From Homo Sapiens to Homicide

Everyday in the news there is talk about the latest murder cases, and although we find them quite horrific, they are relatively ordinary and have been occurring ever since humans started walking the planet. It is a common thing in our lives as well as in the animal kingdom and, although it’s hard to believe, can actually be seen as a benefit in terms of natural, sexual and kin selection.

Humans as well as animals are programmed to be able to fight and kill, whether it is for protection/ self-defense, the greater good of their species (kill those who are weak and won’t benefit the species), to rule out competition, or merely out of anger, frustration, sadism or jealousy. Homicide is such an important puzzle to analyze and seek answers to because it’s essential to know the logistics behind the evolutionary reasons as to why someone would kill another of it’s kind.

It’s puzzling as to why anyone would want to decrease and weaken his or her own species; this problem can theoretically be examined and elucidated first by understanding Darwin’s theories of evolution and then using Scientist Niko Tinbergen’s four levels of explanation. The human life cycle is a complex system that starts with conception and continues through childhood, adulthood, old age and death. At the beginning of the cycle, the sperm meets with the oocyte, sex cells are produced, and an embryo is in the making (Rauch, 2010, lecture 3).

How the baby is raised or if it even survives at all fluctuates among species and caretakers, with some better off than others. Charles Darwin was a 19th century evolutionary biologist who is extremely well known for his theory of natural selection (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 2). His meticulous observations of nature and varied species lead to his careful examination of how species evolve and vary through time, cultures, and conditions (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 2). Darwin also observed how this variation among traits seemed to be beneficiary for the species, and can lead to optimal success in finding food, shelter and mates (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 2).

These observations laid down the foundation for the 5 components of his theory: over-reproduction, variation exists, is inherited and can impact fitness, and more offspring inherit “fit” variations (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 2). Many of the occurrences and behaviors in nature can be explained with Tinbergen’s four levels that include causation, ontogeny, function and evolutionary history or phylogeny. Causation answers the immediate question of why a behavior occurs, pertaining to physiological or environmental factors (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 1).

If you were to ask yourself why people play sports, the basic causational explanation would be because it is fun and enjoyable. Sports are recreational and are a way for people to get with those who share a similar interest and have a good time. The second level—ontogeny—concerns influential factors or changes throughout time, which can be internal or environment (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 1). The ontogenetic or developmental explanation for why people plat sports could be that your parents/relatives/siblings played sports as you were growing up so therefore you became interested and/or involved in it as well.

Watching various baseball and soccer games on TV, playing related video/computer games or being involved in PE classes in school could all be possible ontogenetic justifications. Although sports are played for entertaining purposes, it is not the only reason (or the reason at all for that matter) as to why people play or partake in them. Function, the third level, relates directly to natural selection and direct impacts on either mortality or biological fitness (Rauch, 2010: Lecture 2). Using sports to stay fit and healthy is a big functional explanation for why people participate in them.

The fitness they gain from it all will ultimately help them increase their chances of survival if an enemy should attack. Other functional reasons might be for the adrenalin rush they acquire when they score the winning touchdown, to show off their skills in order to attract mates, to make family and parents proud, self-confidence booster, or sports could possibly we pursued purely out of boredom and a way to try something new. The last level of explanation, evolutionary history, utilizes the phylogenic tree and explains behavior in terms of how similar “relatives” have behaved.

As far as phylogeny goes, ancestral humans paved the way towards the development of sports as recreation. They played physical games for leisure, social bonding and to assert dominance. Evidently there is a great deal of hate, cruelty and violence in the world that will continue to haunt and disgust us as well as the generations to come. Genocide, wars, terrorist attacks, school shootings etc. all illustrate this abhorrence that we humans go on committing day after day, some without even a tinge of remorse.

Why anyone would commit an act of homicide is a very puzzling concept to grasp and that is why the possible explanations for it are so important as well as intriguing to consider. Clearly understanding evolutionary processes and explanations may further promote the main question at stake: why does homicide occur? If all of us humans were put on this earth to thrive as a species, why would anyone want to make us less thriving and strong as a whole? When using Tinbergen’s levels of explanation, one can comprehend different possible reasons and on different behavioral levels as to why people do the things they do.

The overall basic and immediate cause for why someone would kill another human being is that they were mad about something and pushed over the limit. People get frustrated all of the time, but it’s with these frustrating events that increase the probability that a thwarted individual will act aggressively soon afterward. The ontogenetic explanation has a lot to do with the social environment that one grows up in. In this case, it’s safe to say that a homicidal individual most likely grew up around violent people and was taught that hurting or killing people/animals is okay.

A rough and abusive childhood could definitely be an indicator of a future filled with anger and the need for revenge. Violent games and war movies/TV can also render vehement pent-up feelings in people that can lead to violence. When considering the ontogenetic explanation, you must also think about the biological aspects. Serial killers frequently have something wrong with their brain, whether it be missing something or just not functioning properly. Who else in their right mind would do such a thing?

When most people think of homicide, they picture a malicious serial killer zeroing in on his innocent prey and then killing it in the most inhumane way possible. This, however, is not how it usually happens. In many of the cases, a person is protecting/defending himself or herself or someone else and in the process, ends up killing the other person. This is a functional explanation because of its impact on survival. And lastly, the historical culture level can be traced back to the days of our ancestors who had to kill one another in order to survive.

Back then, resources and supplies were scarce, and so only the fittest and strongest families could stay alive and go on to pass their genes to the next generation. Animals act in a similar manner however they do not have the option of weapon use, therefore making us humans far more homicidal by nature. Infanticide is a common thing in the animal world, particularly in primates, and is committed daily by strangers, siblings and more horrifically, by an offspring’s own mother and father (Hrdy, 86).

It is very common for a mother to kill off or eat her babies that are weak and seen as “unfit” to survive. By doing this, she is allowing herself to commit to those that are “fit” and will be worth the cost of her time and energy. If a male, on the other hand, wants to mate with a female, it is likely that he will exterminate her babies and then mate with her in order to pass on his own genes. Infanticide, however, isn’t the only case of homicide seen in nature. Mammals fight and kill one another, just like humans do, in efforts to survive and mate.

It is all about being the fittest and producing the most successful offspring with variation that will work in your favor. It’s a fact: All mammals are highly homicidal by nature. As one can see, the process of natural selection and evolution at work is an intricate system with many levels involved. By fully understanding evolutionary processes and natural selection, the puzzle of homicide can be put together. Homicide can be seen as an evolutionary advantage that helps make sure that those strong and fit enough to survive, will, and that those unfit will be weeded out.

Sometimes, the understanding of an evolutionary process does not require just an acceptance of facts, but more so a delving into biological, physiological, or sociological systems—all which contribute to the evolutionary puzzle. Because evolution has shaped and established the formation of modern man, we must look to evolution to answer questions or puzzles of behavior or physiological processes that occur today. Even when they seem flawed or even pathological, perhaps it is just an evolutionary puzzle that needs to be tackled; surely homicide is not the only common misunderstanding of a flawed evolution.

References Hardy, Sarah B. (1999). Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape The Human Species. New York, NY: Random House Inc. Rauch, Kristen. (2010). Levels of Explanation. Lecture 1, March 29, 2010. Rauch, Kristen. (2010). Natural Selection. Lecture 2, March 31, 2010. Rauch, Kristen. (2010). Pregnancy. Lecture 4, April 10, 2010. Rauch, Kristen. (2010). Birth & The Newborn. Lecture 5, April 14, 2010. Rauch, Kristen. (2010). Meiosis and the Puzzle of Sexual Reproduction. Lecture 3, April 6.