operates below the level of conscious thought and biases our thinking about people. Most animals, including humans, exhibit kin selection behavior.

Territoriality makes animals regard certain areas as their own, and inclines them to attack perceived genetic competitors that stray into their territories. Animals from insects to human beings exhibit territorial behavior.

Kin selection and territoriality make us tend to hate, fear, or attack perceived genetic competitors we encounter. Our fear isn’t entirely irrational, because for the same reasons, they are inclined to attack us.


Even if we feel like attacking each other, empathy can stop us from doing it. Empathy requires that:

  • We can perceive what other people feel. By their behavior and facial expressions, we know if they are happy or suffering.
  • We feel what we think other people feel. When we perceive someone happy or suffering, we “mirror” a little of the same feeling in ourselves.
  • We care what other people feel. We want them to feel good and we don’t want them to suffer.

However, like most human traits, empathy varies in populations. Some people (16 percent) naturally have a lot of empathy, some (16 percent) have very little, and most (68 percent) have a medium amount. People’s natural empathy can also be damaged by trauma such as war, violence, or abuse, especially in childhood.1

Adding the percentages from the high-empathy and medium-empathy groups means that 84 percent of people either aren’t likely to harm others or can be talked out of it by appeals to conscience. The low-empathy 16 percent can’t be.

So that’s the problem. There is no perfect solution, but there are things we can do to improve the situation.

Minimize Triggers of Aggression

If we encounter people who seem like our genetic competitors, biology inclines both them and us to attack or run away. Such encounters are an obvious aggression trigger. Human groups that can’t stop killing each other should be physically separated from each other. That minimizes both their impulses to harm each other and their opportunities to do so.

As noted earlier, the low-empathy 16 percent don’t have enough conscience to be talked out of violence. Separation is especially important for them. We should also impose swift, certain, and terrible punishment on those who transgress.

Be Aware of Cultural and Religious Difference

When we encounter people who differ culturally from us, some of their behavioral conventions differ from ours. As a result, it’s harder for us to interpret some of their behavior and facial expressions and it’s harder for them to interpret ours. That makes empathy more difficult because each side either can’t tell what the other feels or it identifies the other’s feelings incorrectly.2

Religious belief is involved as a proxy for genetic difference. It affects how people look, talk, and behave. The primitive parts of our brains interpret such differences as meaning that someone is a genetic competitor of our families and our people. That automatically triggers our fear-aggression response, and separation helps prevent it.

Educate Positively for Peace

Apart from the low-empathy 16 percent, the rest of the population is either naturally peaceful or can be helped to reduce their aggressive impulses.

Last week, I mentioned that when white and black Americans were shown images of people of the other race, the fear-aggression centers of their brains activated automatically before they had any time to think.

However, when they were told positive things about the opposite-race people in the pictures, the thinking parts of their brains decreased their automatic fear-aggression responses. Education and the news media can prime people to attack each other, or they can promote peace.

Freedom of speech is an important value, but it’s not the only important value. When people’s lives are at stake, both government and the media should act responsibly to avoid inflaming hatred.3

Create Positive Experiences of Cooperation

A final step is to create positive experiences of cooperation whenever possible. If adversaries can work together on areas where they agree — even mundane things like getting roads repaired — they begin to see each other less as “the dangerous other” and more as fellow human beings with needs, interests, and points of view. That both decreases their aggressive impulses and increases their empathy.

Some Complications

Of course, there are complications that make it hard to reduce violence. If it were easy, humanity would have mastered it by now.

First, external conflict promotes internal harmony. That’s not news. In his play “Henry IV, Part 2” (1590), William Shakespeare had King Henry advise his son to:

“Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out may waste the memory of the former days.”

Likewise, sociologist William Graham Sumner wrote in 1906:

“The relation of comradeship and peace in the we-group and that of hostility and war towards others-groups are correlative to each other … Loyalty to the group, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without — all grow together, common products of the same situation.”4

As a result, measures that reduce hostility and aggression toward “the other” will cause some increased conflict within our groups. It needs to be managed as well. We’re trading a bigger evil for a smaller one. There’s no third option.

Second, government officials sometimes have incentives to act in their own interests at the expense of the public interest. Because they are not saints, they unconsciously rationalize their actions. Leaders on both sides of a conflict must set aside their personal interests to do what is best for everyone. It’s possible, but it’s difficult. Public choice theory studies the problem.

The Talmud tells us that “not to know suffering is not to be human.” Suffering, violence, and tragedy are inescapable features of our world, but we can minimize them if we face facts and act bravely. We should.

Works Cited

Baron-Cohen, S. (2011), The Science of Evil. Basic Books, New York.

Putnam, R. (2000), Bowling Alone. Simon & Schuster, New York. Kindle Edition.


  1. Baron-Cohen, S. (2011), p. 22ff. 
  2. I once encountered a harmless instance of miscommunication in Washington, DC when I worked at a US government agency where most of my colleagues were from India. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that when they shook their heads horizontally in meetings, it meant “yes, I agree.” That’s the opposite of what such a gesture means when an American does it. 
  3. Our brains evolved before the invention of cameras or video. As a result, the primitive parts of our brains cannot distinguish between first-hand perceptions of real threats and vivid, realistic depictions of such threats in photos or video. 
  4. Quoted in Putnam, R. (2000), loc. 4795. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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