Did Chimpanzees Just Reveal the Origins of Human Violence?

The scientific community is ablaze with new research on why animals kill one another.

Where does violence come from? Is war a strictly human phenomenon, or do other animals have warlike capacities?

Researchers studying chimpanzees have long noticed that sometimes the animals attack and kill one another. Some scientists think that this violence is a result of human impact on their environment. Not so, says Harvard University evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham, senior author of a new paper that has sparked heated discussion in the scientific community.

The work of Wrangham and his colleagues has led them to conclude that chimps kill their own kind specifically in order to gain reproductive and survival advantages, and that the violence has little to do with human encroachment. They have found that lethal attacks among chimps are associated with conditions in which many males are competing for food and mates, and that male-on-male violence is far and away the most common type. The researchers’ data shows that killing was actually most intense at a site humans had not disturbed.

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Wrangham believes this insight may help shed light on the origins of human violence: “The chimp model is a very helpful model for understanding how some of humans’ really challenging kinds of behavior have been favored by natural selection….The aggressors can kill at incredibly low risk to themselves, and the reason is that they chose to attack only when they have an overwhelming imbalance of power.”

The implications of Wrangham’s work for humans are worrying. If violence is an evolutionary adaptation for humans too, will we become fatalistic about working for peace? Are traits that may have evolutionary roots necessarily our destiny?

Wrangham is quoted in the New York Times as saying that chimpanzee behavior “is a reasonable start for thinking about primitive warfare in small-scale societies.” He also adds that “I certainly wouldn’t want to say that chimps have anything much to say directly about what’s going on in Syria.”

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.