Chimpanzees, Mongol Warlords, and the "Warfare Vaccine"

Robert Elde, Saturday Morning Seminar speaker and dean of the College of Biological Sciences asks, "Are We Intrinsically Violent?"

Robert Elde, College of Biological Sciences DeanWarfare and violence have been part of human society for so long that one might wonder if they are inevitable, an intrinsic characteristic of the human mind. From the Crusades to the French Revolution, from the Holocaust to today's suicide bombers, it seems that a propensity towards violent behavior can be found in cultures throughout history and around the world.

So, is there hope for us? Are we an intrinsically violent species? And if so, does the answer lie in mitigating our behavior, our genetics, or something else entirely?

Dr. Robert Elde, dean of the U's College of Biological Sciences (CBS), tackles those questions and more at the Saturday Morning Seminar, Are We Intrinsically Violent on April 13, on the St. Paul campus.

Elde, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on the cellular and molecular basis of pain, first became interested in the topic after being approached by two CBS faculty members.

"Clarence Lehmen and Eville Gorham called me into a huddle a few years ago, where they were looking at deaths per capita caused by war from a mathematical and epidemiological perspective.

The data show that throughout the ages, there were these huge spikes of casualties. But then, interestingly, following WWII, those spikes were much diminished--the Korean and Vietnam Wars were much smaller blips compared to all that had come before. And since then, even though we have terrorists and conflicts and almost looks like there was a 'vaccine' developed for war deaths, speaking epidemiologically."

That discussion led Elde to the book, Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden. "Potts is an obstetrician who had been at the front lines in many war-torn countries, and worked extensively with women who had been raped and brutalized in the course of war. It made him ask, 'what is it about war, violence, and rape and their roles in human history/experiences? Where else does this sort of behavior exist?'"

Elde continues, "as it turns out, there are really only four species where this sort of homicidal violence against one's own kind occurs: humans, chimpanzees, hyenas, and wolves. Pott's book looks closely at chimpanzees, and our evolutionary closeness to them. He also cites the story of Genghis Khan, who was a marauder all across Asia. 

 "Are We Intrinsically Violent" SeminarA study done about a decade ago shows that Khan has something like 16 million living descendents today...and so Potts made the argument that just like the aggressive chimps have more mates and offspring, these 'great' human warriors of history made a bigger impact on our human gene pool."

Between Potts' work and the work of Elde's colleagues in CBS, Elde was intrigued. "That really consolidated the idea in my mind that these genes responsible for violent behavior may have been propagated by events/people just like Genghis Khan. It's plausible then, that these traits have been selected for, on an evolutionary basis.

"Which raises a fairly profound biological, philosophical, and ethical question: 'Do we have any control? How much free will are we capable of? Just how susceptible to these 'stone age traits' are we?"

It opens myriad questions, in fact, as Elde found out when he co-taught a freshman seminar on the topic with Professor Lehmen. "There was diversity in the group--geographic, ethnic, academic major. And it was such an awakening in terms of ideas and opinions."

Elde hopes to spark a similar eye-opening discussion in his LearningLife seminar on April 13. "It is a weighty issue, and in no way one dimensional--genomics, psychology, biology. How do we treat this; where do we go from here? Molecular therapies, genetic testing... How much is nature, how much nurture? What are the ethics when it comes to being able to engineer things such as human behavior? Even questions about the impact of getting more women into leadership roles in society..."

Are we intrinsically violent as a species? It is a seemingly simple question, Elde agrees, that has a host of possible avenues for discussion. "In the freshman seminar, in [other workshops and talks] about this idea...the energy has been palpable. This is a new audience...[but] I think it will be here as well."