Mass shootings do not reflect human nature

by David Cantor

In the aftermath of mass murders, as in Las Vegas, we constantly hear that killing others arises from human nature. Filmmaker Ken Burns stated in his “Fresh Air” interview about his recent release on the Vietnam War, “War is human nature in spades.”

Yet, during my 28 years studying human beings’ killing of others, I discovered this from the leading expert on training human beings to kill in war, psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” “[D]espite an unbroken tradition of violence and war, man is not by nature a killer.” Grossman invokes findings that even with military training and indoctrination, many soldiers deliberately fire over the enemy’s head.

As consistently indicated in a great many sources on morality in human beings and other animals, we see human nature in the altruistic, protective, compassionate, and cooperative behavior that takes hold in the aftermath of mass murder, in mass resistance to war, and in spontaneous celebration of war’s end.

This distinction is crucial for understanding and preventing violence and murder and for responding to perpetrators. If killing were natural, we would not collectively be so horrified by it. Maybe it would be OK for authorities to “lie us into war” if “we” could benefit at the expense of “them.” Instead, we experience moral injury from our representative government’s promoting official violence while demonizing killers acting on their own.

We reward and celebrate peacemakers and officers who make arrests without killing or injuring the accused. We teach children how to get along with other human beings, not how to kill them because it is “natural” to do so.

For killing to manifest an animal’s biological nature, the animal must have body parts adapted to killing other animals and to protecting against prospective victims’ defenses. It helps to have thick, tough skin; long, hard claws and powerful muscles for wielding them; long fangs and strong jaw and head muscles to sink them between a victim’s vertebrae; back and limbs especially suited to pouncing and chasing.

Obviously, human beings do not possess such physical traits.

As detailed in “The Comparative Anatomy of Eating” by Milton R. Mills, M.D., human beings have none of the anatomical or physiological traits that define animals who evolved in nature to kill other animals – the above plus an omnivore’s or carnivore’s dentition, saliva, and digestive tract. In nature, killing is mostly for eating. No naturally occurring human “equipment” correlates with that function.

Humans evolved as plant-foraging apes on the African savanna, with color vision good for distinguishing a great variety of edible leaves, fruits, berries, flowers, and other plants that eventually led to what we call “produce” when our species began living unnaturally through agriculture; versatile digits and nails adapted to picking, plucking, peeling; teeth good for tearing and grinding plants – not for ripping and scarfing flesh.

Human beings’ organized killing relies on innovation, not nature – on manufactured weapons, traps, rope and, more recently, poison, electrical current, toxic fumes. For killing, our elaborate imaginative and cooperative capabilities, adapted to avoiding predation and raising families while moving about the landscape foraging for plants to eat, are distorted to plan and coordinate assaults, attacks, murders, wars, eliminationist campaigns, and executions.

Our bodies alone – our original, natural condition – aid us in spotting our natural predators, grabbing children and fleeing, defending with rocks and tree branches, not in actively planning, organizing, and setting out to kill.

In making policies and establishing practices with regard to nonhuman animals, human beings and governments typically analyze the kind of animal involved. Except that other animals’ sentience, emotions, and intelligence are denied because our innate humaneness rebels against injuring and killing.

It is peculiar indeed that we craft policies and perpetuate practices for our own species based on ignorance of such a basic fact of our animality as whether or not it is natural for us to kill.

A native Chestnut Hiller and 1973 graduate of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, David Cantor is founder and director of Responsible Policies for Animals, in Glenside – www.RPAforAll.org.

19 thoughts on “Mass shootings do not reflect human nature

  1. It may be an over generalization to say human nature is not killing in light of man’s history up to the present of genocide of his fellow man, Genocide of wildlife, Genocide of animal farming (aka ranching). I walked into a bar once, when I was in the military, before going to Vietnam, and witnessed a marine praying, “God, please send me someone to kill.”

  2. This guy is off in la la land to not see that human nature reeks of destructiveness. We are in the Sixth Mass Extinction, we are over populating the Earth, killing off species daily, maybe at a tipping point in global warming, America alone has killed 20-30 million people in wars by proxy, interventionism, regime changes and nation building, a major political party in America is about to kill millions with their selfish policies, we kill millions of animals daily for food when we want the meat but do not need the meat, we kill millions of animals for sport, we are in almost continuous war. We are a destructive species and do not seem able to stop. Kim ba ya.

  3. Ha, if I were a cow I wouldn’t come home, knowing the fate awaiting me at the hands of humans. People who kill people are still outliers, but that sure isn’t true of people who kill other animals. We really need to extinctify(?) our own species if any other life forms are to survive.

  4. Cantor notes that for killing to be part of an animal’s nature, the animal must have body parts adapted for killing. It’s true that human beings do not have the long canines, the large carnassials or claws, and the speed and the strength of most predators. The predators are specialists, seeking specific kinds of prey and killing them with a body designed for the purpose.

    However, human are generalists when it comes to violence. Their evolutionary adaptations make them better at a wide array of killing, from single murders to mass casualties. Human capabilities for violence include bipedal posture and locomotion that leaves their hands free to wield weapons, hands with opposable thumbs and fine motor control capable of making weapons and, most of all, a large brain that has allowed us to develop a cultural inventory of weaponry from hand axes to spears to guns to nuclear bombs.

    The brain is composed of limbic, or paleomammalian, and neocortical sections. The limbic system contains the structures that are the source of emotions, such as anger and fear, as well as emotional memory and motivation. The neocortex contains centers for language, linguistic memory, foresight, judgment, and control.

    The brain with its ability to use language allows people to organize in order to hunt or fight. The relationship between neocortex and limbic system allows cultural symbols to have an emotional content, and that can make everything from a personal insult to mass political propaganda effective motivators for action, from personal revenge to a war between nations. The ability to plan ahead, devise new strategies, and invent increasingly lethal weapons has led to casualties in the millions.

    So, no, not everyone is a killer, and we aren’t forced to kill, as predators are, in order to live. But our history of unrelenting hunting, fighting and warfare, the Holocaust, genocides, serial killings, revenge and gang murders should remind us that we are hardly a species fully devoted to peace. And we have evolved all the innate abilities we need to destroy life on the planet.

    NOTE: Cantor says that “humans evolved as plant-foraging apes on the African savanna.” This hypothesis is based on the dentition of fossils such as Paranthropus robustus. However, scholars Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey argued for “killer apes” who, in fact, hunted and killed animals for food. Finds in Tanzania in Oldowai Gorge moved toward Dart’s and Ardrey’s emphasis on early hominid hunting. The sites had thousands of bones from giraffes, elephants, and multiple members of the antelope family. One site has been dated at 1.8 million years, and the associated hominid was Homo habilis. Obviously, much of our history is still open to interpretation and changes with new discoveries and methods of testing.

    • Good points all. You took the words right out of my mouth about Parathropus robuatus, which was the plant-eating hominid, who were wiped out by the carnivorous ancesters of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, Cantor is mistaken if he thinks those were our relatives and that humans started off as vegetarians. Maybe millions of years ago, before the rise of “tool use” and the exploitation of fire, humans were distantly related to plant-eaters. But they abandoned that millions of years back when they left the trees and spread out across the planet.

      • Exactly. Both robustus and boisei species of Paranthropus were side branches not in our direct line. I suspect they were more affable fellows than our ancestors.

      • Much more. They lived truly harmoniously, hand to mouth and didn’t have to invent weapons use fire to survive. Unfortunatley, their branch was a dead end (unless Sasquatch or yeti is a living relic, still hiding out from humanity). Because of teir ruthlessness, the hunan branch is still around and will likely take everyone else down in the first mass-extinction to be caused by a conscious species.

    • Men, not women, are the killers. And if “The brain with its ability to use language allows people to organize in order to hunt or fight” then why don’t dolphin, with an even bigger brain and more convolutions, organize to fight. They hunt, but they don’t fight. I think men have a violence gene or perhaps testosterone makes them nasty and even perverted. There is something about the aggression of men that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere.

  5. This guy is dead wrong. Man is a killer by nature. Other predators mainly kill for food and are appropriately adapted. We kill for power, revenge, greed, and any other reason our big brains can come up with. We kill incessantly for any and all reasons. Our brains are superbly equipped to justify such actions. There is nothing in our past to suggest otherwise. Man is the ultimate predator….Homo horribilis.

  6. “[D]espite an unbroken tradition of violence and war….”

    I think that says it all right there about human nature. Not wanting to face it does nothing to help, and allows it to continue.

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