Letter | Published:

The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence

Nature volume 538, pages 233237 (13 October 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The psychological, sociological and evolutionary roots of conspecific violence in humans are still debated, despite attracting the attention of intellectuals for over two millennia1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%. This value was similar to the one phylogenetically inferred for the evolutionary ancestor of primates and apes, indicating that a certain level of lethal violence arises owing to our position within the phylogeny of mammals. It was also similar to the percentage seen in prehistoric bands and tribes, indicating that we were as lethally violent then as common mammalian evolutionary history would predict. However, the level of lethal violence has changed through human history and can be associated with changes in the socio-political organization of human populations. Our study provides a detailed phylogenetic and historical context against which to compare levels of lethal violence observed throughout our history.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    The evolution of lethal intergroup violence. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 15294–15298 (2005)

  2. 2.

    The nature of human aggression. Int. J. Law Psychiatry. 32, 202–208 (2009)

  3. 3.

    Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors? Science 324, 1293–1298 (2009)

  4. 4.

    & Intergroup aggression in chimpanzees and war in nomadic hunter-gatherers: evaluating the chimpanzee model. Hum. Nat. 23, 5–29 (2012)

  5. 5.

    & Lethal aggression in mobile forager bands and implications for the origins of war. Science 341, 270–273 (2013)

  6. 6.

    in War, Peace, and Human Nature: the Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (ed. ) 97–111 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013)

  7. 7.

    War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)

  8. 8.

    & Bioarchaeological contributions to the study of violence. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 156, (Suppl. 59), 116–145 (2015)

  9. 9.

    War Before Civilization (Oxford Univ. Press, 1996)

  10. 10.

    & Demonic Males: Apes and the Origin of Human Violence (Mariner Books, 1996)

  11. 11.

    The Better Angels of our Nature (Viking Press, 2011)

  12. 12.

    in War, Peace, and Human Nature: the Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (ed. ) 191–240 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013)

  13. 13.

    & Genetics of aggression. Annu. Rev. Genet. 46, 145–164 (2012)

  14. 14.

    & Aggression. Adv. Genet. 75, 1–6 (2011)

  15. 15.

    & Homicide (Aldine de Gruyter, 1988)

  16. 16.

    Why Sex Matters: a Darwinian Look at Human Behavior (Princeton Univ. Press, 2010)

  17. 17.

    & in Infanticide, Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives (eds & ) 31–42 (Aldine Transactions, 1984)

  18. 18.

    et al. Density-dependent intraspecific aggression regulates survival in northern Yellowstone wolves (Canis lupus). J. Anim. Ecol. 83, 1344–1356 (2014)

  19. 19.

    , & A survey of intraspecific predation within the class Mammalia. Mammal Rev. 14, 187–198 (1984)

  20. 20.

    & Sexual conflict. The evolution of infanticide by males in mammalian societies. Science 346, 841–844 (2014)

  21. 21.

    The Behavioural Biology of Aggression (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984)

  22. 22.

    , & Geographical variation in predictors of mammalian extinction risk: big is bad, but only in the tropics. Ecol. Lett. 12, 538–549 (2009)

  23. 23.

    & A species-level phylogeny of all extant and late Quaternary extinct mammals using a novel heuristic-hierarchical Bayesian approach. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 84, 14–26 (2015)

  24. 24.

    , , & Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 13328–13332 (2013)

  25. 25.

    & Using the past to predict the present: confidence intervals for regression equations in phylogenetic comparative methods. Am. Nat. 155, 346–364 (2000)

  26. 26.

    & Predicting microbial traits with phylogenies. ISME J. 10, 959–967 (2016)

  27. 27.

    & A Dictionary of Archaeology (Blackwell, 1999)

  28. 28.

    & The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State (Stanford Univ. Press, 2000)

  29. 29.

    & Violence and Warfare Among Hunter–Gatherers (Left Coast Press, 2014)

  30. 30.

    & From chiefdom to state: toward an integrative theory of the evolution of polity. Sociol. Perspect. 53, 419–442 (2010)

  31. 31.

    et al. The delayed rise of present-day mammals. Nature 446, 507–512 (2007); Corrigendum 456, 274 (2008)

  32. 32.

    & Mammal Species of the World: a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, 2nd–3rd edn. (Smithsonian Institution Press / John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993–2005)

  33. 33.

    & Ancestral state reconstruction of body size in the Caniformia (Carnivora, Mammalia): the effects of incorporating data from the fossil record. Syst. Biol. 55, 301–313 (2006)

  34. 34.

    et al. Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature 443, 850–853 (2006)

  35. 35.

    et al. Neandertal roots: Cranial and chronological evidence from Sima de los Huesos. Science 344, 1358–1363 (2014)

  36. 36.

    The origin of Neandertals. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 16022–16027 (2009)

  37. 37.

    The Archaeology of Human Bones (Routledge, 2010)

  38. 38.

    Nineteenth-century arrow wounds and perceptions of prehistoric warfare. Am. Antiq. 70, 144–156 (2005)

  39. 39.

    Profiles in Ethnology (Harpercollins College Div., 1963)

  40. 40.

    War, peace, and human nature: the Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (ed. ) (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013)

  41. 41.

    Inferring the historical patterns of biological evolution. Nature 401, 877–884 (1999)

  42. 42.

    et al. How to measure and test phylogenetic signal. Methods Ecol. Evol. 3, 743–756 (2012)

  43. 43.

    , & Testing for phylogenetic signal in comparative data: behavioral traits are more labile. Evolution 57, 717–745 (2003)

  44. 44.

    phytools: an R package for phylogenetic comparative biology (and other things). Methods Ecol. Evol. 3, 217–223 (2012)

  45. 45.

    , & Phylogenetic analysis and comparative data: a test and review of evidence. Am. Nat. 160, 712–726 (2002)

  46. 46.

    et al. caper: Comparative analyses of phylogenetics and evolution in R (v.0.5.2). (2013)

  47. 47.

    & Phylogenies and the comparative method: a general approach to incorporating phylogenetic information into the analysis of interspecific data. Am. Nat. 149, 646–667 (1997)

  48. 48.

    , , & Incorporating 16S gene copy number information improves estimates of microbial diversity and abundance. PLOS Comput. Biol. 8, e1002743 (2012)

  49. 49.

    & in Modern Phylogenetic Comparative Methods and their Application in Evolutionary Biology (ed. ) 481–514 (Springer, 2014)

  50. 50.

    , , & How to evaluate models: observed vs. predicted or predicted vs. observed? Ecol. Modell. 216, 316–322 (2008)

  51. 51.

    Systema Naturae 2000. The Taxonomicon (Amsterdam, 2005)

Download references

Acknowledgements

The authors thank E. W. Schupp, P. Jordano, M. Lineham, J. A. Carrión, M. Goberna, A. Montesinos, J. G. Martínez, C. Sánchez Prieto, R. Torices, R. Menéndez and F. Perfectti for comments on an early version of this manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (EEZA-CSIC), E-04120 Almería, Spain

    • José María Gómez
  2. Dpto de Ecología, Universidad de Granada, E-18071 Granada, Spain

    • José María Gómez
  3. Centro de Investigaciones sobre Desertificación (CSIC-UV-GV), E-46113 Valencia, Spain

    • Miguel Verdú
  4. Dpto de Zoología, Universidad de Granada, E-18071 Granada, Spain

    • Adela González-Megías
  5. Área de Biodiversidad y Conservación, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, E-28933 Madrid, Spain

    • Marcos Méndez

Authors

  1. Search for José María Gómez in:

  2. Search for Miguel Verdú in:

  3. Search for Adela González-Megías in:

  4. Search for Marcos Méndez in:

Contributions

The study was conceived by J.M.G. Data were compiled by all authors. Analysis was performed by M.V., J.M.G. and A.G.M. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to José María Gómez.

The data used in this study are available in Supplementary Information section 9. Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks O. Bininda-Emonds, M. Pagel and M. L. Wilson for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Figures, Supplementary Tables and additional references (see Contents for details).

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature19758

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.