It has been said that humans are the crowning achievement of evolutionary history.
The most challenging task is for humankind to understand its own evolutionary ascendancy, and the destiny of humanity.
The concept of killing has been an intrinsic part of human history, often attributed to the instinctual survival mechanisms that have driven our species’ evolution. However, the notion that killing is an irrevocable and inherent aspect of human nature is a myth that warrants critical examination.
What are the complexities of why we kill and, more importantly, why we might not need to?
We explore the nonkilling paradigm considering the latest research on human evolution, and its potential to usher in affirmative peace and human evolutionary ascendency.
A backgrounder to human spiritual quest
Our ethos and our souls (Atman) and God (Brahman) share in the inherent spiritual qualities of necessary being and existence, eternality, wisdom, beauty, and goodness. The eternal quest of the sanctity of life has been well surmised in ancient texts, “From delusion lead me to truth, from darkness lead me to light, from death lead me to immortality”.
The essence of ancient wisdom lies in the belief that “All human being and religious beliefs are divine and the unity and interdependence of entire existence is an existential fact”.
Few attempts have been made to capture the sacred secrets of our civilisation past, our faith and religious beliefs, the art of a fulfilling life. The four oldest civilisations of the world, Mesopotamia Civilisation, Egyptian Civilisation, Indus Valley Civilisation, and Chinese Civilisation cast very little light on the nonkilling discourse, but for a few conjectures. There is enough evidence that the word Ahimsa also spelled Ahinsa is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs, meaning to strike; hiṃsā is injury or harm, while a-hiṃsā (prefixed with the alpha privative), its opposite, is non-harming or nonviolence as an ethical concept, that evolved in the Vedic times, the oldest scriptures to mention Ahimsa.
Over time, the concept of Ahimsa was increasingly refined and emphasized until Ahimsa became the highest virtue by the late Vedic era (about 3200-1500 BCE). Nonetheless, the Vedic principle of Ahimsa also dictates that when one is faced with war and other situations, self-defense is imperative. In this way, historical Vedic traditions have contributed to modern theories of just war and self-defense.
Later Buddhist and Jain scriptures in Pali language have explicit reference to nonviolence and nonkilling: monks should not only themselves abstain from killing but should also refrain from encouraging other people to kill. No doubt our past heritage evolved in the last few centuries and deserve to be studied and understood, as these unravel the treasure trove of our ancient wisdom evolved through the triumphs and tribulations of the past.
The present write-up is undoubtedly an approach to have a far-reaching impact and change the way we think and work, to ensure and uphold the eternal truth of human knowledge and wisdom, from spirituality and science to human beliefs, dignity, rights and justice.
An oversight into the human existential paradigm
In contrast to human killings from aggression, is generic behaviour aimed at damaging or destroying life – plant or animal – for nourishment. Hunting and gathering involves aggression, as does sexual competition via a display of fitness to improve choice as a evolutionary selection process. Aggression may not specifically be intended to damage or destroy other individuals of the same species unlike violence or killings. In past research and literature, aggression, and violence are normally used interchangeably, leading to much misunderstanding and conceptual confusion.
To better appreciate the nonkilling paradigm in the human evolutionary process, it may be an advantage if we use violence as a term to be used only for humans. Violence may be used to represent intentional wounding and killing, and perhaps oppression, directed towards fellow humans.
Other species do not display violence, but only aggression. We cannot discuss nonviolence and nonkilling without an acceptable definition of violence, before we speak of negative or positive peace, and affirmative nonkilling peace.
Structural violence can be similarly stated to be a form of direct violence against an apparent enemy that may involve a social organisation, now being deployed by most countries as a culture accepting or admiring, armed forces and weapons, and even a dominant minority that has a personal stake in staging war, while not fighting in it.
I’ve argued earlier that ‘affirmative nonkilling’ is positive and structural, such as promoting education, learning and advocacy against killing. This contrasts with ‘illusive nonkilling’ that is negative and non-structural, such as fostering the concept of ‘a war to end all wars’ and even the practice of capital punishment or coercive practices to achieve the ultimate goal of a killing free society. It is in this perspective and in today’s world of violence, killings and terror the question remains : how do we promote the objective of nonkilling peace through assimilative nonkilling for affirmative peace.
Inheritance of acquired characters and environmental adaptations
In the past, there has been a biocultural evolution in parallel as behavioral predispositions. For instance, behavioural models acquired by children and youngsters since birth in their own cultural context. There is a scientific evidence for biocultural evolution, where human behavioural predispositions are inherent to all human beings. Social behaviours, such as aggression and violence, are not congenitally or genetically defined, and are different in cultures where natural selection is responsible for both prenatal and postnatal development, so that changes are harmonious and gradual.
If we look at our own past, we lost this harmony during the late Neolithic, as rapid cultural changes occurred in absence of congenital predispositions. No wonder humans have inherited a brain suited to a hunter-gathering lifestyle or more precisely, for a nonviolent and symbiotic culture.
Human cognitive evolution to nonkilling and biocultural studies
Humans can be best studied in a multidisciplinary context where anthropology, psychology, sociology, and even political science, history and philosophy are necessary to understand our own past, draw conclusions from our present action, or inactions and to explore and predict the future.
To answer if we are congenital killers, we explored both scientific disciplines such as biomedical and neurosciences, and the humanities, to include political and cultural studies. It may be worth making a compelling case against structural violence: impacting the way a person thinks where indoctrination, misleading political propaganda and commercial advertising may create various forms of cultural violence.
In contrast, neuronal connections formed in the brain during first few years of life may have a defining influence both post-natal and later behaviours, as these define not only the logical interpretations between cultural situations, but also the consequential reactions that settle in sub-cortical regions to escape consciousness to operate subconsciously as deep culture.
Human propensities for aggression have evolved to be low
In contrast to any other mammals, it is only in humans that there appears no alpha male, as at some point in our evolutionary history the alpha male who was highly violent and could kill was eliminated! Thus, we have only beta males today, with proactive aggression dumped and only a form of reactive aggression remaining.
This also corresponds to changes in the skull dimensions and characteristics of Homo sapiens who survived other hominids with better coordination and strategy for survival as a group. Also, there is enough evidence of interbreeding, mating, and mixing – in place of elimination by killings – with the Neanderthals and other species in the human evolutionary process, giving rise to families and societies where survival was by selection.
In today’s patriarchal societies, it is the beta male who may still dominate, but there are instances in growing measure where a more equal approach, as well as progression to matriarchal societies, have been observed to be in a developmental stage depicting a future emerging paradigm.
Researchers suggest that much human aggression is now either currently adaptive or derived from adaptive strategies. Patterns of violence therefore appear to have been shaped by natural selection. However, an unresolved question is whether human propensities for aggression have evolved to be relatively low and not high.
Humans Vs Other Mammals: Blood lust, a misnomer
The much publicised, human bloodlust—from war to murder—traced back millions of years to our primate ancestors may indeed be a misnomer. This has been the conclusion of a recent study, which goes back into our past family tree to uncover if there are any evolutionary roots of lethal violence by studying more than 1000 mammalian species.
Where do humans fall in relation to other species? Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, who studies violence and peacemaking in Papua New Guinea, states that past analyses have been sweeping in their conclusions, and these have relied on imprecise data and do not provide new information about the cultural subtleties around when and how humans deploy violence.
Murder is seen in animals that range from chimpanzees to wolves to marmots. José Maria Gómez, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Granada and the Spanish National Research Council’s campus in Almería, wonders if each of the species have developed their capacities for lethal violence on their own, or that the tendency has been passed down from their evolutionary ancestors. In a painstaking effort for 2 years, they studied many decades of scientific research to create a database of how 1,024 species of mammals die, that included as to what proportion of each one was killed by other members of its own species. Forty per cent of the species in the study had been observed as engaging in lethal violence, though the rates varied widely.
They discovered that some species, like bats and whales, hardly ever kill each other, whereas ground squirrels and tree shrews do so relatively often. Also, they found that animals that live in groups and defend territories, such as wolves and chimps, tend to be more violent. Interestingly both violence and nonviolence tended to clump along certain branches of the mammalian family tree.
Statistically speaking, the more violent your close relatives in the evolutionary scale are, the more violent your species is likely to be. This association implied that Gómez and his colleagues could use their extensive database to predict a given species’ rate of lethal violence, to predict it for humans too. Interestingly, though group-living primates were found to be relatively violent, the rates did vary. Thus they found that nearly 4.5% of chimpanzee deaths are caused by another chimp, in contrast to bonobos, who were responsible for only 0.68% of their compatriots’ deaths.
In conclusion, and based on the rates of lethal violence observed in our close relatives, Gómez and team predict that no more than 2% of human deaths would be caused by another human being. In order to verify this, the researchers further studied the scientific literature documenting lethal violence among humans, from prehistory to the present, by combining the data from archaeological excavations, historical records, even modern national statistics, and ethnographies to tally up the number of humans killed by other humans in different time periods and societies.
The results, cited in Nature, are fascinating enough to reveal that from 50,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, when humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, the rate of killing was “statistically indistinguishable” from the predicted rate of 2%, based on archaeological evidence”. Later perhaps, as human groups consolidated into chiefdoms and states, rates of lethal violence may have shot up – to as high as 12% in medieval Eurasia, for example. In the contemporary era, when industrialized states exert the rule of law, violence is much lower than our evolutionary heritage would predict, hovering around 1.3% worldwide. This implies that evolution may not be as straight jacket as was earlier believed.
Gómez concludes that ‘culture’ modulates our bloodthirsty tendencies, thus making a very strong case for the adoption of assimilative nonkilling for affirmative peace by human societies, as I’ve theorised.
Douglas Fry, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham states that the study is not only innovative but also meticulously conducted. There is no doubt that the 2% figure is significantly lower than the one by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker’s much publicized estimate of 15% of deaths due to lethal violence amongst hunter-gatherers. These lower figure resonate with Fry’s extensive studies of nomadic hunter-gatherers, whom he observes to be less violent than what Pinker’s work had suggested. In tandem with archaeological findings and nomadic forager researches this study reaffirms the view by Fry that the human past and human nature are not at all shockingly violent.
Myth vs. Reality: The Evolutionary Roots of Killing
The myth often perpetuated is that humans kill as a primal survival instinct. While it is true that early humans faced grave threats from predators and competing tribes, the notion that we are hardwired to kill indiscriminately for survival is a simplified view. Evolution has also equipped us with the capacity for empathy, cooperation, and complex social structures.
Cultural and Societal Factors
The reality is that much of human killing is culturally and socially constructed. Wars, conflicts, and violence are often products of complex historical, political, and economic circumstances rather than mere biological imperatives. The myth of inevitability in killing obscures the power of societal influences.
Technology and Modern Warfare
In the contemporary era, technological advancements have significantly altered the ways we kill. The advent of firearms, chemical weapons, and nuclear capabilities has elevated the potential for destruction to unprecedented levels. These developments challenge the myth that killing is exclusively linked to primitive instincts.
The Nonkilling Paradigm: A Path to Affirmative Peace
The nonkilling paradigm is an ideology that puts forward the possibility of a world without killing. It envisions an alternative future where conflicts are resolved through nonviolent means, and the sanctity of human life is upheld at all costs. It challenges the myth that killing is a permanent fixture in our existence.
Post Modern Examples of Nonkilling Movements
Post modern history offers numerous examples of individuals and movements that have embraced nonkilling principles. Lord Mahavira, Buddha and King Asoka, and post modern leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, demonstrated the power of nonviolent resistance in the face of oppression. These historical figures prove that nonkilling is not just a utopian ideal but a viable path to positive change.
In the contemporary world, organisations and individuals continue to promote the nonkilling paradigm. Initiatives such as conflict resolution programs, disarmament efforts, and peace education highlight the practical steps we can take to reduce and eventually eliminate killing from our collective consciousness.
Assimilative approach in Affirmative Nonkilling for Human Evolutionary Ascendency
The goal of a future world without killing can be achieved by affirmative nonkilling through assimilation – but we must shift our collective consciousness away from the prevailing myth that killing is an intrinsic part of human nature. Embracing the nonkilling paradigm through assimilation means recognising our capacity for empathy, cooperation, and nonviolence as equally ingrained traits based on recent scientific research on human evolution.
True human evolutionary ascendency implies liberation from lethality, believing in our nonkilling capability with implications on political science based on theory and research, education and training, problem solving and needs relying on institutions and inspirations for global imperative.
Promoting Education and Awareness
Good values and moral education plays a pivotal role in disseminating the nonkilling paradigm to be inculcated in schools on a universal basis. By teaching future generations about peaceful conflict resolution, empathy, and the consequences of violence, we can foster a society that values life and seeks peaceful solutions.
Diplomacy and International Relations
At the global level, diplomacy and international cooperation are crucial for promoting nonkilling. Nations must prioritise dialogue and negotiation over military solutions, addressing root causes of conflict, and supporting disarmament efforts to reduce the potential for violence.
There is an emerging body of evidence from our evolutionary ascendency that killing is not at all an unchangeable facet of human nature. The myth of elimination of our own and other hominids, just like the reliance on capital punishment, and waging war as instrument for achieving peace, also obscures the reality that our capacity for empathy, cooperation, conflict resolution, nonkilling and nonviolence is inherent.
The nonkilling paradigm challenges this myth, offering a path to affirmative peace and human evolutionary ascendency through assimilation. By embracing nonkilling and nonviolent principles, promoting education and awareness, and prioritising diplomacy, we can move towards a world where the shedding of blood is replaced by the pursuit of understanding, cooperation, and lasting peace.
The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace.