The Human Nature of Violence
— By Robin Fox
(This paper was originally presented at an international conference on Drinking and Public Disorder, organised by MCM Research, to a largely non-academic audience.)
I have been asked to put violence into some sort of scientific perspective, so that we might have a background against which to ask more specific questions. I shall try to do that, but with the usual caveat, so annoying to non-academic audiences, that this is only one scientific perspective and that others would look quite different. However, that's how we do it with science. We push our modes of explanation (or paradigms, as it has become fashionable to call them) to the point where they won't go any further, and then a bit more. When they start not to work, we know to change the paradigm; or at least our successors know to do it for us.
So please bear with me while I push this one as far as I can take it. You will yourselves be on the alert for the places it cannot take us, and that is how it should be. That's how we know we're doing science, not metaphysics. One of the most common ways for scientists to look at human violence is to ask, What causes violence? I am going to suggest that this is perhaps the wrong way to go about things and one of the reasons we don't seem to get to any very definite conclusions on the subject.
By and large, in the social and behavioral sciences as in life, we tend only to look for the "causes" of things we dislike. Thus, we look for the causes of divorce, but never for the causes of marriage; for the causes of war, but rarely for the causes of peace; for the causes of crime, but rarely for the causes of virtue; and for the causes of violence, but never for the causes of its opposite, however we phrase it - gentleness, perhaps. This is because we see things we dislike on analogy with diseases: they are by definition abnormal states. The normal state is marriage/peace/law/gentleness (or whatever), and this gets derailed in abnormal circumstances. Thus, one of the commonest and most popular versions of the causes of violence is the so-called "frustration- aggression hypothesis," which again assumes the "not-aggressive" state to be normal, but derailed by frustration.
We might call this the "disease" approach to violence: the normal or healthy state is assumed to be nonviolent, and we must therefore explain why violence occurs. (I am using violence and aggression synonymously here as a shorthand.) If we might use an analogy: no one looks for the "causes" of digestion. Digestion is simply there. Any organisms that ingest material and metabolize it have digestion; it is simply what they do: they digest. But when digestion goes wrong, as with, for example diarrhea, then we look for a cause of this in order to cure it. Diagram 1 shows a simple model (which was made for a different purpose but will serve ours) of a digestive system, showing how at various points things can go wrong with the normal processes.